Devil by my side, devil that I know
Riding down the Crossroads, heading to the next show
Hearing my name on the crowd, never thought I’d be back
House lights going down, time to dance in the deep-silk black
THE ROAD wound around them, a blacktop snake with metal guardrail markings and a dashed yellow stripe down the middle of its back. It grew fat and thin as the lanes increased, then dwindled down to one, a single strip of ebony tar cutting into the Earth’s flesh.
They were somewhere outside of New York. Or maybe it was Boston. Miki’d lost track of where exactly they were heading since they’d all stumbled out of a cheap motel that morning. It didn’t matter where they’d been. It was where they would end up that mattered. That single shining spot somewhere at the snake’s head, a pearl embedded between the kirin’s horns to guide them where they would begin.
Where Crossroads Gin would begin.
The gig they played at Dino’s was the first kiss of a months-long fuck the band had fallen into. No amount of prep, compromise, or cajoling would prepare them for the orgy to follow. Miki dreaded the road. He hated the haul from one place to the next, but he loved the feel of the boards under his boots and the squeal-sing of a mic when he wrapped his hand around it for the first time. He’d been giving oral to microphones for so long he’d almost forgotten what to do with an actual dick when one appeared in front of him.
That wasn’t a problem now. No, now Miki’s biggest worry was the echoing hollow inside of him, because Kane was nearly three thousand miles away, and he was stuck in an elongated metal box hurtling toward the unknown.
In the time and space between Sinner’s and Crossroads, Miki’d discovered he really didn’t like the unknown.
The road sang its own song under the van’s heavy tires. A clip-clip shush punctuated every once in a while by a deeper thrum when they passed over a crease or snick in the asphalt. If Miki wasn’t careful, he’d be lured into sleep, rocked by the gentle movement of the drive and the low humming Damien did in his throat as he worked out rhythms to the melodies Miki’d laid down for him a few weeks before.
Forest and Rafe were passed out across the two rows of seats behind them, propped up by pillows and thin, velvety blankets Brigid insisted on packing. Rafe snored, nothing delicate or gentle about the sounds barreling from his open mouth or the snorting gulps he took every few minutes. Their bassist was a loud thrum of bumps and noises, even in his sleep, and after a particularly long cha-cha-cha snuffle, Miki debated shoving a sock between Rafe’s teeth.
A rare streetlight flashed yellow through the van’s interior, sliding past the lightly tinted windows. The glow turned Rafe’s hair wheaten and snagged just a little tuft of sunlight-shot gold peeking out from under an argyle-patterned blanket.
The lump of red, gray, and black fabric could have been a free-form sculpture for as much as Forest moved underneath it. A few hundred miles ago, their drummer pulled a blanket out from under the long seat and cocooned himself so tightly Miki wouldn’t have been surprised if Forest emerged with bruise-hued wings. Only a little bit of his hair poked out of a fold, and one long, pale foot rested against the chair’s arm, wedged in tight between the vinyl seat and a metal brace.
“Zoning out, Sinjun?” Damie’s raspy growl tickled Miki’s ear. “You’re supposed to be keeping me company, remember?”
“Yeah, right. Like you don’t love to hear the sound of your own voice. We going to pull over soon?” The clock on the dash said it was two in the morning, but he wasn’t sure anymore about what time zone they were in. Across the horizon, a faint lightening of the sky showed between a copse of trees, but for all Miki knew, it was the sun coming to beat them into submission.
“Yeah, the motel’s supposed to be another fifteen miles.” The nearly pitch interior went pale and Cheshire, a curve of teeth lit up by the dashboard lights. “I’d ask if you wanted to drive—”
“Right, I can’t back a goddamned car out of the garage, and you’re going to put me behind the wheel of a Death Star.” The van was huge, over twenty feet long, and just the thought of the driver’s seat cushions hitting Miki’s ass made him break out into a cold sweat. “I’ll leave that shit to the three of you.”
A yawn stretched itself up from his chest, wrapped around his uvula, and then clawed its way out of his lips. The roof of his mouth went thin, pulled in on itself, and Miki gagged on his own tongue. Wiping the spit off his chin with the back of his hand, he grumbled at the wet on his skin.
“Nothing worse than choking on yourself.” Damien laughed at Miki’s uplifted middle finger. “Not the way I’d want my obit to read.”
