To protect his hearing Mike shoved two scrunched up bits of napkin into his ears, the hard-edged wads doing an equally effective job of abrading his skin and mitigating the blazingly loud phantasmagoria of sound pouring from the giant speakers on all sides. The crowd was also deafening, a sea of howls and stomps and cheers.
There came a brief pause as Cherry Nuk-Nuk shook a shower of sweat from her face and then spent a moment screaming incoherently at the audience, who screamed back delightedly. "Hell yeah!" she hollered and the mass hollered her words back to her mushily.
She struck a new pose in front of the microphone, her furs backlit and her muscled thighs glistening tautly. "This one's called Huffer Boy," she said and then gave a nod to the band, cuing them into releasing a fresh volley of aural slurry that Mike could feel in his teeth. As if marionnetted by the music Cherry's body instantly began to shake and sway, cavorting her back and forth before the players.
Standing beside Mike in the offstage wing was Lorenzo, his head bobbing in time and a placid smile spread across his fleshy lips. "What did I tell jou?" he shouted over the din; "is she the world's fugging best Eskimo pop singer or what?"
Mike nodded that this was indeed the case.
Cherry's bodyguard, Ed, stood in the opposite wing and scanned the crowd humourlessly. The music did not appear to affect him. While Mike could not help but move in sympathy to the driving rhythm, Ed was a statue.
In the break between sets Cherry swept past Lorenzo into the backstage anteroom and upended two bottles of spring water down her throat in rapid succession, then poured a third over her chest and back. She was joined by the guitarist, an amicable white guy with bristle-short hair and little goatee. His name was Danny Marks and it was he who had advised Mike to plug his ears. "How're the ears, fella?" he asked as he reached for a bottle of water.
"Great!" said Mike a trifle too loudly on account of his earplugs.
The bassist, a big man with Elvis-like lambchop sideburns, lit two cigarettes and passed one to Cherry. "Thanks Wade," she said. "You enjoying the show, Mike?"
Mike said he was enjoying it very much. "It must be tiring, though. You go crazy when you sing."
"I'll sleep when I'm dead," claimed Cherry.
Danny snorted. "You'll sleep on the plane all the way to New York."
"On a plane -- dead -- same difference. When do we have to be at the airport?"
Danny checked his watch. "Two hours."
"Crap," said Cherry. "Better get out there and finish this up, eh? Hey, where are the roadies?"
"Jerking off somewhere as usual," growled Wade. "Ten to one: drunk."
"Those are my cousins, you ass. Watch your tone."
Cherry hopped up and down a few times and then flexed her neck and her mouth athletically. She tucked one errant breast back into her beaded top and smoothed down her hair. The musicians nodded at one another to time their entrance and then barreled back onstage, received by an eruption of cheers. "Cher-ry! Cher-ry! Cher-ry!"
Mike was struck dumb by the next announcement he heard echoing from the microphone: "Before we get going again I want to introduce everybody to a new friend of mine who's been doing some ninja ass-kicking here at Coriander's tonight. Mike -- come out here. Come on, Mike!"
Mike felt frozen, but he was propelled onstage by Lorenzo's firm hand. He stumbled out of the wing and found himself blinded by lights, the crowd an amorphous blur of shadow and glinting reflections. "Mike! Mike! Mike!" they chanted.
Cherry grabbed Mike and pulled him into a hug, his face plastered into her ample bosom for one exhilarating but suffocating instant. Then she held up his arm like a champion boxer or a wrestler. "This next one's for you, Mike! It's called Bison Heart. One-two-three-four --"
The band played. The crowd roared. Cherry sang. Through his fogged glasses Mike took it all in with surreal soft-focus, embarrassed at being so near the centre of attention but thrilled at the honour. He jumped around the stage a bit and the crowd responded enthusiastically. Mike grinned.
A member of the audience climbed up on the stage, turned to face the band, and then jumped backward into the crowd. He was caught and lifted, carried away on a surge of arms, disappearing into the light and shadows once more.
