Rik glared at the audience and the audience glared back.
“Why are you here?” he growled through gritted teeth.
The audience murmured uncertainly and Rik reached off into the wings to retrieve his whiskey. He swallowed a slug, grimaced, and then turned and scowled at the audience again. The audience shifted uncomfortably in its seat and glanced around at itself nervously.
“WHY DON'T YOU LAUGH DAMN IT!?” The bellow left Rik unsteady so he propped his hand against the small proscenium arch and leered at the audience through his eyebrows.
“Because you're not very funny!” the audience retorted suddenly, and then it laughed for the first time since the comedian had come on stage.
Rik felt his cheeks redden and sucked peevishly at his drink as the stage swayed gently under his hand. The audience stirred restlessly. It knew its rights. It didn't have to sit here and be shouted at by some bitter old drunk, swaying and leering. Rik rolled his tongue around his mouth. He needed another drink, but his glass was sucked dry and the bottle of 'Beam' was in the artist's dressing room backstage, so he rounded on the audience looking it contemptuously in the eye.
“Fuck you.” he said simply, then stalked jaggedly off into the wings. There was no applause; just a nervous cough as the audience waited for somebody to come on stage and take control of the situation.
Rik reached grimly for the bottle hidden under his jacket and filled his glass to the brim. Knocking it back with a grunt he repeated the exercise twice more and then slumped down on a battered old office chair, staring darkly at his reflection in the dressing-table mirror.
“Fan-fucking-tastic” he congratulated himself grimly.
The dressing room was hot and musty and far from any kind of glamour one would normally have associated with show-business. Whitewashed into obscurity, there was a military row of brightly lit dressing tables lined up along one wall, ready to spit comedians out at the audience. The muffled sound of raucous laughter from the auditorium drifted through the miserable walls making Rik grimace and swallow hard. He choked and swore crossly at his reflection, and one of the fourteen light bulbs blazing around the mirror's edge 'plinked' and went dark. Rik stared at it bleakly.
“Fuck you too” he muttered plaintively and drained another bolt of golden fire.
“And so another bright spark winks out.” The voice was cultured and syrupy smooth, and despite his desolate countenance Rik swivelled the chair around and squinted up through the haze of his growing stupor into a practised smile with gleaming veneers. Suddenly swept away on a wave of dizziness Rik swayed precariously back in his chair and a softly manicured hand swam out to intercept his, clamping lightly onto his wrist to steady him under the guise of pumping a light 'hello'. The dizzy moment passed and Rik found himself blinking into the smooth, well-rehearsed face of a stranger.
“Eh?” was all he could manage.
“I was talking about the bulb.” The stranger tipped his head towards the dead space in the mirror's surround, still holding firmly onto Rik's hand. “One minute it's burning brightly, fulfilling its destiny, the next.. pop..” He dropped Rik's hand and peered at the drunk comic sadly. “Then it's just another dark patch in the scenery.” His words hung in the air as Rik tried to scramble back from the precipice of intoxication, his mood darkening again.
“I'm not washed up.” He refilled his glass defiantly, sloshing it across the counter.
“Like I said, friend, I was talking about the bulb,” the stranger oozed.
“Who are you?” Rik growled, swallowing another belt of whiskey as an aside. “Come to laugh at the zed-list comedian the audience doesn't get?”
The stranger laughed musically. “Far from it, friend. I'd like to help you,” he paused poignantly. “If you'll let me.”
Rik's eyes narrowed. “Why?”
“Because you interest me,” the stranger punctuated this statement with a dazzling smile, smoothing glossy black hair back from his evenly tanned brow. “I like you Richard Peeves. I'd like to see you have a little fun. Brother only knows you deserve it after that mess with your wife.”
The words slapped Rik like an affronted lover. He recoiled and gaped unsteadily at the stranger. An interminable moment of silence ensued.
“What do you know about that?” he whispered hoarsely.
The stranger laughed.
“You need to lighten up friend. Come, let's go have some fun.”
The stranger took Rik by the elbow and steered him out into the crisp November night raising his hand to hail a cab. Something screeched to a halt and Rik was poured into the back seat.
“Shutterbug's” came the silky command from the seat beside him, and Rik felt the car accelerate and slip away into the night, his eyes pressed closed against the flashing of the street lamps passing by the windows.
'Shutterbug's' was one of the city's premier nightspots. A favourite haunt of footballers and shooting stars there was always a long line stretching across the front of the building and you could pick the guest list out of the pages of OK! Magazine. As usual the rail corralling the queue brimmed over with a rip-curl of long-legged blondes riding a sea of deep-blue Armani. Rik scowled, rubbing at a day's worth of unglamorous stubble as the cab rolled neatly up to the curb. He was about to protest that he didn't want to stand in a queue for hours on end with all the city's pretty-young-things when a doorman stepped smartly up to the cab and scooped open the door.
