The city slept; same as it had done when he’d run from these streets so many weeks ago. Nothing ever changed in this sprawl of civilization that always called him back. Well, most of his city slept, he amended to himself, but for the seedy underbelly where citizens would pass out closer to sunrise instead. It was this neighborhood he knew best.
A block away from The Lounge he began to detect the sounds of the other nighttime hangouts in the area. He had intimate knowledge of each and every one of them, and in each one he was known by name. Tonight he would not be making the rounds, rubbing elbows and telling stories to his fellow delinquents. The Lounge was his destination and for tonight, his only thought.
The Lounge had been beautiful once in a classier time of the past. It had seen its years of heyday action before the city expanded to the north. The rich moved with the expansion, abandoning these huge old buildings to the decay of neglect.
He stopped before the building, succumbing to a nostalgic need to simply look at the place. He stuffed his hands in the pockets of his tailored but worn slacks. Balanced on the edge of the curb, his toes floating inches above the gutter, he was only boot-heels away from standing on thin air. He looked over the carefully laid brickwork and the worn floral carvings on the corner stones and decided his Lounge was still beautiful.
Dark, heavy curtains blocked the view from outside onlookers, but he knew the interior as if it were home. From the antique chairs crowded around mismatched tables to the nightly patrons who would drink and smoke and gamble until morning. The waitresses were lovely, but they too belonged in this run down area of the city. Even so, they expected a certain level of decency from those they served and all received it. The prostitutes were expensive, beautiful and well dressed in upper-class hand me downs.
The Lounge was, of course, a front. In the well lit back room a crooked man scribbled in various ledgers while his assistants and runners came and went. They brought in dirty money and filthy information. Both were sorted and assessed, then redistributed into the world. All of it laundered through the Lounge.
Slowly he let his boot tips descend from their floating position until he stood with his heels on the curb and his toes in the gutter. The leather of his tall boots strained around his ankles but he ignored that discomfort. He withdrew his hands from his pockets and smoothed at his hair. There were no fly-aways, there never were. He kept his hair combed impeccably, even in the worst of times. He buttoned the coat that’d hung open as he’d traveled across the countryside.
The door of the Lounge swung open to spill patrons from the party atmosphere within out into the quiet night. The sounds of laughter and music rose and fell with the swing of the big curtained door. He stepped off the curb and crossed the empty street.
The clamor of color in the dimness was welcome to him as he entered. He passed quickly through the tables of customers with hardly a glance to the dancers on stage. He didn’t pause to chat with the group of waitresses behind the bar. He was focused on his intent. Like those other bars in town; he would not be deterred by the prospect of conversation.
There was one door, hidden in the shadows behind the bar that only privileged customers could access. Once through this door the racket of the Lounge was muffled and inconsequential. The only sounds here were the whispered rattle of accounting ledgers, the mutters of dirty accountants as they fixed their books.
“Well, well, well, look what the night has brought us! I thought for sure you were dead this time,” the greeting came from the crooked man who was most assuredly the boss in this little room. He sat behind a large cluttered desk surrounded by minions at messier desks than his own.
“You always say that Vir, and I never am. Haven’t you learned anything in all these years?”
“You ran out of town without a word! Next thing I know Mortow is looking everywhere for any sign of you. He was angry. Murderously angry,” Vir answered. “Come, take a seat, take a cigar, have a drink. Tell me what you’ve gotten yourself into since last I saw you.”
The newcomer took the offered seat and cigar, but turned down the drink with a smile. He undid a single button of his coat to slouch more comfortably into the easy chair near Vir’s desk. “There is plenty of time for stories of my antics later on. The important thing is I’m home, and I’ll be staying a while.”
“So Mortow caught up with you after all?” Vir asked. “You got your business sorted and thought it safe to return to our fair city?”
“No, of course he didn’t. He did get what he wanted, though, what he came after me for. He has never been a patient man. He wouldn’t wait for the deal to finalize in its own time. I knew things would work out well in my absence. So I took myself a nice little vacation and managed to make a pocketful of new contacts out there in the wide, open world.”
Vir sighed. “You just get in?”
“I watched her appear over the hill in the moonrise,” was the answer as he blew three leisurely smoke rings.
“And you came to see me first,” Vir said. “I’m touched.”
“Of course I did, where else would I go?”
Vir’s head twitched slightly to one side. He squinted at his visitor from the corner of his eye. “You need money.”
“Is this not the place to obtain it?”
“For miscreants crawling in off the streets with empty pockets; no collateral? No, it isn’t.” Vir answered.