Mike paused then, startled by the fact that Ed's post in the far wing was empty. He pivoted to look into the other wing and saw only Lorenzo smiling beatifically. "Mike!" someone was shouting. Mike looked out into the crowd, squinting through the beaded water on his lenses.
Courtney and Duff were gesturing at him, imploring him forward. "Jump!" they hooted in unison when they saw they had his attention. "Jump, Mike!"
The crowd in their vicinity took up the call: "Jump, Mike! Jump, Mike!"
Supported by a dozen hands Mike was floated and gently tossed away from the stage and then eventually deposited in the middle of the audience. People slapped his hand and touched his shoulder and hooted happily. Caught in the buzzing ambience of togetherness, Mike guffawed out loud -- never had he felt such an energy before.
He drifted to the lee of a pillar where he could collect himself and wipe his glasses. Suffused with contentment and a kind of savage pride at realizing his mission beyond his wildest expectations, he decided that it was time for him to leave. He took one last look at Cherry thrashing around maniacally behind a fan of silhouetted hands with lit lighters, sighed, then picked out a path toward the back exit.
He pushed through a fire-door into the staff parking lot connected to the side alley, trailing his hand along the railing that led to the steps down which he had helped the Inuit roadies carry Cherry Nuk-Nuk's gear. The air was crisp and cool, invigorating after the close, damp atmosphere of the nightclub.
It was quiet. His ears rang. He pulled the bits of napkin out of them.
Someone was coughing. Mike wandered forward and saw a girl leaning on the hood of a car, vomiting a spectacular Rorschach of curdled beer onto the pavement. Uncertain about how to help but emboldened by his adventures he drew up beside her and held her long, dirty blonde hair out of the way of the stream of bile hanging from her lips. After another spasm of coughing she spat, swallowed, and closed her eyes.
"Are you okay?" asked Mike.
"Fine," she said. And then, "Thanks."
Recognizing there was nothing to say but buoyed by an unshakeable sense of giddiness Mike couldn't help but go on. "My name's Mike."
"Dalia," muttered the girl, wiping the back of her hand across her mouth. She opened her eyes and frowned. "Damn. What are you? Like, ten?"
"Huh. What the hell? Go to bed, kid."
"I just wanted to make sure you're okay."
"Yeah? Tell that to the guy who punched me in the gut."
"Why did somebody punch you in the gut?"
She shrugged. "I was trying to bum a smoke."
She pointed to a black van parked in the middle of the lot. "From them."
The van was jostling. It rocked to and fro and then something banged hard against it from inside. Curious, Mike found himself stepping closer, squinting. He jumped back as one of the rear doors flew open with startling velocity, rebounded and started to whine close. It was stopped by a foot in an untied steel-toed workboot.
Mike craned his head further.
The three Inuit roadies were lying inside, their arms bound behind them and strips of silver duct-tape across their mouths -- that is except for the tallest, the one who had directed Mike to the washroom, whose tape was squinched into a twisted strap around his chin. Seeing Mike see him he lifted his head and yelled, "They're gonna kidnap Cherry!"
The fat Inuit nodded vigorously, almond eyes wide.
Somebody inside the van hit the tall roadie across the face but Mike did not have time to further decipher the action as he was roughly grabbed from behind a split second after Dalia meeped a muffled warning.
Taken off-balance, Mike stumbled sideways against his captor and they both shuffled backward quickly in an effort to find an even keel. They crashed into a rusted dumpster and spilled to the asphalt with twin grunts.
Mike rolled away and jumped to his feet, but not quickly enough to escape. The heavy-set Filipino in black clamped a giant fist around Mike's ankle and pulled him to the ground again, using the moment to find his own footing and stand up. He drew back his boot in preparation to kick Mike in the ribs. Mike froze and winced, his hands instinctively flying to cover his face.
A strange and haunting moan emitted from the dumpster.
The Filipino hesitated, broad brow furrowed. And then Sapphire stood up out of the dumpster and, with barely a pause to assess the situation, jetted a mouthful of stringy jissom from her pursed lips into the Filipino's eyes. "Puck!" he roared, rolling his knuckles into his face and blinking.
