At quarter ‘til nine, a sold-out crowd of 19,000 filled the Earls Court Exhibition Centre. As the swell of their voices chanting, “Backstreet Boys! Backstreet Boys!” reached his ears, Howie couldn’t help but sneak a peek out around the dark curtain that concealed him. From his vantage point high over their heads, Howie looked down at the sea of fans in awe. It still amazed him that so many people would come out to see him perform each night.
“Anything going on down there?” Howie heard AJ’s voice ask in his ear.
Howie shrugged. “Just the usual.”
The crowd below was getting restless, as evidenced by the impatient chanting and the bobbing heads and the flailing arms as “the wave” went around and around the arena. But it wouldn’t be long now; Howie, AJ, and the others were secured in their harnesses and just waiting for their cue to descend to the stage. How strange it seemed that such a spectacle had become “the usual.”
“I can’t wait to get this show on the road,” said AJ, making the wires hooked to his harness jiggle as he bounced up and down. He was always wound up before a show, but he had seemed especially edgy all day. In fact, AJ had been acting strange – stranger than usual, anyway – for the past two days, ever since the odd encounter with the owl outside their tour bus. He still wouldn’t say what was really in the envelope the owl had been carrying, would barely acknowledge that the letter-carrying owl even existed, and that was what had Howie and the others so puzzled. They knew they hadn’t just imagined the owl. They also knew AJ could be secretive, but it wasn’t like him not to confide in them about something they’d all witnessed, something he seemed to know more about than the rest of them.
Whatever it was – and no amount of alcohol seemed to be enough to get AJ to spill – the incident had rattled the characteristically cool AJ. He’d been acting increasingly paranoid, always looking over his shoulder and checking his pockets, fidgeting with his wallet or whatever else he was carrying around. He hadn’t left the guys’ sight since they’d arrived in London, but to Howie, it seemed like AJ hadn’t really “been there” at all. He always looked like he was miles away, lost in his own thoughts. The old AJ loved to be the center of attention, but this latest version kept to himself in a corner of the room. He had come alive right before the show, volunteering to lead the prayer that was part of their pre-show ritual, but even that was unlike AJ. Usually Brian or Kevin led the prayer, while the others just joined hands and said “Amen” at the end. AJ had done a good job, praying for another safe, successful show, but Howie couldn’t help but question his motive for volunteering, when he never had before.
There was no time to wonder now, though. A collective scream rose to the rafters, as the house lights dimmed. Howie still got goosebumps just from hearing the fans’ reaction, and his heart raced with the rush of adrenaline he always got before he went on stage. “Here we go,” he told AJ, anticipating the moment when the curtain would drop and so would they.
Down below, Harry looked around in utter bewilderment. He was surrounded by girls, his age or younger, who were screaming, “Backstreet Boys! Backstreet Boys!” at the top of their lungs. Some of them held handmade signs, proclaiming their love for the boyband’s members; others had written the Boys’ names across their cheeks and foreheads. Many of them were wearing t-shirts featuring the Boys’ faces. Harry was glad the level of fanaticism with which Muggles regarded their celebrities hadn’t carried over to the Wizarding world; he shuddered to imagine his own face plastered across a set of wizard’s robes.
Sitting beside him, Ginny looked just as bewildered. “Are they going to act like this all night?” she asked him at one point. She had to lean over and speak directly into his ear to be heard over the incessant screaming.
Harry shrugged. “I dunno, you tell me.” When Ginny frowned, clearly not following, he added, “You’re a teenage girl, aren’t you? You should know better than I do how they operate.”
Ginny looked offended. “Excuse me? Have you ever seen me behave this way around anyone? Did I scream my head off for the Weird Sisters when they played the Yule Ball? Did I chase Viktor Krum around, begging for his autograph? No, that was my brother.”
Harry was glad that Ron was sitting two seats away, too far to hear Ginny’s last comment or to see Harry’s smirk. “True,” he admitted, chuckling. “And I’m glad. But maybe you should act a little more enthused to be here – I mean, we’re supposed to be Muggle fans, right? You don’t want to blow our cover.”
Ginny rolled her eyes at him. “I don’t see you painting ‘Nick’ all over your face.”
“But I’m a bloke. I’m posing as the dutiful boyfriend who agreed to go with his girlfriend to the concert, see?” Harry grinned. “You’re the one who’s got to pretend to be a fan if we’re to convince anyone.”
“Oh, I think Hermione’s doing a convincing enough job for the both of us,” Ginny said loftily.
Looking past her, Harry had to agree. Hermione was bouncing on the balls of her feet, one arm in the air, pumping her fist as she shouted, “Backstreet Boys! Backstreet Boys!” along with the crowd. Harry had a feeling she wasn’t just acting. He’d seen Hermione act before; her impersonation of Bellatrix Lestrange was far less believable than this. She had transformed into a full-fledged Backstreet Boys fanatic.
