Rich dropped the needle on their newest album, grinning as George parodied the countdown they’d used in the good old days. Then he flung himself down on the patchwork corduroy pouf in the corner of the oversized living room. He listened to the music with his eyes closed, hands unconsciously finding the beat.
The house had a pool. Of course it had a pool. John supposed that was in the rider now: a big house near LA with four to six bedrooms and a pool. And parking for a car to drive them to meetings with the record execs. As prisons went, at least this one allowed them to spread out. It was good not to be on top of each other for a bit.
He stepped out of his clothes and left them puddled on the cement deck behind him. Then he jumped into the shimmering blue water with his eyes closed.
In one of the bedrooms, Paul sprawled across the quilted velvet bedspread and paged dispiritedly through the Freep. So many shows, so many galleries, so many shops advertised inside. Of course, he wouldn’t be able to visit any of them. There wasn’t time in the schedule to contact places and ask them to stay open extra hours, when the fans wouldn’t be around to mob him. It was physically painful for Paul to know how much was going on in the world and yet be trapped inside the band’s fame, unable to enjoy any of it. He lit his last joint and closed his eyes.
In another bedroom, George noodled on his sitar, trying to remember the fingerings. It sounded wrong. It always sounded wrong these days. He fiddled with the tuning, ran through some scales again. Everything felt right until he started to play once more. He knew enough to hear the mistakes, but not enough to be able to avoid them. He closed his eyes, pushed out a deep breath, and began again.
Rich chewed on the stub of a pencil, trying to put words down on a legal pad. He’d listed a bunch of rhymes for “you,” but he was having trouble getting the rhythm of the lines to scan. Songwriting was so much harder than Paul and John made it look.
Someone tapped on the front door. Rich didn’t bother to move. The lads were around somewhere. Anyway, whoever had come, they weren’t likely to be there for him.
The knock repeated.
“Hey!” Rich called. “We expectin’ anyone?”
From somewhere in the house, Paul called back, “It’s the drugs. The pot is here.”
Rich waited for someone to come, but no one seemed inclined. Neil was the one who handled these sorts of transactions. He was the only one of them who carried cash, because he was the only one allowed outside. But Neil, if he was around, was sleeping or otherwise involved. Since the tour had gone off the rails, Neil was as tired of managing it as they were exhausted by playing it.
The knocking went on and on. Rich felt trapped. This tour had been a right nightmare, from the riot at the Manilla airport to the threats to burn their records in Alabama to the firecracker thrown against his drums in Memphis. The lads were frustrated and depressed and worn out and ready to go home. This break in LA wasn’t long enough, then it was off to San Francisco for another stadium show, where no one could hear the music over the teenaged girls screaming. It was all so very disheartening.
Paul came stomping down the stairs. “Aren’t you going to answer it?”
“No money,” Rich said forlornly.
By then Paul had opened the door. He froze in a posture so unnatural that Rich finally climbed out of the pouf to see who stood outside.
The girl on the porch was mouthwateringly pretty. She wore her hair coiling down her back in loose curls. Its color was a deep chestnut with a weird, shimmering red undertone. Her eyes were a striking shade of gray, almost lavender. Her figure was truly spectacular: swooping curves loosely wrapped in a purple crocheted dress. It looked like a shrug would send her dress cascading to the floor. She didn’t seem confined by anything underneath it.
“Who’s this, then?” Rich asked over Paul’s shoulder.
“Lorelei,” Paul moaned. There was an iced terror in his tone that Rich had never heard before.
He stared from one to the other. “Who?”
“We haven’t met.” The American girl held out her hand.
Rich reached out. When her hand closed on his, her palm felt hot, almost feverish, burning at the edge of pain. As soon as he tried to pull away, the sensation passed. She smiled for him, showing even white teeth in her generous mouth. He couldn’t remember if he’d ever met a girl so beautiful.
“Lorelei?” he repeated, tasting the name.
“Yes.” Amusement danced in her eyes. They really were a remarkable shade of purple. “Can I come in?”
“Tell her no,” Paul said. “No.”
Rich caught a breath of her perfume, a heady, musky scent that swirled in his mind before settling in his groin. “Please come in,” he echoed.
She stepped over the threshold of the rented house in ribboned sandals that twined up her calves. Somewhere, a low gong chimed. The hair on the back of Rich’s neck stood up and he shivered.
“Where’s John?” Lorelei asked.
Paul was still staring at her in blank terror. Rich frowned, trying to figure out who the girl could be, what Paul’s hang-up was. Finally, he remembered to answer her question. “In the pool.” He waved toward the back of the house.
“Thanks.” She stepped between the two of them like she knew where she was headed. She dropped a lumpy macramé shopping bag on the coffee table on her way out the sliding door. Rich watched her go, the pendulum of her hips like magic.
