TWENTY SEVEN

A crook with a face like a squashed potato and a head as bald and shiny as a billiard ball swivelled his neck to watch Ella's progress across the club floor. It was a rainy grey Tuesday afternoon and Ella had run all the way from the busstop to the Ritz, her new chocolate-brown suede coat held over her head and shoulders in a near-vain attempt to protect her coiffure. Consequently, she arrived within the club's warm red walls breathless and flushed, the skin across her chest glistening, her bias-cut burgandy afternoon dress clinging to every curve, its scalloped skirt slightly damp. She thought she must look an absolute terror and ran a hand self-consciously over the pincurls that licked her neck as she hurried through the deserted club, all but one of the tables stacked with chairs.

But the unknown thug wore an expression of porcine appreciation as he watched her from the table he sat at alone, lazily leaning back in his chair to better watch her progress, increasing her self-consciousness. He pursed his smushed lips together and let out a low, long wolf-whistle as Ella wove her way around the empty tables.

Though Ella's confidence had certainly increased considerably since learning the art of flirtation from her fellow chorus girls, she found that once alone she reverted back to her customarily shy and nervous self and, after the still-lingering incident with Freddy, was ill-at-ease when isolated in strange male company. She ducked her head and picked up her pace a little toward the dressing rooms but the crook kicked out the chair next to him and called out to her:

"What's the rush, sweetheart? Siddown and cool your jets awhile."

Ella was flustered, unsure how to handle the situation. It was a big no-no to be rude to those Big Boy "did business with", but she hardly wanted to encourage him. Not to mention that Flattop's orders to her and her conduct with other men were fresh in her mind, that ugly incident being only a couple of days old. She managed a game smile at the leering mobster, holding her coat up to her chest protectively, not wanting even that modest triangle of pale flesh to be exposed to his greedy eyes.

"I'm sorry but I really have to be getting ready - "

The mobster tchh'd and shrugged his shoulders, sitting up straight and indicated the chair with one ham-like hand. "C'maahn! Just sit."

Abruptly, there was the hustle and clatter of people descending the stairs that led to the offices above and several goons came into view, mumbling lowly to each other, tapping out cigarettes and cigars, their brightly-coloured suits brilliant in the dismal afternoon gloom of the club.

Ella took advantage of the distraction to head quickly towards the dressing rooms, nodding politely to those faces she recognised, amongst them B.B. Eyes who eyed her beadily as per his namesake, though with a kind grin.

She rounded the corner and disappeared from view, then pulled to a halt to listen in, wanting to know if the strange crook would gripe at her rejection.

"Those sweet twists always figure they're too mucha somethin'," she overheard him grumble. "They want takin' down a peg or two."

Her heart pounded at the implicit threat, but B.B. laughed, a raspy sound. "Ya wanna watch where you're tryin' to hang yer hat, Cueball. That was Flattop's girl."

"Flattop?" Cueball now sounded alert - and suddenly nervous. "Flattop Jones?"

"I know of no other," B.B. drawled. "And he keeps a mighty close eye on her to boot."

There was a long silence and then Cueball coughed conspicuously. "Only asked her to sit down a minute."

Ella thought there was something of a grin about B.B.'s next words: "No need to say it to me, pal."

Silently, Ella stole down the hallway and ducked into the chorus dressing room, a sudden smile curving the corners of her lips. Though the exchange had been brief, Ella felt she had learned an awful lot from it - and what she learned had her heart swelling and her spirits buoyant.

Jean was sitting at her table, combing out her freshly set curls but paused when she caught sight of Ella's expression in the reflection of her mirror.

"Well," she drawled teasingly. "Looks like somebody's got good news! Nice coat", she added as an afterthought.

Ella had purchased the new garment - and a few others besides - with the money Flattop had given her - including, as he'd suggested, a replacement for the gown he had scorched. Whether as a balm to soothe her ragged nerves after his brutish behaviour or simply because she was - unbelievable to think - becoming accustomed to having money, Ella had not been at all her usual thrifty, scrupulous self. She had intended to be - but finding herself back in the same divine boutique where the first peach silk dress had been purchased and face to face once again with several other garments she had wistfully coveted, her resolve gave way.

Once done there, she had moved onto a fine lingerie store, her purchases there becoming more frivolous still, blushing even at the demure shop attendant's discreet manner, for she knew how obviously impractical her choices were.

Wealthy with expensive silk stockings as fine as any Jean had been gifted from Itchy, her thoughts had turned to her feet and, with a sense of reckless daring, she had pushed open the cobbler's doors and selected no less than four pairs of shoes - only one of which was practical for daywear and versatile enough to wear with anything.

