WARNING: CONTAINS ADULT CONTENT AND DISTURBING / UPSETTING THEMES
A dark, unlit stage in a vast auditorium. An audience of shadows stared up at Max as he made his entrance. Walking up to the microphone, he opened his mouth to sing... but it was his wife's voice, doing a childish imitation of his own, that emerged.
"I was a bad husband Katie did nothing wrong"
As Max's hands flew to his mouth in shock, it was then that he noticed the long, tautly-drawn string attached to his arm. Feeling a tug on his leg, he looked down - and saw another. His head whipped to and fro as he looked all around his body.
They were everywhere.
Max emitted a silent scream of horror, now totally unable to make any sounds or movements of his own volition. As he felt the strings being tugged and jerked by an unseen force, he hopped and jerked awkwardly around the stage - the constant pulling and dragging causing him pain he couldn't express.
He longed to curl up in shame as he was forced to humiliate himself: donning a goofy face whilst more mocking tones - this time Oscar's - rang out loudly.
"Hey, I'm Max Velocity, and even though I'm a big fancy rockstar, I still couldn't keep my wife happy!"
As cackling boomed across the auditorium, the strings were sharply released, causing Max to crash onto the floor in a crumbled heap. Weakly, he raised his head, and stared into a bright, hazy light that had broken out above him. As the mist cleared, he saw the gigantic figures of Oscar and Katie, gloating over his minuscule body.
The puppet masters.
Max shuddered as Katie suddenly turned towards Oscar, gazing into his eyes and stroking his cheek - just as she had done with him so many times before. As he watched the agent weaken before the actress, almost kneeling to her as if she was a goddess, Max had to wonder if he was the only puppet in this situation.
Laughing, Katie reached a hand into Oscar's jacket pocket, and pulled out a box of matches. Lighting one, she dangled it over Max's head teasingly. As the musician marionette desperately tried to move his arms and legs to no avail, he looked at the flame, petrified.
"No..." he begged silently. "No, no, please..."
Faking a gasp, Katie dropped the match. The fire instantly began to spread all across the stage as the sinister couple clucked and laughed maniacally - revelling as they watched everything burn. As the blaze grew closer and closer to the helpless Max, he could feel shivers racing up and down his spine as he looked straight ahead at his imminent destruction...
With an anguished gasp, Max's eyes flew open - the bedsheets beneath him damp with sweat as he panted for breath.
Feeling the rapid rising and falling of Max's chest, Laura stirred out of sleep, and reached up to stroke his face lovingly. A duvet alone covered his and her modesty as she lay beside him in the tour bus bed - rays of golden sunlight shining in through the tinted windows.
"Max?" she whispered. "Are you OK?"
Hearing Laura's voice, and feeling her caring touch, Max sighed and smiled as he suddenly remembered where he was - and memories of the pleasure he had experienced the evening before drifted in to replace the horrific visions of the night.
Smiling, Max rolled onto his side, and embraced his lover.
"Yes... yes, I'm fine," he told her. "Just... just a bad dream, that's all."
Content with his response, Laura nodded, and settled herself deeper into the soft hug.
"I... I suppose I should feel bad, shouldn't I?" she said after a few moments. "Sleeping with a married man, and all that."
"No," Max told her. "Don't think like that. You make me so happy... and my marriage is as good as dead. Besides, that sin lies with me, not you. I'm the adulterer here. But I don't regret it."
"No. Not for one second."
"I don't regret it either," she admitted, kissing his cheek as Max stroked her hair. "But, all the same... maybe we should keep it quiet for a while. Just until everything's sorted. You don't want to give your wife another weapon to wield against you."
Before the musician could answer, there was a loud, thundering knock upon the tour bus door. As Laura sat bolt upright, instinctively wrapping herself in the duvet to hide her shame, Max did some very quick thinking, and turned to her.
"Grab your things, and head to the bathroom," he said. "Lock the door and turn on the shower. I'll tell you when the coast is clear."
As the knocking continued, Laura bundled up her handbag and whatever clothes of hers she could find in the darkness, and scurried along the length of the bus to conceal herself. Meanwhile, Max clad himself in his dressing gown, and when he began to hear the sound of running water, he went to answer the door.
When he saw Katie standing there, he resisted the urge to pull it shut in her face.
"What do you want?" he snapped.
"We need to talk," she replied. "About where things go from here."
Max was torn. The last thing he wanted to do was speak to that snake about any kind of future between them, but if he sent her away, she might suspect something.
Relenting, he stood aside, and let her aboard.
As Katie made herself at home on the sofa, she beckoned for Max to join her, and he did so - making no attempt to hide his annoyance. As the actress' ears pricked up at the sound of the shower running, Max clasped his hands together in his laps to stop them shaking.
"What's going on in there?" Katie asked him.
"Shower's broken," Max replied. "I washed my hair earlier and it wouldn't turn off. The plumber's in there fixing it right now - you wont be able to go in."
"Oh. All right."
Max sighed inwardly, relieved he'd dodged a bullet.
"Look," Katie said firmly, "I know you're a bit pissed off about all this, but you're going to have to deal with it. Oscar and I are staying together, but we both need you in our lives in order to succeed. I''ve whipped up a little plan."
