The phone rang. Automatically he pushed the answer button even though he did not feel like talking to anyone.
“Hey, Howie. Is that you?”
Nick shouted through the phone.
“I can hear you. No need to shout.” Howie said quietly.
“Sorry, it’s just that you didn’t say anything. Are you ok?”
That was a loaded question. Was he?
“Where are you? I’ve been looking for you.”
“Howie?” Nick was worried about his friend.
“You are not saying a lot, buddy.”
Howie didn’t know what to say. He was tired and at the same time he felt numb. Like nothing could touch him anymore. He seemed to have lost all drive, all passion to live.
Howie put the phone down so suddenly Nick nearly felt it physically hit his ear.
He tried to reach Howie again but this time no reply. So he called AJ.
“Age, have you spoken to Howie lately?” Nick asked immediately.
“No, I haven’t. Send him some emails earlier but he’s not answering.”
“I just talked to him. He sounded weird. Something is wrong.”
“Have you gone to see him?”
“That’s just it. He’s not at home but when I asked where he was, he didn’t answer.”
“Nick, you got me worried now. Call Bri. I’ll call Kev. Perhaps they know something.”
But Kevin nor Brian had heard from Howie.
Nick tried Howie again. Again no reply. He felt helpless. Howie always answered his phone. He was always busy with something.
Howie had been busy all morning at his office at the club. He like the quite of the place at that time of the day. The last dancers had left Tabu around 6 am.. Staff had cleaned up the place and brought Howie the bag at about 10 am. The bag was last nights confiscated drugs. Howie wanted to keep his club clean. So each time someone was caught with any type of drugs, security would confiscate it and escort the person from the premise. Once a week, the police collected the tablets, syringes and other paraphernalia used to take the poison.
“Thanks, Steve. I’ll put these in the safe until Friday.”
“Careful, boss. There is a full needle in there. Wouldn’t want you to get hurt.”
“I’ll be careful, thanks.”
Howie had put the bag in the safe and gone back to work. There was always paper work to get through. But he liked that side of the business as well.
And then the phone had rang.
“Hello, Howie speaking.”
It was quiet for a moment and then two words were spoken:
The line had gone dead immediately after.
Howie put the phone down, not understanding what had happened. All he knew was that he felt funny all of a sudden, empty, deeply sad, like his life was not worth anything anymore. It had been at that moment that Nick called.
Nick called AJ again.
“I’m driving over to the club and the office. Are you coming?”
“Pick me up.”
And so Nick and AJ arrived at the club half an hour later. There was always someone to let them into the building. They rushed up the stairs.
Howie had taken the bag out of the safe and was now holding the full syringe. Would it not be better to just end it all here and now? No one would miss him. He’d never done drugs but he knew what to do. Using his tie to make a tourniquet around his upper arm, his vain soon popped up, inviting him to plunge in the needle. Somewhere in the back of his mind someone was shouting:
“Don’t do this!”
It sounded like his own voice.
His hand with the needle hovered over the vain. His own voice shouted again.
“Don’t do this!”
He was surprised how easy the needle pierced his skin. Halting for a moment, he looked at his arm, knowing this was not something he really wanted to do yet unable to stop himself.
Slowly his finger pushed down and the liquid started its race through his blood stream.
Just then the door to his office opened. In a blur he saw Nick rush over to him, pulling the needle away. But it was to late.
This world he was travelling was nothing like he had been in before. Nick and AJ seemed to float somehow. It was funny and made Howie smile.
Nick couldn’t believe what he was seeing. What possessed Howie to use drugs? How long had he been doing this? To many questions, no answers.
Howie tried to get up but fell back in his chair.
AJ looked in Howie’s eyes.
“He’s out, man.”
Suddenly Howie’s eyes turned up, exposing just the whites. His body started shaking and his breathing became laborious.
“Nick, this is not good. We need to get him out of here.”
Nick easily picked up Howie and carried him to the car.
As Nick put Howie on the front seat, Howie suddenly pulled Nick closer and whispered:
AJ jumped in the back seat.
“Come on, Nick, drive!”
Nick seemed to be staggering, shaking his head but finally getting into the drivers seat and taking off.
Howie felt like he was drowning, pushing his way through thick mud trying to reach the surface. Something was wrong with him. A voice sounded in his head:
“Now realise what you have done and die!”
