Work Header

Traps for Troubadours

Work Text:

Kana grabs my arm, but I shake her off abruptly.

"I'm going," I say. I insist.

"You have no idea what you're getting into," she hisses.

"You're kidding me, right?" I actually start to turn back, but no. There's no argument worth having. On the unlikely chance that she does know something and isn't just running on superstition – double fuck her. I'm out the door, into the hall.

The hotel is nicer than either of us can really afford, but sometimes appearances really do matter. And anyway, things are going to be turning around for us, or at least for me, shortly. Kana's lack of commitment is her problem. A little risk, or credit card debt, is worth the reward.

I stop and check myself in a hallway mirror before I hit the elevator. I look like I belong. I feel like I belong. I belong here, in this world of gilt and glass and deep pile scarlet carpets and silk wallpaper. My makeup is flawless. My suit – another charged expense – is tasteful and elegant. It’s tailored, because I didn't have time, let alone money, for bespoke, and I don't have an off-the-rack kind of figure.

There's not supposed to be a thirteenth floor, but here it is nonetheless. That was one of the first tricks we figured out. The hotel's a tower. There's 50 rooms a floor. The rooms on the thirteenth aren't officially numbered, but we figured that out too: there's only six of them, of course. The elevator chimes, musical in a minor key sort of way, and the doors spill me out into the entryway.

I head down the short corridor to where it intersects with another hallway. Kana said she got chills the first time we passed the, well, crossroads, I guess. I'm feeling it now too, especially because that door ahead is opening, and I know who's coming out to meet me.

"What would you give to make it happen?

Kana is lying on the couch, eating Doritos out of a bowl balanced on her rack. I'm in my chair, as usual. We're talking about revolution.

Maybe not the most important thing, in the grand scheme. We could have got into this to topple capitalist oligarchies or undermine the police state or cut the heads off of all the snakes behind the #metoo movement, but no. We're petty bitches, and we're talking petty shit. "Fucking Christine," I say. "No. We are taking the Vegas gig. I don't fucking care – we can sleep in the fucking van for a week and eat ramen sandwiches. It's fucking Vegas. We're doing it."

There is no way that is going to happen, but I am angry. Furious. Christine likes to speak for the rest of us. She'd fielded the call from the talent scout or entertainment manager, or whoever it was. When she told us about it, it was to tell us that she'd turned it down. She told us to be realistic, that we couldn't afford the time on the road.

But who cares about realism when dreams are at stake?

"Bitch," I say, pointing a finger at Kana, "pass me my phone. This is happening."
I know the others will be on board. Kana is. She tosses me my phone and clenches her fist: power. "Go girl," she says. "Get it!"

I call back the hotel. I don't actually know who to ask for, but I muddle through it, asking for whoever books their talent. Make an informal agreement. The next day I gather the rest of the band – even fucking Christine – and show it to them.

"It's a week. We can all manage a week. I know you fuckers want this as much as I do… This is not just some shitty venue. They have big names come through there, and if people aren't coming for us – not yet – they'll hear us. Producers knew this place. This is the big fucking chance we never thoughts we'd get, and I, for one, will go and play my fucking set alone and sleep in a trash pile to make it happen if I have to."

Not everyone is willing. I guess dedication takes a back seat to a 9-to-5 that pays your student loans. But I'm not going to give up. I look over at Kana, and I remember her question – what would I give? Well.

I give up Christine. I give up Aaron. There's plenty of talent around, and this is my band now.

Five of us go to Vegas: Me, Kana, and Meesha of the original band, and pickup players for bass and keyboards, Marcus and Andre. They're okay – we sound pretty good in the practices we get in before we hop in Andre's van. And we get along pretty well too. Marcus tells us he's done this before – says he expects the others will want back in when things start looking up, so he's trying not to get too attached to our sound. He promises to show us a good time, though.

The first night we play, something magic happens. I don't know if it’s the vibe from the crowd, the electric nerves of playing a real gig like this, the room we're in, or what. At first, we could be at any watering hole where the band is as much an annoyance as a draw, with locals who care more about their conversations than the sound. But Marcus makes a call after our first set, and by the time we go on for the second, the crowd's already friendlier. They're sincere too, not just shills he's pulled out to make us feel better. It's hard to walk off the stage that last time, but the bar is shut and the place is closing.

"You guys were so great," says one of the girls who's been dancing her ass off up in front of the stage, "you've really got soul, baby." She smiles. "You should come to the afterparty."

I don't get a chance to ask her where it is before her friends come and pull her away, but she waves. Marcus knows, though.

"You sure?" He frowns, but his eyes are grinning. "Not too tired after all that?''

I'm not too tired. Meesha and Andre bow out, but Kana's in. That's why it's the two of us later.

The afterparty is hosted at a different hotel. The guy who runs it, according to Marcus, is a real big deal. Famous. Rich. Connected in ways that would blow our little minds. And he loves music. After the way we played tonight, Marcus assures us we'll have no trouble getting in, getting our introduction.
I find it a bit overwhelming at first. I feel out of place and cheap, but I'm still riding the high from the gig and I don't let it get to me too much. Kana's a little more nervous. She notices about the floors first.

