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The ComebackThe Comeback
by Doug Allyn
Art by Jason C. Eckhardt

  1.     1.

“You can map out a fight plan or a life plan, but when the action starts, it may not go the way you planned. . . . That’s where your roadwork shows. If you cheated on that in the dark of the morning, well, you’re going to get found out now. Under the bright lights.”

—Former Heavyweight Champion Joe Frazier

 

“Open your eyes. Look at me.”

A man’s voice. Unfamiliar. No one she knew. God, everything hurt. But the pain felt distant. Blurry as a photo shot through a greased lens. A feeling she knew well.

Drugs. She was cruising on heavy meds, stoned to the bone. Oxy? No. Something much stronger—

“Can you open your eyes?”

And she wanted to see, but . . . she was afraid. So terrified she could hardly breathe.

“Can you tell me your name?”

Of course she knew her damn name. It was . . . Sweet Jesus! Why was she hurting—

“Can you—?”

“Terri,” she rasped. Her voice sounded like gravel rattling down a chute. She tried to wet her lips; her tongue wouldn’t move.

“Water,” she said, in that awful, alien voice. Her grandmother’s voice. Sixty years of Salems, a pack a day. A bellow like a foghorn.

“Teresa Jo! Come git it—”

Teresa Jo? Not Terri. Friends called her TJ. But . . . what was her last name now? Couldn’t think—

A straw touched her lips. She sucked the water in greedily, then gagged on it, hacking and choking as it drooled down her chin. Her mouth wouldn’t close. Whole face was throbbing with every pulse.

“Easy,” the man said. “Sip it slowly.”

She tried again, just enough to wet her tongue this time. Most of it dribbled away, but it helped. She took a longer sip, and swallowed—

Huge mistake. Felt like ground glass grating down her throat. God it hurt. Every inch ached—

“Do you know where you are, Terri?”

Hell yes. The reek of antiseptic, tinny voices echoing over a PA. Dr. Somebody, report someplace.

She was in a hospital.

And she hated freakin’ hospitals. Never had any fun in one. Her rising anger was forcing open the door of her memory. Images were flashing past now, a slide show in rapid fire, a growing sense of herself—

“Terri—?”

“What?” she snapped, then spasmed as a lightning bolt exploded along her spine, arching her back in agony. God! She’d been wrecked before. Cracked up a motorcycle back in high school. And Vince had beaten her senseless once, early in their marriage.

Only the once.

But she’d never felt this kind of blazing pain, every square inch an agony. Felt like a witch, burning at the stake.

“Sweet Jesus,” she moaned.

And opened her eyes.

Light lanced into her brain like an ice pick.

Couldn’t see anything but white at first. The room was ablaze in brilliance. Like being hit with a Super Trouper on a dark stage. Blinding. But comforting too.

Because she knew what a Trouper spot was. Knew how it felt to be at center stage, bathed in its light. Knew her mother named her Teresa Josephina, but now she was—

“Terri—?”

“For chrissake, leave her be!” Vince growled.

Terri could see Vince now. He was standing across the room at a window, staring out into the night. Black suit, black turtleneck. Dark hair, dark looks. Her black-hearted bastard of a husband.

The love of her life.

He was standing with some suit she didn’t know, both of them watching her now—

“Your wife’s coming out of the anesthesia, Mr. Rossi.” A nurse in blue scrubs was at the foot of the bed, adjusting a dial. “We need her awake and alert.”

“Terri? Look at me, please.”

She turned her head slowly, to face the voice.

He was at her bedside in a plastic chair, leaning in close. Not scary at all. Late twenties, maybe. Seemed young for a doctor. But he had an ID pinned to his lapel. Couldn’t make out the name. Heyer? Something like that. Tweed sport coat, chambray shirt. Looked like a Beach Boy wannabe, sandy hair, blue eyes.

“Terri—”

“I’m hurting really bad, Doc,” she moaned. “Can you fix me? Shoot me up with something.”

“I’m not your doctor,” Heyer said, glancing up at the nurse, who shook her head.

“No painkillers just yet, Miss Canaday,” the nurse said. “We’ll set you up with a drip in a bit.”

