She was all legs and white leather. The legs were long and the leather covered her like wrapping paper waiting to be ripped off. She was Latino, probably around twenty-three or twenty-four. Black hair. Dark eyes. She was one of the prettier ones in that night. Although she would have been a whole lot prettier if she hadn’t been stumbling around so much.

From the way she was walking, she clearly had too many sixteen dollar cocktails that evening. She probably hadn’t eaten before, either. A lot of the ones dressed like that didn’t. The tighter the dress, the more concerned they were about the stomach bulge. Which would make a lot more sense if so many of them didn’t end up hunched over a toilet in the bathroom before the night was through.

I was about to radio Keith to let him know what was up. Then things got more disturbing. The blue suited wonder that was with legs was trying to make her drink more. He was holding the glass right up to her lips and dumping it in for her. He looked like a lawyer or maybe an accountant. We got a lot of those scumbags at the club. Men in their thirties that knew they could impress some young twenty something with their BMWs, converted downtown lofts and dropping a grand at a place like Gilda’s. This guy kept at it with the drink up to her lips. She resisted for a second but gave in. Lawyer boy seemed determined to get her as shit faced as possible. I decided to step in.

Sure enough, lawyer boy was all ego. They usually were. I asked him to let the girl hold her own drink. I also suggested that maybe she stop drinking altogether. Lawyer boy told me that she was fine. He prompted his little Latina prize to concur. All she got out was a mumble and a laugh. I took the drink from them and set it down on a nearby table. I told him, once again, that it looked as if she had had enough. Lawyer boy went into a tirade. All sorts of “do you know who I am?” nonsense and on and on about how much money he had just spent at Gilda’s. I just waited for the rest. He got to the part about him being a lawyer and knowing the law and that I had no right to do what I was doing. I just let him keep rambling until he was done.

I saw Keith show up near the entrance to Propeller. I gave him a look to let him know that I had it covered. Lawyer boy wasn’t the type to get physical. More the type to start yelling about how he was going to sue everyone in the place and then call you an asshole just before he drove off. The L.A. insult. Calling out harsher and harsher names the further and further they got from you. God forbid, one of the gutless little pricks ever called you anything right to your face. But such was the way of things.

I told legs that if I saw her drinking anymore alcohol she would be thrown out. Lawyer boy protested which gave me the chance to make my bigger point. If I ever noticed him forcing the girl to drink or do anything else against her will, he was going to have a problem even bigger than hers. I had to word it just right so it wasn’t a threat, in the legal sense. But he got the idea. I looked him right in the eye and waited. I could see the thoughts running in his head. I could see how badly he wanted to be a big man and tell me to fuck off. But he didn’t. He had at least that much common sense.

Keith showed up again. This time with a bottle of water which he handed to the girl. I told her to drink what she could. I also asked her if she wanted us to get her a cab. Lawyer boy said that he would take her home. I ignored him and asked legs again if she wanted us to get her a cab. I even added a little quip about how spending the rest of the night alone at home might be a really good idea for her. Lawyer boy took offense and started to talk again. I gave him a look to let him know he should shut up. Much to his credit, he did.

“Yeah, maybe I should go home” she said. I was surprised she was that smart. Once again, lawyer boy protested and tried to persuade her. I just gently lead my leggy tango past him and told her I would help get her a cab. Lawyer boy started to follow. I handed off my drunken friend to Keith to take her up top. Then I told him I was going to make sure there was no interference. I turned and blocked the blue suited dimwit’s way and didn’t say a word. He kept yelling after the young girl he had probably spent hundreds, if not thousands on, trying to get in the sack. He tried one last time to get her to go home with him. She wasn’t interested.

A few minutes later, Keith’s voice chirped in my ear piece. “Tango in a cab and on her way home. All Code Four.” I acknowledged the call and moved aside so lawyer boy could finally get through. The expression of anger and frustration on his face would have amused me at one time. Now, it was all just kind of boring.

I’d only been working at Gilda’s about a year. Other than a few private parties, I hadn’t even done a whole lot of security work before then. I think Deborah and Keith hired me because I was white, big and I had a nice suit. Presentation and looks were important to Deborah. The bouncers weren’t beautiful, wanna-be models like the bar staff and servers. But we also weren’t they type that had trouble putting coherent sentences together when we engaged with the customers. The definite exception to that being Dennis.

Dennis was a six-foot-four thug who had been a bouncer for almost fifteen years. He had the thick neck, over-developed biceps and the dull look in his eyes of someone without a lot going on inside. He was also addicted to steroids and was known to occasionally beat the crap out of various girlfriends. He wasn’t my favorite co-worker, to say the least.

I used to wonder why Keith kept him around. They had worked together back in the day before constant lawsuits. Back when bouncers were called goons and beat the shit out of people on a nightly basis. Those days had been gone for at least a decade. Personally, I’m glad I missed them. Keith adapted well to the more complicated world of dealing with people without going to jail yourself for assault. Needless to say, Dennis hadn’t. He had come within a hair’s breadth of landing in the back of a squad car many times. But, between his own connections and Deborah’s, he had avoided any charges. At least, so far.

I resumed my walk through the club. We were at capacity that night. Four hundred and ninety people all paying top dollar to experience a faux-Forties nightclub and eat good, but overpriced, food. I had to give Deborah a lot of credit. Gilda’s wasn’t the kind of place I would ever have gone to if I hadn’t worked there. I couldn’t afford it for one thing. But if you were looking for a special night out, it worked pretty well. There were live stage shows with girls in period dress doing their best to inspire Rita Hayworth and Lana Turner fantasies. There was also a dance floor with a stable of DJs that could get a crowd moving. It was a dark, secret world of leather sofas, brass bars and dim lighting designed to create the perfect vibe.

It had cost a pretty penny to create. In the millions. Deborah never told me who her silent partner was who had ponied up all that cash and I never asked. Some things it was better just not to know.

I saw Tara in her cigarette girl garb making her way through the crowd in Dance Hall. Tara didn’t actually sell cigarettes because we didn’t allow smoking in Gilda’s. But the little bottles she hustled were big sellers. Too much so. Because the concoction inside them was so sweet, they were one of the biggest reasons we had so many people pop before the end of night. I was surprised the busers didn’t protest about it more. I guess when you took a job that included cleaning up people’s puke every night, you pretty much put up with whatever was handed to you.

I watched to make sure a little twenty-something Persian kid didn’t get overly friendly with Tara. Like all the girls, she flirted with her over-blown laugh and her little touches on the arm. Most customers knew what it was and knew their bounds. But every now and again, one of them got a little too aggressive and made a little too much contact. In this case, the Persian kid was fine. He bought his bottle of pink, sugary water and alcohol and returned to his friends.

For a Saturday night it wasn’t a bad crowd. Saturdays were always better than Fridays, anyway. More dates and nice eye candy instead of frat boy banker types that stayed far past their welcome. But still, there was usually one group or another that felt like they had spent enough money that they had special rights. Rights like climbing all over the antique, high-backed chairs or not understanding that “we’re closed now” actually meant we were closed and they needed to get the fuck out. But this particular Saturday wasn’t bad at all. Just three walk-outs, all women who had popped or were near doing so, and one guy that was just being a jerk. Actually, I don’t even know how badly the guy was acting. I didn’t see it and it was a thing with Dennis. For all I know, the guy asked Dennis where the men’s room was and Dennis got offended and tossed the guy. It didn’t take much with Dennis to set him off.

After closing, we all gathered and said our goodnights. I offered to walk Julia, the bartender, to her car. She declined and said her boyfriend was waiting for her, right outside. Fine with me. I was tired and wanted to get home soon anyway. I was actually looking forward to a nice night alone.

I walked down the alley and realized what a beautiful night it was outside. It was summer but the air felt cool. Especially after the body heat swamp of Gilda’s. City Hall was all lit up. Red, white and blue to celebrate the Independence Day that had just passed. And it was quiet. So, blissfully quiet. The thing I hated most about working at Gilda’s wasn’t babysitting the drunks, or standing, or even the pauper’s wages. It was the loudness.

The DJs cranked their stuff so loud my ears would be ringing by the end of the night. Even when songs were played that I liked, which was rare, they became instruments of torture in the hands of a DJ high on his control of the crowd. A couple of the guys wore foam earplugs in the ear without the headset in. But when I gave it a try, I realized I couldn’t hear anyone well enough to have a conversation anymore. Without those conversations, that contact, not only was my job be harder but my nights were a lot more dull. The occasional talk with a lovely customer or one of the servers could make an average night almost seem worthwhile.

I made my way down to the parking lot in Little Tokyo that I used. I had just found out the night before from the parking attendant that the lot would be closing. They were going to build some sort of giant mixed-use structure right there. Little Tokyo had become hip and people wanted to live there now. What a change. Twenty years ago when I first got to L.A., Little Tokyo was nothing. Now it was all pork belly on tiny plates and nine dollar beers.

I drove down Seventh Street just in time to see all the bouncers from “Lightning.” They had four times as many guys as we did. Given the size of their place and the sort of crowd they got, that made sense. Lightning was all about Hip-Hop and drunks kids. I still thought their bouncers came off as more cliché than intimidating. Every one of them wore all black and had a long duster jacket on. They also tended to be on the obese side. I never could figure out why a large, fat guy who was slow as molasses was supposed to be threatening. All you had to do was get them to go after you a bit and they would drop dead from a heart attack on the spot. But, that’s the way they seemed to like it.

I watched the city change as I drove down Seventh Street. The skyscrapers faded behind me and the signs went from English to Spanish. I lived in an area called MacArthur Park. Years ago it was notorious for drugs and gang violence. It still wasn’t great, by any stretch, but it was a whole lot better now. Being a white guy didn’t hurt either. The Guatemalans and Salvadorans that were still into the shit preferred to pick on their fellow Latinos. White guys didn’t meet their business needs.

Of course, I still had my share of challenges and people wanting to know what I was made of. But they were never situations I was worried about much. If people wanted to play, I would play. But, honestly, I would much rather just not bother and get home to watch TV. I had lived there long enough that most people knew who I was and almost no one bothered me anymore. But there was always going to be that lone guy who wanted to prove something. That one guy that had to be set straight.

I opened the outer door to my building and walked in. It was a dump. A medium-sized building built in the twenties and barely maintained. But it was my dump. Rent was cheap and it was close to work. It was about the only thing close to downtown that I hadn’t been priced out of by the hipsters and business types moving in. Downtown was taking off. So was Koreatown on the other side of the neighborhood. For now, MacArthur Park was safe from going the way of Little Tokyo or Spring Street. But it was still only a matter of time before the Pupusa stands in my neighborhood would be replaced by little cafés selling five dollar cups of coffee. They’d clean out all the homeless from the park, put some extra cops on duty and make it all safe for those forty-year old Moms with tattoos like the kind that were all over Sunset Junction and Echo Park now. Then the rents would skyrocket and the luxury condos would appear. Then what? Where would all the immigrants from Central America go? Hell, where would I go?

I took off my tie and got out of my jacket and work clothes. I turned on the TV to see if anything was on. I gave up cable years ago when my bill for it started to top one hundred fifty dollars a month. I missed my sports but, other than that, I didn’t feel much of a loss. One of the stations was playing a cop movie from the Seventies. I had seen it a bunch of times but settled in to watch it again. Somewhere during the block of commercials for adult diapers and catheters I fell asleep on the sofa. When I woke up, the cop had already been shot and was in the hospital. His partners had betrayed him.

I had Sunday’s off most of the time but that night I had to get back to Gilda’s for a private party. A hundred or so of the Deputy Mayor’s closest friends were going to be there. The Mayor himself wouldn’t be present but all the wanna be kings and queens of the future would be. I wasted most of the day just hanging out at home and getting lunch at a taco place over on Hoover. Not exactly a thrilling time. But I didn’t care. I was tired from four nights straight working until closing and needed the break.

When I went to Gilda’s that night, Deborah was already at the door. She was pushing fifty but still dressed like she was twenty. That night was no exception. It didn’t quite work for her but who was I to say? Honestly, she wasn’t a bad looking broad but surrounded by the twenty-something lovelies she had hired, she really stood out. When I saw her talking with one of the new hostesses, I couldn’t help but think of an elderly Madam in a brothel talking to her newest girl.

Vicky was also in that night. She barely looked at me as she ran by. That was alright. I would see more of her later. A quick glimpse of that ass had me already looking forward to it. “Hey Michael. How are you tonight?” Deborah asked as I was getting my radio for the night. “Come up to my office for a second, I need your help with something.” “Sure.” I followed her up the stairway through the little outer office and into a tiny room with fancy curtains covering the walls. It was all decked out with the same period stuff as the rest of Gilda’s; an elaborate wood desk, a small Art Deco statue of some naked woman with a bow, a bookshelf…there was even a large black and white photo from the flick the club was named after looming on the far wall. “What can I do for you Deborah?” I asked. Deborah opened a drawer and took out a bottle of Tequila. She was playing it up to the hilt. I took the drink offered but didn’t bother to down all of it. In my book, Tequila tasted like mouthwash and was stuff kids drank when they were twenty-four. I’d rather just have a good beer any night of the week.

