Despite her extraordinary anger towards Michael, Kim had been relatively silent since Rob had brought the lot of them to Seth Ramone’s Lower East Side apartment.
Thus, it was no surprise that Calvin and Michael had opted to leave her alone, preferring to take the time to gather their thoughts in response to the situation that had so nearly killed them less than an hour before.
Seth’s place would provide only momentary safety at best, both Calvin and Michael knew that much at least.
Since that fateful day when Michael had christened them all as Audio Knights, a mark had been established on all four of their backs, and to make things worse, Calvin had received nothing but radio silence from Aeris since their narrow escape with the Pop 5.
He sat alone in the den, checking his phone every five minutes and mentally begging that Aeris just give him a response already.
The last time Calvin had seen her was for that brief moment when she returned to them in the Sound Loft. After that, she’d taken a cold shower and retired to the guest room without saying another word to him, Michael or Kim for the remainder of the night.
Any other idiot might think that her returning and acknowledging him meant that everything was okay, but of course Calvin Altberg knew better.
Eventually, he realized that dwelling on Aeris’s ghosting would just keep him agitated and unfocused, so he soon decided that perhaps a more productive course of action was in order.
Productive, but perhaps not the smartest thing to do.
With little hesitation, Calvin left the den and headed towards the door leading into Seth’s room, where Kim had taken residence since her outburst at Michael.
The door was closed shut, framed with a huge poster of The Stooges, all of whom seemed to judge Calvin with unhinged eyes.
Calvin just took a deep breath, knocking lightly as he announced himself.
“Kim? You awake? I want to talk.”
The growl behind the door would have been more appropriate coming from a grizzly bear than a mere teenage girl.
“Talk to a mirror. I’m busy.”
Calvin leaned against the door, smiling to himself as he tried his best to reach Kim on the other side.
“Hey, come on. I’ve said sorry how many times now?”
He chuckled. No response from her, so he kept going.
“I’m just worried about Aeris. Worried about Mike too.”
His words meandered, as the next statement slowly lumbered out. “And, contrary to popular belief, I’m a bit worried about you too.”
Calvin ended his stream of speaking with that, still leaning up against the door and waiting as only silence followed for what seemed like an eternity.
Just as he was about to give up and look for Michael, the lock on the door clicked, and the path was opened to reveal a clearly annoyed Kim Ramone on the other side.
“If I hear any of those stupid one-liners, I won’t hesitate to throw you out.” Kim warned, and Calvin just nodded before entering the room with her permission.
He looked around for a moment, taking in his surroundings in a place that could still very well been Seth Ramone’s room.
Dark blue carpet covered the floor, as well as distinctly ’90’s era gray furniture coupled with posters of bands like Len, Reel Big Fish and Smash Mouth among others. On the floor at the foot of Seth’s old desk, a black guitar stand lay untouched and empty.
As Calvin glanced to one side, he noticed a bunk bed set up where Seth had once slept. He had to hold back the urge to laugh; this room seemed more fit for a child than any 23-year old young adult.
“Your brother had some interesting taste.” Calvin said, though with clear admiration in his tone.
Kim didn’t reply, instead sitting down on the bottom bunk and observing Calvin was almost accusing eyes.
He soon pulled up a nearby seat, leaning back and trying to get as comfortable as he could.
But with Kim nearby, looking so unhappy, that was understandably a bit difficult.
“Let’s get the obvious out of the way first.” Calvin said, without mincing words. “It’s no secret that you don’t like me.”
Kim responded flatly. “Really? What was your first hint?”
Calvin just chuckled, and thankfully, Kim didn’t strike him for doing so.
“Honestly Kim, this stuff might be more than I can handle. I was thinking, maybe it might just be easier to hand myself over to Zero Beat and maybe they’ll be merciful.”
“And what then?” Kim replied. “Sell Michael out again and hope for some clemency?”
Calvin shook his head. “No, of course not. I’m way past that. As crazy as it is, it appears I’ll be with you guys in the long run.”
He put his head down now, tone full of regret. “Still nothing from Aeris. It kills me not knowing what’s going on with her. What if they got to her already? She could be dead and none of us would even know.”
Calvin’s voice cracked at the end of that declaration, and that snarky smile began to melt away.
He might have been on the verge of tears, if not for Kim’s timely response.
“Don’t be a baby about it. I’ll tell you one thing, she’s no pushover. For now, our big focus should be that we stay ready for Zero Beat when they come back for us. Michael’s uncle might be able to make his phone calls, but all he’s really going to do is delay the inevitable.”
Kim’s eyes narrowed. “We’re running out of favors and second chances. After what happened with the Pop 5, there’s no doubt they’ll be closing in for the kill.”
Calvin’s eyes widened at a sudden thought. “Maybe I can talk to my sister. If I give her the Purebeats like she wants, then maybe she can broker a deal with Zero Beat. They have the resources; I could even have her track down Aeris.”
