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First pages

Not that long ago, and not that far away…

Day 1

“This ain’t no Motel Six.”

He knew that because the room he’d woken up in wasn’t the same as the one he’d gone to sleep in. For one thing, the sumptuous furnishings didn’t fit the bargain hotel chain’s profile. For another, the smell of dying roses trapped in the faded brocade fabrics heightened the sense of aristocratic decay the musty upholstery reinforced.

Lifting the sheets reacquainted him with his host though her name remained elusive. She was built like the clean-up hitter on a women’s semi-pro softball team and not his usual type, but the luxury blonde’s expensive manicure and healthy tan indicated a higher tax bracket than the company he usually kept.

The empty whisky bottle on the nightstand explained his hangover, and the hangover explained why he couldn’t remember her name. He grabbed the mint from the silver dish beside the lamp to cleanse the stale film coating his tongue but spit it back out right away.

The pill’s medicinal aftertaste lingered, but he wrapped the bedsheet around his waist and tiptoed across the terrazzo tile floor, fighting his way through the billowing drapes to the balcony, where he focused his bloodshot baby-blues on the foggy horizon. “Water.”

The ocean in fact, though the revelation didn’t clear the cobwebs.

He leaned over the balcony as far as his courage allowed, but turrets and towers stepping in and out of the castle’s main wing kept him from seeing anything more than the courtyard below.

“I musta been really messed-up to crash into Disneyland.”

He turned his back to the panoramic view and opened the bathroom door where the flickering light above the mirror gave him his first good look at the previous night’s damage. “Rick Paulsen age twenty-nine of Ventura, California, passed away this morning from complications of a hangover. He was born February 20, 1970, and was a musician best known for…”

Rick found the aspirin behind the medicine cabinet mirror as expected—though seeing the shelves stocked with the same brand of toiletries he used at home seemed like a strange coincidence.

He ran his fingers through his schizophrenic brown curls—though not without some difficulty. Residual product rendered the wavy mess compliant, but no amount of gel could ever tame it. “Don’t remember that bump being there.”

He wouldn’t remember the bump on his skull or the events leading up to it if he had a concussion. “Musta hit my head.”

The blonde rolled over, a soft purr escaping from her lips.

There was still time for a graceful exit and a chance to avoid the morning-after chitchat propriety demanded. He found his corduroys balled up in the corner and stepped into them one leg at a time. Digging through the pockets didn’t produce his keys, but he was relieved to find his Walkman still clipped to his belt.

Rick pulled the closet door open to grab a shirt and rummaged through the wardrobe. Already confused, realizing that every item inside the closet was his confused him even further.

“I don’t remember packing for a trip.”

He grabbed his Black Watch flannel from the hanger and shut the door. His Chuck Taylors were under one side of the bed, but he found what he was really looking for under the other.

Rick pulled the guitar case out and popped the latches, but the Sunburst Stratocaster cradled inside remained as pristine as the day he’d bought it. The problem was that he didn’t remember packing it, either.

He added another entry to the list of things he’d figure out later, and laced up his sneakers. He checked the room to make sure he hadn’t forgotten anything, grabbed his guitar, and blew the blonde a kiss before easing out of the room.

***

Navigating the hallways was tougher than Rick expected because there weren’t any signs to guide him, but he made it down the castle’s grand staircase and out of the lobby before the harsh transition from shade to sunlight sent him fumbling for his sunglasses like a vampire. “Somebody’s out of tune.”

The twentysomething woman playing guitar beneath the ornamental lilac ignored his criticism and kept right on strumming.

Rick crossed the tiled courtyard and waited for her to finish. Honeysuckle carried on the wind brightened his mood, but the headache persisted, as did her playing. He pulled his headphones off and dropped a crumpled five-dollar bill from his pocket into her empty guitar case.

Her milky skin faded into her ivory tracksuit, and if not for her spiky black hair, he would have thought she was just a lovely ghost doomed to play the same off-key song throughout eternity. But she stopped playing when he got closer, her eyes shifting toward him, twin espresso shots ringed by heavy eyeliner. “Any requests?”