“These are very important people to me, here, tonight. I really need you to help Keith keep a lid on things” Deborah said. “I can’t imagine this crowd will be too much of a problem” I replied. “You’d be surprised. But that’s not what I meant.” I waited for her to continue. “Dennis is having some issues. He’s at the door tonight so he shouldn’t get himself into any trouble. All the same, just try to keep an eye on things would you?” I kept wondering why she was telling me this instead of Keith. It was his job to deal with the paperwork and management bullshit and he got an extra bit of cash for his troubles. I was also going to be inside, watching the floor, a million miles away from Dennis. I wouldn’t have a clue what Dennis was up to until it was too late to do much of anything about it. “You don’t like Dennis very much, do you?” she asked. “I like him just fine” I replied. “But you don’t think he’s very good at his job, do you?” I didn’t answer. The fact that she had just asked me to watch him pretty much said it all. She didn’t need any confirmation from me.

“Let me tell you something about Dennis. He’s not the brightest bulb, I’ll give you that. But he’s dependable and he’s loyal. Loyalty matters a lot to me, Michael. Do you know what I’m saying?” I nodded. “I need to trust the people close to me and be able to count on them.” I nodded again. “Good” she said. And then she got up from the desk and walked over to the wall safe.

She punched in the key code right in front of me. The safe opened. On any given night, there could be tens of thousands of dollars in dollars in there. Even with credit and debit card use way up, clubs still handled a lot of cash. Deborah pulled out a small bag with a lock over the zipper. She shut the safe and opened the lock with one of the keys on her chain.

I felt increasingly awkward just sitting there. “Was there anything else?” I asked. Deborah smiled “Oh, don’t sound so formal. And finish your drink.” “No, thanks. Tequila isn’t my thing.” She threw the bag of cash over to me. “What is your thing, Nick? Young girls? Drugs? Gambling? We all have out little vices that keep life interesting for us. What’s yours?” I suddenly felt like I was being given an interview by the Devil herself. What price a soul? I wasn’t liking it. “Pastrami. Langer’s Pastrami and chicken and rice soup. That’s about as hardcore as I get these days.” “Somehow I doubt that.” She waited for me to tell her more. I didn’t. She seemed disappointed. “Take the bag down to Julia at Bar One, would you?” “Sure.” I walked out, more confused than ever about what the conversation was all about. Whatever Deborah wanted from me, it was a whole lot more than making sure Dennis didn’t mouth off to the wrong person.

The Deputy Mayor’s shindig went off without a hitch. Some of the top brass from the Police Headquarters also walked over from across the street. I think one of them might have been the actual Chief of Police. The live band for the night and the alcohol got a few of them loosened up but most were there for business. The upside of which was that nobody got overly drunk and started acting stupid. And Deborah was spot on in her role. A force of nature mingling and playing the perfect hostess. She must have walked through the history of Gilda’s from flooded basement to forties fantasy club a dozen times. Each sounded like it was the very first time she had ever talked about it.

The highlight of the evening though, wasn’t watching Deborah, it was watching Vicky. Or, more accurately, watching how men reacted to Vicky. Like I said, almost all the servers and bar staff were pretty. Such was the norm for a club in L.A. But Vicky had that thing. That thing that made all men who saw her imagine her lips on them or doing things that their wives wouldn’t approve of. She was twenty-nine but seemed like she had been that way for a long time. A killer with a mischievous grin.

Seeing the old men in suits trying not to get caught staring at her ass was as source of constant amusement. The women at the gathering must have hated Vicky. Maybe all women hated Vicky. She was “that girl.” The one that always stole your boyfriend and who you caught your Dad staring at the wrong way at the pep rally. Vicky was that one. And I knew how lucky I was to be able to do more than just imagine being with her.

I decided to leave my car where it was and just walk over to Vicky’s after my shift. She had been finished about two hours earlier than I was and would be waiting for me at her apartment. She lived in a converted loft building in a space not much bigger than my place. I could never quite get her to tell me how she came up with the cash to buy it. All she would ever tell me was that she once had a lot of very important friends. Male friends, I assumed. One of whom probably bought the place for her as their little love nest. As far as I knew, her benefactor was long out of the picture. Exactly how Vicky ended up with an apartment worth almost two hundred grand as a going away gift was a mystery. One she didn’t seem to want to share and I wasn’t going to push her on.

The sad thing about the apartment was that it should have been worth twice what it was. The building was all top notch. Granite kitchens, poured concrete floors, massive industrial windows. The problem was the location. Originally, the building was supposed to be one of four massive sweatshops turned residential. But then the economy went south. Vicky’s building was the only one that was actually converted to residential use. At the same time, between the jail expulsions to relieve over-crowding and the bleak economy, the population of Skid Row had exploded. As a result, the tent cities and zombie hoards of the addicted, unstable and desperate crept further and further down San Juan and San Pedro. And closer and closer to Vicky’s fancy loft building. Even walking from “the good end” near Little Tokyo to her place meant a stroll through the urine soaked sidewalks and tent cities of the homeless. Nobody usually bothered me. Not even to ask for change. But it was not a walk that I enjoyed. The stench could be unbearable.

I finally got to Vicky’s place and was buzzed through multiple, high-security doors. I got to her floor and weaved through the concrete columns and around the corners that lead to her place. I knocked on the door and immediately knew what I was in for. Vicky answered in her sweat pants and a ratty t-shirt. She barely looked at me as she let me in.

Her place was only a studio. But it had twenty foot ceilings and an entire wall of windows. The drapes were pulled, which confirmed my suspicions. I took my jacket off and sat in a chair. Vicky went over to turn the music down. “Why are you dressed like that?” I asked. She turned and faced me. “What to you mean?” “You knew I was coming over. Why are you dressed like that?” I said. “Because it’s comfortable.” She stood there defiantly. With any other woman her answer would have meant exactly what she said. She was tired and wanted to wear something comfortable. But Vicky wasn’t any other woman. She wasn’t the kind of girl you held in your arms and told sweet nothing to. She was more the kind you held down on the bed and took what you needed from. The more forceful and physical you were, the more excited she seemed to get. This was just her way of initiating the proceedings. Needless to say, the sweatpants, t-shirt and all the rest were removed shortly after my arrival.

When we were done, we didn’t bother to talk much. We never did. It wasn’t that sort of relationship. Whatever it was, it seemed to work and give us both something we needed. I knew that, one day, one of us would get bored with it and call it quits. And I was fine with that. But, for the time being, I was very happy with the arrangement. The only thing I remember us talking about was her complaining about how little she made working private parties and how they had hired a new girl. The rest was a just a lovely blur of images and sounds.

When I left, somewhere around five or six, there were three cop cars right outside Vicky’s building. I walked to the other side of the street and glanced at the guy in cuffs. Just another homeless guy. I don’t know why they even bothered to arrest him. He would be out of jail in three hours, anyway. There was no room left for minor criminals. Minor meaning pretty much anything but murder. The last thing the city jail needed was more guests. But the system had its ways.

My workout with Vicky had left me tired and hungry. When I got back to my neighborhood, I parked my car and walked over to a Salvadoran place for breakfast. I actually wanted the smoked fish plate at Langer’s but I didn’t feel like spending the dough. Instead, I settled for scrambled eggs and Chorizo, plantains, white cheese and beans and rice. It would have been a great meal except for the watery coffee and shit service. The waitress I got didn’t know me like the others there did. She seemed nervous speaking English. Since I didn’t know Spanish worth squat, she figured the best answer was just to avoid the whole thing. Getting a re-fill on the coffee was like pulling teeth. But it worked well enough, overall, I suppose. I strolled home just as the sun was coming up and brown haze started to become visible in the air. Another perfect Los Angeles day.

I turned on my air conditioner in the window and tried to sleep. As tired as I was, it took a while. Too much worry and too much watery coffee. Eventually, I nodded off. I was waken up three of four times by neighbors and garbage trucks but managed to get about five hours of broken sleep. It was something. At my age, letting my legs and back just rest for a while mattered. Being thirty-eight and doing what I did was no joke. Standing night after night and dealing with assholes took its toll. There was no way I could keep doing that kind of work forever. It wasn’t physically possible. I just wasn’t seeing a whole lot of other options.

To make matters worse, I barely made enough to scrape by. I had nothing in the bank and not much of a future. Technically, I didn’t even work for Gilda’s. I worked for the Security firm that Deborah hired. All the bars and clubs worked that way. The liability issues involved were just too huge for a club to want to take on. All it took was one moron like Dennis to rough up the wrong guy and it could cost them millions. As a result, they isolated themselves from it all as best they could. They hired Security firms, who carried the liability insurance, which then hired us.

What was really shitty about my particular deal was that I wasn’t even considered an employee of the security firm. They made me sign something saying I was a “contractor” not an employee. Real sweatshop stuff. A way to squirm out of every little penny they could. I was not entitled to anything normal workers got. No breaks no matter how long the shift, no overtime, no sick time, no health insurance, no retirement plan of any sort…not even workers comp. If I broke my hand in a fight at Gilda’s, I was the one that had to pay for the emergency room and I was entitled to nothing for all the shifts that I would miss. Such were the ways of the company. I knew that what they were doing with this “contractor” business wasn’t strictly legit. But what was I going to do about it? Sue them? With what money? Lawyers cost. It all costs. I had about as much chance fighting the system as one of the illegals from San Salvador in my neighborhood did. Probably even less.

By the time I really got going that morning, it was already after two. I needed to do some laundry. I had way too much of it to deal with in one day. I picked what I needed for work: white t-shirts, black socks, white dress shirt, black pants and threw in some underwear and white socks for good measure. I schlepped down five flights of stairs and down the block to the laundromat. Every God damn machine was filled. Some of the locals took in laundry to make extra money which I was fine with. What I wasn’t fine with was when they took up six washers at once to do it all.

I tried not to let it get to me and walked another two blocks to a different laundromat. This one had a few machines available. As I dumped my clothes in, an overweight woman with her three young kids said something to me in Spanish. I could only make part of it out. She said it again and pointed to my white work shirts. She held up a bottle from the top of her machine. She was offering me bleach. The colors and sleeves of my shirts had turned black with sweat in the three weeks since I had bought them. She seemed to think a little bleach would help. I said thanks but declined. I knew from experience that bleach didn’t get that kind of sweat out. Nothing did.

I sat there reading a free paper as I waited. The kids in the place were all loud and whining. I supposed I would have been complaining too if my Mom dragged me to watch clothes being washed for hours on end, every day. I took the chance that my laundry would be left alone and stepped out of the place for some air. It was cooling down a little from the string of hot and hazy days we had just been through. I was looking forward to it. Heat like that made everything harder.

A group of teenage kids gathered across the street. One flashed a hand signal to the others. His gang buddies reciprocated. Individually, none of them was very intimidating. But as a group, the gangs around the area could still be pretty nasty, MS 13, in particular. There was an aggravated assault just a couple blocks down on Alvarado the other day. I don’t know how bad it was. I just know that paramedics had to be called and the guy they beat up was taken away in a stretcher. The kicker was that it happened at four in the afternoon and the street was busy as hell. Yet, not one witness stepped forward. Why would they? What would be the upside in that?

There was a time when an assault like that would have meant dozens of cops from Rampart kicking down doors and beating the shit out of people. But those days ended over a decade ago after a special hearing on brutality. The panel declared Rampart Division a cesspool of corruption in need of immediate and major overhaul. And overhaul they did.

The Rampart cops were the biggest street gang in town and they were completely dismantled. The police station was even moved because the old one was a constant reminder of the Rampert of the bad old days. The Rampart that saw several members of its department convicted for such things as bank robbery and trafficking cocaine.

The new station was all shiny glass and airy atriums, right off of Sixth. I went in there once to file a report about my car getting broken into. The customer service would have put Nordstrom’s to shame. All smiles and helpful officers wanting to do what they could to improve life for the locals. Except actually fight crime. The entire division had been so beaten down by the scandal it was all about community interaction and social programs. If there was someone that needed a good smack down, Rampart Division was the last place you would call now.

My next shift at the club would have been fine except for one thing: Nick. Nick was Deborah’s twenty-two year old son. She had split from the father, some movie guy, right after he was born. Nick had been raised by Deborah and a never-ending rotation of nannies and maids. It couldn’t have been the happiest of childhoods. One look at Nick and you knew he was one messed up kid. He was always high, for one thing. Morning, noon and night, the kid was on something. And I’m not just talking weed. This kid did it all, often at the same time. Uppers and downers combined in never ending cocktails of things to fuck up his brain. And Deborah was fine with it.

I shouldn’t say that. She did give him the occasional lecture on how he eventually would have to give up his life of doing nothing but taking drugs and hanging out at clubs. But Nick would always sweet talk her and remind her of the “wild days” she loved talking about in her own twenties. “Before they outlawed fun” as she liked to put it. It was hard for her to have much credibility about the dangers of drugs when she was so proud of the amount of coke she had done in the eighties.

There was one key difference though between her and Nick. Somehow, Deborah had found that anchor she needed to get through all those good times without much lasting damage. My guess was that part of that was, for all her bragging, she was never anywhere close to the precipice. Even back then. Nick, on the other hand, seemed to take her tales at face value. He thought he could do it all, always, and turn out as successful and together as his mom was. Even more so since he had all that education and privilege on his side. And it just wasn’t true.