She had rounded off her exravagance with a trip to the haberdashery - of all the items that composed a lady's wardrobe, hats were perhaps her favourite. A dazzling hat could dress up even the dullest ensemble and she was gifted with a bone structure that allowed her to wear almost any style superbly. Up until very recently she had only two simple, versatile hats and one fancy piece, but that day she departed with another two gorgeous examples of the craft - both intended to match very specifically to her favourite and most extravagant dresses.

Exhausted after the days lavish expenditure, but not fully spent, Ella had treated herself to a deluxe session at a high-end beauty salon - manicure, pedicure, facial, hair washed and set, body massaged - emerging at the end feeling like a new woman. The salon had kindly kept her many parcels and packages aside while she indulged and then had sent her home in a cab, not a penny left of Flattop's generosity.

The only diapppointment had been the arrival at her shabby premises - after a day of feeling like a princess, it was curiously disappointing - not to mention embarrassing - to have the cab pull up outside the ramshackle building, the driver assisting her upstairs with her goods, impressing all the more the contrast between her supposed means and apparent dwelling. She tipped the cabbie with a blush, not missing the curiosity on his otherwise polite face as he deposited her purchases just inside her door and then scolded herself for her ingratitude - she had, at least, a secure roof over her head and more new clothes than many girls in the city had seen for more than a year!

In the dressing room of the Club Ritz, Ella stroked the butter-soft suede of the coat and smiled brilliantly at her friend.

"Isn't it dreamy?" she sighed happily, drifting to the seat in front of her own mirrored table.

Jean raised an eyebrow and a smile quirked one corner of her mouth. "And what's got you so perky, missy moo?"

Ella wanted to effuse to her friend, but how to explain what exactly had her feeling so delighted? The affirmation that her boyfriend's attention to her had gone well-noted by his peers? That this more than anything else made it seem to her that he cared? That he held such obvious power amongst his fellows that they would warn each other away from her? Being known as his girl? His girl.

Jean simply laughed at her friend's giddy expression and drew her own conclusions: "Cream is churnin' smooth with Mr Jones?"

Ella giggled in reply. "B.B. called me his 'girl'."

Jean laughed again and resumed brushing her hair. "Well, I would think that was obvious by now, honey."

"Oh, I know," Ella picked up her own brush - a newly acquired Mason Pearson - and began fluffing up her own curls. "But still - it's nice that it's known. I mean - " and she grew a little bashful again. " - he hasn't made any declarations or anything like that."

Jean lowered her brush and turned toward Ella, her eyebrows high on her forehead. "I'd say he's made a fair few declarations, dollbaby - " then lifted one shoulder in concession, " - in his own way."

The door opened with a bang and Dolores swept in, shrugging her fur coat from her shoulders. "Phew! It's raining cats and dogs out there!" She clattered over to her table and flopped down on the cushioned seat, hauling the fur over her lap to examine. "Oh for the love of - damn rain! Who would think that in three steps between the cab and the canopy a gal could get so drenched?"

Jean rolled her eyes secretly at Ella and lit a cigarette. "Hang it up, honey, it'll dry. Minks don't carry umbrellas in the wild, you know!"

Dolores put up her nose, but hung the fine dark coat up near the heater. Ella had already hung up her suede, which steamed in the close room.

"Jeezum crow, seems you took a dunkin'!" Dolores exclaimed to Ella, noting how the dark suede was mottled from the wet.

"I had to run from the busstop," Ella explained as she leaned in close to the mirror to pencil her eyebrows.

Both Jean and Dolores paused to look at her with incredulous expressions.

"What are you still taking the bus for?" Jean queried disbelievingly. "All the way from over the bridge too? Don't you wanna sleep-in ever?"

Ella realised her thrifty ways had not changed so much after all. It had never occured to her to alter her habit of public transport - it was economic and she was accustomed to it. And, after all, most nights she was either escorted by Flattop in his Cadillac, or he paid the cab that took her home. A twice-daily habit of cabs to and from the club seemed an unnecessary luxury.

"I just - never thought of it," she said lamely and Dolores tittered and resumed disrobing while Jean shook her head and began mixing them a cocktail.

"Pretty sure Flattop Jones wouldn't want anyone seeing 'his girl' on the bus," she replied with pointed playfulness.

That gave Ella pause. She sensed quite definitely that the anvil-topped mobster would certainly object to her practical but humble means of travel. Then she squirmed in her seat, disliking the path her thoughts were taking. First, the keen shame she had felt at total strangers seeing where she lived - now, embarrassment over the way she journeyed to her job in front of two friends! And it was a perfectly respectable means... over eighty percent of the city used the bus system. Cars were not easily afforded, especially not at that time. Why should it matter?

But it seemed to matter - very much.