“Who is she?” Rich asked again.
“Trouble,” Paul finally managed to say. “I’ll fetch George.”
John felt the splash of someone entering the water, but didn’t open his eyes. He sat on the floor of the shallow end, head mere inches below the surface of the water, trying to apply the relaxation techniques George had told him about. Instead, John found himself extremely aware of someone swimming toward him. The currents swirled around him, tugging on his hair. All his good vibes washed away.
He opened his eyes angrily to squint at the girl coming at him. She also was starkers, a fact he registered a moment before he recognized her. He gasped, inhaling a mouthful of chlorinated water.
While John flailed, choking, Lorelei grabbed his shoulder and hauled his head above the water. “You’re okay,” she soothed, stroking the hair back from his eyes. Eventually he coughed up the pool water, disgusted and furious.
“Bloody hell, Lorelei,” he growled. “What are you doing here?”
“I work in L.A. now.” Even with her hair plastered to her skull and glued in wet tendrils to her shoulders, she was still pretty as a Millais mermaid.
“Step up from Hamburg, then?”
She laughed. “At least one.”
John changed the subject abruptly. “Is it all over finally?” he asked, more than half hoping.
“Not yet. You’ve got a few more years to kill.”
The lads came out onto the patio. Richie stared avidly at the naked girl in the pool. Paul was a shade of white like cheese that had gone off. George, though … George was not a bit surprised to see her.
“Did you call her, then?” John demanded.
“Yeah. We need to renegotiate,” George said. “Everyone agrees we can’t go on as we are.”
No one had the heart to dispute that.
“Who’s hungry?” Lorelei asked brightly. “I brought takeout from Kolkata.”
Once she’d shimmied into her dress again and John had put on his trousers, they gathered around the dining room table, a huge slab of redwood tree polished to a gloss. Lorelei set out cardboard boxes from her macramé shopping bag. The scent of exotic spices filled the room.
“Still like it hot?” she asked Paul, but he wouldn’t meet her eyes.
Rich retrieved plates and silverware from the kitchen. Lorelei served them saffron rice and vegetable korma, chana masala and tofu curry.
No one seemed inclined to take the chair next to her, so George did. “Thank you for coming,” he told her as he tucked into the food. He appreciated that she’d chosen vegetarian, just for him.
“I can’t believe you called her,” Paul said quietly, not touching his plate.
“We need her help,” George argued. “They’ll kill us if we go on as we have been.”
No one seemed eager to dispute that. The girl watched them eat and picked daintily at her own food.
She was gazing at John when she said, “More popular than Jesus, huh?”
John coughed. Rich patted him on the back, but John shrugged his hand away.
“Were you trying to get yourself crucified?” she asked.
George sighed. He was exhausted by listening to John prevaricate. DJs, the press, venue managers: everyone had been asking John what he’d meant by that observation, when it passed without fuss months ago after its original publication in England. The Americans just couldn’t get enough of chewing it over. Then again, Lorelei wasn’t really American, was she? She had certainly mastered the accent.
“It’s true in England,” Rich said defensively. “The kids worship us there.”
Lorelei chuckled. In that instant, George saw through her disguise. When they’d met in Hamburg, she’d seemed simply an unusually pretty older girl. Somehow, she looked younger now. It was all an illusion, George knew. Anyway, in Hamburg they’d been drunk all the time and wound up on pills. No wonder they couldn’t see straight.
Now, though, he could see the sharp tips of her horns poking through the dense mane of her weird-colored hair. He could see the carnivorous serrations of her teeth. Over her shoulders twitched the black shadow of wings. She met George’s eyes. Despite himself, despite the warm LA afternoon, he shivered as if someone had walked over his grave.
“You wanted to be the biggest band in the world,” she told George. “You wanted to be millionaires.”
She reminded John, “You wanted out of the working class, to travel the world. To have your ideas taken seriously.”
She looked to Paul. “You wanted to write songs that made the world happy.”
She poured herself a full glass of the rich red wine she’d brought, toasted them, then asked, “Have any of those things failed to happen? Have I failed to live up to our bargain in any way?”
“What did you have to do with it, then?” Rich asked.
Lorelei’s predatory gaze swung to him. George wanted to shield his friend, distract her, but he had called this meeting, knowing it would strip away the older man’s innocence. Rich would never see them the same after this. George felt sick to his bones.
“I’m the muse,” Lorelei teased. “I made it all happen.”
“That’s a lie,” Paul argued miserably. “You’re no muse. You’re the devil.”
“A devil,” Lorelei corrected. “Your devil.”
“We talked to the label,” George explained, “but they say we can never stop touring. Bands always tour, they say. We need to go out to support the albums. We owe it to the fans.” He poured himself a glass of her wine. “Seriously, it’s getting dangerous out there. Can you fix things for us?”