“You think I’m a miscreant?” The insulted tone of his voice was forced. It was not first time they’d had this discussion.
“Since you were in diapers,” Vir confirmed.
“Thanks Vir,” he answered and sat up straight in the chair. He stubbed the cigar out on the ashtray and looked around the room with sudden impatience. “I told you I have new contacts. You know I’m good for it.”
“Oh, I know.” Vir swiveled his chair to reach a shelf behind his desk. He pulled down a ledger from a row of hundreds of identical books. The pages fluttered open on his desk to the current notations. “I have all the records to prove it.”
The ledger had been noted over and over with numbers and notations, but not one of them scribed in the screaming red of delinquency. This frequent borrower always repaid his debts, usually in-full weeks before they were due. His last run from trouble had not changed matters. He’d left in good standing with all of his associates. There were plenty of men out there who would like to see him dead. He would brook no argument over their reasons, but he’d sworn long ago that he’d never be killed over an unpaid debt.
“You could quit all of this,” Vir said as he made a new notation on the line following the last zeroed amount.
“What would that prove?”
“I don’t know,” Vir snapped the ledger shut, replaced it on the shelf, and started counting bills from a metal cash box. “What are trying to prove as it is?”
“I am not in diapers anymore. There is no need to lecture me.”
“I have every reason to lecture you until you figure out your life and shape up,” Vir said and handed over the stack of bills. His visitor rose, tucking the money into an inner pocket and buttoning his coat. He dragged his fingers through his perfect hair and looked the crooked man square in the eye.
“So says the loan shark sitting on top of all the money in the Southtown Slums.”
“Do as I say, not as I do,” Vir answered with a shrug.
“Right,” the answer was thrown over the shoulder of the exiting man and barely heard over the din of the Lounge as the door opened.
Surrounded again by the party atmosphere of the Lounge, the noise and music had become thick and claustrophobic. He slipped out, unnoticed once again, and stepped into the cool night. His chore at the Lounge was complete and he allowed his next destination to fill his thoughts.
He did not descend deeper into the Southtown Slums as he moved away from the Lounge, but skirted around the outer fringes. The streets were a bit cleaner here where they bordered the nicer parts of the city. The houses were better kept and the streets swept clean until one passed OchrePark where things quickly went downhill. The upper class never went beyond that undesirable park and they only ventured into the fringes under cover of night.
A light shone from a single window of an old fashioned two-story home. He paused to stare up at the gauzy orange curtain that allowed the window to erupt into flames, sending a clear message to anyone who knew enough to read it. He noticed that he was not the only lonely shadow on the dark street as he let his gaze wander up and down the street. As he neared he recognized the shadow as a member of a wealthy family in the north of town.
“Care for a smoke?” the heir started, but took one of offered thin-rolled cigars with thanks. They lit up in silence. The accused miscreant moved away to lean against a sign pole nearby. His eyes roved over the house across the way, lingering on the burning orange window.
Like the rest of the city, this house had not changed at all since he’d gone away. Then night blooming flowers had finally begun to shoot out buds and the huge white flowers opened on the thick green vines that clung and twisted across the northwest corner of the building. Flower boxes hanging below unshuttered windows sat heavy with overflowing night bloomers of different breeds.
His cigar was smoldering near the skin of his fingers when the front door opened and a man stepped out into the night. The door shut behind him and he walked away toward the north, without looking back. The shadow on the bench shifted in expectation, but the shadow leaning against the sign post had already gone.
He knew her routine as if it was his own. He counted the seconds that were passing as he slipped into the thin alley between her house and the next. After showing her client out, she would pull a long, modest robe over the indecent clothing she had donned for her rendezvous. She would climb the stairs to her rooftop garden to unwind and prepare herself for the next client. When she came back downstairs she would change into her welcoming outfit. Then she’d remove the gauzy orange curtain, signaling she was with a client, to a blue one that would welcome the next patron to tap at her door.
He glanced up at the swaying foliage draped over the edge of the rooftop. He heard the quiet snap of her lighter putting her exotic cigar to flame. She smoked a strange blend of herbs grown overseas and rolled in the palest of leaves. He imagined he could smell it already.
She would be unaware of him on the first floor while she wandering through the rooftop garden, smoking and humming softly to herself. He jimmied the lock on a small wooden door at the back of the house with his pocket knife and let himself into the back pantry.
The house, huge and dark, was perfectly silent. He allowed his eyes to adjust as he moved by feel through each room. He drew near the cast of candlelight on the floor of the foyer and looked into the parlor where the signal candle lay. The door to the servant’s stairway at the back of the room stood open. She had never kept servants but the house had once been filled with them. Behind the walls and secret panels were nooks and passages that allowed the servants to move and work unseen by Master and Mistress.
