What was that smell?—dank, musty, mildewy. As consciousness returned , she realized she was no longer sleeping. Sleeping? she thought, as a rising dread began to grip her. No, not sleeping…unconscious. She could feel her lids opening and closing, and groggy as her mind was, she knew no amount of blinking could clear up the darkness that was totally absolute as it surrounded her. Her mind grasped for the most recent memories, trying to piece together any errant image that would produce a relevant thought. She tried to fight the rising panic. It was too late, the levy had broken.
The floor was hard, without the padded feel of carpet. She could feel the cold of stone. It gave her goosebumps on her legs, even through her jeans. Whatever she leaned against was equally hard. In a panic, she turned her head and felt the roughness of cinder block grind against her smooth, right cheek. She was also aware that she was bound, hand and feet, as well as gagged. Almost anyone could easily identify the bonds as duct tape. It took her a moment to notice that the grunting noise she was hearing was actually coming from her own throat… like a half moan half grunt. “HRRRH!!!” She would have called out, screamed even, if she had been able. She knew it would be useless with the swatch of tape over her mouth. Suddenly a flash from her adolescence appeared in her mind’s eye; her little brother was challenging her that he could get the tape off his mouth she was threatening to use to shut him up by working his jaw muscles. That had been almost 15 years before when they were kids, her a new teenager, and him, an annoying seven-year old pest. She felt a solitary tear slip out of the corner of her eye as Noah’s face danced before her, no longer the child who had been the bane of her existence, but now a recent Berkley under-grad, now working on his graduate degree at the University of Denver.
Noah, take care of Mom, her heart silently commanded. Then she prayed for herself. Heavenly Father, I know I have not lived the most pious life these last few years, but I swear to do better if You will only help me get out of here!
But where was here? She turned her head from left to right, and could not even make out shadows in the pitch of her surroundings. It was chilly, but that wasn’t unusual for anywhere is Colorado. Was she still in Denver, or one of the many “mini” cities that encompassed the state capital? She had no way to determine. She moved her jaws back and forth, up and down.
She probably wasn’t in Denver anymore, she reasoned. Although she wasn’t nationally famous, she was a well-known personality in the city. Of course, as the most popular disc jockey in town, at least according to The Denver Post, it was her voice more than her face that people knew. At least those who hadn’t seen her famous finger-guns blazing, larger-than-life image on the mass transit signs or billboards on the interstate that advertised her show, which ran during one of the two “prime times” in radio, the morning commute and the afternoon/evening commute. Hers was the latter. She could hear herself broadcasting as she worked her jaw—up, wide, down, up, wide, down.
“Gooood afternoon, folks. So how’s the traffic out there? Sucks as always, I’m sure. We’ll get an update from Dora Sims on that, as well as hear from meteorologist Ted Summers of KUSA in just a few minutes. You’re here with Superstar, that’s Starr Jennings to those of you just tuning in to KSTR, Denver’s Number One rock connection. Later on this week, we will have two member of the band IED in our studios, lead singer Zach Ronin and bass master Jason Maldonado, where you, the listener, will get the opportunity to call in and ask them about their music, their madness, and ooh, maybe even there mistresses. You’ll also get the chance to have your name entered in the drawing for a night on the town with IED, including front row seats to their sold-out show, the jam session before and backstage passes. After the break, we’ll return with the debut of their newest single, Darkness Falls, kicking off thirty minutes of non-stop rock…” Ah, Zach. If only you had been there to rescue me this time…
She was almost positive who’d taken her, although she didn’t know his name, at least she didn’t think it was his real name, the creepy caller-turned-stalker, who identified himself as Howard Johnson. When he’d first called into her radio show, she thought his name was a joke, since many of the guys who called in had some sort of sex pitch for her. She remember how she’d teased him over the air about trying to get her to his “place,” i.e. a hotel room. And that’s how it all started.
Giving herself a mental shake, she tried to clear her mind and listen to the void around her, intent on detecting her captor’s return. Up, down, wide…up, down, wide. If she could just get the tape off her mouth, she would be able to use her teeth to free her hands. She heard only mostly silence, which seemed more ominous then if she heard movement. She prayed there weren’t any furry or multi-legged creatures creeping around close by. She detested bugs but most especially hated mice and rats. The thought sent an irrational panic through her , breaking her concentration.
Stop it! she told herself furiously. Focus!
Another image came to her mind, this time making her heart break just a little bit more. This one was of a man, with messy auburn, shoulder-length hair, a small tattoo of a scimitar at the corner of his left cheekbone just under one of his brilliant green eyes. He was reacting to a band mate’s antics, his perfect teeth exposed as he threw his head back in unabashed laughter. That was the first time she’d met him, at the station, when he and Jason came in for the on-air interview. My God, was that really almost a year ago? she thought.
Unable to contemplate the fate that might await her, she let her mind wander back over the previous ten months… Back to that first phone call and back to the interview that would change her whole life.
August-The Summer Before
“Well, folks, Superstar is about to call it a day, or rather night as the case may be. But not before my Friday night finish. So to wrap up our summer concert series, KSTR is proud to present I-E-D! And I do believe their latest single has made it to our end-of-the-week Top Ten countdown tonight. For those of you new to the game, here’s how it goes. I’m going to play the top ten songs requested for the week and the first caller to get through the Listener Line with the correct answer to all ten songs and their artists wins a twenty-five dollar gift movie card. AND as an added bonus, the winner’s name will be added to the drawing to win a night with IED. That’s right, guys. We’re going all out on this one: dinner, front row seats, a jam session, and backstage passes to the concert Friday night.
“Hey, that’s not all. Zach Ronin himself will be in the studio next Thursday evening with one of the most awesome and influential bass players in today’s music, Mr. Jason Maldonado! So fans and friends, be listening all next week. Kit and Kelly will be giving away tickets on the morning show, Rockin’ Roger will have some during his lunchtime time run, Bad Boy Billy will have a chance for you to win this weekend, and Wayne West will be registering listeners during the night owl broadcast.
“Wow, what a mouthful. Too bad I don’t get paid by the word. Eh, then again, since we are the rock connection with more music and less commercials, that might not always work out so well. Speaking of our sponsors, I do believe it is about that time. When we return, I’ll have the Top Ten songs of the week.”
Flipping a switch, Starr Jennings cut to commercial, letting the audio actors peddle the wares of popular advertisers. Mac Sherman, her producer, poked his head in the studio door.
“Hey, Starr, don’t forget to plug the new IED album. Maybe when you wrap up tonight, announce that Zach and Jason will be the ones drawing the winner of the promo.” The thick, black rimmed glasses he was forever misplacing fell down his nose and he pushed them back up in annoyance. He was what Starr considered an 80’s hippie. He had long light brown hair that was always in a ponytail hanging down his back and when he could get away with it, he was in concert shirts and jeans. But those days were drawing to a close. Mac had just been promoted to Assistant Director of Programming. In fact, the morning show personalities were giving him a professional haircut on the air the following week.
Mac hired Starr first as an intern, and then got her on the payroll doing the advertising traffic log. As she hoped he would, he noticed right away the coincidence between her name and the station’s call letters. She was pretty sure it had been a contributing factor in his decision to hire her. Two years later, she was given the overnight DJ spot and moved up from there. She was about to celebrate her fifth anniversary as an on-air personality. Ever since she’d landed the late afternoon/evening show, her career, and the station’s ratings, had skyrocketed. Mac looked at her fondly. She was not long for this place, he mused. This girl really was going to be a superstar, he just knew it.
“And we’re back. Number ten on tonight’s countdown is The Pretender by the Foo Fighters…”
It was close to ten when she finally made her way down to the lobby, purse on her shoulder and keys in her hand. Chester, the night security guard, wished her good night and stood in the outer lobby, watching her, as he always did, to make sure she made it safely to her car. She often thought it really wasn’t necessary since the parking lot was fenced in by a wrought-iron perimeter and the gates were “Security Access Only,”( i.e. requiring a code to enter or exit the premises.) It was also brightly lit, but should someone consider an attempt to shimmy over the columns of slim metal, the daunting spikes on top of each of them further discouraged such an endeavor.
She was usually able to park right in front, but she had to admit that lately, it was comforting, knowing someone had her back, so to speak. She couldn’t really explain it; maybe it was a bit overwhelming at times, all the publicity she got now. Her fan mail had increased exponentially over the past year and she had to maintain privacy settings on all her personal social media. It was true what they said, fame definitely came with a price.
She pressed the button on the remote to her silver Volkswagon Passat. She watched the taillights flicker and the alarm chirp as she approached the driver’s-side door. When she reached for the handle, she paused, noticing right away the black-eyed Susan lying on her dashboard through the windshield aligned with a wiper blade.
She looked around and saw no one.
