CHAPTER 25: RIOT FEST
Riot Fest had begun life as a scrappy punk/rock showcase in the dank undergrowth of Chicago’s alternative music scene. Left unchecked, it had flourished like mold in a refrigerator until it finally spilled out of its traditional home at the Congress Theatre and emerged into the sunlight as a full-grown music festival. It was now a carnival of porta-potties and amusement rides, which occupied the grassy expanse of Humboldt Park just a few blocks from the Cursèd Place. Our street was now a nightmare snarl of box trucks and cargo vans and tourists from the suburbs who didn’t know how to fucking parallel park.
I sat on the roof watching the traffic lurch past on the street below and stewed about Tombstone. He still refused to answer my messages, so I’d programmed Google alerts to ping my phone any time his name or photo appeared on social media. There had been a handful of sightings in the neighborhood, so wherever he was staying, it was close by, but the festival was closing in, and I still didn’t know if he would show up.
“Still no word from Tombstone?” Kilroy stuck his head out the window and lit a cigarette.
“Christ, we’re fucked.”
“He’ll be there,” I said with a confidence I didn’t feel.
“And if he isn’t?”
“He’ll be there. His girls’ll be there. And we’ve got the Blackjack.”
It had been an unexpected stroke of luck to learn that Tedrick still had possession of the Blackjack. The rain at Lollapalooza had futzed with her circuitry and Tedrick had taken it upon himself to perform a full technical overhaul on the electronics. I snapped a photo of the guitar laid out on Tedrick’s workbench with the viscera of wires and pickups spilling out in all directions like a biology specimen and texted it to Tombstone.
Tombstone didn’t respond.
“You’re playin’ with fire, dude,” Tedrick said.
“Whatever it takes to make him show his face,” I replied.
But when the morning of our show rolled around, Tombstone had still not appeared.
I stood on the stage overlooking the still-empty park feeling panic knot in my guts as I watched Tedrick sound check the Blackjack; methodically testing all the pedals and effects as he dialed in Tombstone’s signature tone.
“Still no word from Tombstone?” he asked.
Tedrick ran a riff like he was mentally preparing himself to have to play it in the show. The odds were in his favor. “If he does show up—and that’s looking like a pretty big ‘if’ right now, how’re you going to get him on stage without The Ritual,” he asked.
Ahh yes, The Ritual.
Tombstone’s stage fright was a force of nature. Getting him on stage involved a complicated series of coping mechanisms we called The Ritual: booze, weed, exhaustive guitar warm-ups. A blowjob if we could find a girl who was game for it. He couldn’t go onstage without his hat, without his mirrored sunglasses, without the bottom half of his face hidden beneath a black bandana that made him look like a redneck rip-off Charlie Scene. Pleading. Threatening. Coaxing. Bribing. Guided meditation. We’d tried it all. It usually came down to a matter of force: Tedrick typically had to shove him onto the stage hard enough for him to get him to his amp and plug the Blackjack into its inputs, then he’d be fine.
“I’ll burn that bridge when I get to it,” I said. One problem at a time: first I had to get him to the stage, then, I’d worry about how to get him on it.
My phone pinged to tell me that Lacey was at the side gate with Piper in tow. I arrived at the security checkpoint and waved to a guard to let them inside. Lacey strode into the park boldly, pausing by one of the Riot Fest banners and pursed her lips into a duckface to snap a selfie. She was wearing some kind of sack for a dress with a hem that ended somewhere around her navel.
“You tryin’ to get arrested?” I plucked at the ends of the fabric and she rolled her eyes.
“You sound like Daddy.”
“You tryin’ to get me arrested? Go on, call me ‘Daddy’ one more time.”
It was her turn to blush. “I’m just trying to have some fun,” she said, sullen with embarrassment.
“Well, don’t fun yourself into a roofie.”
“Do I look stupid?”
