I got the Devil in my closet, and the wolf is at my door.
– John Campbell
*** I ***
Nathan, a tall and lanky, twenty-three-year-old, aspiring guitarist was finishing off his solo. He shook his mop of black hair, which contrasted his pale skin as he rocked out on the last few musical bars. He finished with his favourite riff and ended with a fading power chord. When silence returned to the small stage, he looked up with anxious, green eyes.
"Sorry, dude, you're not what we're looking for at this time," said the emotionless voice from the guy whose name Nathan couldn't remember. He was the lead singer of the band and the final word. That was all he needed to know. Nathan was tempted to argue his case, but decided to save himself any further humiliation.
"Yeah, OK," was all Nathan could manage as he put his electric guitar into its case and quickly left, red-faced, without looking back at the three band members.
It was his third audition in a month and each one ended the same. He was beginning to doubt his playing ability. Nathan thought he was good. His family and friends liked his playing. It even got him laid a couple of times at frat parties.
Once outside, it was a relief to feel the cool autumn air on his face. He decided to go for a long walk to clear his head, burn off some frustration, and think about his next move. Life was such a game. He thought he was a king, but now felt like a pawn, a blocked pawn with no moves remaining.
Nathan was walking along the bustling downtown street when he spotted a small storefront he never noticed before. The sign read 'Larry's Odds & Mends'. The window display contained a variety of antique things: A dark-blue Chinese vase dominated the centre; a couple of yellowing oil paintings were leaning back off to the side; a beat-up, acoustic guitar that looked unplayable; and various smaller items lay on purple silk that covered the dusty bottom of the display. Nathan focused on the guitar, thinking there may be better guitars inside; curiosity tempted him to enter. He loved trying out new and old guitars, whenever and wherever the opportunity presented itself.
The bell above his head tinkled as he walked into the store's gloomy interior. A dank wood smell invaded and occupied his nose. The window display was a good reflection of what he found inside: Antique furniture occupied the left wall; too many paintings hung from the same wall; urns and vases of various sizes were scattered around the floor; and to his right, a counter encased many smaller items. He gazed through the grimy Plexiglas. There were collections of straight razors, war ribbons, gold jewelry, baseball cards, and various other antique things.
Where was the proprietor of this musty shop? He looked around but saw no one. Looking past the counter, he noticed a few musical instruments hanging on the far, right wall. Nathan walked to the back to check them out, but was disappointed to find the instruments were mostly junk. There were a couple of cheap guitars, a student's violin, and a broken clarinet.
"Playyy meee," came a low whisper from behind.
He turned around expecting to see the owner, but no one was there. Did he imagine the voice? "Hello, is anyone here?"
"Playyy meee," the faint voice repeated.
Nathan looked down in the direction of the sound. At his feet was a beat-up guitar case. The once black case was now grey with thick dust.
"Hello there!" a clear, loud voice startled him.
Nathan turned to see an aging hippie. He was a short, sixty-something man with long, grey hair and beard. A colourful bead necklace adorned his tie-dye T-shirt that was worn loosely over his bell-bottoms. "Sorry. Did I scare you?"
"No, it was just a bit... unexpected," Nathan lied.
"I collect and sell older products, as you can see. Repair some too. See anything that interests you?"
Nathan scanned around the shop, but came back to the guitar case at his feet. "What type of guitar is in this case?"
"Oh, that? It's just an old electric guitar. Not worth much. I was going to get rid of it, but I'll give it to you, if you're interested."
"What do you mean?"
"It's free of charge, but only if you don't open the case until you leave these premises. Think of it as a grab bag or door prize, and with a hope, by me, of your future patronage."
Nathan thought that was a strange request. Still, an electric guitar for free? Even if the guitar inside was crap, the hard-shell case alone was worth something.
Nathan thanked him, grabbed the case, and was out the door before the crazy, old man changed his mind. It was probably a piece of junk, like the instruments hanging on the wall, but he was eager to know what was inside.
*** II ***
Back at his small, one bedroom apartment, Nathan placed the case on the floor, snapped open the latches and slowly creaked open the dusty lid. He was shocked and ecstatic to find a 1960s Fender Stratocaster, a guitar worth thousands of dollars! What the fuck!
