You may have noticed that we have a soft spot for interchangeable minds here at CTTA. This is our second twisted tale that deals with this possibility…
BALLAD OF A BILLY GOAT
by Jonathan Laden
My fingers fly across my Gibson guitar, too rapid for my eyes to follow. “My girl she doesn’t love me, my girl she gone and left me,” I sing over the pounding drumbeat, my throat burns like I’ve just finished a seven-course meal of chilies. I nod to the bassist. Smiling, he steps forward and riffs, improvising on the melody of the song. I wipe sweat back from my eyes. And look: as far as I can make out a sea of faces, most of them belonging to children too young to drink, sways back and forth as if in a communal trance. Then the band draws the song to a close. And the crowd erupts into cheers, hoots and catcalls.
Now I’m a rock star. But which one?
While the bassist re-tunes for the next song I look around for clues, hopefully without being too obvious. I wear faded blue jeans and a shiny black leather jacket. I smell like I haven’t bathed in a month. Though, at the rate I’m perspiring, it’s easy to imagine I’ve merely overwhelmed whatever deodorant I put on a few hours ago. There must be more than ten thousand people in that audience, all of them now waiting for me to launch into my next song. I gulp. My mind has drawn a complete blank.
The bassist comes to the rescue. “C’mon Steve. Let’s do Old Mother Goose.”
That’s Steve Shogun’s platinum single. I’ve hit it bigger than I thought. But I still don’t remember a single note. “You guys start.”
The band kicks in. And within a few bars, the brain’s muscle memory takes over, as it always does with the right stimulus. “Hey diddle diddle …” I begin. A thousand echoes arise from the rows of screaming fans, bathing me in their adulation. “Hey babe, want to come over to my place?” I point at one particularly attractive young woman in the front row, as Steve Shogun does at this point in every concert. “The old nursery rhymes, they don’t mean much anymore. If indeed they ever did before.” Her return smile is a delicious mix of rapture and dread. The glitter on her face and cleavage glows in the reflection of the stage light. I look away before I get any more distracted.
“Old Mother Goose sure laid an egg. Little Jack Horner never did get laid. They made their rhymes - the price they paid. Don’t tell me no fairy tales no more.”
I pace the stage. “Babe come on and let me in. I’ll flatter your ego and flutter your skin. And that’s only when I begin.” I can’t resist looking back at the glittery woman at this moment. I sing to her. “Fairy tales got nothing on sin. Silly rhymes got nothing on sin.” The song feels right. If I did write lyrics, they might sound something like this.
“Twinkle, twinkle little star.” She shimmies, her shoulders twinkling as they catch the light. “It just don’t really go that far. Old nursery rhymes, they bite the dust. Ain’t got nothing on old-fashioned lust.” I pause, blinking into the million-candle power spotlight. I’ve made the classic error: thinking too much, too soon after a switch.
What’s the next line? Forcing back the bile in my throat, I sway to the music, my eyes closed, trying not to imagine how quickly ten thousand screaming fans can turn into a deadly lynch mob if they don’t get their music. And the lines come. “The sun sets down in the west. We ride off, hope for the best. It might not work for all the rest. But, babe, we’re us not them. Gotta restrain your silly laughter. ‘Cause we’re gonna live happily ever after. Happy…ever…after!” I raise my arms and bask in the thunderous applause.
This is why I joined the network after all. I was tired of being a nobody. Of course, most of the other people who joined were much the same. I’ve jumped into more accountants, janitors, and retirees over the last seven years than I can count. It’s been interesting enough. Anyone’s life can be an adventure for seventy-two hours.
The fans are still screaming. Security guards materialize, apparently out of nowhere, to block the frenzied few who attempt to rush the stage. “Thank you,” I yell. “Thank you very much.” My skin tingles from fingertips to toes with all the energy directed at me. I feel like I could jump a hundred feet into the air. Why did Steve join the network?
