Susie left Simon’s table and crossed the speakeasy toward the bandstand.
The club was dusky, smoky, chock full with people. She knew most of these people, at least by sight. The smoke and the soft light had become so familiar to her that they now wrapped around her like a warm protection.
She squeezed in between two men standing beside a table with cocktails in hand. One of them winked at her. She smiled back but didn’t stop. The show would start momentarily. Susie found a chair waiting for her by the bandstand and sat, watching the crowd ease off the dance floor as the band finished their number. As always, before the show, her heart beat faster. She liked that sensation. The music embracing her, taking control of her body — it lit a flame inside her every single time.
She watched her fellow dancers take their positions on a line of chairs on the other side of the dance floor, all dressed in yellow and showing off their legs and shoulders. All sporting black bobs adorned with white feathers.
Susie dropped her gaze to her hands as she fanned her fingers. Even her nails were polished red. Red like her lips and her dress. It took her a while, but she had become accustomed to her new look. She actually liked it, now. Her fingers were steady, didn’t tremble like the first time she danced right here in this club. Was it only two years ago?
She looked across the floor for Simon. He sat in the dusk of the far corner, his face lit by the golden glow of the stained-glass lamp on the table, a finger tapping his cocktail glass at the rhythm of the fading music.
He smiled at her when their gazes met. A small smile curled the corners of Susie’s mouth.
She raised her chin and straightened her back. The song died out and the murmur of customers took over.
A brush on her shoulder, and she thought a feather might have fallen from her headband. Its gentle touch breathed down her back, causing her a shiver that wasn’t unpleasant, but when she turned, she saw no stray feathers. Her gaze then raised to the entrance by its own accord.
That’s when she saw him.
Only people familiar to the doorman would enter, or people introduced by a customer, and she had never seen this man before. Lithe and willowy and dressed in a grey suit with a matching fedora, a grey coat draped on his shoulders. A black man with black curly hair reaching past his shoulders — and she was staring at him.
She tore her gaze away and saw his companion, taller, bigger and watchful. He wore a black suit, black fedora, black long coat and when he stopped beside his friend and leaned to speak to him, Susie saw he wore his dark hair in a long braid on his back.
Back in China, all men wore their hair in braids even longer than that, but she had never seen it here in Chicago. Simon didn’t wear it like that.
And this man was not Chinese.
Her gaze moved back to the black stranger in the grey suit. She couldn’t look away. Was he really a stranger? Hadn’t she seen him before?
Don’t stare, that’s so rude.
The music burst alive. Susie started and jumped up, joining the dance a second later.
* * *
Michael paced lazily toward Blood who had stopped in among the tables.
“So, what is it?” he asked, leaning slightly to him.
Blood didn’t react. He was scanning the place, looking for something — as if they had anything to do with a place like this.
“Are you going to tell me why we talked that bunch of kids into letting us enter with them?”
Michael had been in more saloons than he ever wished in South Dakota, but it was the first time he set foot in a speakeasy here in Chicago. And he had been perfectly fine with it.
Blood finally turned to him. There was the hint of a question in his eyes, but when he spoke, he said, “I needed to get in.”
Michael frowned. “Is that supposed to be an answer?”
“I hope you realize you won’t keep me here with that excuse,” Michael said.
Blood laughed. “Come on, relax. We won’t be here for long.”
Michael shook his head helplessly. His skin crawled with the need to get out, but he knew Blood wasn’t going to leave.
“Are we getting a table?” he asked. He started to move when the music exploded. Applause, whistles, cat-calling rose from the people crammed around the dance floor. In the thin spaces between patrons, Michael saw a show had started.
A group of dancers, all girls with a flapper air about them, whirled, kicked their dancing feet and waved their naked arms in the center of the dance floor. Their lustrous bobbed hair gleamed under the spotlight, blacker in the contrast with the white feathers clipped to their headbands. All wore yellow dresses — all except one, who wore red.
Blood was staring at the red girl. He had stopped dead in among the tables and was staring at her as if he had just seen the light.
Michael grabbed his arm and jerked. “You must be kidding me,” he hissed. He dragged him to a table in the corner, where he pushed him down on one of the three chairs around it. Blood let him but he never turned his gaze from the dancers.
Michael sat beside him and sighed. Fine, let him take her in. He turned his attention to the club.
It didn’t look like a saloon at all. People came for basically the same purpose — get drunk — but the place was completely different. First, there were women. Lots of them. Was this what made all the difference in the feel and look? Possibly. It wasn’t a classy place, but it was obvious it strived to look like one. The tables were arranged around the dance floor not randomly but in a spiral pattern. All the tables had a round, stone top. All the chairs matched. A thick candle inside a big stained-glass lamp stood on each table together with a glass ashtray. The two waiters — Chinese like the whole staff except the jazz band — wore matching, tidy uniforms of a dark color Michael could not quite distinguish through the dusk in the club. Sconces shone at regular intervals on the walls, dim haloes in contrast to the spotlight on the dance floor. It wasn’t a bad place, even though it was a speakeasy.