"Thirteenth floor?" she asks Marcus. "How do we even get there, there's no button for it. And isn't that supposed to be bad luck?"

He waves her off without answering. The car we catch up is empty except for us, despite the crowd in the lobby, so he shows us, real deliberately, what you need to do. I think he figures we're gonna be back without him at some point. If this place is all he's said it is – probably we will.

There's security when we get off, waiting just outside the doors. Couple of big guys, looming down. They seem to know Marcus, though, and he tells them who we are, or at least where we just came from. He has to raise his voice to be heard over the music. They nod – not the curt 'no nonsense professional' nod I was expecting, but more chill. Like birds bobbing their heads. They don't smile, but they wave us through, up the short hall and across the corridor. Kana takes my arm, glaze flickering as she takes it all in, but I've got my eye on the prize.

The doors open and a couple spills out, laughing. They smile when they see us, and where we're coming from, who we're with. Marcus brushes them off, heading in, and we follow his lead.

The room inside is packed. The music is canned, but mixed well. The suite is huge and pretty open. There's couches (piled with people having all kinds of good times), a dance floor (packed), a bar (also packed). There's folks here I wouldn’t expect, stars with satellites in orbit, and some I don't know but who seems to be top in this crowd. I figure they must be producers or other behind the scenes movers and shakers. Marcus takes us to the bar and insists on getting the first round. He points out some people we should check out, and some we should avoid.

We've just slammed back a second round when he points out a dude who, if some of these folks are stars, has gotta be some kinda sun. Even the stars get pulled into his orbit. He's dressed to the nines, but relaxed like nothing happening is any kind of deal. He's the kind of person I've always wanted to be – the kind folks fall over backwards to please, and who always get what they want. I watch him work the room and I don't so much want to meet him as be him.

Kana notices me staring and gives me a nudge. She knows me – she's shaking her head.

"That's our host," Marcus explains.

"Mr. Big Deal?" Kana retorts, gesturing to the bartender for another round of future regrets. "Figures."

The party's fun. We make new friends, or at least we find people to share the good time with. Despite this, it's late, I played hard earlier, I'm in a strange city, and I'm fucking tired. I'm trying to track down Kana so we can head back to our hotel. I'm swimming my way through the crowd back towards the bar when I feel a hand on my shoulder. I turn to look, and it's him. It's our host. Somehow the crowd I saw around him has dispersed, and we're our own little island in the big sea of the party.

"Hey," he says, sliding that arm around my shoulders as I turn, "you're that new talent, aren't you? I heard you play – good stuff. Good sound, but room to improve. Gotta work on those crowd skills, learn to really draw them in. You could really go places, I think."

"Thanks." I slur it a bit, because I'm tired and a little drunk, but my heart is pounding from nerves. "We've been workin' hard."

"We?" He frowns, pursing his lips, and shakes his head. "Oh, I don't know about the rest of them. I'm talking about you." He smiles again, sensing my confusion. There's something sharp about it, cutting through the fog of my earlier evening. "Oh, they're all pretty good, you sound okay together, but we know who's doing all the heavy lifting, don't we?"

You know those moments when you're torn between the right thing to say, and what you feel? I have no right to leave my bandmates out in the cold. But I am the reason we're here. I manage not to gape, but only because I close my mouth to nod.

"Right? You've got something they don't have – ambition. Otherwise, you wouldn't be here, would you?"

I look around the room. People have noticed this is happening, but they're giving us space. I don't see Kana. I have no idea what I should be saying but I know this is an opportunity I can't pass up. This is what I want. I tell myself I can drag the others along with me, that it's going to be okay.

"Hell yeah!" I say.

He laughs, patting me on the back now, like an old friend. "There it is. Now look – I know you're just starting out, and maybe you can go far, and maybe you'll burn out in a week. This city will treat you right, though, so get yourself cleaned up, and when this gig is up, we can talk, okay?" Backing off, he offers me something. I'm expecting a card, but it's a usb key. "That ought to give you the gist of things, okay?

I nod, grasping for something clever to say, but the crowd is already starting to pour back in around in, and off to the side, I see Kana. When I turn back, he's disappeared into the crowd.

Tonight our first set is garbage. I'm doing okay, despite a lingering hangover, but we can't quite pull it together. Kana's beats are usually solid but even she's a little off tonight, and we're pulling against the harmonies instead of leaning into them. The crowd is forgiving, but there's a tension in the air.

I have it out with her on the first break.

"What's with you tonight?" I say, slamming down my empty glass on the bar beside her. She doesn’t even look up. "You're all over the place! Marcus shouldn't need to fight so hard to keep us steady." I've got some words for Marcus too, but Kana should know better. She should be better.

"Marcus ain't steadyin' shit," she snaps, then swears, then sighs. "I don't know. I'm just shook after last night."

"You're shook? What's that supposed to mean?"

"I don't know. It’s nothing."

"Well it better be nothing, if we're gonna make coming out here worth it. If we're gonna follow up on last night, not just throw that chance away. If *you're* not gonna throw this away."

"Yeah." She looks up at me now, looking all serious. "I get you."