The concert can’t be over, can it? I just got here. So I strum on my guitar to try and cajole the band into playing one more encore. But it’s me doing it, not Steve, so the chord comes out sour. I can’t control all the parts of this body that operate mostly on a subconscious level. Not until I’ve slept. So I let the bassist put his arm around my shoulder and guide me off the stage.
“Nice pick, Steve.” He pokes me in the ribs with the end of his bass. “I had my eye on her too.”
“Too slow, Ricky,” I say, because it seems the right thing to say. I wink, not knowing exactly what’s going on. But I’m used to that. Jumping into things in the middle is an old routine for me by now. I’ve found that if I just keep my mouth shut, I can usually get by. At least until I integrate well enough with the memory structures of my host of the moment to glimpse what I need to know. Heck, most people in the world can’t connect to a tenth of their memories. We networkers are probably ahead of the game in that regard.
So Shogun’s routine continues. The bassist and I stroll off behind the stage. “Get changed quick, Steve. Or I’ll steal her right from under you.” He laughs.
It is a small room, in the bowels of the stadium. It was normally used as the coach’s conference room. I know because I was unlucky enough to transfer into one of the grunts who painted this place a little more than a year ago. Exhausting work that was. The paint fumes gave me headaches for the next two people. That kind of thing is not supposed to carry over; maybe it was psychological. I hope I’m never a painter again.
Pulling a clean shirt over my arms, I wander my way back to the ongoing source of the music. It blares back here too. Steve Shogun has gone too deaf to hear how loud it is, but the concrete floor vibrates with every beat.
The spread is exceptional. There’s enough here to feed a nursing home for a week. I know. Besides the band, there are eight or ten gorgeous girls eating and drinking and trying to shout conversation over the beat.
It’s not worth trying to talk. I down one beer, and then another. Then, pleasantly fuzzy, I sit, leaning back against one of the girls. She runs her warm fingers through the hairs of my chest, unencumbered by my shirt, which I never did get around to buttoning. I turn and look at her. Her face is earnest, as though she’s about to accomplish the greatest feat of her young life. She practically bursts through her translucent spandex top. I must send her home before she makes a conquest of me. She can’t be more than sixteen.
Too late. She leads me by the hand to the private room to the side. The alcohol and the probability that this is exactly what Shogun would do combine to render any resistance I might offer useless. Besides she is gorgeous. I collapse onto the bed.
She goes straight to the vial of frost, hidden in the corner by the leg of the bed. Consoling myself that she must be a regular, I join her in inhaling a few lines. Then we fool around. Despite my earlier misgivings, I enjoy myself immensely.
Afterwards, taking my shirt for a souvenir, she announces she must get home. She has school tomorrow. They have a quiz she hasn’t studied for. I stagger out of the room and tell a roadie to get her a cab. Pulling a wad of bills from my pocket, I shove cab fare to the next city into her hand. She gives me a quick kiss. “Goodnight, Steve.”
Ricky saunters over, his face dark. “You fool. You shouldn’t have picked that one.” He directs his words at me, but if I can hear him over the music so can others in the room. “If you’re in jail, there’s no concert!”
“Huh?” I avoid his eyes. “She jumped me. What did ya want me to do, Ricky? Have my bodyguard beat her off me?”
“Yeah.” Ricky leads with his chin. “There was a time man, when you would have avoided a chick like that. Even wasted. You used to be . . .” He searches for a word.
“More cautious?” I explode. I seize a bottle of rum from the table and tilt it back, feeling the raw burn just like at the end of the concert. “Well, fuck that! Life ain’t for watching!” I plagiarize one of Shogun’s more famous lines. “We’re here to party!”
Ricky turns away from me, a dark scowl on his face. I’ll need to make this up to him. Later. Right now, all I want to do is enjoy this night. The rum courses through my veins, mixing with the frost I haven’t yet fully metabolized. Heck, I smile to myself; if I play it right the next guy will get to do the apologizing to keep Ricky from leaving the band, or even serve the jail time if Shogun gets hauled in on a statutory charge. In a very real sense, it’s not my problem. I have no problems in the world.
