Pairing: Howard Moon/Vince Noir
Length: 5-10k words
Return of the Spirit of Jazz by Amy Wolf
“Howard,” the voice called. It was a low voice, raspy and American. A whiskey-and-cigarettes voice. A voice that made him long to shut himself in his room, and play every Charlie Parker album straight through. A voice like dark smoky clubs and jam sessions that went on late into the night, chasing after the elusive ghost of a sound. Nights when Howard had thought he could die happy, if he could only capture that sound and share it with the world.
Howard knew that voice. He put his saxophone down. “Oh, shit.”
“That’s right, boy. I’m back. And I’m coming for you. I’m gonna get right up inside you, all the way in. And this time, I ain’t never gonna let you go. Your ass is mine!”
“You can’t be here!” Howard shook his head. “Naboo got rid of you!”
The Spirit of Jazz appeared with a sudden grin. “Did you think anyone really could stop me, boy? Stop the music? The beat? That shaman of yours couldn’t hold me. All he did was slow me down. Ain’t no one gonna save you now.”
“No!” Howard stumbled back. “No, I’m done with you. You’re out of my life. I don’t want this anymore! I don’t want to become a jazz legend!”
The Spirit of Jazz laughed. “Oh, I think you do. You gots the hunger. Bebop in your blood. And you’re gonna be a legend. You’re gonna get everything I promised. Everything that was in the contract And in return,” he stepped closer, “I get you.”
Howard shook his head frantically.
“Come on. Time for me to get inside you. Get right up inside and feel your warmth. Open up, now.
Howard opened his mouth to scream. Something flew into his mouth, choking him. He struggled to breathe, but only drew the smoky burn deeper into his lungs.
His eyes closed, and his body tensed up.
For the first time in a long time, his body truly relaxed, losing that constant low-grade tension that was part of being Howard Moon.
His eyes fluttered open.
His mouth stretched into a smile.
“Bollo! What are you doing?”
“Changing bag on Hoover. Old bag full.”
Naboo put his hands on his hips and stared down at his familiar. “And what did I tell you about that?”
Bollo looked down. “Ask Naboo first. But floor dirty.”
Naboo folded his arms and sighed. “You didn’t rip the bag while changing it, did you?”
Bollo’s eyes darted. “Maybe.”
“Do you have any idea what’s in there? What you just let loose?”
Bollo frowned. “Dust?”
“Yes. Lots of dust. Bollo sneeze.”
Naboo shook his head. “Forget the dust!”
“Naboo always forget the dust. That why Bollo always have to do hoovering.”
Naboo threw his hands up in the air. “Just forget it. We have to find Howard, fast.”
“Hey there, pretty lady.”
Vince tore his gaze from his reflection. “Howard? Did you just call me a lady? Are you drunk?”
Howard sauntered closer. That was weird. Howard never sauntered. He moved like he had something jammed rather painfully up his bottom.
“Maybe I am.” Howard tilted his head. “Drunk on you. Your beauty is intoxicating.”
Vince grinned and patted his hair. “Yeah, I get that a lot. Hazard of being so gorgeous. I figured you’d built up a tolerance by now, though. Is it my hair? The new shampoo?”
“It’s everything, baby.” Howard stepped closer. “Everything about you.” He was very close. “You drive me wild, voodoo child. You haunt my dreams, making me scream. And now I want a taste of your sweet self.” He leaned in, wrapped his arms around Vince, and kissed him.
It was weird, Vince thought, after the kiss broke. He’d expected Howard to be rubbish at snogging. The last one hadn’t exactly been brilliant, and it was the only kiss Howard had ever had.
But this one… wow! He was breathless, and his lips tingled.
“So what do you say, baby?” Howard asked. “How about we make some sweet, sweet love?”
Vince blinked. Something was definitely weird. He should probably sort that out.
But Howard wanted to shag him. And, contrary to all Vince’s previous expectations, it was looking like he might actually be good at it.
The door flung open. “Let go of him!” Naboo shouted. “Vince, get away!”
Vince gave Naboo a look. “Look, Howard and I have kind of a thing going, and you’re interrupting. So could you just clear out?” His mouth felt funny, and the last words came out sort of slurred.
“Vince,” said Naboo, “that’s not Howard.”
A low chuckle escaped Howard’s lips. Vince looked back at him.
And saw a pair of glowing red eyes.
Vince pushed Howard and stepped back. “Who are you?” His mouth had gone from tingly to itchy. He put his hand to his face.
His lips had swollen. They felt huge.
“It’s the Spirit of Jazz,” Naboo said. “He escaped. Howard’s possessed. That’s why you’re having an allergic reaction; you were just snogged by jazz incarnate.”
Vince gasped, or at least tried to. It didn’t work with his mouth swelling up. He had to breathe through his nose.
Howard turned to Naboo and cocked his head. “You think you can face me, shaman? You don’t know what you’re messing with. Howard’s mine, and I aim to keep him.”
“I’ll stop you.”
“You can’t stop me, shaman. I got a contract. Means I get to be inside him as much as I want.” Howard’s body gave delighted shimmy. “Ooh, yeah. Up inside him, in with all the warmth of him. You have no idea how sweet that feels.” He winked at Vince. “If you’re good, I might let you have a taste.”
