Calling It an Ultimatum
Uneasy and somewhat at a loss, Duff had spent four long hours trying to fill the time between Eric and Rayne’s leave-taking for Sandy Point and his appointment with the band’s new manager. He wasn’t certain he had been right to let Rayne go without him, but her brother was reliable, it should be a simple task, and he could not supervise her every move. Her fragility and her intense reaction to Jimmy Breaux’s death continued to surprise and worry him and so far he had been unable to find any way to help her. Had he been right to expose her to what he wanted from her and in such a graphic fashion? Could he have waited? He still did not believe he could have, not without risking further harm to her, and yet it added more knots to an already tangled thread.
So here he was, too early, parked at the curb in front of one of the Shasta art deco rehabs in a small exclusive neighborhood backing to the harbor: Royce Bristowe’s home. He hadn’t met Flight’s new manager. He wasn’t sure he would even recognize her. He was second guessing himself, worrying about the future, and struggling to feel confident that he could delay the tour, all of which made it hard to focus on being polite to Ms Bristowe.
A tall brunette woman opened the door and stepped out on the porch, smiling at him. That would be Royce. She was as he expected from someone Rob had selected: professional, attractive, charming, and probably almost obsessive about details. In a good way, of course. “Hello,” she called out across the driveway.
He walked across the narrow strip of grass and briefly grasped her extended hand. Royce glanced over his shoulder at his Jag. "Royce Bristowe,” she said in a quick introduction. “You must be Duff. You have excellent taste in vehicles."
Duff assumed the compliment was her way of breaking the ice so he returned it even though his interest in her car was almost nonexistent. "As do you. Am I the first to arrive?”
Duff followed her into the house. He looked around, familiar with the small size and the style of these homes, but somewhat surprised at the sparse furnishings. When his attention fell back on Royce, she was watching him with an amused expression.
"I’ve been told it looks like a hotel. Honestly, I don't spend a great deal of time here. It suits my needs." She shrugged. "Would you like coffee? Something stronger?" Duff shook his head. He had lost track of the amount of coffee he had drunk this morning and certainly could not face any more.
Gesturing toward the small area off the foyer, Royce said, "I appreciate your flexibility in meeting me here. I have a landscaper coming and this was the only day I had. Please sit and let's get to know each other a little more."
Duff took a seat on the sofa feeling as if he was wasting time and calculated how long it would take for the others to arrive. Blade would be driving from the far side of the Peninsula but it was midday: he would encounter only lunch traffic around the harbor. It would be about half an hour if he left now, perhaps a few minutes longer, and he should have already left. Rob lived only a few blocks down and could walk the distance if he cared to do so. They were long blocks though with a major intersection to cross. He would drive and should be here any moment – Rob was rarely late. Shooter on the other hand had to drive all the way from Millwood and he was frequently late. It was a trip Duff had made only once, and it had taken almost two hours even without Millwood’s notoriously bad weather. None of them were early risers. He might be sitting here with Royce for quite a while and may as well try to make the best of it.
Royce sat across from him. "I should tell you I've done my research on each of you. I must say I find your background fascinating."
What did she mean by that? He shifted his position, leaning forward to get a better look at the woman. "You shouldn't believe everything you read; I’m not as fascinating as some people claim, and my musical background is anything but fascinating."
She laughed. "We all have our skeletons, don’t we? At any rate, I don't care about the details but I do like to know who I’m managing. For example, I know how difficult it is for Rob to relinquish control of all things Flight. I know that Blade is the heart of this band and I know that Shooter comes in from the mountains only reluctantly."
There was nothing controversial about that list although Blade’s elevation to ‘heart of the band’ might be challenged by Rob. In no mood to deal with gossip, Duff tried to keep the ‘get to know you’ conversation on the same agreeable track. She wanted to get to know him, he would encourage her to talk about him but only in relation to the band. "And what is your assessment of my contributions?"
Royce stood and started for the door as a car pulled up outside. Her expression was unreadable. "I know you've done more than you've been credited for and care more deeply about this band than you let on."
He was about to respond when he recognized Shooter's Jeep – the heavy growl of the engine was unmistakable. The car door slammed and then another.