“No, you look like a plump, fluffy bunny in the middle of a starving wolf pack.” I could feel eyes turning toward us as we passed through the crowd and for the first time in a long time none of them were looking at me.
“I told you,” Piper said. She didn’t look like she was having any fun or like she expected to. She was wearing one of Tombstone’s threadbare flannels over an ancient, faded OBNXS t-shirt that came down practically to her knees; unintentionally hip in her own blithely un-ironic way. I ruffled her hair to her evident annoyance.
“You know everything, eh, kid?”
“I’m not a kid,” she insisted. “I’m a mature young adult. And at least I know not to dress like a prostitute.”
“Seen a lot of prostitutes in your life?” I asked her and she blushed. “They don’t dress any certain way.”
“How would you know.”
“How do you think?” I said, knowing her mind would make the worst of it. Lacey’s lip curled in disgust.
“Keep it up, missy, and you’ll find out just how gross I can be.” I gestured her into the hospitality area where tables had been set up with food and drinks. I glanced around for any sign of Tombstone. Nothing.
Thirty minutes until showtime.
“Where’s Dad?” Piper wanted to know, looking around. Tombstone was close: the Google alerts were all coming from inside the park now as he drifted among the festival goers—just another rock enthusiast out to hear some tunes.
“Don’t know, kiddo. Must still be on his way.”
Fuck. I was going to have to take this another step.
“C’mon, let’s get a selfie.” I handed Lacey my phone, and her face lit up. The light of the display cast two blue sparks into her eyes as she tilted her head until the angle was perfect and the gap in her collar teased a glimpse of her cleavage.
“Ready,” she declared, with eyes only for herself. I squeezed Piper into the edge of her world and put an arm around them both. Piper smiled the artless smile of a pre-teen while Lacey made a peace sign with her free hand and pursed her cotton candy lips. In a burst of camera flash, I licked the side of her face, chin to hairline.
“EEEEEEWWW!!” she squealed, elbowing me away. “You’re so—”
She thrust the phone back into my hand with a dismissive scoff as she scrubbed her face. Jojo chose that moment to rescue me, arriving in a romper nearly as short as Lacey’s dress.
“Cute dress,” she said.
“You like it?” Lacey flashed a victorious smile at me. “He’s being a huge perv about it.”
“Rude,” Jojo agreed, managing to keep a straight face. She turned to Piper: “And look at you, lady—just…look at you.” Piper’s utter lack of fashion sense left her at a loss. She cast a look at me and I shook my head, answering her unspoken question: still no Tombstone.
“C’mon, let’s go talk, just us girls,” she said as she twined an arm through Lacey’s elbow to guide them toward a secluded area where they wouldn’t be kicked out for being underage.
“Still no sign of Tombstone?” Kilroy shuffled up looking worried.
“He’ll be here,” I assured him. I scrolled through the photos Lacey had captured, a rapid succession of frames telling a story of vanity, leering misogyny, and disgust. Every father’s worst nightmare for his underage, teenage daughter. I picked the worst of them and texted it to Tombstone’s phone.
Tastes like Teen Spirit.
“If that don’t fetch ‘em, then I don’t know Arkansas.”
I turned to find Marla lurking behind me like a vicious rumor.
“You just get here?” I asked her, stifling the urge to ask how long she’d been there and how much she’d seen or heard. Her outfit was an exercise in conflicting impulses: a milf cosplaying as thot. Her North Shore suburban soccer mom veneer was flaking like the paint job on an ’82 Fiero. Lacey was going to be mortified.
“Took me a minute to flirt my way in,” she preened as she lunged toward me with arms outstretched. “I still got it.”
“Oh, you got it alright.”
I’d given the dude at the gate fifty bucks and strict instructions to let her in but not to make it too easy for her. I wondered how far he’d let her push it.
My phone buzzed in my hand and I glanced at it behind Marla’s back.
You’re dead, shithead.