“No requests,” Rick said. “Was digging what you were playing just now.”

“I’m glad to hear that I made a fan.”

“Love the song,” he said. “But I suppose that’s because I’m the guy who wrote it.”

She resumed her clumsy picking, her tapered fingers tangling in the strings more often than not. “If you wrote ‘Cutback’ I suppose that makes you Rick Paulsen.”

“It does,” Rick said, turning his chin to crack the vertebrae in his neck. “Have we met?”

She held her smile a beat longer than expected, but the longer she held it the less he minded the slight overbite. “I recognized you from your band’s video.”

“Glad to hear we’ve got a few fans left,” Rick said. “But I still don’t know your name.”

She turned her shoulders to let him read the nametag pinned to her zippered jacket.

“Jolene,” Rick said. “Like the song?”

“Like the song,” she said. “Mama loved Dolly Parton.”

Her faint twang wasn’t far removed from the singer’s own, though that’s where the similarities ended. But Rick was more interested in the guitar she was playing. “That a Martin Standard?”

“I don’t know,” Jolene said, giving the spruce body a satisfying thump. “One guitar sounds like the next one to me.”

“No two guitars play the same note the same way.”

“Is that so?”

“You bet it is,” he said. “That Martin Standard you’re playing is known for its strong bass tones.”

“Do tell.”

“And there’s tonal variation even for models that roll off the same assembly line.”

She strummed the strings and listened to the chord fade. “Still sounds the same as any other guitar to me.”

“Here,” he said. “Let me show you what I mean.”

She got up to hand him the guitar—but didn’t. Instead, she grabbed it by the neck and swung wide.

Boom! The Martin Standard splintered against the tree in a cloud of sawdust and catgut.

Rick lowered the hands he’d raised to protect himself from the fallout. “What the hell is wrong with you?”

“Don’t have a hissy fit,” she said. “It’s just a guitar.”

Not to him it wasn’t. It was a Martin fucking Standard.

“We get these knockoffs from an overseas distributor in bulk,” she admitted. “But you have to admit they sure look like the real dang thing.”

“A knock off?” He sifted through the crime scene for proof she was wrong but couldn’t find any. “Sure looked like a Martin Standard.”

“And you look like the boy band member they kicked out of the band when he hit puberty.”

He sucked in his gut and straightened his slouch. “That a shot?”

“An observation based on your appearance,” she said, “but an observation that wouldn’t be an accurate representation.”

Damn right it wasn’t. But he was curious about what she considered to be an accurate representation and let her continue.

“We both know you’re a skilled guitarist who can crank out power pop melodies with the best of ’em.”

Now that was more like it. He wasn’t done fishing for compliments, but laughter in the distance got his attention. “Sounds like the party is still rolling.”

She smiled like she knew something he didn’t, which given the circumstances, was more likely than not.

***

The courtyard opened up into the cloister, flagstone giving way to mossy tile where the pavers ended. Crumbling statuary divided the patio from the sparkling water emptying into the fountain’s basin, letting the sparse crowd enjoy the view from the comfort of the surrounding tables unimpeded by the construction scaffolding blemishing the rest of the grounds.

“Nice little place you got here,” Rick said. “Must have set you back a bit.”

Jolene invited him into the cloister with a wave of her hand. “I heard that it’s on the market if you’re interested.”

“I’ve been looking for a summer place,” Rick said. “Malibu’s kinda played out.”

“This fifty-thousand-square-foot, twenty-eight-bedroom fixer-upper situated on a five-hundred-acre lot is priced to move,” Jolene said. “Amenities include formal gardens, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, tennis courts, and a first-floor laundry.”

“Was gonna pass until ya mentioned the first-floor laundry, but now I’m all in.”

She led him though the buffet line, but he didn’t have much of an appetite despite the aromatic fare presented. He disappointed the eager chef at the omelet station by settling for toast, and followed Jolene to a cozy table along the cloister’s periphery.

“Kinda reminds me of the Playboy mansion,” he said. “A friend of mine snagged an invite once and brought me along.”

Jolene poured herself a Bloody Mary from the pitcher between them. “Just the once?”

