“Is he gonna come back, Mama?”
Standing in the midst of the mass of screaming Backstreet Boys fans, Gianna looked down at her seven-year-old daughter. “I dunno, babe,” she said, craning her neck to watch Nick Carter disappear into the arena. “I don’t think so.”
Luciana’s face crumpled, her bottom lip jutting out. “You said we could get his autograph!”
“I said we’d try to get his autograph,” Gianna corrected. When her daughter continued to pout, she added, “Look at all these people, babe. They all want the same thing as you! You think the Backstreet Boys have time to sign autographs for everyone here?”
“Yeah! Why can’t they? We’ve been waiting and waiting!” whined Luciana.
“Luci. C’mon now. If they stopped to sign an autograph for every girl here, they’d never have time to sing! And that’s why you like ‘em so much, right? ‘Cause of their music!”
Luci glared down at the pavement.
“And, alright, so Nick Carter’s pretty cute, ain’t he?” teased Gianna, hoping to coax a smile out of her. Luci wouldn’t look up, but she could see the corners of her mouth start to twitch. She grinned. “As for me, I think I prefer the tall, dark, and handsome one… what’s his name again?”
Finally, Luci looked up, giggling. “Kevin!”
“Kevin. That’s right.” She rose up on her toes, watching him greet some of the lucky fans who were up close to the barricades. She wondered how early they’d gotten there to get such a prime spot. If she’d had any idea…
“I can’t see,” Luci whined, stamping her foot. “Pick me up, Mama?”
“Alright, alright… just for a minute, though, okay? I’m sure they gotta go in soon and get ready for their concert.”
“Is that where Nick went?” asked Luci, as Gianna hoisted her up onto her hip.
“I wish we could go in and watch it…”
Gianna sighed. “I told you, babe, I tried. All the seats sold out in about five seconds. And all the scalpers here are freakin’ insane if they think we’re gonna pay those prices for tickets. I’m sorry, babe, we just can’t afford it.”
“Can’t you call Daddy? He can give us the money!”
“Your daddy’s money ain’t all his to give, babe,” said Gianna, boosting her up higher on her hip.
“Just call him! Please?” Luci begged.
“Alright, alright, hold your horses…” Setting her daughter down, Gianna dug around in her purse for her cell phone. “Yeah, Joey?” she spoke into the phone, when a man’s voice answered. “Listen, we need a favor. Luci and I are tryin’ to get in to see a concert tonight, this group she really likes, but the tickets are sold out. You think you could cough up some cash so we could buy some seats off the scalpers?”
“Yeah, how much we talkin’?” Joey sounded distracted; she could hear him fumbling around and voices murmuring in the background. When she told him the price, he swore loudly. “You kiddin’ me? Fuck no, I ain’t payin’ that.”
“She really wants this, Joey…” Gianna started to plead, but she was quickly shot down.
“Lay off it, G, would ya? I got more important things to worry about.”
“Yeah? More important than your own kid, you mean?”
“Screw you, Gianna; you don’t know what you’re talkin’ about. I don’t have time to be dealin’ with this crap,” Joey hissed. “I got problems, big ones.”
Gianna rolled her eyes. Joey always had problems. “Yeah, well, screw you, too,” she muttered back. Then she asked, “You comin’ home tonight?”
“I don’t think so. There’s somethin’ I gotta take care of.”
“I thought that’s what you said last night. What, you didn’t take care of it?”
“Lay off it, G,” he said again.
“Fine,” Gianna snapped. “Goodbye.” She ended the call before he could have the last word.
Cramming the phone back into her purse, she looked down at Luci and offered an apologetic shrug. “No can do, babe. Your dad ain’t got the money either. You’re gonna have to settle for watchin’ them on that tape of yours.” She stood on tiptoe again to see over the heads in front of her. The boyband’s bodyguards were starting to wrangle them toward the doors. “C’mon, looks like they’re headin’ in now… let’s go home.”