With the liberating gasp of air came the pain and awakening.
“AAAH!” Howie held his stomach, excruciating spasms going through his body.
“What? . . . . . Where am I?” he asked in between spasms.
“Howie?” AJ was surprised.
“AJ? Nick? Aaaah!” Another spasm went through him.
“Pain . . . . “ Howie could hardly breath.
“We are getting you to a hospital now”
AJ was worried. This was not a normal reaction. Something else was going on.
“Why you take the drugs, Howie?” Nick asked.
“What are you on about?” Howie was confused. Drugs? He didn’t do drugs.
But Nick didn’t say any more. He was looking at the road in front of him. He had a feeling he was missing something. Or wasn’t he?
He felt strange. Images popping into his head. Shaking he tried to clear them. But they kept coming back. Pictures of children, small children, playing with a ball, riding their bike. And he seemed to recognise the face of the child with the blond curly hair.
“Hey, Nick. Watch the road. You nearly hit that car.” AJ shouted from the back.
They reached the hospital without further incidences. Nick carried Howie inside. Doctors and nurses rushed him to a treatment room. AJ and Nick explained what had happened but were then asked to wait.
Pacing up and down the corridor, time seemed to stand still.
Finally a doctor came out.
“It seems your friend has been injected with a lethal poison. It is slowly deteriorating his blood and attacking his organs.”
“Have you no antidote?”
“Mr. McLean, we don’t know exactly what the poison is. If we had some of it, we could try . . . but . . . “
AJ dropped his head. Why was this happening?
“You can go in and see him now. But be prepared. It may not be for long.”
Both AJ and Nick startled.
“What do you mean: not long?” Nick stammered.
“I’m afraid your friend won’t make it to the end of this day.”
Nick and AJ just looked at each other.
“The syringe at the office. There may still be some poison in it.” AJ suggested.
“Doc, keep him going. We’ll be back!”
AJ pulled Nick back to the car.
“Come on, Nick. We need to get that poison.”
But Nick hardly heard AJ. He started the car and drove off. On the way he saw the children again. But so much clearer in his head now. Nick could not make the difference between the images in his head and reality. Shaking his head didn’t help any more. He could hear AJ talking but did not get a word of what he was saying.
Then the image in front of him was clear: a little boy standing right in front of his speeding car.
Nick slammed on the breaks. AJ didn’t know what happened. Nick saw in his minds eye hitting the boy. The child’s eyes showing terror looking straight at him just before hitting the front screen with a loud thud, the broken body catapulted high above the car.
Nick lost complete control of the car, it skidded, hit the side walk and turn over twice before landing on its side.
AJ must have lost consciousness for a moment because when he opened his eyes, he was still strapped in, air bags exploded around him, blood slowly trickling from a small head wound. Unbuckling he fell out of the car on the pavement.
Nick, where was Nick?
Nick was lying on the other side, his arm at a very unnatural angle. But what struck AJ the most was how Nick was sobbing, saying all the time: “I’m sorry, didn’t want to kill him!”
People started rushing over and AJ could already hear the sirens of the ambulance.
“Nicky, you’ll be fine.” AJ tried to comfort Nick but this one didn’t even seem to hear him at all.
AJ pulled out his phone and called Brian.
“Bri, go to Tabu. There’s a syringe on the floor. Get it to the hospital now!”
“AJ? What’s going on?”
“Can’t talk now, just do it!”
Putting his phone away, he turned back to Nick.
A woman suddenly screamed.
AJ ran back to Nick. He wasn’t crying anymore. But then AJ saw what had startled the woman.
“We couldn’t stop him. He took the piece of sharp metal and did it.”
Nick had used the metal shard as a knife, pushing down hard on his wrist, severing the arteries. Blood was gushing out.
“Nick, Why?” AJ did not understand.
Then Nick pulled him close and said:
“Unmoral Plea” and fainted.
What was that?
AJ felt strange. But he didn’t have time for that now. He tried to shake it off and it worked for a while.
He took of his shirt and used it to wrap around Nicks wrist, holding it as high as possible until the medics arrived.
Nick didn’t notice a lot of it any more. Except for the voice in his head saying:
“You could never live after killing a child so now die!”
