Camera flashes from outside on the street lit up the inside of the limo like strikes of lightning. While the photo-desperate crowd converged on the car, my assistant turned his illuminated tablet toward me. The display boasted a color-coded schedule organized to perfection. There was a reason I’d hired Dexter and kept him on payroll despite his frazzled social skills. The kid could balance a schedule like nobody else, and I needed that kind of skill, especially now that my season to shine had finally arrived.
“You have time to take pictures with the crowd for seven minutes,” Dexter said as he ran his finger down the right-hand column of the tablet, pointing to all the commitments of the evening. “We’ll be just on time for your grand entrance scheduled at nine o’clock sharp. You can have half an hour to get a drink and shake some hands before you need to make announcements. After that, the evening is yours, but we need to make sure announcements happen before the crowd starts to thin out. A lot of the guests have early flights in the morning, so there’s no guaranteeing how late they’ll stay.”
I clicked the power button on the side of the tablet, and the screen went dark. “Try to enjoy yourself tonight, will you, Dexter?”
My assistant blinked his big brown eyes at me from behind his glasses.
Chuckling, I clamped a hand on his wiry shoulder. “Kid, you have to learn how to loosen up every now and then and have a good time. If you have to, consider it part of the job tonight. Have fun. Try to meet a girl. Maybe that’ll uncoil the spring you’re so tightly wound around.”
Dexter smoothed the front of his suit jacket. “I’m not uptight.”
More cameras flashed outside the car. I arched an eyebrow at my assistant. “Then leave the tablet in the limo.”
Dexter licked his lips. “That hardly seems necessary.”
I slid across the seat to the door and looked back over my shoulder at him. “See? Uptight.”
Dexter prickled but put the tablet down on the seat beside him. He reminded me one more time before we got out of the limo that I only had seven minutes to take pictures and sign autographs with the fans waiting outside the venue. Sometimes, I listened to his time restraints; other times, I went with what felt right in my gut.
I peered out the window. Tonight, there were dozens of scantily clad women trying to burst past security guards keeping them at bay. Most were dressed like they were going to a nightclub after this, but some were done up in cosplay outfits inspired by the horror virtual-reality video game released two years ago called Horde of Horrors. I’d invested in the gaming company years before they released their first virtual game, which shifted the entire landscape of the online gaming community. With VR goggles and the right rig, users could meet up in the game through their avatars like they were standing face-to-face, when in reality, they were in their dimly lit gaming rooms surrounded by empty energy drink cans and empty bags of Cheetos.
The main character in the game had been inspired by me—Hollywood’s most dashing horror enthusiast. At least, that’s what I liked to call myself. My adoring fans had other names for me. Most of the time, people called me by my last name, Kane, which was what my character was called in the game. Kane was a bad-ass hunter of evil with a fairly easy cosplay costume. Even now as I peered out the window, I could see dozens of people dressed up in his attire, including women. They wore khaki pants with cargo pockets to carry extra gear, like Kane’s many knives, vials of holy water, and explosive flasks of salt and gunpowder for killing super-nasty demons. Women always tended to wear white crop tops to show off their stomachs and usually pierced navels, while men wore white Henley shirts. On top, everyone wore a brown leather harness, which Kane used to carry the two pistols he kept at his ribs on each side. The harness also had a scabbard on the back for a long blade soaked in holy water and salt. In the crowd outside the limo, I could see the hilt of the blade over several shoulders.
I grinned. “Time to blow some minds.”
As soon as I stepped out of the limo, I was bombarded by shrieks of fawning women and men calling my name, vying for my attention. They held posters of the video game and permanent markers for me to leave sweeping signatures in the bottom right-hand corner—which I did. I clasped hands with the strangers, took photos with them, and signed more than a dozen breasts.
Women had a thing about always wanting me to write my name on their cleavage.
I had a thing for always saying yes to such a glorious request. A writer might say there was no better canvas for their work than the blank page. A painter might argue canvas was the best. But me?
I guess I was just a boobs guy.
Dexter followed me through the crowd, occasionally reminding me that we were getting a little too close to comfort to that seven-minute mark. I ignored him. Pushing through the crowd, I continued eating up all the attention. I’d worked hard to get here. I deserved some appreciation. And my good fans deserved me.
We reached the front of the venue, which security had wisely roped off. As I approached, a tall guard with the broadest set of shoulders I’d ever seen unclipped the rope and invited me and Dexter through with a nod of his head. I jogged up to one of the grand pillars framing the front door, hopped onto the clay rim of a massive flower planter, and turned to the crowd as they continued snapping pictures. Dexter rolled his eyes as I gave a lavish bow, bending at the waist and extending my hand to the people who had made me what I was while I kept the other arm wrapped tightly around the pillar.
“You have all made my evening,” I said as I straightened, speaking loudly over the crowd and projecting my voice, “and let me be the first to say, happy fucking Halloween season, you sexy bastards.”
