The picture came from a nice walk around St. Patrick's.
The story was inspired by a secret bar someone told me about at a company Christmas party. You had to know a member to get in and supposedly it had the best $14 drinks in the city. I picture it like the club in the story, but with fewer aliens.
Mobsters, wine, aliens and a liberal splash of blood ahead.
"Well, somebody sent the invitation," she said, getting back to the mysterious missive.
Greg shrugged and stepped carefully around the pool of blood, leaning on the edge of the leather sofa so he could check the bottom of his shoe. He held the shoe close to his face with one hand, squinting at the sole. “Yeah, so somebody sent it, who cares?” He looked back up at her, his scalp shining through his spiked hair. “The boss isn’t going to care about that, Val.” He tipped his head toward the body that was sprawled over the coffee table.
Valerie took a deep breath and used it to blow her hair out of her eyes. She shouldn’t have said anything. She should’ve just put it in her bag or forgotten about it all together. Instead she said, “It was sitting on top of a big spray of blood, Greg.”
He shrugged, inspecting the other shoe.
She bit her lip to keep from saying the first thing that came to mind. “Which means it got here after Johnny was killed. Someone was here.”
He shrugged again and went to the DVD rack, running his finger along the titles without actually touching them. The streetlight coming through the window made him look orange and sinister, hunching over Johnny’s stuff. “So call a fucking cop. We already know it was those freaks from the west side.”
The invitation had been soaked through with blood on one corner but it was still legible. Valerie looked at it so she didn’t have to look at Greg. With his shiny suit, that ridiculous pinky ring, and his scrawny shoulders he looked like a bad attempt at a stereotype. “You’re not interested at all?” she asked without thinking.
“No. And I don’t know why you are. The boss is going to take care of those punks and we’re going to get Johnny’s safe empty before the cleaners get here. That’s all we’re here to do,” he said in his full tough guy mode, cracked his thin neck when she looked up at him. The gesture did nothing to intimidate, it just made him look even younger.
She frowned and her hand clenched, bending the card. It wasn’t like retaliating against the west side was going to fix anything. “What if they didn’t do it? This isn’t the way they do things. They don’t do big bloody messes with mystery notes. They poison you at the club or run you off the road on the way home.”
Greg cracked his neck again and stepped up to her. He wagged his finger like someone’s grandmother. “You think this is about who did it? It’s about the boss having someone to take it out on. You want it to be you when you tell him someone else did it and you can’t figure out who?” He shook his head, so close she could see the whites of his eyes were yellowed and his breath smelled like menthol. “You don’t want that. You want to take this card downstairs and put it in the first trashcan you pass.”
He didn’t wait for her to answer. He turned and went into the bedroom, vigilantly hedging the blood pool and disappearing into the dark doorway.
Valerie blew out another long breath. The smell of menthol on top of all the blood was making her queasy. “Better than dead,” she muttered, stepping over the blood between the bar and the sofa so she could look at Johnny. He was still lying there, belly up on his Italian coffee table, smug face loose, mouth hanging open and eyes staring at nothing. It was hard not to admire the Italian blood on the Italian suit on the Italian table. Just a big red spot the size of a fist on the front of his blue shirt, but the back, well the back had to be blown away. Against the table blood had pooled under him, running in little streams down the legs, dripping off the sides, pooling on the carpet. “Wonder if that’s Italian too,” she said, looking down at the card crumpled in her hand. There was blood on her fingers and she went automatically to the kitchen to wash her hands. She turned on the faucet and set the card on the counter next to the sink. She stared at the familiar handwriting, washing her hands with dish soap, digging her nails into the suds to make sure there was no blood left.
It was good to see you at the races last month. I hope you’re up for something a little more sporting this time. We’re meeting in the old place at the new time.
I hope to see you there.
It didn’t seem like much of a message. It was barely an invitation. But it had been sitting on the bar like a centerpiece in the middle of all that blood. Somebody had something to say.
She dried her hands on one of the kitchen towels and rummaged in the drawers until she found a box of ziplock bags. She put the card in one, sealed it, and stuck it in her purse.
Greg appeared in the doorway with his black duffel so full his right shoulder was drooping under the weight. “Got it. Let’s get out of here.”
There wasn’t much choice but to follow him and not laugh when he double checked his shoes at the door. Nothing to do but check her own and think.
She drove the short stretch to the lot where they’d met earlier. It was hard to make out his face in the dim lights. “You going to straight to the boss with this?” she asked, stopping next to Greg’s Cadillac.
He nodded and opened his door. “Pop the trunk for me.”
He got out but didn’t shut his door. Valerie watched him in the rearview mirror, walking around the back of the car, disappearing behind the raised lid of the trunk, reappearing with his black bag. He came back around to the passenger door and leaned into the car, forced to stoop. “You ditch that card and go home. I’ll be calling you tomorrow; I don’t think he’s going to want to wait, giving these guys what they deserve.”
“You got it.” She nodded, feeling caught. She should’ve known he’d notice that she hadn’t thrown anything away. He was stupid looking, not actually stupid.
He gave her a curt little nod; sure he’d made his point. He closed the car door almost politely and got into his own car.