He’d already been in trouble with the law and only avoided jail because of some very expensive attorneys. He was clearly and obviously addicted to all sorts of things that were destroying his body. And, most of all, the kid had turned into a smart mouthed, self-entitled little asshole who had gotten used to doing whatever he wanted and getting away with it. I hated him. We all did. Except for Dennis, of course. Dennis thought Nick was a good guy and just liked to have a fun time. They even hung out together once in a while. The moronic thug and the spoiled little drug addict. Now, there was a happy couple.

I did what I could to not let my true feelings for the kid come out. But it was a losing battle. His mom never saw it but Nick knew. Nick knew I hated him and felt like vomiting every time I saw him playing the little schoolboy for his mother. Whenever Nick got into something, Deborah would just tell me “He’s just being young. You should have seen what I was like at his age.” And then she would go off on another highly exaggerated story about her own misdeeds back in her youth. I didn’t want to hear it and, against my better judgment, told her so once. All I said was that it got harder and harder to live the kind of life Nick was leading without, eventually, paying a price for it. Deborah just dismissed the comment and told me to lighten up. Nick would be fine.

The little brat saw me as I was heading downstairs and didn’t bother to acknowledge me. I was fine with that and was far more concerned with which direction he was heading. I dreaded the thought of Nick and his entourage of over-privileged little idiots taking a table in Propeller. Watching the stupid crap they did and the way they treated the girls turned my stomach every time. But then he headed back out the door and went off on his way somewhere else. Hopefully, he wouldn’t bother to come back to Gilda’s for a while. I breathed a sigh of relief and went off toward Dance Hall to find Keith. It was then that I saw Christina for the first time.

It’s hard to describe my initial reaction to Christina. It wasn’t just that she was beautiful. She was, without a doubt. Twenty-six, five-eleven, long dark hair, and a body to kill for. But it wasn’t her figure that that did me in. It was a look. A quick, simple, little glance right into my eyes and the little half-smile that went with it. I was gone and done for instantly. It made me feel like I had known her for a thousand years and shook me to the core. I know I sound like some bad French poet but its got to be said. There was something going on way beyond lust or simple infatuation. Something intangible but as solid and real as anything I had ever seen or felt before. And, at the point, I still didn’t even know her God damn name.

I walked over to Keith. “Who’s the new kid?” I asked. “Chrissy. No, Christine. Yeah, I think it’s Christine.” I didn’t say anything and watched as Christina got a run-through from the Assistant Manager, Greg. Keith saw me looking. “Pretty, isn’t she?” he asked. “Yeah” I said as casually as possible. Keith brushed it off and we talked about the night ahead. I was assigned general babysitting duties in Dance Hall. Christina was assigned to a private party in Shanghai, the little alcove Deborah decked out in a “Woman From Shanghai” theme. Unfortunately, Shanghai was on the opposite end of the club from me. Which meant talking with Christina was going to have to wait.

The rest of the night was slow and painfully normal. There was a large group of Korean kids needed to be told to reign it in a few times. I also had to talk with two USC kids that thought it would be fun to have a good natured wrestling match over by Punch Bowl. And a girl popped in the restroom and had to be walked out. In other words, a night of the usual stupidity.

And then Christina finally walked by. I stopped her for a second. “Everyone behaving over in Shanghai?” I asked. “Yeah, they’re great. Super-nice. The kitchen messed up their order and they were totally understanding about it.” I heard every word she said but was having a hard time focusing on it. Those eyes of hers just sucked me in. “Don’t get used to it. Most people aren’t like that here” I said. She didn’t say anything. I could tell she needed to keep moving but I kept her there for another second.

“I’m Michael. Anybody bothers you or you see anybody being an asshole, just let me know” I said. “Thanks. Christina.” It was so loud I wasn’t sure I had heard right. “Christine?” I asked, remembering what Keith had told me. “Christina, with an A.” “Good to meet you Christina with an A” I said. She nodded and took off. And that was it. About as undramatic and unremarkable as you could get. Or should have been. But even then I think I knew better.

Some remixed version of “Miss You” by the Rolling Stones played as she weaved through the crowd. Her body seemed to move with the beat as she walked. I was mesmerized. “She’s a little too young for you, isn’t she?” Keith asked. I was embarrassed I had been so obvious. “They all are” I said, trying to cover. “Sucks being old, doesn’t it?” he joked. Yeah, it did suck. Sometimes more than others.

I didn’t get to see much more of Christina that night. She was one of the first ones sent home when the crowd started to die down and the kitchen closed. Vicky asked if I wanted to come over that night. I declined which pissed her off to no end. But it also worked to keep things lively. Vicky was the type that the moment she got a man to bend to her will, she got bored and moved on. That was, after sucking them dry of anything she could use along the way. Connections, gifts, vacations…all just part of the expected for her. I think the only reason she spent any time with me was because I didn’t seem to care all that much. The less interested I was in her, the more she wanted to see me. Either way, that night I went home alone instead of enjoying her company. I had other things on my mind.

I kept thinking of Christina and that smile. Maybe I was blowing it out of proportion. She was young and she was pretty. Good enough to make any healthy man’s head spin, right there. And she was new. Everybody always wanted the new girl. Fresh meat thrown to the lions. I almost convinced myself that it was normal. Just a bit of lust and wanting something new. Almost.

The more I thought about how I felt about Christina, the angrier I got at myself. I was way too old to act so damn stupid. I didn’t even know the girl. I decided to try to spend some more time with Vicky in the near future to bring me to my senses. But Vicky wasn’t very cooperative. When I asked her if she wanted me to come over the next night, she declined even though she didn’t have any plans. It was payback for my not coming over the evening before. But I insisted. It confused her. I wasn’t one of her usual suitors begging to be fit into her schedule. At least not usually. And here I was being insistent to the point of desperation.

As I saw it, Vicky was the cure. The reminder of the difference between real and imaginary. Between puppy love and adult relationships. It all worked out even better than I thought it would. Vicky gave in and I went to her place. It was like I had a poison in me and Vicky was the only way to get the poison out. There was an anger in me I couldn’t explain. I hated the way that little half-smile from Christina had made me feel. I hated Vicky for not being Christina. I hated myself for being such a stupid, fucked up mess. I hated all of it and took it out on Vicky in a way she loved.

When it was through, we just laid there for a while. The apartment was quiet. No music. No sirens from outside. Just silence. “What got into you?” Vicky asked. “What do you mean?” “You know what I mean” she said. I didn’t answer. I watched as she walked shamelessly to the kitchen without a stitch on. She just stood there and drink a soda water from a little glass bottle. I should have been the happiest man on earth about then. Instead, I just wanted to get away from her as quickly as I could.

I had been so distracted the night I met Christina that I had forgotten to get my paycheck. As it was, I was holding off on paying some bills until I could cash it. Usually, I got my check and went to the bank the very next morning. Things were that tight, financially. But I had forgotten. Simply forgotten it. I questioned again why I was acting as ridiculous as I was. The night with Vicky helped. A lot. But it faded. Soon thoughts of hungry mouths and shiny black fingernails were replaced by memories of those big brown eyes and that half-smile. It was embarrassing. And it had to stop.

Keith told me I could come by the club that afternoon, even though they were closed. I could get my check from Deborah. The paychecks weren’t from her but from the security firm. However, she had the key to the locker they would be kept it. I braced myself for another awkward conversation with Deborah. There had been far too many where I ended up just answering politely and counting the minutes until I could leave. I had no desire to get too personal with her. Our last conversation was bad enough. I wasn’t looking forward to any similar banter.

I parked my car and walked to the club. I buzzed the front door. There wasn’t an answer. I did it again. Still no reply. And then I heard yelling. It was Deborah “We can’t handle another five grand a night. Are you crazy? Somebody’s going to notice that!” I looked in and saw Deborah walking down the stairs from the office. A man about my age wearing a black leather coat and a hat was behind her. Right away, the guy set off alarm bells in my head. “Well you better find a way. This is non-negotiable. Do you understand?! Non-negotiable!” I saw Deborah keep walking toward me with a look of anger and frustration on her face. She opened the door for me. “Who’s this guy?” the jerk in the hat asked Deborah. I should have just kept my mouth shut but couldn’t help myself. I answered his question.

“My name’s Michael. And you?” The guy didn’t answer. He walked right up to me. “Don’t worry about it” he said and tried to push his way past. I didn’t budge. The asshole looked ready to let loose. I was already looking forward to it. “Michael!” Deborah said. I looked at her. Whoever this shit head was, he was somebody important to her. I moved aside. I expected the asshole to make a threat as he walked by. He didn’t. He apologized. He didn’t do it out of fear either. “Sorry. I was just angry about something else. The name is Kyle. Good to meet you.” He put out a hand. I shook it. He calmed down and seemed almost friendly. He headed to the front door.

“Deborah, don’t forget what I said. This week. Alright? We need you to start doing this as soon as possible.” “I still think it’s a bad idea” she said. “Maybe. But it’s got to be done. I’ll talk to you soon.” He said “nice meeting you, Michael, and walked out. Deborah looked a bit shook up. She was covering it well but she seemed pretty anxious. “You OK?” I asked. “Yes. No. Not really. I need a drink. Come downstairs and have a drink with me.” I thought about making some excuse about having an appointment. But Deborah looked really rattled. I didn’t want to leave her there alone. I went down with her to the bar and we had our drink together.

It was strange being in Gilda’s, in the daytime, with nobody inside. In the daylight, the illusion didn’t quite hold up. The light from the upstairs window made the whole club look like what it really was. A large basement. A large, once flooded, basement with some furniture in it that was showing its age. All the scratches and dings covered by the darkness stood out. In the light of day, Gilda’s was an ugly place.

Deborah walked behind the bar and used one of her keys to unlock a small liquor cage. She pulled out a bottle of twenty-one year old Scotch. She took two shot glasses and started pouring. “No, thanks” I said. She kept pouring. “Don’t be a pussy and have a drink with me.” I decided that it wasn’t worth the fight. She handed me a shot glass and downed her own drink without hesitation. I followed suit. The Scotch burned but felt good. It had been a long time since I drank Scotch. I forgot how much I missed it.

I put my glass out for a refill. Deborah smiled. “That’s better” she said as she poured another generous Scotch into the glass. “Good stuff. Isn’t it?” she asked. “Yeah, I haven’t had Scotch this good in a long time.” “You haven’t had Scotch this good ever. It was brought over by hand from the Distillery in Kirkcaldy by a friend of mine. It’s not for sale. Just something they do for the workers there.” I waited for her to continue. Maybe telling one of her stories would calm her down. She was still looking pretty shaken up. We each did another shot. Three shots in eight minutes. Probably about four hundred dollars worth apiece, if not more.

“I should get going” I said. I was feeling buzzed and not liking it. Being around Deborah that way, given what I had just seen, wasn’t smart. None of it was smart. I should have just walked away when I heard the argument she was having. It was none of my business and I wanted to keep it that way. “He’s a drug dealer” Deborah said. “A major one.” She looked at my face looking for some sort of reaction. I didn’t give her one. I had already guessed as much and didn’t feel shocked in the least. “More Scotch?” she asked. I declined.

“He was my ticket in. All this…” she gestured to the empty club around her. “All the upfront money I needed, a good salary and a third ownership.” “So, they control the other two-thirds?” “Yup.” Deborah poured herself another one. “Usually they just stay out of things. Why they decided to…” She stopped herself. I didn’t ask her to finish the sentence. “I don’t want to know this” I said. “It’s a little late for that, don’t you think? I mean, you knew what was going on before. And then you saw what you just saw…” She let the sentence drift off again. “You already knew” she insisted. “I suspected. But there’s a difference.” “Plausible deniability?” She asked. “Something like that.”

Then she laid it our for me. In return for what they gave her, Kyle and his partners got to keep two-thirds of the profits and equity in the club. More importantly, they got the service they really needed. The MDA they distributed was a big hit. Especially in the rich white areas of the valley. So much so, that they were unprepared for it and had a huge problem. Lots of dirty money and nowhere to put it. Kyle had known Deborah from her “wild days.” They had even gone out for a while. I stopped her right there in her story. “He isn’t Nick’s father, is he?” I asked. “God no! No, this was years and years before I was with that asshole. Anyway…” and then she returned to the tale of a drug business worth tens of millions of dollars and a desperate single mom who had always dreamed of opening her own place like Gilda’s.

“I knew what I was getting into. I’m not going to claim otherwise” she said. I was about to interject and say that I really didn’t need to know any more of the details. I was already uncomfortable knowing as much as I did. But Deborah was determined to tell me all of it. “Now they want to clean more. Too much more. Another five grand added to the revenues every night on top of the five I already do for them. It’s too much. Somebody is going to notice.” I just nodded. I wasn’t about to offer any advice to her. Money laundering was not an area of expertise for me.

“Why are you telling me all this?” I asked. She just looked at me. From the look in her eyes I could tell the Scotch was hitting her. “Because I trust you” she said. “Bullshit” I replied. “You don’t believe me?” she asked. “No, I don’t. You don’t even know me.” “I know people. It’s what’s gotten me this far in life. I had nothing. Nothing. I was a girl from some shitty little town in Oklahoma where graduating High School was a big deal. Now I have this and a great son.” I tried not to react to that last bit. Great at being an asshole, maybe, but I kept my mouth shut. “All because I know people. I can sense them. Understand them. You for instance.”