Vince wanted to hit the Spirit of Jazz right then. But that would probably give him a rash or something.
Besides, it would just hurt Howard.
Naboo stuck out his hand. Behind him, Bollo handed over a CD.
Naboo held it up. “Pat Boone. Now are you going to get out of there, or do I have to get rough?”
The Spirit of Jazz twisted and shrieked. “That won’t stop me forever!” he hissed. Howard’s body writhed like it was in pain. “I’m coming back! I have a contract! His ass is mine!”
Vince ran over. “Is he going to be all right?” he tried to say. What came out was a string of incoherent mumbles.
Naboo looked at Vince, and sighed. “Bollo, take Howard to my room. I’ll deal with Vince. And put the magic wards up. Things are about to get dangerous.”
Howard took the steaming mug Naboo held out. “What is this? Some sort of magic concoction to counteract the effects of possession?”
Naboo shook his head. “Tea.”
“Oh. Thanks.” Howard took a sip. He looked guiltily at Vince. “Is he going to be okay?”
“I’m fine,” Vince said. He pulled out a mirror. “I think it gives me kind of a Mick Jagger look, don’t you?
“He’ll be all right,” said Naboo. “I gave him some allergy medicine, and the swelling seems to be going down.”
“Good.” Howard nodded. “So why’s the Spirit of Jazz back? I thought you got rid of him?”
Naboo shot Bollo a look. “I had him contained. Most of these contracts are pretty straightforward; if the buyer doesn’t come through in seven years, the seller gets to keep his soul. But someone,” he glared at Bollo again, “accidentally let him out.”
“Can you catch him again?”
“Why’d he kiss Vince, though?” Howard couldn’t stop thinking about it. That creature stealing his body, using his lips on Vince, slipping his tongue in Vince’s mouth. The mental picture haunted him.
“Well, he saw me,” said Vince. “Of course he’d want to snog me.”
“Not likely,” said Naboo. “I think Howard could be in real trouble.
“Hello?” Vince pointed at himself. “I’m dead sexy. Everyone fancies me. I mean you can’t tell, because you don’t have genitals.”
“Neither does the Spirit of Jazz.”
“He had Howard’s.” Vince folded his arms and pouted. At least Howard thought he was pouting. It was hard to tell with his swollen lips.
Howard flung his hands in the air. “Could we stop talking about my genitals? Naboo, what do you mean trouble?”
“Not sure. I’ll have to check the contract. Howard?”
“Where’d you put your copy?”
“You sold your soul and you didn’t get a copy of the contract?” Naboo shook his head.
“I didn’t know I was supposed to.” Howard sighed and put his head in his hands. “How much trouble am I in? Be honest, I can take it.”
“You could wind up possessed for the rest of your life, then get your soul bound into a musical instrument, and spend eternity having strange men blow into your spit valve. Or it could be nothing to worry about.”
Howard started hyperventilating.
Naboo walked over to the cupboard and pulled out a book. “Only one way to tell. I’ll have to do a summoning.”
“You’re bringing him back?” Vince asked. “We just got rid of him!”
“Well, we need answers He’s the only one who’s got them. And the only way we’re getting him to come back is if we let him into Howard.”
“Is this safe?” Howard asked nervously, sitting cross-legged in the center of the circle. “Can you get it back out again?
“What’s that?” Howard mimicked the shrug. “You don’t know? I’m about to be possessed here, and you don’t know if you can get the demon back out again? Is that right?”
“The Spirit of Jazz isn’t a demon.” Naboo took a hit off his hookah.
“What difference does that make?”
“A demon either wants to eat your soul, or send you down to one of the hells. The avatar of a musical genre mostly wants to bind your soul to a magical instrument. You know that keyboard Vince picked up for cheap? It struck a deal with the Spirit of Electro. Used to be in the Sneaker Pimps.”
“The Sneaker Pimps aren’t dead,” interrupted Vince.
Howard fiddled with the necklace of feathers. “What’s this for?”
“Forces the spirit to answer my question.”
“And the paint on the floor?”
“Provides a barrier the spirit can’t cross. Howard can only cross it if he isn’t possessed.”
“Why’d he strip down to his pants?” Vince asked.
Naboo shrugged again. “No idea. I didn’t tell him to do that.”
Howard looked down at the floor. “I thought it would be… conducive to… the atmosphere of a… mystical encounter.”
“Well it’s not,” said Naboo. “It’s just weird. Let’s get started. Bollo?”
Bollo picked up a jazz LP; John Coltraine’s Blue Train. Howard’s eyelids sank, as he was drawn deep into the juju.
“It’s not working,” said Vince. “It’s just a jazz trance. He gets these all the time.”
“Give it a minute.” Naboo took another drag off the hookah. He watched Howard with the sort of calm only seen in the extremely focused, and the extremely stoned.
Howard’s movements grew quicker, more fluid. They started to flow with the music, drawing echoes of its form out of the surrounding air.
Bloody hell, Vince thought. He’d make a good front man if he could pull shapes like that when he wasn’t being possessed.
Howard’s eyes snapped open. They blazed red.
“It’s you again. The shaman. And that pretty little thing’s waiting beside you.” He grinned and winked at Vince. “You invited me back? How stupid are you?”