“Hey Rob, I thought I’d be late, you just getting here? Right on the harbor and in one of these places – hi Royce. Great place! Mac has a friend who’s staying with her brother down there in that one, or the next one, one of them.” Shooter jumped up the stairs and through the door following Rob who was already engaged in a conversation with Royce, both of them ignoring Shooter for the moment.
Royce shut the door behind both of them and urged everyone to help themselves to food or coffee or beer, Shooter still remarking on the house, Rob nodding at something Royce was saying, dining chairs pulled back, Duff took one with his back to the kitchen and waited. Everybody sat.
Royce began passing around itineraries and travel plans. "I've made one slight change to the flight plan. I replaced one of the roadies whose girlfriend is having a baby soon but other than that everything is a go. The Dead of Winter tour leaves for the Southern Hemisphere on Friday."
He felt disoriented. No one said anything about the ‘heart of the band’. Duff looked around the room. Royce seemed distracted by Shooter who was opening more than one beer, maybe intending to pass them around, then changing his mind and leaving them on the counter. Rob glanced at him and then continued to look through the contents of a tablet he set out on the table although he must have seen everything a thousand times already, being Rob.
He couldn’t simply continue to ignore it. “Shouldn’t we wait for Alex before we begin?”
"He isn't coming,” Royce said what he thought looked like an uncertain smile. “Dani scheduled a photo shoot which he said is a conflict. I filled him in earlier with the details and made one small change at his request. Otherwise, he is on board and ready to go." Royce looked at him expectantly, then pushed the documents closer as if to encourage him to review them.
There was always some kind of conflict with Alex. Of course he wasn't coming. There was no need. If the plans didn’t suit him, the plans would be changed, as they had been, over and over again. It had been strange at first, then annoying, then finally customary. But maybe this time, in this case, the situation could play into Duff's hands. "Don't they have a nanny to look after the twins?" he asked.
"It's a family photo shoot for a family portrait. She wanted it done before the tour. I'm sure you understand."
That was perfect, far better than ‘that hot woman is painting my walls’. This was Duff's opening. "I do understand. He has a legitimate personal conflict. As a matter of fact, so do I, and I want to delay the tour for a week or two."
Rob pushed his chair back and studied him in silence for a few seconds. “Why? What reason could you possibly have for wanting to postpone? We've already delayed the tour several times for Alex."
"That is my point. You are willing to make allowances for him and I am asking for the same consideration to deal with similar personal needs."
"What needs?" Shooter set the beer down on the coffee table, sat on the couch, stretched out his legs and drummed a beat on his thighs as he waited for a response. He would probably keep that up for the remainder of the meeting until Duff wanted to hit him with something, anything to get him to stop. Unable to stay seated, Duff shoved the chair aside, took a few steps into the foyer and threw a withering glare at him. Shooter just shrugged. "It’s a reasonable question. I’m ready to go and you’re asking me to wait, I want to know why, that's all."
Duff drew a calming breath. Nothing about his situation was frivolous and although they could make minor complaints, they couldn’t deny the urgency. This was not one of Alex’s hare brained excuses. He had to stay with Rayne. He started off in an even voice. "Rayne is going through a very difficult time right now. She is fragile and needs my support. There is a funeral for Jimmy Breaux at the end of the week and I can't—no, I won't leave her alone to deal with all of it. Shooter, you know how those people were talking about her, ripping her to shreds. You heard them the day we picked up her things. She should not be left alone just now."
“All right. That’s cool.” Sitting up on the couch, he picked up his beer which meant he had to stop drumming for the moment. "She can always fly out after the funeral and hang with you on tour. Why can’t she do that? If that’s not gonna work for her, she's a big girl, it's not like she’s all alone without you. She wasn’t alone before she met you. Man you got to remember she’s not some chick you picked up somewhere, she’s Rayne Stanfield, going on a tour doesn’t impress her. Maybe she’d rather stay with her friends right now than travel around with you anyway.”
Duff looked at him, one long speechless stare, then turned his attention to Royce. "I am not asking for a great deal of time. Surely you can accommodate one small delay."
Rob stood up and moved over to the window overlooking the harbor. He said nothing. Royce exchanged one quick glance with him and then smiled sympathetically. "I wish I could Duff but we stand to lose too much money in revenue and advertising. After the last two delays, I had to lock things down or we would have lost some heavy endorsements. I'm sorry but it isn't possible."
Rob crossed his arms, shook his head and said flatly, “We are not changing the schedule. It’s settled.”