“What about me? What do you want from me, Deborah?” I asked. She turned more serious. “I want to know I can count on you?” “Sure.” She nodded. “And I want us to be friends.” “What kind of friends?” I asked. And then she laid the look on me. The open invitation. For an old broad, she wasn’t bad. But it didn’t come off as enticing. Not all. The look I had just been given just came off as sad and lonely. And frightened. She just needed to be with somebody and I was there. I wasn’t interested and told her so as gently as I could. She seemed to take the rejection in stride.

I didn’t stay too much longer. I told Deborah I would keep everything she had told me to myself. She said that she knew I would. It all made me uneasy. Not only knowing what Gilda’s was used for and who was behind it. But why Deborah had told me. It tried to tell myself that it was just a question of timing. I just happened to be there the moment she needed to unload to somebody about what was going on. But I wasn’t sure. Maybe she was after something she wasn’t quite ready to tell me yet.

I sat in my car and put it out of my mind as I opened my paycheck. Even after all that time, I had trouble accepting how low it was. All those hours standing and dealing with idiots for sucker’s money. I thought back to my conversation with Deborah. The club was just pumping out cash. Maybe getting in on that wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Maybe I could get a little cut of the real dough for helping out and keeping quiet. I could finally live like a human being instead of just trying to scrape by. Then I came to my senses. Getting in with drug dealers wasn’t my thing. Better a thirteen dollar an hour sucker than a hundred K a year dead man.

Deborah never said another word to me about what we had discussed. If anything, she was colder. She probably realized what a mistake it was to open her mouth about her professional problems. Or maybe she was more embarrassed about the come-on and the rejection than I had figured. Who the hell knew? Either way, things were, as they say, “cordial but strained” between Deborah and I for the next couple of weeks. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she had me fired. But she didn’t.

It all went on as normal. With each and every shift I worked I found more and more reasons to just go with things and forget all about Deborah and her troubles. I told myself that if Gilda’s went down, I would still be free and clear. I couldn’t be charged with anything. I hadn’t done anything but listen to some drunk woman ramble on about how owning Gilda’s was all she had ever wanted. I’m sure her no-longer-so-silent partner, Kyle, wouldn’t be pleased to know she had told me as much as she had if he ever found out. But as long as I kept my mouth shut and got on with it, I wasn’t seeing a problem.

It was all lies and rationalizations, of course. What sane person stays in a job that pays like crap and involves working for major drug dealers? The dumb and the desperate, that’s who. I could have found other security gigs. Other bars to watch idiots in. Corporate stuff. Something. But I didn’t even look. And the reason was even more pathetic. I didn’t want to leave because of her. Christina. What a sap.

It took a long time to get to know Christina better. I only saw her at the club and our chances to talk were pretty limited. Not to mention, I had Vicky, Deborah and everyone else looking on with more than usual curiosity. I learned a few little things like that she was from Chicago and that she liked Dim Sum. At the mention of Chinese food, I threw out the names of some places I knew in Monterey Park. She didn’t even know where Monterey Park was. I was about to offer to take her but decided that was coming on too fast. A girl like Christina needed some time. So, I let it go. But Vicky didn’t. And it was only a matter of hours before she laid into me for it.

It was at her place, right after work. The sort of drama I detested. “What the hell? You’re hitting on other girls right in front of me? Girls I work with? Fuck you!” For reasons I still don’t fully understand, instead of fessing up to Vicky, I laid on the lies. I told her Christina was a co-worker and I was just killing time. I told her Christina was just like any other girl I worked with. Pretty, fun to talk to, but a dead end. I even told her Christina was too young for me. “Too young? She’s only three years younger than me!” “It could be decades.” “What does that mean?” Vicky wanted to know. I hadn’t meant it as a compliment to Vicky, not in the least. But I played it just right. “She’s a girl. A kid.” “Yeah, and you seem to like that?” “Sure I like that. Like everyone likes puppies until they piss and shit all over the floor.” I knew that answer would make Vicky happy but she still didn’t buy it. At least not at first.

I kept at it, making sure to stroke her ego in all the right ways. I told Vicky a woman like her had her shit together and understood life the way someone like Christina wouldn’t for years. I told her I liked my women strong. Independent. Eventually, after hearing all the things she wanted, and needed, to hear, Vicky calmed down. A little extra effort in the sack and it all seemed fine. At least for a little while. But Vicky wasn’t about to let my attention to Christina go unpunished. She continued to take it out on me making little quips now and then about how I’d rather be with Christina. Given that it was a completely true statement, the constant denials required made me irritated to no end.

I wasn’t exactly tired of Vicky. We still had a lot of good times together. Particularly in the sack, when alcohol was involved, or both. But the side of her I hated kept showing through. The jealous, bitchy, nasty shrew that should have been dumped on a desert island and just left there. It would have been bad enough if the constant comments were just directed at me. But they weren’t. Vicky was determined to make Christina pay. Pay, for what, exactly, I couldn’t say. I guess just for me and the way I felt about her. Vicky was relentless.

She told all the other girls that Christina had no experience serving in clubs and that her resume listing all those places in Chicago was a lie. She even went as far as to set her up all the time and to get her blamed for mistakes that she had nothing to do with. Christina just took it at first. Then, one night, she tried to talk to Vicky about it. A natural response. But a mistake. Christina was no match for Vicky when it came to being a bitch. What was intended as a talk to work things out by Christina was used as another way to humiliate her. Vicky had an audience of other girls and made the most it. The lies poured out.

“Look, Christina, I know you have special connections here because of your thing with Nick but you still need to do your job.” “Nick? Deborah’s son? I don’t even know him” Christina said. But Vicky was just getting started. “That’s not what I heard. I heard you two had a thing going.” “What are you talking about?” Vicky kept at it. “It’s none of my business. You do what you need to do. But I’m telling you first hand, this job isn’t worth what Nick made you do for it.” Christina was blown away. Several of the other girls heard the accusation. Girls that still didn’t know Christina very well and might have even believed it.

Christina said, once again, that she didn’t even know Nick. She walked away. Vicky, in spite of trying with every ounce of her energy not to, grinned. A victory smile for the reputation ruined and the damage done.

I found Christina, later that night. When I asked if she was going to do anything about the abuse from Vicky, she just looked frustrated. “No, not really. If people want to believe all that, just let them.” I tried to reassure that it would all be fine and that people knew better. She didn’t buy it. She knew as well as I did that people loved to believe all the dirt. It lessened the boredom and dullness of work and gave people something to talk about. And the thing was, it was my fault. I hadn’t dealt with Vicky the way I should have. I had made a mess of things and now Christina was paying for it. I decided to break up with Vicky that night.

After the name calling, yelling and tears it looked like I might have finally been rid of her. I was wrong. It’s never that easy to get away from women like Vicky. Vindictive, hateful women that claim they do what they do because you’ve broken their hearts. She would make sure that Christina and I didn’t get off that easily. She was just waiting for the right time. The perfect moment to make sure it all went to hell for us. And it would come soon enough.

The next couple of shifts were some of the dullest in my life. A few idiots here and there but nobody that didn’t get back in line after a warning or two. Vicky ignored me. Which was good. So, did Christina. Which wasn’t. I hadn’t gotten over her. In fact, it had gotten worse. She was all I could think about.

It was on a slow Saturday night that Keith came over to me. “Deborah wants to see you in her office.” “What? Now?” I asked. “Yes. Now.” “Any idea what it’s about?” He shook his head. He looked annoyed and fed up. I wondered how much of that was me and how much the usual. I left my post and made my way up to Deborah’s office. I passed Gemma, the hostess, on the way. “Uh oh. What’d you do?” she said. She had meant it as playful but I was wondering exactly the same thing.

I walked into Deborah’s office and shut the door behind me. “Hey, Deborah” I said. “Have a seat.” I did. I tried to read her expression but came up empty. I prepared myself for some condescending lecture on inappropriate behavior with the girls. Instead, I got something else. “I need you to stay tonight after closing” she said. “OK. Sure. How late?” I asked. “Probably until around four.” “OK.” In all honestly, staying until four sounded depressing as hell to me. It had been a long day and I just wanted to get home. But saying “no” wouldn’t have gone over well.

“Can you tell me what for?” I asked. Deborah sat back in her chair. “We fired Dennis.” “What does that have to do with me?” “He’s usually the one to stay late but I can’t trust him anymore.” “And why’s that?” I asked. Deborah leaned in. “Dennis has been having a lot of trouble at home, lately. I’ve been calling in some favors and getting him out of it but enough is enough.”

I knew what she was talking about without knowing any of the details. I had warned her. I had warned Keith. Dennis was an over-aggressive moron on the best of days. Now that he was taking steroids, he was a time bomb waiting to go off. My fear was he had gone ever further than usual. “How bad?” I asked. Deborah seemed confused by the question. I clarified. “How badly was his girlfriend hurt?” “She’s in the hospital. Broken ribs and a fractured cheek.” I felt a combination of revulsion and anger that’s hard to explain. If Dennis had been in the room, I would have killed him. “So, that’s why I need you to stay. I need someone to replace Dennis.” She looked at me in a way that made me very uncomfortable. It was a serious look. Almost dramatic. This wasn’t official club business. This was my initiation into the real business of Gilda’s. The money laundering and Kyle.

I shook my head. “No, sorry. Why don’t you just get Keith to do it?” “If I wanted Keith to do it, I would have asked him. I didn’t ask him. I asked you. Are you saying no?” She kept staring at me. People rarely said “no” to Deborah. She wasn’t used to it and didn’t like it. “I’m saying no” I said. She sat back in her chair again. “OK” she said. And that was it.

I didn’t move. We both sat there for a second in total silence just looking at each other. I thought about it again. She probably wanted me there for protection as the money was exchanged. Nothing, in and of itself, all that dangerous or different from what I normally did. But it WAS different. It was the first step. And it would make me part of a criminal act and tie me to a criminal conspiracy I didn’t want anything to do with. I started to get up.

“I thought we were better friends than that” she said. “I’ve never pretended to be your friend, Deborah. You’re my boss and I respect the hell out of you for what you’ve created here. But we’ve never been friends.” She seemed a little hurt by my rebuttal. “No, I guess we’re not. Which is a shame. I think you and I have a lot of shared traits.” “Maybe that’s exactly why we can never really be friends” I said. She smiled. “Maybe.”

At close, I hung back after sign-out and waited for Keith. I him that I needed to talk to him about something. I told him it was about Deborah’s partners. Keith knew what I meant, immediately. “Alright but not here. Let’s go somewhere.” We got into Keith’s car and drove to a light-industrial block over by Chinatown. The street was empty and quiet. Only the buzz of a dying fluorescent street lamp could be heard. I didn’t ask him anything and just quietly followed. He knocked on a metal door marked “Ocean Fresh Seafood.” We heard someone come down the stairs to open it.

A huge hand grabbed Keith. A giant bald guy was giving Keith a bear hug. “Keith! Where have you been? It’s been too long. Keith finally came up for air. “Working and more working. You know how it is.” “Too long.” “This is Michael, one of the guys I work with.” The bald man put out his meaty hand to shake. I finally got a better look at him. He was white, probably around fifty and had the look of someone who had spent a lifetime doing physical labor. Shipping or working in a meat plant or something like that. Maybe he worked for the seafood company. I didn’t have time to ask. He lead us up the white Formica stairs. The walls were covered in flyers for local Chinatown events. Some in English, some in Chinese, many in both.

I heard something being slapped on a table. Then I saw what it was as I reached the top of the stairs. A group of Asian men were playing Mahjong. Not one of them looked under seventy years old. Over at another table there was a group of Latino guys and one white guy. Restaurant workers, I guessed. Other than that, the room was fairly empty. It was all lit by large overhead lights and the drop ceiling tiles were covered in stains. Everything about it was a dump. Yet, it was strangely inviting.

The bald guy pointed to a table and Keith and I sat down. “How long have you been coming to this place?” I asked. “I used to come here years ago when I worked at the Golden Pony up the street. I think I’ve only been back here twice since I started at Gilda’s.” “I never knew you worked at the Golden Pony. I used to love that place.” “Yeah, it was a good joint as far as Chinatown bars went.”

Keith gave me that look. My cue to let him in on what was so important. “So, you know about Deborah’s partners, right?” I asked. “You mean Kyle. Yeah.” “And what they…” Keith cut me off. “Yes.” He was clearly annoyed. “So, how is that OK with you? Are you part of all that?” I asked. “No. I’m not.” “How is that possible? I mean, you know what Gilda’s real business is.” “I ignore it and keep away from all that.” I didn’t say a word. I wanted to tell him it was a very big thing to me but I didn’t see the point. He had made peace with his own way of dealing with the situation and probably had a hard time understanding why I couldn’t do the same.

‘Aren’t there any legit clubs these days? It would seem to me most of these place rake in tens of thousands a night. Why do they need to get involved in all that other crap?” Keith looked at my like I was the most naïve person in the world. I guess when it came to the world of bars and lounges, I was. “Name a club that’s been popular for more than three years. I mean, really popular that still has dumb shits waiting in line to get in.” “I don’t know” I said. He went on to lay it out for me. “There aren’t very many of them. Most clubs take a huge investment to open and a huge marketing budget to get people in. Promoters take their cut, too. A very big cut. It’s all very expensive. Which is fine as long as the club is the place to be. But what happens when it’s old hat? People always want the latest and greatest to brag about to all their friends. What happens to all those older places?” “They close, I guess” I replied. “Yeah, they close. So, there’s this window that clubs have to make all their real money in or everyone is screwed. And most just don’t. The reality is that it’s a really, stupid, high risk business.”