She waited until he’d pulled out and turned at the intersection. He wasn’t going to tell the boss about the card and she had a timeframe. Tomorrow. She had until tomorrow to figure it out.
“Sealed with a hug and a kiss,” she said to herself, pulling out of the lot and turning automatically toward her apartment.
There was something weird about the whole thing. Weird that she was sure she’d seen that handwriting before. Weird that everyone was gunning for the freaks when they clearly hadn’t done it. Weird that she felt compelled to find out what really happened. It wasn’t like she’d cared about what happened to Johnny when he was alive.
She flicked on the radio and stopped at the traffic light. “Three more blocks home and then what?” There was a neon sign for some Chinese place across the intersection and the flashing lights made her squint. Red and pink and green and-
A horn honked behind her and she jumped, hitting the gas and making the car lurch forward. It was green. So was the neon and she suddenly knew where she’d seen that handwriting. This had something to do with the west side after all.
Ignoring the asshole behind her she made an illegal u-turn in the middle of the intersection and sped off the other way.
At 3am on a Tuesday it only took twenty minutes to cross town. Valerie pulled up in front of the club, bathed in green light as she let the valet help her out. She gave him her keys and walked unerringly to the unmarked door on the left. The buzzer for E7 was cold under her finger.
“Valerie Cross,” she said, feeling her chest tighten. If she wasn’t on the list anymore this was going to be a big mistake.
There was a pause where she considered walking away even if there was really nowhere to go. No car, no cabs this end of the street, just the hulking valets.
The buzzer went off and she heard the sharp click of the locks opening. The door swung forward and she used one hand to pull it open just far enough to get in. When it closed behind her she forced herself to take a deep breath and go up the stairs.
There was someone to take her overcoat at the top and she let him, looking around the bar.
An unfamiliar face was coming toward her, a blue striped suit and blond hair. He smiled naturally but she didn’t feel better until she recognized the star shaped pin in his lapel. Even then she didn’t really feel better. It was too cool in the club, but it always was.
“She’s expecting you. Will you follow me?” he asked, tilting his head slightly.
Valerie nodded. “Lead the way,” she said past the lump in her throat.
They went up another three flights of stairs, past other private rooms full of men in suits and women in sleek dresses. The door at the top was closed and the blond in blue stripes knocked so lightly no one could possibly hear over the music filtering up from the bar.
There was the click of the lock disengaging and he held the door open for her, letting blue light out into the stairwell.
Under his expectant gaze and the one from inside there was no choice but to step through.
“It’s been a while.” In the far end of the circular room, sitting back into the couch that ran along the length of the wall, Audrey was watching her.
The door closed behind her and Valerie felt her chest go tight again. “It has,” she managed, moving around the low table to sit near the other woman. Not too near though. “This place hasn’t changed at all,” she said clearing her throat.
Audrey shrugged lightly, elegantly, shoulders up and then down in a little arc. “It’s always been this way I think.” She gestured to the table and the bottle of wine on it.
Valerie shook her head. “I actually came to talk,” she said, reaching into her purse and pulling out the ziplock bag. “Do you remember this?” Her eyes were fixed on the bag and then the card when she pulled it out. She set it on the table between them, flattening it against the surface with both hands.
“He wasn’t good enough for my daughter,” Audrey said flatly.
Valerie looked up. When she had realized that the scribbled ‘XO’ was initials, Alex Olsen, she’d expected evasions, lies, at most a sly admission that wouldn’t hold water outside this room. “I didn’t even know they were seeing each other,” she said, feeling winded.
Audrey tilted her head, her black hair brushing one shoulder. “That was how they wanted it. She knew how I’d feel about her dating that deviant.” She frowned making her face look sharp and unforgiving.
“The same way you felt about her dating this deviant?” Valerie asked dryly, leaning back against the cushions.
Audrey’s face performed another transformation into a brilliant smile. Her white teeth stood out against her dark skin as she laughed. “I think you’ll agree we found the only solution to that,” she said, brushing Valerie’s thigh with her fingers.
Valerie moved her leg away but couldn’t help returning the smile. “I guess that wasn’t on tap for Johnny.”
Audrey’s hair shimmered when she shook her head. “Not remotely. He was getting her into gambling too, did you know that?” Audrey took a sip of her wine, leaving lipstick on the glass and watching Valerie over the rim.
She was being watched in return; now that she was here Valerie couldn’t take her eyes off of her. “Not that it matters, the boss is already gunning for you, but why the card? You could have taken it with you. No one would have known. I probably would have been able to convince him that someone else had done it.”
Audrey put her glass down and made a careless gesture. “Maybe I wanted to see you again.”
“You knew the boss would send me? And I’d just happen to remember what Alex’s handwriting looked like? I’m not stupid, Audrey,” she said firmly. None of this made sense, it felt like things were spinning out of control and being back here didn’t help.
Thin black eyebrows went up. “Right, I’m the stupid one because I chose to do this? What about you, you didn’t have to work for ‘the boss’,” Audrey said sharply, frowning again.
Valerie looked away, studying the thick carpet. “Fighting across the river for the rest of your life, you chose that.”