Chester’s outline was still visible at the doors and she waved to him as she got in the car. Puzzled by the token, but not really concerned, she gave herself a mental shrug, thinking that perhaps she’d forgotten to lock her car when she came in that afternoon. It wouldn’t be the first time. And it had been a busy day. In fact, she’d had to go in early to do some promos and tape a couple ads, one of the assets of her career. In addition to the fringe benefits of working in broadcast media, she also got paid extra for doing radio spots for some of their advertisers. Anyone could have left the flower in the last eight hours, but she made a mental note to ask around on Monday. For now, she was just going to enjoy her weekend off.
Summertime was always the busiest time in the radio industry. With students of all ages taking a break from school, it was the most popular time for family vacations and her beloved state, with its Rocky Mountains and ski resorts, national parks and a dozen other adventures that Colorado has to offer, got advertisers loosening the purse strings. Many were even starting to capitalize on the maybe-not-so-surprising new and revenue-generating tourist attraction in Colorado… Being one of the two states to legalize recreational use of marijuana. Starr was often doing a live spot on the weekends, promoting a theme park or a bar or at a midnight showing of a blockbuster movie. There were plenty of free concerts and festivals and all of them had some public personality hosting or making an appearance. This year she’d hoped to go to Texas for the Austin City Limits festival. The popular attraction had grown so much in recent years that for the first time, it was being split over two weekends in October. She was lucky enough to do a series of live broadcasts from the Texas capital a few years back during the South by Southwest event that is held in the Lone Star State at the beginning of every March. She had entertained the idea of relocating there a few times, but her heart belonged to Denver. Her family, or what remained of it, was close enough for impulsive visits and that was comforting, especially since her mother’s diagnosis. Grown woman or not, she didn’t really want to be too far from her family so semi-permanently. Earlier in the year, Ann Jennings had been told by her long-time friend and doctor that she had early onset Alzheimer’s. It had been a crushing blow to Starr and her younger brother, Noah, who was now working on his master’s degree. She’d felt selfish, though, thinking of her own devastation before considering what her mother was experiencing. Although Starr had to acknowledge, Mom never recovered losing their dad.
Granger Jennings was a meteorologist, but had died while he was covering the disaster of Hurricane Katrina. What really sucked is that he’d survived the storm and the floods. It was looters that took his life. His murderers had never been caught, something that still haunted her mother. Her maternal grandparents lived on a ranch in Montana, which her uncle now ran, since her grandfather’s last spill off a horse required a hip replacement. Starr’s other grandparents were also residents of Denver, but rarely in town. Her grandma had told them since they were small, that when she finally got her professor husband to retire, they were going to travel. And travel they did. The last postcard Starr received had been from Ireland. Yes, she thought. Some day she would like to travel the world, but at twenty-seven, she had time. She couldn’t waste the time she had left with her mom, and the knowledge that in a few years, her mother would slip away, at least mentally, weighed heavily on her. Lost in her thoughts, she failed to accelerate at a green light until she heard the sounds of honking cars behind her. As she fumbled with the gearshift, her flustered haste made her stall out, causing more cars to honk. Ignoring the single finger salute of the driver in the car who swerved around her vehicle, she restarted her ignition and pulled forward, right as the light turned yellow.
“Well,” she told herself, staring at her blue eyes in the rearview mirror, “At least they didn’t recognize me.”
She hated tweeted criticism, and she already got her share.
Five minutes later, she pulled into her one-car garage in the three-bedroom town home she purchased a couple of years before. She stayed in the small suburb of Englewood, one of the many mini cities that surrounded the Denver metroplex. Pressing the remote on her visor, she made sure the garage door was closed before exiting her car, something she did out of habit these days, although when her mother had first demanded she take that precaution as a woman living alone, her initial instinct had been to rebel. But her mom was hypersensitive when it came to random acts of violence and common sense won out over adolescent protestations. This was her first home, her first mortgage, her first true act of independence. For the first time, she lived alone, no family, no roommates and she loved it.
As she entered the dimly lit kitchen, she immediately turned to the control box beside the doorframe, disengaging and re-engaging her alarm as she felt the familiar softness rubbing against her bare ankles. Tossing her keys and purse on the kitchen counter, she bent down and picked up her black cat, rubbing her face against the fur of the feline’s neck. Her own raven locks mingled with the cat’s and it would have been hard to distinguish whose were whose to an observer if not for the blond streaks that trickled throughout her hair.
“One of these days, Bruja, you are going to make me trip and fall. You could at least wait until I’m all the way through the door,” she admonished the animal.
“Meow,” came the response as the cat jumped down and immediately went to the sliding glass door behind the small kitchen table.
“Yes, yes. I know. You’ve been cooped up all day and want to go out on the prowl,” Starr acknowledged turning on her back porch light and opening the door. A small beeping sound came from the box on the wall behind her as the home security system acknowledged a breech on the premises. “Plan on being out there a while, Kitty. I’m gonna take a bath.”
Heading through a short hallway which skirted a small den, she made her way to the steps by her front door, kicking off her shoes once she moved from tile to the lush pearl carpeting that covered the floors everywhere except the kitchen and the bathrooms. Her room was at the top of the stairs to the right, the other two smaller rooms were above the kitchen, and garage and a guest bathroom rested about the middle of the upper landing. She had her own bathroom. The house was not large, but it was comfortable.
She was already pulling her shirt off as she entered the room. She went to the dresser and withdrew a some men’s boxers and a t-shirt, her usual sleepwear, and tossed them on the bed, along with a clean pair of panties.
Damn! she thought. I didn’t even bring anything up to drink. Or snack on for that matter. Glancing at the mirror over her dresser, she took in short inky hair with blond highlights, glad she sported the pixie haircut and noting the makeup starting to smudge under the sapphire blue eyes. Darting into the bathroom, she turned on the water and plugged the tub, adding a generous amount of scented oil before she decided to go back down to the kitchen.
This was the best part of living alone, she acknowledged as she padded her way back down the stairs in just her bra and jeans. Not having to throw on a robe when I leave my room.
Opening the fridge, she debated over the leftover Chinese or some cheese, salami and crackers. Thinking the cold option would be better with a hot bath, she grabbed the Swiss and lunchmeat, a bottled ice tea and a box of Wheat Thins, setting everything on the counter as she went to call her cat inside. Leaving the door opened for a minute, she turned and grabbed her makeshift meal and tucked what she couldn’t carry under her arms. But apparently after being stuck inside all day, Bruja was not about to make a short night of it, so resigned, Starr locked the door and went back upstairs.
Setting her snacks on the bed, she went and turned off the water and turned on the TV that sat on top of a display case across from her bed. She loved watching Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, but it was still too early so she removed the rest of her clothes, threw everything in the hamper by her bathroom door, and proceeded to set her little feast down on the toilet lid as she slid into the liquid warmth. Leaning back, she closed her eyes, only half-listening to the nightly local broadcast.
“Police still have no leads in the death of Betsy Wright, our dearly departed producer-slash-lifestyle commentator, who was so brutally murdered almost six months ago and today, Lieutenant Jack Draper announced that without further evidence, the case is on its way to the cold files. The station is still offering a twenty-five thousand dollar reward for any information that would aid in this investigation…”
Thirty minutes later, with her face freshly washed free of make up, and the salami breath defeated by a toothbrush, she nearly screamed as Bruja jumped on her bed. Scolding the cat playfully, a sudden wave of panic came over her. Alert now, frightened even and second-guessing herself whether or not she’d locked up during her attempt to call the cat in earlier, she grabbed the baseball bat she kept under her bed and slowly crept down her stairway. She heard nothing, but the dim house suddenly felt eerie, so she turned on every light on her way back to the kitchen.
Holding her breath, she ducked around the corner, the bat raised for attack. Nothing. No shadows, no burglars, no boogey man. The back porch light was still on and the sliding glass door was still locked, as was every other door, she found when she double-checked. But the real comfort came from the green light on the box by the door that led to the garage.
“Damned smart little kitty,” she said out loud. “She must have sneaked in when I opened the door earlier.”
Breathing a sigh of relief, she turned off the lights and headed back upstairs to bed.
Central Colorado in the summer was one of the most beautiful times of the year. Although some days it could be unbearably hot, as soon as the sun went down, everything cooled off. Starr was looking forward to the concert Friday night, which was being held at Red Rock Stadium, one of the premier venues in the country. Listening to her colleagues promoting the IED giveaway all weekend, she’d felt the usual rise of excitement that normally overtook her as a major promotional event was drawing near.