The woman from the front row of the concert chooses that moment to walk in, about five seconds ahead of the drummer. I turn to yell at him, but instead find myself watching the glitter on her collarbone, shimmering under the sheen of a light sweat. I laugh. “Dance!” I command.
Everybody dances, even Ricky. Such is the power of Steve Shogun. I don’t know if it’s charisma or just the intoxicating vapors of fame, but everybody does what Shogun wants. We bounce around the room at a frenetic pace, knocking food off the buffet table, bouncing off the walls, probably even chipping the damn paint job that I was here last to do. Only extreme good fortune prevents an accident. But then Steve Shogun’s always been fortunate.
The glitter woman grabs the rum bottle off the table – amazing that it hadn’t spilled all of its contents. She swigs it, then releases the delighted howl of a hyena who’s just found its supper. She rips off her shirt, revealing spirals of glitter around her breasts, and wraps me in a bear hug.
So this is how rich and famous rockers live. This was what I imagined when I joined the network. It’s almost enough to make me stop trying to get out. Almost.
I push the thought aside as I carry her to the private room. Glitter woman is talented. She uses her energy to good purpose until I am drained. We lie together in our intermingled sweat, gasping for breath.
“What is your name anyway?” I ask.
She flashes me a disgusted look. “Dorice.”
I don’t know why. She knew we hadn’t exactly been formally introduced. “Dorice, it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.” I extend my hand, which she ignores.
A loud knock comes on the door. We have been hogging the room – though Dorice clearly found somewhere else to get comfortable with the drummer earlier.
She drags herself off the bed and begins to dress. I watch her long legs disappear into her jeans. She looks around, then remembers. “I have no shirt in here.”
I raise my bare arms. “Gave mine away.”
“Great.” She plops onto the bed, causing her glitter to bounce seductively. “Now I’ll just have to go out there naked.”
“You didn’t seem to mind before.” I grin. She glares back. “Don’t worry honey.” I pat her head. “Use the sheet. The next folks won’t need it.”
I pat the back of her head one more time and feel the telltale scar of the network transceiver before she jerks away.
Could I really be Dorice?
My head vibrates like a New York subway car. This is the worst hangover I’ve had in years. Since I was that embezzling banker, trying to drink away his guilt. The memory flash only serves to increase the pain. The sun streams through the window, baking my brain through the eyelids. I roll away from it.
And bump into Dorice.
Dorice is no longer quite so lovely now that her glitter has faded away. But her face is honest. No matter who it might be who looks out through those eyes.
Dorice shies away from my gaze, covering the back of her head with her hand. It is an instinctive reaction among us Travelers. We feel the need to protect the crystal which contains our consciousness. Never mind that the crystal is more secure than the meat brain to which it’s connected – we still feel vulnerable. Realizing what she’s done, Dorice pulls away her hand and sits on it. She covers her breasts with the other arm.
“There’s no point in hiding it. I know already.”
“What are you talking about, Steve?” She plays dumb.
I grab the hand from her breasts and touch it to the transceiver on my head.
“Hey!” She pulls her hand back, covering herself once again. You ought to learn some man… “Oh.” Her eyes open wider than I thought possible. The glitter in her irises is all-natural. “Why you?”
I laugh, a scratchy sort of wheeze. My voice may not make tonight’s concert possible even if I’m not in jail. “How would I know?”
“No.” She nods slowly. “You wouldn’t know why Steve Shogun became a Traveler.” She hides her nakedness under hotel sheets. “Who are you?”
“C’mon. Let’s get grub.”
“Sure. Change the subject.”
“We’ll talk at the café.” I hold my head. “I need java.”
She laughs. The glitter of her eyes fully replaces all that wiped off in our lovemaking of last night, mercifully distracting me from the throbbing of my temples. “You forget yourself, Steve Shogun.” She emphasizes the name. “If you aren’t up to facing your screaming public, we better eat in.”