“I’ll be dead in a bit. Vince, bring me my purse!”

“I’m afraid they took it,” Beach Boy said.

“Who took it?”

“Las Vegas police. Staties, I think. You were holding enough Oxycontin to stone the Super Bowl.”

“She has a prescription,” Vince said.

“Then it will be returned to her once they—”

“I need it now, goddamn it!” Terri snapped. “I’ve got a show in—”

She broke off, blinking. Her show . . . Christ, it was opening night!

“Do you remember the show, Terri?” Heyer asked. “Can you tell me what happened?”

She didn’t answer. Couldn’t.

“Terri, do you know where you are?”

“In Vegas, in some freaking hospital!”

“Actually, you’re in Los Angeles, ma’am. You’re in L.A. Samaritan.”

She stared at him as though he’d started speaking Urdu.

Unclipping his ID tag from his lapel, he held it out to her. Not a medical ID. It was a shield. Las Vegas PD. Lieutenant Jason Heyer.

“In Los Angeles?” she echoed. “How the hell did I get here?”

“Your husband chartered a plane—”

“But why? When—?”

“You’ve been unconscious for forty hours,” Heyer said. “You had a concussion, and surgery—”

“Wait for the lawyers, babe,” Vince said from across the room. “Don’t say squat till they get here.” She realized Vince was in handcuffs. And the suit beside him was wearing a police ID. Another cop? What the hell?

“If you want an attorney present, it’s your right,” Heyer said.

“Why would I need a lawyer?”

“I don’t know,” Heyer said, leaning in closer, his eyes bright and intense. “Terri? Please. Just tell me what happened.”

What happened.

Las Vegas. Forty hours before.

 

  1. Twenty minutes and counting down. The Las Vegas Wonderland’s main-show room was jammed to the walls. Every seat was filled and the line for standing room snaked out onto the casino floor.

Inside the hall, the crowd was younger and rowdier than the usual Vegas audience, pumped up and crackling with energy. White velvet jackets and spaghetti-strap dresses mingled with faded denim and leather vests. Nary a tuxedo in sight.

The clapping began quietly at first. One pair of hands, then another, spreading like wildfire, echoing around the room like a stadium wave, getting louder by the minute. Soon the fans were stamping their feet as well, the heartbeat thundering down the corridors like an invading army on the march.

At the gaming tables, blackjack dealers and croupiers paused in mid play, startled by the din, wondering what the hell was happening.

Backstage, in her plush dressing room, Terri Canaday perked up, listening to the thumping drumbeat of impatience. “The natives are getting restless,” she said, flashing Sumo a nervous grin as she applied a final flourish to her eyeliner.

“I ain’t no native, but I’m some restless myself,” her Samoan bodyguard growled, peering over Terri’s shoulder to check himself in the mirror. “How do I look?”

“Like the Incredible Hulk in a sky-blue tux.”

“I do look fine, don’t I?” Sumo grinned, flexing his massive wrists to flash his diamond cufflinks, a gift from Sir Elton John. His jacket was Armani’s largest, a fifty-six long, triple XL. His accessories were by Bill Blass; aqua shirt, gleaming patent-leather loafers. Size fifteen triple E. “Oooo-wee! If my old mam could see me now—”

He broke off at the sound of running footsteps coming down the corridor. With startling quickness for a big man, Sumo blocked the doorway with his bulk, reaching under his jacket for his automatic. One hard rap, then two. Sumo opened the door. The stage manager poked his balding head in.

“Fifteen minutes, please, Miss Canaday,” Augie Fillmore panted. “It’s a freakin’ zoo out here.”

“I’ll be there,” Terri said as Fillmore vanished. Sumo sheepishly pulled his hand out of his coat, shooting himself in the ear with a blunt fingertip. He was unarmed. Sands house rules banned weapons, even for superstar bodyguards.

Not that the giant Samoan needed a gun. His dead-eyed stare could chill most situations. In six years of guarding Terri Canaday, Sumo Ulufale had muscled drunks and clocked the occasional psycho, but he’d never pulled iron on anyone. Or needed to.

He missed the weight of a weapon, though. Felt off balance without it. Unprepared.