Sure, it was old and a little beat-up, but it was in good condition and looked quite playable. The only thing strange was the colour of the fingerboard. He expected maple or rosewood, but it was painted a red-brown colour. What moron would paint over its beautiful, wood fingerboard?
Nathan removed the rusty, old strings and began wiping the fingerboard with a damp, white cloth. The paint came off easily, too easily, appearing a brighter red on the cloth. Odd. Paint shouldn't come off this effortlessly, unless it was a water-base paint, or.... No. That was a crazy idea; he put that thought out of his mind. It was just some sicko who painted it to look like blood. Yes, that was it. He continued with the cleaning.
When he was finished, the fingerboard was back to its natural, maple colour. He strung it up with a set of new strings, tuned them, and plugged the antique guitar into his small, practice amp.
Nathan grabbed a pick and began playing a few rock licks he knew well. They sounded better, actually, much better than on his other guitars. Hell, they sounded great! He sounded great! Maybe all he needed was a superior guitar? Yeah. He continued to play. Soon, he was playing riffs, chords and rhythms he didn't even remember learning. The music just flowed out of him. He became the music. Emotions triggered musical ideas, and his fingers instantly played whatever he felt. As Nathan continued to play, he recognized the iconic sounds of some of the greats: Hendrix, Clapton, Vaughan, and many others. Their sounds were under his fingertips, and he weaved their melodic riffs together with unfettered ease. What was going on? He was never this good. But something urged him on, tempted him. He wanted to keep playing, he needed to keep playing, and he didn't want it to stop.
He couldn't stop.
*** III ***
Warmth caressed Nathan's face as he slowly opened his eyes. The morning sunlight was beaming in, flooding the room with white light. He was in bed and could feel the heavy but familiar weight of the guitar on top of him. He had fallen asleep, under the sheets, and with the guitar still in his hands. Nathan grimaced when he moved his left hand still grasping its neck. His fingertips hurt and felt sticky. He looked down at the sheets in the direction of the pain and gasped.
There, on the white sheet that covered his left hand, was a patch of blood. He threw off the covers and examined fingertips that were bloody and raw. Nathan sat up and recoiled at the sight of dried blood coating half the fingerboard. Red fingerprints were dabbed between many of the frets, as well as several smears where the strings were bent. He didn't remember playing till his fingers hurt, much less continuing to play after his fingers bled, or even coming to bed.
Now, fully awake, he couldn't ignore the four painfully throbbing fingertips. It felt like someone had gone to town with a wire cheese slicer on them. Nathan slid out of bed and went into the bathroom, washed his hands, winced when he used the disinfectant, and bandaged all four fingertips. He wouldn't be playing guitar anytime soon.
*** IV ***
A month later, Nathan found himself standing on a stage with a three-piece band. His Strat was slung low at his waist, and was handling it like an extension of his own body.
Nathan was auditioning for the lead guitarist spot with 'Devil in My Closet', one of the hottest blues/rock bands in the country. The previous guitarist died (not so unexpectedly) from an overdose of heroin and alcohol, and now the band was desperately seeking a replacement. A brief online sample of his playing was enough to peak their interest. Now, he had to prove he was the one on the recording via a live performance.
"OK, anytime your ready," said the bass player.
Nathan nodded and the drummer took over counting it off. "One and two and...."
The band started playing a standard twelve bar blues in the key of B-flat. Nathan turned up his volume and started off playing some Albert King inspired licks over the shuffle chord progression. On the second chorus, he channeled Stevie Ray Vaughan with all his passion and abandon. His homage to one of the greatest players was then followed by his own unique style, a synthesis of history's greatest players, turning it into something fresh. His sound soared to new heights; it screamed, it growled, it strutted, and he raised the musical bar too high for most to reach.
When finished, the band members were blown away and practically begged Nathan to join them. He was delighted and agreed. Over the next few months, he would be integral in reinventing the band's sound, and taking them from national to international acclaim.
*** V ***
Nathan, aka 'The Alchemist of Rock' was alone, relaxing in his dressing room. Chicago, the fifth city of the band's world tour was finished. There were forty more cities to go. Each time he came off the stage, he felt a little more drained, as if something was sucking the life out of him. His weight loss began at the tour's onset and he now looked quite gaunt. He was making the covers of some tabloids, all were implying he had a drug addiction, but that simply wasn't true. He was just tired, very tired.
