Black letters against a white background; nothing else but those words and a name, scrawled in beautiful cursive on the back, Freddy Reeds.
I hold the business card gingerly between my fingertips, flipping it back and forth, hoping for more information to appear magically on its little surface. But nothing appears out of thin air.
I wanted to crumble the damn thing and toss it out the car window but Sophie made it a point that I can't lose the card or I wouldn't be able to enter the club. I thought, so what, I was the one doing her the favor.
The ever so secretive club that Sophie has worked at all these months, a place Sophie held in such high regards only because it's the place where she make the month's rent home in two nights - easily, she had added.
So it came as a surprise to me when she told me, not asked, but told me to cover her shift this Friday night; somehow, she had managed to overbook herself. I asked her if it would be alright for some stranger to just show up, but she nodded, saying, "Oh yes, Mr. Reeds doesn't mind as long as I had another body to fill the space". Though I would've to sign a NDA anyways so the secret remains safe within their realm.
Just another body in Sophie's eyes, I had jested to her.
She waved me away, annoyed, "You know what I mean!", as though she was the one doing me the favor.
Oh do I ever, Sophie dearest.
So here I am, Friday night, pawing the card in my hand, waiting outside of a nondescript building in my car, ignoring the unforgivable heat of Florida summers. The plain white building sits amidst other plain white buildings downtown. The black moniker, Members Only, hides away in the corner, under the awning so that you only see it if you walk up to the building. Only if you care to venture this far outside of the downtown area, let alone get out of your car, into the "business" district. And I say, "business", note the quotations, because the sort of business conducted here were prostitutes turning their tricks.
And here I am sitting in my car, eyeing the streets for any street-walkers who may spot me as a mark, debating with myself on why I am still there, doing Sophie yet another favor that I know will bite me in the ass down the line. Good old Sophie with her harebrained schemes to get rich and famous quick and I, the fool who gets roped in every. Single. Time.
I eye the door, still debating when the heavens opened up and decided for me to leave the safety of my car. I grab my bag and rush headlong towards the awning, the rain already pouring steadily and somewhere off in the distant, the rumbling claps of thunder sounded. My shirt is soaked through and I brush away a few drops that landed on my face when lightning striked, illuminating a face that hovered in the corner by the front door.
"Can I help you?"
I let out a tiny yelp and bite down my lips to catch the rest in my mouth. A bald man, dressed in the usual doorman slash security uniform of black on black, steps out of the shadow. A white name tag, with Ralph etched into it, clings to his huge bodybuilder chest.
I leer at him, angrily startled by his sudden apparition. I hand him the card, all crumbled up and moist. He takes it, gingerly, between two fingers, his face a cool mask but I can sense the slight disgust from the flare of his nostrils.
"I'm supposed to ask for Mr. Reeds, Freddy Reeds," I say, jutting my chin out at him.
"Are you Madeleine Stone?" He looks me up and down.
"Yes." I straighten up, placing a hand upon my hip before I could stop myself, and stare him down; thankfully, he's a couple of inches shorter than me. My posturing doesn't faze him. He speaks softly into his headset and nods.
"Please come inside. Agatha's waiting for you." He opens the door and ushers me into the dark opening. I stand still, looking from him to the ominous mouth of the entrance, unsure whether to take the first steps forward or turn myself around and run.
Sensing this, he places his hand at the small of my back and guides -push is the better word- me in.
"Mr. Reeds doesn't like to be kept waiting." Do goons go to classes where they teach you to say these sort of things, I think as I look back at him, and he smiles, nodding, as though to answer my question, as he shuts the door in my face.
I step into the quiet foyer, mouth agape at the sudden change in surrounding. In stark contrast to the exterior, thick red velvet curtains covered every inch of wall in the room. Above the entrance, an ironwork hung, an M overlaid by an O with an arrow bisecting the letters in two- resembling a masked face.
I wonder over to a trio of high-backed leather chairs circling a low dark wood coffee. A stack of silver antique ashtrays sat in the middle of table but I didn't detect any smell of cigarette, let alone cigar smoke. The scent of something floral hovered in the air. Funeral home, this is what this room reminds me of. In the corner, a small window, with a muted yellow light glowing, appeared but before I can go investigate, the curtains part and I half-jump back, fearing a coffin upon an altar but it's only a set of double doors in front of which a petite blonde woman stands, gazing at me.
My heart thud against my ribs and again, I bite down my lips to stifle the scream.
"Miss Stone, right this way, please. Mr. Reeds' waiting in the Grand Room." She parts the curtain further and push the doors open, signaling for me to follow her in. My throat tightens and my legs hesitate to take that step towards her.