AJ arrived at the hospital with Nick just as Brian was getting there.
“AJ?” surprise evident on his face, Brian could not believe the state Nick was in. Nick was taken to a treatment room.
“AJ? What is happening?”
But AJ seemed far away. Brian shook him and for a moment AJ reacted.
“Howie poisoned. Syringe? You get it?”
“Yes, here it is.”
They rushed to the doctor and handed him the needle.
“Thanks, hopefully we are in time.”
“Time?” Brian nearly shouted.
“He may not make it.” AJ simply stated.
“Nick accident. Cut his own wrist.”
The fog in AJ’s mind was gradually growing now. He felt the unstoppable urge to drink and take tablets. This should be easy enough. After all, he was in a hospital.
“AJ, stay here. I’m gonna call Kevin.” Brian walked out of the hospital without noticing AJ’s spaced-out expression.
“Kevin, you better come over. Howie has been poisoned. If they can’t find the antidote, he may not make it.”
“Brian, this isn’t funny.”
“Who’s joking! And Kev, Nick had a bad accident. He also tried to kill himself.”
“What! Has the world gone crazy?”
“And I’m worried about AJ.”
“Bri, stay with them. I’ll be there as fast as I can.”
Brian walked back into the hospital but AJ was no longer there.
AJ had not waited for Brian to come back, nor for the doctor to hear how Nick was doing, nor for the other doctor to hear Howie would be ok.
He walked into another room, searching. He was desperate to find it. He needed it. Without it he would die right there and then.
The third room he walked into finally had a medicine cabinet. Although it was locked, AJ punched through the glass effortlessly.
Tablets, any tablets. He didn’t care. Eating them like candy, he swallowed hard. Drink, he needed a drink. There was a bottle of brown liquid, disinfectant actually, but AJ only saw a bottle of Jack Daniels.
Gulping down the liquid, he soon felt unstable on his legs, crashing down and pulling utensils on the floor with him.
The crash brought people running, amongst them Brian.
“AJ? What are you doing?”
He did not understand. He kneeled over his friend, trying to get any reaction. Suddenly AJ pulled him down.
“Unmoral plea” AJ whispered for only Brian to hear.
Then he passed out. In his head a voice shouted:
“Sweets and drinks. Can’t do without. Enjoy your last ones and die!”
Brian was pushed out of the way.
“We need to pump his stomach immediately.” He heard a doctor say.
Following everyone back into the corridor, Brian started feeling strange. He tried to shake it off.
Kevin came running at him and that helped to focus.
“Brian, where are Nick and Howie?”
“Howie’s been taken to a room, Nick is in there. And AJ . . . . he just swallowed disinfectant and loads of tablets. He’s over there.”
Kevin was stunned. What was happening today?
‘Let’s go to Nick first.”
Kevin pulled Brian along. Nick had been stabilised and was waiting to be taken to the operating room to fix his arm.
“Kevin! So good to see you.” Nick was relieved to see Kevin.
“Nick, what happened?”
“Kev, it’s so weird. One moment we are taking care of Howie and then I’m here. They say I tried to kill myself.”
“I know. Don’t you remember anything else?”
Nick just shook his head.
“How’s Howie?” Nick asked.
“We’re going to see him now.”
“Don’t leave me, yet.” Nick pleaded. He didn’t want to be on his own.
“I’m scared.” Tears silently ran down his face.
“It’s all going to be ok, Nicky. I’ll make sure.” Kevin whispered gently stroking his tussle hair. They stayed quiet for a while. Brian lingered in the back of the room. Finally Nick was taken to the OR. His arm would needs some pins to mend properly. His wrist had already been stitched. Kevin walked along to the elevator but Brian didn’t move.
He was feeling strange. Pain, he needed pain to feel alive again. His hand went to the scar on his chest.
Left alone in the treatment room, it was not difficult to find something sharp. On the trolley lay the scissors used to cut open Nick’s shirt.
Carefully picking them up he felt an uncontrollable urge to use them on himself.
“Brian!” Kevin rushed in. Quickly Brian hid the scissors in his pocket.
“Come on. Howie’s woken up.”
Kevin was out the door already, not noticing anything wrong. Brian followed and they rode the elevator to the fourth floor in silence.
Howie was just waking up.
“Kev?” he asked weakly.
