THE message popped up on Nick Davanger’s phone with the soft, gentle ringing of a distant church bell. He held the sleek and powerful black device in his strong hand, which was the color of café latte. A simple band of white gold gleamed on his ring finger. Nick narrowed his gemlike green eyes as he scanned the glowing screen.
Nick had been feeling pleasantly contemplative as the limo rushed through London traffic at twilight toward Heathrow. Then the phone interrupted his photo viewing, signaling this fateful incoming message. Snowflakes blew against the dark windows.
He’d been looking at pictures of Rusty from about a year ago. And of Wolfy, his new puppy, at their cottage in Ireland. Wolfy was at that time a mere eight weeks old. Each photo tugged at his heartstrings in its own way. A rustic kitchen, bursting with flower-filled vases and shiny pots and kettles. Wolfy chewing on a big soup bone tied with a red ribbon. A window view of soft green hills rolling down to the blue sea. Rusty in his pine chair in the garden, in one of the last pictures ever taken of him. Even after all this time, it was hard to believe he was really gone, dead and buried in that green land he loved.
Nick opened the message, and a photo appeared. What he saw on the screen made his heart skip a beat: a full-color photograph of a stark-naked young man.
The guy was posed seductively on his back, with his legs and feet in the air. The spread legs left nothing to the imagination. Despite the peroxide-blond highlights on the dark model’s head, the handsome young face was shockingly familiar. It was Nick, in a picture from a series shot more than twenty years ago.
From tougher but more adventurous—or plain reckless—times in his youth. When he was an unknown American exchange student fresh in London with just a few English pounds to his name. Before pop stardom. Before everything.
He hadn’t thought about these photos, or those times, in a long time.
Of course he knew these images were out there; they’d been published in a seedy English porn magazine, now long extinct. A few devious others must have known of these pictures too. That was now obvious. But Nick hadn’t seen or heard from any of those people—former friends, colleagues, acquaintances—in years, on either side of the Atlantic.
Nick glanced up at the driver, who seemed very far away in the luxurious limo. Merton was long past sixty but a skilled chauffeur, and his eyes were aimed on the dark road ahead. Nick was alone in the comfortable rear compartment, his long legs outstretched, his Louis Vuitton travel bag at his feet. He poured a stiff whisky into a heavy Waterford Crystal tumbler from the car’s built-in enamel cabinets. From the ice bin of the compact wet bar, he scooped with his fingers two crystal-clear cubes and plopped them into his drink.
He drank down the warming liquor.
His homecoming to America might become as bumpy as his departure from the States, he thought. A departure made so many years ago.
If he’d fought his way over many a rocky, winding road to find himself, to find a measure of lasting peace, he also had to admit that he still didn’t completely understand who that other, younger Nick in the photo had been. That pain-filled, hope-filled lost child who had run to England from America so long ago with a dream of fame in his heart. A confused, mixed-race young man desperate for attention, for love, and sex, and money, and riches—vast riches. For glory at any cost, for fame on a grand scale—or a completely debased one, if that was what it took.
His art, if he dared to call the successful memoir he had published art, was at least in part a search through long-ago journeys he’d taken without maps or guides.
And now someone—who?—was sending him a threatening reminder of his secret past. He took a long, slow breath.
He touched the side of his travel bag. In addition to his toiletries, shave kit, some clothes and some magazines, he never went anywhere without two books, his touchstones. One was the Oxford Annotated King James Bible. The other was I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou.
Nick opened his eyes and looked at his reflection in the smoky glass between the passenger compartment and the driver’s seat up front.
Nick’s short-cropped hair was still black and dense, with just a bit of gray, and neatly groomed against his handsome skull. He looked every inch the successful man of color—businessman, entrepreneur, musician, writer, star.
Looks could deceive, he knew. And how many people these days really remembered that he had been a pop star once upon a time? Before he’d written his recent book, he was barely remembered as an eighties “one-hit wonder,” despite that the record had been a worldwide smash.
He’d been many things. Some he was proud of. Others—well, he mused, let that be for now.
At six feet tall, Nick was as fit and muscular as he’d been in his twenties—better, really, with a much healthier diet and lifestyle. His immaculate gray wool suit flowed over muscles like sculpture. His black Prada shoes gleamed in the faint light of the luxury vehicle. The Swiss watch he wore was valued at slightly more than the cost of a couple of years of private college tuition. His cashmere socks and scarf and his silk drawers alone would have been equal to a month’s wages earned by the grandfather who had reluctantly helped raise him. He barely resembled that poor kid of twenty-one in the photo, he told himself.
But it was him.
The shining crystalline-green eyes were the same. His emerald trademark.
He was already thinking about how he could explain away the possible resemblance, if confronted about it. Effects could be photoshopped, as everyone knew. The Internet was awash in fake celebrity nude images.