The people matched the place. No one was really elegant, but everyone had carefully dressed to the best of their ability. Women especially. None wore the latest fashions, but they were all made up and covered in jewelry.
Michael and Blood snapped their heads up. One of the waiters, a young fellow with a big smile, had materialized at their table. “What can I get you?”
There was an awkward moment of silence filled with the fast jazz music. As the young fellow’s smile faltered, Blood said, “Two Old Fashioned,” which was likely the only cocktail name he knew, and was one more than Michael knew himself.
The waiter hesitated just long enough for Michael to notice, then he smiled again as Blood handed him money enough for the drinks and a tip.
“I’ll be right back,” the waiter said and disappeared toward the bar.
Michael looked sideways at Blood, narrowing his eyes.
Blood shot back an awkward glance.
“We can’t sit here and have nothing,” he said. “Now can we?”
Michael leaned back on the chair. “And what else do you plan on doing other than wasting our money on alcohol neither of us is going to drink?”
A smile crept onto Blood’s lips.
“I want to dance.” He turned to the dance floor and Michael followed the line of his gaze.
People crowded the edge of the dance floor, clapping their hands at the rhythm of the song, trying to imitate the dancers’ steps. In the narrow spaces between them, Michael saw a flash of red.
He looked back at Blood. “What about her?”
Blood’s smile faded. A long hesitation. “She’s calling,” he said.
Michael thought for a moment. “She’s calling… you?”
Blood let his gaze float down to the tabletop and roam as if looking for something. Then he looked up at Michael. “She’s calling,” he said again. Simply.
He started when the waiter reappeared. Michael straightened up.
“Here you are.” The waiter took a tumbler from the tray and placed it on the table.
A sickening feeling settled in Michael’s stomach. A hitch bothered him between his shoulder blades and his skin crawled as he distinctly perceived the temperature drop. The sound of the music bent in his ear in such a weird way and then screeched, making his teeth grate.
Michael looked down at the hand placing the glass on the table. Had the light dimmed too? It was hard to see even near the light of the candle. It hadn’t been so hard before. And the light from the candle hadn’t been that weak and that cold. In the bluish glow of the lamp, he saw that the guy’s hand was now a claw of bones and skin as dark as old leather. Or parchment. So thin it split at the knuckles as Michael watched. It peeled away and a nail fell from a finger as the hand retreated.
The music didn’t sound like jazz at all. It sounded like nails scratching a blackboard and Michael couldn’t say whether that was what sent a chill down his spine or the intensifying cold.
He looked up at the waiter’s skeletal arm. Pus filtered through rotten tissues, maggots slithered out of tattered clothes. On the man’s chest, ribs punctured the skin and protruded like a fiend’s toothy jaw. The neck barely sustained the weight of the skull covered in parched skin, stretched over angular cheekbones and bared teeth. Hair fell from a dry scalp. Yellow blind eyes stared down at him.
The music grated hard at Michael’s brain, then his sight cleared. The cold dispelled. He saw the young fellow again, whose smile had now faded entirely. Michael wasn’t surprised to see him took a step back, swaying enough to notice, then turn and run away.
When he looked, Blood was studying the two tumblers, his brows creased as if he expected the cocktail to jump. He looked up and Michael knew Blood hadn’t seen it, but he had sensed it. He had smelled it.
They were not alone.
* * *
Susie danced and forgot everything. As it had always been. She had discovered jazz in America and the music did something to her. It set her body free. When she danced, it was as if she was another version of herself, the Susie who didn’t dance in a dark, underground, smoky speakeasy, but free in another, brighter place.
Her trained ear heard all the inflections of the music and the cadence that signaled the final bars of the song. She felt a little pang. She knew soon she had to leave her place of light and freedom and go back to the speakeasy. When she heard the last notes, she whirled toward the edge of the ring as she and all her fellow dancers did every night, so to leave the dance floor free for customers. But before she stopped as she was supposed to, a hand wrapped around her waist and she halted against a man’s body.
No. Simon never danced with her. It wasn’t dignifying.
She looked up and met the stranger’s gaze.
Her heart skipped. The music stopped.
His eyes were chestnut and a smile brightened them. She couldn’t look away. People — men — seldom smiled to her with their eyes.
Odd. Dangerous? Possibly, her mind thought, but her body felt comfortable inside his embrace. When the music started again and the stranger prompted her to the dance floor, she let him guide her back inside the music.
They danced and they danced and she never changed partners. A few men asked her, as customers always did. To each of them she said, “Maybe the next one.” But the next one was always for the stranger and she never tried to explain that to herself. It was a good sensation, moving inside the music with him, feeling their bodies move at the same rhythm. It was different, but she didn’t try to work out how that was. She was there and she enjoyed it. As long as it would last.
He never said anything. She didn’t need him to. When the time for the last show came, she said, “I must go, now,” in such a little voice she thought he might not hear.
Instead he nodded. He searched her eyes with his and she felt the most peculiar warmth bloom in her chest. She stepped back. His hand kept hers across the space between them. A moment. Just one moment. And when their hands finally let go, that warmth slowly died out.