“Once was enough,” he said. “Not my scene.”

“Oh no?”

“Lots of C-list celebrities and half-naked stripper chicks running around,” Rick said. “Though now I’m wondering which one of those categories this crowd falls under.”

“Do you recognize anyone?”

He scraped his fingers against the stubble blighting his chin and scanned the surrounding tables. Their dress ranged from vacation casual to naked—or as close to it as they could get given the damp weather, but he didn’tsee anyone that he knew.“Must have gone into full-out montage after the party.”

“Montage?” she repeated. “What on earth do you mean by montage?”

How could he describe it to her? “Like when you start partying and you skip over the boring parts and only remember the cool stuff.”

“I have never heard of that before,” she said. “Maybe you should see one of the doctors.”

One of the doctors?” He dismissed her advice with a shake of his head, but shook too hard and started the throbbing in his skull again. “I’ve had worse hangovers than this.”

“I believe you,” she said. “But take another look around.”

He obliged and this time recognized the scraggly-haired scarecrow in ripped denim deciding between bacon and sausage at the buffet. “Think I know him.”

“Do you?”

“Played bass for a band—what was their name?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “Do you recognize anybody else?”

Rick finished his toast and pushed the plate away. “Yeah—that chick over there.”

“Which one?”

“White chick in the babydoll dress with the dreadlocks by the water,” he said. “I know I’ve seen one of her videos on MTV.”

“Is that where you know her from?”

“Might have run into her at a party,” he said. “Used to get invited to a lot of parties.”

Jolene picked another face in the crowd. “What about him?”

He followed her finger to the bullfrog-eyed neckbeard with the gentle perm destroying an omelet a few tables away. “I know the face, but I’ve never been good with names.”

Jolene smiled but didn’t say anything.

There were others like the Bullfrog scattered throughout the cloister, somehow anonymous despite being somewhat famous, gathered together under circumstances Rick didn’t think curious until then. “Where the hell am I?”

“Where do you think you are?”

“My manager said something about some kinda music festival,” Rick muttered. “What the hell was it called?”

“No,” she said. “That’s not it.”

If it wasn’t the festival then it was the benefit concert his manager booked him into at the last second. “This that Free Tibet gig I was supposed to play?”

“No,” she said. “I’m afraid not.”

It wasn’t the music festival, and it wasn’t the benefit concert, which meant that it had to be…

“That’s not it either.”

She was doing her best not to tell him where he was, and that was making him nervous. “You told me that you worked here on the walk over but you never said what you did.”

Why do you think that is?”

“I don’t know, he said. “I suppose that’s why I asked.”

“I’m a counselor.”

He wiped away the sweat beading on his lip that wasn’t there just moments before. “What kind of counselor?”

“The kind that works in rehab.”

He held his smile long enough for her to deliver the punchline, and pulled his hand away when she didn’t. “Think you got the wrong dude.”

“That’s what everybody says when they first get here.”

“I get messed up like everyone else,” Rick admitted. “But I got it under control.”

“You mean the substance abuse?” she asked. “Honey, it ain’t that kind of rehab.”

“What other kind of rehab is there?”

She leaned back in her chair while deciding how best to explain it him. “Don’t you think me playing your song outside your room was a strange coincidence?”

“I thought you just liked the song.”

“I like all your songs,” she said. “I even bought your solo records after the band split.”

“I wish all my fans were as loyal,” he grumbled. “Starting a solo career feels like starting all over some days.”

“Not everybody equates sales with success,” Jolene said. “But I suppose you’re feeling pressure from your label.”

“They keep reminding me how long it’s been since ‘Cutback’ hit the charts,” Rick said. But then he glanced over his shoulder at the buffet crowd and realized he was in good company. “It’s been awhile since anybody here hit the charts.”

She gave him a second to think about what he’d said before confirming his suspicion. “It’s that kind of rehab.”

He didn’t appreciate the implication, or the fact that he’d been checked in without his consent. “My records might not be selling like expected, but starting a solo career really is like starting all over again.”

“You’re not selling records because you’re not writing the kind of songs your audience wants to hear,” she said. “And you’re not writing those kinds of songs because you’re suffering from Schumann’s dissociative disorder.”

