There was only one clerk at the front desk that night, and when Nick approached, she was sitting down, reading a magazine, completely oblivious to what was going on in the lobby around her. Thankfully for both of them, it was deserted, but the two men he’d seen dumping the body could have walked in with guns, knives, or the sheet-wrapped dead body itself, and she probably wouldn’t have noticed. This was not comforting to Nick.
Crossing his arms on the countertop, he leaned over and said, “Excuse me.”
He expected the girl to jump, but she calmly put her magazine down and stood up, arranging her face into a pleasant smile. “How may I help you?”
“I lost my room key. I was mugged,” said Nick. It wasn’t far from the truth, but he couldn’t help but wish he had only been mugged.
The clerk’s heavily-sculpted eyebrows furrowed together as her brow creased in concern. “Oh no, that’s terrible!” she sympathized. She had a strong Philadelphia accent. “Well, don’t you worry; I’ll get you another key. What’s your room number?”
He told her, and within minutes, she was sliding a new room key across the counter to him. “There you go. You have a nice night, now.”
Nick rode the elevator back upstairs, grateful that at least he hadn’t been ambushed on any fans in the midst of this ordeal. He used the new key to unlock the door to his room and let himself in, then quickly shut the door behind him and fastened the deadbolt. Kevin would have a hell of a time getting in later, but Nick didn’t picture himself sleeping anytime soon; he’d be up to let Kevin in.
He sank down on his bed, wishing he’d followed Kevin’s advice and never left it. Even though he’d caught his breath, his heart was still beating fast. He wondered if he’d ever be able to relax enough for it to slow down to normal again. He wasn’t sure how long he sat there, rigid, but eventually he removed his baseball cap and kicked off his shoes. Drawing his knees to his chest, he sat back against the pillows and stared blankly at the TV. He hadn’t turned it off before he’d left; his Sonic game was still paused on the screen, ready to be resumed. I should’ve just kept playing it, he thought miserably. What am I gonna do now?
That was the big question, wasn’t it? What now? What was he supposed to do in this situation? He’d witnessed two thugs dumping a body. The obvious answer was to call the police. But what then? Could he identify them? He thought of how he’d describe them – two men, both in their late twenties, dark complexions, likely Italian or Latino, muscular and fit, tattooed… He tried to remember specific tattoos on the arms of the man who had held him. He couldn’t. Would that description even help? It seemed so generic; it could fit countless men in Philadelphia. He had seen their faces, but it had been dark. Would he even recognize them in a line-up? And what good were faces without names? The only name he had to go off of was “Joey.”
And yet, he did have a name. And he had seen their faces. And they knew he’d seen their faces. They’d seen his, too. They had his wallet, which meant not only did they have his room key, his cash and his credit cards, but his driver’s license, too. His identification. They knew more about him than he did them. They knew his name, where he lived (where Mandy lived, anyway; he hadn’t gotten around to changing his address before he’d left for the tour), and where he was staying. If they made the connection between the scared kid named Nickolas G. Carter and the famous pop star, Nick Carter of the Backstreet Boys, then they would be able to figure out where he was headed next. He could report them to the police, but if his lousy eyewitness account wasn’t enough to implicate them, they could follow him for the rest of the tour, if they wanted to.
There were so many “ifs.” What if they’d bought his act and believed that he’d mistaken them for muggers, that he hadn’t seen a thing? After all, they had let him go on the bridge. They hadn’t followed him back to the hotel, as far as he knew. What if he just kept his silence? The body would be found eventually, and that would be enough to start an investigation. Surely, there would be some other piece of evidence that would lead back to the two men. He wouldn’t have to be involved in it at all.
But he was involved.
Sighing, Nick got up from the bed and paced across the room, his mind racing as fast as his heart. There was no finish line to his thoughts; they just kept circling back around to his dilemma of what to do: involve the police and risk retaliation… or keep his silence and hope they would keep their distance.
In the end, he decided to sleep on it. Maybe he’d wake up in the morning and find it had all been a nightmare. Or, at least, he would have a clear head and be better equipped to deal with it then. Reluctantly, he unbolted the door for Kevin and crawled into bed. He turned the TV off and left the bedside lamp on, then curled into a ball beneath his covers and lay absolutely still, his ears straining for suspicious sounds in the silence. His body was exhausted, but his mind was wide awake, still replaying the scene he had witnessed, still firing questions he couldn’t answer.