Just play along, Max told himself. She'll be out of here soon enough.
"Go on," he said, feigning intrigue.
"First of all," Katie told him, "you need to publicly recognise Nathan as your son - just to throw any snooping journos off the scent. Then, we need to plan your next career move. I really think another world tour is in order, starting as soon as possible. Perhaps we could add a few more countries to the rota this time?"
"Sounds good," Max replied. "We should meet up later to discuss it."
"Why not now?"
Max tapped his forehead.
"I'm... I'm not feeling too good," he told her. "Migraine again."
"Sure it is," Katie snapped, eyeing up the opened whisky bottles. "Just brew yourself a coffee. You'll come around soon enough. Look, I've a full day of filming ahead and I want to get this sorted, OK?"
Sighing, Max headed to the cafetiere. There was no point in arguing. Katie seemed fairly committed to staying put.
"Do you want one while I'm up?" he asked sharply, pouring grounds into the filter.
"I never touch caffeine, you know that. Have you any fruit juice?"
"There's some cranberry in the fridge."
"Perfect. Pour me a cup."
Knowing that he had his back to the diva, Max seized the opportunity to scowl and pull faces as he opened the fridge door, venting his frustration. Meanwhile, Katie, who hadn't spent much time aboard the tour bus, looked around curiously.
"Nice little setup you have here," she said. "Shame about the colour scheme."
She stopped, sharply, when she spotted something at the foot of the sofa, a few inches away from her. Reaching down, she dragged it out onto the carpet to examine it more closely... leading her mouth to break out into a wide grin.
It was a pair of black lacy briefs.
Biting her lip to stop herself from laughing, Katie tucked the undergarments into her balled fist to hide them, acting innocent as she approached the kitchen area to get her beverage.
"Thank you, darling," she said, taking the fruit juice out of Max's hand. "I'm parched."
After taking a sip, she licked her lips, and then smiled at her husband as he took a mouthful of coffee.
"I must say, sweetie," she told him, in an eerily syrupy voice, "I had no idea you were a cross-dresser."
Max's eyebrows shot up.
"What are you talking about?" he asked, before taking another drink.
"These," Katie replied, revealing the knickers with a theatrical flourish.
Max choked on his mouthful of espresso.
"Mind you," Katie continued, examining the delicate item in her hands, "they look a bit big for you. And they're certainly not mine - they wouldn't stay on my skinny minnie hips for long. So... who's panties could they be, I wonder?"
Max stayed silent and cast his eyes downwards - suddenly morbidly interested in the contents of his mug.
"Oh, I know!" Katie cried. "They belong to that two-ton heffalump PA of yours - don't they?!"
Screaming, she hurled her cranberry juice in Max's face - the shock of this sudden action causing him to drop his own drink on the floor.
As Max hurriedly wiped the red liquid out of his face, Katie burst into giggles.
"Oh, this is all too perfect," she squealed. "Now I can divorce you for infidelity! Half of all your stuff, and I'm free to be with Oscar! And the papers will have an absolute field day! Oh, Maxy boy, you've really screwed up now!"
Smirking, she leaned back against the kitchen counter, stroking her chin in thought.
"Mind you," she said pensively, "that jumbo-sized PA of yours can't go unpunished. I can't be seen to have lost my husband to something as ugly as that. I've a lot of connections in this business. I could make sure she never works again. Hell - I could have worse things done to her, if I wanted."
"No!" Max begged, dropping to his knees and clasping his hands together in supplication. "Don't hurt her! Please!"
"Are you in 'wuv' with her, Maxy boy?" Katie teased. "Is she your sixty-stone sweetheart? Well, if you won't give her up, then maybe your precious parents should pay the price, hmm? I could use some extra land for my mansion. Wouldn't it be a shame if something was to happen to them - or to that hideous shack they call a home?"
"No, please!" Max pleaded. "I'll... I'll do anything you want. You can divorce me, no questions asked. I'll... I'll bear the blame. I'll say I was a terrible husband. Take the house, and my money. Take it all. Just, please... I beg you... don't hurt my family."
Katie leaned over him - drawing her face uncomfortably close to his, staring at him eye to eye with frightening intensity.
"It's up to you, sweetie," she hissed. "That fat bitch has 24 hours to get out of town, and stay out. If she does, I promise she won't be harmed, and neither will your family. But, if she doesn't go, or if you ever try to see her again... then her days are numbered, and that shack will go up in smoke - with whoever's in there locked inside. Got it?"
Shaking with terror, Max swallowed, and nodded.
Smirking, she tucked the panties into her own bra.
"I better keep these safe," she said. "Evidence will help speed up the divorce case. I'm willing not to name names, if you are. Anyway, I'd best be off. Busy day ahead."
Blowing him a kiss, she waved him goodbye.
She strolled away regally, stepping down from the bus as if it was Cinderella's carriage, and drawing the door shut with one violent push.
After waiting a moment or two, just to make sure Katie wasn't coming back, Max rose to his feet, still shaking. He utterly dreaded doing what he was about do. But he had to. He had no choice. The people he loved had to stay safe.