***

Transcript of Robert Capricorn Interview with Rolling Stone Magazine

Though largely unknown to the general public, there aren’t many recording industry insiders who don’t know Robert Capricorn either by reputation or through experience. The self-proclaimed “rock and roll psychiatrist” has counseled the biggest brands in music during his twenty-five-year-career, though he won’t name names. “Client confidentiality is our utmost consideration for obvious reasons,” he explained to us over the phone. Accordingly, we caught up with him at the Four Seasons Hotel in Manhattan after he’d just arrived from the groundbreaking ceremony for an exclusive new treatment facility whose very existence is still only a rumor. Answering the door in the gray flannel suit and cherry red bowtie that has become his signature look, the doctor welcomed us into his suite to discuss his new book.

RS: Can you explain what Schumann’s dissociative disorder is for those who haven’t read your book?

Capricorn: SDD was named for composer Robert Schumann, who suffered from prolonged bouts where he only heard a continuous A note despite his best efforts to write anything else.

RS: Does everybody with SDD hear a continuous A note?

Capricorn: The notes vary from patient to patient, but hearing any notes besides the ones you want to play makes working tough.

RS: It doesn’t sound like anything the majority of our readers should be too worried about.

Capricorn: The disorder can affect anybody, but my practice is limited to musicians, and it affects a significant percentage of that population.

RS: How widespread is SDD?

Capricorn: An accurate census is difficult because of the stigma attached, but awareness is spreading.

RS: Then some musicians might not even realize they have it?

Capricorn: They’ll know that what they write isn’t as good as what they wrote before, but they won’t know why.

RS: Is hearing the unwanted note the only symptom?

Capricorn: Like Schumann, patients also suffer from depression, paranoia, and hallucinations.

RS: What kind of hallucinations?

Capricorn: In particular the presence of an additional personality common to everyone who suffers from the condition.

RS: A few years back they would have called that possession.

Capricorn: (laughs) A few years back, I might have agreed with them.

RS: What’s the difference between SDD and multiple personality disorder?

Capricorn: First, they don’t call it multiple personality disorder anymore—they call it dissociative identity disorder. Second, DID is characterized by the presence of multiple personalities that are aware of each other, but only one personality is in control at any one time.

RS: And SDD?

Capricorn: Patients manifest the additional personality during the demiurgical cycle. The personality is aware of the patient and the patient is aware of the personality.

RS: What is the demiurgical cycle?

Capricorn: It is the collective name that we’ve given to the subconscious processes responsible for creative output.

RS: Then just trying to write a song can trigger an appearance?

Capricorn: You have to understand that the additional personality is a defense mechanism that the mused mind uses to defend itself against the struggles inherent in the cycle.

RS: When you say ‘mused,’ you’re not talking about a patient inspired by the Muses?

Capricorn: Only if you see the Muses as the personification of the cycle.

RS: Our readers might be disappointed to learn that there’s nothing supernatural involved.

Capricorn: When the mused artist is functioning at the height of their abilities, the results can seem supernatural to the rest of us.

RS: And when they’re not?

Capricorn: (laughs) Then they call me.

RS: How does your treatment work?

Capricorn: I can’t divulge any of our proprietary methods, but I can tell you that we’ve had good success with patients who complete the program.

RS: Any side effects?

Capricorn: Patients grow to depend on the additional personality, and not hearing the voice after hearing it for so long can be traumatic, but we help them manage the psychological withdrawal.

RS: There are patients who learn to live with DID—isn’t the same possible for those suffering from Schumann’s dissociative disorder?

Capricorn: Left untreated the personality grows stronger over time, because the root cause for its existence remains unresolved.

RS: What happens in those cases?

Capricorn: Prolonged exposure to the conditions responsible for its creation changes the personality from something benevolent to something malignant.

RS: Becoming the entity your patients call Static?

Capricorn: (smiles) An unfortunate colloquialism coined by a recovering patient to describe the additional personality that stuck.