“I read your obit. Made it sound like you were a cross between Hendrix and Jesus.” The captain’s chair was supposed to be comfortable, but Miki hadn’t quite found the right slant to it. Adjusting it back another notch, he leaned into the curve, a knot unraveling from his lower back. “Edie had you walking on water and playing the national anthem in your sleep.”
“Well, you know… it’s me.” The teasing was light, but the undercurrent between them darkened the already black shadows they’d gathered. Another mile marker flew by, a pale stone sentinel counting off the click while bringing them closer to Damien’s crazy dream.
They’d been together for more than a decade, even if they took off the time Damien spent walled up in an institution after a semi tore through their limo, ending the lives of their band members and leaving Miki alone and broken. He’d folded in on himself, tangling his grief with barbed-wire words and songs sharp enough to cut his own heart out.
Damien—alive—had been a fucking godsend, a gift Miki never in a million years would have imagined he’d be given. Much like falling in love with a damned cop. A damned Irish cop named Kane Morgan.
“Talk to me, Miki,” Damien urged gently. “Tell me what’s going on in that busy head of yours. What’s buzzing on in there?”
“Just….” He didn’t know how to say what he felt.
Words only came to him on slips of music and strings. His world was pretty much black-and-white for so long, he didn’t know what to do with the infusion of color. Of Kane’s eyes, bright enough to mimic ice but so very warm when they raked over Miki’s body, or the blush dew pink of his lover’s mouth after kissing Miki senseless. He’d fallen for a man with the same coloring as his best friend, inky-black hair and blue eyes, but so very different in personality. The roll of Kane’s slightly accented words, a strong Gaelic purr from long summers and holidays spent in his Irish parents’ homeland.
He missed his cop. Missed waking up next to a thickly muscled man who teased him into smiling. And he missed his fucking dog. Miki huffed, frowning over the thought of Dude sprawled on the living room couch without him. The last thing he’d ever expected was that he’d miss the damned fucking dog.
“Every roll of the tires is taking me farther from… home, Damie.” He scoffed, alarmed and shocked at the rawness welling up inside of his soul. “I mean before… it was okay. You’re… family. And still are, but… it’s like I’m leaving home. And I’ve never had a fucking home before. You… I mean I’m always… we’re… shit, I don’t know what the hell I’m saying.”
“You miss Kane.” Damie nodded. “I miss Sionn. Yeah, I have you, but that other piece of me? It’s not here. He’s not here. I get that. But it won’t be for long. We can do this. We kind of have to do this. If we’re going to be a band, we need to get tangled in with each other. Know each other. Think I’d drag you guys across country to play in shit-hole clubs if I didn’t think it was important?”
“Yeah, because you’re a dick,” Miki shot back.
“Not that much of a dick,” he snorted. “I’m leaving home behind too, so I know what you’re feeling, Sinjun. But you know, they’re fucking waiting for us to come home. That’s the awesome part about this shit. You know home’s right where you left it.”
“You think this is going to work?” Miki kept his whisper low, hoping the road noise would mask his words. “Us. Them. All of this shit. The band. Think we can pull this together? Between us?”
“Yeah,” Damie replied smoothly.
Too smoothly for Miki’s tastes. One glance over the cab, and Miki saw the glint in Damie’s blue gaze. Reaching over, Damie squeezed Miki’s thigh lightly.
“Trust me, Sinjun. It’ll be—”
The deer came out of nowhere. Or at least Miki thought it was a deer. It could have been fucking Bigfoot for all he knew, because the blacktop world with its backlit trees was suddenly full of eyes and fur and scrambling slender legs. The van skidded a bit when Damie tapped the brakes, and Miki grabbed at the dashboard, his heart pounding hard and fast. The flutter of beige and glowing eyes was gone in a blink, swallowed up by the darkness on either side of the road.
“You okay, Sin?”
The question was soft, prodding and poking at the panic gripping the small of Miki’s skull. Damie slowed the van down, banking into a curve.
“Do you want me to pull over? You look like you’re going to chuck up your Cheetos.”
His lungs hurt from working to suck in as much air as they could, and Miki couldn’t get his heart to stop running laps around his panic. The moment flashed by so quickly, a tear of steel and screams—his own screams—but no one in the van heard anything, felt anything. Their bassist kept snoring, and their drummer was still tightly wrapped up in his crazy shroud. The road was open, clear sailing until morning for all intents and purposes, but Miki’s tongue refused to crawl back up out of his throat.