A few months back, when KSTR had participated in a charity event sponsored by KUSA, the NBC affiliate in Denver, she’d really been psyched because it was her first public event since the ad campaign promoting her rising recognition. She’d even been interviewed for a fluff piece about her grandfather owning a horse ranch and how she’d become a proficient rider and roper. KUSA’s general sales manager, Rebecca Downey, was head of the local chapter of the A.W.R.T.–American Women in Radio and Television. All the employees of Denver’s media outlets had been invited to participate in different sporting and rodeo events–bronco riding, stunt riding, tug-of-wars, a softball game. The event raised scholarship money for young women pursuing careers in media. Ad and PR agencies, network and cable affiliates and radio stations signed up their employees either as individuals or as teams to “open a can of whoop ass,” as KSTR’s local sales manager, Brent Jackson, described it, on each others’ business competitors and associates. It was a lot of fun and Starr made new friends and contacts through the event. She’d even received a few offers trying to tempt her away from KSTR, but Starr was nothing if not loyal and had graciously promised to “think about it” when each offer was presented. Hers was not an industry that paid to insult the wrong corporate execs.
She was looking forward to her first day back on the air after a very relaxing weekend. She’d taken the time to have her hair trimmed and the highlights touched up, get a mani-pedi and shop for two bad-ass outfits one for the interview in the studio on Thursday and the other for Friday’s concert. She met several music personalities in her short career in radio, especially since her career really took off several months before, but she had to admit, she was kind of crushing on Ronin. And it wasn’t just because he was rock-star hot!
Zach Ronin was very much into children’s causes, whether it was helping the ill, feeding and supplying orphanages and educating those in under-developed countries. Last year, he’d donated one hundred thousand dollars to building a school in South America and campaigned tirelessly for continual donations to keep it well-stocked with both educators and supplies.
She wasn’t quite sure why she wanted to look extra appealing for this particular studio guest. She’d promised herself years before when she’d gotten involved with a one-hit-wonder who’d spiraled down the dark, drug drain that she would never date a celebrity again. And she had managed to stick to her guns on that. But when one is “in the business,” one’s choices for companionship usually meant someone else in the business. So far her black book included two ad executives, one account executive from another radio station and a program director from the local PBS station, who was also a communication professor at her brother’s school. She wasn’t a virgin by any stretch of the imagination, but she made sure she never acquired the reputation of a slutty party girl either.
Stepping out of her shower, she grabbed a towel and quickly scrubbed at her head, her short hair almost instantly going from soaked to damp. As she wrapped it around her body and padded from the bathroom to her bedroom, the midday day news was broadcasting a breaking story.
“…David Moore on location with today’s top story. KRFX dj Michelle Thomas, of the Michelle in the Morning show, is in critical condition at Mile High Hospital this morning after a late-night attack at her apartment. A police spokesperson will only say that Ms. Thomas was found after a frantic 911 call in which she lost consciousness before the police and paramedics reached her. She was the apparent victim of a home invasion with injuries consisting of several stab wounds. At this time, the police have no suspects and are not releasing further details. Back to you, Laura,” a man in the customary suit and tie concluded from the front parking lot just outside of the hospital emergency room. The scene switched to the studio as the female anchor concluded the segment.
“Thanks, David. This is the second media personality to fall victim to assault in the past several months. Our viewers will recall the violent and untimely death of one of our own, Elizabeth Wright, known to those who loved and worked with her as Betsy–commentator and program director here at this station. This case is still unsolved and the twenty-five thousand dollar reward we are offering will stand until her killer is caught. We will keep you informed on both cases as information develops. Laura Jaffe, Channel 7 News.”
Wow! Starr thought. Weird… and scary. She felt a small sense of satisfaction that she’d promoed the company that monitored her home security system. It had cost her next to nothing to have installed and as long as she regularly plugged them on her show, she didn’t even pay the monthly maintenance fee.
She knew Michelle Thomas and decided she would stop by the hospital on her way into work. They weren’t really friends, as the other woman worked at a station that played classic rock and was in her mid 40’s, but they were socially acquainted enough that Starr felt compelled to add her name to what she was sure was a long list of well-wishers.
Applying her deodorant and perfume, she donned her bra, panties, black jeans and a gray tee shirt with her station’s logo. She almost tripped pulling on her thong sandals as Bruja brushed against her standing leg while the other was mid-air, her finger hooked into the back strap to secure the shoe around her ankle. Hopping twice to keep her balance, she shooed the kitty away in annoyance.
“Damnit, Bruja. What is it going to take to get you to stop doing that?” she raged in exasperation. “One of these days, you’re going to make me break my neck!”
She finished getting ready by putting on her makeup and squirting some gel into her palm. Rubbing her hands together, she spiked the product through her hair and combed it out, curling the sides along the sides of her face against her cheeks, giving it a sleek appearance. The last thing she did was grab a pair of sterling and crystal earrings that hung down almost to her shoulders.
Giving herself the final once-over in her dresser mirror, she was satisfied with the results. The black eyeliner and gray and purple eyeshadow made her deep blue eyes pop and the dusky rose of her blush and lip gloss complemented her dark coloring.
For what must have been the thousandth time, she thought, What does it really matter, you twit? You’re on the radio!
“I’m sooo excited. We’re just minutes away from the arrival of our special guests, Zach Ronin and Jason Maldonado from the band IED! As you all know, that show has been sold out for weeks now but KSTR still has some tickets to give away, so keep listening all the way up to my show tomorrow when Bad Boy Billy, who, sweetheart that he is despite his name, will be pulling a double shift, giving away the station’s last pair of tickets while covering my show and then his own. But I’ll be checking in via live remote throughout the night as one lucky contestant and a guest join the members of IED for dinner, front row seats and the after party! And people, let me tell you that you wanna stay tuned in for the rest of my show today, especially if you’ve been registered for the awesome night tomorrow! Zach Ronin himself will announce the big winner. That’s just a couple of hours away! Now, let’s start the afternoon drive home with the latest single from the new IED album, Under a Blood Red Moon. Here’s Your Money’s Worth on the only station that rocks Denver twenty-four-seven, KSTR.”
Starr flipped a switch and then moved and clicked the mouse, confident that the run of music playing the next several minutes would give her a chance to run to the restroom and double-check her appearance for the umpteenth time. Her hot guests hadn’t arrived yet but they would be here any minute and she didn’t want to use the mirror in the green room and be caught primping. She would never hear the end of it from her co-workers, especially since her “no-celebrity-rule” was commonly known. For the life of her, she could not fathom what was going on inside her head. This wasn’t the first rock stars she’d interviewed and they sure wouldn’t be the last. But, she admitted to herself, she’d really gone all-out to look good for these guys—okay, one of these guys.
Looking in the mirror, she said out loud to her reflection, “Confess, bitch. You know you’re crushin’ on Ronin.” Certainly not the first time the thought crossed her mind.
Yes, she was. She was just so impressed with how he handled the rock and roll lifestyle. He wasn’t a bleeding heart, but he wasn’t an asshole either. And, honestly, those were usually the two extremes that many celebrities fell into. She remembered being on a flight to L.A. a couple years back, covering a Lollapalooza event and she happened to be sitting in first class with Jay Leno. She’d always loved the guy on late-night TV, but he was a total dick to the flight attendant. It really colored her opinion of him. And besides her own ill-fated romance years before, most all of the media personalities she’d met fit into one or the other category.
Using a cotton swab under her eye to wipe away some mascara, she then took a finger to rub a bit of shadow that seemed darker on one side. She sprayed some spritz on her hair, careful not to get any on the black and brown feathered earrings, scrunching up the strands at the top to give it a little lift and a bit of a messy look. Finally, she pulled out her lipstick and re-applied the burgundy color along her lip outline. A quick spray of Chloe perfume on the leopard print suede short dress she wore with fishnet stockings that encased her slim thighs right before they disappeared into a pair of knee-high black moccasins finished her off and she raced back to the studio with seconds to spare before the last track finished. Just as she sat down, clicking over to the advertisement spots set to run in the first break of her show, she saw through the large window next to the studio door the band members being led in by her now-officially-former producer and the new assistant program director Mac Sherman. He waved to her, as did the other men, while they passed the studio onto the green room, where they could relax and gather their thoughts for a few minutes before she introduced them. Maldonado blew her a kiss with two fingers, smiling suggestively at the same time, but Ronin just nodded his head in acknowledgment, turning his attention back to Mac. She ignored the rush of disappointment, focusing on the next segment of her show.
“And we’re back and just moments away from our very special guests, Zach Ronin and Jason Maldonado, lead vocals and bass for the bad-ass IED! In fact, I have a pair of tickets to give away for the first caller to correctly name, in order, all the singles of their first full-length CD and the CD too, of course. Now here’s some System of a Down, Spiders, to get us all in the mood.”
Over the next several minutes, Starr took callers who were trying for the ticket give away. She returned on-air with the recorded call of the winner.
“Who am I speaking to?” her voice asked energetically.
“My name’s Mandy,” came the excited reply of a young woman.
“So Mandy. You say you know all eight of the songs on IED’s debut album. Let’s start with the name of the CD.”
“The CD is called Run For Cover.”
“Now can you name the singles?”
“Yes, I sure can. I love that album. And I love you, too, Zach! Track one, Give It a Rest, track two, Take It or Leave It, track three Hit By a Bus, track four, On the Run, track five is the cover title, track six is Redemption, track seven is Blood Splatter and track eight is Longing,” the young woman finished breathlessly.