***

Rick passed beneath the wrought iron arch welcoming visitors to the castle and paused to read the block letters casting their shadow across the pavers. “Pantheon Recovery Services—never heard of ’em.”

Following the two-lane road hugging the cliff’s edge gave him a better sense of the geography. The castle perched on the tip of a rocky promontory, surrounded by choppy gray water blurring into the dismal horizon in all directions, but gave no indication of his location.

All that fog could have meant he was somewhere near the bay. “But I been up near the bay and I don’t remember any islands like this.”

Steps poking out of the vertical rock face led down to the water, each hexagonal platform capping a porous column protruding from the side of the cliff like fossilized vertebrae. A million year old volcanic eruption extruded the platforms, but the wooden handrail was a modern addition. He’d seen the same kind of rock formation before, but where? Then he remembered. “Led Zeppelin, the cover of Houses of the Holy.”

He hit the beach forty-two trepidatious steps later and followed the coastline.

Flotsam clogging the narrow inlets was to be expected, but Buicks, Chevies, and Fords scattered among the jagged rocks left him shaking his head. “Some drunk-ass cabbie even managed to roll a Checker Cab into this junkyard.”

Further down the beach, pastel cottages climbed the cliff base in terraced levels, camouflaged by gnarled trees growing almost horizontally out of the naked rock. Missing roof tiles and overgrown foliage suggested abandonment, though the occasional silhouette behind the odd window pane suggested otherwise.

Rick picked up the main road on the other side of the village boundary, his eyes following the zigzagging asphalt across the water atop a bed of stone and gravel. Squinting didn’t help bring the architecture across the bay into focus, though he could make out turrets and towers.

Castles were common in some parts of the world, but not in the states. At least he knew where he wasn’t.

He approached the adjacent dock and waited for the uniformed staff to finish unloading supplies from the idling truck. Figuring out who was in charge was easy once he spotted the only man on the dock wearing a suit and bowtie. Rick put on his most ingratiating smile and headed toward him. “I think there’s been some kind of mistake.”

Rick waited for a response, but got nothing except his reflection in the lenses of Dr. Capricorn’s horn-rimmed glasses and a healthy whiff of Drakkar Noir he could have done with out.

“Everybody says that when they first get here,” Capricorn said. “But I can assure you that it gets easier after the initial shock wears off.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” Rick said. “But I don’t need rehab and I don’t know what my manager was thinking.”

“Your manager?”

“My manager,” Rick said. “Isn’t he the one that signed me in?”

“Perhaps.”

Perhaps wasn’t the answer Rick was looking for. “I don’t understand.”

“All patient information goes through the admissions department,” Capricorn explained, combing through his salt and pepper crew cut with his fingers. “All information is protected in accordance with—”

“But someone had to fill out the paperwork.”

“Someone did,” Capricorn said. “But our patients are high profile personalities and records are anonymized to minimize leaks for reasons that must be obvious.”

“What kind of practice are you running?”

“Every effort is taken to maintain patient privacy,” Capricorn assured him, “From our isolated location to our pre-screened employees.”

“Then you don’t know how I got here?”

“I don’t know how you got here,” Capricorn said, “but I know who you are.”

“You do?”

“Your name is Rick Paulsen,” Capricorn said, “and you were in the Velveteen Habits.”

“Yeah.”

“Your band showed such promise,” Capricorn said. “A pity that you broke up so soon.”

It was an opinion that Rick happened to share. “Hated to see it end but the solo career is keeping me busy these days.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” Capricorn said. “But as I explained, I don’t remember your file coming across my desk.”

“You don’t?”

“No, but I’m not the only psychiatrist on staff.”

“Is that normal around here?” Rick asked. “Not knowing who is running around?”

“It’s not unusual,” Capricorn said, his widow’s peak rising to accommodate his arching eyebrows. “Though security does a good job of keeping unauthorized personnel out.”

“Unauthorized personnel?”

Capricorn stepped back to give him an unobstructed view of the guardhouse on the other side of the dock. “In this case I mean paparazzi, over-zealous fans, and memorabilia collectors.”

He signed off on the bill of lading and pulled Rick out of the way to let the truck pass. The driver didn’t hesitate before shifting into gear and rumbling across the causeway.

