A late Christmas present for my darling Stephanie x

One evening, not long after it had become his cabaret, the Master of Ceremonies entered the dressing room to find his fellow performers gossiping about a boy. A smirk played on his lips as he noticed just how involved they all were in their discussion.

"All right then, Lieblings, don't keep me out of the loop. Who are we talking about?"

They looked up at him, eager to share their gossip with someone else - it also helped, of course, that they knew he always appreciated the gossip just as much as they did.

"Schultz has a boy helping him at the shop." Margot explained.

"A boy, you say? I gather by that you mean a strapping young gentleman, as opposed to a child? I can't see you all being quite so enthralled and intrigued by the latter." He teased gently, his smirk tugging at his lips again as he lifted a cigarette to them.

"He's gorgeous, Emcee!" Elke exclaimed almost involuntarily, causing the other girls to laugh and their boss to snort as he exhaled the smoke from the first drag of his cigarette.

"Right, come on then. Sit down at tell me all about him - and I do mean all about him, if any of you possibly can at this present moment in time."

The Emcee and his seven cabaret girls settled themselves on and around the threadbare couch near the dressing room door, some of them lighting cigarettes and relishing the opportunity to just sit and gossip.

"He's about your height, Emcee. Green eyes and brown hair -"

Elke found herself being interrupted by Natalia. "His hair is a mess, isn't it?"

"Yes," Petra agreed with a lazy drag from her cigarette. "But frankly, I find it adorable."

The Emcee rolled his eyes. "Could we get back to describing him for my benefit, please, as opposed to simply discussing him amongst yourselves?" The girls tutted at his impatience, which did nothing to curb his eagerness to hear about this mysterious young man. "Do we at the very, very least have a name for him?" He sighed.

"Jaeger. Herman Jaeger." Margot informed him with a self-satisfied smile.

"Thank you, dear."

"You should venture out of your cave at some point and see him for yourself, rather than relying on us to relay the details." Olga's tone was pointed.

"You know," He pursed his lips around his cigarette thoughtfully. "I just might. You've all piqued my interest in him."

The girls looked incredibly satisfied by this decision of his. He could not help wondering how divine a specimen this Herr Jaeger must be, to have won the attention of the girls. He would have to investigate this himself, when he got the chance.

Natalia, Ada and Elke could not help but pay another visit to Herr Schultz's shop before they went to work the next day. Just as they had hoped, Herman was there helping the elderly man. It was Schultz who spied them first, greeting them with his typical welcoming smile.

"Guten Morgen, meine lieben M├Ądchen! How can I help you today?"

The three girls smiled their good mornings to Herr Schultz, each noting with mild amusement the subtle, shy glance that his new employee cast their way. They were dressed ready to go to rehearsal, made-up and stocking-clad. It didn't take a genius to guess that he was surprised by this.

"We're in for a long, tiring rehearsal when we go to work, Herr Schultz." Ada began.

"Coffee?" Was his knowing response.

"Bitte." The three nodded eagerly.

"I'll be back in a moment." He nodded to them, before retreating to the back of the shop in search of their quarry, leaving them with Herman.

"You're new, aren't you?" Elke asked him by way of greeting.

"Ja." He nodded slightly, barely looking at her. "I've been working here for just over two weeks."

"You met one of our colleagues a few days ago," She explained. "Margot - about my height, brown hair, voice like she smokes thirty a day."

"Mm, I think I remember her. She came in here complaining about your boss . . .?" He offered hesitantly.

"That'll be her." Elke honoured him with a knowing smile. "I'm Elke. This is Natalia and Ada. We work at the Kit Kat Klub - the cabaret on Motzstrasse."

"I can't say I know it." He admitted honestly - cabarets weren't really his sort of thing. "My name is Herman."

"The pleasure is all ours, Liebling." Natalia assured him. "You should come and see our show one day, I think you'd like it."

"Not corrupting my new employee are you, girls?" Schultz warmly reprimanded them as he came back. "Here's your coffee."

"Danke, Herr Schultz." Ada took the coffee from him, kissing him on the cheek as he did so.

"You behave yourselves, now." He warned them, knowing full well that they would do exactly the opposite.

"We promise!" They chorused with a laugh.

"Remember, Herman, you're always welcome at our cabaret." Natalia called over her shoulder as they breezed out of the shop in a colourful wave of stockings, make-up and perfume.

