The day had come. It was either kill himself, or quit his job. The thing was, he couldn't quit without committing career suicide. He was Koty Jackson, lead heart throb in ESX. Their debut album, Temperature Rising, was #1 on the charts, and their hit single "Heat You Up" played everywhere. They were due to start touring in two days, and Koty was pretty sure that if he did go on tour, he would eat a bullet, or something equally violent and life-threatening.
He leaned against the vanity in the dressing room. His reflection stared back at him from the mirror: blue eyes flecked with green, black spiked hair, and a five o'clock shadow. He wore a too-big white tank top over a purple one and a brown fedora—what his stylist claimed all the guys were wearing. He felt like something out of a Hollister commercial. Even worse, he felt like a poser.
At home, only Levis and band tees filled his dresser drawers: Megadeth, Nico Vega, The Dillinger Escape Plan. An acoustic guitar leaned against the wall, and a Peavey amp sat in his living room. In his studio apartment, there was no trace of ESX—not even a single fedora. If he had it his way, he would have signed with a real band, one that was made up of instruments and actual talent. Instead, his agent had determined that his smoky voice and good looks were a one-way ticket to boy band hell.
It wasn't like Koty hadn't tried to escape. His agent, Raymond Eble, had smoothed his Armani suit, sniffed at Koty's ripped jeans, and told him that no one would take him seriously if he tried to do any other kind of music. It would be, in Raymond's words, "akin to trying to get on Barney after being convicted for molesting children."
Koty didn't think it was that serious, but Raymond had been in the business for well over ten years. He knew what he was talking about—probably. The man was somewhat competent, as he had gotten Koty a contract that was making him a lot of money. If Koty wanted to, he could move out of his studio and out to LA, where ESX’s label was. The last thing he wanted was to be closer to ESX, though.
A knock rapped at the door, interrupting his thoughts.
"On in five," called a male voice that Koty didn't recognize.
Right—he was supposed to be appearing on Late Nite with Maz. He rolled his eyes. In just a few minutes, he needed to put on a panty-melting smile and talk about how much he was looking forward to being on tour with Dev, Johnny Z, and Benny—none of whom could even carry a tune, never mind play an instrument. They had no idea who Kurt Cobain or Brent Hinds were. Koty was pretty sure that Dev was secretly gay, despite his legions of female fans. Johnny Z probably had at least three STDs. And then there was Benny, whose red glassy eyes made Koty think he was doing more than smoking a little pot.
ESX was a grenade waiting to hit a wall, and Koty was caught in the middle. He might as well swallow the explosive.
He yawned and scrubbed at the stubble on his face with his hands. He still wasn't used to LA time, no matter how often he visited. Sometimes he wondered what life would be like if he had kept playing street corners and moonlighting as a bartender. Sometimes he wondered if he had made a huge mistake.
Another knock at the door echoed through the dressing room.
Koty crossed the room and opened the door. He wished he could wear sunglasses to the interview. On the bright side, none of the other members of ESX were appearing that night. For once, he could enjoy some peace and quiet—sort of.
The audience screamed as he walked onto stage. Grip boys held boom mikes, and all of the cameras were pointed at him. He smiled and waved, and the women in the audience screamed louder. He glanced through the crowd. Some had smuggled in posters.
"Marry me!" one read. "Meet me backstage for a good time!" another insisted.
Koty turned his gaze to the host, eighty-year-old Timothy Masiewicz, better known as Maz. The old man's white hair shone in the stage lights. He extended a hand to Koty, pulled him close for a quick hug, and clapped him once on the back.
The audience continued to cheer.
Maz gestured for Koty to sit, and flapped his arms, urging the audience to quiet down.
Koty continued to smile, even though it hurt his face. All he wanted to do was gulp down the huge mug of coffee that sat in front of him.
The late-night show host continued waving his arms, an amused smile plastered on his face. As the crowd finally settled into silence, Maz said, "Well, Koty Jackson!"