"Please," she says again, gesturing. She looks like a nice harmless lady so I nod and follow her through the double doors.
The Grand Room is, indeed, what its name suggest, grand in style and grand in size. Cavernous, even, how large it seems but actually, it only appears so because the walls are mirrors, reflecting every inch back onto itself. The mirrors reflect the blonde, cladded in black, and me, following in her wake. I glance at my reflections, afraid that my image might suddenly act of its own accord, in defiant of its master, a doppelganger waiting for its escape.
On one side of the large room, booth after booth of U-shaped couches lined the wall. Low leather tables sat in front of each section and each section separated by sheer black curtains, giving little privacy from one booth to the next.
On the dance floor, in the middle of the room, two silver poles stood an equal distance from one another. Above, a honeycomb of iron bars decorated the ceiling. Strippers, that's what it is, they have strippers with their poles as entertainment. There's no way in hell are they expecting me to do pole dancing. Is that how Sophie gets her money? And if that's all that is, why all the secrecy? There's strip clubs galore all around the city.
Opposite the wall of booths, a dark wood bar carved a serpentine line from one end of the end to the other. Shelves and shelves of bottles climbed the height of the wall, nearly to the ceiling. Cases of different shaped glasses bordered the shelves.
And there, at the end of the bar, sat the man I'm sure is Mr. Reeds. He, as well, dressed head to toes in all black, though, I'm positive, they are designer threads compared to what Ralph wore out there in the heat. This must be the uniform de rigueur or Mr. Reeds only hires people with the same taste in fashion. He hammers away on a small silver laptop, pounds down on the space bar like it deserved punishment for whatever deed the task challenged Mr. Reeds at, and the nostrils of his nose flared each time he has to delete a word - which is often. His slicked back curls threatened to fall out of place with each of his exaggerated movements but I doubt a single strand could with the amount of hair product he used. The blonde leads me right to him.
"Mr. Reeds, Miss Stone's here for you." He doesn't look away from the screen and just nods, whether to himself or to acknowledge her, I can't be sure. When he does face me, one word comes to mind: hawk. All of his features pulled into a shape point, from his widow's peak to his hooked nose, right down to the pointy chin. Even his thin lips began and ended with a point, a negative parabola upon his face. His saving grace are his green eyes, much too large and round, and too bright and unnatural a color.
Those very eyes are looking at me now, scrutinizing every inch of my body, up and down they travel. Instinctively, my hands shoot up to the front of my body, feeling all at once naked in his presence. Another word flashed into my mind: devil.
"Miss Stone. So Sophie sent you." He speaks without any inflection, sentences sounded like accusations instead of questions. He stands and circles me. I notice the blonde has left the room.
"I'm her replacement for tonight." I follow him in this weird little dance as he moves around me, not quite trusting him to leave my sight.
"Yes, yes. Perfect." He mutters under his breath as he finally stops and faces me. Our eyes meet and he smiles, large, white, and, what I imagined, sharp teeth appeared and disappeared just as quick.
"If you do well tonight, you'll come back for another night."
"No, I mean, no thank you. I'm only doing this one night as a favor for Sophie…" My words flood out in an attempt to assert what little control I have in this conversation. He squints at me and smiles again like I made a childish joke that he didn't find funny but he politely humors me.
"No. This favor you think you're doing Sophie is actually a favor she OWE me. She owe me a WARM BODY." His emphasis on the words, owe and warm body, made my stomach crawl, the hair on my neck stood up.
Goddamn it, Sophie, I thought.
"There must be a misunderstanding. I'm only supposed to…"
"Listen," he interrupts me, putting a hand up, "the misunderstanding's on your end and no problem of mine. She owe me and I'm really doing you, both, a favor. Don't speak. I'll pay you a thousand dollars for tonight and $500 for each night after. More, if you're well received and do your job well." My eyes widened at the amount of money he was offering. A thousand dollar for one night, a thousand dollar to do what exactly?
"You got the wrong person." I shake my head, suspicious of his intent.
"No, you're perfect for this. You got a great body, that ass alone, and the hair, like a glass of good wine. Makeup can get rid of that scowl you have on that pretty face," he puts up his hand again to quiet me, "This job's easy. I give you the clothes, someone'll do your hair and makeup and you either push drinks or sit with our clients for a couple of hours and do what they ask, within our boundaries, of course. That's it, easy money." He smiles that toothy smile again.
"But a thousand dollars to be a cocktail waitress, that's…"
"The money's for your discretion at my club," he interrupts again, "and you'll sign a NDA, of course, but the money's what ensure you keep in line and keep you coming back. Now stop shaking that pretty head of yours." He takes me by the arm, his touch cool and surprisingly rough.