The crowd screamed.
Dexter pinched the bridge of his nose and hung his head. The night was young, and he was already exhausted by my antics. Poor kid.
I gave the crowd my best smile. “Check your socials at nine o’clock. I’ll be making a live announcement from inside the hotel, and I don’t want you to miss it. You might not have been able to get yourself a ticket to join us on the inside, but I’m so grateful to all of you for showing up anyway. You are my kind of people!”
The crowd chanted my name as Dexter wrapped a thin arm around my shoulders and led me up the stairs.
“I said seven minutes,” he muttered as we approached the grand doors of the Millennium Biltmore Hotel. This was the place I always hosted my kick-off event for Halloween. It checked all the boxes. It was historic, so by default had a spooky and somewhat gothic feel to it so long as I could hire the right décor team to come in and turn it into a vampire’s lair—which I always could.
We stepped through the front doors and crossed the luxurious lobby. The heels of my shoes clipped the polished marble floors as we approached the main ballroom. The doors were cracked open for my arrival, and fog rolled out in tendrils and hung low to the ground.
The doorman greeted us with a nod of his head and held up his hand. “One moment, please, Mr. Kane.” He lifted the collar of his jacket and spoke into a microphone pinned there. “Mr. Kane is here. Yes. Make the announcement.”
As I stood in the hall, a booming voice filled the ballroom. “Ladies and gentlemen, it is my great honor to announce the star of the evening, Mr. Eli Kane!”
The doorman tugged the door open. More smoke billowed out, and I strolled through it. It engulfed my legs but swam all around me as I walked like water captured in slow motion. Dexter hurried along in my wake, the art of drama and a grand entrance completely lost on him.
It didn’t matter. Nobody was looking at him, anyway.
They were all looking at me.
The crowd clapped and cheered. Beautiful women in their best dresses and finest jewelry batted their eyelashes at me and gave me coy smiles even as they stood right next to their husbands. With their husbands’ eyes on me, I smiled right back.
Initially, my plan had been to mingle for the first half hour, but I wanted to address the crowd. These were wealthy, privileged socialites. They expected to be treated as such. And me? Well, I knew how to get what I wanted from these people, and that was for them to open their wallets.
People like the ones in this room never carried wallets on them. Most of their money was moved electronically. So, my game plan, just like every other year, was to butter them up, show them a good night, promise that the rest of the month’s events would be just as worth their time, and consistently win their favor so they would send staggering amounts of money my way for the charity I’d launched at the same time as Horde of Horrors. The first time I’d done my Halloween event, I hadn’t considered how much profit I’d made. It hadn’t ever been about the money. It was about the fun. The suspension of reality for a night. The costumes, makeup, and escapism. But when I realized how much money people like this were willing to pay to get access to my exclusive events?
I decided I could help a lot of people. So, I started a nonprofit. It wasn’t easy. Hell, it was a fucking nightmare, if I was being honest. If it weren’t for the kids, I’d have abandoned ship within the first year. But I wanted to do it right, and it turned out I had to do it wrong for several years in a row before I finally figured out which people were worth my time and which ones I needed to cut loose. Now, my nonprofit was run by responsible, passionate, and empathetic people who understood the meaning behind their work and aligned with my desires of helping boost the Big Brothers Big Sisters programs within the country so that kids from every walk of life had someone in their corner.
And you know what rich people love more than, well, their riches? Having a cause to talk about that makes them look good in front of their other rich friends. I knew that, and I was cashing in on it.
I cut a path across the ballroom to the stage. A giant chandelier hung over where I stood in front of the microphone. The band that was playing stopped, and all heads in the room turned to me.
There was something magical about having all of their attention. I soaked it up and held them in suspension for a minute while I adjusted my cufflinks and looked around at the front rows of the crowd, taking note of the most beautiful women, who I would most certainly find time to talk with tonight. One, a dark-haired, glamorous, vampy-looking goddess, caught my eye. She wore a black choker necklace around her throat with a single ruby pendant. It complemented her lace dress, which seemed painted onto her curvy, voluptuous, dangerous body.
She swirled a glass of red wine in one hand and turned her head to the side to speak to an older gentleman, who stood with his hand wrapped around her waist.
Lucky old fart, I thought.
I lifted my chin and shielded my eyes from the stage light as I looked out into the crowd. “You know, you lot are the only people who seem to look younger every year I see you. How much do you people spend on Botox?”
A ripple of laughter went through the room.
“You know I kid,” I said as Dexter came to the front of the stage with my usual drink in hand: an old-fashioned. I lifted it in a toast. Every single person in the room lifted their drink and waited for me to sip mine before they followed suit.
Because I was Eli fucking Kane, and this was my night. Hell, it was my whole damn month, and they knew it. They craved it. They longed for my events starting in August when the weather was too hot and their inability to live in the present moment made them ache for more than what they already had.
And just like every year, I would give it to them.