“My fans.” No force in the world will keep me from their adoration for the limited time I get to enjoy it. Not even a hangover will diminish this experience. I dress quickly, and down a micro-rum from the bar, completing my rejuvenation. “Let’s go.”
“’Steve?’” She says it differently now that she knows.
Pain bites at the back of my neck. I am no longer a star to her, but just some regular guy. I meet her eyes. Her adoration for Shogun has faded, to be replaced with condescension. I’m not the conquest anymore, but merely some schmoe she took pity on at a singles bar. I shouldn’t have told her. “Yes?”
She allows the sheet to drop. There is still a smidgen of glitter on her left breast, right above the nipple. “I still have no shirt.”
I lay back on the bed laughing. What a Steve Shogun moment. No one I’d ever been had run into a similar predicament.
After forty-five glorious minutes of autograph signing at the concierge desk – by which time Dorice is rolling her eyes at the vapor minded fans she resembled just last night - we are escorted to a private room for breakfast. Dorice, wearing a concert t-shirt, the only half-modest item we could find in my suitcase, orders the four-egg omelet, hash browns, a poached egg and a coke. I stick to coffee and toast.
I stare at the outlines of her breasts beneath the thin white fabric. Rock stars are allowed to be rude. “Good grub,” I say.
“Yeah.” She stops shoveling egg in her mouth. “That is fine looking toast you have there. Feel any better?”
“How can I not feel good here alone with you?” I flash her Shogun’s patented sneer.
“Cut it out.” I think for a second she’s going to throw her remaining eggs at me. Instead she takes a forkful to her mouth. She’s too hungry to waste the food.
“Sorry. Can’t help it,” I lie. Acting like Steve Shogun does come naturally while my animus is encapsulated in his neural network. Yet, I am in control. Whoever I am.
And she knows it. Her glare feels fierce enough to shatter my crystal. “Yes you can. Stop staring at my breasts while you’re at it.”
I sigh as I avert my eyes. If I want to truly enjoy the perks of being Steve Shogun for the next two days, I need to ditch this girl. All I have to do is walk into the nearest record store to pick up a groupie. Dorice wouldn’t even blame me. After all, I became a Traveler to savor the unique experiences. It’s why most of us did.
“Much better. So why did you join up?”
“So I could meet chicks like you,” I say without thinking. It’s more Steve’s response than mine.
“’Steve.’” She drums her fingers on the tabletop, her glance flickering to the exit, as though she might just get up and walk away.
“Wait.” I don’t want her to leave. “Why did you join?”
“Boredom. I was a secretary for a large corporation.” She leans back with a dreamy look in her eyes. “As straight and narrow as they come. I never even shoplifted. Joining the network was the first illegal thing I’d ever done.” She chuckles, her eyes lighting up like fireflies. “I didn’t want to be Miss Ordinary any more.”
“You have succeeded.”
“No,” She says. “This is me. I got off the loop. I was about ten different people, all of them living deadly dull lives. I might not have stopped when I did, except…”
“Except for what?” The Shogun in me loses interest. I reach for her leg under the table. She pats my hand absently.
“I switched into some guy’s mind. He was in prison for embezzling. Three days of jail was enough time for me to do some serious thinking. I realized that if I wanted adventure,” she shrugs, “I had to create it myself.”
“You were Joe Thomson too.” It’s a small world. For a Traveler, anyway. “When I occupied him, his lawyers had some hope he could stay out of prison. I guess he did, in his own way.”
“His body’s not doing too well in jail. I was the first in weeks to take the blood pressure medication. If he dies, his self will die with him.”
“Yeah. I hope my self is being better maintained. Let’s go.” My hands crave the comfortable feeling of gripping the guitar. Making some music would be a welcome distraction.
She takes hold of my arm before I can stand. “When’s the last time you checked on your body?”
“I can’t remember.” I walk out of the room. The hotel will charge my tab.
