Joshua rose to his haunches, ready to pounce.
Dodge was no psychologist, but he knew about mental illness, and it was clear Klaxon Overdrive in the midst of a psychotic breakdown. He was losing it, right in front of them. But this hadn’t just started today. Blair said he’d been sick for a while. How had Entropy managed to cover it up for so long?
Dodge extended his hand and inched closer. “Easy Joshua—Klaxon—whatever. I just want to help you.”
Joshua blinked once, then his face writhed like insects were trying to chew their way out from under his skin.
“I’m not me,” he wailed, despair suddenly shattering his face. He took a step forward, arms outstretched as though pleading, like he was about to grab Dodge up in a desperate hug. “I remember. Rusted tight. I’m wrong. Wrrrrrong.”
Jennifer whimpered in the far corner, catching Joshua’s attention, and just as fast as it came, his anguish vanished. He spun to face her, dropped his hands on the dark-stained wooden table, and peered at her like he was playing a sadistic game of hide and go seek.
“Boo,” he said. “I found you.” His strained voice solidified, become instantly beguiling. Nearer to the voice Dodge recognized as Klaxon Overdrive’s. Tense energy rearranged his face into a seductive mask.
Jennifer’s swollen eyes widened.
“Don’t be afraid of us, pet,” he purred. “We know who you’ve been waiting to see.”
Dodge took another step forward. He didn’t know what he was going to do, but if Klaxon had snapped his hold on reality, there was a good chance he could hurt someone.
The manager kept pounding on the door, demanding to be let in. Dodge had only a few seconds to get Joshua together before the lock burst and—well, he didn’t want to think about what would happen then. Hopefully Blair would get there in time to figure it out.
“Jennifer, please. Help me,” Joshua said, his voice undergoing another tonal shift. The rage turned to dust and his face settled. “I’m not myself. I need you to help me.”
She hesitated, her back pressed against the scuffed beige wall bookshelf, but then raised her hand tentatively, as if she was about to pet a tiger.
“I can make this better,” Joshua leaned forward, focused completely on Jennifer, like nothing else in the world existed but the two of them. He smiled and reached out to the terrified girl.
Tears welled in Jennifer’s eyes. Relief cleansed her weary features. “Where have you been?” She rushed forward, bending over the desk separating them, fingers moving to touch his face.
Just as she got close Joshua jerked away from her outstretched hand, and his lips parted in a sneer. “You think you deserve us, whore? We’re more than just a man. How could one person ever compare to the love of billions.”
Jennifer lifted her arm as if preparing to ward off a blow. Fresh tears created dark splotches on her blouse. “Joshua what’s wrong with you?”
“Don’t call us that,” he spat.
Dodge took another step. One more and he’d be able to grab Joshua and—and then what?
Joshua inclined his head and laughed. “Look at you. We could have anyone we want. Why would we want a bleating cow?”
Jennifer’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t know who you are, but you’re not Joshua. Get out. Get out. Get OUT!” Her voice rose, drawing the last word into a scream.
He wiggled his fingers at Jennifer and cackled. “Come on baby. Don’t you want us anymore?”
Dodge was close enough to touch Joshua’s back. “Joshua, buddy, ease up. You’re sick.”
Joshua twirled, knocking Dodge’s hand away, and punched him hard in the stomach. Dodge staggered backwards, bent double.
“I’m just … trying to help,” Dodge mumbled, clutching his gut. He shook his head in pain and disbelief. He’d been punched more times in the past twenty-four hours than he had his entire life.
“You can’t help us, thief,” Joshua said, sneering. “Ain’t no one can understand what it’s like to be us. Can’t understand what it means to be special.”
Dodge took a deep breath and extended his hand to Joshua. “You need help.”
“You don’t have any idea what we need,” Joshua said, slapping Dodge’s hand away again.
The pounding on the door stopped. Probably went to get the key. Blair had better hurry.
Jennifer’s tears continued to flow. She had crumpled to the floor and was hugging her knees. Dodge needed to distract Joshua for a few more minutes, give Blair enough time to arrive and deal with the situation. She’d be able to handle it.
At least he hoped she would.