This one, of course, was not a fake.
Whoever sent it sure as hell knew that.
He tried not to let panic kindle in his chest. He needed to take a few more deep breaths before he read the message that was attached to this photo.
It sure as hell wasn’t gonna be good news.
ONLY moments before the shocking message arrived, Nick had been looking happily at a shot of Wolfy, his poodle-mix puppy.
Wolfy had preceded him to Los Angeles, taking a special flight in which pampered animals were welcomed into the cabin with their caretakers and padded crates. Susie Billings, who had long been in Nick and Rusty’s trusted employ, was only too happy to accept the assignment and serve as Nick’s aide in LA. Now Nick wished he’d taken that flight himself with Wolfy, instead of a later one reserved for rarefied human beings who slept in comfortable fold-down podlike beds in what Nick thought of as the ultimate in luxury. But he reminded himself that it would only be a matter of hours, about a day in total, until both he and Wolfy were comfortably ensconced in the rented Hollywood Hills house where they would spend the winter, and where Nick would begin the rehearsals for his one-man stage performance based on his bestselling memoir.
The memoir was a surprise hit. It was also a door to a new life, a chance to begin again. Slowly, and much more calmly than last time, the world was turning to take notice again of the one-time heartthrob.
Against considerable odds, Nick and Wolfy and Susie were off on an adventure of reinvention.
Los Angeles was going to provide yet one more of the “second chances” he’d all but given up on back in a dark, tough time when he’d dared not hope too hard for happiness.
Nick cleared his throat and sat up in his seat, his thumbs on the phone’s controls. Yes, the Lord worked in mysterious ways, he thought; and sometimes His universe threw curveballs.
Remember your accomplishments, not just your failings and human mistakes. Those had been his friend Marisa’s orders to him when he was so young it seemed he had nothing but failings, and few if any successes to be really proud of. The legendary Marisa Tambov knew what she was talking about, because she had been there. Now she was waiting for him in Los Angeles.
Nick’s memoir, frank as it was about his confused mixed-race childhood and his coming to terms with his blackness, his white family, his sexuality, and of course his single “one-hit wonder” record of the eighties, had by necessity left out so very much of his journey.
Things like the nude sex picture someone had just mysteriously sent him, and how such pictures (oh yes, there were others) had come to be.
Well, he thought with his devilishly handsome wide grin, you gotta save something for the sequel, right?
Boldly, Nick started to read the message from a stranger. His smile faded. He knew that his life was about to change again. Just not in the way he’d hoped.
NICK read the message sent to his phone, and then reread it several times as tension twisted in his gut.
This time I need £100,000, Nick. Times got tough. You understand. Don’t try to trace this message or call the cops. You have plenty of resources, we know that, from last time. But that money is nothing compared to what I have of yours. Sincerely, Smooth Criminal.
It made Nick doubly angry that the anonymous criminal used a Michael Jackson song in his message. How dare he!
But that was a clue, right off. Whoever sent the picture and this dirty threat knew Nick. He—or perhaps they, if there was more than one of them—knew it would push Nick’s buttons to mention Michael.
Nick had to breathe slowly.
In the dark of the limo, he remembered, almost despite himself. The pop star he’d ached to be as a kid had a very direct link to the Jackson Five. One memory in particular was bittersweet. It crystallized something in him.
The memory rushed back unbidden.
A LONG-ago scene from his childhood. Nick’s grandparents’ modest gray clapboard house on the West Side of Chicago, before they’d retired and taken him (still a small boy) to the northern Wisconsin town of Appledale. The town where the couple had met so many years before. A white town, of course. A rural “farmette” where Grandpa and Grandma, Mama’s folks, had scratched out a living.
He’d been left there with them. In the night. His mother had gone missing again, and his grandparents were left to raise him. As for his father? Nick couldn’t remember ever even seeing him. Among these rural white folks, he was not spoken of, except rarely, and then only as “that man,” or once as “the colored man,” and never referred to by any name, at least never in front of Nick.
Mama was only slightly less a stranger. And then she was gone. Long gone for long, long stretches.
There must have been reasons. But whatever they were, they were not considered fit for Nick’s ears, even when he grew to become a precocious cute little boy prone to asking uncomfortable questions.
Punishment came swiftly. Whippings were bad, and a steady rain of disapproval without explanation came down harder, and, in many ways, painfully worse.
A part of Nick was in hiding, even if he didn’t yet know about that damaging strategy of survival. Yet his grace and enthusiasm were somehow stronger, and nobody anywhere could keep that Nick down.