“You can’t keep me here against my will,” Rick said. “I’m an American citizen and I know my—”

“You can leave anytime you like.”

It wasn’t the response Rick expected to hear. “Really?”

“Really,” Capricorn said. “Any patient is free to go at any time for any reason.”

But since Rick didn’t know how he got there, he wasn’t sure how he’d be leaving. “Is there some kinda plane or boat that I can hitch a ride with?”

Capricorn aimed his thumb at the truck speeding away from them. “Supplies are delivered once a month.”

“Anything else?”

“The employee shuttle brings in a new crew every three weeks,” Capricorn said, tapping his watch. “But I’m afraid the last one left the day before yesterday.”

Which meant the next one wasn’t due for another three weeks. “You telling me that I’m stuck here for the next month?”

“There is a limousine service that runs between the island and the mainland.”

Rick hesitated to ask, afraid that he already knew the punchline. “When’s the next limo outta here?”

“I’m afraid limousine service is reserved for patients who complete treatment and is scheduled on demand.”

Rick waited for him to elaborate and then realized he wasn’t going to. “Getting out of the Hotel California was easier than getting out of here.”

“Someone signed you in,” Capricorn said. “Releasing you without performing our due diligence might expose us to a negligence claim on your behalf.”

Was that what the problem was? “You don’t have to worry about me suing you.”

“It’s not you that I’m afraid of,” Capricorn said. “It’s your lawyers that send a shiver down my spine.”

“I can’t be here,” Rick said, his tone growing more urgent. “My label is expecting a new record from me before the New Year and I already spent their advance.”

“Is it possible that the new record is the reason that you’re here in the first place?”

It was possible, even if Rick wouldn’t admit it.

“I’ll see if I can’t dig up your paperwork,” Capricorn said. “Until I do, why not take advantage of our amenities?”

“Might as well,” Rick said, “seeing as how I’m stuck here.”

“Don’t look at it that way,” Capricorn said. “Treatment is expensive which means that someone believed in you.”

Rick turned toward the beach and started back across the dock already mumbling beneath his breath. “Someone believed in me and I think I know who the fat bastard is.”

***

Rick tilted the frame to cover the gash in the wall before stepping back to read the legend at the bottom of the plaque. “Presented to the Velveteen Habits to commemorate the sale of more than 500,000 copies of the PolyGram Records long play album End to End, released February 1991.”

Mr. Sparkle remained unimpressed. “1991 was a long time ago.”

“You keep saying that.”

“I keep saying a lotta things but ya don’t listen!” Mr. Sparkle said. “I can’t remember a client as hardheaded as you!”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Rick moaned, pulling his jeans up past his waist like he had to go. “Keep shaking that finger and all that bling is gonna fly off.”

Mr. Sparkle was on his way to an important meeting (the track) which explained the attire—though the jacket’s pattern was more dog than derby. The interruption in his routine was enough to twist his jaundiced face into the disapproving scowl he made every time he came all the way across town to count the gashes his client had punched through the rented bungalow’s paper-thin walls.

“Those repairs are coming out of your pocket,” Mr. Sparkle reminded him. “I can’t afford to write any more checks to your landlord.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

Mr. Sparkle paused to check his bug-eyed reflection in the mirror above the hall table. “You put a melody behind that chorus and you might have something, slick.”

“Thought about it,” Rick said. “Turns out a little band called the Beatles beat me to it.”

Mr. Sparkle headed toward the door, but stopped when he finally read the caption scribbled across Rick’s T-shirt in magic marker. “I Hate U2?”

Rick folded his arms against his sides in preparation for what he knew was coming next.

“Johnny Rotten tried the same shtick in the seventies,” Mr. Sparkle said.“Only he cut the sleeves off of a Pink Floyd T-shirt and—”

“And scratched out the band’s eyes before scribbling over their logo,” Rick said. “Which should explain my T-shirt to anyone with even a basic understanding of pop music history.”

“Well, it don’t.”

How could Rick explain what he meant to a man whose idea of dissent was a comb-over swept from left to right instead of right to left? “U2 is the new Pink Floyd.”