Naboo blinked slowly. “I want the contract.”
Howard’s mouth let loose a harsh, breathy laugh. “Well you can’t have it. It’s mine. Mine to keep. You can fight, you challenge me, you can try everything in your bag of tricks, shaman, but I ain’t giving up this contract. This boy’s mine.”
“A copy of the contract.”
“Oh, right. Let me get that for you.” Howard’s hands rummaged around. “Why don’t I have any pockets? Why don’t I have any clothes?”
Naboo rolled his eyes. “Don’t ask.”
“You might want to tell the pretty thing to avert… their eyes.”
Vince sighed and covered his eyes. He could hear grunting, and the twanging of elastic, and then the Spirit of Jazz saying, “Here you go.”
He uncovered his eyes to see Naboo holding the contract by the corner, looking slightly disgusted.
“Thanks,” said Naboo. “You can go now.”
“You know the rules. Three questions. You gots to ask me two more.”
Naboo sighed. “Vince, ask him something, will you?”
“Anything.” Naboo carried the contract over to the table in the corner.
Vince tilted his head. “What’s a good question, though?” He looked at the Spirit. “What should I ask you?”
“Ask me why I kissed you,” the Spirit replied. Howard’s face twisted unpleasantly as the words escaped his mouth.
“Why’d you kiss me, then?”
“Because you were the nearest hope of getting Howard here to lose his virginity. Safer than the shaman.”
“Why do you want Howard to lose his virginity?” Vince asked.
“Tough luck, pretty thing. Those were your three questions. Bye!” It gave a little wave, and Howard’s body slumped over.
Vince dashed forward to catch him. “Hey.”
Howard’s eyes opened. “Hey. It worked? I’m not permanently possessed?”
“No, you’re fine,” said Naboo. “Just stay off the jazz until I can figure this out.”
“Hello?” Vince prodded a key on the keyboard. “Hey, were you really in the Sneaker Pimps?”
“Come on, I’m a fan. Which one are you? Are you Kelli Dayton? I always thought she was a fox.”
The keyboard didn’t move, but Vince thought he could detect an irritated hum.
“Look, it’s all right. My mate Howard’s in the same kind of mess. Well, he’s not a keyboard, but he might get turned into one. Actually, can you play jazz on keyboards?” Vince scratched his head. “Hey, Howard?”
“Yes?” Howard shouted back from the kitchen.
“Can you play jazz on a keyboard?”
“Of course you can. You can play jazz on anything. You have no idea of the rich potential of the genre; jazz is…”
“All right, didn’t need a lecture.” Vince rolled his eyes and turned back to the keyboard. “:Don’t mind him. He tends to ramble on a bit. He’s all right, though. I’d rather he didn’t end up a keyboard, actually. Is it bad being a keyboard?”
The keyboard let off a low, thoughtful hum, like it was considering the question.
“Don’t suppose it’s better being a trumpet. Or a guitar.” Guitars would probably be the best, Vince thought. He could sort of see Howard as a guitar.
But Vince didn’t know how to play the guitar. He supposed he could learn.
“Vince? What are you doing?” Howard wandered over from the kitchen, holding a plate of biscuits “Why are you talking to our keyboard?”
“Naboo says there’s someone in there. I’m trying to coax him into popping out and say hello.”
“What, like with mice?” Howard took a biscuit off the plate and held it out. “Come out, and I’ll give you a biscuit?”
The keyboard shut down. No more weird hums or vibes or anything. It just went blank.
“I don’t think it wants a biscuit,” Vince said. He scooped a handful off the plate and started eating. “Weird.”
“The problem is, you’re a virgin.”
“And how is that a problem, exactly?” Howard folded his arms defensively.
Vince pointed at Naboo. “That’s why the Jazz-monster wanted to shag me! So Howard would lose his virginity!”
“Spirit of Jazz,” Naboo corrected. “That’s what it’s after.”
“Why does the Spirit of Jazz care if I have sex or not? It never did before.” Howard shook his head.
“It got you naked last time,” Vince said.
“Yeah, on stage! It had me play the trumpet, not shag the electro-girls.”
“Contract’s running out.” Naboo held up the paper. “If he doesn’t get you a record deal in three months, he loses all claim to your soul.”
“What does that have to do with getting Howard laid?” Vince asked. “Did he mistake me for a record executive?”
“No. If he can get Howard to lose his virginity while possessed, he can stay in Howard’s body continuously until the contract runs out. And I won’t be able to drive him out. Nothing will. It’ll be easy getting a record deal that way.”
“Three months?” Howard shouted. “I can’t listen to jazz for three months?”
“Or play an instrument.” Naboo blinked like a lizard. “The Spirit of Jazz will be watching for the slightly
“There’s no way I’ll be able to keep small-eyes here away from Jazz for three months!” Vince stood up.
“Straight jazz, or jazz fusion?” Howard leaned forward.
“See?” Vince flung his hands in the air.
“Nothing remotely jazzy. Probably shouldn’t be touching your jazz albums. And no playing, whistling, or scatting.”
“Not even crimping.”
The Spirit of Jazz will be looking for any opportunity. Vince, I’m trusting you to watch him.”