They erupted into screeching cheers again. Koty picked out a few young faces. If he had a daughter, he surmised, she would be in bed, not watching late-night television.
Eyeing the coffee, Koty kept his smile on. Steam rose from the mug, and the light scent of chocolate and Arabica beans wafted to him. His hand twitched. He kept both palms planted firmly on his thighs, though.
Finally, the audience fell into an awed hush.
Maz sat behind his huge oak desk and took a sip of his own coffee. Koty swallowed hard. His agent had told him not to sip the coffee, no matter what.
“You know most of these shows only serve water," Raymond had said. “Maz has his staff add laxatives to his guests’ cups, so you have to run to the bathroom or shit yourself.”
Hollywood, Koty was learning, was more cutthroat than teenage girls in a high school bathroom.
His eyelids threatened to droop, though. Maybe Raymond was playing his own joke, and wanted Koty to fall asleep on live television. He gripped the handle of the mug.
Maz smiled at him. His eyes glinted.
There was no turning back. If Koty ignored the coffee, Maz would think he was rude. If he took a sip, he would be embarrassed forever.
"So," Maz said, shaking Koty from his reverie, "does anyone actually know who this guy is?"
The audience cheered and clapped. Dull pain flared in Koty’s temples. Wincing, he wondered if Maz was riling them up on purpose.
Maz turned to him. "ESX’s album is number one all over the charts, in several countries. How does it feel to be the next big thing?"
Raymond had warned him that Maz would ask trick questions. Koty licked his lips. "About as good as it feels to earn a paycheck." He winked at the audience. Lights beat down on him. Sweat beaded at his hairline. He fought the urge to wipe his brow with the back of his hand. The dressing room had been air conditioned, but the stage felt like a sauna.
"What about your daily routine has changed since you became famous?" Maz asked, stroking his mustache. His eyes flicked to the coffee mug that Koty still held, untouched.
"I now buy the good stuff, instead of dollar store toilet paper." Koty held the mug up to the audience in a salute. "Climbing up in the world!"
Laughter echoed through the room, but before the audience could get going again, Maz leaned forward. "Seriously, though, how has your fame affected you?"
Koty thought he added you little shit to the end, but he couldn't be sure. He shrugged. "I'm still singing for my supper."
Maz snorted. He gestured to the coffee.
"You want to know the real deal?" Koty set the mug down on the table. "I'm just like everyone else." The audience swooned as one. Glancing at the crowd, Koty saw a woman grab her breasts and wink at him. He turned back to Maz. "The only difference is, I have to shake my ass on stage."
Laughter roared through the studio. Maz did not scowl, but he did not look pleased. "Ladies and gentlemen, Koty Jackson!” Shouting over the audience, he added, “Next up, we have another special guest. Stay with us!”
The camera man signaled a commercial break, and Maz leaned back in his chair. He did not even look at Koty.
Hoping he hadn't completely ruined the interview, Koty stood and exited the stage on his own. The audience screamed as he left. He blew a few kisses and jogged off stage.
"That guy is a complete dick,” Koty said, joining him.
His agent nodded. “Didn’t I tell you?” He clapped Koty on the back. "Listen—"
Before Raymond could finish, a woman with long dark hair strode toward them. She wore bright red lipstick and heavy black eyeliner. The scent of leather and perfume enveloped Koty's nostrils as she drew closer. Her tight pants creaked, and the heels of her boots clicked on the floor.
Koty stared. “Is that who I think it is?” he asked.
Raymond shrugged. "No idea."
Koty knew who she was, though. He had all five of her band's albums. Perpetual Smile was only just breaking into the charts, but they had a long following—ten years' worth. "Jett," he called, forcing his voice to stay even.
She glanced at him, her brown eyes meeting his, and his heart stopped.
"Jett Costa?” An attendant gestured her toward the stage. "On in thirty seconds."