Dodge took a deep breath and fought through the pain in his gut. “I know I know, I don’t understand. But still …”
The sneer melted from Joshua’s face. His brow smoothed, his posture straightened. “I’m sorry, I don’t know … why … I’m like this. But I—” Joshua looked around the room as though a spell had just worn off and he was no longer a toad, once again a man. “You—you were in that hotel with Arella. Where is she? What’s going on?”
Arella? Who was Arella?
“You mean Blair?”
“We … we watched … the white spikes …” Joshua covered his mouth with his hand.
“We watched the Klaxon assassination,” Dodge urged.
Why didn’t he remember?
“Yes. At the Needle.”
Joshua looked like he had just been told he had inoperable brain cancer and less than a month to live. He lunged, grabbed the lapels of Dodge’s coat. His eyes were manic. “I’m too tight.”
Dodge jerked back, but tried not to let his fear get the best of him. “What do you mean ‘too tight?’”
“It was Entropy. Blair. Rust. I’m not—”
Behind them the dead bolt slid aside and office door flew open hard enough the handle buried itself in the drywall. The manager and another giant man who looked like he might be a bouncer rushed through. The bouncer clutched a baseball bat, the manager a huge kitchen knife.
Dodge raised his hands in surrender for the second time in an hour.
“Look guys—” he started, then dropped to a knee as the metal bat whooshed over his head. Not wanting to give the large man another chance to hit a triple with his skull, Dodge scrambled back on his hands, dragging his ass on the floor. The bouncer took another wild swing that just missed, but then Dodge ran out of room as his back hit the desk.
The bouncer grinned. His next swing wouldn’t miss. And even if he did, the manager was blocking the door, his knife raised. There was nowhere for Dodge to run.
Joshua remained still, standing next to the wall, studying the flow of events as if preparing to report the results to a scientific journal.
Dodge was staring at the bouncer, waiting for the blow that would cave in his skull, and was the first to notice Blair appear in the doorway.
Jennifer spotted her next. “You—”
The manager jerked his head toward the door, and was almost quick enough to swing his knife around too, but Blair pivoted on the ball of her foot and lashed out with a precise kick that numbed the manager’s knife arm. He groaned as the weapon fell from his hand and embedded itself in the floor. The bouncer jerked his head around at the sound, saw Blair standing behind him, then twisted and swung the bat in one smooth motion, hard enough it would have caved her face in. She sidestepped, ducked, then smashed her fist into his groin, and rose in one smooth motion, like a dance move. The bouncer shrieked, dropped the bat and slumped to the ground.
“Everybody okay?” She looked pleased with herself until the bartender scrambled in behind her, a small gun quivering in his hand. Even she wasn’t fast enough to get to him if he decided to pull the trigger.
“Enough,” Joshua said. Although his voice was commanding, he hadn’t raised it. “You’re all gonna knock it off. Right now.”
“Fuck that,” the bouncer growled, struggling to rise.
Joshua raised an eyebrow, his slight frame seeming to expand and occupy three times its volume. “You do not want to challenge me. Square yourself.” His eyes went hard and his voice became impossible to ignore. “You want to put that weapon down. Now.”
This was the voice of a man who got governments to forgive third world debt.
The bartender lowered both the barrel of the gun and his eyes to the floor.
“Good, that’s bluer. Now—”
Joshua collapsed, shrieking, throttling his head with his fists. Dodge cringed, unable to stand the sound, until an agonizing second later, Joshua passed out.
Blair gasped, shredding the silence, and Jennifer followed with a fresh round of wet sobbing.
As if on cue, the bartender raised the gun again, aiming it at the center of the room. The bouncer rubbed his crotch, seething, eyes zeroed-in on Blair. Even the manager had picked up his knife and was rubbing life back into his arm.
Blair rushed over to Joshua, dropped to the floor and cradled his head. She wasn’t fighting her way out of this, especially not with Joshua unconscious. Dodge needed to do something. It was up to him.
But what was he supposed to do?
He thought for a moment, then another, and when nothing came to him, he did the only thing he could—he pretended he was someone else. Someone who wasn’t terrified.
Dodge pulled his face into a smile, gathered all the nervous energy coursing through him, and turned it outward. He stepped up to the bouncer. “You. Can I just say … you were marvelous. I could feel the malice in you. You’re perfect. What’s your name?”