“I don’t need some kind of… nanny!” Howard said. “Especially one that acts like a child himself.”
“Is there any other way?” Vince asked. “Something easier? Something that won’t severely cramp my social calendar for the next three months?”
“Well, you could always get him laid.” Naboo dropped the contract on the table. “If he has sex while he isn’t possessed, he won’t be a virgin, and the Spirit of Jazz won’t be able to take permanent control. All we have to do then is keep him away from record executives.”
“That’s no good.” Vince flopped back down onto the sofa. “This is Dalston! It’s like sharks at a feeding frenzy, but with record executives!”
“And people aren’t exactly lining up to shag him,” Naboo added.
“There’s that tranny,” Vince said. “Elanor. We could go ask her. Bet she’d give him a shag.”
“No!” Howard shook his head.
“Old Gregg?” Bollo asked.
“No, then we’d wind up with two creepy things stalking him.” Vince shuddered. He hadn’t liked the fish-monster trying to take Howard like that.
Howard stood up. “Look, I am not shagging whatever scary… person you come up with just to be safe from the Spirit of Jazz!”
“Fine,” said Naboo. “Have fun being a trumpet.”
“I think he’d make a better guitar, actually.” Vince leaned forward.
“That’s what it is!” Vince clicked his fingers.
“There’s nothing wrong with my neck!” Howard rubbed his neck. “And it’s not that difficult. I’ll just do without the bebop for a few months. Show some willpower! I can manage. I’m Howard Moon, Ja… Howard Moon, Maverick! Yes, sir!”
Howard’s spoon clinked frantically against the sides of the cup. He dumped an extra sugar in his tea, and tried to ignore the rattling sound.
He pulled the spoon out of the cup and looked at it. It did have a nice tone.
He gave it an experimental tap against the cup. Not a bad sound.
He drew back to give it another tap, when it was snatched out of his hand.
“Stop it,” said Vince, looking as annoyed as he could while brandishing a teaspoon.
“I wasn’t doing anything!” Howard protested.
“You were about to start playing the spoons, which would mean you’d be possessed, and I’d have to go running around fetching Naboo, trying to get you unpossessed before you managed to get any.” Vince sat down at the table, still holding the spoon. “And I don’t want to do that this early in the morning.”
“Sorry,” Howard sat down, and took a sip of his tea. “It’s been difficult for me, too. Long arduous stretches of no jazz. No music! Day after day, week after week, month after month, it just goes on and on.”
“Month after month? It’s been three days.” Vince toyed with the spoon.
“Three days? I’ll never make it three months!” Howard let his head flop down on the table.
“Cheer up,” said Vince. “We’ll get through this. We always do. Remember that time…” He broke off, catching himself just before the crimp escaped.
Howard groaned. “I can’t take any more!” He picked his head up. “I need the music. The bebop! The skiddly-op-do-wa!”
Vince slapped him.
Howard looked over at Vince in shock. “You hit me!” He pressed his hand to his face.
“That’s right. And I’ll give you another one if you start scatting again.” Vince put on his best stern expression. He hated being in charge of something. Howard was looking at him like a hurt puppy, and all Vince wanted to do was smile, and tell him to scat all he wanted. Let him be happy again, even if it was with stupid jazz.
But he couldn’t. Because then he wouldn’t have Howard at all.
“Look,” Vince said, “you need a distraction. Something to take your mind of jazz. Try keeping the telly on.”
Howard walked over to the television, and switched it on.
“As we continue our nine-part series on jazz legends…”
Vince made a dash for the television. He leapt over the couch, and grabbed the remote, just as the music started. His finger jammed down frantically on the off-button.
But it was too late. By the time it clicked off, Howard’s eyes were already red.
“Naboo,” Vince knocked on the door.
Naboo sighed and handed the hookah over to Bollo. “What do you want this time?” he asked.
“I don’t necessarily want anything. Can’t I just pay a visit?”
“Okay.” Naboo nodded. “How are you?”
“Good, except for Howard. He’s a bit possessed. And he’s run off. Don’t suppose you could help me out?”
There was nothing for it. Naboo was going to have to go help. And knowing Bollo, the good stuff would be smoked up before he got back.
He got up and opened the door. “I thought you were supposed to be looking after him.”
“I did!” Vince looked down guiltily. “I didn’t know they had jazz on television. I thought it was only on old records and special clubs. They shouldn’t let it out in public like that.”
“Did you see where he went?”
“Downstairs.” Vince pointed. “Out through the shop.”
Naboo nodded. “He’s probably miles away by now. Let me get my carpet.”
“Cheers, Naboo. You’re a diamond.”
“Hey there, pretty lady. I see you’re a jazz-lover.”
Laura looked up. “Not really.” She’d been flipping through the shop’s collection of old jazz LPs, hoping someone who knew about this would come along and explain things to her. “I’m trying to buy a present for my dad. He’s about your age, I think.” For a second, she thought she saw a weird glow behind the shopkeeper’s sunglasses. “Is Charles Mingus any good?”
“Is Charles Mingus any good?” he repeated. “What you’ve got there, Epitaph, is one of the all-time great jazz compositions. I promise you, child, you ain’t never heard nothing like it in your life. Care to go upstairs for a listen?”