“Howie, you are going to be ok. Doc said so.” Kevin said pleased.
“It hurt so much. . . . what is happening?”
“I don’t know.” Kevin said honestly.
“Where are Nick and AJ?”
Kevin was silent for a moment. Howie got worried and repeated his question more loudly.
“Now don’t get upset, Howie. Nick and AJ were in an accident. Nick broke his arm. And AJ will be here soon.”
He did not want to tell Howie yet that both Nick and AJ had tried to kill themselves.
“Go to sleep now. We’ll talk more later.”
Howie nodded and closed his eyes.
Kevin sat down next to the bed and looked back to where Brian was standing.
“Brian, you ok?”
He seemed distant to Kevin.
And with that Brian left the room. The toilets were not far away. His hand was already gripping the scissors. As he walked in, a man was just washing his hands. Restlessly Brian waited for him to leave.
Finally alone, he pulled the scissors out of his pocket. He looked at it, confused. One part of him wanted to feel pain, another part was shouting out not to do it.
He wanted to throw the scissors away but couldn’t. Struggling he knew something was wrong.
“No, no, no.” he whispered.
Tears streaked his face. But he could not resist the force any longer. He slipped down the wall, crumbling onto the floor. Pulling up his shirt sleeves, he saw his exposed fore arms. Pain, need to feel the pain.
Using the scissors he slowly pulled the sharp edge over his arm until the warm blood trickled down the floor. Again and again Brian cut himself yet not feeling the pain. He was crying now, wanting this to end but not knowing how.
Kevin looked at his watch. Brian was away a long time now. As Howie was asleep, Kevin got up and walked to the gents.
When he opened the door all he saw were the scissors in Brian’s hand, held above his head, angled straight for his heart.
Taking a dive, Kevin could not prevent the action started with full force.
“NO!” Kevin could only push Brian’s hand. But the scissors still plunged into Brian’s shoulder.
This time the pain registered with full force. Brian’s eyes cleared and he realised what just happened.
He pulled Kevin close and whispered:
“Unmoral plea” and then he fainted.
Kevin didn’t immediately register what Brian had said. All he knew was that he had to get help. Running to the door, he shouted for help.
Doctors and nurses quickly moved Brian out for treatment.
All Brian noticed was a voice in his head saying:
“We fixed your heart once, not again. Now die!”
Kevin rode the elevator down with Brian. He felt confused and dazed. But then it had been a confusing day. For inexplicable reasons his friends had all tried to kill themselves.
What had Brian just whispered to him?
As Brian was wheeled into a treatment room, a nurse called him.
“Mr. Richardson, Mr. McLean would like to see you.”
Kevin followed her.
AJ was feeling better. They had pumped out his stomach and been able to remove most of the tablets and liquid. His throat was soar but he was glad to be alive.
“Kev, how are the others?”
He didn’t feel like talking although a part of him knew AJ wanted to hear more.
“Come on, Kev.” AJ pleaded.
“Howie’s sleeping. Nick is in recovery after surgery. Just Brian. He just tried to kill himself. Why?”
“Kev, none of us want to die, yet today we’ve all behaved out of character.”
“Are you OK?” AJ looked at Kevin’s face, searching to see something that should not be there. But Kevin seemed his usual self. On the outside at least.
“I’m going to see how Brian is doing. I’ll be back in a moment.”
Kevin walked out of the room. He felt odd. He tried to shake it off. But he had a dreadful feeling over him. Like they had not gone through the worst yet.
“Mr. Littrell is doing fine, sir. We’ll be taking him to Mr. Dorough’s room in a short while.”
Brian and AJ were taken up together. They needed rest most of all now. Kevin followed the nurses back to the fourth floor. He stopped off at the gents to wash his face. Expecting to see the floor full of blood, he noticed it had all been cleaned already. Yet, the image was burned in his eyes.
Quickly he refreshed, feeling better for a moment. Then he hurried to the room. His four friends were now all in the room, quiet, sedated or asleep.
Kevin sat down. Unconsciously he started writing the same words over and over.
After a while Kevin got up and walked to the window. As the day was slowly coming to an end, he watched the sun go down. And with each passing minute he felt his life slip away. As the day ended, so did his life.
Turning to face his friends, he knew he could not leave them.