Terri was feeling the same way, but guns had nothing to do with it. Opening-night nerves, familiar, but no less unsettling. She tried to shake the tension out of her shoulders as she gave her mirror image a last critical once-over.

Onstage, with friendly lighting, she could still pass for the fire-haired teen queen who’d French-kissed David Bowie in her first film ten . . . no, maybe a dozen years ago?

She paused, quickly doing the math in her head.

Whoa! It was closer to twenty. And some nights, it felt more like fifty.

Another rap on the door, same code: one, then two. Sumo stood aside and Chico Ramirez breezed in. The lead dancer in Terri’s troupe was already in costume, skintight leather pants and vest, plus a gleaming chrome chain belt. Hell’s Angels chic.

“Lord, I do hate the countdown to blastoff,” he said, dropping into the chair beside Terri, checking her makeup with a professional eye. “You look scrumptious, sugar. Quit while you’re ahead. Do I pass muster?”

“If you were any prettier, Vince would give you my slot.”

Chico was stunningly handsome, and well aware of it. A natural afro, six-pack abs, and a thousand-watt smile made him a heartbreaker for boys and girls alike.

“Relax, girlie, your job’s safe,” he said, patting her arm. “I never cross-dress. Hiding these pecs under a Wonderbra would be a mortal sin. Especially since they’re real, unlike some I could mention.”

“My girls are totally real,” Terri shot back. “They cost me ten grand apiece. Are the guys ready?”

“Wired up and waiting for the bell,” Chico grinned, brushing a wisp of Terri’s fiery hair into place with his fingertip. “After six weeks of two-a-day rehearsals? We’re dying to strut our stuff in front of a live audience. We’re gonna blow ’em away tonight.”

“Don’t get cocky, bub, Vegas crowds are tough. Cirque du Soleil’s up the strip and Sir Tom Jones opens at the International tomorrow.”

“May his house be full; yours is already,” Chico said, clasping Terri’s shoulders firmly. “Listen to me, girl. On opening nights, you get jumpy as a flea on speed. Just remember, you’re the reason that crowd is here! You’re a great talent, your audience loves you, I love you, and the guys are honored to be backing you up. And we’re gonna slay every mother-effer in this joint tonight. Aren’t we!”

“Damn straight,” she nodded, her eyes locked on Chico’s. “Abso-freaking-lutely.”

“That’s my girl.” He was giving Terri a quick buss on the forehead when her husband stepped in.

“Ten to showtime, hon,” Vince snapped. “Quit mussing the merchandise, Ramirez. Get your skinny ass onstage.”

“Just leavinnnng, Mr. Rossi,” Chico trilled, pirouetting gracefully past Vince on his way out the door. “Break a leg, Terri.”

“What the hell was that?” Vince demanded. “I thought he was gay. Does he have a thing for you?”

“Don’t be dense.” Terri sighed. “You’re more his type than I am. He drools whenever you walk in a room. And so do I.”

Grasping her arm, Vince pulled her out of her chair, their faces only inches apart. A brutally handsome man, Vince was dangerously magnetic, with dark eyes and darker moods. He was the scariest lover Terri’d ever taken to bed. Which was part of his attraction.

“I don’t want to see that swish pawing you again.”

“Then close your eyes, sugar,” Terri said, meeting Vince’s glare dead on. “He’s on my payroll, not yours.”

“Let her go, Mr. Vince,” Sumo said from the doorway. Didn’t raise his voice. Didn’t have to.

Rossi glanced at the giant Samoan. Sumo was as loyal to Terri as a German shepherd, and not much brighter. But he was nobody to cross. Reluctantly, Vince released Terri’s arm, brushing away his fingerprints.

“Sorry, babe,” he said. “We all get a little nuts on opening night.”

“How much time do I have?”

“Ten minutes, tops. The stage manager, what’s-his-name, Fillmore? He’s having a cow out there.”

“Then take a hike, hon. I need to get my head on straight.”

Terri expected an argument, but didn’t get one. With Vince, you never knew. Rossi was as unpredictable as a roll of the dice. Another reason she was still crazy about him, six years in.