“You got a problem with U2 now?”

“Don’t have a problem with them,” Rick said. “Got a problem with sell-outs.”

“You should only live long enough to ‘sell out’ as much as they do,” Mr. Sparkle said. “Do you know how much product they move?”

“A lot?”

“Damn right a lot,” Mr. Sparkle said. “And do you know why?”

“Because they give the audience what it wants?”

“Because they give the audience what it wants,” Mr. Sparkle said. “And what does the audience want?”

“What they already got?”

“What they already got,” Mr. Sparkle said. “They just want more of it.”

It would have been depressing if it wasn’t true. “What about what I want?”

“You let me worry about that,” Mr. Sparkle said. “Just get your ass back to writing.”

“Been writing,” Rick said. “Just not writing anything that’s any good.”

“You need inspiration?”

“No!” Rick insisted. “I don’t need any inspiration!”

But Mr. Sparkle already had his reading glasses perched on the bridge of his bulbous nose by then. He unfolded the clipping he kept inside his coat pocket and started halfway down. “Paulsen’s solo debut showed promise, but his undistinguished follow-up relies on the same tired riffs and clichéd writing.”

Rolling Stone is a corporate rock and roll magazine,” Rick said. “Just think about the inherent contradiction in that statement.”

“That sounds like what’s-her-name talking.”

Rick offered a noncommittal shrug in his defense. “Maybe she was right.”

“About what?”

“About a lot of things.”

“She wasn’t right about anything,” Mr. Sparkle said. “And her leaving was the best thing that ever happened to you.”

Neither of them believed it for a second, but saying it made them both feel better about how everything unraveled at the end.

Mr. Sparkle put the clipping back into his pocket and took a deep breath. “I ever tell you about Clyde Yearling?”

Every chance he got. And he was going to tell him again, whether Rick wanted to hear him or not.

“Good-looking kid like you,” Mr. Sparkle said. “Played in a band called the Ultraviolet Pilots before he went solo—”

“Played the keytar—”

“He was the Jimi-fucking-Hendrix of keytarists,” Mr. Sparkle said. “They hit the charts in 1987 and went all the way to number four.”

“But then he started writing music he wanted to play.”

“But then he started writing music he wanted to play instead of what the audience wanted to hear,” Mr. Sparkle said. “He started working on his solo album while he was still in rehab and you know how the rest of it goes.”

Actually, Rick didn’t. “One of these days you’re gonna have to finish that story about Clyde.”

“One of these days I will.”

Rick eased him toward the door, but nudging a two-hundred-forty pound man took some effort. “Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

Mr. Sparkle grabbed the door by the handle and was almost out before turning around at the last second. “Almost forgot. I have some papers for ya to sign.”

“So close,” Rick muttered. “What kind of papers?”

Mr. Sparkle pulled a document a few pages short of a King James Bible from out of his attaché case. “Papers.”

“This for that music festival you been talking about?” Rick asked while skimming the opening paragraph. “The one on the Isle of Wight?”

“Just sign…”

Rick dug a few paragraphs deeper and handed the contract back to him. “Not ready for this.”

Mr. Sparkle reminded him of the gash in the wall he’d just covered up with a tilt of his elephantine head. “You could use the money, slick.”

He was right about the money, but releasing a “best of” compilation felt like surrender, and Rick wasn’t convinced the Habits were finished yet.

“Every band has a shelf-life and the clock is ticking on the Habits,” Mr. Sparkle said, pinning the contract against his chest. “You might as well cash in while you can.”

That was easy for him to say because they weren’t his songs. “I just don’t wanna hear us playing in the background of some Chevy commercial.”

“That won’t happen,” Mr. Sparkle promised, crossing his heart. “Unless you want it to down the road.”

Rick took the contract from his hands and flipped through the stapled pages. “Ty and Carter already signed?”

“Ty has twins, and Carter is living off a professor’s salary,” Mr. Sparkle reminded him. “They woulda signed their names in blood if I asked them to.”

But Rick was more interested in the signature he didn’t get. “Doesn’t every member of the band have to sign?”


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