Dorice rushes to catch up, the poached egg in hand. “You can’t remember? How long have you been traveling?”
If only I knew. “At least seven years.” I have a dim memory of attending the same graduate seminar as both professor and student seven years ago. Before that, nothing. The crystal is too small to contain a lifetime of memories. It’s the price we pay to be Travelers.
She staggers, dropping the egg onto the lobby floor. “First waver? Your next transfer better be to your true self.”
I stare at the shattered egg. It can no more be restored to its original form than can my life. I smile. Steve Shogun should write a song about that, what with his nursery rhyme fetish. I laugh. And then I can’t stop laughing. It hurts my diaphragm and my throat, but I just can’t stop.
Dorice yells for help.
I’m lying on a bed. I open my eyes. It’s my bed in the hotel room. Dorice hands me the Gibson guitar. “Your band members helped get you up here. They said that happens to you occasionally, more often lately.” She winks, and I fall in love. “Shogun may need to check in on his own body more often.”
My hands want nothing more than to hold the guitar, but I push it aside and take Dorice’s hand in my own. Her palms are rough and callused. I realize the bright nail polish is just camouflage, concealing that these are hands that get used. “Why are you still here? This is rather more than you bargained for.”
“I told you I wanted adventure.” She squeezes my hand. “I can help you find your real self. I think I can still find my dealer. It’s only been a couple of years.”
“Will your dealer like that? Won’t he distrust you?” She left the network. He’ll think she’s turning evidence. Which puts me in the role of undercover cop. I was a cop once, but I wasn’t good at it. I switched out of that one just as a sting operation was falling apart around my head. I hope that poor guy survived.
“We’ll have to make him help us. You need to check in on your real self.”
And stay for a while. To see the same face in the mirror day after day is a luxury I can barely imagine. “It can’t be done. If it could, I would have left this rut long ago.” Funny how even constant change can become a rut if you do it long enough.
She pats my arm. “Let’s at least try. Okay?” I can’t say no to a lovely face.
We take a cab. I don’t want my driver to see where we go. We pass through the business district, then turn into a row of buildings with boarded windows and artistic graffiti. Several blocks into this desolation, Dorice signals the driver to stop. I give him a twenty-dollar tip. He takes the money tentatively, stares at Dorice’s chest, then drives away with squealing tires. I’m pretty sure he didn’t recognize Steve Shogun. He probably decided I am a drug dealer or a pimp. I’ve never been either of those.
Dorice leads me by the hand into an old brick office building with broken shutters. It smells like a garbage dump; I spent a memorable stint as a sanitation engineer. “His name is Snidens.” She talks to distract me. I keep my face impassive, but I catch myself squeezing her hand as we approach our destination. “It will be no problem for him to contact the satellite. Once you know who you are and have your code, you can check in on yourself. Then return to the wonderful traveling adventures you’ve been having.”
“Can I contact you?” I feel the sweat break out on my forehead. Definitely not Shogun’s reaction to such a situation. “From my true self I mean.”
She smiles. “I’d like that. If you can remember I exist.” She pulls a tissue out of her pocket and writes down her number. I shove it in my pocket. I’ll try to memorize the information before I switch. The next Steve Shogun may see it and call her. I’m not sure which she would prefer.
We climb five flights, placing our feet carefully on splintered stairs. At the top, a rat scurries across our path. It’s not black, so I don’t think it means bad luck. Dorice guides me to the office.
She knocks. Then knocks again. “Uh oh.” The door is unlocked. She opens it slowly. Deserted.
“Too bad,” I say sarcastically. “We tried. Let’s go inhale some frost.”
“No.” She slumps against the wall. “How will you get back to your true body?”
I shrug. I can’t let her see my disappointment. “I gave up long ago.”
“We can go see a hacker.” The network zaps the animus to a low-orbit satellite, then back down into the crystal occupying another body, randomly selected. Any system can be hacked.
“Is that safe?” I ask.