She turned away from Koty and approached the door that would bring her into Maz's clutches.
"Wait," he said.
Jett tossed him a dirty look over her shoulder, then continued.
As her hand gripped the doorknob, silver bangles jingling, he blurted, "Don't drink the coffee." Then, she pulled open the door and slipped through. He let a slow breath escape.
"Koty, you all right?" Raymond asked. His hand hovered near Koty's shoulder.
Koty swallowed hard. "Fine." He cleared his throat and looked at the door where Jett had disappeared. "You didn't tell me she was going to be on tonight. Are they performing?" He looked around for the other members of Perpetual Smile, but he only saw Maz’s staff.
"Don't know, but you've got an early flight to catch, stud." Raymond waved him toward the dressing rooms.
Koty shook his head. "I'm gonna hang out for a minute. I want to hear her interview." He walked away from Raymond without a second glance. A teenage boy with pus oozing out of the pimples on his face stood next to the door Jett had entered. "Hey man," Koty said.
The kid inclined his chin. "Yeah?" He folded skinny arms across his chest.
"There a green room around here?" Koty kept his own arms at his side, trying to appear harmless.
"Nah," the kid said. "Studio's under renovations. Green room's closed.” His voice was flat. Only members of the opposite sex were moved by Koty’s fame and looks, it seemed.
"Damn," Koty said. "Any idea where I can catch this interview?"
The kid smirked. "Only way is through this here door."
Koty found himself wishing he had stayed in the stage area. He leaned closer to the kid. "Any way I can get back in there?"
The teenager snorted. "Not unless you're going to pay me."
Koty raised an eyebrow. It couldn't be that easy. He pulled his wallet out and held up a fifty-dollar bill.
The teenager snatched it from his hand. “This the best you can do?” He shook his head. His pimples glistened in the light.
“How about another fifty?” Koty asked, thumbing through his wallet.
“Make it an even two,” the kid said.
“Two hundred dollars?” Koty repeated.
The kid crossed his arms. “Do you want to get in here or not?”
For a moment, Koty wanted to smash his smug little face. He narrowed his eyes. The kid stared back. From behind the door, applause erupted. “Fine,” Koty said, counting out the money. He handed it to the teenager, who moved aside, an ear to ear grin splitting his face.
Koty entered the stage. From where he stood, shadows bathed him. He could watch without Maz or anyone else seeing him. Jett sat in the same seat he had occupied. Her mug of coffee sat, untouched, on the desk. She sat with her legs crossed, her hands resting in her lap. Her shoulders were relaxed, and her back did not slouch into the cushions. Her eyes seemed to calculate Maz's every word. She handled his questions coolly, without so much as blinking an eye.
"So Perpetual Smile's been around for a couple years now, eh?” Maz asked.
“Ten," Jett corrected, her voice barely rising. She ignored the cameras and the crowd. Her eyes roamed over the furniture decorating the set.
"Okay," Maz said. He sipped coffee. Even from where Koty stood, he could smell it. It was a rich and robust brew, and would keep him going all night. He did not need coffee, though. He needed sleep. "You're starting a major national tour,” Maz said.
Jett nodded. "It'll be our first headlining show."
"How did that come about?" Maz asked. He kept his eyes on Jett, but he sounded bored. Koty wondered why Jett was even on. He glanced at the crowd. Half the audience had apparently left shortly after Koty exited. It seemed unfair, and made no sense. Perpetual Smile was a cross between punk and arena rock. ESX was just a stupid boy band.
He realized he had completely missed what Jett said. He forced his attention back to the interview.
"Your band has another announcement, though," Maz said.
"Yes," Jett said. She shifted in her seat. "We're looking for a guitarist who can also do background vocals."
Koty’s heart flew into his throat. He leaned forward. His fingers splayed, as though he were getting ready to catch something.
"What happened to your other guitarist?” Maz asked.
