A couple years ago I did an interview on one of my favorite podcasts. Not a fiction podcast, writer’s podcast, or a movie podcast, but a skeptical/political podcast called I Doubt It, hosted by Brittany Page and an old friend from my teen years, Jesse Dollemore. We talked a little about the good old days, and a lot about my experiences as a writer. It was a bit off-topic for their show, but Brittany and Jesse do like to change things up occasionally, especially when they have guests.
I’ve linked to the episode, and would recommend checking their show out. I’ve been a listener and patron for years.
In the course of the interview Brittany joked that I should write a story about them. The last time a podcaster made that joke we ended up with the story Mother of Kitties, about podcasters Dave Thomas and his other half Phoebe.
I actually started this story a long time ago, but the last year or so has been crazy for everyone, including me. To cut a long story short, I haven’t done much writing for a long time. Being able to finish this story was therapeutic for me.
I hope it isn’t traumatic for Brittany and Jesse.
Brimstone and Vinyl
Brittany Page searched the open browser windows on her tablet for the final story of the episode while her co-host and other half Jesse Dollemore vamped about a certain famously disgraced mega-church pastor and his dangerous new scam in the zoom window on her laptop screen. She found the browser tab she was looking for, maximized it, and shot Jesse a short message to let him know she was ready when he was. He gave her a curt nod of acknowledgment, but continued his rant.
They’d been separated for almost two months now, Brittany at home in Orange County and Jesse up north in rural Washington State with family, and though he claimed to be holding up, she could see the strain in his reddening face.
“This convicted fraudster’s flock,” Jesse said, throwing a little extra stink on the final noun. “Forgave him for fucking his secretary and using their donations to pay her off!”
He was beginning to shout now, winding up toward the peak of a controlled freak-out.
“… making bank on the stupid and gullible for years selling his doomsday food buckets, and getting away with it because it is, technically, food.”
Brittany caught his eye, raised a hand, and lowered it.
Bring it down a notch.
He smiled and winked.
“But his colloidal silver gel, guaranteed to cure any venereal disease …”
“And now,” Brittany said, hoping to get this train back on track, “Covid-19.”
“Before he was selling bullshit and calling it salvation, which is mostly legal I guess, but then he started selling bullshit and calling it medicine, which isn’t. New York’s Attorney General has ordered him to knock it the fuck off, and Missouri’s AG has sued has filed suit, so that’s one less dangerous fraudster profiting off of this pandemic.”
Jesse hit a button on the soundboard and the Asshole of Today segment jingle played.
“And the asshole of today is,” Brittany said.
“Jim Bakker?” Jesse interrupted, then laughed.
“Not today,” Brittany said. “Today’s asshole is … The Paganini Museum of Popular Music in Portland Oregon.”
Jesse laughed, completely caught off guard. She usually shared her Taking Care of Biz and Asshole of Today recipients with Jesse ahead of time, but this had been a spur of the moment addition to the recording.
She waited patiently for his laughter to ebb before explaining.
“The Paganini Museum’s new director, Amon Amdusias, is expanding the museum’s collection to include more modern genres including Dubstep, Neoclassical, and Artpop, but will have to purge some of the museum’s less popular exhibits to make room for the newer additions.”
Jesses chuckles dried up, and though he was trying to hide his remaining grin behind a face-palm, he seemed to sense direction this was going. Very few subjects in their home were sacred, and one of them was …
“Earth, Wind, and Fire, who have been a major attraction for the Paganini Museum since it opened, have been given an unceremonious heave ho.”
“Fucking heathens,” Jesse said, partly Brittany knew to infuse a little levity into what was, to most people, a nothing story, but also to commiserate. He wasn’t near as big a fan as she was, but nobody really was on this side of the ‘70s.
“Fucking heathen indeed, sir,” she agreed. “The Paganini began auctioning off rare music and memorabilia from the dismantled exhibits to former donors and wealthy patrons earlier this week, and it is unlikely that people like you or me will get a chance to buy any of the musical rarities which will never again be accessible to the public.”
Brittany had visited the museum once, years ago with Jesse on a road trip from southern Idaho and through Oregon before returning to California. The Earth, Wind, and Fire exhibit had been her Graceland, and she had always meant to return.
Now she would never get the chance.
Jesse ended the show with a joke about Apocalypse Food Bucket shits that Brittany barely noticed in her preoccupation with the death of what she considered a cultural treasure.
The package from The Paganini Museum arrived a week later.
Dearest Miss Page.
I deeply regret that you were unable to visit us at The Paganini again while our Earth, Wind, and Fire exhibit was still intact. I understand your enthusiasm for the EWF rarities, and only wish you had the opportunity to see them again.
Most of the Earth, Wind, and Fire exhibit has already sold to private collectors, but I have held a few items back because I felt that none of them were worthy of such prized rarities. Those treasures to be in the hands of true fans, like yourself. A collector can only covet these treasures. A fan will value and love them.