Maybe she does get it, because we pull together better after that. At least to our usual levels of 'pretty good' that I think ought to earn us a chance to do better. Maybe last night was a fluke, but I don't think so. We can do it again.

None of us went out last night – too wiped. Meesha and Andre've got some thing going on, and they went 'out to lunch' together. Marcus is off with some buddies of his, so its just me and Kana here in the room, eating a couple of slices of the cheapest pizza we could find close to the hotel where we're staying. It's not ramen sandwiches, but it's not much better. I'm playing with the usb key I got at the party – I'd forgotten about it until I found it in my pocket.

"You ever seen this before?"

I toss it over to her. The key is white, and its got a logo on it of a snake coiling around a rose.

"Hmm," she says. "Where's it from?"

I tell her, sort of. I remember the conversation more clearly than maybe I ought to, considering how fuzzy the rest of the night is, and I know enough to do some editing for the retelling.

"Hmm," she says again, then pops off the top and jams it into one of the ports on her laptop. "Is this some kinda… portfolio?"

She passes it over so I can see. It's mostly just images from album covers from all kinds of artists and bands, only they've all got the same symbol as the key worked into them. Some I've seen before, and just didn't see the connection. I bet there are whole forums dedicated to this out there, but I've never heard of it. It's gotta be a logo for his company, but there's nothing that has the name, or even any contact info. But maybe he's not the type of person you reach out to, at least not by phone or email. I bet he likes to deal in person.

Kana's looking over my shoulder, and frowning. A real frown, not just trying to figure this out.

"This is some creepy shit," she says. "Half these folks came to bad ends."

I wave her off. "That's half the industry. The other half here are filthy rich!"

"Those aren't great odds. Plus – I didn't like that guy. Or that place. Gave me the creeps, all those folks fawning over him like that. And the numbers thing. I don't know what he's playing at, but I don't like it." She snatches the laptop back and passes me back the stick. "Just forget about him. Tonight'll be grand. We can find someone less weird to get discovered by."

It isn't better tonight. Meesha should have stuck with us and our shitty pizza and not gone for the shrimp buffet, because she's back at the hotel camping out in the bathroom. That means I have to cover her – not just sing, but play too. I can. I feel like I'm on, I'm together, and it's throwing everyone else off. They can't keep up.

I'm not even mad. I feel great. I'm a bit disappointed in Kana, but maybe I always knew she wasn't really in my league. I can't blame the others, they haven't been around. I try to imagine Christine here, or Aaron, and I just can't do it. I know he was right, the man at the party. I don't need any of them.

Kana gets testy with me on our break.

"I thought we were a band – playing *together*," she snaps. "I thought that was what you wanted."

"I want to make it," I snap right back, "and I'll do whatever it takes."

"Yeah? You gonna go running off to sell your soul at a cross roads?"

"What?" I don't get what she's going on about. She rolls her eyes.

"You think you were the only one who got a little tête-à-tête at that party. You just be careful, and don't forget who brought you here."

The rest of the night doesn't go much better. The manager is pissed, and it feels like we blew it. Like they blew it. He says that's it, we're through – but he also says that if I wanna stick around, maybe he could squeeze me in a few hours as a solo act. Meesha's not too keen on letting me keep her guitar, though.

'We' make plans to head home. I mean, I'm there. I don't say anything. I let them think what they want.

I go all in. I go back to the other hotel, and I charge a room. I go shopping. I clean myself up. When I want to, I can look sharp, and I want to now. I want to make a better impression, show there's more to me than just a good sound. I can belong in this world. It helps a bit, thinking of the others slinking out of town, holed up in Andre's van.

That holds until Kana shows up at my door. I want to know how she got my room info – but I guess it doesn't matter.

"I knew I'd find you here," she says, pushing her way into the room. "Of course." She looks me up and down, taking in my clothes, hair, make up. Flawless. "You look good."

She doesn't say anything about the expenses, but I'm sure she's thinking it. "I'm investing in myself."

"Okay, sure. I just want you to think about this, that's all. You wanna step away from the band? Fine, I get that. We blew it here as an act, but you've still got a shot. I could take a shot too, I got asked, but I gotta think about the costs. Not just a hotel and a new outfit now, or however much you've gotta throw down to get taken seriously by this crowd. I'm talking other costs. I mean it. You have no idea who you’re dealing with. No name, nothing. He gives me the creeps. His whole set up, thirteenth floor, room 666 – what's that even for?"

I roll my eyes. "It's just show biz, that's all. He's rich. He's powerful. So what if he's got some quirks? He's gonna help me, and I will do whatever it takes."

"I'm serious." This is when she grabs my arm. "This is going to take from you more that you realize."

"Well hello there," he says, ushering me inside. The room beyond looks empty, so swirling crowds of revelers, no entourage, no bodyguards. "Nice to see you, come on in."

'"Thank you, Mr…." I'm trying to be polite, but I'm not sure how to proceed.

He smiles. How did I not notice his eyes before? His teeth? His arm is around my shoulders again. "I think you know my name," he says.

I think of what Kana said. And I nod. I do know.

I step inside.