By Mark Haskell Smith
Black Cat Copyright © 2007 Mark Haskell Smith
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-0-8021-7034-7
Chapter One PHUKET
The Andaman Sea stretches out for 218,100 square miles along the southern peninsula of Thailand, extending south until it tickles the shores of Indonesia, flowing west where it mixes with the dark water of the Indian Ocean. It is one of the most beautiful expanses of salt water in the world, teeming with pristine coral reefs and home to thousands of exotic sea creatures. Not that he gave a fuck.
Turk Henry stood on the beach and looked out at the ocean. It was amazingly clear, so clear it wasn't even blue or green or any of the colors you usually associate with ocean. It was like glass. You could see right through it, right down to the bottom. Clumps of seaweed, rocks, and sand; the occasional shadow and flash of fish darting beneath the waves. It wasn't like the water he'd seen growing up near the Jersey Shore, that was for sure.
Turk craned his neck, peering through his massive sunglasses-the kind that make you look like you're recovering from eye surgery-and looked for the boy. Turk liked the boy. The boy brought beer. Hand him a couple baht and he'd go sprinting off to the end of the beach where his parents and grandparents sat around giant coolers filled with beer, soda, green coconuts, whatever you wanted. He'd come racing back and hand you a beer. Ice cold beer; the three greatest words in the English language.
His wife had told him they were eight degrees north of the equator. She liked facts. Eight degrees north of the equator, for the layman, translated into unbelievably fucking hot. A zillion degrees Fahrenheit and humid like the inside of a dishwashing machine. Turk had never felt anything like it. The only thing that had even come close was when he and the rest of the band were stuck in an elevator with ten or twelve groupies. A couple of the girls decided to get frisky, and suffice to say an orgy broke loose. With all the fucking and sucking, the groaning and heavy breathing, the elevator got hot and humid in a hurry. A couple of the girls even fainted. Passed out from the sex. When the elevator doors were finally opened by the fire department, there were six or seven naked groupies lying in a pile on the elevator floor. That's how you become a legend.
But it was even hotter here, and Turk wasn't dressed for it. He'd rolled up the legs on his black linen slacks, the kind with the drawstring that hang loose and baggy and made him look thin, and dunked his feet in the water. The sea wasn't cooling or refreshing, it was warm. Almost like a bath. His wife had told him that the average water temperature in the Andaman Sea is seventy-eight degrees Fahrenheit. That felt about right.
Turk unbuttoned his black silk shirt, letting his large pale gut leap out into the sunlight, his skin so white that it bounced the light up, casting reverse double-chin shadows across his face and making him look vaguely vampirish. Despite the hiking of the pants and the unveiling of the paunch, he wasn't any cooler; sweat rolled off his body like he was melting. Fuck, he was melting. Where was that boy?
He turned around and looked for his wife. It was her idea to come to Thailand. She had nagged, pleaded, and cajoled until he finally broke down and agreed to sit on a plane for twenty-three hours-he watched five movies-as they flew from Los Angeles to Osaka to Phuket. It was her fault he was here, burning and roasting and sweating like a pig in an oven. Normally she was easy to spot-she was the only one here who actually wore a top. The rest of them, the Europeans and Australians, all lay out in the sun with their tits hanging out. They'd read books or play cards, sometimes get up and jump in the water to cool off; a couple of women were even throwing a Frisbee around, all of them topless. Not that it bothered Turk. He liked tits.
Sheila had told him that it was a five-star resort, super-luxe, first class all the way. It was nice, he had to admit. It was isolated, away from the run-down little tourist town, smack in the middle of some kind of jungle with a private cove. The main part of the hotel was a modernist structure on top of a hill. It didn't fit with the local architecture, looking more like a billionaire playboy's fortress of evil than a Thai temple, but then Turk wouldn't know Thai architecture if it fell on him and besides, he thought the concrete and glass building looked pretty cool. The main lobby was a big open room with a soaring atrium. This was connected to a restaurant, a swimming pool, a fitness center with a personal trainer on standby, and most important, a bar that overlooked the beach and the tranquil little cove. The resort's rooms were actually freestanding cabanas dotting the beach and hillside surrounding the main building. You didn't get a room, you got a little house with a thatched roof, amid coconut palms and beautiful flowering orchids and other plants that Turk had never seen before.
He had to agree, it was very nice and if you were going to vacation in a third world country there was no better way to go. But it wasn't like he had never been in a fancy hotel before. Metal Assassin only stayed at the best hotels. It was in their contract.
If Sheila had told him that it was wall-to-wall breasts-like a nudist colony where only the women were nude-she wouldn't've had to nag him so much. There is nothing more relaxing for the stressed-out heavy metal musician than to kick back, drink a few cold ones, and watch a parade of nature's greatest triumph on display. If only Sheila were here to join in. Turk would be the first to tell you, his wife had a great rack. She'd put these other women to shame.