Come and get me, cocksucker. I texted back, and then added: Your wife says ‘hi’. I took a selfie of myself behind Marla’s back, giving him the finger. I pressed send.
“Did you just take a picture of my ass?”
“Just trying to get your best side.”
Marla snatched for my phone and I held it over her head hooking a finger in the collar of her dress to snap a photo of her tits. I glimpsed a gleam of metal.
“Is that a nipple ring?” I needled her. “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me.”
Marla blushed and rolled her eyes; it was clear where Lacey got it from.
“It’s a nipple shield,” she said. “It’s not permanent or anything.”
“What’s the special occasion?” I leered, then lowered my voice suggestively. “Did you dress up just for me?” I tugged at the collar of her dress again and she blushed more deeply, her eyes bright. I moved closer until we were chest to chest. “What would Tombstone say?”
“I won’t tell him if you won’t,” she whispered, biting her lip. Her hands slid up my chest and I caught her wrists and held them against me. The thought of fucking Marla made my skin crawl but I swallowed my revulsion and bent my head until my lips were a breath away from her neck. I inhaled the smell of her, letting her feel me do it.
“You smell like a woman who hasn’t been fucked in a while,” I growled in her ear, feeling her squirm against me at the sound of the words.
“Yes…” she whispered, her eyes closed, skin flushed with warmth.
“There wouldn’t be anything left of you if I had my way with you,” I extended a finger and brushed the tip of it against her collarbone, the lightest touch. Marla moaned out loud and let her head fall back, sinking into the sensation as—
Tombstone’s arm wrapped around my neck, yanking me off my feet. I let go of Marla and tumbled over backward landing on top of a hundred and eighty pounds of angry redneck. I twisted to my side, struggling to free my throat from his arm before he could lock the grip. We wrestled on the ground, tearing up tufts of grass in our struggle while Marla fluttered nearby, more than a little pleased to have two men fighting over her.
“TJ stop it!” Marla screamed at him, still glossy with lust.
I got out of the headlock, but Tombstone twisted me onto my back and pinned me to the ground. He straddled my chest and wound up a fist.
Tombstone froze in place, chest still heaving, red-faced with rage. I followed his gaze to where Lacey stood over us, too scared to play it cool. Piper’s lip trembled as she fought back tears.
“We’re on.” Tedrick strode up with the Blackjack in hand, tuned and ready to go. I saw Tombstone close off again: he knew what I was doing. No way was he letting me get away with this. No way was he going to let me win.
“Daddy, please don’t—” Lacey begged. The sound of her voice seemed to cut through his anger and I could see his fist loosen. He didn’t want to fight in front of his girls. He seethed and I could see his mind racing. It wasn’t too late: he could still walk away without losing face and I’d be left with my thumb up my ass. If I ever wanted to be able to leverage him onto the stage, I was going to have to make him take the punch.
“Daddy, stop,” I mimicked her. “Daddy, please don’t—”
Whatever control Tombstone had over his anger broke. I tucked my chin, bracing for the impact, hoping he didn’t decide to aim for my mouth—not if I wanted to have any chance of doing a show afterward. I felt knuckles connect with my left eye and saw stars.
Tedrick hauled him off of me before he could punch again and fuck up his hand, but Tombstone still managed to kick me in the ribs hard enough to knock the wind out of me. He spat, the gob of it hitting the ground beside my head as I coughed and groaned and struggled to roll onto my feet.
Tedrick held out the Blackjack again, but Tombstone waved it away, pacing in an angry circle, burning off the anger and adrenaline. Marla was on him like wet silk on a windowpane, murmuring something in his ear, pressing her body to his side. A minute ago she’d been ready to let me bend her over the table, but now she was Tombstone’s girl: all sweetness and devotion.
“You alright?” Security was closing in. I waved them away.
“Fine,” I said. “It’s just my face.”
“You want to call the cops? Press charges?”
“Fuck, no. I got a show to do.”
The show must go on.
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