"They come in here often?" Herman asked his employer after they had gone.

"Quite often, yes."

"They don't seem like the kind of . . ."

Herman's awkward attempt at voicing his thoughts caused Schultz to chuckle. "No, they don't, do they? But I have no problem with them. They're making a living, just like the rest of us. And they keep me in business, some weeks!" He regarded the young man kindly, then. "You'll get used to it around here. It must seem very strange, at first, but we've all adapted. I have every faith that you will, too."

It was not often that the Emcee left his performers to rehearse alone, but sometimes the occasion just called for it. He was not involved in this number, and Olga was leading the girls in remembering their steps, and he had decided that this was as good a time as any to venture out to buy more cigarettes. It helped, of course, that Schultz's shop was the closest place that he could obtain these from. Killing two birds with one stone, I believe the term is.

He entered the shop without fuss, although he knew how out of place he was amongst Schultz's other customers. He wore the remnants of last night's make-up on his face, and had his black leather coat wrapped around his body. That particular garment had started off as a feature of his costume, but had quickly become his second skin. It was unusual to see him without it, now.

Schultz noticed him straight away and, as was his custom, greeted him with the same enthusiasm as he would have greeted any of his customers. He wasn't one for judging people, Herr Schultz. The Emcee liked that about him.

"Guten Tag, Herr Emcee." Schultz smiled at him as he approached the counter - and the Emcee could not help but smile a little at being greeted as such. It had not taken long for his new position in the cabaret to become known, and he was quite pleased with the reputation it now afforded him. "Can I help you?"

"Cigarettes, bitte, if you have them." He informed the shopkeeper, subtly casting his eyes around the shop for any sign of the new employee.

"Camels, ja?" Schultz asked, and the Emcee smiled again.

"You remember my brand? I'm touched."

"You buy enough of them." Schultz laughed as he turned to obtain the cigarettes for him. "Some of your girls were in here earlier. Came in asking for coffee, but I have a feeling they simply wanted to catch a glimpse of Herman."

"New employee?" The Emcee pretended to be oblivious.

"Indeed. He seems to be attracting quite a lot of attention from yours."

"Funnily enough, that doesn't surprise me in the slightest. You know what they're like, after all."

"Quite." Schultz chuckled. "They were trying to persuade him to come and see you all perform." He handed the cigarettes over.

"Hm, I'll keep an eye out for him. I'll make sure he comes back to you in one piece." He took the cigarettes gratefully, and handed over his money.

"That would be most kind of you. It was hard enough trying to hire him, I dread to think the trouble replacing him would afford me."

"You have my word, Herr Schultz." He reached into his pocket for his lighter. "Thank you for the cigarettes, they're much appreciated."

The men said their goodbyes, and just as the Emcee opened the door to leave his attention was called back to the shop.

"I've finished unpacking those boxes, Herr Schultz."

It was all the Emcee could do not to stop and stare, and to continue with leaving the shop. The boy was breathtaking. He shook his head slightly once he was outside, lighting his cigarette. How had a specimen like that ended up here?

Whatever the answer to that question was, the Emcee was certain of one thing: a boy like that would be curious about what girls like his had to show him. He knew he'd see Herman Jaeger entering his club before too long, and he knew exactly what he would do when that happened.

Inside the shop, Herman's attention had been caught by the soft thud as the door closed behind the black leather-clad man who had exited just as he had arrived. He noticed that the other customers were muttering about the man who had just left, and turned to Herr Schultz with a puzzled frown.

"Have I missed something interesting?"

Schultz looked back at him with a smile. "Remember what I said about how you'll get used to it around here? You'll get used to the reaction that he gets wherever he goes, too."

This did not answer Herman's question, but before he could press his employer further he was being given a list of jobs to do. He hoped he would get a proper answer eventually.

The autumn night began as any other did, bleak and chilly thanks to the early-evening downpour that had barely finished before Herman had left work. He turned the corner onto Motzstrasse, and he found his eyes being drawn to the nightclub where the pretty girls who had been in the shop a few days earlier had said that they worked. He decided to look closer, but when he had crossed the street to stand in front of it he hesitated. There was a strange aura surrounding this place, something almost ethereal. Some people may have identified it as sinister, but Herman simply found it intriguing.