After Vince stepped out, Terri began pacing in front of her mirror, arms folded tightly under her bust, taut as a cat in a cage. Sumo watched her from his post at the door, his face as blank as a tiki mask.

The dressing room was top-drawer Vegas glitz. Louis XV furniture in blue velvet to match the lustrous drapes. Bouquets of roses and orchids stacked on every conceivable surface. Terri blocked it out, her mind totally focused on the task at hand.

Eight minutes now? Jesus, Jesus, Jesus! Okay, get it together, girl. Zero in. Run down the checklist.

Makeup? Perfect. Check.

Voice? “I’m comin’ home, baby, your Motown Mama’s comin’ hooome . . .” She murmured the opening lines of her first breakout hit flawlessly. As she damned well should after singing it ten thousand times. Check.

The act? It would be her wildest show ever. Dancing two sets a day kept Terri fit and firm as a teenager, and tonight, she was dressed like one, wearing a cheerleader’s letter sweater over a pink poodle skirt.

But that outfit would be torn off in the first minute of the show by Chico and his crew of gangster thugs in mirrored shades and leathers. America’s sweetheart stripped practically naked by outlaw bikers? Even Sumo gasped the first time he saw it in rehearsal.

She wouldn’t be naked, of course, but her full-body stocking would be invisible to her audience, and a white woman in the clutches of four dark men was a dangerous image in America. To pump up the drama, they’d be dancing high above the audience on a massive mechanical arm that would close into a Black Power fist during the grand finale.

Ten dancers on the main stage plus a twelve-piece backup band. Fifty-five grand for the costumes alone. And worth every freakin’ penny if it wowed this crowd.

But if it didn’t? God! Don’t even go there!

No, the new show would be a spectacular success. It had to be. Check, check, and check. Time to go.

Taking a nervous breath, Terri stalked to the door, giving Sumo a hard punch on the shoulder for luck.

“C’mon, big guy. Let’s show ’em this old dog still knows a few tricks.”

 

Out in the corridor, the din was deafening, the drumbeat clapping of the audience echoing down the halls like artillery fire.

“You be extra careful up there tonight, babe,” Vince said, falling into step beside her as they threaded through the backstage chaos, musicians and dancers scrambling to find their places. “Jerry Branka was here earlier. He’s the Cincy mob’s frontman in Vegas. They’ve muscled into two clubs in the ’burbs and now they’re looking to buy this place. They’ve laid down a serious offer. The kind you don’t say no to. There could be trouble.”

“The casino has plenty of security, lover. They’ll handle it. We’re good. Chico went over our set with Fillmore this afternoon.”

“Then why was Fillmore futzing with the power supply an hour ago?”

“Because it’s opening night, Vince! We double-check everything, then check it again! Lighten up! I need to focus.”

“Then focus on the fact that you’ll be forty feet in the air dancing on a goddamn arm that weighs half a ton—”

“Vince!” Terri said sharply, turning to face him. “I’m already jumpy as a grasshopper on a griddle. I’ll be careful, I’m always careful. If there’s trouble, security will handle it. But right now? Get the hellout of my face!”

“You don’t talk to me like that—!”

“Or what? You’ll pop me one? I wouldn’t recommend it.”

Their eyes locked and held, oblivious to the turmoil around them. Two high-powered personalities only a word away from an explosion.

Vince looked away first, still seething, but unwilling to push it. “Damn it, Terri! You drive me absolutely crazy, you know that?”

“Hold that thought till after the show,” she grinned, rising on tiptoes to give him a quick buss. “I’ll show you crazy. Gotta go, babe.”

Turning away, she trotted briskly to the narrow spiral staircase that led up to the dance platform, suspended in space a full forty feet above the stage on nearly invisible cables.

“Stay away from the edge,” Vince called after her.

“I’ve been dancing on the edge my whole life,” Terri shot back. “Wish me luck!”

“Break a leg!” he shouted.

But Terri didn’t hear him. With every upward step, her opening-night nerves were fading away. Halfway up, at the twenty-foot mark, she did a slow turn, taking in the whole chaotic scene.

On the stage below, hidden from the crowd by the curtains, the house band was already in place, guitarists giving their axes a final tune, sax men wetting their reeds, backup singers humming their parts, warming up.