Laura gave the shopkeeper a contemplative look. He wore a stupid cardigan and the kind of hat that normally would have made her run the other way. But he had a kind of smooth charm, and that raspy American accent made her insides go gooey. And she suspected that with his hair messed up, and those horrible clothes out of the way, he might not look as bad.
“Sure, why not?” She could at least see how things went.
Laura looked up to see what appeared to be a giant piece of glitter charging at her.
“You absolute tart! What do you think you’re doing, you cheap little slut?”
Laura backed away. “He was just going to show me his records.”
“Not you,” said the glitter-person. “Him.” He (or possibly she) spun and turned on the shopkeeper. “I turn my back five minutes, and you dash off to run around with jazz-groupies!”
“I’m not a jazz groupie!” Laura protested. “I’m not even into jazz!”
“Quiet, sweetheart. We’re fighting here,” said the glitter-probably-a-man.
“You weren’t interested, sweet thing.” The shopkeeper stepped closer to the glitter-man. “If you want a taste of the Spirit of Jazz, all you had to do was ask.”
The glitter man stepped back. “I have allergies! And you take that as a license to run off with the first woman who crosses your path?” He looked at Laura. “Mind you, she is well fit. Don’t suppose you’d be up for it as soon as I get him settled?” He gave Laura a dazzling smile.
The shopkeeper grinned. “No reason it couldn’t be the three of us.”
“Get your own, small-eyes,” the glitter man snapped. “She’s more my type, anyway. She doesn’t even like jazz.”
Laura backed away. “This is getting too weird. I thought you two were together?”
“What us?” The glitter-man blinked, then nodded. “Right. Yes. But it’s an open relationship.”
“Then why’d you get mad at him for flirting with me?”
The man in the glitter suit gave a confused frown. “When did I do that?”
“Vince?” A voice called down from upstairs. “Did you find Howard?”
“Yeah! Bring the Perry Como, and we can get started.”
Laura backed up to the door. “This is entirely too weird.” She glanced up at the stairs, where a small man with a turban was carrying a CD. “I’ll just go… somewhere else. Goodbye.”
She ducked out of the shop, resolving to get her dad a gift certificate for his birthday.
“This isn’t working,” said Naboo. “You’re terrible at avoiding jazz, and you’re terrible at watching him.”
Howard sighed, and rubbed his head. For some reason, being possessed always gave him a terrible headache. “I’m sorry. I’m weak. I hear the call of the bebop, and I can’t resist.”
Vince kept pacing the room. “We need a new plan. Let me get my crayons.”
“You’re not making a new Plan Pony are you?”
“Worked last time.”
“Yes, but…” Howard flung his hands in the air. “It’s creepy! Crayon horses shouldn’t talk like that.”
“How are they supposed to talk, then?”
“They aren’t… forget it. No Plan Pony!”
“We could make him deaf,” said Naboo.
“Yeah!” Vince grinned. “Then he won’t care how the Plan Pony talks!”
Howard glared at Vince. “We won’t need the bloody Plan Pony, you simpleton!” He turned to Naboo. “Do you have some sort of spell or something that makes it so I can’t hear anything?”
“And then you take it off so I can hear again afterwards?”
“Perfect,” said Howard. He leaned back on the sofa. “Thank you for that. It’s a big help.”
“So you do want the deafness spell, then.”
“No. That was sarcasm.”
“Didn’t sound like sarcasm.”
“I don’t want the deafness spell.”
“Was that sarcasm, then?”
“No!” Howard shook his head. “Not sarcasm. The complete and total truth. I do not want you to magically send me deaf. Okay?”
Naboo stepped back. “All right. I was only trying to help.”
Howard closed his eyes and pressed his fingers to his eyelids. “It’s hopeless. I’ll never make it three months. May as well give up and let the Spirit of Jazz have me. Come on!” He flung his arms out. “Take my soul! No one else seems to want it.”
“Stop it,” said Vince. “We’ll work it out. There has to be something. Naboo, can’t you work out some way to fix it?”
“Is he going to keep taking that attitude?” Naboo sighed. “Doesn’t want to go deaf. Doesn’t want to lose his virginity. I could take him out of the universe, but he’d probably just complain about that.”
“Wait,” said Vince. “Go back one.”
“I told you. If he loses his virginity, the Spirit of Jazz can’t take over for more than a few hours. Then all we need to do is watch out for record executives.”
Howard dropped his hands. It came down to this. His soul was going to be bound in a trumpet for all eternity because he couldn’t attract women.
Vince stared at Howard, looking surprisingly thoughtful. “So get small-eyes laid, problem solved, right?”
Naboo shook his head. “No.”
Howard glanced up at Vince. “It doesn’t get rid of the Spirit of Jazz, Vince. It just…”
“I’ll do it.”
Vince shrugged. “I’ll shag Howard. Help him lose his virginity.” He grinned. “No need to thank me. I’m just heroic like that.”
“You want to what?” Howard spluttered. He couldn’t believe he’d heard what Vince had just said correctly.
“It’ll solve our problems, won’t it?”
“No! If you’d been paying the slightest bit of attention, you’d…”
Vince bit his lip. “But it’ll solve something?”
“Well, yes. But…”
“There you go. Let’s shag!”