Luci’s big, brown eyes welled with tears; Gianna could tell she was on the verge of a tantrum. Quickly, she grabbed her daughter by the hand and dragged her out of the crowd.
“What’s up with you, Nick?”
Backstage in the arena, Nick cast Kevin a resentful look. “Get off my back, Kevin.”
“I’m not on your back,” Kevin replied calmly. “I’m just wonderin’ what’s goin’ on with you. You’ve been actin’ weird all day. Are you not feelin’ well?”
“I feel fine,” Nick snapped, though it couldn’t have been further from the truth. He felt sick to his stomach, though he knew it had nothing to do with illness. Kevin’s constant grilling made him feel worse.
The worst part was, he wanted to tell him what was really going on, what he’d seen and how much it was bothering him… but he’d already decided not to. If he let the others in on his secret, he would just be subjecting them to the same paranoia that had plagued him all night and day. It wouldn’t be fair to get them involved. Better to deal with it on his own, until he decided whether or not to go to the cops. The guys didn’t need to know a thing.
“Well, you’re not actin’ like it. You’re moody, you were rude to the fans outside, and if I’m bein’ honest, you sucked at soundcheck. If you’re not sick, then what’s your excuse?” Kevin asked, his tone sharpening.
“C’mon, Kev, give it a rest,” said Brian, coming to Nick’s defense.
Howie jumped in, too. “Yeah, we all have off days. Huh, Nicky?”
Nick nodded and looked away, avoiding Howie’s understanding smile. “Yeah, it’s just one of those days, I guess,” he mumbled. “I’ll pull it together for the show tonight.”
“We know, Frack,” said Brian, punching him in the arm. “You always do.”
But by the end of the concert that night, Nick wasn’t sure he had proven Brian right. Maybe the fans hadn’t noticed anything was wrong, but he knew the guys could tell he was off his game. He’d performed as if on autopilot, singing his parts without the emotion he usually put into them, dancing the choreography without any sparkle. He hadn’t made any mistakes, per se, thanks only to the fact that he had done this show fifty-some times before. It was ingrained in his brain, at this point; he could perform it in his sleep. But on that night, he’d done it without any thought or any heart, and he was sure it had showed.
The last song before the encore was “Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely,” which was a likely choice to be their next single. As he stood atop the raised platform in the center of the pentagonal stage in his lurid, pink suit, Nick was determined to do it justice. The concert hadn’t gone well, by his usual standards, but it hadn’t gone as badly as he’d feared, either. All night, he’d been on edge, expecting the two men to emerge from the crowd of twenty thousand that surrounded them. He knew it was irrational; it was a sold-out show, and even if they had managed to get tickets, security was tight. He felt some relief now that the concert was almost over, and he tried to put that into his performance.
It wasn’t hard to look solemn as he listened to the other guys sing their solos, adding his voice to the harmony of the chorus and second verse.
“Guilty roads to an endless love,” he sang, his voice blending with Kevin’s. “There’s no control. Are you with me now? Your every wish will be done, they tell me…” His voice rang out over the others, as they came in with the chorus.
“Show me the meaning of being lonely. Is this the feeling I need to walk with? Tell me why I can’t be there where you are. There’s something missing in my heart…”
“There’s nowhere to run; I have no place to go,” sang Howie, while the others made their way down to the main stage. “Surrender my heart, body, and soul…”
As he held his long, mournful note, Nick joined the others, singing, “How can it be you’re asking me to feel the things you never show?” AJ’s powerful voice echoed through the arena, and they went into their choreography, a seductive dance that had each of them paired with one of their female dancers.
Before Nick knew it, they were back on the platform, and AJ was shouting, “Thank you, Philadelphia! We love you! Goodnight!”
The encore that followed was the longest they’d ever done, but at last, the stage was covered in silver confetti, the arena was ringing with screams and applause, and they were taking their final bows while the band finished playing “I Want It That Way.”