In the wings, stage right and left, show girls were giving each other a final once-over, tweaking costumes, checking their makeup. Getting loose.

God, she loved this game! The sweat and grease paint and turmoil. The spotlight glare, the sheer freaking electricity of it all. Vince joked that she’d sleep onstage if she could. On opening nights, it was the absolute truth.

She took a long, deep breath, sucking in the excitement and the energy, then resumed her climb. When she reached the top of the narrow stairway, her jitters had vanished. Gone, baby, gone.

Six feet wide by twenty long, the Black Power dance deck felt solid as an aircraft carrier as she stepped over the thin titanium rods of the safety rail. Home at last. Here, high above the crowd, Terri was in her element, easy and free.

Queen of the World.

At the far end of the platform, Chico and his gangster dance crew were stretching out their hamstrings, shaking their shoulders loose, looking fierce and ferocious in shades, black leather, and gleaming chain belts. Tense as boxers waiting for the bell.

“Listen up, guys,” Terri cautioned. “Perfect won’t be good enough tonight, we’re gonna kick ass and take names! Is everybody up?”

A chorus of Right on! and Go for it!

“All right, then,” Chico said, tapping fists with Terri, then each of the troupe in turn, their eyes alight. “Let’s tear the roof off this sucker!”

On the stage below, Vince was storming around like a pit bull, shouting last-minute instructions, herding stragglers into place. Sensing her eyes on him, he glanced up. Forty feet above him, Terri was perched atop a massive black forearm the size of King Kong, grinning like a kid in a candy store. She blew him a kiss and gave him a thumbs-up sign. He nodded, then trotted off to the wings.

Showtime.

 

A long drumroll gradually stilled the buzz of the audience. Then a solo trumpet pierced the sudden silence, sounding the spine-tingling call of “Zarathustra,” the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey. An attention-grabber every time.

As the grand curtain began to rise, the drumroll grew louder, multiplied by the deep thrumming of bass and guitars, gradually becoming a thunder rumble the crowd could feel through the soles of their shoes. As the audience buzz faded away, Vince Rossi strode to his microphone, center stage, impeccable in a midnight tuxedo. Dark, dangerous, and movie-star handsome, Vince was Las Vegas incarnate.

“And now! Ladieeees and gentlemen! The Las Vegas Wonderland Hotel and Casino and Vincent Rossi Productions are proud to present the Motown Mama herself, the wildest redhead on Planet Earth . . . MISS TERRI! CANADAAAY!”

Vince’s voice was swept away by a tidal wave of applause as the stage band kicked off Terri’s signature tune, “Motown Mama,” playing it double-time, flying through the melody at breakneck speed.

In Vegas, you come out kicking!

Vince sprinted off, threading through the bevy of feathered show girls in glittering thongs and peek-a-boo tops, who were racing onstage in five-inch heels.

Breaking into an energetic pony, they did a three-minute, razor-sharp, high-stepping routine, finishing with a unison leap, coming down in splits, then staring upward in mock terror as the massive Black Power fist suddenly flashed into view overhead, dropping rapidly as the grand drapes vanished upward into the darkness above the proscenium.

Dancing along the lowering forearm in her cheerleader outfit, with four black-clad thugs in hot pursuit, Terri whirled to deliver a mock karate kick. Chico executed a flawless back flip, landing first on his hands, then reversing, to land on his feet again. Clutching a fistful of Terri’s letter sweater, he tore it off and tossed it into space!

A unison gasp sounded from the crowd as they strained for a better look. Had Terri Canaday gone topless? From forty feet below, her flesh-colored body-suit gave precisely that impression, and dancing like a dervish, Terri made it impossible to be sure.

Spinning out of Chico’s clutches, she back-pedaled along the platform, covering her breasts with flashing forearms as she fended him off. Chico dropped to his knees, reaching for her skirt to strip it away—but missed as the stage lurched.

The front corner of the platform dropped a sudden, sickening six inches, then a foot! Then another! . . .

# # #
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"Gun Accident: An Investigation" by Joyce Carol Oates, Copyright © 2015 with permission of the author.

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