"Agatha!" He yells and the blonde appears at my side as silently as she left, taking hold of my arm where Mr. Reeds's grip has vacated. "Sophie owes ME," he adds, pointing a ringed finger at his chest as Agatha leads me away.
A couple of hours later, after the Non-Disclosure Agreement's signed, measurements taken, three different stylists has brushed on, waxed on and attempted to tame my wild auburn hair into a tight braid.
"I'll be back with some food," Agatha tells me as she hands me a large cup of black coffee then leaves the room. She has kept me calm throughout the process, reassuring me that I'll get my money after all of this "process". "Process", ha!
I take my cell out of my bag and ring Sophie. The call goes straight to voicemail.
"Sophie, you're dead," I hiss into the phone. I end the call and repeat the message in a text and send that. I stare at my phone, daring her to respond. Throwing the phone back into my bag, I felt exhausted and slump down into my chair.
Sophie Fournier has a way of mixing my quiet and "boring!", she would exclaim, existence with her crazy lifestyle. I could think of several times she had fooled me into these stupid schemes of her. If only she'd asked, I'd have done anything for her, but her roundabout ways of tricking me had me doubting the durability our childhood frienship. Why me, I'd asked, out of the hordes of her friendships and followers. And from what I'd seen over the years, I was the only one who tolerated her persistent and somewhat obnoxious personality for long periods of time. She had her moments of sweetness where she could bring the world to her feet but do expect something, like your soul, for example, in exchange. Regardless, I saw her as someone like my younger sister and adored her as much as I do my brother, Henri-Laurent.
"Miss Stone, please eat, it'll be a long night." Agatha appears and places a steaming hot plate of baked salmon and mixed vegetables in front of me. I eat ravenously.
"There's no way in hell am I wearing that!" I back away from the black corset top and teddy hanging loosely from Agatha's grasp.
"Miss Stone, you will have to. This is the uniform for the girls." She inches closer to me.
"What kind of place is this?!" Exasperated, I throw up my arms in defeat.
An agonizing thirty minutes later, Agatha tightens the strings with her deft little fingers. I'm bare in black panties and the thigh high stockings she had carefully clipped into the teddy. I'd never imagined in all of my life that I'd wear anything that resembled this, let alone wear it at a place of employment, in a room full of strangers. Oh Sophie, you are so dead, I thought, as Agatha pulls the strings tighter and tighter. The only blessing came when Agatha hands me a pair of black ballerina flats. There wasn't a chance in hell that I'd wear heels all night long.
I watch Agatha in the mirror as she finished with the corset, smoothing the laces down and clasping the last hook, the strings so tight, every breath is a struggle for me. She is a true beauty, petite and doll-like, a gothic one in all that black, especially against her pale skin, which nearly shimmered. Her blonde hair cut into a sharp bob that frame her heart-shaped face and she didn't wear any makeup besides black mascara, which brightened her pale blue eyes, and red lipstick on her bow lips. She looked young, perhaps a few years older than me, but the lines at the corner of her eyes put her in her late 30s, early 40s, perhaps. She catches me staring at her and her blue eyes shine as she smiles, embodying the very doll I thought she is.
"Not too tight? How does it feel?"
"Like a straight jacket but I can breathe. Barely." She smiles again and spins me around so she could look at me fully.
"You look beautiful, Miss clients are in for a treat." She spins me around again to face the mirror.
Feeling the thick layer of makeup on my face, I gaze into the mirror and the person looking back is someone else entirely, someone I didn't realized.
I am the proverbial deer caught in headlights, grey eyes opened a bit too wide, charcoal rimmed and done in what one stylist exclaimed, "smokey eyes are so in!". The mascara feels heavy, drooping my eyelids, a sophorific look on my face. My lips are sticky from the glob of lip gloss smeared across. My head ached from the tightness of the french braid the three stylists had wrestled my unkempt hair into. All the black gave my skin a pallor, Morticia Addams-esque but she made it look sexy and I looked...undead. The corset pinched my barely there breasts into the illusion of cleavage. I was grateful the lace panties covered my whole behind; echoes of high school taunts rung in my ears. I close my eyes, unsure of the person I see, and inhale as deeply as I could without exploding.
"You are breathtaking, Miss Stone, a goddess." Possibly sensing my insecurities, Agatha presses my hand and assures me that my awkwardness is nowhere near the surface as I think.