Yours in rebellion,
Brittany read the letter twice before bursting into laughter, was about to call Jesse and congratulate him on a great practical joke – You had me for a second! I almost fell for it! – when she decided to open the box that accompanied the letter first. It was small, an inch thick and eight inches square, filled with crimson red tissue paper. She pealed the paper back and …
She felt a moment of vertigo, her vision blurred and for a second she felt disconnected from her own body. Then she seemed to slam back into it. Her heart raced and her hands shook. She realized that she’d been holding her breath for several seconds, forced herself to take a deep breath.
She closed her eyes and concentrated on breathing for a while, and when she opened them again the thing that had caused her to lose her breath was still there, cradled in the blood-colored tissue paper.
It was a 45 vinyl record, the kind that used to be sold as singles back before the eight tracks and cassettes made them obsolete.
Old vinyl singles weren’t so rare. She’d owned a few as a preteen, disco and classic rock singles handed down from her parents when she first discovered her love of music, and you could still find them on eBay without looking too hard, but this is one she had only seen once before in person.
She knew every album, every single, every compilation, every song Earth, Wind, and Fire had ever released, and this one was not on any discography she’d ever read for them. It wasn’t just rare, but as far as she could tell, one of a kind.
It had been one of the highlights of the Paganini’s Earth, Wind, and Fire collection.
Now it was hers.
“They did what?” Jesse sounded as shocked as she’d felt. “Did you play it yet?”
“No,” she admitted. “I’m afraid of scratching it if I try to play it.”
They had a turntable, a small one with one little mono speaker designed to look retro, but with wireless Bluetooth speakers capable of shaking pictures off their walls.
Jesse was silent for a long moment. Brittany could picture him sitting in Washington on the other end of the line, lips pressed shut to hold back the first snarky response that had occurred to him and searching for something a tad more diplomatic.
“Well that’s stupid,” he finally said, having arrived at his least offensive response. “Play the fucking thing.”
Brittany was about to tell him where to go and what do when he got there, when he shouted so loudly she almost threw he phone.
“Hey, you should take it to the studio! I’ll zoom in and we can do a live unveiling!”
She was about to tell him how stupid that was, then reconsidered. It would be playing a little loose with fair usage rules, but did it even count when the music in question wasn’t part of an official catalogue? Who even owned the rights for Brimstone and Vinyl (side A) and Having a Hell of a Time (side B)?
The thing that made her stop and consider was the chance to share something that most people would never have the opportunity to hear. She would love to give that gift to her fellow Earth, Wind, and Fire fans.
The live show started with a splash screen of Jesse and Brittany used to promote the podcast, not the regular Dollemore Daily YouTube splash screen, and was followed by a second screen featuring the classic lineup of Earth, Wind, and Fire and the first few seconds of Boogie Wonderland.
“Welcome,” Jesse shouted, his typical boisterous intro, “To this special episode of I Doubt It, a follow up of last week’s Asshole of Today. Now, over to Brittany!”
Brittany recapped her takedown of The Paganini Music Museum, then read the letter from The Paganini’s director, Amon Amdusias, before revealing the one-of-a-kind vinyl single.
Brittany considered her next words, not rehearsed or even hinted to Jesse, for about a second.
What the hell, she thought, uncharacteristically blasé about the potential illegality of what she was about to do.
“If anyone out there watching has a way to record audio, this may be your golden opportunity to help save these extremely rare tracks for musical posterity.” She chanced a glance at Jesse in her monitor, not sure what to expect, and found him shaking his head, but smiling. Seemed she wasn’t in too much trouble. She planned to record them herself when she found the patch cord to connect her turntable to her laptop, but she didn’t plan on uploading or sharing those files. To really disseminate those tracks, she would need help from other fans.
“The first track is called Brimstone and Vinyl, the second Having a Hell of a Time. You have about thirty seconds to prepare yourselves for the first, and possibly only, public broadcast of these never-before heard songs by one of the greatest bands of all time.”
“Exciting times,” Jesse enthused, covering the dead air while Brittany repositioned her microphone between speakers and carefully removed the rare vinyl from its sleeve. “All you regular listeners know how much we love music, and Earth, Wind, and Fire is Brittany’s favorite.”
Brittany checked the viewer count and was pleasantly surprise. Over seven-thousand and climbing, much better than expected for an unplanned and off-topic stream. She nodded at Jesse, saw him nod back over her monitor. She started the turntable and lowered the needle against the record.
Brimstone and Vinyl began with an instrumental flourish and a distorted vocal ensemble, what might have been a dozen synchronized voices singing in an unidentifiable language. The beat was atypically slow, syncopated, the rhythm a simple synchronization that the mind latched onto and anticipated, like something already deep in the subconscious being set free, and all in a disturbing minor key that seemed exactly wrong for disco.