“Welcome back sir!” the burly doorman enthused at the stranger, clasping Rik by the arm and easing him respectfully onto the pavement. The stranger slithered out after him, then smoothing his shiny grey suit he dismissed the doorman curtly and took Rik by the elbow again, steering him past the queue towards the open door. The air about the building pulsed with the distant rhythm of the bass inside as the queue craned its neck to catch a glimpse of the new arrivals. There was the bright flash of someone taking a photograph, and then Rik was enveloped in semi-darkness again as he was spirited inside the club.
The next few hours went by in a blur of handshakes, back-slaps and over-priced champagne. Rik and the stranger were quickly ushered through the main throng up to the VIP balcony, where a chorus of classy brunettes had draped themselves artistically across the furniture. It seemed like everyone in the club recognised the stranger. They all wanted to be seen with him; to touch him and be touched, like some peculiar ritual of affirmation. The stranger paid polite tribute to his public, flashing his dazzling smile this way and that. But for the most part his attention remained firmly focused on the comedian, who was right now busy trying to disentangle himself from a burr-fingered young Asian girl with impossibly long eyelashes and designer lips. The stranger laughed as Rik ploughed a route to his mouth with a crystal tumbler and drained it in one smooth action.
“Ni-Ling, fetch Rik another scotch, and a bottle of Cliquot for the ladies, there's a darling.” The endearment slipped off his tongue and nestled around the Asian girl's neck, purring. She flashed her eyelashes at the comedian and then tottered away on a pair of get-down-on-your-knees-and-kiss-me heels, casting a warning glance back over her shoulder at a feisty young redhead who looked set to move into her spot. His glass temporarily empty Rik drank the scene in with his eyes, his head swimming. Now treading water in his middle forties it had been a long time since Rik was anywhere near the centre of such a vibrant whirlpool of energy. The air was damp with desire as the dance floor below heaved, the music throbbing in the walls and soft-furnishings.
The pretty-young-things came and went from the table where the stranger held court, laying gilded compliments at his feet, like offerings at an alter. Rik basked in the spill of the stranger's popularity as a spread of uniformly perfect faces listened raptly to his stories, laughing animatedly in all the right places. For the first time in too many years Rik felt alive. He felt funny and charismatic. He drained another tumbler and it was instantly replaced with a full one as he enthralled the delighted crowd with hilarious anecdotes about his dismal life and about the time he came home early from work to find his wife in bed with her hairdresser. He felt a soft little hand snaking tantalisingly up his thigh and his 'ex wife' was forgotten.
The stranger squeezed Rik's shoulder companionably. “How does it feel to be famous, friend?” Rik drew a sharp breath in over the Asian girl's head and grinned a dopey grin.
“Fan-fucking-tastic,” he exhaled. “Man, I wouldn't mind your life that's for sure.” He shuddered minutely and glanced down at the coyly smiling Asian girl as the soft little hand continued its exploration under the table. Somewhere out in the crowd a camera flashed.
“It's yours if you want it,” the stranger's expression was suddenly intense and Rik felt a murmur of unease wash over him as a crisp white sheet of paper was produced from the stranger's inside pocket. Still holding the comedian's gaze he leant forward and swept a clear space on the table with one well-cut forearm. Several crystal glasses crashed and tinkled to the grubby ground and then melted away like sins into the darkness. The stranger grinned and pressed the crisp white sheet of paper into its newly acquired space on the copper tabletop. Rik stared down at it, his head whirling.
The stranger shrugged casually. “A contract.”
“What kind of contract?”
“The kind that makes you fabulously famous,” the stranger oozed deliciously. “And rich. Most assuredly, disgustingly, filthy rich.” He chuckled satisfactorily at the greedy look on the comedian's face. “Just put your mark on the paper and you'll have everything you've ever wanted Rik. Girls will love you,” he nodded lecherously towards the slight little Asian body that was gradually sinking deeper and deeper into Rik's lap. “Audiences will adore you.”
“What's the catch?”
“No catch.” The stranger paused, cocking his head to one side. “Well, there is the tiny matter of... payment” his smile dripped with charm.
The stranger leaned smoothly forward and Rik could feel the cloying sweetness of his breath puffing against his nose as the room seemed to narrow down to a pinpoint of concentration nestling on the tip of it.
“Don't worry friend, it's just a publicity contract. A nice little photo shoot, a couple of P.A.s... You leave the details to me and enjoy the ride while the cash comes rolling in.”
Rik closed his eyes against the bright flashing lights as the dance floor gathered momentum and the soft little hand worked more urgently between his thighs. The sweetness of the stranger's breath mixed with the heady fumes from his whiskey glass began to clog up his thoughts and the world reeled woozily. As the dance floor below heaved faster and faster in time with the music, reaching a fever pitch, he felt a warm sensation exploding in his groin.
“Yes. Yes! YES!!”