Despite his misgivings, Duff was still shocked at the finality, no discussion, nothing, and then consumed with anger. After all this time and everything he had done, this was all he was getting from the man? He had not worked out exactly all the ways this could have gone wrong but ‘it’s settled’ had definitely not been on the list. He shoved the dining chair aside with his boot. "No! This is not settled. I've given a great deal to this band and asked for nothing in return. I am asking now.”
Cornered and angry, fueled by sleeplessness and caffeine, Duff paused, then despite all better judgement fired off an ultimatum he had never considered making before this morning. He didn’t consider it now. It was a completely uncharacteristic impulse. “If you refuse my request, I won't be on that flight on Friday."
Rob was quiet for a long and probably deliberately uncomfortable moment. "I know what you’ve given, and I haven’t forgotten.”
He walked up to the table, tapped the screen of his tablet then rested his weight on both hands. Duff had known Rob a long time and he knew that pose – the man was turning something over in his mind, trying to make a decision. Duff was acutely aware now that the situation might well go terribly wrong for him, but it was done, he couldn’t go anywhere at all now. Still, he was asking for reasonable accommodation and was still fairly confident Rob would relent. Whatever else he was, Rob was not unreasonable.
“On the other hand Duff, I’ve spent a hell of a lot of my time and a lot of effort protecting the band from your shit about sex clubs and sadism, slaves chained up in your house, whatever it is you do, all of it slamming bookings, promotions, you name it and it’s hurt the band. I’ve lied, made promises I couldn’t keep, and cleaned up trouble you didn’t appear to even know you’d caused. I like you. I appreciate your work ethic which is a hell of a lot better than anyone else’s. But you are one very big problem, and I warned you about this girl.”
He paused. For effect. Of course. Probably. “If you aren't on that plane, we'll simply replace you."
Stunned, instead of immediately responding Duff wondered if Rob could unilaterally do that. Maybe. He doubted it, not without Alex’s agreement, but that was a ridiculously moot point since Alex was very likely to take up for Rob. He could not come up with anything to say, every thought shredded, his throat tight. Rob was prepared to replace him over this? "That is not your call to make Rob," Royce cautioned from across the room.
Rob, of course, swept that objection aside. "The hell it isn't. Alex and Shooter won't disagree with me. He's adequate at best as a bassist. Flight is rising in the ranks of rock bands and I refuse to compromise the momentum or the endorsements for a needy teenager he wants to tie up and fuck!"
"You son of a bitch!" With one long stride, Duff closed the distance between the two of them and shoved the other man hard enough to stagger him. He grabbed Rob’s shoulders and used every ounce of control he’d ever managed to gain to keep from throwing him through that window.
"You will watch your goddamned mouth when you speak about Rayne! We put up with you and Sydney and all her ‘married woman open marriage’ drama without saying a word about the effect that relationship had on the band. And if it hadn't been for me and my connections, you'd still be playing small gigs in rundown bars on the outskirts of Newport! I'm asking for two fucking weeks with a legitimate reason for doing so!"
Rob knocked his hands aside, his voice flat and unemotional and he did not flinch. "No. I told you not to chase that particular skirt and you didn't listen. That girl is your undoing Duff. You need to choose—Rayne Stanfield or Flight. If you aren't on that plane, we're done."
He looked down the table at Royce. "I hear Shaun Holloway is available. You know Shaun, the bassist for Storm Warning before they folded. He’s extremely talented. I talked to him just a week ago. He could be ready to go in a day." Rob leveled his attention on Duff. "And I’ve heard his wife is low maintenance and doesn't require a sitter."
No one else in the room seemed able to speak. Shooter sat there with his hands clenched between his knees, looking in stunned silence from one of them to the other and Royce gripped her left arm with her right hand. She was the one who finally found her voice. "Please, let's consider all the options before making hasty decisions."
Duff turned his gaze toward Shooter who just shook his head. His gut twisted in knots. He had money, it was never about the money, it was finding something he could do and do well, something he could work for, could achieve, could feel pride in having achieved. Playing with Flight had been one of the best things in his life. He had nothing else.
If it came to choosing between his career and Rayne there was no option. His choice was clear and yet it still cut like a knife through the heart. Duff crumpled the documents, tossed them on the floor and walked out.