The blood pumping through his ears drowned out her reply. Perpetual Smile needed a guitarist. The words repeated in his head over and over. Finally, he had a one-way ticket out of ESX. All he had to do was catch Jett after her interview, and the deal would be sealed. He brushed lint off his T-shirt and ran a hand through his hair. He regretted calling her name out like some fanboy, but she was probably as used to it as he was.
Wiping sweaty palms on his jeans, he paced. Maz mumbled a thank you and the audience clapped politely. Koty glanced over at the stage. Jett stood and gave the audience a wave. Showtime, he told himself.
She walked over to the exit door, barely even looking at him. He fell into step beside her.
"My name is Koty Jackson," he said, letting her walk through the door first. The pimply faced teenager held the door for them, giving Koty a questioning look.
“You gonna nail her?” the kid mouthed.
Koty paused, jerking an eyebrow up. “What?” he said. “No, it’s not like that.” He turned to Jett, lips parting, ready to explain. Empty air greeted him. Her heels clicked away from him. Blinking, he shook his head at the kid and hurried after her. “Sorry,” he said as he caught up with her. “So, where were we?” He flashed her a smile.
"I know who you are," she growled.
So maybe it wouldn't be so easy. He rubbed the back of his head, feeling a little like a lost puppy chasing an ax murderer. "This whole ESX thing is just temporary,” he assured her.
Raymond joined them, clearing his throat.
"Was supposed to be temporary," Koty amended. He licked his lips. They had stopped. Jett stood with a hand on her hip. Raymond looked back and forth between them as though they were lovers arguing in the middle of an airport.
Jett rose an eyebrow at Koty.
"You need a guitarist," he surged forward. “I'm a guitarist."
"Do you have any professional experience?" she asked, smirking.
"I had a band in high school."
Jett snorted. "Are you serious right now?" She looked at him, her eyes narrowed and her lips pinched, as though she were examining something dead with a magnifying glass.
"Yeah," Koty said. "Just give me a chance. I promise I won't let you down." He showed her his hands, blistered from years of guitar. Thanks to mandatory manicures, they were softening, but they were still there.
Jett glanced down at his hands. She leaned in toward him, her lips just inches from his. "Word of advice," she said, dropping her voice.
He swallowed hard. Their foreheads nearly touched. "Yeah?"
Ruby red lips formed a little O. Standing that close to her, he could smell her fragrance even more clearly. The faint scent of cigarette smoke hung about her, and something else, too, something more feminine and more her. She smelled sweet and rough, like ripped lace in the middle of a field of wildflowers. When she spoke, her breath tickled his jawline. "You're an idiot." She pulled away, grinning impishly. "Pop stars don't play in bands."
Turning on her heel, she strutted away from him, boots clicking on the lacquered wood.
"Wait," he called after her.
She threw him a look that could kill a raptor. "Fuck off." She yanked open a door and was gone.
Koty's body guard, a tall and beefy man named Buckley, fell into step beside him. "That could have been worse," Koty told the linebacker-sized man.
Buckley merely stared straight ahead. They walked through the backstage area, Buckley leading the way. The crowd parted before them as though the body guard held an automatic weapon.
"I see you're still playing it strong and silent," Koty remarked as they exited to the parking lot. A limousine waited just a few paces away. Koty looked around, but there was no sign of Jett. The limo must be for him. He wondered how Jett traveled. There wasn't even a tour bus. Before he could find out, Buckley closed a massive hand around Koty's upper arm and pulled him toward the limo. "Sure, we'll go this way," Koty said.
The chauffeur opened a door for him and Koty slid inside. Cool air conditioning enveloped him. He leaned back against the leather seats and sighed, closing his eyes.
From beside him, Raymond cleared this throat.
Koty lifted his head and cracked an eye open. "Yeah?"
"Well, it's official," his agent said, holding his phone up to display a long text message in all caps. "You've pissed off Maz."
