Whenever he was with Naboo, Vince realised he was overseeing two separate conversations. But he and Howard had been like that, a long time ago, and they'd gotten better. He wondered how long he would have to wait for Howard to come back, this time, and rescue him from it. Or if he could get into some sort of groove with Naboo instead. Whichever came first was fine.

"It's still wet, you muppet!" Naboo waved his hands over the canvas. He had already assembled a stack of blank posters , to press copies into. Magically, of course.

He made a fist, which sucked the image into his hand, and then threw it dramatically over the waiting blanks.

"Howard's gone!"

Naboo made two more copies before even turning to look at Vince.

"Give it a week."

"What'm I s'posed to do?"

"Chuck us a Sharpie, yeah?"


The shaman summoned the marker himself, forced it into Vince's hand, and pushed him down into the chair. The prints were lined up across the countertop.

"I want these numbered and signed. See how many we sell in a day."

"D'you reckon he'll come back?"

"Probably a hundred, yeah? I'll do a hundred, for now."

Giving up, Vince shook his head and popped the cap off of the marker. He made curly numbers on the back of each picture, wondering which would match up with Howard's return.

Howard managed to ignore most of Lester Corncrake's overbearing hospitality and accompanying laughter. Other than Lester's insistence he was always happy to help a fellow Veteran ("how old do you think I am?") and his promise that he would not take any rent for the first few weeks.

"I've brought money with me, it's not a-"

"I don't need money from you, Howard."

"Well, thanks very much."

"I need something else."

Here we go, Howard thought. He hadn't even seen his room yet, as Lester was still fumbling through an absurdly crowded ring of keys. One, he noticed, was a key for guitar tuning. But there was also a bottle opener and a safety pin fastened to the thing, so he refused to get too hopeful.

A worthwhile pursuit; the room turned out to be much smaller than promised, and had what seemed to be a stack of towels instead of a mattress, slinking through a pointy metal bed-frame.

He hoped that nearly two days without sleep would help him overlook this, at least for one night. Seemed like a balanced equation.

"What was it you wanted, Lester?"

It wasn't worth pointing out the lack of mattress, even as he set down his bag and watched the towels slip down lower in the centre.

"You ever heard of New Faces of Pop?"

Vince thought he must've had a good day. Maybe a great one, like Naboo told him as they sat idly in front of the television, Vince nibbling on chocolates while Naboo settled the sales figures for the day. Or watched them settle themselves, over enchanted paper. Vince crinkled up his collection of wrappers, cramming ten into his hand at once.

Without Howard there, requiring reassurance that every day wasn't a complete disaster, Vince had a hard time believing it himself. Naboo agreed with him too easily.

"Thirty-two prints in an hour," Naboo read, "And Cheekbone want to do a section on your creative process."

Vince nodded, expecting to hear why this was actually terrible news. Nothing.

He rushed upstairs to call Howard, who answered his mobile in record-breaking time.

"Hey, Howard. I just needed to-"

"Can't remember how to get the oven on, hmm? Need me to shut the curtains in the bedroom? Wanted to-"

"Just needed to talk to you 's all. What's wrong with you?"

"Oh," Howard wasn't yet sure if he was meant to be pleased or disappointed, "What is it?"

"Naboo's got me like his slave or something. I had to open and close today, all by m'self. He was just sat upstairs, making more copies."

"Don't let the fame go to your head, yeah?"

This was exactly the reason Vince called. Howard was the only person he knew who could stretch servitude logically into glamour.

"Yeah," he replied, "When you gettin' back?"

"Not for a while," Howard said, "Got a new job, now. New mates. I've found somewhere where I'm needed."

Who needs you more than I do? Vince thought. He did not state it, though; he had an image to maintain. Even if it was transparent to Howard.

"I was thinking of going out tonight," he said instead, "You wanna meet me somewhere?"

He was used to Howard shaking his head 'no' and assumed that's what he was hearing. It must've been his hair, rustling across the speaker.

"I can't," he added, "I've got, er, Jazz Club."

"Ugh, you're starting that rubbish up again?"

"Are you sure you didn't call just to insult me?"