“No.” Kim said. “Michael already gave me the whole story. Sirenia can’t be trusted. Just imagine if she got her memory wipe on any one of us, or on Rob? She’s too dangerous to keep even at arm’s length. We’re far better off on our own.”
Calvin didn’t seem to want to initially agree with Kim, but the more he thought on her words, the more he realized he was allowing his emotions to cloud his judgement.
“How do we know we can trust Rob? You know how much he does behind our back, because I don’t, and I really doubt Mike does.”
Kim didn’t say a word, instead motioning towards a photo on Seth’s desk just a few feet away.
It showed Seth Ramone, with a blue mohawk and just a few years older than Kim. He was standing next a younger, but still just as mysterious Rob, arm around on the shoulder as the two of carried their respective instrument cases slung on their backs.
“He’s the only reason we’re here. He’s been watching over me for awhile. I get the feeling it was the same for Michael too. Rob is doing everything he can for us. I’d trust him with anything.”
“Okay.” Calvin admitted. “I believe you. But I want you to believe that I’m not going to double-cross you guys. Not anymore, at least. I really mean that, Kim.”
Kim seemed to think on his words, staying seated but showing little change in her flat expression.
That was all she seemed willing to say on the subject.
Calvin made a small smile. Not exactly what he wanted to hear, but at the very least, it was progress.
“So.” Kim continued, now somewhat more excited in her tone. “Want to see something I’ve been working on?”
Calvin’s face perked up. “Yeah, sure. What is it?”
Kim pointed below Seth’s desk, just by his feet. “Grab that stereo. There’s a CD inside. Play the first track on it.”
Calvin ducked underneath, pulling out a blue and black stereo that was somewhat matted with dust. When he pressed the power button, blue neon lights lit up around its curves, and they fluctuated in tandem with the rhythm guitar that signified the beginning of this particular song.
Trumpets filled the previous silence of Seth’s room, and Calvin looked forward to see the change that now overtook Kim.
As she displayed it in its glory on her arm, her fingers were now bathed in what appeared to be molten gold. She was careful not to touch anything, rather commanding Calvin further.
“Hand me that old sneaker. This is the wicked part.”
He obliged, and Kim was careful to not touch Calvin’s skin as she took it from him.
When her fingers made contact, the gold surged into the sneaker like some sort of virus, changing its coloration until it became a statuesque, metal imitation of its former self.
Kim smiled, and dropped it. It thudded on the carpet with clear weight and density to it.
“I’ve tried a few small things. They all ended up being practically indestructible.”
Calvin picked up the sneaker and eyed it with curiosity. On the bunk bed next to Kim, he spotted a sock, a pen, an old digital clock, and a ripped t-shirt; all dense and gold like the sneaker.
“Pretty neat. Should come in handy for sure.” he admitted.
Of course, Calvin knew better than to be surprised by now at the crazy things that song effects were capable of.
If anything, he was far more glad.
Glad to know Kim could stand him for more than a minute, and glad to know when the time came, they had one more thing up their sleeve for the likes of Zero Beat.
Michael Kay had been staring up at the ceiling of this particular guest room for more than fifteen minutes, laying on the bed with arms and legs spread out, and yet still his situation did not change.
The lies he’d fostered for almost a month had finally come to light, and the only silver lining to it all was that Kim had thankfully not decided to beat the life out of him.
Aeris’s location was unknown, and just as she’d done with Calvin, she either was ignoring or couldn’t receive each and every one of Michael’s contacts.
The Pop 5 wouldn’t stop, Michael was sure of that, and Denny could do nothing to quell their advance further.
“What am I supposed to do here, Rob?” Michael finally asked, to his uncle who was sitting a few feet away.
He was busy tuning his bass guitar, practicing chords in between and looking quite caught in his own thoughts.
“I told you, Mike.” Rob replied. “I told you being a Music Master wasn’t going to be some big party. These were the people I’ve been trying to keep off our back for years. Why do you think I left you and Colleen like I did?”
“I know, I know. But I didn’t think it would get this serious.”
Michael smiled to himself, trying to relax despite everything. “I just kept thinking how being a Music Master would be like the coolest thing. It was what I needed. Some serious excitement, you know? I bet if I just told her, I’m sure Colleen would get it.”
“Right now.” Rob interjected. “The only thing my niece needs to get is that you’re with me for a weekend gig upstate. She finds out about any of this, and we’ve got another problem on our hands.”
“What does it matter what Colleen thinks?” Michael said, now leaning up from the bed and sighing. “The whole thing is a mess. They’re gonna try Denny for crimes against Zero Beat, and Kim thinks I’m a traitor. And as far we know, Aeris is MIA. Can it really get any worse?”
Rob stopped playing in between speaking. He placed the bass against the wall, trying to be serious in his attempt to calm his nephew down.