She raises her eyebrows. “Compared to what?”
Not safe. “Let’s get high instead.”
“I don’t do that shit. It fucks with your mind pretty bad.”
Laughing, I reach out for her telltale scar. She pulls back, out of reach. “A little late for that, don’t you think? You have a crystal embedded in your gray matter.”
“I learned better, okay? I thought you had, too.”
“Yeah, I should be very careful with my mind. So I can grow old with all my memories intact. Is that it?” I stomp off down the desolated block, cursing under my breath in every language I’ve picked up bits of over the past hundreds of people I’ve been. Turning around, I stomp right back, cursing in English. If nothing else, I can’t leave a young, underdressed woman alone in this neighborhood. Not even in the light of mid-day. “How the hell do you catch a cab around here?”
Her look is cold, but her voice level. “We don’t.” She walks toward the skyscrapers of the business district with the ease of a hiker. I do my best to keep up.
Another night, another concert. My voice is shit from all the cackling and cursing that I’ve been doing, but no one in the audience seems to notice. Ricky gives me a strange look once or twice, but we make it through the set without any major problems.
Afterwards, I watch the roadies select girls. I’m pretty sure that none of the girls are under age this time. We should start carding them before we let them in.
I sit in the party room, gnawing on a chicken wing. My latest album is playing on the stereo. And the daiquiris are extra-strong. Everything is perfect.
The chick next to me drapes her arm casually around my shoulder. “So Stevie, you have any new songs in the works?”
I push her arm off me. “Yeah.” To my surprise, I do. “My next hit’s gonna be called ‘The Girl I never Met.’ It’ll be about a woman of wisdom. Possibly even a goddess.”
Ricky leans into our conversation. “So that’s why you never met her, huh? ‘Cuz a woman of wisdom is a myth.”
I throw my chicken wing at him. “No, you idiot. It’s a tribute.” To Dorice. Too bad I won’t be around to write that song.
“Cool, cool.” Ricky backs off. “Let’s get frosty.”
We inhale a few lines. The room blurs.
I come to in my hotel suite just as the sun crests over the horizon. Shielding my eyes against the glare, I stagger to the window and pull the curtain closed. Then stub my toe against the glass as the covers begin to writhe. The frost must have been bad, I decide, forcing myself to breathe normally. I plan to wait calmly for the flash to pass. My plan works for a few moments, until the covers begin to talk.
“Steve, let’s play some more.” The covers rise and then descend over the side, revealing a woman who could be a fashion model. Her silicon breasts lie upon a long, thin frame. Her face is perfect from the high cheekbones to the sculpted eyebrows. But her eyes don’t sparkle. Not like Dorice.
She beckons me. “Come here, Steve.”
“Later.” I sit at the side table and start fiddling with my guitar. The metal chills my naked thigh. “I gotta get ready for tonight. Maybe you should leave.”
She sits up, a practiced pout enhancing her features. “Steve. After today, will I ever see you again?”
“Sure.” We both know I’m lying. Steve Shogun doesn’t date exactly. I don’t even know what coast I’ll be on after today, in the body of an old man or a child. I strum a broken chord, then twist the knobs to tune the one string. “Why? Do you really want to?”
She gives me a quizzical look. Seizing the covers, she conceals her nakedness as I still have not bothered to do. “You’re right,” she says. “For a second I was imagining a small house with a white picket fence. And you,” she laughs, “raising my kids. Must be the frost messing me up.”
“Must be.” I jam on my bass. A white picket fence. Continuity. The image resonates. I strum a chord to match. And play a melody of longing, not one of fulfillment. I’ll write
that into a song someday soon. Shogun will, rather.
“Before I leave, you want to fool around?” She asks, allowing the bedspread to drop, suggestively revealing one nipple. Her plastic surgeon did an excellent job. I almost respond. But she’s already scanning the room, looking for her clothes. Planning her quick exit afterwards.
I go to the phone instead.