“Hot damn, you got it! Mandy, you and a friend are going to the show. Hold on while I get your information to be added to the guest list. You already know who you’re taking?” Starr asked the wailing caller.
“Oh my God, I can’t believe it! And yes, even though my boyfriend might not like it, I’m taking my sister. Her birthday was a week ago and we have been trying to get tickets to this concert for a month. In fact, I listen to your show everyday on the way home from work. I was hoping that somehow, I’d win tickets! I’m so excited and Gwen, if you’re listening, happy birthday, big sister!” the woman finished as Starr disengaged the call.
“Well, I imagine Gwen doesn’t mind this late birthday present one bit! When we return, I have a gift for all the listeners out there. Zach and Jason are coming up after this commercial break. Stay tuned!” she finished, clicking on the next set of advertisements scheduled to run during the show. She buzzed into the green room and told Mac she’d just run a five-minute, thirty-second ad reel and was ready for her guests. A few minutes later, all three men entered the studio. Bar stools had been brought in earlier that day in anticipation of the band members. Jason carried an acoustic guitar and three mircrophones had been set up, two about the height of the men and one about the height of the instrument.
Starr immediately stood up from her chair and greeted the men with an outstretched hand. Mac, in the back, nodded his head and ducked back out of the studio.
“Welcome, welcome,” she said enthusiastically, although later, she’d wonder if she’d “gushed” a bit much. The tingle that ran up her arm at the first contact she made with Zach Ronin felt like a mild shock of static electricity and she could feel a growing irritation at herself for acting and feeling so unprofessional. Gesturing to the stools, she held up a hand for the five second countdown as they settled in their seats.
Deciding it would play well with the listeners, she gave up her internal struggle and announced, “So we’re back and in the studio I have very special guests, Zach Ronin and Jason Maldonado from the band IED. I have to say in all honesty, I am kind of crushing on you guys,” she started and Jason immediately let out a whoop of laughter. The handsome Mexican clapped his hands together and turned to his bandmate.
“Hey, dude. It looks like I might have a fighting chance with this one,” he laughed. When the lead singer replied, Starr thought her insides would just melt at the lilt of his Irish accent.
“That’s only cuz she ain’t seen you drunk yet, brother,” came the amused reply. Staring at the auburn-haired man with the bottle green eyes, she almost lost track of her cue as she continued on.
“So, Zach. Clearly you’re Irish-born. Is Zach short for Zachary?” she asked, trying to recover her cool and put her interviewing hat on.
“Actually, my full name is Zechariah, and yes, I was born just outside of Belfast. But me mum’s American and we moved to the states when I was a teenager.”
“I think I read somewhere that she’s a naval officer. Is that true?”
“Well, she’s retired now and m’ father is a protestant minister. So, as you can imagine, he wasna too popular back in the homeland. Northern Ireland is still very Catholic.”
“So your name is biblical. I’m a little rusty on my scripture. Zachariah was a king or something?”
“Well, yes, Zachariah was, but I was named for Zechariah, the profit. My full name is spelled with an ‘e.’ It means ‘the Lord is remembered’ My nick name, Zach, is a bit of a misnomer.”
“Actually, his last name has a bit of history to it too,” Jason piped in. “In Japanese, a ronin is a samurai without a master.”
“That’s a piece of trivia I’ll definitely tuck away. Clearly you’ve had a spiritual upbringing. I gather your parents weren’t too thrilled with your career choice?”
“Nae, no’ at first. But they’re great people and my t’ree brothers are all respectable,” he laughed. “A teacher, a lawyer and a chef.”
“Jason, you’re from Texas, right?”
“That’s right, born and bred on barbeque and ice tea. We all graduated from the same high school in Austin. That’s how we met and that’s when we started playing together.”
“I read somewhere that your influences were Metallica, Pantera and Iron Maiden. No Beetles or Rolling Stones?” she asked.
“I got this,” Jason told Zach, exchanging a wry smile with his compadre. “We love Zepplin and Sabbath. Lord knows, my folks will be Santana fans ’til the day they die, but we really grew up with the hair bands of the 80’s and grunge of the 90’s so you’re more likely to hear us cover Alice in Chains or Pearl Jam.”
“You mentioned Santana and a few of your tracks do sound like they have a mariachi melody playing. Who came up with that?”
“No question there. That was all Espinoza—Roy or I guess I should say Rogelio,” Jason answered, jokingly putting a hard emphasis on the Spanish pronunciation so that the name came out sounding “Roy-hell-ee-o” making the “hell” sound like he was choking up to spit.
“Yeah,” Ronin commented dryly. “I think he prefers Roy.” This elicited a chuckle from both Starr and Jason. “He also doubles as our production manager so he’s already out at Red Rock overseeing the set-up.”
“He’s your drummer, correct? I’ve heard him compared to Phil Collins. What does he think about that?” she continued.
“Well not too many of the ‘X-Gen’ even know that Phil is a phenomenal drummer. And I’d have to say Genesis is also one of our influences,” Zach answered.
“Roy gets a woody anytime he’s compared to the greats like Bohnam or Collins,” Jason added, once again eliciting a chuckle from everyone in the studio.
“You guys have done South by Southwest a few times, right? How was that? It must be amazing to be around some many other bands, many legends of the industry…”
They turned and looked at each other, more or less sending a knowing smile between the two of them. It was Zach who answered though.
“We’ve done SXSW four times now. What’s really great is seeing how our fan base has grown in the last ten years. The band’s been together for twelve years now, but those first couple of years were mainly playing friends’ parties or open mike gigs. In 2002, we were offered our first record deal and 2004 was our first show for SXSW. I think there were twelve people at that show,” he laughed and Jason agreed.
“But we played our asses off and got the opportunity to tour with Drowning Pool and Static X. Then we cut another CD and played some smaller venues on our own. But in ’06, we toured with Disturbed and Godsmack. That was when things really started taking off for us. It was an awesome experience and gave us a lot of learning tools as a band.”
“Signed With Our Own Blood was released back in 2009. That was the first CD that you toured as the headlining band. I was at that concert. It was one of my first as a working dj. I saw you guys in L.A. I almost didn’t go because I was there covering Lollapalooza and y’all were playing at another venue on the last day. But someone invited me, a record exec, and I thought, yeah, I should network this. But I was blown away. You have such a great sound. A bit of System, a bit of Maynard, a bit of Reznor. I could hear a bit of Rage in your performance as well,” she continued referring to several other bands and the talent that drove them to success.
“Oh, hell yeah!” Jason interjected. “My mom even knows the words to Guerrilla Radio. I think we were seniors in high school when De La Rocha announced he was leaving the band. Heartbroken, just heartbroken,” he groaned efficaciously.
“Well, guys, we need to take a break here but when we return, I was hoping you might do an unplugged version of Hit By a Bus?”
“Absolutely,” Zach affirmed.
“And then that moment the listeners have been waiting for. Zach and Jason will announce the winner of tomorrow night’s big give away! Stay tuned, headbangers and hard rockers. We’ll be back in a bit with Jason Maldonado and Zach Ronin from IED!”
“Superstar checking in with you, Bad Boy. I have Kelly Todd and her fourteen-year old son, Jacob, with us, KSTR’s grand prize winners. Kelly, last night when Zach Ronin called you personally to congratulate you, did you think it was a prank?” Starr asked the thirty-something single mother who was sporting one of the band’s touring jerseys and a pair of tight black jeans. Starr was thankful she’d been able to hand out the teeshirts to both the woman and her son since the mother’s top didn’t do much to cover her top and the kid’s shirt had a logo of the middle finger. Who am I to judge? she thought. From the back of her mind, another thought crept in. At least she won’t be flaunting those watermelons at… She gave herself a mental shake and then completed the thought for her own satisfaction… Anyone.
“Are you kidding? I thought Jacob got a friend to do it, ain’t that right, Jake?” the jubilant reply drew back Starr’s focus. “I’m half-surprised that hunky man didn’t hang up on me, the way I started cussing him out,” she snorted, making her chest jiggle along with her orange, corkscrew curls. “But, oh, what a gentleman he turned out to be at dinner!” she finished flirtatiously. Starr quelled the dislike she felt for the over-exuberant woman, forcing herself not to mentally criticize the excess amount of eye shadow and liner framing her hazel eyes or the almost-black outline around the woman’s lips.
The limo picked up Starr and the Todds from the radio station about three hours before and they met the band at the Ritz-Carlton in downtown Denver where the band was staying. Starr and the winners had a five-star dinner with them, complete with champagne. Far from drunk but admittedly slightly tipsy, Starr was broadcasting the interview over the phone through the station’s listener line. The teenager, undoubtedly his mother’s son, with the same carrot locks, just a bit dirtier and stringier, stopped messing around with the various controls in the backseat and held out his hand to Starr who in turn, held up the phone.
