A line of people stretched around the block as the black Mercedes turned in front of The City nightclub. Not yet midnight and the place must be on its way to being crammed. From the back seat of the car, Harry Alexander watched the queue through the tinted windows. The patrons in the crowd were typical of those he met at any weekend club night—young women in scanty dresses and men who looked as if they’d spent the entire day and a month’s salary grooming themselves for the event.
And there, right by the entrance, he saw himself. A life-sized poster in which he wore a white shirt, open to the waist, and a sea captain’s hat. ‘Tonight,’ the poster announced, ‘Meet the Star of Ship Mates, Harry Alexander.’ It was an old photograph, taken around five years earlier, when he’d been at the height of his fame. Mega cheesy. Harry had never liked that image, but the damn thing followed him everywhere.
“Look at all those people,” Vanessa exclaimed from the seat beside him.
“Relax,” Harry said. “They’re here for the club, not me. I’m just a sideshow.”
“The club thought enough of you to send this car, didn’t they? You’re a big deal here.”
A big deal. He knew it wasn’t true. Not anymore. True, someone still valued his celebrity enough to book him for this gig. Despite the saturation of reality-TV stars on the market, places like this were willing to shell out a few quid to have a well-known face on the premises. He didn’t understand why but had milked it for all it was worth, prolonging his fifteen minutes of fame to a decent six years. The offers were a lot less frequent these days, but there were opportunities to be had, as long as he wasn’t fussy, or too proud.
The Mercedes slipped into the alley at the rear of the club and the driver came around to open the door. Harry stepped out, followed by Vanessa and her husband, Ross. Best friends since childhood, Harry had seen little of Vanessa since she’d married and moved to Manchester. Now work brought him here for the weekend, it gave them the perfect opportunity to catch up, all at someone else’s expense.
Vanessa and Ross were dressed for a big night. She had on a full, sequined evening dress with narrow straps, low at the front and even lower at the back. Ross, a vet in his mid-thirties, wore a black suit and white shirt, more appropriate for a formal dinner than a trendy city center club. Ross put his arm around his wife’s waist, and they followed Harry through the back door of the club.
Harry Alexander was six-foot-two and every inch of him looked like a star. At thirty-two years of age, he had an effortless, old-fashioned look, at odds with the overly Botoxed, waxed, polished, buffed and styled images of his contemporaries. Brown hair—thick with a natural wave, cut short at the back and sides and full on top. Icy-blue eyes—like Franco Nero or Paul Walker in their prime. A straight nose and strong, handsome jawline. He had a wide-shouldered build, slim through the waist and powerful in the butt and thighs, all achieved through good diet and a healthy fitness regime. In an industry where many young men go to extreme lengths to reach unachievable goals of perfection, Harry was comfortable in his own skin. That comfort and confidence made him sexier, more desirable than all the others.
Tonight, he wore his regular uniform for this kind of thing. Narrow-legged navy trousers to show off those assets, and a slim-fitting, short-sleeved shirt, which revealed his strong, tattoo-free biceps and forearms.
The club security led them into a small waiting room. There were drinks laid out—wine, champagne, spirits and beer. Harry told Vanessa and Ross to help themselves.
“Is this what your life is like all the time?” Ross asked, opening a beer and dropping into a sofa. “People just give you free stuff.”
“Not really,” Harry said. “Only at times like this. Though other people play the game a lot better than I do. They rarely pay for anything. I don’t like to take the piss like that. Some things should be paid for.” All true. On a job, Harry had no qualms about taking the clubs for all they would give. But he didn’t behave that way through the rest of his life, expecting freebies just because he was well-known.
Harry looked at his watch. It had gone twelve. He was due on stage at one. These things followed a format. A brief turn on the stage, followed by photos and autographs with anyone who wanted them, then a seat the VIP room, where he was obliged to stay for one hour. That was where the clubs made the real money from these celebrity appearances. Regular punters would pay upward of one thousand pounds for a table in the VIP just to be close to the famous guests. Once there, they’d be stung with minimum spending restrictions on the bar, at least another grand toward the club. The hotter the celebrity, the higher the prize of a table. Harry’s days as a top earner were long gone, though he could still command a decent fee for a few hours of what he could never call work.
The club’s manager appeared a few minutes later, while Ross opened his second beer and Vanessa got stuck into the free champagne. Marc Jenner, a guy in his early twenties, had a frozen, shiny forehead and an overfamiliar attitude. Though this was the first time they’d met, he greeted Harry with a brotherly hug.
“Harry, mate, so good to see you.” He grinned, with the wide eyes and overconfidence of a seasoned cokehead. “Glad to see you’re enjoying yourself,” he said, clocking Vanessa’s full glass.
“There’s just one thing,” Harry said, taking Marc by the elbow and guiding him to the outer corridor.
“Anything, mate, just say it. We can sort anything you want. What’s it to be, bro? A cheeky line or two? Or a pretty face plucked out of the crowd?”
Harry held his patience. “My fee. It hasn’t come through.”
Marc laughed. “Don’t worry about it, mate, we’ll see you right. We’re good for the money, you know that.”