“What are you doing?” I suspect she’s never been turned down before.
I dial Dorice’s number. “Hello? Dorice?” I’m greeted with sullen silence on the other side of the line as the woman in the room gathers her clothes, and slams herself into the bathroom door. The famous Shogun touch with women fails me.
I clear my throat, hoping Dorice still has the receiver to her ear. “Let’s try that hacker. Please.” Even being a rock star has grown stale. I’ve gotta get out of this rut.
“Okay.” Dorice finally responds, just as I had given up hope.
We sit on a plush couch in the living room of a suburban house. With a picket fence. Dorice looks great, if more modest in black turtleneck shirt and slacks to match. We took a cab here; my driver is beginning to feel neglected. At least he has the supermodel to drive. I told him to take her wherever she wanted to go.
Dorice sits stiffly by my side, avoiding eye contact with me. “Perry is a crack hacker. He’ll get you back to yourself.”
“Why do you know a hacker?”
“An adventuresome life has taken me some places. Like to your bed.” She stares at the Da Vinci over the fireplace. It’s not an original, but still adds an air of decadence to our surroundings. “Do you remember the routine to select your destination?” She changes the subject.
I brush my fingers against her hand. She pulls it away. Forgiveness will not come easily. “Not well. I don’t do it every third day like you do.” By focusing on who you want to be at the right moment, you can supposedly jump into them. I’ve never tried it. It’s dangerous to travel to the same person more than once in a year.
At last she looks at me, her brow wrinkled. “What are you talking about?”
“To stay in yourself.”
She smiles. “You don’t remember, do you?” At my head shake, she continues. “Once I returned to myself, all I had to do was focus on my social security number at midnight. That locked me in to the crystal in my own head. It’s not quite the original set up, but I can’t tell the difference.” She shrugs. “I should be protected against Alzheimer’s anyway.”
I start to respond -- something witty about my situation being akin to Alzheimer’s -- but Perry emerges from his study at that moment, rubbing his beard. He peers through thick glasses at me. “I’m sorry, Mr. Shogun.”
Dorice jumps up. “You mean you can’t help him?”
“I’m tracing no records from the information you could provide.” It was precious little. “I’d be able to find where Steve Shogun’s animus is presently located if you’d like. But, I’m sorry, I have no idea who you are.”
“Can he look at the list of possibles? Maybe it’ll spark some useful memory.”
He turns to me, his eyes are magnified by the lenses he wears. “It’s a shielded black market satellite. I may be able to force a link long enough to decrypt and download five thousand names, but it will cost you extra.”
“Sure. Shogun can afford it.” Funny, I had thought there were more of us.
In less than an hour Perry returns with a sheath of paper. “That will be fifty thousand dollars, Mr. Shogun.” Fifty grand. Maybe that Da Vinci is an original after all.
“Hey diddle diddle,” the crowd goes wild.
We are in a new town, playing before a new throng of screaming kids. The lights are bright enough to melt metal, and my trusty guitar still chomps at the pick. Not much has changed. Ricky comes over to my mike to sing with me on the chorus. I note the circles under his eyes. The band has been on tour for more than three months. In fact, everyone in the band is looking ragged except for me. I guess it helps to be able to bring in a fresh soul every three days.
“The sun sets down in the lowly west—”
I am sitting on a dusty couch, engaged in a staring contest with a small television.
A door creaks. I turn past windows curtained in faded, flowery cloth to see a stout woman emerge with a suitcase in each hand. “Harvey,” she says in a low, heavy voice. “I’m leaving you.”
“You’ll be back.” I scratch at my bulging gut. I look back at the television. The front door slams, rattling the windows. “Bitch.”
I reach for my beer.
Tight pants. Shirt open to the waist. Leather couch with gold trim. Real gold. The Gibson guitar stands in the corner. I’m Steve Shogun again. What a fuck-up.