“Fuck you, that’s my name.”
“’Fuck you, that’s my name,’” Dodge forced himself to chuckle. “Awesome. Can we use that?”
Dodge looked around the room like he owned the place. Like a pandemic had just hit and he had the market cornered on toilet paper. “Let me explain. We work for Entropy Expanse and we’re going to make you a star. You do want to be famous, don’t you?”
“What the hell are you talking about?” the manager asked, waving his good arm at the bouncer. “Don’t listen to him. He’s conning you.”
The bouncer’s expression darkened and his grip squeaked on the bat.
Dodge turned toward the manager and pretended to be insulted at the very notion that he would con anyone.
“I get it. I know how this looks, me barging in here the way I did, but if you just let me explain, I’m sure you’ll see that this is all just a monumental misunderstanding.” He cocked his head and smiled as if daring the manager to contradict him.
Where was this coming from?
“My name is Alfred Blair.” Dodge pulled the card Blair had given him earlier from his pocket. “I work—” he extended his hand to indicate Blair, “—we work, for Entropy’s Brand Management division.”
“It’s true, they do work for Entropy,” Jennifer said quietly from the back of the room. She had recovered from her emotional overload and looked like she wanted to be in Blair’s place, comforting Joshua, but was too scared to get near him. “I’ve met her before anyway.”
If Blair heard she made no indication and continued to stroke Joshua’s head.
Card in hand, Dodge inched over to the manager, keeping his eyes on the raised bat, and the bartender still holding the gun. The tension in the room was like wet dynamite, it could explode at any time for no reason at all.
“Please, my friend,” Dodge said to the bartender. “Could you put away that gun—they make me—“ he rubbed his belly “—squidgy.”
The bartender didn’t release the gun, but he pointed it back at the floor.
The manager reached out and snatched the card and scanned it with with skeptical eyes. “You could have got this anywhere.”
“That’s true,” Dodge said good-naturedly. “But I assure you, it’s very real. If you retrieve the contact information you’ll find everything in order. And, doesn’t the Klaxon Overdrive look-alike tell you anything?”
The manager looked at Joshua, considering Dodge’s story.
Wanting to keep his momentum, Dodge extended his hand. “Sorry about barging past you there, but I wanted to get to Joshua before anyone got hurt and I didn’t think I had time to explain myself.”
The manager reluctantly clutched Dodge’s hand, his grip was still weak. “Ronald Cleary.”
“Ronald, nice to meet you. And your friend?” Dodge said, gesturing to the bouncer.
“I’m Charles,” the bouncer said, releasing one hand from the bat to give a little wave.
“Charles. Like I said, you were great. We are prepping the Klaxon Overdrive biopic. I’m sure you both heard about what happened at the Needle?” They nodded. Of course they had. “We’re in the process of scouting locations. Never too soon to start, am I right? We need to use a large club for the early years of Klaxon’s life and I think ‘The Duke of Pork’ here would be perfect. Joshua mentioned he used to come here a lot and said it would be perfect for the shoot.”
“What’s wrong with him?” Jennifer asked from the back of the room.
“Oh,” Dodge said, having forgotten about Jennifer already, and scratched his head. “He must have had a bad reaction to the medication he started today. You know how it is,” he glanced at everyone, eyes hooded, playing the mental illness sympathy card. “We’ll get that fixed up with his doctor. Right, Arella?”
Blair looked puzzled, but nodded. Dodge turned back to the manager.
“We need to confirm everything with the executive producers of course, but I think we can almost guarantee that we’ll need to lease your club for at least a month, maybe more. How does ten thousand dollars a day sound?”
“A month?!” the manager blurted, then reigned himself in, trying trying to sound casual. “I think we can work something out.”
“Great.” Dodge smiled like he was trying to split his face in half, and clapped his hands together. “That’s just great. Arella, can I have one of those cashcards you’re carrying?”
“We have been a hell of an inconvenience. Don’t you think Entropy should reimburse Mr. Cleary for his time?”