“No, I’m good. I’m fucking great,” Miki snarled back. “Let’s just get to the damned motel so we can get some sleep. I’m kind of tired of the world trying to kill me.”
THE ROCKING Oyster Bar was a dive. There’d been a halfhearted attempt to bolster it up, mask its furniture-store beginnings by painting the windows black and power washing its brick exterior, but when it was all said and done, no amount of lipstick was going to do the pig any good.
It still was a pig, and an ugly one at that.
“What a fucking dump.” Rafe kicked at a chunk of gray something near one of the van’s tires. It exploded into a flurry of dusty feathers and bones. Shaking the remains of the dead pigeon off of his sneaker, Rafe cursed, spitting out a rapid-fire string of Portuguese.
“I don’t know. It’s kind of cool. Very eighties.” Forest lifted one of his bass drums out of the back of the van to load up the flat foldable dolly Damien bought in San Francisco. “And our name’s up. We’ve got that going for us.”
“Yeah, that it is.” Damie’s grin was stupid, wide, and manic. “So fucking cool.”
Miki gazed at the white message board with its mismatched letters. According to the red-and-black jumble, CROS5RO4DS GIN was headlining that night, right after a band called L’4NGE. The apostrophe was an upside-down comma, but the Rocking Oyster made it work as best they could.
They stood shoulder to shoulder, a patchwork cobble of a broken band resurrected by Damien’s dream, a fallen bassist who’d lost everything and found himself again in his life’s ashes, and a session drummer who’d never imagined he’d leave the safe confines of the recording studio he’d inherited from the old musician who’d taken him in. Miki stared at the ground, seeing their shadows cast from the sun behind them. The lineup was different, yes, and the vibe was oddly strange and comforting at the same time, but the whispers of the past remained, reminding him the shapes on the blacktop weren’t the ones he was used to.
No, maybe not, he agreed with the self-doubt pawing at him, but they were going to fucking rock the place to the ground.
“Maybe they should buy some more As,” Miki commented. The band’s name displayed in weather-beaten letters made everything so much more real, even with the sign’s plastic sunglass-wearing oyster playing a pink Flying V above the board. “Looks like we’re some tweaking hackers who play Rock Band on the weekend.”
The air bit, scraping its cold fangs across his face. Miki’d stolen one of Kane’s jackets for the trip, an ancient black leather biker piece Kane grew out of years ago. It’d been buried in Kane’s closet, a cherished memento of younger days, but it still smelled of Miki’s Irishman. It also fit Miki a hell of a lot better than anything Kane currently owned.
“You going to help unload or just stand there being a grammar Nazi?”
Damie shoved a guitar case at him. Miki snagged the handle, then held his hand out for another.
Damien stared at him for a second, then asked, “What?”
“Give me two. Or I’m going to be off-balance.” His knee ached a bit from sitting in the van for hours, then trying to sleep on the rock-hard mattress at the motel. He’d gotten in three hours before someone began jackhammering a headboard against the wall they shared with the next room. It’d gone on for a good ten minutes. Then it was quiet long enough for him to breathe a sigh of relief.
Then it began again.
Damien had the worst poker face, and Miki could see the debate the guitarist was having with himself wash over his features in a tide of conflicting emotions.
“Just give me the fucking guitar, D.” Miki waved his hand. “And make sure someone stays behind so we don’t get our shit ripped off.”
“You’re such a bossy shit,” Damien replied, but he handed Miki another case. “Don’t drop them.”
“You’re fucking lucky I’ve got my hands full right now,” Miki spat back. “Or I’d kick your ass for saying that.”
Despite the creeping slither of pain digging up out of his kneecap, Miki’s body fell into the rote pattern of setting up a stage. For all its humble beginnings, the Oyster was set up well. Whatever money they didn’t spend on the outside was blown on the sound system and a dual band stage running along the short side of the rectangular building.
It stank. Most clubs did, but the familiar sour beer and sweat rankness was stronger than Miki’d remembered. A stale whiff of pot smoke lingered under the club’s still air, probably carried through the air-conditioning vents from the back rooms. A few metal tables and chairs were scattered around the front half of the club, but half of the space was devoted to an open floor in front of a wide wooden stage. The risers were about four feet tall, and from what Miki could see, the sound-and-light system seemed decent enough. A strip of white tape bisected the stage lengthwise, marking where the curtain would fall so their equipment wouldn’t be tangled up with the opening act’s gear.