“I just wanna give a shout out to my friends, Tyler, Stu and Eric. Suck it, dudes! We ate lobster and truffles and now I’m in a limo with my front-row ticket and backstage pass!”
Starr couldn’t help but laugh. She felt like she was in a Pauly Shore movie. All that was missing was a bong and a bag of weed, although she suspected the teenager had something stashed in his sock since he kept feeling his ankle over the well-worn, dingy white hightops. Glancing at the mother, Starr was pretty sure the woman was “packing” as well. But, hell, since the laws had changed to allow recreational marijuana use, lots of folks had a joint or pipe handy these days. Starr certainly enjoyed her own “herbal essence.”
As their ride pulled up to the majestic Red Rock Amphitheatre, she struggled to focus on finishing the call while the limo was given access to the back loading entrance. The tour buses were already there, of course. The road crew had been there for several days, setting up the stage and sound. IED was touring with two smaller bands, Hatchet and Merry-Go-Round. They’d arrived earlier in the day for rehearsal and sound check. IED had done its rehearsals the previous days since the KSTR promotion would be taking up the hours prior to the headliner’s opening number and stage performance.
“Well, Bad Boy. We just pulled up at Red Rock. We’ll be checking in again throughout the night, might even be able to score a quick interview with some members from Hatchet and Merry-Go-Round. I’ll definitely be checking in later from the after-party,” she promised as she ended the call. Seconds later, the limo driver opened the door and the three passengers alighted from the luxurious vehicle.
Starr took a deep breath inhaling the smell of the open landscape. The magnificent structure was completed about six months before the strike on Pearl Harbor. The large amphitheatre was cut from the red clay that had been formed into stone over millions of years during the planet’s evolution. The surrounding cliffs resonated the keen acoustics of any sound that echoed off of them. As construction and technology advanced, lighting had been added. It wasn’t her first time here, but the beauty of the venue never ceased to strike her with its breathtaking view, the cosmopolitan city of Denver on one side and the Rocky Mountains on the other. And after dark, and the shows played from the stage, the lights would play off of the rocky cliffs in their own luminescent display. Although all the venue seating was outdoors, areas were cut into the rocks providing shelter as well. Inside the walls consisted of the red rock, but flooring had been added, tiles of marble circling the halls. Various plaques adorned the walls commemorating events that had taken place at the seventy year old site. There was an autograph wall that sported the signatures of many legendary performers from Elvis Presley to Elvis Costello, Metallica, Iron Maiden, Willie Nelson, Stevie Ray Vaughn and the list went on and on.
Starr took the lead of their small group and was escorted to a large conference room that had nice leather couches and a huge screen set up on one wall. She hid a smile when the kid started complaining.
“Hey, man! I thought we get to sit in the front row!”
“Shut up, Jake! This is much better than sitting around a bunch of assholes trying to rush the stage and screaming for the band,” his mother snapped.
“Don’t worry, Jacob. You and your mom have seats center stage and front row. I, however, will remain in here for the duration of the show. You guys get to enjoy all the excitement,” Starr assured them. “Y’all are free to go to your seats as soon as the doors officially open. That’s about ten more minutes.”
“Can I hang out back here with you? I’d kind of like to conversate a bit more with that Zach Ronin,” Kelly said suggestively.
“No!” Starr said a bit too quickly. “Uh, he won’t really be back here until after they perform and when the after party starts. And besides, I think their production company is going to use tonight to make a video. Don’t you want to be a part of that?” she asked, covering her animosity. She really didn’t know whether what she said was true or not, but it was pretty common for artists to have their performances recorded, especially in big venues. The footage was often edited into either a music video or DVD. Starr was pleased her comment got the woman starting to preen.
“Hey, where’s the restroom?” Kelly asked, digging into her purse. Like she needs another layer of makeup, Starr thought snidely as she pointed toward a doorway that led to another hall. Jacob fluttered the lanyard hanging around his neck.
“I’m going out to our seats, Mom,” he informed her. “Can I have some cash?”
“What the hell do you need money for? We got free shirts and just ate a huge meal!” she exclaimed.
“I dunno. Stuff, maybe. C’mon. Ten bucks?” he cajoled her and Starr’s opinion of the woman softened slightly as she watched her give in. Whatever her other faults, she clearly had genuine love for her child.
“Don’t spend it just to spend it, okay?” she admonished gently.
“Sure, Mom,” came the unconvincing reply as the woman shook her head and handed over the cash before turning toward the ladies’ bathroom. Starr could have told her that there was actually an executive washroom, complete with a sit-down makeup mirror, but for reasons she didn’t want to examine too closely, a cattiness prevented her from doing so.
Starr went over to a couch and made herself comfortable. Tonight she was wearing the other drop dead gorgeous outfit she’d purchased the weekend before. This was a skintight suede jumpsuit of a tie-dye pattern. It laced down from armpit to ankle revealing triangles of her milky skin the whole length of her body. The sleeves did the same, slightly off-shoulder down to her wrists. It was extremely low-cut but she wore a white lace sleeveless vest contoured to a V at her waist that was secured by small hooks. Not a woman to go full Monty beneath her outfits, she also wore a lace and silk white thong to demonstrate at least some modesty. Rather than kill her feet in heels like many women did, flat sandals with thin pearl-beaded straps adorned her feet. She’d really gone overboard on the outfit—it’d cost more than a thousand dollars, but for some inexplicable reason, she was compelled to outdo herself tonight. Crushin’ on Ronin, her mind teased her yet again. The waitstaff had just begun to arrive and she ordered a double-shot Irish Car Bomb. Feeling the Jameson’s burning in the pit of her stomach, she decided she’d better lay off the liquor. It was a long night still and the last thing she wanted to do was puke her guts out… especially in front of Ronin.
“Shut up!” she furiously told the voice in her head. Kelly Todd returned to the room just as Starr was scolding herself and she almost rolled her eyes. God, she needed a joint. Impulsively, she turned to the older woman.
“I don’t suppose you brought anything to smoke?” she asked. A huge smile broke out over the painted face and theother woman replied.
“Sativa or Indica?”
The first thing she became aware of the pastiness of her mouth. Moving her tongue around inside it, it felt like a paintbrush. A dull throb began to snake up from the back of her neck and by the time she squinted one eye open cautiously, she felt like someone was trying to rip off her scalp at the bangs. Slowly she opened the other eye but the surroundings were completely foreign to her. Sunlight was peeking through the drawn curtains covering the window and out of instinctual curiosity, she scanned the rest of the room. She could tell right away it was a rather pricy hotel suite but try as she might, searching her memory of the night before led to no clue as to whom it belonged to. With a growing sense of dread, she reached out an arm, coming in contact with a warm, hard bicep. Her eyes flew open and she sat straight up in the California King bed, only realizing after the fact that she was clad in a teeshirt and it wasn’t her own. Her sudden movement woke the person in bed with her and he too sat up in the bed.
“Maunin’, mavournin,” he commented groggily, his Irish brogue more pronounced as he turned and threw his legs over the bed. Starr quickly squeezed her eyes shut, fearing to catch sight of him in his “all together,” but oddly, and thankfully, she caught sight of fabric in the brief millisecond before her eyes closed so she immediately opened them again.
“Um, Ronin, er, Zach, uh…” she began, not sure what to say or how to react because the truth of the matter was, she couldn’t recall anything save for the first hour of the after-party backstage the night before. My God! He must think I’m a real slut! she thought. But what the hell? I know I didn’t drink that much! And then another thought crept in. Shit! What a disappointing lay if I can’t even remember it!
“Uh, look, I don’t mean to insult you or anything,” she began hesitantly, wishing he would put on a shirt or something. In her befuddled and embarrassed condition, the site of his bronze chest was causing her additional discomfort. “But did I—did we—shit, there’s really no other way to say this, but—”
“You mean did we do the horizontal Tango, love?” he asked with a knowing smile. Starr knew that she must be beet red at that point as she nodded slowly. “Should I take affront? I’ve never had a lassie what didn’t remember her night with me.” She covered her face with her hands, completely embarrassed. He laughed out loud.
Lowering her hands and raising her chin in a somewhat defiant fashion, she replied, “Maybe you are more forgettable than you think.”
“Oh, ho! Ouch! And to think you were all over me last night!” he revealed. Without thinking she answered him defensively.
“Honestly, Mr. Ronin, I don’t remember much after the party started. I really didn’t think I had that much to drink. A couple of shots. I smoked a joint with someone. Like I said, no insult intended, but the last thing I recall was that jerk from Merry-Go-Round hitting on me over and over again. Finally, I think just to shut him up, I drank the Tequila Sunrise he brought me. You must think I’m a slut,” she said shaking her head in self deprecation as she voiced her earlier thought.
“So no applause for my sexual prowess?” he asked teasingly, truly enchanted by the color her skin turned in her mortification.