Harry craned his neck further, curious to see Ron’s reaction. He was standing on Hermione’s other side, and the look on his slightly pink face was priceless. Harry had seen a similar look on his friend’s face before – when Hermione turned out to be Krum’s date to the Yule Ball… when Hermione invited Cormac McLaggen to Slughorn’s Christmas party… and when Lavender Brown gave him the large gold necklace that said My Sweetheart that same Christmas – but this look surpassed them all, as if all the previous looks had been superimposed over the top of each other and pasted onto his face. It was the look of sheer disgust warring with total disbelief. Harry couldn’t resist the urge to call down to them, “Enjoying yourselves?”
“Oh, yes! I just can’t wait for the Boys to come out!” gushed Hermione. Behind her back, Ron made a rude gesture that answered the question quite adequately. Harry offered him an apologetic shrug, as if to say, Sorry, mate, duty calls.
Then, suddenly, the arena went dark. The screams rose to a decibel that made Harry want to cover his ears. He looked over the edge of the second-level balcony in which they were sitting and saw nothing but camera flashes, creating a strobe light effect as they went off every fraction of a second in all directions. He wasn’t sure what they were taking pictures of, for the stage was still empty, but soon, a single-file line of figures strode up one of the aisles, marching toward the stage. There were ten in all, and they each carried a tall torch of light. Music accompanied their procession; Harry recognized it from Star Wars – Dudley had been a fan.
Although some of the torch-bearers were women, Harry assumed the others were the Backstreet Boys. But he was evidently wrong, because once they’d put the torches in place around the perimeter of the pentagonal stage, the music changed, and the audience started screaming even louder and pointing over their heads. Harry looked up and was surprised to see the five Backstreet Boys suspended from the ceiling, riding on what appeared to be flying surfboards.
“What are they using, a Hover Charm?” asked Ginny in Harry’s ear.
“No, just cables,” Harry replied, pointing them out to her. Magic or not, he had to admit, the effect was still impressive. The fans certainly thought so. They never stopped screaming as the Boys were lowered down to the stage.
The whole time, Harry’s eyes darted around the arena, searching for signs of trouble. But with tens of thousands of people packed into three levels of seating on all sides, he knew it was going to be difficult to spot anything in time to stop it.
For the first few numbers, there was nothing. Then, during a song that was, ironically, called “Quit Playing Games,” the games began.
As part of the performance, the five Backstreet Boys were clipped to another set of cables, which lifted them up and over the audience again. “They sure do like to fly, these Muggle boys,” Ginny commented sarcastically. Harry didn’t reply; he was too busy watching… and waiting. Because although the cables kept the Boys out of their fans’ reach, they’d also put them right in range of a wizard’s wand. If anyone magical wanted to harm them, now was the time to strike. Harry slipped his hand into his pocket, his fingers tightening around his wand. He never took his eyes off the Boys.
A couple of them seemed content to merely dangle from their cables, but the others were having fun with it, hanging upside down, turning flips, acting like they were flying through the air. Then one of them – the wiry one with the wispy curls – started to spin. His cables crossed over each other and twisted together. The fans around Harry laughed and cheered, but Harry wasn’t convinced he was doing it on purpose. He watched through narrowed eyes as the cables corkscrewed as far up as he could see, then rapidly began to unwind. The boy hanging from their twisted ends began to turn like a top in the other direction, faster and faster and faster, until he was almost a blur. Harry could see his head lolling around, his arms and legs flailing about, and knew he was not in control of his own body.
Ginny knew it, too. “Is something making him do that?” she asked in a low voice, leaning into Harry.
“Not something. Someone,” said Harry. As he looked around for the source, he saw a Muggle girl shoot out of the crowd and soar high up into the air, somersaulting wildly. It was then that the audience seemed to realize this wasn’t just a part of the show. Harry felt sickeningly helpless as he listened to their shrieks of delight turn into screams of terror.
Howie was hanging in midair when it happened. One moment, he was flying over the fans, teasing them with the bouquet of flowers he held over their heads, and the next, he was aware of them pointing, open-mouthed, not paying attention to him at all.
He looked to his left and saw Brian spinning like a top. Well, that was weird; it wasn’t like Brian, who was afraid of heights, to mess around on his wires. While some of the guys liked to flip and hang upside down, Brian usually stayed right side up. Howie had never seen him spin like that, and they’d been specifically told not to, as it tangled the wires. Brian joked around a lot, but he wasn’t one to disregard safety rules.
Just when Howie was starting to worry something was wrong, he heard a sudden upsurge in the screams. He looked to his right and got a horrible shock when he realized there was a girl, a fan, turning head over heels in midair. For a split second, he thought she must have fallen over one of the balconies, but before she could plummet to the ground, she appeared to bounce right back up into the air. Some invisible force seemed to be jerking her up and down, like she was a rag doll being repeatedly tossed about.
Howie had no idea what to make of it, let alone what to do. He saw Kevin, who was closest, try to reach for the girl, swinging on his wire to bring himself closer to her, but even at the peak of his swing, he was still several feet short. Howie turned helplessly back to Brian, who was still spinning. What was happening?