"Thank you, Agatha." As she hands me a name tag and an envelope, the door to the dressing room opens and in floods the other girls working tonight. All of them dressed in the same uniform; though I must admit, they looked more filled in and infinitely better than I did. They were of all different skin tones, expertly done up in makeup of different shades and hues. Their chatter filled the room as I tried to blend in with the furniture.
Left to myself, I open the envelope Agatha had handed me and see a check for a grand made out to Madeleine Stone. I quickly stuff it deep in my bag and examine my name tag; Alice, the black letters announced. How apt for being shoved down the rabbit hole.
The bass from the music in the Grand Room pulses and drops, dancing over my ribs like a xylophone. I hold a tray of champagne flutes they had given me, grasping the edges with both hands so that I didn't drop the whole damn thing, something very likely happen in my care. The other girls balanced their trays skillfully with one hand as they lined up to make our entrance into the Grand Room. Since I'm new, I'm last in line and the moment the door opens, the music pulsates through, goosebumps decorating my skin. The line of girls files out steadily and I half skip to catch up with them, cluthing my tray.
The Grand Room is dark, smokey, red strobe lights bouncing off the mirrors, casting a hazy red fog over every surface. All of the booths occupied and the bar is packed with bodies, one on top of the other just for a drink. The dance floor is, with surprise, empty as we parade around the perimeter. I wondered why I would need to carry a tray of drinks if people could get theirs from the bar when the girl from the front of the line grasps my arm as she had finished the circuit around the dance floor. The other girls are already in their positions, backs to the dance floor, facing the people in the booths, drink trays at their left like soldiers at attention. I assume the same stance.
The music grows louder, the bass pounding so hard my bones rattled with the beat. What a wicked game you play… the words of a favorite song filled the air. All at once everyone turned their attention to us. To my astonishment, they were all wearing masks that covered everything but their lips and chin; some even had their hair covered with veils. My skin crawled as I feel their eyes traveling up and down my body. Slowly, one by one, a person from each booth stands and walks up to the girls, us. They look at each of us, touching our hair and carassing our faces. The last booth, nearest to where we had entered, sat only one occupant and he stayed where he is, staring right at me. A chill moved through me, my fingertips tingle and I hear the rushing sound of blood in my ears.
Holding my focus, he stands and moves towards me. I couldn't breath, paralyzed by the force of his stare. Only the dull ache from my bottom lips brings my attention to the fact that I was biting down, hard, hard enough to draw blood. I could see the delicate lacing of his black mask and his light-colored hair, tinted red, as he moved closer and closer. He is three steps away from me when I feel a hand pull the drink tray free from my grasp. I look up into a golden mask with silver filigree etched into the fabric. Dark eyes bore down on me and a hand gripped around my wrist. I see Agatha's red tinted bob move towards me to take the tray out of Golden Mask's hand. I pull my arm back from the stranger's touch but his fingers only tighten against my struggle.
"This is our special guest. He's chosen you. Do as you're told and if you feel in danger, raise two fingers and one of us will come over to you." Agatha whispers into my ear, her strong perfume burning my nose. What the hell does she mean, he's chosen me? And to do what I'm told, no way in hell. I look to Black Mask as he graciously bow, a strand of pale hair falls in front of his face, and he smiles at Golden Mask. My stomach plummets with the realization that I was on display and handpicked by strangers to be their plaything for the night. My mind raced in a desperate attempt to escape but my body is immobilized by fear. Almost all the other girls are at their chosen tables, handing out flutes to their guests.
Black Mask clasps my hand with his scorching hot one and places a light kiss on my knuckles. The hairs at the back of my neck stand from the shock of his touch. The heat rise on my face as I'm aware again of how scantily-cladded my body is under his gaze.
A rough tug of my arm brings me back to my current dilemma: Golden Mask is the one dragging me back to his booth. Black Mask walks over to the bar with Agatha in his wake, his eyes still wondered over to me. Agatha's desperate for the attention that he's refusing her; it seemed like a one-sided argument that Agatha's losing.
Before I can react, I'm pushed unto the couch, my shin hitting the edge of the leather table, shaking the tray of flutes perilously. Asshole! I grasp my shin, pissed, rubbing the pain away. Golden Mask grabs my name tag, pulling my corset, nearly exposing my breasts. He smirks. I jerk away from him and sink back into the couch, as far away from him as possible.
"Alice, huh? Have a drink, Alice." He shoves a flute into my hand, his face too close, hot breath smelling of sour whiskey. I search for Agatha in the crowd by the bar but she has disappear and so has Black Mask.