Max headed over to the bathroom door and knocked upon it, before returning to the centre of the room, pacing up and down nervously.
Seconds later, the shower fell silent, and a fully-dressed Laura emerged, clutching her handbag close to her chest. She had heard muffled yelling and conversation, but the words had been unclear over the sound of the running water. Still, she was sure Max would bring her up to speed soon enough.
"You... you haven't seen my briefs, have you?" she asked, embarrassed. "I think I might have dropped them somewhere. I'm... I'm kind of having to go commando at the moment..."
As she watched Max turn towards her, his arms folded and a frown on his face, she immediately fell silent.
"What's wrong?" she asked.
"Ms. Bennett," Max replied, "your actions last night have made it clear to me that we can no longer have a professional working relationship."
"As such, I have no choice but to terminate your employment - effective immediately."
Gasping, Laura dropped her handbag, the contents spilling out onto the carpet as it hit the ground. Max did nothing to help as she knelt down and gathered everything up - merely watching her with a chilling, steely gaze. It was like his voice: robotic, and hollow. It unnerved her greatly.
"Max," Laura said aghast as she straightened herself up. "What in God's name are you saying?"
"I understand that a PA agency in Windenberg has vacancies that you'd be well-suited for," Max answered, not missing a beat. "I will give you money for a train ticket and to pay for a hotel room until you commence the post and find permanent accommodation."
"I suggest you leave without any further fuss or drama. I will, of course, make sure your reference is second to none. Now go. Please."
"But... but I thought...?"
As Laura looked into Max's face, she realised that he was being serious. She felt tears springing to her eyes. Frantically, she wiped them away with her hand. She wasn't going to give Max the pleasure of seeing her cry.
He didn't really care about her. Of course he didn't. She should have known. He'd just used her - had his bit of fun. Any port in a storm, and all that. He probably planned to keep playing house with that wicked wife of his just for the sake of his career.
Well... good luck to him.
"As you wish, Mr. Velocity," she replied gravely, tucking her handbag in the crook of her arm. "Or "Mr. Miskin", whichever you prefer. Thank you for the opportunity."
No fuss. No drama. Just as he'd said. Why waste the energy, anyway? Without looking back, Laura disembarked the bus, closing the door calmly, but firmly - only allowing herself to weep when she was halfway down the street, making her way home to pack up her things.
Meanwhile, Max stared into the empty space where Laura had stood moments before, and felt the coolness of his own tears as they rolled down his cheeks. He felt frozen in time: Laura had kept moving whilst he had stayed still. The phrase he had so longed to say rose up in his throat, and he released it with a gentle whisper.
"I love you."
He felt himself tumbling - plummeting to the plush floor beneath him, breathless and numb, shock consuming him completely. His hand flew to his chest as he felt the painful ache of his heart being ripped into pieces. Clambering onto his hands and knees, Max buried his face into the carpet, and let out a soul-piercing agonised scream, crumbling into a helpless mass of shivers and sobs.
Everything was lost. His cunning, manipulative, soon-to-be ex-wife was about to drag his name through the mud, ruining his career and his life... and taking his belongings to boot. He had abandoned his family, and brought dishonour on their ancestral legacy. They would never forgive him: how could he ever bring himself to see them again? And now, he had been forced to send away the woman he truly loved - his last chance of happiness snatched from him.
He couldn't go on. The pain inside him was flooding his veins and his nerves, crawling beneath his skin, consuming him like a vile plague. He had to numb it... to stop it. Permanently.
Without any hesitation, he snatched up all the pill and alcohol bottles he could find.
When Laura reached the front door of her apartment, she opened her handbag to take out her keys. After a good five minutes of rummaging and rustling, she realised that they simply weren't in there. Where could they have go to?
Ah. Damn it. They must have rolled out when she'd dropped her bag back on the tour bus. God, she was losing a lot of things today.
Sighing, Laura turned around, headed back down the stairwell and stepped out into the street. She spent her entire journey back to the bus mentally preparing how she was going to act. She would say the bare minimum possible: just explain that she'd mislaid her keys and had come back to get them. If he asked her to stay, she would not listen. Even if he begged and pleaded, she would ignore him. She would be civil and courteous, as she would be to any stranger, but that was all.
Reaching the bright pink door, she rapped upon it gently. There was no answer. She couldn't hear the shower running. Perhaps Max - Mr. Miskin - was asleep.
She knocked again, a little more vigorously this time.
"Mr. Miskin?" she called - loudly, but not aggressively. "It's Ms. Bennett. I'm not here to cause trouble - I've just lost my keys. May I please come in and look for them?"
Still no response. Odd.
Curious, Laura gently tugged the bus door handle. It was unlocked. She knew Mr. Miskin would be angry for letting herself in, but what other choice did she have?
As she climbed aboard the bus, entering the lounge/kitchen area, she screamed in alarm as she witnessed the scene before her.
Max was sprawled out on the carpet, unconscious. Alcohol and pill bottles surrounded him, like candles at a shrine. Ever single one of them was empty.
Worst still... he didn't seem to be breathing.