Phil stared up at the swirls in the nicotine-stained ceiling and tried to steady his thumping heart.
Laughter and chatter flooded the bar. Revolving disco lights splashed over tables cluttered with drained bottles and broken glass and spilled onto the peeling wallpaper.
A palm pressed against a steamed windowpane followed by a pair of eyes. They peered inside at the chalked word on a blackboard hung above the near stage. Faceless. An orange dot flared, and then the smoker disappeared.
To Phil’s right, a couple wriggled, and he heard sucking noises. An old woman emerged and erupted into a raucous cackle. Lipstick stained her teeth.
A mobility scooter blocked the fire exit. An obese man sat wedged at the handlebars, surveying the swaying mass before him, swilling and spilling beer like a corrupt king clinging to power.
A worker in a hi-vis jacket plunged through a doorway near the stage and lurched into a nearby table. There was a high-pitched scream as a wine bottle upended and gushed its insides onto a woman’s lap. She staggered to her feet and the disco beams played across her make up smeared face. She broke into a lopsided grin and shook her head before grabbing the man in a clumsy embrace.
Phil spotted a break at the bar. He gulped the remainder of his warm beer and edged through the throbbing crowd to order another.
He held Jack’s photo in his sweaty hand.
A young girl with a heaving tattooed bosom slopped down his pint. She asked, “That all, love?”
Phil fumbled for a five-pound note and then hesitated. He said, “Erm, no.” He flashed Jack’s picture. His face flushed. He swallowed and mumbled, “Have you seen this man before?” He felt like a private investigator in a black and white movie.
The barmaid frowned, paused, flicked her eyes over the punters nearby and snatched the photo. She muttered, “Just a minute.” and ducked below the booze-puddled bar.
Phil glanced around the bleary faces. A mix of blood-shot eyes gazed straight ahead at their reflections amidst the optics bottles. None looked his way. He shifted from one foot to the other and flinched as someone bumped into him. There was a slurred apology, but Phil didn’t turn round. He reached for his pint.
His hand was shaking.
The girl reappeared. Her eyes had grown wider. She said, “Here’s your change, love.” Her palm passed over his and he felt the photo. There were no coins. She peeked along the bar before nodding.
She mouthed one word.
Head down, the barmaid hurried away.
Phil felt his heart rate surge and, for an instant, he had to blink back coloured blots. He staggered to his stool, muttering apologies as he knocked into customers.
So, Jack had been at the hotel. His brother had come to the seaside town over six months ago and vanished. Police investigations had uncovered nothing.
His head whirled as disco blotches flashed across his flushed face. The walls crept closer. He reached for his glass. The beer tasted metallic. A drunken teenager banged into his shoulder. He glanced again at the couple on his right. The man was much younger. Maybe eighteen or nineteen. He had a diamond ear stud and the old woman’s gaudy pink lipstick formed a slick across his cheek. He winked at Phil before clutching his partner’s thinning hair and yanking her mouth over his.
Phil smothered a wince.
A band had materialised on the stage. They took up their positions and the lead singer was adjusting the microphone stand. They wore dark sunglasses, long raincoats and had fedora hats like 1920s gangsters. Faceless.
The frontman tapped the mic and breathed into it. A loud whoosh swept through the bar.
The racket receded.
All bleary eyes shifted to the stage except one pair.
Phil felt the barmaid’s focus. He peeked in her direction, but she had already turned away.
The lead singer leaned forward, peered over his sunglasses in Phil’s direction and cocked his head. He smiled and displayed two rows of yellowed teeth. He whispered, “Some of you might know this one.” He paused. “Come together.” His tone was empty.
The punters nodded and stood as the band began its Beatles cover.
Unsmiling drunks tottered and stumbled beside the platform. Phil shuddered.
The musicians were identical. Aside from their costumes, they all shared the same pale skin, build, height and indeterminate age. They could be anywhere between thirty and sixty years old.