“I’m sure the sex was great.” she offered, as she squirmed uncomfortably.
Her statement was rewarded by full blown laughter. Shooting him a narrow look, she too swung her legs off the bed, then standing up, she swung her head back and forth.
“Where are my clothes?” she demanded, but all bravado faded as she quickly sat back on the bed and put her hands to her temples, as if to stop the spinning within.
“Oh, no, I think I’m going to be sick!” she moaned and lay back on the bed. All amusement left Ronin’s eyes as he raced to her side with a trash can. Try as she might to restrain herself, she could not and found herself leaning over the bed, puking in the receptacle as Ronin brushed the bangs back from her face tenderly. Thankfully there was very little vomit, more bile than anything else. At some point, he’d pulled down a pillow for her to lounge on once she stopped convulsing and heaving while he got her a glass of cold water. Giving him a feeble smile of appreciation before she took a sip and handed it back, she turned her face in the pillow, moaning.
“I want to die. I’m so totally embarrassed and I hope you will believe me when I say I have never done something like this. Not forgotten a night, not puked—at least in front of anyone—and not spent the night with a virtual stranger. I am so, so sorry!”
“Ah, love, I canno‘ let you go on like so. That bastard, Mange they call him, the guy from Merry-Go-Round… Well, he slipped something in that drink he gave you last night. He almost got you to his room too, but I thought you were acting kind of funny. I know we don’t know each other, really, but you just don’t seem like the type to, ah, well let’s just say you don’t strike me as one to behave like groupie chick, if ya know what I mean.”
“What did you just say? He did what? My God, that son of a bitch. I will kill him. Or call the cops on him or something!” she groaned in outrage but it quickly turned into a whimper. “No wonder I feel so awful. This is by far the worse hangover I’ve ever had.”
“According to my personal physician, GHB metabolizes fast. Even with a blood test, it might be hard to prove you were drugged. And the glass with the drink is long gone. But I have some good news and maybe some bad news. Let’s start with the good. Your clothes were sent to the hotel dry cleaner. They will send them up when they are ready. Understandably, it is not a twenty-four hour service and it’s just after seven now. The other good news is that Mange cost his whole band the rest of this tour. They’ve been kicked off and our road manager said Merry-Go-Round left last night or rather around three a.m. this morning. Their label might want to sue us to get some prepaid expenses back but fuck ’em. The scandal of what he did would be much worse! As far as I am concerned, the bloody bastards got off easily. I wonder how many other women he’s done this to or if they all are assholes like him. No one can tell me that at least one other member didn’t know the kind of bullshit he pulls. Our band’s been together twelve years and I can tell you what not to feed them all so they don’t fart on the bus among other things, many other things!” he finished with a snort of disgust.
Starr couldn’t help the slight smile that crept over her face. “So you saved me?”
Now it was Ronin’s turn to blush a bit at the shyly asked question. “Well that’s kind of the bad news too,” he began. At her raised eyebrows, he took a deep breath and continued. “I didn’t just stop him, I stomped him. I kicked his bloody ass in the hallway on the floor where their rooms were. And wouldn’t you know it? There was a camera guy from TMZ there. I’m pretty sure he got the worst part, which, going over it in my mind, would have looked more like a caveman stealing another man’s woman. I’m pretty sure the ruckus of my fist slamming Mange into the wall is what brought people out of their rooms at two a.m. While he was down I told him he was off the tour but you were barely standing on your own at that point so I kind of threw you over my shoulder and got on the elevator. That was the first time you got sick, pretty much all over both of us.”
“Oh my God! With my face on half the buses in this town, it’s only a matter of time before someone sees that footage and recognizes me,” she gasped, sitting up once again. “Is my purse around here somewhere? I have to call the station!”
“I fear you’re right about being recognized. That outfit you wore was…” he whistled in appreciation. “I’m sure there are press photos of you in it before the concert. Even with your face hidden by the way I carried you, I doubt anyone would miss that tie-dye number!” he told her as he handed her the beaded white clutch. As she took out her cell, he commented on whether or not that’s what she wanted to leave the hotel in.
“I hadn’t even thought about that,” she said over the mouth piece of the phone. “Shit.”
“Look, how about I call room service for some coffee and breakfast,” he grinned at her grimace when he mentioned the food. “It will probably be good for you to have some toast at least.”
“Make it an English muffin, please. And black coffee sounds divine at the moment. Hey, Cheryl. Oh thank God your there today. I thought I was going to have to leave you a voice mail. Wait a minute. It’s Saturday and I know this isn’t your cell. What are you even doing there?” she said into the phone.
“I’m guessing your about a five?” he asked quietly and she gave him a questioning look. “Jeans, dresses?” She nodded but before she could ask him why, she was once again engaged in the conversation taking place over the phone. Ronin assumed it was someone in the public relations department at KSTR because Starr was reciting the story he’d told her earlier.
“No, I am fine! Bit of a bruised ego, considering I puked twice on the hottest guy in this town—”she cut herself off abruptly when she realized what had just come out of her mouth, but then she continued, pretending she’d never uttered the words. “Mr. Ronin said he talked to his doctor. I’m still a bit nauseous and dizzy but I’m going to have some coffee and maybe a bite to eat. I just wanted to make sure you’d be on top of this. TMZ does a late-night show on Saturdays and I’m pretty sure this will be on it. Yes, I think that’s a great idea. If you know someone over there, at least you could put out the story that maybe I was ill. Hell, I guess as long as the station doesn’t care, you can even say I was drunk and that asshole tried to take advantage of me but no, since I don’t want the police involved, let’s not bring any allegations he drugged me. And please, let’s spin this so that Ronin comes out as the hero he was. He should get some good publicity out of this. Thanks Cheryl. Call me on my cell if you need me. Bye.”
“There’s a nice fluffy terry robe in the bathroom if you’d like to shower,” he offered her. “Your clothes from last night probably won’t be ready for a couple more hours but I sent someone out to a Walmart to get you some jeans and a top. Figured they’re the only place open this early. Not to embarrass you further but I told her to get you a sports bra. I really didn’t want to ask you your size and clearly you weren’t wearing one last night.”
“So you didn’t undress me?” she asked in hesitating relief.
“No, m’am, I did not. That was Junie, the lass I sent on the Wally errand. She’s not really a lassie, though. Just my slang. She’s got about twenty years on me. She’s the band ‘mother’ for lack of a better description. She keeps us fed, clothed, sober when necessary. I guess in this country she’d be known as a ‘Gal Friday.’”
“I will have to thank her when she comes by. I guess I’ll hop in the shower now,” she murmured, suddenly shy again as she quickly made her way to the bathroom.
Ten minutes later, she emerged in a cloud of steam, safely ensconced in the thick terry robe, her hair spiky from toweling it dry. She didn’t see him anywhere in the bedroom so she ventured out to the common area of the suite. The first thing she noticed was that he’d donned a shirt and was almost disappointed to see those “six pack abs” modestly covered now, despite her earlier wishes that he do just that.
“You look like a porcupine,” he teased her and she self-consciously combed her fingers through her hair, smoothing it down. “I made coffee in the brewer provided, but I’m having a Colombian blend sent up with breakfast,” he said as he held out a chair for her at the table. Glancing around the room she didn’t remember from the night before, she saw a guitar sitting against the wall. Following her gaze, he walked over to it and picked it up and started to play.
“You fill up my senses, like the night in a forest. Like the mountains in springtime, like a walk in the rain…” He stopped and gave her a lopsided grin. “Too classic for you? Most people our age don’t even know who John Denver was.”
“Oh, no. You have a wonderful voice. My dad used to sing that song to my mother. Her name is Ann. He always called her Annie so it was fitting, you know, that he would sing Annie’s Song to her.”
“I take it you father has passed?” he asked gently.
“Yes almost eight years ago now. He was a meteorologist covering Katrina.”
“I’m sorry. Was it the storm?”
“Actually, no. That’s been the hardest part to get passed. He was killed by looters in New Orleans in early September 2005. It remains an unsolved homicide.”
“Wow, that really must be tough. Does your family live here?”
“Oh, yes. My whole family. Both sets of grands, my uncle and his family, my mom and brother. He’s a student at DU. Studying meteorology like my dad. Which is kind of fitting. His name is Noah,” she offered with a smile as she drank the hot black liquid. The shower had done wonders to clear her mind. A knock on the door interrupted the casual conversation.
“Yoo-hoo!” a melodious voice called out. “It’s just me, laddie. I’ve brought clothes for your young lady.”
He crossed the room to open the door. Starr was startled by the tiny creature who came bouncing in. She couldn’t have been over five foot minus the beehive hairdo of brown and silver. She wore a smock of all things, complete with pockets in front and came over to stand in front of Starr.
“Stand up, girl. Let’s have a look ‘atcha,” she commanded and when Starr complied, she looked her up and down with a critical eye. “Yes, I suppose these will fit, although it’s hard to tell with her all wrapped up in that fluffy robe.”