He looked down at the fingertips of his left hand and lightly rubbed them. The lighter set of guitar strings was helping, but his fingers were still hurting bad. At least he didn't have any cuts that needed sealing with crazy glue, like back in New York.
"It is time," came a low whisper.
Nathan looked puzzled at the old guitar that lay on the counter next to him. He must be more tired than he thought. He packed his travel bag, grabbed his guitar and left the theatre for the hotel.
Back at his luxury suite, he took a relaxing, hot bath and went to bed immediately after. Sleep came for him quickly.
In the middle of the night, when all was still, a voice – like a lover seeking a favour – whispered to him through his dreams.
"I require an Offering."
"A life in exchange for your continued virtuosity."
"I have done much for you."
"It is time.... This is what you will do for me...."
*** VI ***
Crystal was leaning against the red brick wall of the bar that had just closed. One black-booted foot was on the pavement, the other, flat against the wall. It was a slow night; time to pack it in and go home, she decided. She shivered. Besides, it was getting too cold standing around the street in her skimpy 'working' clothes. The young woman pushed off the wall, turned to her right and started walking down the dimply-lit sidewalk.
When the small woman sauntered past the first alley, she was startled by a man in a black overcoat, staring at her from beneath a brown fedora.
"What will this get me?" he asked calmly, pulling out a handful of hundred dollar bills from his inside coat pocket.
"Honey, that will get you everything your little head desires, and then some," her red lips smiled. This night was going to turn out all right.
He put half the money back and held out the remaining bills. "Here, half now, half later."
She walked into the dark alley and approached the 'John'.
He handed her the money, and while counting her windfall, he quickly circled behind the whore and wrapped a wire around her neck. The man, partially hidden in the shadows, loomed over her and yanked upward with inhuman strength, pulling her off the pavement. Crystal dropped the bills and instinctively grabbed for the wire strangling her, desperately trying to get it off, breaking most of her fingernails in the process. She couldn't breathe or scream as it cut deep into her neck. Blood began to flow, making it an even bet whether she would die from suffocation or loss of blood. The pile of cash beneath her kicking feet, teased by a light breeze, remained where dropped as blood drops splattered on and around them. The struggle lasted about two minutes for the killer, an eternity for the victim.
After her legs stopped thrashing, Crystal's lifeless body was dropped on the ground like a cloth doll, a doll that no one would claim. On the streets, the lost were rarely found. There would be no family to advocate for her murder. She was the perfect victim.
*** VII ***
At 9:15 a.m., Nathan woke up. He vaguely remembered having a nightmare, and yet, he felt refreshed. Hell, he felt better than he had in months. Maybe all he needed was a long, deep sleep? Wait. What happened to the constant pain? He looked at the fingertips of his left hand and was surprised to see no blood, grooves, or even redness; his fingers were completely healed!
His mood changed when he looked around the hotel room. This wasn't how it was left when he came to bed. His guitar was now out of its case and leaning against the wall. Also, a bath towel lay on the floor just outside the bathroom. Was someone in his room while he slept?
He walked over to the guitar; the sixth string was missing. He didn't remember breaking it. Strange.
There was a knock on the door. He went over and looked through the peephole. Recognizing the drummer of the band, he opened the door.
"You haven't seen my lucky drumsticks, have you, Nathan?" he asked, as if he already knew the answer.
"OK, no problem. I thought I left them on the bus, but they weren't there.... Anyway, we're packing it up and heading for Atlanta in about an hour. You going to be ready?"
"Hey, you look good by the way. We were starting to get worried about you."
"Yeah, I do feel good. Finally got a good night's sleep." Nathan closed and locked the door.
He walked over and picked up the white towel. It felt damp. He turned it over. On the opposite side was an area of light pink. Was this blood? Then, he noticed the bathroom's trashcan. Something odd was in it.
Nathan went over and looked down. Nausea overwhelmed him as he fell to his knees and vomited. He had solved both mysteries. In the trashcan was a blood-covered garrote, constructed with a pair of drumsticks broken in half and the missing guitar string.
"Fame doesn't come without some Sacrifices," his guitar whispered. "You'll get used to it. They all do."
I look at the blood see the hate there that's hiding
When my guitar gently screams...
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