Faceless was tight too. Not a single bum note. Clinical behind the sunglasses, they switched through the song. The lead singer sounded exactly like John Lennon.
The couple to Phil’s right had stopped kissing and were swaying, open-mouthed to the music. The smoker had reappeared at the window behind the stage. He gawped at the band. The man in the hi-vis jacket, and his partner, staggered in time to the beat, their eyes fixed on the raincoated group. The punter in the mobility scooter held his pint glass midway to his mouth. Frozen in the performers’ spell.
Dutiful clapping met the end of the song.
The lead singer waited for the applause to die. He surveyed the obedient crowd before scrutinising Phil over his sunglasses once more.
His whispery voice asked, “Should I stay or should I go?”
The Clash cover started.
At that moment, panic grappled control of Phil’s faculties.
He dashed to the toilet.
There was a gentle tap on the stall door. Phil didn’t move. The knock came again and there was a familiar voice. “Erm…are you OK?” The barmaid.
He wiped his mouth, pulled on the greasy chain, and opened the door.
The girl looked even younger than she had behind the bar. She grabbed his elbow. “You’ve got to get out of here!”
Phil tugged his arm free. “No, wait. What’s going on? Where’s my brother?” His voice had risen a pitch.
The barmaid hissed, “He’s just gone. OK? And he’s not coming back. Neither will you if you don’t hurry!” She snatched his sleeve, but he shoved her away. She stumbled back against the sink. The door banged and she jumped. No one entered. She leaned into Phil. “Please trust me. It’s not safe tonight!” Her whole body was trembling.
Phil swallowed down the rising bile in his chest. He mumbled, “Alright.” and turned for the door. He stopped.
Neither of them had heard the music stop.
Or heard the lead singer enter the toilets.
The Faceless frontman tilted his head and peered over his sunglasses at Phil. Without looking at the barmaid, he whispered, “Leave Deirdre.”
She cowered next to the basin and sobbed, “Don’t take any more. Please stop.” The singer waved his arm but didn’t remove his gaze from the other man. The barmaid cast one final glance at Phil. She wiped her nose on her sleeve and sniffed. “I tried.” She fixed her eyes on the lead singer. “You bastard.” and scurried out through the door.
Phil’s temples were throbbing, and his fingernails were cutting into his clenched fists.
Silence cloaked the space between them.
Through gritted teeth, Phil’s voice sounded distant. “Where’s my brother?”
The Faceless frontman pushed up his sunglasses and sighed. He glanced at his reflection and answered, “You can join him.”
The instant the lead singer’s finger touched Phil’s shoulder, a pulse rippled through his body. He felt his frame spasm as he jerked into the air before collapsing onto the piss-soaked concrete floor.
He began to scream.
His bones started to crack, stretch and remould themselves. His skin stretched and tore as a new layer spewed forth. Like steaming magma. The new hide segments crept over his reforming structure joining and fusing together as they marched.
Phil dragged his morphing carcass to the sink and tried to hoist himself up, but he had no control over his contorted shifting limbs.
He heard the frontman whisper, “Allow me.” Two hands appeared under his armpits.
Phil’s reflection appeared in the smudged mirror and a single thought detached itself from the blinding pain.
“I’m losing myself.”
And then Phil’s brain commenced its recalibration.
The screaming grew louder.
But Phil no longer knew he was screaming.
Faceless re-emerged on the stage to dull applause.
A fifth musician stood on one side. He wore a raincoat, fedora hat and sunglasses. He had the same pale skin, height, build and indeterminate age as his other band members.
None of the drunken crowd noticed.
Unaware of each other’s presence, two brothers stared at the audience and waited for their cue.
The lead singer peeked at the drummer and new bass guitarist. A faint smile formed on his lips before he leaned into the microphone.
He whispered, “Now for a pop song some of you might remember from the 80s.” He paused. “Never Gonna Give You Up.”
Faceless started their song. The frontman sounded exactly like Rick Astley.
And the new guitarist played perfectly.
Also by Mark Humphries...Another Malcolm