“That didn’t mean you had to go join up. You could have stayed with me.” Her hand was on Valerie’s leg again, earnest.
Not moving Valerie sighed. “I could have stayed with you? No one was going to question you fighting the boss while you were hiding me under your skirts?”
Audrey shifted closer. “You still didn’t have to join him. You could have gone anywhere, done anything.”
“With my record?” Valerie laughed darkly, eyes boring into the older woman’s, making her shrink back. “I did what I had to do.”
She didn’t have to say it; it was all there, between the lines where they could both see it. It was only what she had to do because Audrey wouldn’t leave with her when she asked.
“I had obligations, I had Alex.” Audrey moved her hand away, using it to pour more wine.
“Who are you trying to kid? Me? I know you better than that. You wanted to be in charge and now you are. And you’re doing a fine job,” she shot back with sharp sarcasm.
The wine bottle hit the table too hard and they both jumped. “Why are you here?” Audrey asked harshly, sitting back without picking up her glass.
Valerie leaned forward, elbows on her knees so she could put her head in her hands. “I don’t know,” she told the carpet. It was so thick it swallowed up the soles of her shoes. “Maybe I did want to see you.”
There was a warm hand on her shoulder and she didn’t dare look up. “So we both got what we wanted.”
She tipped her head back with a sigh, taking in the rounded ceiling before turning her eyes to Audrey. There wasn’t anything different about those hazel eyes. They had the same look, in the same face. In this light she didn’t even look older, certainly not like it had been ten years. Without thinking about it Valerie touched her neck, just below the jaw, rubbing over the scar there. “I heard about that,” she said quietly.
Audrey put her hand over Valerie’s and smiled slightly. “I wasn’t sure if you were there for that.”
Valerie shook her head. She had only seen the shooting on TV. “I wasn’t there. That’s not the kind of work I do anymore.”
With the slightest pressure Audrey moved Valerie’s hand, down along her neck, past her collarbone to rest against the smooth skin left bare by the dress. Valerie could feel sequins against the heel of her hand and the steady triple beat of two hearts under her palm.
“What kind of work are you doing now?” Audrey asked, looking at her through thick eyelashes.
Valerie had to clear her throat to speak; she could feel that her face was red. “Special jobs. Whatever the boss needs.”
Audrey smirked slyly. “And what you need?” she asked, leaning closer.
Valerie could smell the familiar perfume and the heat seeping into her hand where it was still trapped against Audrey’s chest. “Sometimes that too,” she managed, her heart beating hard.
Audrey’s widening smile showed teeth and made Valerie sure she couldn’t stand up if she tried. “I’m glad,” Audrey murmured. She was only a breath away but she didn’t come closer, stopping just short, close enough that they couldn’t quite focus on each other’s faces, waiting for Valerie to close the distance.
The gun was between them like it had materialized out of thin air. Valerie prodded Audrey’s stomach with it, making her move back. Her jaw was clenched so tight she was sure her teeth would crack.
Audrey looked almost chalky when she went pale. Her eyes only glanced down long enough to confirm what she had felt and then her eyes were back on Valerie, accusing. “You’re going to do this for Johnny?”
Valerie found that her legs worked after all. She stood up, pushing the table aside with her knee, ignoring the clatter of the wine bottle as it fell over and rolled onto the carpet with a muted thump. She positioned herself in front of Audrey and gripped the gun with both hands. “Johnny was going to die, whether it was you, your freaks, some gambling debt, he was gone,” she said, her chest shaking though her hands were steady.
“Well, the boss is still going to go after my freaks, even if you hand me to him on a silver platter.” Audrey was sitting up straighter now, her color coming back as the shock wore down, sure she could talk her way out of anything.
Valerie shook her head. “We’ll see.” Audrey looked so small at the end of a gun with her wide eyes and her carefully layered hair.
Audrey made an impatient sound. “So you’re going to do this for the boss.” Her tone was utter disappointment.
“No, this one’s for me.” The silencer only made two soft popping sounds, both bullets hitting high in the chest, where Audrey had put her hand.
Valerie put the gun back in the holster under her arm and sat back down. She took Audrey’s hand between both of hers and held it. It was already cold; Audrey had always had bad circulation. Valerie leaned over and carefully kissed Audrey’s smooth cheek. She sat for another minute, looking at the still face, memorizing it, slack mouth and all.
With a deep breath she stood up and went to the door. She didn’t look back again, just made sure that the door clicked shut behind her. She took the stairs at the same pace she’d come up but she didn’t look into any of the other rooms this time.
The blond appeared out of nowhere, his expression politely helpful. “Would you like me to have your car brought around?” he asked smoothly.
“Yes, thank you,” Valerie said in a remarkably calm voice. She couldn’t help thinking that if he stayed down on the bottom floors making busy for her, he couldn’t go upstairs.
“Maybe he’ll go anyway,” she told herself, moving through the bar to get to the door. She felt like she was being watched by everyone she passed. She didn’t expect to make it to the stairs. She didn’t expect to make it to have her coat handed to her. She didn’t expect her car outside with the engine running when she opened the outer door.
She got all the way to the last turn before the bridge when the gray SUV pulled in behind her. That she had been expecting.