The bald guy came back with two massive bowls of Pho. Keith thanked him profusely. “I thought this was a Chinese place, not Vietnamese” I said. “It’s both. Or neither. Nate is the owner and he’s from Eastern Europe. Romania, I think. “How did he end up owning a Chinese after hours place?” I asked “He married the original owner’s daughter, Lisa.” He used to come here to gamble and next thing he knew he was married and taking care of the joint. The mention of gambling helped the place make more sense to me. The real money was probably in the invitation only card games. I brought my attention back to Keith and what he was saying.

“Most people that get into the club business think it will be fun and glamorous. Then lose their shirts. They think the good years, when a place is hot, will last forever. They don’t.” I reminded him that Gilda’s was still doing well and its been around for over seven years. He laughed. “Nobody expected that. Nobody. It tells you something about how good Deborah is that she pulled that off. Amazing, really.” I took my chopsticks and a spoon and clumsily tried to eat my Pho. What people had against forks and other proper implements was beyond me. Keith, on the other hand, ate like he had been born in Saigon. It was quite a contrast to my awkward fumbling.

I finally told Keith about my conversation with Deborah. He said that she had asked him a long time ago to become a bigger part of things and he declined. It had never been a problem. He ran the security for the club during official club hours and that was the end of it. And then he turned his attention to my situation. “So, you said no. It’s over” he said.

I told him how just knowing about what Gilda’s was really about made me nervous. “Why? Are you planning on going to the police?” he asked. “No.” “Then there’s nothing to be nervous about.” “What if the police find out? What if there’s a trial and I have to testify?” “The police aren’t going to go after Gilda’s.” “How can you be so sure?” He reminded me about the retirement fund Deborah contributed to. It turned out it wasn’t ten K a month, like I had been originally told, it was twenty. Not to mention, generous donations to most Council members and several people at City Hall. Part of Gilda’s function wasn’t just to launder money, it was to distribute that money to all the right people. People that Kyle and his partners needed to keep on their side. Which meant Deborah was almost as keyed into politics as the Mayor was.

I explained how it still made me uncomfortable. And he said he understood but it wasn’t a big deal unless I made it one. I had refused to get involved. Just do my job at the club and don’t worry about the rest. I wasn’t sure if he was right. But I trusted him. I wanted it to be just like he said. I would keep my job at the club and life would go on as always. At least, at that moment, I convinced myself that he was right. It was time to just enjoy the food.

The weeks moved by fast and not much happened of note at the club for a while. I hadn’t had much luck getting to know Christina any better. She was nice enough but always seemed too busy to talk much. It was killing me. Every time I tried to get a little closer, she shut me down.

Vicky ignored me which was fine. But it didn’t last. The calm routine at Gilda’s never seemed to last. The first thing that caught my attention happened on Saturday, I saw Dennis back at the door. He was there keeping the in count as if nothing had ever happened. As if he never beat the shit out of his girlfriend or ever got arrested. Dennis belonged behind bars. I can only imagine what he said to his girlfriend to get her to drop the charges. What combination of threats and promises to never, ever, do it again. I went inside and found Keith. He was already in the break room opening the locker.

“You hired Dennis back?” I asked. “He’ll be alright. I didn’t really have a choice. Deborah insisted.” I couldn’t tell if Keith cared one way or the other. I would have thought he would have been as shocked as I was that Dennis was allowed to keep working. But he wasn’t. It was all just normal for them. A man who beat up women on a regular basis treated as if it was no big deal. I tried to bury my anger and walked into the break room. As I did, I started to wonder if it was my fault. At least in part. Maybe turning down Deborah had left her in a lurch and she couldn’t afford to loose Dennis now. I tried not to think about it. The idea of being responsible for Dennis being anywhere but jail made me furious.

It was that very same night that I first heard about the other thing. Tara and Gemma were already in the break room gabbing away. “Yeah, she just didn’t show. No call or anything.” “That doesn’t sound like her” Gemma said. “I know” “I hope she’s alright” Gemma said. “I’m sure she is.” “Deborah is pissed” “Yeah…” Keith searched for a working radio for me in the metal locker. He seemed to have trouble finding one. The conversation continued behind me. I finally had to ask. “Who are you guys talking about?” “Christina. She hasn’t shown up for her last three shifts” Gemma said. I had noticed she wasn’t there but assumed she had just taken some time off. “Doesn’t Deborah have her number?” I asked. “No answer. No reply to the messages. Maybe she just got fed up and said fuck it” Tara said. “Did anybody try to stop by or anything?” Tara gave me an odd look. “No. But I’m sure she’s fine.” Keith was looking at me impatiently. “Deborah will make sure she’s alright. Don’t worry about it. Here’s your radio.” He handed me a beat up looking unit. “Thanks.”

After Tara and Keith left I had the chance to talk with Gemma alone. I told her that somebody really should check on Christina. Maybe she was sick or something. With a little persuading, Gemma reluctantly gave me her address. She said it felt a little weird giving me that information but she still did it. I thanked her and looked at the information she had given me. Christina was right off of Spring Street and Seventh.

I could tell Gemma felt uncomfortable about the whole thing. She didn’t understand why I was being so insistent. I hardly knew Christina. And, honestly, people just quit jobs with no notice all the time. Maybe she just took off on a whim and went somewhere. Maybe someone in her family had gotten seriously ill. There where a thousand legitimate reasons that she might have just disappeared for a while. But I knew. I knew even back then. I could feel it in my gut that something had already gone horribly wrong.

I wanted to go check on Christina, right after work. But common sense prevailed. I’m sure she wouldn’t have been happy to see me at her door at three AM. I forced myself to wait until the next morning. I had a quick breakfast and took the redline down to the Pershing Square. Christina lived in a building on Spring that had once been an SRO for the great unwashed. Now, it was all “Micro-lofts” for a grand a month and up. There was a guard in the lobby but I walked right by and made my way up to her floor. She was in #308. The place looked pretty new but had that feel to it like everything had been done as cheaply as possible. The overhead lamps with the trendy little shades would be looking ratty in two years. The faux-finishings on the doors would be scraped to hell, long before that. Everything felt plasticky.

I found her unit and knocked on the door. Nothing. I pounded again. This time, quite a bit harder and louder. Still nothing. Just then, some girl with a nose ring and piercings in her lips came out. The Prada bag she was carrying kind of gave the game away that she wasn’t the punker she pretended. “Excuse me” I said. The girl stopped. “Do you know the girl that lives here?” I asked. “Not really.” “Tall, dark hair, around your age…” I pressed. “No, sorry. I don’t really know most of my neighbors. Can’t help you.” I thanked her and pounded a few times more on the door. Nothing.

I pulled a bank receipt out of my wallet with my pathetic balance on it. I turned it over and wrote a little note. “Christina. We’re going to call the police unless we hear from you soon.” I signed it “Michael, Gemma and Deborah.” I also put my number on it. Then I slipped it under her door. That should shake her up.

I was only a block away from the shiny, new building when my phone rang. I couldn’t believe the name on the screen. “Christina Jones.” I picked it up immediately. “Hello” I said. Nothing. “Hello?” I said again. Still nothing. “Christina, if this is you, please say something.” Still nothing. Then I heard something barely audible on the phone. It was her. Christina. “Don’t do that.” Her voices sounded strange. Weak and depressed. “Are you alright?” I asked. “Don’t go to the police” she said. And then she hung up.

I called her back right away. I got her voicemail. It was an amazing contrast to the voice I had just heard. Vibrant, young, playful. “This is Christina. I’m out doing something unbelievably cool right now. Leave a message.” I hung up and redialed. I got her voice mail again. “Christina. What’s going on? You sound like hell. Are you OK? Just let me know that you’re OK. Please.” I heard the pleading in my own voice and hated it.

I stood there wondering what to do. I guess the threat of going to the police had shaken her up as intended. But now what? She didn’t sound good. At all. But it could have been anything. Maybe she had some horrible news in her life. A parent died or something like that. Or maybe she had some issues with serious depression. For all I knew, the girl had been on medication her whole life to deal with such things. It seemed like everybody was, these days. I should have just gone home and left it. Instead, I decided to head back to her apartment.

I knocked on Christina’s door again. No answer. “It’s Michael. Let me in” I said. Nothing. I knocked again. “Christina, look, I’ll make you a deal. You let me in so that I can tell Deborah and Gemma I saw you and you’re fine. We won’t bother you anymore, OK?” Still nothing. “I just want to make sure you’re OK.” Still nothing. I was about to give up when I heard something inside. Someone walked toward the door.

“Christina, just let me see you for a second. We’ve been worried. I’m not trying to hassle you. We just want to know that you’re OK.” “Go away!” she said. At least I thought it was her. Her voice sounded so different from what I was used to. “I will. Just open up for a second.” I heard the lock on the door. Then it opened. Just a crack. The chain still on. In the little gap between the open door and the doorjamb, I saw her face. And I saw those eyes. Those eyes that I remembered so well. They were different now. They were lifeless.

She slammed the door shut almost as quickly as she had opened it. “OK, you saw me. Now, just go away and mind your own business. OK?” I just stood there for a second, not moving. I thought about forcing the issue but decided against it. At least for right then. “Alright. I’ll go. But I’m coming back unless you call me and tell me what’s going on. Do you understand?” “Fine. I’ll call you.” Of course, she never did.

Two days later, I still hadn’t heard back from her. I decided to try my luck over at her place again. Instead of just showing up empty handed, I stopped over at the Grand Central Market on Broadway before walking over. I got some Mexican Tortas and some Ceviche. Then, it occurred to me that Christina might be a vegetarian. So, I got some Chinese from down the street too. It cost me more than it should have and there wasn’t a guarantee that she would even be there. But that was alright. If she was there, I wanted to make sure I saw her this time. Like, really saw her. Not just some half-assed conversation through the door.

The security guy in the lobby let me walk right by. I made my way up to #308 and knocked. There was no answer. I knocked again. “Christina, it’s Michael. I brought something for you.” Still nothing. I knocked one more time and was about to give up. Then I heard the door. Christina peered at me through the crack. She looked a little better than before but still not right. Far from it.

“I brought you some food” I said. She looked at the bags in my hand. “Thanks. But I can get my own food” she said. “I know. I just thought maybe you weren’t feeling well or something and this would just make it easier.” “Thanks. That’s sweet. But I already ate. Thanks for coming by” she said. She started to shut the door on me. I put my foot in the crack like some salesman or Jehovah’s Witness. Christina started down at my foot. “Christina, let me in. Just for a second so that I leave you the food and then tell Gemma and Deborah I saw you and that everything is fine.” “And then you’ll stop coming by and leave me alone?” she asked. “Yes.” She looked into my eyes and then she unlocked the door to let me in.

I expected the apartment to be littered with pizza cartons and trash like she had been on a bender. It wasn’t. It wasn’t exactly tidy. There were cloths dumped on the floor and the bed wasn’t made. But it wasn’t a dump either. The whole place couldn’t have been more than three or four hundred square feet. It was even smaller than my place back in MacArthur Park. As for her, she was wearing sweats and a grey sweatshirt. Her hair was pulled back. She also had large circles under her eyes like she hadn’t slept in a while. Even looking like that, I still thought she was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen.

I put the food on a small table in the corner. “What did you bring?” she asked. “I’ve got tortas…” “What’s that, tacos?” she asked. “Sandwiches. One chicken and one pork. There’s also some Peruvian style Ceveche. And some Chinese fried rice with no meat in it, in case you’re a vegetarian.” I wasn’t sure but I thought I saw a faint smile. But then it disappeared as quickly as it had appeared. “Thank you” she said. I nodded. “Is there anything else I can bring you? I have the time and…” “No, thanks.” I started back toward the door. “You still have my number. Call me if you need anything or want to talk or whatever” I said. “I will. Thanks.” And that was it. I left as I had promised. As much as I wanted to stay and as normal as it would have been to insist on some answers, I did neither. I just nodded and went home.

I fought the temptation to call her. She didn’t call that night or even the next day. I was regretting my decision to give her some space. But I didn’t really have a choice. I had pushed my way into her affairs even though we barely knew each other. To her, I was just some guy at work. Some guy who couldn’t take a hint to just fuck off and leave her alone.

But, eventually, she called me. It took three long days of waiting and wondering what the hell was going on. But she called me. “Hey” she said. “Christina?” “Yes.” “Are you OK? Do you need anything?” I asked. “No. I just wanted to thank you for all the food. The Ceveche was really good.” “I’m glad you liked it.” There was an awkward silence. I knew she was going to hang up if I didn’t say something quickly. “Are you feeling any better?” I asked. I still had no idea what was even wrong with her. If it was physical or a psychological thing, or what. “Not really.” “Is there anything I can do to help?” I asked. “No.” I expected her to say goodbye and hang up right away but she didn’t. I didn’t know how to react.

I grappled for something to says so that she would stay on the line. I told her a little about work and some annoying things that had happened on my recent shifts. Then I realized that my complaining was probably the last thing she needed to hear. So, I started talking about my neighborhood and what it was like. I told her that she might find it interesting even though she would probably be horrified. I just kept rambling, trying to fill the silence. My own words sounded trite and dull to me. I worried that I was blowing it. She had given me a chance to talk with her and I was making a mess of it.