The show was over, and Nick had survived. But as he sank beneath the stage with the other guys, he felt no relief. He still had two more nights in Philadelphia, and tomorrow, they’d do it all over again.
“So, you guys goin’ out again tonight?”
Sandwiched between AJ and Brian for the ride from the venue back to the hotel, Nick tried to keep his tone casual as he asked the question. Still, he sagged with relief when he heard Kevin’s answer. “Nah… it’s gettin’ late, and we’ve got press tomorrow, remember? It’s a good night to stay in. Let’s just order some pizzas and kick it in the hotel.”
“That sounds good,” Nick replied eagerly. “We can chill in our room… play some Sega or watch a movie or somethin’.” Anything to distract me, he thought in desperation. I can’t take another night like last night.
“Just not The Matrix again, okay?” begged Howie.
“You act like I’ve been watching it nonstop or something,” said Nick, who had watched the movie at least five times since it had come out on video a week ago.
“What, it’s a cool movie!” Nick insisted.
“Sorry Frack, I’m with Howie,” said Brian. “Let’s watch something else this time.”
“Like what, a chick flick your woman will enjoy? Man, she’s got you so whipped, Frick…”
“Whipped like cream.” Brian grinned, refusing to be baited.
“Ew, don’t say ‘cream.’ I don’t wanna know what you and her do behind closed doors.”
AJ snorted. “Apparently you think about it, though. Get your mind out of the gutter, Carter.”
“Shut up, it’s not!”
They bickered all the way back to the hotel, where a small clump of fans were waiting outside the entrance. “Great,” muttered Nick under his breath, as the group of girls started to squeal.
“Come on, there’s not that many of them. Let’s just sign a few autographs, take a few pictures, and get upstairs before they call their friends,” said Kevin.
They got out of the van and were immediately surrounded. Remembering how he had freaked out earlier, Nick tried to keep his cool, reminding himself that they were his fans, not his enemies. He stayed long enough to sign their BSB memorabilia and pose for pictures, then excused himself into the lobby. The others soon followed.
Their plans for the evening set, they rode upstairs on the elevator together, accompanied by their bodyguards. When the elevator reached Nick and Kevin’s new floor, Kevin said, “Why don’t you guys go get settled and come down in twenty minutes or so? I wanna call Kristin first.”
“Yeah, I wanna call Amanda, too,” said AJ.
“Sounds good,” agreed Howie and Brian, as Kevin and Nick stepped off onto their floor. Marcus followed, walking them down the empty hallway to their room.
“You guys call upstairs if you need anything,” he said, before he left them. “Let us know if you’re plannin’ on headin’ out again anytime soon.”
Nick turned away to hide the guilty look on his face, while Kevin replied, “Thanks, Marcus. I think we’re just gonna lay low tonight; we should be fine.”
“Alright, cool. Have a good one.” Marcus bid them goodnight and disappeared into the nearby stairwell for the short jog up a floor.
Kevin turned to Nick, who was thinking of how the previous night might have turned out differently if he had just brought Marcus along. “What, you couldn’t get your key out while we were talking?”
“Huh? Oh – sorry.” Nick fumbled in his pockets, looking for his new key card.
“Never mind, I got it,” grunted Kevin, retrieving his own first. He swiped the card in the door. Nick saw the light flash green and heard the lock click before Kevin reached for the door handle, tucking the key into his back pocket. He opened the door, and Nick followed him in, letting the door shut behind them.
It happened in the instant Kevin turned on the light.
He flipped the switch, and as soon as light flooded the dark room, the two men appeared. They were standing between the two beds, where they’d apparently been crouching out of sight, just waiting. Nick’s heart skipped a beat at the sight of them, then began to thud with impending doom, as he recognized Joey and the man with the big arms who had grabbed him, the man who was aiming a gun right at them.
In front of Nick, Kevin had gone rigid. His normally calm voice shook as he started to ask, “What are you-?”
He never got to finish the question. As the words left his lips, the man with the gun raised a pillow in front of its barrel and pulled the trigger.