Dolores sighed and glanced about the room. "Wonder what the new girls will be like?"

Jean scoffed as she poured out three dry martinis. "The usual gaggle of down-on-their-luck hussies, as always. At least half of who will have screwed Lightfoot for the spot."

Ella was aware of a burning in her cheeks and made a show of powdering her face to mask it.

"New girls?" she asked.

"Yeah, sure," Jean said, proffering her a glass. "Every few months it's out with the old, in with the new 'round here. Big Boy likes to keep things "fresh"," she finished dryly then jerked her head towards the rest of the room.

Ella looked around and for the first time noticed that over half the dressing tables were now cleared of all personal effects - seeming forlorn and dusty in their emptiness.

"Oh my!" she said abruptly, with a sudden plummeting sensation in her stomach as she put herself in their recently departed coworkers' position - the position she knew only too well, having been in it only three months earlier.

Jean took a gulp of her drink and waved a hand. 'Relax, honey - you'd know about it by now if you were ousted. They wouldn't dump you."

Ella was intrigued and rather pleased. It seemed her talent had secured her an ongoing spot in the Club Ritz - she had stepped up to the challenge and made the grade.

"Just so long as you and Flattop stay cosy, ya got nothin' to worry about," Jean continued carelessly and Ella felt her heart arrested.

"Pardon me?" she queried in a little voice and Jean raised a sardonic eyebrow as she lifted the brush to touch up her lipstick, half of it smeared brilliant red around the rim of her glass.

"Miss Priss, the only way to get a permanent position 'round these parts is to become part of the family. You mean you didn't figure?"

Stricken, Ella picked up her glass and took a hearty swig of the strong cocktail. How vile and wretched this place was! Just as in the audition, her talent counted for nothing in keeping her place! If circumstances had never led her into Flattop's arms, it would be her without a job and desperate on the streets right now!

Confusing her distraught expression, Jean moved to put an arm around her friend's shoulders. "Aw, come on, sweetie, I toldja you don't have to worry - Flattop ain't goin' anywhere right now, believe me."

"It's not that," Ella shrugged Jean away, an uncharacteristic move that had the more experienced woman sitting back in surprise. "I just thought - oh, never mind!" That Jean didn't understand impressed upon her further how alien this world still was to her.

Ella saw Jean glance across the room to Dolores, who had been listening silently as she made up her face, gazing into her mirror. Then she caught Dolores rolling her eyes at Jean in the mirror's reflection.

Stung, Ella turned back to her own mirror, picking up a mascara brush and petulantly brushing at her eyelashes. Next to her, Jean sighed.

"Come on, Ella," she said in a voice tinged at once with exasperation and disappointment. "We all think it'd be swell if we made it on our own steam. But that ain't the world we live in. And me - well hell, way the country is right now, I'd sure rather be kickin' back in fur and diamonds than be wearing down my shoe leather and cracking my knuckles traisping 'round cleanin' houses," Jean ashed her cigarette and looked steadily at Ella. "Wouldn't you?"

Ella was shamed. "Of course I would," she muttered evasively, not looking back at Jean. She hadn't meant to imply judgement of her friends nor suggest it was ignoble to want a better life. Least of all she hadn't intended to give off the air she was above it all - though she had never told anyone, even Jean, what she had agreed to with Lightfoot in order to get the position, she would never forget it. Faced with poverty or security, her choice had been immediate. And suddenly, words that Flattop had spoken to her many weeks ago now floated back to her: "There ain't no dignity in dyin' broke and beggin'."

Her extravagance the week before seemed absolutely vulgar now when she recalled how many would eagerly swap places with her and she swallowed hard around the lump in her throat, her mouth quite dry.

She took another large sip of her drink and circled the glass in her lap as Jean completed her makeup with a hard expression. The only sound in the tense silence was that of Dolores across the room, brushing her hair. Ella glanced up at her reflection - her pretty, well-fed face, shining, cared-for hair and fine clothes and knew she did not want to trade it for what had come before.

"I'm sorry," she said softly to Jean, whose face immediately softened.

"It's okay, honey," Jean said understandingly. "The school of hard knocks got a lot of grades to pass."

ooo

Holy Guacamole, another chapter! Yes, no matter what, I WILL finish this fic! It IS gonna take me a while but that's the way it is sometimes. I really do want to see this through to the end, but right now the best times for me to write are when I'm away from home in the country, with space and quiet and few pressures. That only happens occasionally. For those who don't know, I have very bad depression that I'm struggling with and that's been impacting on my life in various full-on ways.

But I love this story and I AM gonna finish it and I hope everyone will keep reading and new readers will come and all the rest!

Please DO leave a review - concrit welcome! 3

Thanks, as always, for your support.