"I don't know," Vince felt as if he'd been deflated, "I'll see you later."

Vince left the house, wandering habitually toward The Velvet Onion, only stopping at the sight of a particularly pathetic-looking beggar.

The man was hunched over a cane, occasionally lifting his gaze from behind his tattered sleeve to reveal a waxy green face. Vince only realised - as he fumbled at his side for a purse or wallet or whatever he felt like that day - that he hadn't grabbed any money on his way out of the flat.

"Evening," the stranger said, two fingers brushing the brim of his hat. He couldn't commit to tipping it, "Here to see the show, young lady?"

Vince kept walking, hands stuffed in his coat pockets.

"You shouldn't be out alone, lovely face like yours. What's your name?"

"It's Vince," he replied firmly. Sometimes, this was enough.

The stranger leaned back against his cane.

"You a geezer?"

He caught Vince's sleeve. Everyone working the current shift in Vince's brain shouted for Howard to do something. "He's not here, you idiots," the secretary whined. She was usually on the phone with Howard's brain secretary, directly, and was the first to realise that Howard was out of their range for longer than usual. She fed Vince a thought from their last conversation: 'two can play at this game.'

He slipped his voice just slightly south, toward the accent his attacker used.

"If it means you'll leave me alone, I am."

"Sorry, Squire. I was looking for a lady who might like to spend the evenin' in m' box seats."

Vince hoped it was a box the man was stooping to show him.

"Get off me, you're weird. Howard!"

But it was Bob Fossil, of all people, who heard this and came to his rescue. He wore a tie over his blue work-suit, and had a cup in one pocket and a thick book of tickets in the other. With passing disappointment, he asked "where is that loser? Moon!?" then immediately brightened upon noticing Vince was unaccompanied.

"Vincey, hey!"

The stranger retreated; he had no patience for Americans, least of all that one. He felt like he had tried breathing under water, just looking at him.

"I'm a scalper," Fossil said, rather than reacting to the stranger, "D'you wanna see the show tonight?"

"What, at The Velvet Onion?" Vince tried to read the tickets before Fossil snatched them up and made a fan out of them. Vince complained, for the sake of his hair.

"Sorry," Fossil said. Then, "Yeah. They're real good seats."

Part of him waited for Howard to point out that Fossil owned The Velvet Onion, and had no business scalping any tickets, especially not his own. But the rest of him was bored, skint, and enamored with favours.

"What's the gig?"

"New Faces of Pop. And bodies and clothes, too. I've gotta fill the front row with beautiful people for some magazines," he leaned in closer than Vince liked, framing his face with both hands, "What do you say, huh? I can get you popcorn."

"Okay," Vince said, "Just keep me away from that weirdo."

He tossed his head back, in the direction the stranger disappeared to. Fossil said he saw nothing.

Vince decided, fairly quickly, that he had not missed much in the world of pop. Maybe it had missed him, though. Six acts stumbled through the curtains, all feeling deplorably beige.

He was happy with his seat, however. Front row, as Fossil promised, but near the aisle. He found himself facing the accompanist, buried behind the lid of a grand piano, and caged between electronic keyboards on either side. Each keyboard had a sign draped over the front; one read 'New Faces of Pop' and the other read 'Vane.'

Vane, Vince thought. That was all.

By the eighth act, he found he was able to ignore the aggressively loud chewing of Fossil from the seat beside him if he set his mind on Vane instead.

Vane was, so far, faceless, constantly flipping pages of music. Vane wore black, and a jacket without a tie. Vince only caught momentary glimpses of Vane's hair, which he decided was meticulously curled and then foolishly shoved beneath a beret. It was as if Vane tried to look picturesque, but only barely passed patchwork.

"Howard would like them," his secretary sighed.

Vince widened his eyes. Naboo advised him to stay young, and he couldn't remember the last time he had been on this side of the classic 'falling in love with a stranger' situation. He felt a deep sense of satisfaction and clear personal growth; last time he had been out on his own without a wallet, he was happy to reverse the situation and accept free drinks from doe-eyed strangers.

Not this time.

He would try to like them, instead.