“I’m sorry. Am I boring the shit out of you?” I asked. “No.” “Are you sure?” I asked. “I’m sure” I kept talking for another twenty minutes. More rambling about the Guatemalan food and Korean barbeque places. She hardly said a word. When I stopped for a second, it was completely quiet. “Christina? Are you still there?” I asked. “Yes” she said. There was a long pause. “But I need to go. Thank you. For everything.” “Christina, are you OK?” I asked. She didn’t answer. “Thank you” she said again. She was about to hang up.

“Wait!” I said. She didn’t say anything but stayed on the line. “Can I come by again, sometime?” I asked. “I don’t think that’s a good idea” she said. “Why?” “I just don’t.” “Will you call me if you change your mind? I’ll bring more food.” There was another pause in the conversation. “Maybe” she said. It was as good as I was going to do. The whole conversation left me even more uneasy than I was. It was if she wanted to come out and tell me something or ask for something but wasn’t able to do it. She had reached out to me for help and I had let her down. It was a feeling I hated and I vowed to myself I would never let it be like that again.

The boredom of my shift at Gilda’s that night was interrupted by a call over the radio. It was Mark, up top by the door. “Dennis is going off on somebody in the alley” Mark said. I ran up the stairs and made my way outside. I was just in time to see Dennis holding some guy down to hit him again and again in the ribs. Mark and Toj were just standing there watching and trying to talk Dennis down. “Dude, enough” Mark said. I jumped in and grabbed Dennis. He came close to elbowing me in the chin. I wasn’t happy and tossed him into the wall. I got right in his face “Enough!” I yelled. Dennis was still a steroid crazed animal wanting to hurt things. He seemed ready to have a go at me. Then he saw Keith show up.

Keith looked at the guy lying on the ground. He was conscious but holding his face. “What happened?” Keith asked. Dennis started babbling an answer. “The guy started taking a piss right there on the front of the club. When I told him to stop, he told me to fuck off.” “So you did that to him?” Keith said in amazement. “He tried to swing at me!” Dennis protested. I looked around. Since it was the early part of the evening there weren’t any customers outside. Customers that could testify against Dennis if and when he was charged with assault. Mark and Toj said they didn’t see how it had started. They were on the door.

The guy on the ground moved his hands and we saw his face for the first time. It was beat to shit. “Jesus, Dennis” I heard Keith mutter. “Go inside and wait for me in the office” he told Dennis. “But he started to…” Keith didn’t even let him finish the sentence. “Inside!” he yelled. Dennis moved along and went in. A scolded little child sent to the Principal’s office. I don’t think I had ever heard Keith yell at anyone, ever, the entire time I had known him before that. “You guys. Back to the door” Keith told Mark and Toj. They did, whispering between themselves about what they had seen.

“Michael, help me get this guy up and into the garage. We opened the gate and walked the guy in. He was clearly trashed out of his mind and his face all swollen and puffy. We got him inside and out of sight. Keith started talking to him. “Look, we can handle this one of two ways. If you want, we can call the police and have them get involved in this whole thing. They’re going to want to know why you were pissing right on the front of the club and why you swung at my guy.” “I didn’t swing!” the guy protested. His words were muffled from the swelling. “Well, we have other people that say otherwise.” “They’re lying!” Keith looked at him right in the eye. “OK. If you really want me to call the police, we can do that. Is that what you’re telling me to do?” The guy didn’t answer. I chimed it.

“Don’t make this hard on yourself. You’ll make some trouble for us but nothing like you’ll cause to yourself. You could get charged with assault. We see it all the time. Two guys go at it, BOTH are taken in. Is that what you want?” The guy didn’t answer. “What’s your name?” Keith asked him. “Ben” “What do you do for a living, Ben?” Keith asked. Ben didn’t answer. “Whatever it is, an arrest for assault can’t be good for you. People have a way of looking down on such things.” Ben stayed quiet. His face was still continuing to swell up. Keith continued. “If I were you, I would go home and hope this whole thing just goes away.” “But that asshole…” I cut him off. “Ben, be smart about this.”

Ben was drunk as hell, in pain and pissed off. He was angry about taking the beating and angry about not feeling like he could do anything about it. In truth, he could have made life very difficult for Dennis. And part of me hoped he would do just that because Dennis deserved it. But something like that made us all look bad. The security company could have even lost the contract over it. Ben finally said something again. “Just let me out of here” he said. “So, we’re good? You don’t want medical attention or to get the cops involved or anything?” Ben shook his head. “Just let me out of here.” We walked him around to the side entrance were he could leave without attracting too much attention. Ben slowly walked away.

The punch line to the story didn’t come until long after Ben had cleared the bar and started to make his way home. It turned out there was a very good reason Ben couldn’t take the risk of getting charged with assault. He would have lost his job immediately and been, more or less, unemployable. The hostess, Gemma, recognized him from her old job. It turned out that Ben was a bouncer at a club on Sunset. Perfect. Ben and Dennis. Two morons just made for each other to clash in the night.

For the next couple of days, I tried to just get on with my life. I worried about Christina and thought about forcing my way into her apartment to see her again. But I knew the best thing I could do was just wait. Eventually, she would call. Maybe. But the waiting sucked. There is nothing worse than not knowing. Better to get the bad news quickly and straight up to be kept wondering. The time gives you too much time to think. Too much time to worry. Every horrible scenario possible in my head played out. Christina had quit for a reason. I just hoped that reason had nothing to do with Kyle and his business.

She called about four days later. Her voice still sounded weak but it was better. A lot better than the way it was that first time I had seen her through the crack in the door. She asked me if I still wanted to come over to see her. I left almost immediately.

Christina opened the door right away. Her place was picked up a little and the bed was made. She was wearing jeans and a t-shirt that said something about “The Windy City Rollers.” From the image on it, I assumed it was some sort of roller derby thing. Christina still looked like hell though. Her eyes were sunken into her head and she had huge, dark circles under her eyes. “When’s the last time you slept?” I asked. “Do I look that bad?” “Yes.” She smiled a little bit. “Gee. Thanks.” “That’s not what I meant.” She looked at me. “I know.” But then she didn’t say anything more and I didn’t ask.

She offered me some left over Thai food from the other day but warned me that she wasn’t sure if it was still good. I declined and offered to go out and get us something else. She told me that right now she just wanted to hang out for a while as long as I didn’t mind. She apologized if that seemed strange or weird to me. I told her it didn’t and I was happy to stay as long as she wanted.

We didn’t do much of anything for the next few hours. She turned the TV on but neither one of us really watched. It felt strange to be there with her. But at the same time, wonderful. She needed me. Even though we were, more or less, strangers, she was reaching out and had chosen me to help her cope with whatever she was going through. It was a feeling a liked. What I didn’t like was not knowing why or what was going on with her.

Finally, around nine at night, Christina turned the TV off. “Can I ask you a favor?” she said. “Anything.” “Would you mind just talking to me about something while I try to sleep. I haven’t been able to very much lately.” “Sure. What do you want me to talk to you about?” “It doesn’t matter. Your neighborhood. Where you grew up. Anything.” I nodded. She walked over to the bed on the far side of the room and climbed in. I stayed right were I was in the chair. I started to tell her what it was like growing up in New York and how much I loved Christmas there. She fell asleep three minutes in.

I woke up in the chair around midnight to the sound of Christina crying. “Christina? Are you OK?” I asked. She didn’t answer. Her face was turned away from me so I couldn’t see her. I got up from the chair and walked over. She was sobbing. “Hey, it will be OK.” I put my hand gently on her shoulder. She pulled herself into a ball. “Sorry. Sorry” I stammered. I sat there, unsure what to do. I didn’t move. I didn’t say anything. I just waited. Finally, Christina relaxed a little. She uncurled her body and looked at me. “I’m sorry” she said. “It’s OK. What’s wrong?” I asked. She just shook her head “no.” Whatever it was, she wasn’t ready to talk about yet. I had a feeling that I already knew. And I hated it.

Christina had fallen back asleep around four. I had followed suit on her loveseat, shortly afterward. But neither of us slept very well. I wasn’t sure who got up first but I remember looking at the clock and seeing that it was only around quarter to seven. “You should sleep more” I said. She was already getting up. “No, I need tea. Do you want some?” she asked. “Sure.” She filled a small kettle with water. She looked exhausted. I couldn’t have looked all that great myself, given the circumstances.

I noticed her staring at me. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “Nothing. I just shouldn’t have asked you to come here.” I stood up and walked toward her. “Why?” I asked. “I hardly know you…” “I’m glad you did” I said. She said something under her breath as she turned around to get the tea cups. “What was that?” I asked. “Nothing” she said. She looked at me as if she was deciding something. “You’ve been great. The food. Everything but I don’t want you to get the wrong idea.” “What idea would that be? That you used me to deliver amazing Ceveche to your door?” I joked. She didn’t say anything. I walked closer until I was directly across the counter from her.

“Christina, look at me a second.” She glanced up but then averted her eyes again. “Christina, look at me.” She did. “I’m not here to hit on you and I don’t expect anything, alright? I’m here as your friend. That’s it. OK?” She didn’t seem to believe me. “You seem like you could really use one right now. So, why don’t you stop worrying about the rest of it and just deal with whatever it is you’re trying to deal with.” “And you would be OK with that?” she asked. “What do you mean?” If I never became your girlfriend, that’s alright with you? You’d really be fine with that?” Her words weren’t a question so much as an accusation. I started to get annoyed. I had done nothing wrong. I was trying to help the kid out and getting the third degree for it. But she kept looking at me, waiting for an answer. I didn’t bother to give her one. I expected her to asked me to leave. She didn’t. And I didn’t suggest it.

We didn’t say much to each other the rest of the morning. More bad television. More just sitting around. I sat in the chair the entire time. Christina stayed in the little love seat. She fell asleep somewhere around ten. I had a shift that night. Around one in the afternoon I texted that I couldn’t make it because I wasn’t feeling well. Keith would be pissed but I didn’t care. Compared to this thing with Christina, the rest seemed trivial.

She woke up around two. I needed a shower and a clean change of clothes. I told her I needed to run home for a bit. I promised to come back later with some food. There was no good-bye. Just a forced smile. The sleep had done her a world of good but it would take a lot more than that before she was ready to get on with her life.

It felt good to shower and shave. My thoughts alternated between the joy of spending some time with Christina and the thought of what I believed had happened to her. She was a wreck. I was pulled out of it a little by an angry message from Keith. I felt like shit for bailing on him and making him scramble to cover my slot. But it had to be done. In the scheme of things, spending time with Christina mattered a lot more than tossing women out of Gilda’s for puking.

That evening I headed right back to her place. As I had promised, I stopped by a Vietnamese place on Main to get us some chow before coming back. It had been there forever but they had gone from cheap ethnic eats to not a not so cheap, fancier place. When they upgraded the interior from something that looked like an old McDonalds to their current slick new look, they also upped all the prices two to or three dollars an item. I took the food right over and knocked on Christina’s door. There was no answer.

I knocked again. Still nothing. I went nuts and knocked on the door again and again. No reply. I tried calling her and got her voice mail. I tried texting. Nothing worked. All I could think about was that she had hurt herself. Horrible visions in my head of her by the bed with an empty bottle. Or on the bathroom floor with blood gushing out of her wrists. I don’t know why my mind went there but it did. But, at the time, I was sure she had tried to kill herself.

I was tempted to try to break the door down. Then Christina got off the elevator. “Where were you?” I asked a little too aggressively. From the look on her face I could see it was a mistake. “Sorry” I said. “I was just really worried about you. I called too” I added. “Oh, sorry. I didn’t hear it. I had to go somewhere.” “Where?” I asked. She stopped right there in the hallway. “I really appreciate everything you’ve done but…” I cut her off. “No, I’m sorry. You’re right. It’s none of my business. I was just so worried about you when you didn’t answer the door.” “Why?” I didn’t answer the question. My face must have given it away though. She figured it out. She realized what sort of things I was probably thinking when she didn’t answer. She stopped for a second and looked at me as if she wanted to say something important to me. But she didn’t. Whatever it was, she still wasn’t ready to talk about it. She just unlocked the door and said “Come, on in. I’m starving.”

I noticed that the bag she had was from the drug store. I couldn’t make out any of the contents and wanted to make sure I didn’t appear to be trying to. Christina got us some plates and glasses. We ate at her counter.

After we were done, she just sat there a second. I was about to start cleaning up when she said it. When she confirmed the very thing that I had feared. Three simple words which didn’t come close to the impact of their meaning. “I was raped.”

I sat there and just waited for the words to come out. There were no tears. There was no drama. It was all strangely calm, as if she were describing something that had happened to someone in a movie. She laid it out for me. She worked right up until close Tuesday night. My night off. Nick was there. Deborah wasn’t. Nick invited Christina up to his mother’s office for a minute. She declined but Nick insisted. She said she never felt in danger because Keith and several other people were still there at the time. She went up to the office and Nick offered her a drink. She took a few sips as she made small talk with him and planned to leave as quickly as possible. Then she started to feel dizzy.

She woke up on the sofa in the office. The room was dark and Nick was gone. She immediately sensed that something was wrong. Her clothes were still on but not quite correctly. And then she realized what it was. She could feel it all over her body. Nick had drugged her and raped her.