Rik woke with a start, his head hammering and his tongue feeling three-times the size it should. Fleeting impressions of a dark sweaty room and an energetic young Asian girl skittered across his mind. There was a contract of some sort. Did he actually sign it? Frowning, Rik scratched his balls and reached across to the bedside table for the 'cup of two-day-old water and a handful of aspirin' it was now his habit to swallow for breakfast.
That night as he sat in the dressing room dispensing golden courage down his parched throat from a chipped and greasy glass, Rik's thoughts turned again to the stranger. The dead bulb had been replaced now, and as he watched rich liquid sloshing around in his glass he recalled vague snatches from the night before. A deeply resonating laugh; a hearty slap on the back; scrawling across the crisp white sheet of paper in red ink – the desperately passionate red of designer lips.
“Ready, friend?” The question was accompanied by a firm hand gripping his shoulder and Rik almost choked on his whiskey as he was yanked rudely out of his reverie. The stranger gazed down at him as if through a goldfish bowl and Rik became suddenly aware that he was gaping. The stranger shook his head and smiled indulgently as he lifted the comic from his seat and began to lead him towards the stage, talking smoothly as they went.
“We have a party tonight at Tattletopia. I want you to meet some magazine people. Shake some hands, turn on the charm. You know the score... and there's a couple of booking agents in the crowd tonight.” By now they had arrived in the wings and the stranger turned Rik to face him, prying his drink from his fingers and looking him in the eye.
“Don't worry Rik, this is the last time you'll have to play a second rate comedy-club on the wrong side of town.” The stranger's bright smile flashed and Rik could hear the MC, as if in a dream, announcing his name. There was a ripple of expectant applause and Rik felt a slight pressure on his back as the stranger gently eased him out onto the stage.
He stood behind the mic-stand and peered at the audience. The audience smiled encouragingly.
“You know, you remind me of my ex-wife?” Rik began eventually. “Looks good enough in the dark, but god help you if you turn the lights on.”
The audience tittered and out of the corner of his eye Rik could see the stranger grinning in the wings.
“And since you only paid £8 for your seats you got the version of that joke without the word 'screw' in it.”
The audience guffawed happily, and Rik felt his confidence bloom.
“Harsh, I know – but that's the class divide for you.”
The room erupted in booming laughter and Rik felt himself grow somehow bigger on the stage. For the next thirty minutes he gripped the audience in the palm of his hand, hitting home joke after joke, like a bantam-weight boxing champion, to raucous reception. He was on fire; at one with the audience; inside its mind and with a firm hold on its funny bone. As his act reached its climax, Rik prepared to devastate the audience with his big finale. He knew his craft, and at last he had an audience who got him. He paused, drinking in the feeling of power as he held the audience in rapt attention. Now he would bring the mood right down with a tragic story, before ripping its heart out with a razor-sharp punchline designed to propel the audience to dizzying new heights of hilarity. The 'old tricks' were old for a reason.
“When my wife left me for another woman, it almost killed me,” he began seriously.
The audience sniggered joyfully and Rik hesitated. Tipping his head back he eyed the audience suspiciously. “That wasn't funny. Why are you laughing?”
The audience sat silently for a heartbeat, and when it became apparent he had finished speaking it hooted again merrily. Sudden realisation flooded the comic in a sobering wave. He glanced uncertainly into the wings where the stranger stood holding out his whiskey glass to him, the well-heeled smile on his lips not quite making it to his eyes. Anchoring himself on the mic-stand he reached out unsteadily to accept the drink, then swallowed a large helping gratefully before navigating himself back to face the audience. He breathed out.
“It doesn't matter what I say does it?”
The audience tried to suppress a giggle, but wound up raspberrying it out through its lips, making it laugh even harder. Rik's shoulders sagged as he waited for the sound to die down.
“The fact is I am a failure as a comedian. I don't even want to be funny since I... since my wife...” he trailed off as he stared bleakly out at the bank of beaming faces in front of him. “You'll laugh at anything won't you?” he finished dismally.
“Yes! Yes!” the audience cried ecstatically, bouncing up and down in its seat and clapping its hands gleefully. In a dream Rik stepped out in front of the mic-stand and bowed deeply to the cheering audience, a heavy shroud of nothingness settling around his shoulders.
“We love you!” the audience whooped and whistled as he came up for air. More cameras flashed and Rik bowed again, like a storm-besieged ship diving under the crashing waves. The uproar continued as the comic stood once more, turning to look at the stranger with the evenly tanned brow and fastidious hair.
“Welcome to the family” he mouthed through the din of applause.
The next moment the revelry was cut short by a loud bang tearing through the auditorium. The audience squealed and electricity rained down on Rik's head like the fourth of July. He blinked dumbly up at the lighting grid as the audience rippled uneasily. Angry power fizzed from the dark patch left by an exploding spot light, and suddenly the audience broke out into a fresh wave of applause as a red haze began to cloud the comedian's vision – the desperately passionate red of designer lips.