Every time he heard footsteps or voices in the hall, he sat bolt upright, his pulse pounding in his throat. Every time the footsteps or voices faded away, he let out his breath in a sigh of relief and lay down again, until the next time. Finally, he couldn’t stand it anymore. He jumped out of bed and pulled his jeans back on over his boxers. Jamming his baseball cap on to hide his disheveled blonde hair, he took his room key back downstairs to the front desk, where the clerk was back to reading her magazine.
“Excuse me,” he said again.
The girl looked up. “More problems with your room key?”
“No… actually, I was hoping you could move me to a new room.”
She arched one of her thin, black brows. “In the middle of the night? I can see if we’ve got one available, but can I ask what for?”
Nick shifted his weight. “Well… I told you I got mugged, right? The muggers still have my other key, and… I guess I’m just worried they’ll… they’ll come back and…” He trailed off awkwardly, hoping she’d understand.
“Oh, I’m sure you don’t have to worry about that, hon,” said the clerk, waving one well-manicured hand. “Our key cards don’t have the room numbers on ‘em, see? For that just that reason – security and all. Even if they came here lookin’ for you, they wouldn’t know what door it opened. And why would they? They got what they wanted when they took your wallet, right?”
Nick forced a weak smile.
“By the way, make sure you call and cancel all your credit cards; you don’t wanna be dealin’ with fraudulent charges and all that,” the clerk added wisely.
“Right,” agreed Nick, who had already decided to wait on that, too. If the two men were stupid enough to use his credit cards, it would make them easier for the cops to trace. “So… about the room…?”
“You still want a new one? Well, alright… I’ll see what I can do…” She moved to her computer and started clicking around. “I get where you’re comin’ from,” she remarked, her eyes fixed on the screen. “Peace of mind and all that. Here we go. There’s a room open on the floor below the one you were stayin’ on before. That gonna work?”
“That’s fine,” said Nick gratefully. He waited while she made the switch on her computer and gave him his new key card.
“You need help movin’ your luggage?” she asked.
“No. I got it. Thanks again…” He paused to check her name badge. “…Karissa.”
Karissa smiled. “Fuhgeddaboudit,” she replied in her thickest accent, winking.
Nick took the elevator back upstairs and, within ten minutes, had moved all of his and Kevin’s stuff out of the old room and into the new one. It looked much the same as the one on the floor above, but he reminded himself that there was no way the murderers would be able to get into this one with his key.
Kevin sounded annoyed when he called to tell him they’d switched rooms. “In the middle of the night? Why?” he demanded, sounding a lot like Karissa, the desk clerk.
“I saw a roach,” lied Nick, who had already invented his cover story. He was not about to trouble Kevin with the truth tonight. “It got under the bed, and I couldn’t find it. It freaked me out. I couldn’t sleep.”
“Nick…” growled Kevin, but he didn’t complain any further. Nick knew he was enough of a neat freak that he couldn’t blame him for moving out of a roach-infested room. He wouldn’t have slept there, either.
“I already moved your stuff. You can stop at the front desk and get your key on your way in. When do you think that’ll be, anyway?” added Nick, hoping the question didn’t sound too childish. As much as Kevin bugged him, he knew he would feel better with his “big brother” in the room. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to sleep until Kevin was there.
“I dunno, Nick. We’ll get back when we get back. I gotta go now. Goodnight – don’t let those bedbugs bite,” he added, before he hung up.
It was Kevin’s idea of a joke, but it wasn’t bedbugs – or roaches – Nick was worried about, as he curled up under the covers again and tried to sleep.
It took a long time, but eventually, sleep found Nick – and, more importantly, Joey and his pal did not.
When he woke the next morning, his memories of the previous night were too vivid to have just been a nightmare, so that hope was dashed. On the other hand, he was still alive and safe in his bed, so at least one prayer had been answered.
Despite coming in late, Kevin was already up, drinking a cup of coffee and watching the news. Just like an old man, thought Nick, sitting up.
“Mornin’, Kaos,” Kevin greeted him. “Didn’t cause too much of that last night, did you?”
“Chaos, dummy. You didn’t cause much chaos last night?”