Behind him, Forest whistled a low, long sweeping note. Dragging the dolly behind him, he came to a stop, bumping into Miki when the weight of the dolly shoved him forward, but the look on their drummer’s face was pure childlike wonder.
“What?” Miki turned his attention back to the stage, trying to see whatever it was that struck Forest dumb. “What are you looking at?”
“This place… the stage.” Forest gave a throaty laugh. “Up until right fucking now, this wasn’t… real. Now… I’m in a goddamned band.”
“Dude, I fucking hope so, because I’d hate to think we’ve come all this way for the damned chicken wings,” he replied. “Because I sure as hell ain’t eating any seafood in this rathole. Not even the oysters.”
“See, you’re used to… this, Sinjun. All of this stuff. Me? This is… my first time. I kind of want to savor it. Studio shit and once in a while a gig just for backup, but… this? It’s goddamned… amazing.”
“Nah, you’re never really used to it. Not if you’re lucky.”
It was the truth. No matter how many doors they went through, from backwater bar to arena, Miki’d never grown used to it. The nerves were still there. So was the pressure to put everything he had into shouting out lyrics at a faceless crowd. They’d gone from no one knowing the words to a mantra chant of thousands screaming his own thoughts back at him.
Catching a glimpse of the blond man coming through the door, Miki said, “The moment you get used to it, you end up like Rafe did.”
“Thanks for that,” Rafe grumbled at their backs, lugging in a rolling suitcase. “Asshole.”
“No problem.” Miki matched Rafe’s rueful grin. “Dick.”
“But yeah, kid, don’t ever get bored.” After leaving the suitcase in the middle of the open area, Rafe dusted off his hands. “You get bored, your brain starts to look for shit to do. To catch that high again. Then it all goes to crap, and you spend the next couple of years eating crow, if you don’t end up dead from stupidity. So yeah, Fore, go ahead and fucking celebrate we’re in a goddamned band. It doesn’t get any better than this.”
The frizzy-haired older woman who’d opened the door for them left the band alone to set up, returning to inventorying the alcohol behind one of the two bars. Her safety-orange caftan was subdued compared to the graffiti on the walls, enormous scrawls of robots, chickens, and the occasional Alice in Wonderland character, but it was the painting of the club’s mascot that drew Miki in.
Nearly nine feet tall and a virulent purple, the oyster’s partially open shell was lined in black-light friendly paint, and a pearl sat on its lewdly drawn tongue. Or at least Miki thought it was a tongue. It was hard to distinguish between its body and face, other than a pair of eyes and what looked like an ear.
“Do oysters have tongues?” He set the guitars down, moving aside when Damien edged into the backstage area set aside for them. “I mean, aren’t they one giant tongue? Or… whatever?”
“I can’t say I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on an oyster, Sin.” Damien nudged him in the ribs. “How about we get shit plugged in, work a quick sound check in, and then we can talk about oysters and their tongues?”
THE SOUND check was a disaster.
Rafe was a beat behind, and Forest skipped through a chorus, throwing them all off. A few songs in, Miki gritted his teeth when an amp blew, screeching its death in a wave of feedback. One of the strings on Damie’s guitar snapped, catching Miki’s arm and tearing him open. Slapping a hand on the oozing wound, Miki called time and stalked off stage.
Or tried to.
The stage ended before he thought it did, and he went over the edge, stepping off into nothing but air. He tumbled onto the painted, cracked cement floor. His relatively good knee hit something, probably a riser, but he wasn’t sure. Either way, he landed badly, curling up over his legs with his elbow smarting and stinging as he lay on the floor.
Shoving out what little air he had left in his lungs, Miki swore, “Fuck.”
“Sinjun!” Damie was a step behind him, landing better but with a loud enough thump. His shoes squeaked on the floor. Dangling from his neck by an old strap, Damie’s guitar swung wide and smacked Miki’s chin as he pushed himself up from the floor.