The door was a dark, almost black slab of wood, and it had a slot - a rectangular peephole - cut into it at around Herman's own eye level. It was covered by a panel, which would obviously be drawn back from the inside. The windows of the building were completely opaque, almost as dark as the wood of the door. He couldn't tell if it was black paint, dirt, or if they were simply tinted. He looked up, and saw that between the first two floors the name of the cabaret was spelt out in light bulbs. "The Kit Kat Klub". It looked all but deserted, but that etherealness told Herman that this place could be so filled with life . . .

That was probably why he didn't leave.

He tried the door, and found that it opened easily. The hinges gave the barest of creaks as he pushed against the door, and after a small moment of hesitation he entered. The door swung shut behind him as soon as he was inside, caught by an errant gust of wind from outside. Herman found himself faced with a room, lit mainly by yellowish-white lights that cast more shadows than thwarted them. There was a bar with a handful of people sitting at it, and rows upon rows of round tables, each of which had a red glass candle holder at the centre of it, and the chairs around them had faded plush red cushions attached to the seats. Behind the bar were shelves and shelves of bottles - some full, some half empty - and glasses of varying sizes. The stage, on the far side of the room, was still cloaked in half-darkness. Herman could make out an old piano, and two spiralling staircases at either side of it, leading to the upper echelons of the club.

Before he could truly get his bearings, he heard his name being called from by the bar.

"Herman! You took me up on my offer, then?" He looked to see Natalia smiling at him.

Steeling himself, he walked over. "Guten Abend."

"Drink, Liebling?" She enquired, reaching for a glass.

"I don't -"

"On me, as it's your first time." She cut him off, and within moments he found a glass filled with clear, pungent liquid being placed in front of him. He lifted it to his lips hesitantly, and she laughed. "It's only gin. Not poisonous, I promise."

Somewhat reassured by this, he drank. The liquid burned his mouth and his throat, but the sensation was not entirely unpleasant.

"It isn't always this empty." She explained as he drank, indicating the sparsely-filled room. "The show isn't for an hour or so, we've only just opened. What you see is the regulars - those who are here when we open every night without fail, hiding from the rest of the world in the confines of our Klub for hours on end. It will be much, much busier soon. You'll barely be able to move." She flashed him a grin. "Not that you'll want to, when we're up there."

Natalia inclined her head to indicate the stage, and Herman found himself turning to look at it. He could see an assortment of showgirls, singers, dancers and musicians had appeared around the edges of it, and all of them appeared to be incredibly easy on the eye. He recognised Ada and Elke, with the woman he seemed to recall as being Margot, going through a dance routine. He had never been exposed to this world before, and part of him was afraid. He'd been brought up by a respectable family on the other side of Berlin - well-educated, well-off, well-bred. His father had died a little over a year ago, and this had sparked the chain of events that had led him here. He'd wanted to make something of himself by himself, not just live off the reputation his father had left behind. That was why he was working in a grocers. That was why he was sitting here, now.

He would admit that this was not entirely how he had envisioned his grand plan turning out.

He drank his gin, talking to Natalia as she worked and stealing more glances at the other employees. Eventually, she looked at her watch and then up a him apologetically.

"I have to go and get ready, Liebchen, the show is starting soon. You'll be all right out here on your own?"

"I'll keep my head down and myself out of trouble." He promised her, and she laughed.

"I'm glad to hear it!" She took his glass, filled it with more gin, and handed it back to him. "I'll see you soon enough, Herman."

He watched her disappear from behind the bar, walking to a doorway at the side of the stage. She stopped halfway into the darkness there, and moved aside for somebody else. Herman felt something very strange in the pit of his stomach when he saw a man clad in black leather emerge from where Natalia had just been.

He realised.

The man who caused such a stir in the shop.

All too late, he caught himself staring at the man. A pair of startlingly dark brown eyes looked out at him from his incredibly pale face. They were ringed with smudged black kohl. A burning cigarette hung from the lips of the man who walked through the darkness before him. He was pale as chalk, an otherworldly vision. He had jet-black hair that hung into those bewitching eyes, which glinted in the pale light from the candles on the tables. He was clearly evaluating Herman too, as he approached the bar.

Neither man said a word as the stranger moved behind the bar to pour himself a much larger glass of gin than the one that Herman had been given. Herman himself had begun casting surreptitious glances at the man as he went about this action, while he drank from his own glass. Eventually, the pale man placed the bottle of gin down and looked Herman right in the eyes.