He crossed the room in three long strides and placed himself out of view behind the stairway door. The counter in his mind ran down and he heard her on the stair above. He counted her steps as she descended. When she crossed the threshold into the parlor she reached behind her to nudge the door shut.
His hand flew out of the shadows, unseen, to lock around her wrist. He yanked her off balance and she fell against his chest. He wrapped one arm around her waist and was able to pin both arms against her sides. He slapped his free hand over her mouth. “No screaming,” he whispered into her hair. “Screaming is for later.”
Her heart pounded as she struggled against him and he squeezed a little tighter. “What have I told you about working when I’m out of town?” he rasped.
She pulled her arm forward in an attempt to break his hold, then pistoned it backward, hitting him hard with her elbow. The force was enough dislodge his grip and she spun free of him. He folded over the pain in his belly and his hand disappeared inside his coat, not to retrieve a weapon, but to massage the injured muscle. When he looked up into her face he was smiling.
“I have been taking care of myself for years without you watching over me. When you leave money enough so I will survive your absence, perhaps I’ll comply,” she answered.
He looked her over as he straightened. Like her house, she had not changed. Perhaps though, like her flowers, she had grown more beautiful. Or maybe that was only his long absence playing tricks on his eyes. “There is money now,” he said in a low voice. “So turn out the light.”
“Borrowed money,” she scoffed, but her tone held little reproach. He watched her cross the room and drop the dark shade across the window, putting out her signal fire for another night.
“I had another customer waiting,” she said as she raised the lamp from the table. The flame flickered through the air as she turned to face him and the room danced in sputtering light.
“I met him,” he answered. “You wouldn’t have liked him.”
“Do I like any of them?” she asked. He crossed the room and offered his arm to her.
“You like me,” he said as she slid her hand under his elbow.
“You don’t pay.”
“Don’t I?” he murmured.
“Come along,” she smiled. Together they passed into the foyer and up the gleaming staircase to the second floor.
“I have a present for you.” He told her as she steered him toward the room at the end of the hall to the left of the staircase. She didn’t respond, but pushed him down onto the end of the bed. He sat obediently, leaning back with his palms spread on the bedspread behind him and legs stretched out in front.
She lit the lamps around the room from her signal fire, now only an innocent flame without the gauzy curtain to give it meaning. He watched her as she moved. Little by little the light allowed him to make out the costume she wore under the loosely tied robe.
He stood and shrugged out of his coat. He dug through an inner pocket before laying the coat, neatly folded in half, on the foot of the bed.
She put out her flame and placed the lamp on a table near the door. She crossed the room to stand before him and he slid the long, thin chain over her head, and then lifted her hair free. The delicate silver chain rattled lightly. She felt the pendant at the end bounce off her breast and then slide under her robe to bounce again off her ribs. He slid his finger into the looped belt and pulled it free.
“I had no idea Congress-head Bolley had such dark, indecent tastes,” he murmured as he traced one finger down the seam of her black leather corset. It was trimmed in red and black lace. Her legs were bare below a swash of fabric only pretending to be a skirt.
She ignored his comments. She lifted the small stone dangling from the chain and inspected it by candlelight. It was yellow, striped in glittering bronzes and browns. She thought it was beautiful and her voice relayed her emotion when she thanked him.
“You are very welcome,” his eyes were firm on hers. He lifted one hand to brush his fingers against her cheek.
She allowed his caress only a moment before she pushed his hand away and reached out to undo the knot at his throat. He bent his head slightly forward as she slid his tie free. She looked it over quickly, her feminine eye noting the stains to wash out and wear to be mended. She tossed it onto his jacket.
Her fingers fluttered over the buttons of his vest, then his collar and down the front of his shirt. She put each article aside after a quick inspection, but he never took his eyes from her face. She met his eyes when she finally pulled his belt free and put it aside. He lowered himself once again to the edge of the bed to untie his boots. She moved away, retrieved her signal lamp and left the room.
Once on the first floor she returned the lamp to the table in the parlor and crossed through the foyer to enter the strip of rooms she used for business. She passed a room where an ornate bed dominated the space, for instances when a bed was requested. It was a giant antique that she kept always draped in the fabrics of luxury. The one upon which her visitor sat was smaller, more modest, and the sheets were of soft, simple linen. It was the one she’d shared only with him. He had never even requested to see the luxurious first floor version.