This must be his home. I wander from room to room picking up objects at random. Beyond the bedroom door, I come to a walk-in closet full of accumulated crap from the last concert tour. Heaps of dirty clothes, t-shirts, even shot glasses from a bunch of cities tossed among the mess. When was that, five months ago? Shogun is not a model housekeeper.
Might as well take care of this. No one following me is likely to take any interest in cleaning either. I scoop up half of the pile as I ponder the potential in a dirty laundry song. I decide against. A pink tissue flutters to the ground.
There’s a name and number scribbled on one side. Some woman of Shogun’s. “Dorice Braggio.” Dorice. The memory floods back. I reach for a phone.
“It’s after midnight.”
“Who is this?”
“Steve. Steve Shogun. You left your number with me.”
“Oh.” Silence. “That was a misunderstanding. I didn’t mean—”
“Dorice,” I interrupt. “It’s me. The same Steve Shogun you left the number with.”
She gasps. “You’re back in him? You shouldn’t have done that.”
“It was a mistake. Can I fly you out here? I’ll explain in person. Please?”
She considers. “Okay. In the morning.”
“First thing, then. I only have two days. The ticket will be waiting for you at the airport.”
Dorice sits on the leather couch like it was made for her. “Start at the beginning.”
“I jumped into a shrink. With a specialty in hypno-therapy. So I hypnotized myself each night before midnight with the instruction to focus on who I really am. Supposedly, if I reached my true self rather than some other part of my neural structure, and if the knowledge was still in there, I would return to the right place.”
“That was clever.” She nods.
“Too clever by half.” I pace the room. “Here I am. I underestimated the power of wishful thinking.”
She laughs. “Yes. Steve Shogun has the kind of adventurous life that we all lusted for when we joined the network.”
I stop in front of her, my gaze meeting hers. Hey eyes still glitter. “That’s not what I meant. I didn’t remember you most of the time. I was too busy trying to figure out what was going on every three days. Yet, every so often a quiet moment would come. Then I’d see your face, more often than not.” I lean forward, half-expecting a slap. I remember that we didn’t part amicably before.
She kisses me briefly, passionately, then pushes me away. “We need to finish talking.”
Quickly. Before I become somebody else. “No. I understand. It was stupid of me.” My fingers bend, looking for the reassuring neck of my Gibson to hold onto.
She reaches for my shoulder. “No, you don’t understand. Have you tried to access Steve Shogun’s childhood memories?”
I concentrate, catching a fleeting image of an aproned woman and not much else. “Nothing. He’s fried his brain on drugs.”
“Yes. You have.” She squeezes my shoulder. “You really are Steve.”
“I couldn’t sleep last night. I called on Perry and asked him where Steve Shogun’s animus was.”
“Who cares where he is?” Probably causing some office worker to have an affair, and lose his marriage. Maybe Harvey.
“Steve Shogun is currently inside Steve Shogun. Believe it or not, the hypnotism worked.”
“But this isn’t me. I’m no rock star.”
“You weren’t. You were a grocery store clerk until about ten years ago, secretly composing songs in your walk-up efficiency. You didn’t have the guts to play them for anyone. Until you joined the network. Whoever followed you did.”
“Ah, the self-restraining super-ego.” The mindset of the hypno-therapist is fading but not quite gone. “How do you know all this?” I don’t quite believe it.
“I read your biography on the flight.” She pulls a bent paperback out of her purse and hands it to me. “You better read it too.”
I stare at the kid on the creased cover. Could that really be me? “That’s impossible. Why would I leave Steve Shogun in search of adventure?” It doesn’t make sense.
“It was Steve Smith at the time.” She smiles. “I guess you thought the grass would be greener elsewhere.”
“So I’m really Steve Shogun?”
“Yes. You really are.”
I kiss her again. This time she does not pull away. Holding on to Dorice, I look around me at the fancy furnishings. Out the window I see the lawn. The grass is knee-high, but vibrant green. Steve Shogun’s house is okay. I can learn to live here.
I squeeze Dorice. It needs a white picket fence.