The music has changed into something more fast paced, the bass still thundering away. The atmosphere has shifted, amp up. The attention of the crowd has turned to the dance floor again. One of the girls is led by a masked figure to the open space. From what I assume is a he, moves the girl in front of one of the silver poles and takes out a pair of silver handcuff. He restrains her hands behind her back around the pole. As he's doing so, he kisses her neck, moving down to the tops of her breasts. In one quick jerk, he rips her panties off and drops them to the floor. He grabs her thighs and hoists her up, sliding her up the pole, until her legs are over his shoulders. To my horror, he then proceeds to go down on her. Her hands grip tight to the pole, head bent in ecstacy, body sagging against the pole.
When he finishes, he lowers her down, her legs wrapped around his body, and I realize, with a flush of heat moving through my body, that they were going to fuck right then and there with everyone watching. And these people watched as though this was nothing to them, just another Friday night at the movies. Another couple walked up to the other pole and followed suit. Then another and another, collapsing to the ground in piles. Bile rises in my throat as the thought that I would soon be next and there was nothing I could do about that comes to mind. I needed to get the hell of there.
Golden Mask grabs my hand and tilts the glass of champagne into my mouth. The bubbly alcohol burns down my throat and I cough when some went down the wrong pipe. The rest had spilled all over my chest as I shove his hand away. The flute falls to the ground and breaks. He lunges on top of me and licks the cold liquid from my neck, moving closer to my mouth. I push his face away and sink my teeth into his shoulder as I bring my knee up to his crotch, hard. I knew I made contact when he screams into my ear and rolls off and unto the leather table, cupping his manhood and sending the tray of champagne crashing to the flood.
With all the commotion, I was sure everyone would be looking at us but not a single face turned our way. Their attention captivated by the entertainment on the dance floor as more and more bodies gathered there. I couldn't bring myself to look for long. I half jog towards the exit and as I pass Black Mask's table, I chance a look but the booth is empty. My stomach sank at the thought that he might possibly be one of the bodies writhering upon the dance floor with someone else at that moment. I hurry out of the door, not daring a look back or another thought.
In the dressing room, I grab my bag, checking for the envelope inside. The coast is, as how they say it, clear as I make my way down the long hallway and out into the foyer, where it is empty as well. My escape is in sight.
As I push on the crash bar, someone grabs my bag and yank me back. I bite down on my lip again. I see blonde hair out of the corner of my eye, panic coursing through me, and I reach back, my fist a tight ball. But to my astonishment, I come face to face with Black Mask. My hand falls to my side and I am yet again paralyzed by his gaze.
His eyes, a deep blue flecked with bright green, like the waters of some faraway, lost island where I could almost feel the tides of that ocean washing over me, pulling me into the riptide. His white blond hair shocks against the black mask, his skin a shade darker with blue veins running beneath, and I only become aware that he's speaking when I notice his blood-red lips moving, words coming back to me like echoes in a tunnel.
"Ralph's out there. I can distract him if you hide here." He parts the curtain for me to sneak behind but it takes me a moment to fully understand. I look up at him as the curtain slides into place, half wondering why I'm trusting him and why he'd even help me. I listen as the door opens and he calls out to Ralph. A few moments later, Ralph's inside. My pulse races and the bitter saliva in my mouth dries up.
"Ralph, my coat please, and call my driver around, I'm done for tonight." His voice, sweet and thick like caramel, but not at all buttery for his tone demanded much. I hear Ralph's heavy steps moved quickly away.
His hand grabs me, scorching at the touch, and pulls me out of my hiding place and shoves me out of the door.
"Go, Alice." That same tone commanded me but I stand there, blinking at him, confused by why he called me Alice. But before I could correct him, Ralph appears from around the corner and spots me.
As I turned to run, Black Mask wraps my braid around his hand and pulls me back, pain needling my scalp. That sharp pain and the impact of his feverish lips pressed hard against my bruised ones set something off in me, an awakening deep within that I can feel suddenly stirring. He releases me, electric blue eyes burning white like lightning into mine. A thin line of blood drips from the corner of his lips down to his chin. I let out a breath I didn't realize I was holding and felt my bottom lip throbbing from the heat.
Agatha has appeared and she's steps behind Ralph, yelling for him to get me.
"GO!" Black Mask ordered and with that, my body takes flight, sending me out into the cold rain. The door slams shut behind and I had but a few moments to lift my face up to the welcoming shower and tasted the copper taste of blood in my mouth, lips burning from his kiss. The stickiness of the champagne washed away but the rain couldn't cool the lust I feel radiating through my limbs; something has roused.
Hearing the commotion behind the door, I sprint to my car, thanking the beautiful stranger for saving me, the beautiful stranger whom I may never see again.