She went home and took a long shower as she tried to scrub him off of her. I wanted to ask her how she could be absolutely sure she was raped. I wanted to ask what the hell she was thinking even going into the office alone with him. Or taking a shower instead of calling the Police. But I didn’t ask any of those things. At least not right then. I just wanted her to get it out.

Something else crossed my mind as she talked. If she tried to press charges against Nick, Deborah’s friends might get involved. Her friends at LAPD and her friend Kyle. I had to know what Christina planned to do. Days had gone been since it happened. But maybe she would still do it. Maybe she would still go to the Police.

It had to be her call but she needed to know all the facts. She needed to realize what she was up against if she tried go after Nick. I doubted she would do that after all that time but I had to make sure. Maybe now that she was feeling stronger she felt like she had to report it.

“Do you plan on going to the police?” I asked. She stared down at the floor. “I know I should. But. You think I should, don’t you?” “No. I don’t, actually.” I said. She seemed surprised by my answer. “That’s not what I expected to hear” she said. I didn’t elaborate. “I’m such an idiot” she said. “No. You’re not. You didn’t do anything wrong. He did.” “But I took a shower. I knew even when I was doing it, I should have called the police right after but I just wanted to get him off of me.” “Don’t beat yourself up over it” I said. “I shouldn’t have taken a shower. I never even should have gone up there, alone with him.” She started shaking her head a little, back and forth. Blaming herself for everything that had happened. “It’s not your fault” I insisted. She didn’t seem to believe me.

And then I did something I wonder to this day if I should have done. I told her everything I knew about Gilda’s. I laid it out for her in black and white. I wanted her to know that it wouldn’t have mattered if she had reported it or not. The shower didn’t matter. None of it mattered. No matter what she would have done, it wouldn’t have made a difference. Nick was untouchable.

I told her about Kyle and the money laundering. I told her about the drugs and the connections Deborah had with LAPD. I told her about my awkward conversations with Deborah and how she was trying to get me more deeply involved. I told her everything I could to let her know that going to the police might be a mistake.

Christina was blown away. It had the exact opposite effect I had intended. I had told her all of that to calm her down. To let her know that whether she took a shower or not was irrelevant. It was to convince her that her decision not to report it was the right one even if it was for all the wrong reasons. But it all just made her frightened. She already felt victimized and helpless and I had done a bang up job of making it ten times worse.

“Then he could do it again. To me. To one of the other girls. He can do whatever he wants and get away with it.” She was terrified. “No, he won’t” I said. “But everything you just said…” “I know what I said. She seemed confused. I didn’t repeat my statement. I just reassured her that she would be alright. “No, I know you’re trying to calm me down but it won’t be alright. As long as he’s out there, it can’t be. Don’t you see that?” Yeah, I saw that. I saw that clear as day, long before she had. And I told her so.

“He won’t do it again” I said. She started to argue but then she saw my expression. I made her a promise, right then and there. One that I never had to say out loud. She saw it in my eyes and she knew. She had always known. I would do whatever it took, no matter what it cost. Even kill for her.

Christina fell asleep again, shortly afterward. She slept soundly. No nightmares. No waking up terrified that Nick was there. I just sat in the chair and watched her. She didn’t deserve what happened to her. Maybe she should have just stayed in Chicago and stayed out of the whole mess. She couldn’t have seen it. There are scumbags and assholes everywhere but in L.A. they’re a special breed. The nicer they seem and the more they smile the more dangerous they are. Nick was too stupid to be good at it. But his mom wasn’t. Deborah knew every angle and knew how to play people in just the right way. Getting revenge on Nick would be easy. I could break the little prick in two any time I chose. But getting away with it was going to be next to impossible.

Deborah wouldn’t let the cops rest until they found out who had killed her baby boy. Her sick, little, twisted, baby boy who had raped an innocent young girl. Or maybe Deborah wouldn’t even bother with the cops. Maybe the issue would be handled as a personal favor by Kyle and his friends. Either way, it was going to be challenging.

I started to consider how much that even mattered. So what if I got caught? Just off the degenerate punk and let the chips fall where they may. But that seemed like a sucker’s game. There had to be a way to do it and get away with it. Some way to murder Nick, scott free. For a second I even started to imagine how much pleasure it would give me to know I had killed him and to stare Deborah in the face in her office. In the office where he had done what he had done. Deborah wasn’t directly involved. But, right then I hated her almost as much as I hated Nick. She was the one who brought Nick into this world. She was the one that let him run around his whole life like a little prince. In my mind, she was almost as responsible for what had happened as he was.

I had to play it smart. The one thing I had going for me was that I had no obvious motive. As far as people knew, I had only a very casual, work relationship with Christina. More importantly, nobody would know what Nick had done to her. He had committed a serious crime and would keep it quiet. Or would he? He was just the type to brag to his friends about it. How he had picked out one of the girls for his own amusement and then discarded her. About how he could do it anytime he felt like it to Christina or anyone else. They were his playthings…I had to stop my train of thought. I needed to think clearly. To logically deal with the task at hand.

The question became how and when. As much as I loved the idea of just putting a gun to his head and pulling the trigger, it was a bad way to go. For one thing, I had no idea where to get a gun. I probably knew some people that knew some people, but it was going to be complicated and leave a long trail. Not to mention, the sound of a gun going off tended to attract a lot of attention.

Stabbing him would be a better option, but that meant getting close. And he might scream. No, he would scream. He was the sort that would cry and kick with his last breath like a little pussy. And the blood. All the blood. I had a vision of myself covered in his blood standing above his lifeless body. I reveled in it. I could think of no happier image in the world. But I knew it was just a fantasy.

As much as I wanted to feel Nick dying in my hands, to see him suffer with every stab of the knife or cut into his flesh, it couldn’t be like that. It couldn’t be about rage and revenge. It had to be done right.

I woke up to find Christina standing over me. After I had woken up a little, I realized I had been asleep the entire night. It was Wednesday morning already. “I made you some tea” she said. She handed me a cup of the hot, green liquid. I didn’t like tea much to begin with. The fact that hers was some green stuff that tasted like grass didn’t help change that opinion. But I took the offering and tried to drink some of it down.

She sat on the edge of the sofa. The sleep had done her good. “How’s your back?” she asked. “What do you mean?” “Doesn’t it hurt from sleeping in the chair all night?” she asked. “It’s fine.” I tried to get a read on how she was. Better, yes. But I wasn’t sure I felt right leaving her alone again, yet. I finally just came out and asked her. “Listen, I need to do some things. But if you want me to get you some food or whatever or just stick around more, I can do that.” She touched my arm. “No, thanks. Please go do what you need to do and get back to your own life. I’m fine.” I looked at her. She was anything but fine and just trying to put a brave face on it. I felt like hell leaving her alone again, but I had to get home.

When Christina walked me to the door, I thought she was going to hug me or something. She had that sort of look on her face. But she didn’t. She just smiled a little and said “thanks.” That was it. I don’t know why it bothered me so much but it did. Maybe I expected more. Some sign that she knew how much I cared about her and how far I was about to go to try to make her life livable again. I got none of it.

For a moment, I reconsidered everything. Maybe the best thing to do was just to leave it alone. Stay out of Gilda’s. Stay away from Nick. Maybe the best thing to do was to just let it all go and to try to be there for her. A friend to tell her stories and to bring her Pho. But she had said it. She had come right out and said it. As long as Nick was out there it could never be alright. Her life could never really go on. I kept to the plan and went to Gilda’s that night.

The next evening Christina and I met for dinner at a sushi place. It was her first time out for anything, other than a running few errands, in a while. I got to the restaurant twenty minutes early but I didn’t care. I was tired and just wanted to sit somewhere. It also gave me time to think.

I still hadn’t figured out how I was going to do it. I thought about a hit and run. But the odds of being seen or damage to the car being discovered were too great. Not to mention, the little bastard might live. The idea of it looking like an accident was good though. Maybe something with his drugs. An overdose. That would work. But I had no idea where to get drugs, myself. I would have to ask around which was bad news. If I was going to make him OD it would be best if it was with his own supply. How was I going to make that work?

For a moment I considered the morality of what I was contemplating. I was sitting in a restaurant trying to find the best means of committing murder. But it wasn’t murder in this case. At least, not in my book. It was no more murder than a judge sentencing someone to the death penalty. Harsh yes. But not unreasonable. Nick had committed a crime and would never be found guilty for it through normal channels. Deborah had too much money and too many connections for that. I was just stepping in to correct that error. It had to be done.

As for the fear of getting caught. Yeah, that worried me. I had no desire to spend the rest of my life in jail. But that just motivated me to make sure I found a plan that worked. A plan that I could be sure I could get away with so that I could get on with my life after it was all over. It was right then that Christina walked in. She looked incredible.

She wasn’t wearing anything all that fancy. She looked nothing like the way the women who got all dolled up for Gilda’s. It was just jeans and some sort of light sweater. And she had put a little make-up on. It didn’t take much for a girl as beautiful as her to shine. I was mesmerized and thrilled. It had been a long time since I had seen her like that. It was a good sign. But the moment she sat across from me I could still see it. That look in her eyes. That look that reminded me that something had been taken from her and that the person that did it was still out there.

We had a great dinner. Decent fish. Beer and sake. Christina even made fun of me for my inept use of chop sticks. To anyone looking on, it would have seemed like a normal couple out on a date. But we weren’t a couple, of course. Not in the way people thought, anyway. And what we talked about wasn’t the usual banter about favorite movies or the last book we read.

“Thank you for everything” she said. I thought she meant the dinner at first. “No problem. I’m glad to see you’re feeling better” I said. She didn’t say anything. “You are feeling better, right? I mean, you look a lot better…” “Yeah” she said unconvincingly. “Not really. I mean, I am but it’s not the sort of thing that just goes away.” I didn’t know how to reply. She continued. “I’m sorry. I actually wanted to tell you how grateful I was for everything you’ve done and to tell you something else. Actually not tell you so much as ask you.” “OK” I said. “What?”

She poked at a piece of ginger with her chop sticks. “After I told you about Nick and what had happened, you said you would take care of it.” I actually didn’t remember saying that. In fact, I was sure I hadn’t. At least not like that. But I guess she knew what I was implying. Or close enough. Because she asked for more details. “What did you mean by that?” A thousand different answers raced through my head. But I told her the right one. The one that would leave her free and clear of things if it turned into a mess. “Nothing. Just that I would try to be there for you.” She looked at me. She almost seemed disappointed. “Oh.” “Did you think I meant something else?” I asked. “No” she lied. “I wasn’t sure. But…” She drifted off.
“Do they have dessert here?” she asked. She was trying to move on but I could tell she had something she had to put out there. I should have just let it go. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. “Christina, what is it? What is it you really wanted to ask me?” She shook her head. “No, it’s nothing. Forget it.” “Christina. I thought you knew by now that you could trust me with anything. I thought I had proven that to you” I said. “I know. And you have. You’ve been so great. Which is why…” “Why what?” There was a long pause as she found her words. She finally came out with it.

“After I told you what happened I almost felt like you were promising to kill him. I know that sounds ridiculous but that’s the impression I got.” I would have expected my heart to race being asked, flat out, if I planned to commit murder. But it was the opposite. Everything slowed down. It was calm and perfect. I could see her and me, there, together. I could see her eyes looking into mine. I could hear the music faintly in the background. Everything was somehow heightened and frozen in time. It was then that I did the most selfish thing I may have ever done in my life. I told her the truth. “Yes, I am.”

I had no idea how she would react. She could tell me I was crazy. She could go talk to the police about me. She could hug me and tell me I was the greatest man she had ever met. She did none of those things. She just looked back down at the table and started playing with the little piece of ginger again. “I can’t ask you to do that” she said. “You didn’t ask” I reminded her. “You know what I mean” she said. “You didn’t ask. And, honestly, the best thing you could do for yourself is to end this conversation right here, walk out that door and make sure you never have any contact with me again.” She looked at me trying to understand how it was possible I was saying all the things I was to her.

She tried to dissuade me. “I’m not going to let you do that. I know you want to. I want you to. But you can’t” she said. “Why not?” She got animated and angry. “Because you’ll go to jail for the rest of your life. I’m not going to ask you to do that” she said. “But you want him dead. You just said so.” “No, I don’t. I mean, I think about it all the time but that’s different from actually doing it for real.” “Yes, it is” “I can’t let you do that” she insisted. “Why? Because Nick doesn’t deserve it?” I asked. “He deserves that and a whole lot worse. But you can’t do that. You just can’t. I’m not going to let you throw away your life like that” she said. I went back to my earlier point. “We really need to stop talking about this. I’ll get the check. Go home, Christina. Think about moving back to Chicago or something. You’re young enough to make a life for yourself anywhere.” She started to get even more angry.

“I’m not going to be responsible for this.” I brought my voice down to almost a whisper to try to calm her down. “You’re not responsible. You never asked me to do anything. You have told me now, repeatedly, that you don’t want me to harm Nick. You’re off the hook.” “Off the hook? Is that what you think this is all about? Giving myself an out?” “I don’t know. Maybe.” It was something I probably shouldn’t have said but I did. I had given her out after out and she had refused to take them.