Nick’s heart jumped the gun and started racing again, as he pictured himself scrambling up the steps to the bridge and zigzagging through the streets, trying to evade capture by two murderers. “No,” he said. Kevin stared at him for a moment, apparently awaiting some sort of punch line, but Nick was too tense and too tired to make jokes. He avoided Kevin’s gaze, looking instead at the TV. “Can you turn that up?”
Kevin raised his bushy eyebrows, but adjusted the volume with the remote. “Since when do you care about the news?” he asked.
Nick shrugged. “Since now.”
“Okay…” Kevin took a sip of his coffee and returned his attention to the news, which was running sports highlights.
“The Phillies lost to the Chicago Cubs at home last night, 2-8. Along with a Cubs win, star slugger Sammy Sosa scored his sixty-second homerun of the season with two outs in the top of the ninth, pulling him ahead of Mark McGwire, his rival in last year’s homerun race…”
Nick, normally a sports fanatic, tuned out the baseball report, wondering instead if there had been any mention of a missing person or a body found in the river. They won’t find it yet, he told himself. Not with that concrete block weighing it down. Not if they don’t know where to look…
On the TV, the newscast had cut to a perky female news anchor, who smiled as she said, “And in entertainment news, teenage girls from the Delaware Valley and beyond are already lining up outside the First Union Center, where pop sensation The Backstreet Boys will perform their first of two sold-out shows tonight…”
“Would you look at that?” Kevin muttered with a smirk, shaking his head in disbelief as a camera panned down a line of fans sitting among blankets, sleeping bags, and tents, chanting, “Back-street Boys! Back-street Boys!” “I mean, did you ever think it would be like this?”
Nick forced a laugh. “No, man. No way. That is crazy…”
“We’re sure lucky, though, ya know?”
“Yeah,” Nick echoed hollowly, managing to nod. “Lucky…”
“You okay, Nick?” Kevin asked later.
Just as he’d promised, they were standing in front of the Liberty Bell, on their way to visit the nearby Independence Hall. Despite what he’d told Kevin the night before, Nick usually enjoyed sightseeing like this. History was his favorite subject, and it was interesting to see the places and objects from his history books in person. They didn’t always have time to be tourists in the cities they traveled to, but playing consecutive nights in one place made it easier.
Even so, Nick dreaded two more nights in Philadelphia. He couldn’t focus. He was constantly looking around and over his shoulders, all too aware that he was standing out in the open and paranoid that the men from last night were somewhere near, watching him, waiting for an opportunity to silence him before he could speak.
Apparently, Kevin had noticed.
“Huh? Yeah, I’m fine, why?” said Nick, perhaps too casually.
Kevin’s sharp, green eyes narrowed. “You seem kinda… jittery. More than usual, anyway.” He offered a teasing smile, which Nick returned weakly.
“You know me… ADD…”
“Yeah, but you’re not bouncin’ off the walls. You sure you feel okay?”
Drop it, Kevin, thought Nick. “Dude, you wanna feel my forehead? I told you, I’m fine!” Hoping his angry tone was enough to ward Kevin off, Nick moved away to stand by AJ instead. AJ wouldn’t give him the third degree, even if he did notice something was off.
Nick knew he had been quiet and strangely subdued that day. He’d blamed his behavior on a bad night’s sleep, which was not a lie – he had slept poorly. He wasn’t tired, though; on the contrary, he was almost too alert, his paranoid mind racing, as it had last night.
He still hadn’t decided what to do, and there had been no time to contact the police, even if he had wanted to. The guys had been anxious to get out on the town before they had to be at the arena that afternoon for soundcheck. Nick knew they would listen if he told them what had happened, but he didn’t want to involve them unless he had to. It was better that they didn’t know. It was mental torture, what he was going through, and he hated the idea of inflicting it on anyone else.
“Yo, you comin’, Kaos?”
Nick’s head snapped to. He had spaced out, lost in his troubling thoughts again. The others were heading slowly toward Independence Hall. Only AJ had hung behind to make sure he was still with them.
“Yeah,” he said quickly, hurrying to catch up. “I’m coming.”
There was a crowd waiting when they arrived at the First Union Center that afternoon.