Blair fished around in her pocket and pulled out a cashcard. Dodge wiggled a finger, indicating another. Blair looked down at Joshua, unconscious on the floor, and then up to the manager and the bouncer, who were still toying with their weapons. Blair pressed her lips together, as if physically forcing herself not to speak, pulled another blue card from her pocket, and handed them both to Dodge.
Dodge gave them both to the manager. “These are thousand dollar cashcards. Call it a gesture of goodwill.” The manager accepted the cards with a nod. “Now, if you’d excuse us, we should get Joshua to a HealthMart.”
He bent down and helped Blair prop Joshua up. Joshua’s head lolled forward, dropping to his chin. A thin line of drool trickled from his slack lips.
“We’ll be in touch about the final details and dates,” Dodge said as they walked Joshua out of the office.
“No, wait!” Jennifer pushed past Dodge and Blair and stood in front of the door, blocking it. “You’re not taking him away from me again.”
“Please, Ms. Chamberlain,” Blair said. “We need to get Joshua medical attention. I’ll have him contact you as soon as he’s able.”
“That’s what you said last time,” Jennifer said, her face reddening. “You took him away from me. You said he needed a break and would get in touch. I never heard from him, not until today. And I know you had something to do with it. I’m not letting him leave until I know why. We’re in love …”
Blair’s patience snapped. “Be that as it may. He’s in no condition to explain anything to you now, Ms. Chamberlain. We need to get him to a doctor or he could die. Do you want that?”
“No,” Jennifer said, her voice small.
“Then step aside.”
She considered for a moment, then straightened. “I’m not letting him out of my sight, not again. I’m coming with you.”
“You’d be in the way,” Blair looked as though she was ready to put Joshua down and deal with Jennifer’s insistence with her fists.
“Then I’ll call nine-one-one. They’ll be able to help him.”
Blair’s pale face flushed in warning. “I said—”
“Jennifer, you can’t come with us right now,” Dodge interrupted. “I know how you must feel, but we need to take him on our own. Your boss has my card. You can contact me in the morning and I’ll tell you where you can visit Joshua. As soon as we get his medication worked out, he’s going to be busy filming, but I’m sure he’ll want to make time for you.” He looked at Blair intently. “Right?”
Blair glared at Jennifer but kept her voice calm. “Yes, of course. But we must be going, now please excuse us.”
Dodge couldn’t bear to look at the distraught girl. He felt like shit for lying to her. He didn’t want to cause her more pain, but what was he supposed to do? Then a thought struck: if she tried to use the contact information on the card, she would get Blair’s inbox at Entropy, which was almost certainly being monitored, and then the Burning Spear would be sent after the poor girl.
He thought of Len’s bulging eyes. He couldn’t risk that happening to Jennifer. And Blair wasn’t suggesting any alternatives, she was ready to bully through anyone that got in her way.
“Wait,” Dodge said. “I just realized. I’ve had to get a new phone and it’s not programmed into the card. But I promise I’ll call you tomorrow with news on Joshua.”
“But—” Jennifer said, instantly suspicious.
“You don’t have my number.”
“I’ll leave a message here at the club.” What was he going to do if she said no?
She scrutinized Dodge for a moment before she fixed her eyes on his. He wouldn’t let himself look away.
“Just get him some help,” she said. “But if you don’t call me tomorrow, I’ll go down to Entropy myself and find you.”
It sounded like a threat and Dodge believed she’d follow through on it.
“Deal,” Dodge said.
Before she let them pass, Jennifer stepped up to Joshua, wiped the saliva from his lips and kissed him tenderly. “Now that I’ve found you again,” she whispered, “I’m not going to lose you.”
She moved aside, her eyes moist but her voice firm. “I’ll be expecting your call, Mr. Blair.”
“I will,” Dodge said. “I’ll have more information for you soon.”
Dodge and Blair maneuvered Joshua out of the room and down the stairs, with the manager, the bartender, and the bouncer all following somberly, like a funeral procession. Jennifer stayed in the office, collapsed in a chair.
“Again,” Dodge said as they reached the entrance, already straining under the weight of the increasingly heavy Joshua. “Sorry for the trouble, but we’ll be seeing you again all very soon.”
“Oh, no problem at all, Mr. Blair. I hope Joshua there is okay,” the manager said, clearly envisioning the forthcoming money. “Looking forward to it.”