Mike scampered backward like a crab. Dalia twisted out of the grasp of the equally burly Filipino behind her and dove over the hood of a yellow Mini Cooper with surprising dexterity. A red-headed man in a blazer from the Fairbrook Hotel jumped out of the dumpster and made a mad dash for the mouth of the alley, his progress erratic as he tried to do up his pants. He stopped short in the face of the bouncer from out front, blocking the alley and speaking quickly into a glowing telephone pressed to his ear.
"I'm not even a part of this -- I don't even want to know," stammered Red, now walking backwards and glancing over his shoulder as the bouncer advanced. "I don't have any problem with you guys," he added desperately.
The bouncer's eyes widened as he saw past Red. "He's here -- the pucking ninja kid is here!" he shouted into the telephone.
And so Mike, Sapphire and Red found themselves at the centre of a shrinking circle of Filipino toughs, the tattoos on their arms seeming to come alive as they flexed their muscles and cleared their knuckles of bubbles at the joints, crackling wetly.
"Oh man oh man oh man," whispered Red.
Two more Filipinos stepped out of the back door of Coriander's, folding their telephones away and narrowing their dark eyes.
Bereft of any solid plan and seeing no way to escape, Mike chose to put aside fear in favour of dignity. He stepped up to the front of his cowering companions and assumed his best approximation of a fighting stance, feet shoulder-width apart, chest inflated, eyes locked on the approaching opponents. He took a deep breath in and then let it escape slowly. Then he nodded sedately and flexed his outstretched fingers to beckon the Filipinos to combat, as if he were Keanu Reeves.
The Filipinos hesitated, a contagious apprehension inspired by Mike's confident pose spreading like a smell.
"Get him," growled the tallest Filipino.
"But he's a pucking ninja," protested the bouncer.
And that's when the fire alarm sounded. The heavy door at the back of Coriander's flew open, disgorging a rabid mob with Dalia at its head. Behind her came Duff and Courtney and Lorenzo, then Cherry and Danny and Wade still carrying their instruments. They were shoved forward as denizens of the club poured into the parking lot, all talk suddenly ceasing as they took in the situation.
"What the fug is going on here?" shouted Lorenzo over the shrilly ringing alarm.
The Filipinos were suddenly armed with long knives. A cluster of Cherry fans from the Korean Mafia crowded up before them and withdrew hand-guns from the waists of their loose trousers, training the muzzles on the pirates. All movement stopped. No one dared breathe.
"Hey hey! No no!" cried Cherry, flustered.
"No fugging guns!"
Courtney yelled, "Mike!"
As Mike turned toward her the bouncer regained his courage. Mike had a brief glimpse of a brown fist before it connected with the side of his head, his vision exploding with sparks, pain reverberating through his skull. He spun and hit the ground hard.
Tasting gravel, Mike groaned and tried to raise his pounding head. A sound he had at first taken to be a roaring in his own ears turned out to be the roaring of the crowd. Every ounce of paralysis had left them as an incendiary rage at seeing Mike struck down ignited through their numbers.
Before anyone could blink they surged forward, encompassing the knife-wielding Filipinos like spume. Wade swung his bass like a club, bringing it down hard on top of the tallest Filipino, causing him to fold and disappear with a discordant twang of broken strings. Duff leapt off the front bumper of a car and tackled the bouncer, knocking the knife free. The third and fourth Filipinos held up their hands in an attitude of terrified supplication an instant before they were consumed by the crowd.
One of the Korean Mafia boys tucked his gun away and picked Mike up, then muscled backward out of the fray. Courtney ran to his side. "Are you okay?" she cried breathlessly.
"Yup," reported Mike, which was close enough to the truth to fit the circumstances.
Lorenzo then appeared at the heart of the mob, separating combatants and verifying that the would-be kidnappers were secured by panting volunteers. The last act of violence occurred when Cherry waded up to him and kicked the bouncer in the balls with a grunt of athletic effort. The bouncer, pink eyes still stinging from flying jissom, collapsed and moaned.
"Nobody hits my friends," the beautiful Inuit pronounced coldly.
Lorenzo mopped his glistening brow and sighed. "Damn," he said. "Does anybody have a fugging cigarette?"