“Let me tell you something, Mike.”
He pulled his cap off, putting it on a table nearby and showing off his brown eyes. “When I started the Audio Knights, it was just me, my best friend and my girlfriend. I was a kid, and I didn’t know any better. A few weeks later, my friend started some beef with a guy at the club, and he turned out to be rolling with Zero Beat.”
It was clear the memories were something Rob had rarely revisited, just by the look in his eyes. “I had no reason to be butting heads with them, but I did anyway. It was only years later that I realized that they’d done things to truly deserve some amount of retribution. By then though, I didn’t have the other two Audio Knights to fall back on. I knew that if I kept fighting the good fight, I had to disappear. So I went to Europe for awhile, and you and Colleen had to suffer.”
Rob almost put his head down, and for the moment, Michael realized his complaining was a tiny, insignificant thing in comparison.
“There wasn’t a day that went by I don’t regret that, that I don’t want to kill myself for doing that to you and my niece. It was for the best, but that didn’t make it okay.”
“Hey.” Michael said. “I understand, Rob. You did what you had to do.”
He mused over his own words, running his fingers through the black orb that was his hair.
“It’s just…what did I do to deserve this, man? Freaking disco music.” Michael complained, his frustration coming out loud and clear. “I should have stopped with those tunes when I had the chance.”
Rob leaned forward. His voice became deathly serious.
“Don’t even joke about that. To renounce your music is renounce what makes you who you are. Zero Beat has an issue with that? That’s there problem, and if they want to make it a problem, then you got every right to push back.”
He laughed under his breath. “That’s maybe one of the only good things I learned from my days at the club, as the good old space cowboy.”
He put his hand on his nephew’s shoulder, reassurance in his eyes. “But I promise you one thing, Mike. I promise I’ll be with you every step of the way.”
Michael smiled. “Thanks, Rob.”
Without warning, he went in for a hug, embracing his uncle warmly as his voice was muffled against Rob’s shoulder. “I’d be totally lost without you.”
“Try not to panic about Kim. She’ll calm down.” Rob told him. “She’s stubborn, like her brother, but not completely unreasonable. Let me tell you, Seth was not somebody you could talk down. Believe me, I used to try.”
“Would have been cool to meet him.” Michael wished. “Maybe things would have been different if he was here too.”
Rob’s voice was low, almost apologetic now. “He was a good friend. But we can’t change the past. We gotta do this on our own.”
“You hungry?” Rob suddenly asked. “You got me halal last time. I figure I’d return the favor. I’m sure Calvin and Kim could eat.”
Michael nodded with excitement. “Oh, you bet I am!”
Rob smiled, putting his cap back on as he prepared to make his exit. He placed his bass guitar in its bag and slung it around its shoulder before stopping for a brief moment at the door.
“I won’t be too long, Mike.”
His voice was confident, and of course, Michael didn’t suspect a thing.
“Just make sure this place is one piece by the time I come back.”
Michael just grinned. If there was one thing Rob never failed at, it was cheering him up.
“You got it, man. You can count on this guy.”
Rob swiped his phone locked, standing in the middle of the sidewalk as the destination in mind remained only a short distance away.
Framed behind honking cars and the night lights of Manhattan, Rob Prototype was sure that the food would get there within the hour and was quick to leave a copious tip in his online transaction to the Chinese place he’d ordered from.
Of course, Michael, Kim and Calvin getting a bite to eat after an already stressful night was the last thing on his mind.
Making no effort to appear discrete, he walked into the gate leading into Central Park, admiring the quiet and peace of the place at this time of night.
His bass guitar remained in its case, but just to be safe, Rob’s old and faithful cassette player was nestled right within his right jacket pocket.
It was no secret than even in a place like Central Park, where all manner of people came and went, Zero Beat had eyes of all sorts.
Whether they were installed upon lonely lampposts, or within the bark of towering trees, or even on the most innocuous of benches, no one, known Music Masters especially, could truly escape Zero Beat’s gaze.
Even as he made his way to the loneliest bench he could find, Rob had spotted the numerous, seemingly innocuous, headphone-wearing passersby that were none other than aspiring First Beats.
They were fresh recruits, practically given their first song effects and expected to do what they were told without question.
Rob took a seat once he found a bench he’d finally decided on.
He then unzipped his guitar case, took out his rainbow Warwick bass guitar, and began to play.
The melody echoed through the night, and more than anything, served as a warning to all those who were no doubt coming for him.
Perhaps they thought Michael and his Audio Knights were easier fish to catch.
But Rob Prototype? He was the marlin in the ocean; the prize catch that would bringing glory and fame to whoever caught him.
As arrogant as it sounded, he was no mere bait.
But if it drew Zero Beat’s attention away from Michael and his friends, then bait was exactly what Rob Prototype would be.