Turk remembered that she was off on some safari or something. She'd wanted him to go with her; she'd wanted him to ride an elephant. But he couldn't think of anything less appealing than straddling the massive gray hump of some monstrous beast as it lurched through the forest belching and farting like a sick Harley-Davidson. That was Sheila, though. She was always off doing something. She liked go to yoga retreats in Mexico or bungee jumping with her friends in some dusty canyon in Ojai; she'd spend an afternoon in an authentic Navajo sweat lodge or attend something called an "inspirational tea." Sheila made fun of Turk for not having an "adventurous spirit." But Turk liked to take it easy. Didn't people always say "take it easy"? Wasn't that something you were supposed to do?
He didn't mind that Sheila had her adventures; it was fine with him. That was the great thing about their marriage-they tried hard not to be codependent; they respected each other's space. Turk and Sheila were a mutual support squad, helping each other cope, keeping each other on their respective wagons. It may not have been the most passionate coupling in the history of the world, but it was certainly the most stable. Turk was happy to see Sheila go on her fulfilling adventures. He just preferred to putter around the house, listen to music, practice his bass, and maybe watch a movie in their home theater. Sometimes he swam in the pool. It was a quiet life, but it made him happy. Going snorkeling or jumping out of an airplane just didn't interest him. He often thought Sheila should've married an extreme-sport athlete, or maybe that guy who owned the airline company who was always jumping out of a hot air balloon on a motorcycle. She needed someone who enjoyed taking risks. That wasn't Turk. He enjoyed playing it safe. So while Sheila rode through a jungle on the back of an elephant, Turk did the safe and sensible thing and sat on the beach drinking beer.
His feet sufficiently soaked, Turk walked back to his umbrella and slouched into a chaise, grabbed a towel, and mopped the sweat off his head. He heard a voice speaking English with a light German accent.
"Excuse me, sir, but aren't you in Metal Assassin? You play the bass guitar, is that right?"
Turk looked up and saw a wispy young woman wearing nothing but a bikini bottom, her blond hair stuck in pigtails, her blue eyes gleaming at him from behind some Persols, and her perky little breasts pointing at him, looking almost accusatory, like he'd just done something wrong.
"Yeah. That's me."
"I love your music."
She smiled at him; beamed really. Turk was used to women throwing themselves at him. He knew it wasn't because he was super good-looking; it was because he was a rock star. Not that he was ugly. He had a chunky body-as round and expansive as the sound he conjured out of four strings and a massive Marshall back line; the kind of body a real bass player should have. It wasn't that he was out of shape; he worked out, and his arms and legs looked young and powerful, his articulated muscles standing in sharp contrast to his protruding beer gut. He had a large and colorful dragon tattooed up his right leg and his left bicep was inked with the Metal Assassin logo, the words written in flaming Iron Cross Gothic.
His face was fleshy, but handsome, with mischievous blue eyes and large curly muttonchops on the sides. His head was topped by a full mane of long stringy rock star hair that he had to dye to hide the serious streaks of gray sprouting from the temples. All in all he looked the part. He just kept his shirt on.
Turk smiled back at the girl. He'd had his teeth straightened and whitened just this year, for his forty-fifth birthday, and they looked so clean and gleamy that they appeared fake.
"Really. You guys are my favorite band. I have all your discs."
Most of them did. Turk studied her nipples; they stood out like bright pink bits of Play-Doh that had been pinched into shape. He looked up at her face.
"Which one's your favorite?"
She bit her lip, appearing slightly stumped. Then she giggled.
"I don't have a favorite. I like them all."
Turk smiled and nodded. Sweat flipped off his head, scattering like he was some kind of wet dog.
The young German, or perhaps she was Swiss, on vacation from Zurich or somewhere, bit her lower lip, summoning up the courage to ask the big question.
"So? Tell me. Is it true?"
"You are no more? Steve is really going solo?"
Turk nodded sadly, putting on that grief-stricken far-away look that the fans seemed to expect on hearing the news that Metal Assassin had finally called it quits.
"Yeah. He wants to do his own thing."
And not share the royalties. Selfish fucker.
"So, what are you going to do?"
Turk saw the boy trudging through the sand and waved to him. He then turned and looked at her. Normally, before he was married, before the years of therapy where he learned to recognize when he was in a catalytic environment and stop himself from fantasizing and ritualizing his sexual compulsions, he would've invited her back to his room for a quick shower and a longer blow job. But he'd learned to break that cycle. His therapist had drawn all kinds of little charts mapping out how his sexual addiction worked. The charts always ended with anxiety, despair, shame, guilt, and self-loathing.
