The Devil's Reprise
I nodded, feeling stupid. “Of course. Sorry. I just got off the plane from Seattle, and I’m not sure how I’m dealing with five hours of sleep, let alone the time change.”
“You haven’t traveled to the East Coast before, have you little lamb?”
If he wasn’t so darn cute and if that accent wasn’t so darn infectious, I would have frowned my proud feminist eyebrows at his “little lamb” endearment. “No, first time.”
“Shucks,” he said, scratching at his ginger sideburns and giving me a sly glance. “Looks like we have a novice on our hands. Well, little lamb, I promise I’ll be gentle with you.”
“Too bad I can’t say the same,” I retorted, straightening up. It wasn’t that Max was hitting on me, but I didn’t want him thinking I was some naïve little flower, either. Or a lamb.
He grinned and nodded at the perfectly poised airline crew. “We’ll be boarding next. Got us seats in the smoking section.”
I looked down at my ticket. Back of the plane, he was right. I was too sleep-deprived to notice that before. I didn’t know if I could handle another flight, let alone one with this Max fellow blowing smoke in my face, but I guess I had no choice.
We got on the plane, shuffling past the refined people in first class, and made our way to the very back. The air back here stunk, despite the fact that the whole airplane shared the same air. I felt like the cool kid sitting at the back of the bus, especially as Max sat down beside me, taking the dreaded middle seat and granting me the window. Not that I hadn’t been assigned it anyway, but I could totally have seen Max pulling some kind of ranking or seniority bullshit about it. Instead he was strangely gentlemanly.
And, as the plane filled up with more people and we started talking, I discovered that there was something strangely gentlemanly about him in general. From his “little lamb” to his “shucks” and “I reckon,” I felt like the redheaded giant was transplanted straight from the late 50s. His Elvis-like wave at the front of his head didn’t help, either.
“So tell me about your job,” I said to Max, shoving peanuts into my mouth from the little silver packet that the flight attendant had handed me. I chewed anxiously—even though we were at cruising altitude, I still felt nervous, both because of the whole flying in the air thing, as well as my new company.
He was flipping through a magazine, and the cigarette dangled from his lips as he spoke. “Not really much to say. Loved photography as a kid, used to want to take photos for that National Geographic magazine before I discovered rock and roll. You know, I play bass in a band back in Brooklyn.”
Nowadays it seemed any guy who had escaped the Vietnam War was playing in a band somewhere. I raised my brow. “Oh yeah, you guys any good?”
“Sex City,” he said. He noted my blank expression and went on, “The name of the band. And no, we suck. Wickedly. So I stick to my day job. Sometimes it has its perks.”
“Like going to Europe?”
He shrugged. “I’ve been a lot. I’ve been everywhere. I come from the south, but I’ve traveled the world. Many times.”
I leaned in closer, examining his eyes. They were such a vivid bright green, almost as nice as Sage’s grey-green ones. He didn’t have any lines around them and his heavy lids suggested youth, but there was something…wise…about them all the same. Like he’d seen a lot.
“How old are you?” I questioned.
He stared back at me and wiggled his brows a bit. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”
“It’s why I asked.”
“I’m ageless,” he said after a beat and a puff of smoke came out of his mouth, dancing toward my face. He went back to his magazine. “And you’re infamous.”
I gasped and a piece of peanut flew out of my mouth. “I’m infamous?”
He pretended not to notice the flying food and just nodded. “Sure are. After what you experienced with Hybrid…no journalist has ever covered quite that story.”
“The collapse of the band at the start of their stardom?” I asked, my go-to line.
He shook his head slightly and popped up the ashtray on the armrest between us. “Plenty of writers have covered that. I mean the whole thing about the band doing the deal with the Devil and the Devil coming back to take what was his. And by band, I mean Sage. I know it was all Sage’s dealings.”
I studied him for a few moments, unsure if this burly man was pulling my leg or not as he stubbed out his cigarette in the ashtray. “You know I made that all up, right? It’s a metaphor.”
He looked at me out of the corner of his eye. “You’ve got quite the imagination, then.” I wasn’t sure if I saw disappointment on his brow or what, but there was definitely something there, something else he wanted to say.
I bit the bullet. “So tell me if my backwoods instincts are correct or not, but you’re not really here to cover Sage Knightly’s solo tour, are you?”
He smirked appreciatively. “You insulting my photo-taking skills now? Of course I’m here for that. Why else would I be here?” I could have sworn his gaze intensified, like I’d added fuel to a fire.
“Because…I’m a fluke.”
I sighed and started popping more peanuts into my mouth, munching them hard before I spoke. I hadn’t admitted this to anyone yet and wasn’t sure why I was picking Max as the first one. “I’m a fluke. A fraud. I shouldn’t have been picked to go on the road with Hybrid. I had barely written anything, I was still in school—I was a nobody. But it was like my dream came true.”