“Shall I ask her to remove it?” he said with a winked. Starr blushed but smiled all the same.
“Oh, go on with ya, you dirty dog,” the small woman admonished as she gave her own wink and handed the bag to Starr. “It’s just jeans and blouse, honey. And a medium size sports bra. I take it you have panties or don’t wear ’em because he didn’t tell me to get any,” she remarked matter-of-factly. Starr could feel her color heighten as she nodded shyly.
“This is Junie, my travel mum,” Ronin introduced the woman affectionately.
“Starr Jennings. Thank you so much for going out of your way and picking out some clothes for me. How much do I owe you?” she asked taking the bag. “I’m sure there’s an ATM in the lobby.”
“No need. Zecheriah already paid for it,” she said with a nod. “But that was quite a get up you had on last night. It must have cost you a bundle. I’m gonna go and see what’s up with the dry-cleaning.” As if on cue, another knock came at the door.
“Ah, just in time. Junie, stay and have some breakfast with us.” Ronin offered. “At least coffee.”
“Boy, you seem to forget what it’s like when you stay over in the same town after a show. It’s not like I have a few days to get everything back in order while the bus is on the move. And now we have to find another band to play with the tour. We’ve got another six weeks on the road and next week is Vegas. But you go and enjoy your breakfast with Miss Jennings and don’t worry about poor, long-suffering me,” she told him in a mockingly aggrieved tone as she let the bellhop in and left the room.
“Oh, sure. I guess you’ll just have to catch up on all your rest while you’re in Fiji for a month! On the band’s dime!” was his snarky, but affectionate reply. Then he turned to her and said, “I’m sure you want to change so hurry! I’m starved!”
“Oh, yeah! Duh! Go ahead and start without me, Mr. Ronin. I’ll be right back,” she called over her shoulder as she headed for the bedroom.
“Don’t you think it’s time you called me Zach?”
She just couldn’t fall asleep. The past few days felt like a nightmare fairy tale—first the nasty business with the Merry-Go-Round drummer, Mange, then the damning tabloid headlines that followed a rather unflattering view of her body tossed over Zach Ronin’s shoulder in the hallway of the downtown Denver hotel. Tomorrow would be her first day back on the air since it all happened and after Cheryl Potter’s phone call earlier that evening, Starr now knew she had a Post article to look forward to as well. It kind of irritated her that the paper would contact the station’s PR coordinator before actually attempting to reach her directly, which they still had not done. And yet this article was supposed to run in the Monday morning edition.
“Look, honey, you had to expect this… If it wasn’t for your status here as a local celebrity, a story like this would never make it past the scandal sheets. But you are kind of a big deal in this town. Like it or not there is a name-brand recognition that comes on the station as a result of your show’s popularity. The best thing to do is get in front of this and in a week or two, it’ll all blow over,” Cheryl assured her from the other end of the line.
“Yeah, well, I caught the TMZ rebroadcast at 2 a.m. this morning. Not too entertaining when Harvey Levin and Charles are referring to me as ‘the number one party girl of the Denver airwaves!’” Starr replied hotly. And laying there in bed, trying to force her mind to relax and welcome the sleep her worn body so acutely needed, the broadcast played through her mind like a DVR recording.
“And the latest scandal for the bad-boy rockers of Merry-Go-Round is that Zecheriah Ronin, the lead singer for IED, the headlining band on the tour, has kicked Merry-Go-Round off the tour! And it seems to be because of this little starlet, Harvey. Tony, our cameraman has more on this breaking story…” At this point the cameras in the studios cut from the two TMZ hosts to a pudgy-looking overgrown teenager who continued with the rest of the details.
“Charles, you should have seen it! Well, duh, you can see what I captured on tape but that’s just Ronin flinging the little hottie over his shoulder caveman style. The shot I really blew was the one of Ronin nailing Mange with a slam-dunk fist, cheekbone to nose, that sent him whooshing to the floor. I was only able to get the spewing blood covering the downed artist’s tee shirt as the IED lead singer took off with the girl.” And here Harvey intercepted the hand-off.
“What’s really turned out to be interesting, Tony, is that the ‘hottie’ is none other than the number one party girl of the Denver airwaves, Starr Jennings, or Superstar as she’s known on the radio. The country at large may not know this young DJ, but to those in metropolitan Denver, she’s quite well known with billboards and bus posters all over the place.”
“She seems pretty wasted here, Harvey. And that’s kind of surprising since Zach Ronin isn’t known for a scandalous love life. We’ve yet to see a story about him from any of the IED groupies,” Charles observed in a speculative tone. “Sources inside that after-party from the concert Friday night claim she was smoking some hand rolled cigarettes, if ya know what I mean. But hey, it Colorado so pot’s not really a big deal there.”
And that was about it for the gossip about her. Now tomorrow, on air, she would reap the fallout. Somehow she finally managed to drift off to sleep despite the dread that lay upon her like an elephant on her chest.
She nearly jumped a mile as she got out of her car at the station, because no sooner had she closed her door than a man approached her.
“Starr Jennings?” he asked abruptly.
“Ah, yes?” she replied hesitantly.
Slapping a piece of folded paper against her chest her told her, “You’ve just been served.”
“What the fu…?” she puzzled. But she didn’t hang around because like her house she’d left with some difficulty this afternoon, she began to see flash bulbs going off in the corner of her eyes as reporters yelled at her.
“Is it true you got Mange kicked out of Merry-Go-Round? That he’s suing you and Zach Ronin for defamation of character?”
“How long have you and Ronin been involved?”
“How long were you and Mange involved?”
She was thankful that security was enforcing the visitor code in the parking lot. They weren’t instructed to do so very often, usually only when a big artist was expected at the station. She’d never expected that such controversy would result from the incident over the weekend. But she was angry, too. Hurrying toward the building so she could fully read the summons that had been shoved at her in some relative privacy was her first priority. Ignoring the questions being shouted at her from behind the vertical wrought-iron bars of the entrance gates to the parking lot, she paused only once before entering.
“Groupie slut!” came from the crowd. She whipped her head around to scan where the source of that insult came from but only succeeded in giving the paparazzi a clear shot at her troubled countenance.
Any thought of privacy disappeared as Cheryl Potter came rushing up to her. “The PTB’s want to see you upstairs in the conference room.”
It never boded well when the Powers That Be were calling you before them. A military tribunal was often more pleasant.
“So it’s true?” Starr asked furiously. “That asshole is trying to sue me after he ruffied me? Unfuckingbelievable!” she spat as she hurried along to keep up with Cheryl’s brisk pace.
“That’s not even the best part,” she replied ominously.
“What the fuck? You can’t leave me hanging!”
“The little limey prick is suing the station as well.” But Starr had no time to answer as the two women came up to the conference room doors. Knocking quickly, Cheryl opened them and they were “welcomed” in.
Starr knew almost everyone there. The local sales manager, Brent Jackson, was there; the national sales manager, Whit Cumby, was there, and of course the GSM, Carey Reynolds and GM, Greta Jimenez were all present. These were people she was used to seeing pretty much every day. But there were three others, two women and a man, she did not recognize. Greta stood up and made the introductions.
“Starr, I would like you to meet our corporate FCC liaison, Tamara Worth and the Vice President of West Coast Operations for Carmel Communications, our corporate owner, Jebediah Stone. And this is Sharon Price, the head corporate council.”
Up to this point in her career at KSTR, she’d never been the subject of a corporate spin cycle but looking at the somber faces of those she was feeling very confronted by as she shook hands with the lot of them, she understood now why some whispered it was like a tribunal. It was quite intimidating.
“Ms. Jennings, Starr, please take a seat. And call me Jeb.”
An hour and a half later she was back in her car, driving anywhere but home, on paid “vacation” for at least two weeks. Not that the station was holding her responsible for the scandal. Oh, no. Not that at all! The corporate attorney was very clear as she explained that even if Starr came out with the GHB details, it would still boil down to a matter of she-said-he-said which she thought was total bullshit. After all, there were witnesses… well, sort of. Witnesses to the actually drugging of her cocktail? The lawyer had grilled. Not exactly, was her response. But witnesses to her consuming alcohol and smoking marijuana… Starr lifted her chin a bit mutinously but remained silent to the hard stares around the table.
“It was a fucking concert!” is what she wanted to say to the executive assholes.
The panel had been quick to assure her that she wasn’t being replaced after Jeb Stone “suggested” she take some time off. Still caught off-guard by all the decisions that were made about her without her say, she’d hadn’t time to absorb their assumptions that her top concern was as shallow as having her public status diminished. Whenever a media personality went on hiatus, took a sabbatical, went to rehab or whatever, there’s always a threat of being replaced permanently. She herself thought Jon Oliver was a great stand in for Jon Stewart on The Daily Show over the past summer. But both Carey and Greta told her that her show would go on rotation amongst several other station personalities so there would not even be speculation that she wouldn’t be back.