How many times had he heard that before? Harry maintained the cool, professional tone. “I made it clear when you booked me for this gig that you would pay me in advance of the appearance. I checked my account in the car here, and the funds still haven’t come through.”
Marc’s smile and confidence wavered for the first time. “Harry, man, it’s all cool, don’t worry. You’ll get paid.”
“Now,” he said, his voice firm and controlled.
“I’ll get paid now. Or I don’t go on. That was the deal. That’s always the deal.”
Harry had learned his lesson the hard way. Organizers were always keen to say they’d pay up later, but he knew from experience that the money would be less forthcoming after the gig. Once he’d done his job, they were on to the next C-lister and didn’t care to pay the one before.
“I’ll tell you what,” Marc said. “How about you and your friends take a table in the VIP, and I’ll see what we can do? Have a few drinks, mingle a little, and I’m sure I can get this misunderstanding fixed.”
With his smile turned up full, Harry said, “We’ll wait here, until you get it sorted. I’ll take cash or a Bacs transfer, whichever is easier. Then I’ll go to that table in the VIP.” He knew Marc’s trick. The VIP area was a public part of the club, and once he stepped out there, he would work for them, free drinks or not. When he hadn’t gotten paid for several gigs at the start of his celebrity career, Harry had adopted a motto he’d stuck to, without wavering, ever since—no pay, no play.
“What’s going on?” Vanessa asked when he returned to the green room.
“Nothing. Marc needs to deal with a small issue and then we’re good to go.”
Harry poured a vodka over ice and sat in a leather chair opposite Vanessa and Ross. They were both pretty merry. All three had been out to dinner before the car had arrived to collect them for the club. While Harry had paced himself with two glasses of wine across the evening, Vanessa and Ross had polished off two bottles of white wine and one red. He didn’t blame them. He had to work tonight, they didn’t. Let them enjoy themselves. Once he’d done his bit on the stage and posed for selfies, he intended to get very loaded.
The thud of dance music reverberated through the floor and walls. The club must be livening up. All those people in line would be inside by now.
“Do you do this every weekend?” Ross asked, gesturing around the room. “The personal appearance and all that.”
Harry shook his head. “No, but I used to. Sometimes I’d appear at two different clubs on the same night. Thursday, Friday, Saturday, I could do as many gigs as I wanted, traveling all over the country. Sometimes I went abroad. I used to do appearances in Ibiza and Ayia Napa a couple of times a summer.”
“Why did you stop? Getting paid for nothing, who wouldn’t want that?”
Harry laughed. “That’s the problem, everyone wants it. I don’t know how many TV channels there are these days, spewing out God knows how many reality shows. And those shows are filled with dozens and dozens of hot young things who are prepared to do anything for their slice of the fame pie. I’m old hat. A has-been. I can’t compete with the younger crowd. Anyway, they play the game much better than I do.”
“You’re here tonight, aren’t you? They’ve got your poster at the door. You’re not that old hat.”
“Believe me, I am. Ship Mates isn’t even on air anymore. Most of that crowd won’t know me. If they’ve heard of me at all, it’s because their mum fancies me.”
In an era of naked dating shows and full on-screen sex, Ship Mates was reality television from a different time. A fly-on-the-wall documentary series following the crew onboard The Atlantic Star, a luxury cruise ship, it ran for four successful years with a peak audience of six million viewers. Harry had been working as an assistant maintenance engineer when the film crew had discovered him and featured him as one of the key players in the docu-soap. His classic good looks and sunny personality made him an immediate hit with the audience as they watched him deal with problems around the ship such as blocked toilets and clogged Jacuzzis.
When the show was broadcast in a prime-time slot on the BBC, Harry became an instant hit. His fame exploded after the second series. Almost overnight a slew of lucrative offers came his way. Magazine interviews, calendars, endorsements, public appearances—a tidal wave of money came down upon him. Harry left Ship Mates and The Atlantic Star after three years when his work at sea prevented him from capitalizing on all these new opportunities. He presented his own travel show on the BBC for two years and appeared as a guest on countless celebrity panel shows. That in itself was a joke. Harry never took himself seriously as a celebrity. He had a hard time accepting his status as a reality-TV star. He hadn’t set out to be famous. He’d gotten luck, simple as that.
He didn’t fit into the celebrity/reality-TV culture. All those people with their cutthroat ambition and ruthless survival skills. He was an imposter, a charlatan. The glory days were ending. He’d enjoyed them while they lasted, but his world wouldn’t crumble when the fame did.
Marc Jenner returned a few minutes later, veneered smile in situ, his eyes gleaming a fresh coke-blaze. “All sorted,” he said, slipping an envelope into Harry’s hand. “Let’s get out there.”
“One moment.” Harry broke the seal on the envelope. It was stuffed with cash, used tens and twenties. He had an image of Marc tearing around the club, trying to cobble his fee together from the various cash registers. “There’s only twelve hundred here,” he said.
“The rest has been transferred into your back account,” Marc said, a note of irritation in his voice.
Taking his time, Harry retrieved his phone and accessed the banking app. The remainder of his fee was all there. “Okay, then,” he said, granting Marc his full Mister Showbiz smile. “We’re good to go. Let’s do this.”