It was then that he saw AJ, who was on Brian’s other side, do something equally unexplainable. Reaching down into his black, leather pants, AJ withdrew a long, narrow, wooden stick. He waved it around in the air and shouted something. The screams stifled his words, but amplified through his microphone, they sounded something like, “Ackeyo surfboard!” And to Howie’s surprise, one of the surfboards upon which they’d ridden to the stage came hurtling toward AJ. He made a slashing motion with the wooden stick in his hand, somehow severing the wires that suspended him in midair, and dropped onto the surfboard. Straddling it, he rode the floating surfboard over to Brian, cut his wires as well, and pulled Brian onto the board behind him.
How is he doing this? Howie wondered, staring in disbelief at what he was seeing. He watched the surfboard soar past him, rocketing over to the girl who was still somersaulting through the air. Somehow, AJ and Brian managed to grab hold of her and sandwich her safely between the two of them on the surfboard. How, Howie still didn’t understand. There was nothing to support any of them, nor the surfboard – no wires, no harnesses, no moving platforms. How were they all afloat in midair?
Frightened, he squirmed frantically in his harness, wanting to feel solid ground beneath his feet again. In response, he felt the wires pulling him back down toward the stage. The screaming had died down, and only then did Howie realize that the band had stopped playing. Everyone seemed stunned; no one knew how to react. Most of the fans below him were frozen with fear, but some had started to flee, pushing and shoving as they squeezed through the rows in a panic, trampling each other as they flooded the aisles.
Then the screaming started again, as flashes of light flickered in Howie’s peripherals. Turning his head, he saw a black-haired boy in the first row of the balcony, pointing a stick in the air and using it to shoot a red streak of light across the arena. Howie followed the arc of light to the floor, where several hooded figures towered over the fans who were cowering around them. They, too, wielded sticks, which were firing bolts of thunder and lightning into the air.
Howie screamed as someone grabbed him from behind, but it was only his bodyguard, pulling him onto the stage. He was quickly unhooked from his wire and dragged to the central platform, where he was joined by Nick and Kevin. “Wait!” he shouted, as he felt the platform start to move, lowering them to the dressing area underneath the stage. “What about AJ and Brian?”
But this question, like so many that night, went unanswered.
“Expelliarmus! Expelliarmus!” Harry shouted over and over again, trying to disarm the Death Eaters without harming any of the Muggles in their midst. It hadn’t taken him long to spot them, standing among the fans on the floor, their black hoods making them two heads taller than the little girls who surrounded them.
It didn’t take the Death Eaters much longer to spot Harry, once he started shooting spells their way. Harry was actually relieved when they turned their attention onto him; he would rather be their target than watch them continue to torture innocent Muggles. It was like the Quidditch World Cup all over again. He, Ron, Hermione, and Ginny simply dodged their curses and fired back hexes of their own, but it was difficult to aim accurately from so far away, especially with the swarms of fans forming an inadvertent human shield. More than ever, Harry wished he had his Firebolt so he could fly down to the floor and duel the Death Eaters at closer range.
No sooner had this thought occurred to him than he heard a magnified voice boom, “Accio surfboard!” Remembering that he was at a Muggle concert, Harry’s head shot up in surprise. He watched, astonished, as one of the surfboards from the start of the show sailed toward the Backstreet Boy with the tattooed arms and crazy hair, who was still hanging from his cables and holding a wand in his hand. A wand! “He’s a wizard?!” Harry cried out loud, looking to Ginny, Hermione, and Ron. They seemed just as stunned.
They and all the Muggles watched, though the Muggles surely couldn’t believe what they were seeing, as the Backstreet Boy used a Severing Charm to cut his cables and let himself fall onto the surfboard. “Now he must be using a Hover Charm,” Harry told Ginny. It was a good idea. He was just about to summon the other four surfboards, when he saw one of the Death Eaters raise his wand and point it directly at the wand-wielding Backstreet Boy. “Expelliarmus!” Harry bellowed, successfully disarming the Death Eater.
Another round of spells were volleyed back and forth, during which the Backstreet Boy had time to pull both his bandmate and the Muggle girl to safety on his floating surfboard. The other boys were being lowered to the stage, and the fans had started screaming again and running in a panic, clearing a path to the Death Eaters. Just when Harry thought he’d get his chance to take them out, once and for all, he heard a high voice echo through the concert hall:
Then there was an earthshaking blast, like an explosion, and the heavy metal rafters clanged together as they tumbled from the barrel-shaped roof. And Harry knew, even before he looked up, what he would see through the hole in the ceiling: a glittering green skull in the sky, spewing a serpent from its mouth.
The Dark Mark.
“Just like the World Cup,” Harry whispered. His eyes dropped back down to the Death Eaters, wondering which one of them had cast it, but in the split second he’d looked away, the hooded figures had disappeared.