She passed other rooms, one containing a full set of dining furniture, another where the stone fireplace focal point was surrounded by chairs and lounges. At the end of the hall she entered what had once been the smallest room in the house; a servants quarters or a large closet, she wasn’t sure. She had extended it, tearing out a wall and utilizing one of the secret servant hallways to create an enormous walk-in closet. The clothes of her trade filled the huge space on racks and shelves and hangers.
She caught a glimpse of the woman she was pretending to be in the mirror as she pulled off her robe, but she did not stop to consider that reflection. She began immediately to unlace the cords of her corset and shimmied out of it as soon as it was loose. Piece by piece she removed herself from Congress-head Bolley’s fantasy. She felt no aversion to his choices this night or any other. His tastes were not so bad, more complex than some, less depraved than others. But the Congress-head, like every other client, followed the same rule regarding their fantasy. The costume was part of what they were paying for. Though the intimacies that took place went far beyond dress-up, no client had ever seen her completely undressed.
That was the one last grip she retained on her modesty, though she mused that with so little of it left it must surely have a different name; the way a shallow pond was only a smaller clutch of the same water as a lake, as an ocean. She drew a deep cleansing breath. Then, wearing only the shining gold stone hung on the silver chain, she made her way to the small wash room on the first floor. She washed the last traces of the night from herself.
She glanced once or twice to the ceiling, thinking of the visitor that bathed in her rooms above. The mere thought of him in the house soothed her. Even the surprise greeting he’d sprung upon her, setting her heart racing in fear, made her smile.
She was a sexual creature; she’d known that from early on and her life had progressed along a line she felt was true . Still she had been astonished by her own primal reaction toward him that first time she’d seen him. No, not saw, because her sight hadn’t been the sense to sit up and take such violent notice. She had breathed in the scent of him and known that she was lost.
She remembered the opulent, glittering ball, where they’d been introduced. She could hardly recall the face of the diplomat who’d purchased her services for a journey to the city by the sea. She had been out of her own element, beyond the lines of her comfort zone among the high class wives who would have snubbed her in her own city. But her borders had never broken from a little strain. She let herself be consumed by a persona she would normally only wear for a night. She’d lived it and breathed it for weeks without pause.
She had noticed him first while in conversation with one wife or another; he was nearby, speaking with her diplomat escort. Though they shared a brief glance, they were not introduced. Not out of rudeness, but due to no available opportunity before he was off to meet another guest. He passed quite close behind her as he moved away, putting a gentle hand to her elbow to warn her to not turn about suddenly. The touch was only one of a thousand jostles and embraces in the night. It meant little, but the air he stirred up around her was a different story. She was struck by the scent that lingered after he’d gone.
She followed him with her eyes as he crossed the room, unable to tear her attention away as the smell filled her, finding a home in her belly and roaring to be noticed. It was a roar she recognized from her long life of promiscuity, but she had never known it to be so astoundingly strong; so deafening, so undeniably true . She learned later it was no special soap or cologne, only the smell of his skin and hair and breath.
Eventually, he asked her to dance. She accepted him and they shared two dances that night. She didn’t know how she’d managed the steps, how she’d remembered to smile and laugh and seem pleasant while engulfed by his irresistible odor. She hadn’t even been sure if he understood how he was affecting her. When he left her for good that first night he whispered five words in her ear that both terrified and thrilled her.
“I know who you are.”
They met again at the next party and he would not admit, even now, whether it was chance or his own invention that got him the invite.
“From the Southtown market,” he answered the questions she was dying to ask the moment their first dance began. “The house with the orange window. Don’t worry, though, I won’t say a thing. I have just as much to lose by being revealed to these uppity fools as you.”
She was speechless and a little confused. He continued. “Do you see that man there? The one with the sash?” He spun her on the floor and she identified the nephew of a Duke. “He recently came into possession of a nice piece of property that he doesn’t see any value in. I am hours from taking it off of his hands.”
To learn it was not with her, but her career he familiar; that he did not belong in this society any more than she filled her with calm. He too called the Southtown Slums home and found comfort in their impropriety. In possession of answers to questions that had been haunting her for days, she relaxed into his arms, into the dance. She slid one hand along his shoulders and up the nape of his neck. She ruffled her fingers through his neat hair. Later he explained it was this moment that he had known. When she mussed his tidy hair and he wanted her to never stop.
Later, when dark corners of the gardens began to fill with couples roaming and surely groping, doing their best imitation of indecency, she left her escort behind. The pair stood on a wide green lawn decorated with tiny, perfectly pruned trees. They gazed at the stars in silence, not uncomfortable but unsure what to say.