It wasn't easy for him; he was a rock star, after all, his entire life spent in a catalytic environment, but Turk had learned to control his destructive urges. He'd been surprised at how good it felt to have some power over his desires. His therapist had suggested that the behaviors and compulsions came from his having low self-esteem, and indeed, controlling those behaviors made him feel good about himself. In other words, Turk had discovered that denying himself a good piece of ass actually made him feel like a worthwhile human being. Go figure.
On top of that he'd taken a vow to be true to his wife and he was going to do it, even though it'd been the longest year of his life.
"Are you starting a new band?"
The Swiss-German girl seemed genuinely concerned, so he gave her an honest answer.
"I don't know. For the time being I'm just going to drink a beer."
The boy arrived, grabbed the baht from Turk's outstretched hand, and then went sprinting off down the beach.
Sheila was on her way to ride an elephant. It was something she'd always wanted to do. She didn't know what attracted her to the massive animals, but there was just something about them that she found adorable. She collected small statues of elephants, photos of elephants, and paintings of elephants. She hosted a fund-raiser to ban the sale of African ivory. She marched in a protest against a scrimshaw exhibition at the Museum of Folk Art. Last year she helped organize a "Rock the Habitat" concert. Elephants were her raison d'être. When she wasn't tending to the needs of her infantile rock star husband and his countless petty demands, she was doing something to make the world a better, safer place for the elephant. She even had a tattoo of pastel-colored elephants marching trunk to tail around her ankle.
Now she was stuffed in a battered Land Rover with four other tourists, careening down a dirt road in the forest, on her way to spend some quality time with the largest land mammals in the world. According to the brochure she would get to touch them, feed them some bananas, and ride on top of one as a group of them meandered through the tropical rain forest.
Her husband had made fun of her. Why did she want to ride some big smelly animal when she could stay in bed with him? Sheila had bit her tongue. She'd been tempted to say that being in bed with him was like riding a big smelly animal, but she didn't. If he didn't want to come along, well, it was fine with her. Better even. She was tired of listening to him complain; the big rock star bitching because it was too hot, the humidity was ruining his studded leather belt, why couldn't he have ice in his drink? Why was the food so spicy? Why was the toilet paper so flimsy? Sheila shook her head. Here they were on the trip of a lifetime and he was complaining about toilet paper. Why'd he have to complain about that? Why couldn't he just wipe his ass and enjoy the sights?
Sheila tugged on the ends of the red bandanna that was holding her hair up. It was growing steadily heavier from absorbing sweat, and she wanted to keep her hair from falling down. It was hot; she could agree with Turk about that. But instead of moaning on the beach like some half-dead walrus, she was out and about, seeing the sights, shopping-you'd be surprised at the number of small carved elephants she'd acquired already-and going on a jungle safari.
She looked out the window of the Range Rover as it rolled its way through the tropical forest. Catching her reflection in the glass, she unbuttoned one of the buttons of her special jungle-tested safari shirt; just because you're in the tropics doesn't mean you can't show a little cleavage. Christ, back at the resort nobody wore a top; it made her halter dresses, tube tops, and khakis look practically Islamic. Sheila didn't know why she balked at going topless. She had a great figure, and she knew it. But she didn't have anything to prove. She was beautiful, with green eyes, a wild spray of sandy blond hair, and smooth pale skin that came standard with her Nordic ancestry. She was graced with fine, delicate features, except for the large fleshy lips that seemed to turn outward for no better reason than to show off their lusciousness, like some kind of wildly succulent orchid.
Sheila had been a model since she was fifteen. She'd been topless in Vogue, Glamour, and Women's Wear Daily, and in countless ad campaigns. Maybe that was it. She was used to getting paid to show her breasts, not just give the view away.
She'd enjoyed being a supermodel. She'd made gobs of money, traveled the world, dated movie stars and movie directors-done all the things the super-beautiful get to do. She'd been to raves on Ibiza, had cocktails on Martha's Vineyard, sunned in St. Bart's, hiked in Greece, Carnivaled in Rio. She was a regular at Davé in Paris, where he always had her favorite vegan noodles ready for her. When she wasn't working she lived a vampire life, sleeping all day and spending all night in the VIP rooms of whatever club was currently the hotspot. She traveled in private jets, private cars, with private chefs. It was life in a luxurious bubble world, and when the bubble occasionally popped, she could take the edge off harsh reality with a hit of X or a line of blow.
Sheila had been a card-carrying, hard-partying member of the in crowd. But after a while, the drugs, the drinks, and the passage of time took their toll. The makeup artists and photographers had to work a little harder to hide the lines and the dark circles under her eyes. In an industry powered by taut glowing skin and youthful sex appeal, Sheila wasn't so young anymore.
Excerpted from SALTY by Mark Haskell Smith Copyright © 2007 by Mark Haskell Smith. Excerpted by permission.
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