They dragged Joshua out the heavy metal club door. Anyone who saw them would assume they were a couple helping a drunk friend get home.
As soon as they were safe from immediate danger, Dodge’s knees went weak. For the first time he could remember, he had stood up for himself. He had fought back. Why hadn’t he been reduced to a shivering ball of fear? He hadn’t even felt a twinge of anxiety the whole time he had been talking their way out of the club. Maybe the Godwave had a lasting effect. He’d have to try it out again when they got back to the hotel.
But for now, while his head was still clear, he wanted some answers.
“What the hell was all that about?” Dodge said as they struggled down the street, only able to see the top of Blair’s head over Joshua. “You know that Jennifer girl.”
“You sure as hell do. You knew her last name.” Dodge couldn’t get the image of Jennifer’s tortured face out of his head.
“Fine, yes. I have met her before. Once. She was working in a different club then. Over on the east side.”
“When? Why?” Dodge asked, sensing Blair was going to be reluctant with details.
“Joshua started seeing her about eight months ago. I put a stop to it.” Blair said.
“Did she know that he was really Klaxon Overdrive?”
“No. No one does.”
“So if Klaxon and Joshua were two different people, why did you stop him from seeing her?”
“She wasn’t right for him. And if they had continued to see each other, we would have had to tell her the truth. Joshua was insisting.”
“You broke them up?”
“Yes. I had to. They were getting too close and he wasn’t focusing on his responsibilities. There were too many complications. I paid her a visit and told her Joshua wanted nothing to do with her anymore, that it was over.”
“And Joshua went along with this?”
“Not at first,” she paused. “But eventually he accepted it was for the best.”
“You stare death in the face to help Joshua, but you won’t let him have a girlfriend? That’s a pretty fucked-up version of helping. And you said Entropy was manipulative.”
Blair readjusted Joshua’s arm over her shoulder. “I regret the necessity, but this was before I realized what Entropy was planning to do with their Klaxon Overdrive fan-club. I thought we were accomplishing something far nobler than profit generation. At the time, sacrificing one person’s feelings was worth it. I’ll make it up to him—once we’re safe from Entropy I’ll send a message to her, but right now she’s a variable I can’t deal with.”
“I lied to her. For you.”
“You lied to get your own ass out of danger.”
“But I was considerate enough to take you with me. You and this psycho here,” Dodge said, shaking Joshua.
“Thank you. Now shut up.”
They managed to get three blocks away before the Dodge was exhausted. It had been a long day. “Blair, stop. I need to rest for a second.”
Blair growled in frustration but stopped moving. They arranged Joshua on a nearby stoop. He moaned but didn’t wake.
“Why are we even walking? Can’t you just call the car to come get us?”
Blair rolled her eyes. “I disabled the pilot. Didn’t want it driving itself home.”
“Then you get the car, and I’ll stay with Joshua,” Dodge suggested.
“I’m not trusting you with him again. You go.”
“Fine with me,” Dodge said, snatching the keys from Blair’s hand and stalking away towards the parking garage. For a moment he considered abandoning them. Taking the car, retrieving the DNA from the pawnshop, and heading out of town. Blair was resourceful, she’d cope on her own. And had it just been Blair, he would have ditched her without a second thought, but he couldn’t shake the image of Jennifer’s anguish-swollen eyes as Dodge and Blair carried away the man she loved.
Dodge had never been loved like that, with such intensity. Never let himself become close enough with anyone for it to happen. Maybe he wasn’t capable anymore.
Joshua’s first instinct had been to find her. Dodge believed, even if distorted by psychosis, Joshua loved her as well. Blair shouldn’t have kept them apart. Who the hell was she to tell Joshua who he was allowed to love? If only for Jennifer’s sake, he had to do whatever possible to ensure Joshua stayed safe.
Even though he was the most famous, most powerful man in entertainment, he had about as much control over the events of his life as a character in a movie. Joshua acted out the life Entropy wrote for him. A script carefully crafted to ensure perpetual fame and revenue.
As much as he wanted to be done with them, Dodge would stick with them until they were safe. And until Jennifer had at least one more chance to see the man she loved.
Besides, the Godwave was still back in the hotel room, and Blair had the key.