Nick’s heart began to race again, as he peered out through the tinted glass of the van they’d piled into for the ride down to the venue. Throngs of people lined both sides of the drive, pressing against the barricades that had been set up to preserve the path into the arena. There were plenty of security guards patrolling about, but they were greatly outnumbered by the fans. Nick’s eyes panned the crowd carefully, searching for dark men among the masses of screaming, shouting, crying, bouncing girls. If the thugs from last night wanted to hunt him down, this would be the perfect opportunity. Despite the security, they were out in the open and could easily be swallowed by the crowd.
“Well, this is gonna be fun,” said AJ, snickering. He sounded sarcastic, but there was a gleeful smile on his face. Despite the fact that he’d once had his foot run over by their van as a result of such fandemonium, he loved the thrill of fighting his way through a crowd of ladies, all screaming his name.
Nick, who’d had his clothing torn and his hair pulled out too many times, did not. And on that day, with his paranoia skyrocketing, he especially dreaded it. He wanted to smack Howie when he heard him ask, “Do we have time to sign some autographs?”
“You kidding, D?” he asked desperately, gesturing wildly out the window. “Look at that! You’re just asking to get maimed.”
“Not me, buddy,” chuckled Howie. “You’re the Chosen One.”
“Five minutes,” their bodyguard, Marcus, called back from the front of the van. “You can sign for five minutes, and then we’ll tell them you’ve gotta head inside.”
“And then they’ll all step back in their orderly, single-file line and politely let us through,” added Brian, with a sarcastic grin to match AJ’s. “That seems fair.”
The others laughed. Nick felt nauseous.
Growing impatient, the fans started to chant again. “Back-street Boys! Back-street Boys!” As soon as the van doors opened, the cheer was lost in a swell of earsplitting screams.
Nick had to force himself out of the van behind AJ and Brian, who were already waving to the crowd. He pasted a smile on his face, but his eyes continued to dart around, like an animal who sensed it was about to become prey. His only comfort was that almost all of the fans who had gathered appeared to be female. He noticed one man in their midst, but as he was overweight, balding, and wearing a Backstreet Boys t-shirt, Nick didn’t take him for much of a threat – not in that way, at least.
“Alright, people, the Boys have a few minutes for pictures and autographs, as long as you stay cool!” Marcus shouted above the frenzies shrieks. “No pushing, no grabbing, and stand back!”
AJ, Brian, Howie, and Kevin walked over to the barricades, where the fans were reaching and clawing for them like a horde of hungry zombies. Reluctantly, Nick followed. They spread out among the crowd, Sharpies in hand, scribbling their names on CD jackets and posters, whatever was handed to them, and passing them back without even looking. Fans screamed their names from all directions, begging them to come closer. Cameras flashed in their faces; hands grabbed at them, pulling them in to pose for pictures. Nick figured he’d have a blank, deer-in-headlights look in most of them, but he didn’t care. He just wanted to get it all over with and retreat to the safety of the venue.
He was turned sideways, leaning over the barricade with his head close to a pretty girl who had slung her arm around his waist while her friend took a picture, when it happened: he felt a hand grab him by the hood of his jacket and tug him backwards. Expecting the impenetrable arms to clamp around him next, Nick cried out “NO!” and scrambled to get away.
“HEY!” he heard Marcus yell, as he flung himself forward, jerking his arms free of the jacket sleeves and stumbling out of his attacker’s grasp. “I said no grabbing!”
Nick stopped, straightening up. He turned and looked back, his heart sinking at what he saw. The whole crowd was staring at him, their expressions confused, none more so than the teenage girl who stood holding his limp jacket in one hand, a look of dismay on her round, young face.
“I… I’m sorry,” he heard her stammer, her eyes darting uncertainly from Marcus to him. “I just… I wanted to know if maybe I could get a picture?”
Nick wanted to sink through the ground. Instead, he forced himself to walk back up to the barricade. “Sorry,” he mumbled to the girl. “You just caught me by surprise is all. Here, you want a picture?” He stretched his arm across the barrier and around her shoulders, leaning in while she held her camera at an arm’s length to snap the photo.
“Thanks,” she said shyly, when he released her. “Um, here’s your jacket.”
“Keep it,” Nick muttered, as he turned away. He went straight to Marcus. “I’m done,” he said shortly. “I’m headin’ in now.”
He could feel the eyes on his back as he made a beeline for the backstage door.