One afternoon, Nick had come home with a poster of the Jackson Five he’d won in a school-wide drawing competition. He taped the poster to his bedroom wall, above his bed. The room, like the little house, was spare and modest. He had only one window that overlooked a lonely gray stretch of highway. The bed wasn’t much more than a lumpy army cot. Nick was proud of that poster, to the point of being in love with it. The night Nick had mounted it on his wall with Scotch tape, his grandfather discovered it and became enraged. The old man tore down the poster and ripped it in half and crumpled it up. Scared the hell out of Nick. Grandpa’s face was red and full of contempt. It didn’t make any sense to Nick, and if he hadn’t been so scared, his own anger would have come bursting out too.
“You don’t need to get mixed up in that,” the old man had scolded, the bald spot on his head turning bright red, wisps of white hair floating like angel feathers. “You’re not like those people.” He jabbed his finger at the ruins of the prize poster.
Those people? The Jacksons? Nick would have loved nothing better than to be thought of as remotely resembling them. There was something in his grandfather’s statement that had chilled him, though. The violence of it had startled Nick, a pretty sensitive kid. He was just ten.
“But… am I kinda like them?” Nick asked in a tremulous voice.
“You’re mostly white!” the old man barked. Nick’s grandmother, who had come over to the bedroom doorway to see what the stir was all about, turned tail quickly, wiping her hands on a dish towel. “Your mother is as white as we are,” the old man snarled.
Nick felt it was one of those moments when maybe he was a little more mature than his years, and a little closer to a dangerous truth than might be good for the well-being of his oft-whipped round bottom. It emboldened him to find out something. He decided—if such an impulse could be called that—to hazard a chance.
“My skin is darker than yours, though,” Nick said in a trembling voice. “What color was my daddy?” He knew full well the answer and yet had to hear it—burned to hear it—said aloud.
“Your father abrogated his claims to you when he disappeared,” said Grandfather Davangere (Nick would drop the final E from his name years later on the advice of a talent agent). “Anyway, I never laid eyes on him, so I haven’t a clue what he was like or what he looked like.”
“Did he have green eyes like me?” Nick asked.
“How should I know?”
“Ain’t nobody else in this family got green eyes,” Nick mumbled.
His grandfather slapped Nick hard across the face, surprising him.
“Don’t you talk that… colored talk! Use proper English grammar and talk like an American boy, like a white boy! That’s how we’re raising you, no matter that you might be a shade or two darker and a might less than your own people!”
Nick was a spunky kid, and he had been provoked, even if he was frightened of his hard-ass, farm-raised white grandpa.
“But you told your friends at the grocery store I was Spanish,” Nick taunted through his tears. “I heard you say it! You lied, Grandpa! I ain’t Spanish. You keep me locked up on summer days so my skin won’t get any darker! You’re ashamed of me!”
“We’re not ashamed,” his grandmother cried. She’d come back, apparently unable to bear the tension any longer. She came swooping in between the males of her household. She looked at her husband. “Leave Nick be,” she admonished. “He’s as good as anyone, and I won’t stand for him being told he’s any less. He can be whatever he wants to be!”
The old man laughed sarcastically.
“He can’t be anything,” the old man hissed, “but what he is.” Nick didn’t know what his grandfather meant by that. But it didn’t sound kindly.
Grandpa walked away, mumbling, “You can hide some things, and he does, but you can’t hide your face or your skin color….”
One time Nick would never forget, the only black girl in the whole school, Patty, had summed up this part of Nick’s lot in life more succinctly. “Mama white, daddy black,” she’d said, her own skin the rich color of strong coffee with just a drop of cream. “That makes you a mule.”
Nick found that very curious. Certain words arrive in a shower of acid. Shock you at first, and then start to corrode and burn, leaving ugly holes behind.
They were six years of age. Patty left at Christmas break and never came back. Her words never left him.
Six is a funny age to begin to learn to hide yourself. Six is an age when you might believe almost anything.
No matter how untrue.
NICK’S grandfather retired from the building trades in Chicago, in which he had never really prospered. His grandparents moved Nick with them up to Wisconsin, to Appledale, to the old family farm. Nick grew and at last entered high school and made every attempt possible to be like all the other kids—sports-crazed (Nick loved baseball), clean-cut, and… white.
Nick was “just a little”—or maybe more than just a little—off-white, and his hair was black or nearly so, and was more on the wavy side than the nappy side. He parted it on the side. He wasn’t really fooling anyone.
He was different in more ways than one, so he tried to compensate for that among his peers.
They looked at him, all right. They knew he was a little different. But he could talk just like they did, and as he grew he became good at sports and at drawing funny cartoons and even halfway decent portraits. He could sing, dance better than most of the kids, and was considered downright talented. He made friends. He also started to come into his own good looks, and that drew attention, as well as envy.
If Nick felt a little paranoid sometimes, he just put the energy into his games, into his drawings, into fitting in like everybody else.
Damn if he didn’t believe he could.