Koty sat up straight, both eyes open. “How the hell did I do that?"
"You deflected all of his questions like a pro," Raymond said, "which is good, but you made him look bad. And neither you nor that headbanger went running to the bathroom, so Maz lost his own personal entertainment hour."
Koty snorted. "So he's pissed off because he didn't embarrass me. So what?"
Raymond shrugged. "I'm just letting you know. You probably won't be invited back." The agent's lips twitched. Either he was trying not to smile, or wanted to yell. Koty could never be sure.
Buckley slid into the seat in front of them, and the chauffeur hurried to the driver's seat. As usual, the body guard stared straight ahead, his red Chicago Bulls cap twisted backward.
"Is there any way I can get a more personable body guard?" Koty whispered to his agent.
Raymond cleared his throat again. He sounded almost like he had a hairball stuck. "Do you want to tell me what that was all about backstage?"
Yawning, Koty twisted in his seat to look his agent in the eye. "Perpetual Smile needs a guitarist and backup vocalist," he said.
Raymond blinked at him. "All I heard was smile," he said. "You lost me at guitarist."
Remembering Jett's words, Koty rubbed at the stubble growing on his face. If anyone could get him a spot in Perpetual Smile, it was Raymond. "Remember how we said ESX was only temporary until I could find what I really wanted?" he asked.
Raymond looked at him sideways. "Yes," he said slowly. He smoothed the sleeves of his suit.
Choosing his words carefully, Koty picked his way ahead slowly, as though he were hiking a treacherous, rocky trail. "And, even though Woodrow pays me a lot, I in turn pay you a lot, making me your boss, in a way.”
The agent pursed his lips. He turned his head, staring at Koty as though he were an armed robber. "Yes," he said again.
Koty smiled. "Don't worry, Ray." The agent winced at the nickname. "I want to join Perpetual Smile."
Raymond snorted. His body shook, and his lips spread open in a grin. He slapped his thigh. "Oh boy," he said, laughing. "Mr. Jackson, you are a funny guy." He wrapped his arms around his stomach, guffaws emitting from his expensive-suited frame.
Koty smiled back. "I wasn't kidding," he said.
His agent raised an eyebrow at him. "Listen, kid. This business is tough. I've seen performers come and go. You're in a good place—"
"I don't want to be a performer," Koty interrupted. "You knew that from the get-go. ESX was just a..." He searched for the words. His contract was almost up. "It was only supposed to be temporary," he finished.
Raymond Eble sighed. "I get what you're saying, kid, but no one will take you seriously if you try to do a total 360. You're in the pop music business. How many pop stars do you know that made it in other genres?"
Rubbing at his face again, Koty wished the limo had a mini bar. "How many, Buckley?" he asked the body guard. He did not expect an answer, and Buckley did not surprise him. He sighed. "Are you going to send my demo tape in or what?" he asked his agent.
"People will laugh at you if you do this," Raymond said. "Even worse, you'll be broke."
Koty laughed. He had been poor before. "Are you worried that I won't be able to pay you?" Thanks to his stubborn refusal to leave his New York loft, he had quite the savings built up. He wasn't a math wizard, but if he did get the spot in Perpetual Smile, he would be able to take care of his agent and himself for quite a while.
Raymond laughed, the sound wavering. "Of course not, Mr. Jackson." He straightened his tie and sat up. "I'm just advising you."
"And I'm ignoring your advice," Koty said. "You're going to send my demo tape to Jett Costa's people, and you're going to make me look like a born rock star." He sank back into the leather again, and closed his eyes. His agent made no additional remarks, but Koty knew he would do it. Raymond Eble might have been seriously concerned about Koty's career, but at the end of the day, Koty's money talked—for as long as it lasted, anyway. People probably would laugh at him. He wasn't so naive as to think that ESX's fans would willingly give him away and Perpetual Smile's fans would accept him with open arms. He would just have to win them over.
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