“Not doing it.” Howard sat back and folded his arms. “I’m not being bullied into losing my virginity by a jazz demon.”
“Physical incarnation of a musical genre,” Naboo corrected. “Not a demon.”
“I’m not having sex at the instigation of any music-related supernatural entity! No thank you, sir! I told Vince once; my first time will be forever. The person I intend to spend the rest of my life with. If I can’t have that, I’ll…”
“Let the Spirit of Jazz take over your body, rip your soul out, and bind it into a musical instrument?” Naboo asked. “If that’s what you prefer, go ahead.”
Howard suspected Naboo was deliberately trying to make him sound unreasonable. He tried to think of a good argument, but couldn’t come up with one. He settled for folding his arms and trying to look put-upon.
“Where do you plan on going, then?” Vince stuck his face up to Howard’s, looking the angriest Howard had ever seen. Which, as this was Vince, was less raging fury than moderate irritation.
“You said you’re not sticking around. So when do I get abandoned? Do I get the odd Christmas card, or are you going to cut me out of your life?”
Howard jerked his head back. Facing an angry Vince was rather like being attacked by a stroppy chicken. “What are you talking about? Have you gone mad?”
“All that forever stuff. The person you want to spend the rest of your life with. Apparently, you don’t want to spend the rest of your life with me. So when are you planning to ditch me?” Vince gave a sharp glare.
“Vince, I… I’m not planning on abandoning you! I just… do you really think we’re going to spend our lives together?”
“Yes. Of course. Don’t you?”
“Not really.” Howard away from Vince’s downcast face. “I just… people move on. New dreams. New lives.” Trendy aspiring rock stars eventually found success and left their unfashionable jazz-loving shopkeeper mates. Howard had resigned himself to that long ago. “That’s the way the world works. Fact of life.”
Vince jerked his head back, and let out a sharp breath. “I’ve got a jar of coins this big.” He held his hands apart. “I’ve been saving. In case you did get turned into a guitar. So I could buy you, take you to Naboo, and help. I’ve even been taking guitar lessons. Git.” He turned and stormed off.
Like everything else Vince did, it was spectacular.
Howard looked up at Naboo and Bollo. “What was that all about?”
Naboo took a drag on the hookah, and gave a slow, stoned blink.
Bollo grunted. “Me talk to Vince. You go. Idiot.”
Feeling the worst he’d felt since this whole thing started, Howard left.
Vince looked up to see Bollo holding a mug of hot cocoa with whipped cream and sprinkles. “Cheers, Bollo. Thanks.” He took a sip and licked the whipped cream off his top lip.
“Vince want talk?”
Vince shrugged. “I just… I’ve never met anyone who wouldn’t shag me to save their own life before. Most people are willing to swim through a lake of piranhas for a chance at a night with Vince Noir. Three people did! Why doesn’t Howard want me?”
“Him stupid.” Bollo pulled up a chair.
Vince shook his head. “He’s the only person who’s ever chucked me, did I tell you that? We were only dating for literally five minutes, but he chucked me. Me! Vince Noir! Chucked by a former bin man. Mind you, it only took a minute to find someone else.” Vince grinned.
“Vince can do better than Howard.”
“I suppose. I just thought he’d always be there for me. He always has been. It’s just weird to think of life without Howard. It’s not right.” Life without Howard was quite possibly the most depressing thought that had crossed Vince’s mind. Worse than bad hair, being behind the fashion trends, or that time when he was fifteen and he’d had that spot on his face for nearly a day. Worse than that whole Lance Dior mess; even then, when he’d been ready to give up on everything he’d built his life around, it had been everything but Howard. Life without Howard was like life without hair!
“It’s not right,” he repeated.
Bollo gave him a curious look. “Vince love Howard?”
“Howard know this?”
Vince took another sip of hot cocoa. “I told him once.” That time in the Arctic when they’d nearly frozen to death. “He didn’t believe me.”
Bollo nodded knowingly. “Howard stupid.”
“Yeah.” Vince tilted his head. “He kind of is, sometimes. You think that’s it? Him being stupid over something? Like he’s not planning to leave, but he has some stupid Howard reason for thinking it’s going to happen anyway?”
Bollo shrugged. “Could be.”
“I’ll go talk to him.” Vince stood up.
Bollo pushed him down. “You sit. I go fetch.”
“Let go!” Howard tried to shake free of Bollo’s grip.
Bollo dumped Howard in the chair. “Howard sit. Listen to Vince. Don’t be stupid.”
“Fine!” Howard rubbed his shoulder where Bollo had grabbed it. “What is it this time? How did I piss the gorilla off this time?”
“Howard,” said Vince, “I love you.”
“Oh, I know what this is!” Howard stood up. “You think that if you tell me you love me, I’ll go to bed with you. And, because you’ve got some bizarre idea that it’ll fix everything, you’re doing this out of… guilt, or something! Well, I’m not falling for it.” He turned to walk away.
Bollo shoved him back in the chair. “What Bollo say about Howard being stupid?”
“I wasn’t being stupid!”
“Yeah,” said Vince, “you were.” He put a hand on Howard’s. “That’s the thing. I love you, but you can be a bit thick sometimes. Now why exactly don’t you think I’m good enough to shag?”