Lorelei smiled again, looking much like a cat. “Which things?”
“No more touring,” George started, but John cut him off.
“The screaming is going to drive us deaf as Beethoven.”
Paul added, “What’s the point of writing songs that no one can hear?”
“The devil?” Rich echoed.
“Shut it,” John snapped. “You don’t have a say in this.”
Lorelei sipped her wine, watching them. “You’ve already sold me your souls, my loves. You’ve already enjoyed the things you bargained for. How can I help it if you loathe what you thought you wanted?”
“Fix it,” John snarled. “Paul’s got an idea for an album that we’ll never be able to play live. We can write more songs if we don’t have to worry about playing them on two guitars and a bass. We can…”
“Sorry, boys.” She honestly sounded like she might be. Just like a record company exec, though, she knew how to spin her regrets. “I’m hearing a lot about what I can do for you — and not so much about what you can do for me.”
“Wait a minute,” Rich said, staring at his bandmates. “You can’t be serious.”
“We were kids,” George explained. “She started hanging around, making us a lot of promises.”
“It was a lark,” John added. “Selling our souls for fame and fortune, like Robert Johnson at the crossroads. I didn’t believe in souls and all that rubbish.”
“I did.” Paul started to weep. “I do.” He pushed his plate away and sobbed into his arms on the table.
“Ah, Christ,” John said. “Stop acting like a child, son. We’re in this together. All except Richie.”
Rich snatched Lorelei’s bottle of wine and poured himself a glass. “You’re all mental,” he accused. “This is a great joke, innit?”
“It’s not, though,” Paul groaned. Lorelei got up and went into the bathroom. She returned with a box of tissues that she set in front of Paul.
When she took her seat again, Lorelei said, “Here’s the deal: I will arrange it with your labels, both here and in England. The Beatles can continue to be the biggest band in the world. More popular than Jesus. You can work from home, from the studio, from wherever you like, as long as the songs get written and the music recorded. I like you boys. I want to keep you around.”
“At what cost?” John asked. He poured wine for himself and Paul.
“You’ve only got one thing left that I want,” Lorelei answered. She gave them a moment to consider what it might be, then added, “I want to have the whole set.”
“No,” Paul told Rich. “Don’t do it, man. We made this mistake. We’ll find a way to fix it.”
“Will you?” Lorelei wondered.
John said nothing, at a loss for words for a change. Anger rattled through him, searching for an outlet.
Hating himself, George met Rich’s gaze. “I’m truly sorry, mate. It’s all up to you.”
Rich didn’t realize he was walking out of the negotiation until he found himself out on the patio. The sun had set while they’d eaten dinner. Six palm trees stood like sentinels beyond the pool. Between the trees, he could see the lights of the city coming on across the plain below. In the afterglow, Los Angeles was beautiful, half magical, and so very tempting. He’d never seen it except from the back of a car as they were driven to the Hollywood Bowl or a record company meeting. What would it be like to really live in the world again?
He’d never questioned the band’s success before. Of course it was because the lads were geniuses. They pushed themselves hard: studying poetry, learning new instruments, stretching and striving and breaking new ground, teaching the world to sing along. It was easy to believe they’d earned their immense fame because they worked so goddamned hard.
He knew, because he wasn’t stupid, that the band was on the verge of splitting up. George and Patti wanted to study with Ravi Shankar and the Maharishi. John wanted to spend time in bed, surrounded by books, stuffing his brain with all the things he’d missed in art school. Paul wanted to meet people and have real conversations about art and culture and the future…
And all Rich wanted was to be part of it. Not to be left behind. Not to have to scramble to find another gig when this one imploded from the pressures of two albums a year and a grueling world tour in between. He just wanted to be an equal member of the most popular band the world had ever known.
He turned to find Lorelei watching him from the shadows by the pool. Her eyes had gone lambent in the twilight, reflective as a wild animal’s.
“Well, Mr. Starkey?” she purred. “Do we have a deal?”
“Aye. I’ll sign whatever your contract or whatever it is. But I want to make it with you first.”
“I was hoping you’d say that.” Even in the darkness, he could hear the smile in her voice.
“They all have, haven’t they?”
“I’m sure you’ve heard stories of raunchy old Hamburg.”
“Aye. I’ve also heard about the night they burned the club down.”
“Not all about it,” she promised.
Lorelei stepped out of the shadows. She’d dropped the pretense of humanity now. The crocheted dress really did come off with a shrug. Her luxurious crimson skin was hot to Rich’s touch. She leaned forward to unfurl her pointed tongue into his mouth.
As she kissed him, Rich could not have been more certain he’d made the right choice.