He cocked his head. “But not quite.”
“No. Not quite. But still. I lived to tell about it—me, Dawn Emerson, ex-rodeo queen and music junkie. And now I’m doing this all over again. Sage…Sage is hot stuff. He’s dynamite right now. I hear his songs all over the radio, I read articles about him written by other people. Any reporter worth her salt would love to cover this story, his first solo tour in fucking Europe, and yet I’m the one doing it.”
“Well, you two have a special connection,” he said almost softly.
I frowned at that, but he quickly continued, “And you’re in good with Jacob Edwards. The Cobb, man. He’s…legendary. It just so happens that both of those men want you around. And I’m sure they believe in your writing, too.”
“But they aren’t Creem,” I said.
“I see,” he said. “So you think I’m your babysitter.”
I nodded and looked down at my hands. “I may have been the only person to cover the end of Hybrid, but I don’t think they appreciated my…um…metaphors. You might be here to keep me on track without even knowing it.”
He leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. “I reckon you’re worrying over nothing, little lamb. In fact, I reckon you like to worry. And when things are going well, you worry even more. I’m here to take photographs. You’re here to write. Right now that’s the truth, so we might as well enjoy it while we can.” He opened one eye at me and added, “We’ve got a six-hour flight and time change to prepare for. I’ll see you when we land.” Then he closed his eye again and seemed to drift off to sleep, just like that.
I stared at him, dumbfounded and lost for a few moments, before I took out a magazine and started to read it absently, stealing the occasional glimpse at him. What a weird duck. He was hard to read but at the same time seemed to know me. He at least figured out that I loved to worry, especially when everything was going great. Maybe I had worrywart written on my face. That or pessimist.
While Max slept through the whole flight—the lucky bastard—I divided my time between staring at the Atlantic Ocean far below my window, dozing off, and writing in my notebook. It was clean and new and perfect, and I had my favorite pens and pencils on me. Some reporters carry one notebook for everything they cover, but I liked to divide mine up, one for each band. The Hybrid notebook had been full. It was tucked away in a drawer in my rickety desk back at home. This notebook had Sage’s name scrawled on the first page, and the rest was blank.
I treated it like a clean slate and started writing down all my impressions of Sage’s music. It was hard for me to separate the music from the man, but once I started, it got easier. Sage had only released one album, Sage Wisdom (yeah, a terribly redundant name), so I went through each song in my head, playing each one like my brain was a jukebox on demand, and jotted down my thoughts and impressions, which could shape the basis for the whole article.
I fell in love all over again. It was practically impossible to be objective. But that’s what his music had always done to me—I couldn’t help that the man was just as enigmatic, just as layered, as his music was.
When Sage Knightly was the key guitarist and songwriter for Hybrid, you could hear parts of his past and personality coming out through the songs. But Hybrid also had the input of Robbie Oliver and the late Mickey Brown and a record label that always expected more. As much as Sage tried to push the envelope, they still remained a slightly edgier, fuzzier version Led Zeppelin. They were a band with chunky swagger.
Sage’s solo stuff, on the other hand, really broke away from that. That wasn’t to say that it wasn’t loud. It was loud. It had a palpable thickness and was steel-cut and hard as concrete and a million other euphemisms for his dick. And there was the distortion and unease that came from pedal effects and layers of riffs upon layers of riffs. But mixed in with the faint horn and string sections that played tribute to his half-Mexican heritage, there was an underlying sadness. This wasn’t an album of hope but one of despair and yearning and frustration. Sage opened himself up on the record to the dirty things that hid deep in his soul.
At least, that’s what I got out of it. I had to wonder what had gone on in all the months we were apart—I knew where my head was, but where was his? How was he dealing with the aftermath of the Devil’s contract? Another pang of guilt came up and bit me on the heart. I’d never assumed that Sage had trouble dealing with what happened, but the album was suggesting otherwise.
When we finally landed in Paris, Max waking up to the all-too-friendly touch of the flight attendant, the guilt was still weighing heavily on my shoulders. I suppose Max saw this because he was being upbeat and decided to school me at the last minute on my French. The distraction didn’t work, though; it only made me more anxious. Here I was, landing in motherfucking Paris, on assignment, about to see Sage Knightly for the first time in too long.
“You okay?” Max asked as we stood crammed up against each other in the aisle, waiting for people to get off the plane.
I nodded quickly, running my teeth over my lips and wishing I had lip balm. “Tired,” I said, leaving a ton of other adjectives out of it. “Je suis fatigue.”
“Très bien,” Max said, but I could feel his eyes boring down on me, taking me in and sussing me out. I wished he would stop. I just wanted to get off the plane and get this over with. My pulse couldn’t take it anymore. My nerves were in a blender.