She was so caught up in her musings that she almost ran a red light and had to slam on the brakes. Her window was down and suddenly she heard a mocking voice yell out to her.
“Smoking a bit much or driving a bit soon?” came a smart-ass catcall. She shot a dirty look and the finger at the smirking teenagers in the car next to her.
“OMG it’s Superstar! Quick get a picture!” In less than a second, she found herself staring at a collection of hand-held rectangles.
Great! she thought. Wonder what tabloid that will end up in.
“Tweet it!” she heard one of the occupants of the car suggest.
Can this day get any worse?
She hadn’t even debated with herself whether or not to head home immediately, since there would doubtlessly be even more reporters and paparazzi camped out in her neighborhood. It was a nice, gated community but hardly had the security detail to impede determined media hounds. She’d left a message for her brother asking him to run by her place and grab some clothes for her which she’d planned to pick up that evening before heading out to her grandparents ranch. Yeah, she admitted to herself. To hide out. Especially after she’d been warned by Cheryl not to give any personal statements that she hadn’t scheduled for Starr.
“Just be grateful that, for now, the station is going to cover your legal costs–”
“’For now’?” Starr interjected in alarm. “I have no liability in this situation, Cheryl. Damn it, you know that. Under what circumstances would ‘for now’ become ‘you’re on your own, kid’?” she’d continued in a tight voice, anger and frustration clear in her voice. “Ya know, this really fucking sucks!”
“Sweetie, it’ll be okay. Really, take advantage of the paid time off. Let the advertisers simmer down. IED’s publicist hasn’t put out a statement yet, but it’s only a matter of time. I’m sure they’ll have to before the Vegas show in a few days. Just don’t do anything to add fuel to the fire,” she replied placatingly.
Like flip off a bunch of teenagers? she thought wryly as she glanced down when her phone vibrated again the plastic of her center console. Glancing up to make sure the light was still red, she brushed a thumb across the screen seeing a number she didn’t recognize.
“Heard ya got some free time. Wanna join me in Vegas?” the message read. Immediately, her heart sped up and she caught her breath as a half-smile crossed her face. There was little doubt who the message came from and even less about what the implications of the invitation held.
Or meet up with Ronin in Vegas?
Despite her “golden rule” about dating celebrities and maybe even as a rebellious response to Cheryl’s warning, she texted back rapidly, trying to beat the green light.
“Can be there by midnight.”
The butterflies in her stomach had nothing to do with the slight turbulence the plane was experiencing and everything to do with her impulsive decision to fly to Las Vegas and meet up with Zechariah Ronin. This was no business excursion; on the contrary, it was all for pleasure. She glanced around the cramped commercial flight self-consciously, wondering if anyone close to her noticed the sudden infusion of color that flooded her cheeks as her body flooded with anticipation.
For the next several days, she would not be attending concerts as a music industry professional, and the truth of the matter was that she couldn’t remember the last concert she’d been to “off the books.” But neither was she going just for the opportunity to see IED live and hang out with the band. After all, she’d done that only a few days before. No, not this trip.
She wasn’t going to skirt the implications of Zach’s invitation. Anyone would recognize that agreeing to fly to Vegas to be with him meant just that and clearly had sexual overtones. And she was looking forward to it, probably had been since the interview at the studio if she were to be honest. Thinking about the clothes her brother packed for her, she grimaced slightly. She was fairly confident there would not be any alluring outfits or lingerie among the toothbrush and deodorant. She doubted he’d even thought to pack her perfume and makeup. When she’d talked to him about going by her house and picking up some things for her, she’d intended on heading up to her uncle’s ranch, so the bag was probably filled with jeans and thermal shirts, her preferred ranchwear. She made a note to stop by at least one boutique and acquire some appropriate seduction apparel.
Stop being so slutty! she admonished herself. Then she argued back silently that in a town full of showgirls and legal prostitution, how else was a girl to compete?
She must have dozed off because the next thing she knew, the person next to her gave her a nudge. She was an older woman, clearly ready to hit the strip, by the excited sparkle in her eyes.
“Wake up, honey. It’s party time!” Standing up, she removed an overstuffed carry-on from the compartment above. Starr only had her purse with her, so after she deboarded the plane, she headed straight for the luggage claim. As she impatiently watched for her baggage, she thought about calling Zach. He said he’d have a car pick her up at the airport and bring her to his suite at the Bellagio. But self-conscious of the excitement she knew he would hear in her voice, she opted for a quick text.
“Just landed. At baggage claim. Will wait out front in passenger pick-up.”
To her surprise, he texted back right away.
“GREAT! I’ll have a car there for you in 20. REALLY glad you came.”
Unable to help the gutter thought that crept into her mind, she thought, I’ll be really glad when you make me come. She’d already decided she would ask the driver to stop so she could shop for something dazzling to wear—inside and out.
An hour and a half later, she was dropped off at the beautiful hotel with her one suitcase and four boutique bags. Not sure what else to do with a bellhop patiently waiting, she went up to the hotel desk and gave her name. The young woman checking in guests did a double-take when she looked up Starr’s reservation.
“It seems your booked in Mr. Ronin’s suite,” she murmured and Starr could have sworn she heard a touch of envy in the woman’s tone.
Starr wanted to shout, “Yeah, baby!” but refrained. Instead, she asked, “Is he in?”
“I don’t believe so. There’s instructions here to give you a key card and put any charges to the room on his tab.”
Starr wanted to feel embarrassed. It was evident she was here as the rock star’s romantic interest. It was also evident she wasn’t just some groupie. She really didn’t want to feel the wave of satisfaction flutter over her at the woman’s obvious resentment, but she couldn’t stop it, either. Trying not to appear smug, she accepted the key and headed for the elevator.
Once she was in the luxurious room, she headed over to the elegant couch so she could check out exactly what her brother had packed since she hadn’t had the opportunity to do so yet. As she suspected, it was full of jeans and tee shirts, some long-sleeve, some short. White bras, white panties. Oh, yes! Her make up bag was in there. She’d purchased some just in case, but just the bare essentials—mascara, eyeliner, lip stick (since it could be used for blush too!)—but she was glad to have all her colors with her now.
She noticed there was a card sticking out from a vase of two dozen white roses sitting on the coffee table with her name on it. Smiling, she opened it up.
“Here’s to a fantabulous week. Dinner plans for 8. Z,” it read.
Eight?! That only gave her a little over an hour to get ready. And the first thing she would do was shower. Grabbing the bag that had all the hygiene stuff, including a bottle of eighty dollar shower gel, she headed for the bathroom.
Just under an hour later, she preened in front of the full-length mirror in the master bedroom. She wore a sapphire silk cocktail dress, halter-style, with a plunging neckline and bare back. There was no wearing a bra with this number. It fell to her knees in a gathered skirt. She wore black, fishnet hose but only for the black garter belt that held them up around black-laced panties. Four inch black patten leather heels finished the outfit.
Her close-cropped hair lay flat and shimmering against her scalp with tendrils curled along her cheeks. Her earrings were made of hundreds of tiny royal blue crystals gathered together to form identical stars, their arms stretching out to cover her ears. Her eyes were outlined in a similar color liner with a bit of brown shadow below her brows that made their extraordinary color really “pop.” Ruby red lipstick and a touch of blush completed her look.
She hadn’t thought to bring any of her jewelry, obviously, on this spur-of-the-moment escapade. However the dress had come with a sash, but rather than where it around her waist, she doubled it over and wore it as a scarf. This had the dual purpose of shielding the substantial amount of exposed flesh, as if trying to preserve a bit of modesty, as well as providing a casual accessory to the outfit, making it a tad bit less formal.
And the butterflies just kept fluttering, fluttering, fluttering…
The sudden knock on the door startled her send a fresh deluge of adrenaline pumping through her and she rushed to open it, pausing to inhale deeply, knowing the sight of Rhonan would leave her breathless. Trying to demonstrate an air of non-nonchalance, she forced herself to open the door casually., Her face fell in disappointment. It was only Junie, Zach’s “gal Friday,” as he called her.
Starr had also bought a clutch earlier, almost groaning as she forked over another chunk of change. She’d spent nearly three grand at the boutique, but she rarely splurged like she had since she’d met Zach, so at least she had the funds, although today’s trip had gone on a credit card. And it gave her something to grip and she tried so very hard not to betray her nervousness, her excitement, anxiety, anticipation. Suddenly, her mouth went dry. She didn’t know if she wanted to do this, but she was certain she didn’t not want to do it.
“Well, come along, sweetie. That boy’s itchin’ to see you. He’s been like a kid in a candy store all day. I’m ta take ya to the ‘rendezvous.’ Tonight’s gonna be special… Just you wait and see.”
And in that instant, in a wave of certainty that swept over her, she knew nothing could have held her back.