Brittany instinctively reached for the turntable, meaning to lift the needle and end the strange music, but stopped. She felt split, a part of her wanting to end the song at once, but a slightly larger part wanting to let it play out, anticipating the notes before they played out and loving the strange familiarity.
The strange backing vocals faded, and the lead vocals started. It might have been Philip Bailey, or Maurice White, or maybe in perfect unity. It was hard to be certain. There was a strange distortion that Brittany realized was not on the track itself, but in the very air that carried the music to her ears.
She also realized that the unidentifiable language was in fact English, but backward.
She forced her arm forward to lift the needle, and instead turned the volume knob to full.
Jesse cringed, shook his head, mouthed turn it off.
She couldn’t hear him, couldn’t have complied even if she wanted too.
As odd, as unpleasant as it was, she had to hear it to the end.
The live chat sidebar on the livestream was going bonkers.
What the hell is this shit?
If I knew disco was so weird I would have started listening to it years ago.
Disco is DEAD and this is its rotting corpse!
I don’t feel so good.
Why am in seeing dead people?
The air is opening, and hell is falling out!
Yes, Brittany saw the the air was opening up, and something was falling out of it. She doubted that it was hell, since she didn’t believe in hell, but it was something.
The air around her felt full of static. She felt her long, blonde hair starting to rise, to dance, and the skin of her scalp felt somehow too tight.
She looked at Jesse in her monitor and found him smiling now, nodding instead of shaking his head. He seemed to have changed his mind about the song. He had also grown a rather striking set of horns from the back of his head. They curved over his bristle of red hair, extended several inches past his brow.
Well shit, she thought. We’ll have to change all the art now.
The song began to fade out, the beat and melody accelerating as the volume dropped.
The odd tightening of her scalp progressed to a persistent tingling, a pins and needles sensation of blood flow suddenly returning to a limb that had lost circulation.
Now! A voice in Brittany’s head shouted, finally overcoming the music, and the strange compulsions that accompanied it. You can stop it now! Turn it off, destroy that record! It’s not too late to stop this!
Yes, she thought, then said aloud.
“Here, let me get that for you.”
A large crimson raccoon in a handsome red tux and top hat lifted the tone arm and flipped the vinyl to side two.
Brittany shrieked and pushed herself backward in her chair.
The raccoon replaced the needle and grinned at her.
“Gonna have a hell of a time,” the raccoon said.
The new song started. It was, if it was even possible, stranger than the first.
The pins and needles on her scalp became a maddening itch, but when she reached up to scratch, her hand encountered something upright, ridged, bone-like, with a point sharp enough to draw blood.
She turned her gaze from the monitor with Jesse’s face to the monitor with the YouTube live stream, a screen split between her home studio and Jesse’s remote one.
Her skin, always pale, was now translucent, her skull, teeth, tongue, and eyeballs tenebrous shapes beneath her skin. Her hair had danced around her head as if charged with electricity. The crown of her skull was ringed with short, curved horns, bleach white except the tip of the one that had pierced her hand and drawn blood.
There was a great crashing sound as the world came apart around her.
“Today on this very special episode of I Doubt It with Brittany Page and Jesse Dollemore,” Jesse’s delivery was as manic as ever, but his voice had changed subtly. It was a little deeper now, a little louder, with an almost musical quality. “Welcome to special guest, Amon Amdusias, director of the Paganini Museum … aka, Amduscias, aka Amdukias, The Great Duke of Hell, patron demon of storms and music.”
“You got me, bro,” Brittany interjected, unable to refrain. “Played me like a damned trumpet.”
“My bad,” Amdusias said, and chuckled. His voice was higher than one would expect from a Great Duke of Hell, melodious and strong. When he spoke, you felt it in every cell of your being. It resonated, lingered, soothed. “You must admit though, I gave you a unique listening experience.”
Amdusias was tall, close to ten feet not counting the horn. He was roughly human shaped with clawed feet and hands, long, dexterous fingers, and the head of a unicorn. The horn, two feet of spiraling ivory, had already punctured the ceiling of their studio in five places. He sat cross legged on the floor between Brittany and Jesse. He required no mic. His voice recorded perfectly without it.
“So,” Jesse said, trying to get back on track with what was really an extraordinary scoop for a little independent podcast like I Doubt It. “The question on everybody’s mind … why are you hear and what are your plans now that you’ve arrived?”
Brittany and Jesse already knew, of course, and they were all in, but even a Great Duke of Hell needed help getting the word out here on Earth. The worlds major religious figures were already all up in arms, or as Jesse liked to say, the Christians are pitching a fit, and they needed to get ahead of the bad press.
Mostly what they needed to do was get more people to share and play those songs. Each play opened more of the Earth to what was beyond, and there was still a lot of work to do.
“I’m just here to share my love of music with the world, Jesse,” Amdusias said. “I know you guys get it.”
“Indeed, we do,” Brittany said, her smile shining bright behind translucent lips. “I’m all about good disco.”