There was Nick, sedated so he would not feel the pain of his arm and the operation. He should have died in the car crash.
And Brian, If he had aimed for his heart immediately, he would not be here asleep any more.
AJ, fast asleep. Pills and tablets and drink would have made him sleep forever.
And Howie, Sweet Howie D. The poison should have all gone into him. Then the doctor would had had nothing to study and sweet D would be gone.
Kevin knew it was his turn now, his time to end it all. But he could not leave them behind.
Walking slowly to Howie’s bed, he picked up the pillow AJ had thrown out of bed.
He would do it fast. Howie would not suffer. Kevin was standing over Howie, looking at his handsome face. He pushed the pillow down hard over Howie’s mouth and nose. Pushing hard. Fist Howie didn’t move but then he started thrashing about, trying to reach beyond, to the person trying to kill him.
“Kevin, don’t do this. This isn’t you!”
A voice shouted in his head.
“No, I can’t leave them. I have to take them with me!” Kevin nearly shouted.
Howie was slowing down. Kevin could feel his life slipping between his fingers.
Suddenly he was pulled roughly from behind. The motion threw him against the opposite wall. Crashing into it head first, Kevin fell down, out to the world.
Howie sat up, gasping for air, confused by what had just happened.
“Howie, you ok?”
“AJ? Was that Kevin?” surprise evident in Howie’s voice.
“It was. But I don’t think he was himself.”
“I sure hope so.”
Kevin didn’t move. Brian and Nick had woken from the commotion. Now Howie and AJ joined them.
“Look what I found.”
AJ showed them the piece of paper where Kevin had written the words.
“Unmoral plea” Howie read.
“That’s what the phone call said this morning. But I don’t remember a lot after that.”
“Until you said those words to me.” Nick cut in. “And then I told them to AJ.”
“That’s right, after you tried to kill yourself.”
Nick shivered just by the thought of it, rubbing over his wrist.
“And AJ, you told me.” Brian continued, “And I told Kevin.” He also realised.
“But what does it mean?” Nick asked.
“I don’t know. But we all could have died today.” Howie said.
“Just before he went to Howie I head Kevin say he had to take us with him. I bet he has that same feeling of wanting to die, just like we had.” AJ confirmed their thoughts.
“We have to pretend we are dead, so he can do what ever he feels he needs to do. We just have to be there before he can do it.”
When Howie said it, it sounded very complicated. But they all knew it had to be done, however risky it was.
AJ called the doctor.
“Doc, we need to die. Or at least make it convincing enough so Kevin believes we are dead.”
They continued to explain what had happened all day and how they needed to do something for Kevin.
“I can give you something that will slow down your heart rate it will seem you are dead. But I can’t give this to Nick and Brian. The morphine they are getting would actually cause their deaths.”
“Well, just inject me.” Howie said.
“Howie, remember the poison.” AJ said worried.
“Doc, how fast can you get me out of it?”
“Seconds. But what if he wants to check the others?”
“Well, Doc. When you show us to Kevin, just make sure he doesn’t check us.” AJ didn’t like it but there was nothing he could do.
The doctor wasn’t happy either but the whole scene was set up.
“Mr. Richardson. “ a nurse used some smelling salts to wake Kevin up.
Kevin’s head felt like exploding.
“Can you get up?”
Carefully Kevin got up. The doctor quickly checked Kevin over.
“I’m sorry we had to let you fall down. All our teams were busy with your friends.”
“What do you mean?” Kevin asked confused.
“I was already afraid you were repressing the situation. What is the last thing you remember?”
“Sitting in the chair.”
“Mmh. Mr. Richardson, for some unknown reason, your friends, each one of them, had a massive stroke. We tried to revive them but I’m afraid there was nothing we could do.”
Kevin felt the blood drain to his feet. He stumbled back ward.
“There . . . . there . . . . no, that can’t be!” he could not get it over his lips, shock visible on his face.
“Where are they?”
“Still inside the room.”
“I want to see them.”
The doctor walked Kevin to the room. Slowly they walked in. Equipment was scattered about as if just moment ago teams had been hard at work trying to save these young man.
Kevin walked to Howie, touched his hand pulling back immediately. The hand was starting to feel cold.
“Mr. Richardson, we are so sorry. Please come with us. You need a moments rest. We will take care of your friends. When we have washed them, you can see them again.”