The way she looked at him, he could think nothing else but kissing her. But still it was he who broke the desperate embrace, holding her away from him with shaking hands at her waist. They would not release their grip, though he willed them to. “I have no money to pay.”
She could have been wounded by the insinuation at a moment so revealing of her own heart, but she was long past trivial hurts. She saw that he was only placing the truth out there in the front of them. This con-man had no money to give her in trade, a trade neither of them had verbally agreed to, though their hearts could not resist. His voice was thick with emotion. They were both vulnerable; terrified without the walls and personas they created to live their lives.
She clutched at the lapels of his coat and drew him back to her, pressing her body against him. “You won’t pay. This is for me.”
That night he delivered an envelope to her escort with a letter of apology and nearly all of the money he’d paid for her services. It was a loan from this con-man’s associates which she paid back to him upon their return home. She insisted; he would never purchase her.
Her new lover, her only true lover, took her to a hotel room that was shabbier than the one she had vacated. She did not notice a single tear in the wallpaper or stain on the carpet. She let him undress her. He didn’t realize she allowed him her ultimate taboo, and without a single drop of hesitance in her heart. They spent a week in the room together. They returned to Southtown Slums together. He deposited her on the doorstep of the big old house with a kiss goodbye, already hot on the lead of his next con.
He came and went now; just as she was sure he’d done before she knew him. They lived in another dimension on the second floor where neither one pretended to be anyone but their true selves. Sometimes they discussed the phenomenon of only being comfortable with themselves in each other’s company. Was this illusion, or was the illusion in those characters they played and had become so accustomed to? She thought there was perhaps a third possibility that held more truth. Perhaps the illusion was absolutely everything existing outside of their lives. Perhaps even they were part of that illusion.
She returned to the walk-in to retrieve her robe and looked again at her own face in the mirror. She saw that she was herself again, though the reflection seem strange, framed by the gold edged mirror and the racks of fantasy clothing behind her. She left the room, once again passing those lairs of fantasy. She climbed the stairs and returned to him.
He sat at the writing desk near the window, blowing smoke from one of her cigars through the open pane. He had extinguished most of the candles and the glittering nighttime lights of the city drew her eye. She took the hand he offered and slid easily into his lap. The top of her robe slid down her shoulder but she didn’t pull it back. He placed the cigar between her lips. She drew in the fragrant smoke and exhaled out the window before crushing the cigar out. She fluffed her fingers through his damp hair, combed to perfection even at bedtime; combed to perfection only so she could mess it up.
“You promised screaming?” she asked as he slid one hand along her thigh over the fabric of her robe.
“Indeed I did,” he grinned at her. In one motion he stood and tossed her onto the bed. She shrieked laughter, a sound that belonged to none of the women downstairs. It belonged only to him.
She dozed in the last thin hours before sunrise and woke alone in an eerie gray room. She untwisted herself from the bed sheet and lifted her robe from the floor. She crossed the hall to the library where another door to the roof-bound stairs stood open. She climbed them slowly and silently, hearing the first twitters of the morning birds above.
He was already dressed in clothes from the closet she kept for him. He stood with his back to her, smoking and watching the sun rise over the Slums. She crossed the roof and slid her arms around his chest, buried her nose between the collar of his coat and his neck where the warm smell of him was the strongest. He put one hand over hers, pressing them tight against his chest, and leaned his head back against her.
“You’re going,” she whispered.
“For a few hours,” he answered. “I have to see a man.”
“A man,” she muttered. “They are the staple of business.”
“Go back to sleep, my love,” he said, turning in her grasp so he could wrap his arms around her. “Sleep extra late and I will bring you breakfast in bed.” He kissed her eyelids as he spoke, then her lips as he finished.
“Nothing from Sal’s. We never eat anything else,” she said against his mouth. He laughed and pushed her gently away.
“Get back to bed,” he repeated and swatted her behind as she moved away. She threw a glance over her shoulder as she started down the stairs. For a moment their eyes locked and they both were stunned into momentary immobility. It passed, as it always did, and he winked at her then turned back to the view and the remainder of his cigar.
She went down the stairs into the house, but she did not return to the room where their bed waited. She did not go back to his scent on the pillow, but continued down the hall to a door at the other end.
Beyond it was another bed, this one made up even more simply than the one they shared. She climbed under the blankets and lay back on the pillow she slept upon most nights. There was no smell of him here to set her to longing. While he was away she was never able to cope with that scent in that bed down the hall, even for just a few hours when he’d gone off to see a man.