“It’s not…” Howard shook his head. “Vince, you’re completely good enough to shag. But I told you, I want someone who’s going to stay with me. Someone who won’t wander off and leave me the moment something better comes along.”
“You think I’m going to leave you?” Vince laughed. “Bollo’s right. You are stupid.”
“Thank you very much for that, Vince. If you’re through insulting me, I have problems of my own to deal with.” Howard tried to stand up again.
Bollo shoved him down onto the chair again. “Sit. Listen. Don’t be stupid.”
“Howard, how long have we been together?”
Howard closed his eyes. “I don’t know. Fifteen years? Since we were kids.”
“And what’s the longest we’ve been apart?”
“There was that one week.”
Vince nodded. “And every time something good comes along, I take you with me. Right?”
“So what makes you think I’m going to leave you?”
“Because.” Howard dropped his head against the table. “You’re too good for me.”
“Oh, Howard.” Vince ruffled Howard’s hair. “I know that.”
“But I like you anyway. And I’m not going anywhere.”
Howard looked up. “All right then.”
“All right what?”
“I’ll go to bed with you.”
“I am relaxed.”
“You’re so tense you look ready to explode! And not in a good way.”
“Well, excuse me! I’m a bit nervous. Are you quite sure that thing will fit?”
“It’ll fit. Trust me. Sex is my area of expertise. Well, one of them. I do have many talents.”
“Maybe we need more lubrication.”
“I already used the whole bottle!”
“Don’t you have an extra bottle?”
“If I put any more on, you’ll turn into a Slip and Slide!”
“How much is it going to hurt?”
“It won’t hurt if you relax. Think of something relaxing. Something that isn’t jazz.”
“I don’t ,i>know of any relaxing things that aren’t jazz!”
“Think of… stationary or something.”
“Stationary. Paperclip trees. Tape neatly on racks. Blu Tack gardens. Okay, I’m ready. Go!”
Naboo glanced up when he heard the bedroom door open.
Howard stepped out and stumbled towards the bathroom. He wore nothing but pants, and had a dazed grin on his face.
Vince walked out behind him, looking dazzling in a blue and silver bathrobe.
He grinned at Naboo, and dusted his hands off.
Howard felt good. Relaxed. Confident. Cool. Manliness oozed out of every pore; at least he assumed it did. He felt more like he could plausibly be oozing manliness from every pore than at any point in his life.
He wasn’t a virgin. And he was sure it was visible in every step he took.
Of course, it occurred to him, he was now a massive gayest. And that might be visible in every step he took.
Howard nearly fell over trying to check his own legs for gay.
Did he look gay now? What if he did look gay? Or didn’t look gay enough? He wasn’t entirely sure how to look suitably gay. Pink shirts were involved somewhere, he thought.
Howard didn’t own any pink shirts. He hoped it wasn’t compulsory. Perhaps there was a grace period. A few weeks to master the gayosity. Develop the proper gayitude.
Howard forced himself to take a deep breath. No need to panic, now. He’d ask Vince. If anyone would know how to handle this, Vince would. He’d mastered two whole sexual orientations in the time it had taken Howard to learn none.
Vince would sort it out.
Howard went back to checking the stock, feeling surprisingly relaxed. So relaxed, in fact, that his pen started tapping a jazzy rhythm against the clipboard. Before he knew it, he was whistling.
He found himself standing by the record rack, holding a Jelly Roll Morton, with no idea how he got there.
“Told you, boy,” whispered a voice by his ear. “There ain’t no escaping me.”
Something slipped deep inside Howard, and he felt the world fade.
His last thoughts were to hope that there didn’t happen to be a group of record executives meeting at any of the jazz clubs in Dalston at a quarter to nine in the morning.
Vince was woken up by the sound of a frustrated scream.
It sounded like Howard’s voice.
Howard wasn’t in bed. Not that Howard ever slept long enough to still be in bed when Vince woke up. But not in bed and screaming was probably a bad sign.
Vince slipped into his red jumpsuit, gave his hair a quick comb-out, and dashed downstairs to the shop.
Howard stood by the shop door, his back to Vince.
“Howard?” Vince called out from the top of the stairs. “Are you okay? You didn’t step on a hedgehog, did you? Because I’ve got this mate called Pete, and he…”
“So it was you, sweet thing.” Howard let out a raspy chuckle. “Nice. This boy’s got more mojo than I thought.”
“Howard?” Vince crept down the stairs. It didn’t sound like Howard. But Vince had fixed that, hadn’t he? Howard was supposed to be safe now.
“I’ll give it to him,” said Howard, in the same raspy American voice. “He did better than I thought. Didn’t think no one would go for this piece of ass.” He turned to Vince, and smiled with burning red eyes. “You may have got yourself a taste, sweet thing, but the game ain’t over yet. I done told you once before, this boy’s mine!” He flicked his tongue out at Vince, then ran out the door.
Vince stood there for a moment, stunned. Then he ran back up the stairs to fetch Naboo.
As he tore through the flat, he had one panicky hope.
Please, he thought, don’t let there be a group of record executives meeting at a Dalston jazz club at a quarter to nine in the morning.
“I thought we fixed it! Wasn’t the shagging supposed to solve everything?”