Kevin was too stunned to object. He was lead to the relatives room and left on his own.
Slowly tears were falling down. And he knew it was his time now. His time to die. Drying his tears he slowly walked down to his car.
The doctor had rushed back to the room. Everyone was gathered around Howie. The injection soon revived Howie. His heartbeat was up again and colour was returning to his face.
“Did he believe you?” AJ asked.
“I think so.”
Nick and Brian couldn’t leave their beds. So it was up to Howie and AJ to follow Kevin. Rushing down they saw how Kevin drove off.
They jumped into Brian’s car and took off after Kevin.
After a while Kevin took the road to the beach. He parked his car and sat staring at the waves. He felt so depressed. His life was useless now. He was alone, his friends were all dead. Well, he would soon join them.
Walking along the beach to the water, he didn’t even notice the man filming him. Kevin just headed for the water. For a moment he stopped walking when the ice cold water hit his legs.
AJ and Howie saw Kevin get into the ocean as well as the man filming all of it. They rushed out of the car. The man saw them coming and started running.
“AJ, get him!” Howie shouted.
Kevin was already far into the water, his head getting covered by the waves. Howie jumped in to swim after him. But it wasn’t easy. The water was cold and Howie didn’t have his full strength after today’s ordeal.
He couldn’t see Kevin any more. And the dark night didn’t help. Howie dove under the water. He couldn’t see anything. Finally he felt something in his hand. Grabbing the thing he pulled it above water. It was Kevin. But he wasn’t breathing any more.
The water had been so welcome to Kevin. He was oblivious to the man. All he knew was that he had to end it now. As the water crashed over him and his body was dragged under water, a voice said in his head:
“I made you, I end you. Now die!”
Immediately he had realised that what he was doing was wrong. But he was already to weak. He didn’t notice that at that moment Howie pulled him above water again.
Reaching the beach, Howie pulled Kevin clear of the water. Kevin wasn’t breathing. Kevin checked his pulse. Weak but at least it was there.
Howie stretched Kevin’s body and started performing mouth to mouth. Feeling Howie’s warm breath fill his lungs, Kevin seemed to surface from a deep darkness.
With that Kevin started coughing, throwing up the water that he had swallowed.
Slowly opening his eyes, he saw Howie shivering in the night.
“Howie?” he was confused.
“Kev, how you feeling?”
“What happened? Why are we wet?”
“You’ll be fine.”
AJ returned with the mysterious filmer.
“I don’t know what this is about. All I had to do was film this man taking a swim. And then I had to mail the film to an email address.”
The man was scared. He hadn’t known this was going to happen.
Keeping the camera, they told the man to leave.
“Kevin, can you get up? We need to get back to the hospital.”
AJ drove them all back.
Once in the room, the doctor checked both Kevin and Howie. But they were fine. Well, as fine as they could be for two very cold men.
Brian and Nick had been thrilled to see them all back.
“But what happened to us? Why did we do all of this today?” Nick still wondered.
“I have an idea.” Kevin said.
“Hand me a piece of paper.”
Kevin wrote down the words again and underneath, using the same letters, another word. Then he showed it to the others:
U N M O R A L P L E A
L O U P E A R L M A N
It had been an anagram for their old mentor all this time.
“Lou is behind this?” Brian could not believe it.
Five days later and visiting time at the prison.
Lou felt good. He bet his visitor would come and tell him Backstreet Boys were all dead.
He had used last weeks phone call to get the ball rolling by calling Howie and saying the programmed phrase: unmoral plea.
It would have set a chain of events in motion that no one could stop.
When he entered the visitors room he was struck dumb. There in front of him stood the five men.
“Hello, Lou” Kevin said in his softest voice betraying the effort it took him to stay calm and not attack that man right there.
“Surprised to see us?” AJ asked.
“You thought we had self destructed, didn’t you?” Brian said in turn.
“That was not a nice phone call: Unmoral plea.” Howie hissed.
“But you can’t kill us, Lou.” Nick continued.
“You know why? You may have brought us together. But it’s our talent, hard work, professionalism and pure friendship that made us who we are!”
“And that means, “ Kevin ended, “you have started us but you will never end us!”
And with those words they left the prison, never to return or see that man again.