As she reached her spot on the dance floor she looked for him. She looked for him while dancing, she looked for him when the show ended. She didn’t find him. The pang of disappointment that pierced her gut surprised her.
The speakeasy emptied as dawn approached outside. She said goodnight to customers that came to exchange a few words with her, then she walked down the back corridor, where all dressing rooms stood opened. Susie exchanged jokes and laughs with the dancers lingering there for some company, a smoke and a drink.
“Come have a drink before bedtime,” a girl called to her, winking and raising a glass.
Susie laughed. “Not tonight, gals. I’m kind of tired.”
She walked down to the very end of the corridor. A metal door stood there, its big, heavy handle cold under her touch. She turned the handle and pushed the door with her entire body. The door was opened most of the time, but none of the girls had ever wondered beyond it. When Susie closed it behind her, the bustling world of the club remained on the other side and the darkness of the stockroom greeted her.
She knew what the stockroom looked like in the daylight. A huge room with no walls within its perimeter. Little windows clung to the upper part of the walls letting light in during the day. By that light she could see the wide rectangle of the ceiling and the many piles of wooden crates stored in there. Some were piled three or four one over the other, and formed walls that created a maze she had never tried to brave.
At night, it was even more intimidating. The ceiling was invisible in the dark and the walls of crates barely emerged from the night of the stockroom. The invisible walls seemed to lean over, to curved over that labyrinth and gave her a sense of oppression even if the place was as cold as the night outside.
The yellow light of the elevator called for her from a short distance away, though the darkness in between seemed to stretch indefinitely. She strode quick across it, her heels clicking on the concrete floor. Such an eerie sound.
She was inside the freight elevator’s light when she stopped and turned. Her heart quickened.
It’s voices, she thought. Don’t you know there will be voices? Simon would do his business at one of the club tables, but sometimes he would come here. Why, she could not fathom. Susie tried to listen for his confident tone, but the voices were too muffled.
Not your business, anyway, that was what Simon would have told her.
The rail of the elevator screeched as she opened then closed it, scratching the silence of the stockroom like nails of a blackboard. She sighed deep and her shoulders relaxed when the underground floor disappeared from her sight. She passed by the first floor, where the restaurant was. Passed the second floor where Simon’s offices for his import/export company were. Passed the third floor where three apartments were, none of which rented at the moment, and stopped at the top floor.
She opened the elevator and walked down a short corridor to the only door standing there. A heavy, polished, carved mahogany door that was always unlocked, because nobody came to the fourth floor unless Simon wanted them to.
She opened the door — and her throat tightened. She flashed her gaze across the darkened leaving room seeing everything that was familiar to her: the glass coffee table in the centre of the room, the couch on one side, the two armchairs on the other, the big chest of drawers next to the heavy, dark curtain hiding the corridor leading inside the inner apartment. The big window on one side and the weak lights of the night filtering in, reflecting on the mirror on the opposite wall, gleaming off the vases and glasses and bottles on the little bar corner.
Her hand flew to the light switch next to her. Someone was there!
The light went on. She flinched.
“Ma Shu.” Stupid me! She worked a smile on her lips through her labored breath. “You startled me.”
Simon didn’t move from the couch he slouched on.
Susie walked up to him. Her legs felt strangely unsteady. “How is it that you’re up here so early?”
Simon sat upright and took her hand. The switch she had used had only turned on the two sconces by the entrance door, two on each side of the curtain. That must be the reason why shadows seemed to cling around his eyes.
“Business was slow, tonight,” he said in a low voice. “I thought I’d rather be with you.”
She thought about joking, What do you need to make up for with me? but she swallowed it down. Uneasiness still lingered in her throat, and joking with him wasn’t proper.
He pulled her down and Susie sat on his lap. Shadow still circled his eyes.
She caressed his cheek hoping to dispel that darkness.
“Are you worried about something?” she asked in a whisper. She thought about putting her arms around his shoulders. He was his closest friend. This was her home and Ma Shu had given it to her. A queen’s apartment, filled with beautiful things. Nice dresses. An exciting nightlife. He had taught her to speak English, to deal with Americans. He had given her more freedom than she could have dreamed of in China.
She trusted him.
She still didn’t put her arms around his shoulders.
He cupped her face in his hands and pulled her to him.
They kissed. She leaned to him and finally slid her hand down his back.
“I haven’t been with you as much as I wanted, lately,” he whispered in her ear and kissed her neck.
She found his mouth with hers and kissed him long.
“We’re both here now, right?” she whispered back and smiled.
He smiled too. His lips did. Did his eyes smile?
She remembered eyes smiling at her. As Simon’s burning lips kissed her skin and she closed her eyes, she remembered the stranger smiling at her.
Yes, I know Kindle isn’t there. I’m not offering the book through Amazon at the moment. But don’t worry, you Kindle lovers! Smashwords offers the possibility to download the book in many different formats, including Kindle’s .mobi So, if you own a Kindle reader and you want to read my book, head right here.