Naboo shook his head. “How many times do I have to tell you? No!” He let out a long sigh. “It just means he can’t hold onto Howard’s body indefinitely. You can drive him out. Here.” Naboo pulled an old vinyl album of the shelf. “Ballad of the Green Berets. The purest anti-jazz known to man.” He pressed it into Vince’s hand. “If anything can clear the jazz from his body, this will.”
Vince looked down at the album. “Is Howard going to be okay?”
“He’ll be fine,” Naboo replied. “As long as there isn’t a meeting of record executives in a Dalston jazz club at a quarter to nine in the morning.”
Bollo looked down at the morning paper. “Uh-oh.”
Vince turned his head. “You’re not telling me there is a meeting of record executives in a Dalston jazz club at a quarter to nine in the morning, are you?”
Vince let out a relieved sigh.
Bollo checked the paper. “Nine-fifteen. Blue Note, near the Tesco’s.”
“Go!” Naboo pushed Vince towards the door. “You might still catch him. Bollo, get the ingredients for the emergency back-up spell.”
As Vince ran out the door, Bollo set the paper down and sighed. “Council of Shamans not going to like this.”
“But I’ve got to get in!” Vince pleaded with the club bouncer. “My friend’s in there!”
“Sorry. Closed audition.” The bouncer folded his arms. “If you got the back of the line, they might squeeze you in at the end.”
Vince looked at the line. It seemed to stretch to Soho. Three quarters of the people waiting were blokes in dodgy cardigans with stupid moustaches. Half of them wore berets. “But I don’t want to audition! I just need to go inside.”
“If you’re not auditioning, you’re not getting in at all.”
“Fine, I’m auditioning. I’m a singer.” Vince had sang in all kinds of bands.
“Back of the line, like I said.”
He’d never make it in time if he had to wait his turn. Vince gave the bouncer his best Bambi-eyed stare. “Can’t you make an exception for me?”
Five minutes, and one impromptu rendition of “Rehab” (the only even remotely jazzy song that had popped into Vince’s head) later, an itchy and irritable Vince was inside.
He slipped a pair of earplugs in, and looked around the backstage area. Howard had to be here somewhere.
“Howard!” Vince called out. “Howard! Are you around here?” He poked his head through the stage curtains.
There was Howard. Holding a trumpet.
Vince dashed out with the record, shouting, “No!” There was a small chance he could reach Howard before he started playing.
Unfortunately, club security didn’t take to Vince’s plan. Vince got about two feet before he was grabbed by a pair of large hairy blokes.
Howard put the trumpet to his lips and began to play.
Everyone in the building froze. Except for Vince, but he couldn’t do much as the security guards holding him had frozen in place still holding his arms.
Howard played. The little that leaked out through the earplugs sounded… odd. Different. Jazz normally sounded like a jumble of noise to Vince. Like if someone took his cassettes, shook out all of the music, and left it in a messy little heap at the bottom of the wardrobe.
But this was… different. Alive, like a caterpillar trying to crawl in his ear.
The record executives were reacting. They were looking at each other, moving their mouths rapidly, and gesturing. They looked excited. Frantic.
Probably working out how fast they could take Howard away and make him a big possessed jazz superstar.
One of the executives pointed at his ear.
The music died.
The security guard’s grip slackened.
Vince pulled his earplugs out.
“I said,” shouted one of the executives, “I’ve gone stone deaf!”
The trumpet slipped from Howard’s hands.
Vince, who knew good luck when he saw it, took the opportunity to go after Howard with the Ballad of the Green Berets.
“That was a piece of luck,” Vince said, pouring himself a bowl of Sugar Puffs. “All of the record executives suddenly going deaf like that.”
Howard glared. “I thought you said you couldn’t take the deafness off afterwards.”
“I can’t,” said Naboo. “I can’t limit it in time.” He shoved the paper at Howard.
“Mysterious plague of deafness strikes record executives.” Howard scanned the article. “They get better when they leave Dalston? Why didn’t you tell me that!”
Naboo picked up a slice of toast. “You didn’t ask.” He buttered it, and stuck it on top of the twelve other slices on his plate.
“If you’d said something, I wouldn’t have had to…” Howard broke off and looked at Vince. “That is, I wouldn’t have needed to…” He stared awkwardly down at his coffee. “I mean Vince…”
“Go on,” said Vince. “I’m dying to know how this sentence ends.”
Bollo glared at Howard. “You not say stupid things, right?”
Howard mumbled something incomprehensible into his coffee.
“That should do it.” Naboo gave his toast stack an appraising look. He stood and picked up the plate. “Don’t open my bedroom door for at least an hour, no matter what noises you hear. Unless it’s Fleetwood Mac.” He walked off.
Vince looked at Howard. “What?”
“Thank you. For the whole… loss of virginity business. I appreciate it.”
Vince gave the smile he’d been practicing for compliments from chat-show hosts. “You’re welcome.”
“And if you ever need… a similar favor, I’d be willing to… provide the same… services.”
Vince set down his spoon. “Or we could go shag over the synthesizer right now.”
“Really?” Howard looked up with an astonished expression.
Bollo rolled his eyes and walked off.
The synthesizer gave a discordant twang, and hoped nothing got spilled on it.
It couldn’t remember how many calories semen actually had.