Miki wasn’t sure if the blood in his mouth was from his lip, chin, or where he’d bitten his tongue when the guitar struck him, but there was definitely blood. Shoving Damie’s hand off his knee, he swallowed, trying to clear the spreading metallic taint from his tongue. It didn’t help. If anything, swallowing only made things worse, and Damien was squeezing at his throbbing knee like it needed a defibrillator to survive.
“Get off of me,” Miki growled. He must have sounded like he meant business, because Forest skidded to a stop a few feet away. “I need to get the fuck away from this right now. Just… give me some fucking space.”
He didn’t remember getting up off the floor, but Miki did feel the smack of the metal back door on his palm when he pushed past it. Hawking a mouthful of bloody spit, he touched lightly at his chin, feeling the welt forming there. His tongue swelled at the tip, a bubbling-up slit where his teeth had gouged into the meat. Sucking on the cut, he drew up blood again, then spat it out.
“Should have grabbed some water.” A broken cinder block was enough to keep the heavy fire door wedged open, but Miki didn’t relish shoving his way back in just to grab something to drink. Not after theatrically storming out like some damned diva. Rubbing at his face, he muttered, “Fuck, I’m going to have to spend like five minutes apologizing for that crap.”
His jacket held half a pack of kreteks, so he shook one out then fished the lighter out of the same pocket. Cupping his hand over the end of the clove, Miki coaxed the end to a bright red burn and sucked in a mouthful of fragrant smoke, thankful for the sear in his chest.
“God, I’m so fucking stupid.” He blew out a stream of smoke, letting it billow around him. “And you know what D’s gonna say. ‘So things don’t fucking go right. Who cares? Keep your shit together, dude. Make it right. Don’t fucking just walk out.’ I should have just stayed in there and—breathe, you shit. Finish this one clove, head back inside, and kiss some ass.”
Sundown was still a few hours away, but it was getting cold, and Boston’s heavy cloud cover dribbled gray over the surrounding buildings and darkened the Oyster’s back alley. A garbage truck trundled by, leaving its sour kiss in the air and kicking up debris as it passed. A few feet away, the alley jogged, and the truck strained to make the turn, blowing back a storm of dirt. Miki ducked his head to avoid the dust in the air, and when he straightened back up, a young man stood a few feet away, buffeted by the truck’s wake.
He was young, dressed in near-rags Miki knew cost more than some of Damien’s guitars. Skinny to the point of being in danger of sliding into a heating grate if he crossed the sidewalk wrong, the teen listed to one side from the weight of the black backpack he’d slung over his shoulder. Thick black glasses hid the color of his eyes but did nothing to mask his heavy eyebrows. Lank brown hair hung on either side of his narrow face, and he pursed his lips when he saw Miki.
“Hey, you’re Miki St. John.” The Boston was strong in his reedy voice, cracking when he hit Miki’s name. “Was that you guys inside? Playing?”
“Yeah.” Miki stubbed out the clove against the wall, making sure it was dead, then tossing it into the open, now empty Dumpster.
The kid didn’t look too much like a threat, but the alley was a short one, and he didn’t know if anyone else lurked around the corner. A quick flicking look reassured him the parking lot was a short sprint away, but he couldn’t depend on his knee.
The cinder block remnant by his foot would have to be his first option if something funky happened. The kid took another step forward, and Miki raised his chin, straightening up to his full height. Up close, the teen was a pimpled, baby-faced kid with a patch of hair under his nose struggling to grow thick enough to be called a smudge.
“I got tickets for tonight,” he said, taking another step closer.
Miki felt his belly coil up, and his fingers itched to grab the block. “We’re on late. Maybe around eleven.”
“Yeah, I probably won’t go. ’Cause you guys sucked.”
Smug derision spread over the kid’s face. Miki cocked his head, and the kid’s cheeks flushed pink.
“Probably going to see if they’ll give me back my money.”
He wasn’t off. Not by a long shot. But Miki’d be damned if some kid with manicured fingers and a backpack with someone else’s initials all over it was going to slag the guys he’d just driven cross-country with. Stepping into the kid’s space, Miki pushed himself in close until he was nearly nose to nose with the teen. The young man’s breath smelled of mint and tea, and he quivered when Miki smiled at him.
“You go do that, kid,” Miki said softly, cutting in low so the kid had to strain to hear him. “You go and fucking do that if you want to. But just so you know, you do that, and you’re going to miss the best fucking show of your goddamned short life.”