"You're Herman Jaeger."

Startled was not the word to describe how Herman felt in that moment. "I-"

"You've caused quite a stir with my girls." He said, by way of explanation. He eyed Herman closely. "I can understand why."

He had to look away from the man then, unsure of whether he wanted this kind of attention. "They . . . Asked me to come and see them perform."

Those red lips curled into a smirk. "Hm, yes, they can be very persuasive."

"Emcee, can I borrow your lighter?" A boy appeared in the doorway, and the man behind the bar rolled his eyes.

"I suppose so." He downed the last of his gin, then looked back at Herman. "I am aware that you have found employment with dear Herr Schultz, but from what my girls have told me, you could do with a little more money in your pocket. There is a space that needs filling on our stage, and if you're as talented as you are attractive you could fill it rather adequately." The man brushed past Herman on his way to the door that he had deduced led backstage.

"Who are you?" Herman asked him, still slightly in awe of this man.

The other man was standing near one of the dim lights as he replied, and his red lips smiled. "I am the Master of Ceremonies."

There was something in the way that he said these words that send that same shivering feeling through Herman as he had felt when he had first locked eyes with this man.

"Think over my offer, Herman, after you've seen what we can do." Was his parting comment, before he disappeared into the shadows.

Herman exhaled slowly, looking down at his drink. This night was just going to get stranger, he could see that already.

The show passed Herman in a whirl. Infectious music, dance routines that were sometimes bawdy and sexual, and at other times sensual and breathtaking - and, at the centre of it all, the Master of Ceremonies. He was spectacular, and utter sensation. Whenever he was on the stage, Herman found it hard to take his eyes off him.

When it was all over, Herman welcomed the buzz that enveloped the club. Natalia hadn't been lying, the place was filled to the rafters - men in suits, women in low cut dresses . . . And the reverse. It was completely unlike any other crowd he had been exposed to. A huge part of him, against all odds, was completely intoxicated by it.

Natalia and a couple of the other girls came over to him, seeming to pick up where they left off flirting with him. He'd never been the subject of quite so much attention before, and if it wasn't for the gin he'd been drinking he'd probably have felt even more uncomfortable.

He was still surrounded by some of the performers and other audience members when the Emcee emerged. It was like the story of the seas parting, the way the crowds of people moved aside to let him pass. He was clearly the lord of this place - it was his domain, and no one else's.

"What did you think?" He enquired of Herman in that silky voice of his as he joined the crowd at the bar.

"I've never seen anything like it in my life." He answered, honest to the core.

"I can only assume that is a compliment." The Emcee smirked.

"Drink, Mein Herr?" One of the boys behind the bar asked of his boss.

"Do you even need to ask?" Seconds later, he had been presented with yet more gin and turned his attention back to Herman.

Before he had a chance to speak, Ada spoke over him. "We heard you might be joining our ranks, Herman."

"I never actually . . ." He trailed off, chancing a glance at the Master of Ceremonies. His expression was unreadable.

"I worked with Schultz during the mornings when I first started here," Olga informed him. "It helped keep me afloat, so to speak, before I managed to get enough money together."

The Emcee shot Olga a satisfied smile at her attempt to help him win Herman around. They'd all formulated a bit of a plan in the dressing room. They needed another cabaret boy to fill the place that had been left when the Emcee moved up in the Klub's hierarchy, and provided they found Herman to be as talented as he was attractive they knew exactly who they wanted.

"I don't perform." Herman told them all. This wasn't strictly true - he could play piano well, and sing tolerably, but he had never danced a step.

"You could learn." Elke nudged him slightly with her elbow.

"I could do with someone else working behind the bar." The Emcee mused. "And then, perhaps, we could coerce you into singing once we've decided we like you enough to keep you on, and go from there."

Herman had a very strong feeling that he wasn't going to get away with saying anything other than yes. However . . .

"I'd only be needed behind the bar after I'd finished at the shop?"

"Of course, I would not deprive Herr Schultz of his assistant."

"I won't be singing."

"Of course you won't, Liebling." He smirked again. "A trial run, perhaps? Say, a week?"

The funny thing was that the following morning, Herman would swear that it was the alcohol in his system that had made him agree, rather than the influence of the Master of Ceremonies. But, agree he had, whatever the reason, and he would face the consequences when they came.