My own anger showed through. She needed to realize how serious this was and to understand the legal implications of our conversation. “Christina, we’re either done talking about this or you’re going to cross a line you can’t walk back from. Do you understand that? There is no middle ground on this thing.” “I’m not going to let you assume all the responsibility for this” she said. For all her protests, I knew that she needed this. As long as Nick was alive she could never go on with her life. In fact, those were her exact words just days ago. “As long as Nick is out there, it won’t ever be alright.” It had to be done. She just needed to keep out of the way and go on with her life and it would be.

“I’ll go to the police” she said. “About Nick? They aren’t going to do anything. There’s probably not even enough there to press charges.” “No, about you!” she said. She stared right at me. “I’ll tell them what you told me. I’ll tell them you’re planning to kill someone.” It was all or nothing time. If I got it wrong, it would be the biggest mistake of my life. But I knew the truth and I told her as much. I said the very thing she didn’t want to hear. The thing she had to face for the plan to move ahead. “No, you won’t. You want Nick dead even more than I do.”

She didn’t say much after that. I got the check and I paid it. “I meant what I said about you leaving town. Be smart and make sure you stay clear of all this” I said. She laughed in disgust. “Stay out of it? How can I stay out it? It’s about me.” “You didn’t ask me for anything. Just remember that. If the police catch on and talk to you about this conversation, just tell them you didn’t take me seriously. You thought I was just trying to impress you in my own, misguided way.” I said. “Why would you do that?” she asked. “Because he deserves it” I said. “No. Why do you keep telling me to stay out of it? Don’t you want me to be with you? Isn’t that the real point?” she asked. I didn’t answer. “This is the last time I’m going to say it. Leave town and forget about this whole conversation.” I left money for the check and took off.

I hadn’t planned for things to go the way they had. Christina and I might never be together. That’s just the way it was. But I would do still this for her. I would do still this for both of us. I was sick and tired of rich little punks like Nick who got away with things. Whatever lies they told you in school about all men being equal was just that, lies. You have money, you can do whatever the hell you want in this world. You don’t, get used to fighting for scraps and always being on the short end of the stick. Money buys it all: the influence, the cops, the right lawyers, the right to do anything you damn well please whenever you feel like it. The law was for little people. Something to keep the riff-raff in line while the rich got richer scamming their way to their next billion.

I had just gotten to my car, down the block from the sushi place, when I saw Christina following me. I waited for her to catch up. She reached me and she stood there without saying anything. I finally spoke. “What is it?” I asked. “I need to know if you’re serious about this? Are you really going to go through with this?” I didn’t answer. “I’m not going to turn you in to the police. I just want to know. All this stuff you’re talking about. You’re serious?” she asked. “You already know the answer to that.” And then Christina crossed that line. The one I had warned her about. “How do you plan to do it?”

I asked her to get into my car instead of just driving off like I should have. I told her again, the best thing she could do was to stop asking questions and to just walk away but I already knew that she wouldn’t listen. Maybe I always did. She reminded me that this was about something that had happened to her, not me. A horrible thing that made her involved, whether she wanted to be or not. It could have been a trap. A way of finding out how serious I was about planning a murder. About getting enough details to have something more solid to go to the police with. But I took that chance. I told her everything I had been thinking. Somehow, I knew she wouldn’t turn me in. Between her hatred for Nick and whatever it was she felt for me, I just couldn’t see it. So, I laid it out for her. Right there in my car just sitting in the parking lot.

“I need to find a way to make him OD” I said. “Like pump him full of heroin or something?” “Heroin or whatever else he normally takes” I replied. “How are you going to do that?” “I don’t know yet. I’d love to just shoot him up with his own drugs but I’m not sure that’s going to work.” “You mean, holding him down or whatever while you inject him?” she asked. “That and making sure I have the drugs to begin with. It would be great if he had them right there but what if he doesn’t?” I asked. And on it went, question after question from her about the details. How to overcome the obstacles. How to kill someone and get away with it on a purely practical level. Just another puzzle to be solved.

Christina started to help me find answers. For one thing, she knew where I could find the drugs. “Deborah keeps some in her safe. I walked in on her once and saw it.” “No, she doesn’t. She made a big point to me how drugs aren’t ever kept at Gilda’s. It’s just about the money.” “Except for hers. Not ones to sell but to use for fun” she said. “How much was it? What was it?” I asked. “I don’t know. It was brown powder.” “Heroin? Deborah doesn’t shoot heroin!” “I know that’s what I saw. A little sandwich bag of it.” “You sure it was hers?” I asked. “Why does it matter who’s it was?” she asked. “You’re right, you’re right. Maybe she snorts it or maybe she just keeps it around for special clients.” “But that leads to another problem” she said. “What’s that?” “We would need to get into the safe.” I remembered that day in Deborah’s office. My first introduction into her sordid little world. “That’s not a problem I know the combo.”

Our discussion went on like that for over an hour. Possible problems raised. Solutions found. And then Christina turned to me with a very serious look on her face. “We’re really going to do this, aren’t we?” she asked. The “we” shook me. I shouldn’t have involved her. I should have had the strength to just keep my mouth shut and do it but I didn’t. I was about to try one more time to tell her she should stay clear of it from here on out. But before I could say it she leaned over and kissed me. A warm, passionate kiss.

We stayed like that for another hour just kissing. Just thinking about the crime we were about to commit and the bastard we were about to kill. It was one of the best moments of my entire life.

It was only the poorly timed patrol of the parking lot attendant that pulled me away from Christina. She was smiling. “Sorry, I don’t usually do that” she said. “Do what? Show me again?” I joked. She grabbed my hand. Then her expression changed. “What if they catch us?” she asked. I knew she was looking for reassurance but I wasn’t going to mislead her. “Then we’re fucked.” She nodded.

“Where to now?” I asked. “What do you mean?” “Do you want to go out somewhere still? A bar or something? Do you want to come over to my place for a while?” “I hadn’t really thought about it” she replied. I gave her a minute to figure it out. She suddenly got very serious. Maybe the reality of what we were talking about finally hit her. “What’s wrong?” I asked “I’m not sure how you’re going to react” she said. “To what?” “I want you to come over again. Or go to your place. Whatever. But I’m not sure I can” she said. “Can what? Come over? What do you mean?” I wasn’t sure what she was trying to say. “I want to be with you. I want you to come over and stay with me. But I’m just not sure I’m ready.” I didn’t say anything. “Not because of you. I want to be with you. I do. But because of what happened.” “OK” I said. She seemed confused by my response. “So, how about I just stay with you the way I have been? On the sofa, again, tonight?” “You’re OK with that?” she asked. “Yeah.” She leaned over and kissed me again as she wrapped her arms around me.

We made it back to her place in just a few minutes. We didn’t talk anymore about our plans with Nick. We actually didn’t talk to much about anything the rest of the night. Instead, we did what we did most nights. Watched a little TV and went to sleep. I kept hoping that I would wake up to find Christina on top of me having changed her mind and gotten over her fears. But it didn’t happen. She stayed were she was and slept. Soundly from what I could tell.

For me though, the night was a strange brew of joy and anxiety. I felt so damn close to Christina, even then. Like she was someone I had known for decades. Honestly, I still knew very, very little about her. I didn’t know if she had any brothers or sisters. I didn’t know what her childhood house was like. I didn’t if there was a boyfriend back in Chicago that had been the love of her life. I could ask. I would ask, eventually. But right then, I knew none of it. I just knew there was the two of us and this thing we were going to do together that would change our lives.

And then my nerves started up. The anxiety wasn’t over killing him or not. It was about the details. They weren’t adding up to me. The timing would have to be perfect to get Nick, alone, in that office, with nobody else around. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that Nick would probably never be alone in the club. Even when he had done what he did to Christina there were other people in the club when he started. And then the plan came to me. It was still risky. Too risky. With a high chance of getting caught. And there was an even bigger problem. Christina would have to play a key role. She would have to lure him to the office and drug him the way she had been drugged.

The plan might work but I hated it. I didn’t want Christina there for the actual crime. Doing things that way would make her the centerpiece of it. I didn’t want to do that to her. It was bad enough she was as involved as she was. I needed to find a way to do the deed myself. I tried all night to come up with better plans. None of them seemed to work. Finally, around six in the morning, I fell asleep.

I woke up a couple hours later. Christina was still in bed. My back was killing me, so I got up and made myself some of the Green Tea Christina loved so much. I still didn’t really like the stuff but had grown used to it enough to drink it when there was no coffee around. The noise must have woken Christina up. I walked over to her as the water was boiling. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you. Go back to sleep. I’ll be quiet.” She mumbled something I didn’t quite understand. “Sorry, I missed that. Just go back to sleep.” “What time is it?” she asked. “Around eight, I think. Go back to sleep.” “No, I’ll get up.” She stretched and sat up. The water was boiling so, I left to turn off the burner.

“Did you want some of your green stuff?” I asked. “Sure. Thanks.” I brought a mug over to her. She set it down on the little, cluttered nightstand on the a far side of the bed. She put out her hand. I didn’t know what she wanted and just stood there. “Come here” she said. She reached out and grabbed my hand. Before I realized what was happening, she was pulling me toward the bed. “Just lie in bed with me for a minute. I’m cold.” Just as I laid down on the bed, she turned her back on me.

It wasn’t what I had been expecting. She backed into me and guided my arms around her. She nudged herself even closer to me. I started kissing the back of her neck. “Don’t do that” she said. I didn’t say anything. “Just hold me.” And I did. Like some sort of devoted little eunuch I somehow buried every sexual impulse I was having. The girl I wanted to be with more than any woman I had ever known was in my arms, in bed, pressed right up against me and I didn’t touch her. I lied there on my side wrapping my body around hers. Feeling the warmth of her body. I just held her like that in my arms until we both fell back asleep.

Being back at Gilda’s for my next shift felt incredibly strange. There was this thing with Nick and there was my relationship with Christina. Whatever that “relationship” was. Everything and everyone at Gilda’s seemed different now. The glittering gold of the club, the period costumes, the women decked out in their fancy clothes all laughing at each other’s jokes…It all seemed so trivial. So meaningless.

Gemma was there and started asking me about Christina. I lied and told her I hadn’t seen her since that time a week ago. Before I had stayed over. Before we had ever talked about Nick. I made up something up about getting an email from her that she was fine and already had some good interviews for gigs at other lounges. Gemma didn’t question it and seemed satisfied with my answers.

Dennis was there but he was at the door and not much of a problem. The same could not be said for Vicky. She was assigned to Dance Hall were I was posted. And she was a total bitch. “How is she?” “Who?” I said. “Christina.” I didn’t want to get into it with her but she wasn’t going to let up. “The last time I heard from her she sent me an email saying she was doing fine. I guess she has already had some good interviews at places.” “They couldn’t have been too good if they didn’t hire her right away. I wonder if she even tells them she used to work here. Probably not. She probably goes with the whole “I’ve got tons of experience in Chicago but am new to town” thing.” I didn’t say anything. “She’s got you all fooled.” I didn’t want to hear it and walked away.

It was shortly afterward that I saw a woman yelling at someone. The woman was a little old for the club. Probably even a little older than me. “Leave me alone” she yelled at some Asian Girl in her twenties. The girl’s boyfriend pulled her away. Then they came right towards me. “That lady is nuts” the boyfriend said. The woman started to yell at two guys in their thirties near Punch Bowl. “It’s all lies. Lies. Lies. Lies! Leave me alone!” Some idiot tried to mess with her because he thought it would be fun. “Yes, it’s all lies. You are a lie” he said. “What do you mean? How am I a lie? I am not a lie.” She started really yelling. “You’re a lie! You’re a lie!” I radioed Keith.

I moved the thirty something morons aside who had been making the situation worse. I tried to talk softly to the woman. “It’s OK” I said. “He’s a lie!!! He’s a lie!!! I stayed calm and put my finger to my lips to shush her. “It’s OK. Just quiet it down a bit. It’s OK.” Keith came over. Much to my displeasure, Dennis was right behind him.

“She’s on something” Keith said. “Call the paramedics.” I wasn’t sure if he was talking to Dennis or me. I didn’t have time to figure it out. “They’re wrong. It’s all wrong! Wrong!” the woman yelled right at me. She started moving erratically, twitching and jerking her limbs in strange ways. A huge crowd had gathered to watch the spectacle. Keith and the others tried to force them back to give me and the crazy woman some space. “It’s OK” I said again. “We’ll work it out. Do you know your name? What’s your name?” She just looked at me. “Tell me your name” I said again.

She leaped right at me. She didn’t touch me but it was the kind of move that I might have reacted to without thinking about it. “What’s your name?!” she said. “Let’s get her down” Dennis said. I turned to him and glared. “No, just back off for a second and give her some space” I said. “The paramedics will be here in a minute. Let’s try to just keep her contained until then.” Thank God, Keith overruled Dennis and agreed with me. Being aggressive with her could have made the situation much worse.

I tried again to talk to her. “My name is Michael. What’s your name?” “She homeless or something? How did she get in here?” Dennis asked. Homeless? I thought. She was wearing clothes from Barney’s or somesuch place and had a purse worth more than my car. “She’s not homeless” I said. “It’s drugs” Keith said again. Dennis moved closer to her. “Whatever, we need to get her down.” “No. Just wait” I insisted. “NO!” she yelled. And then she sat down right there in the center of the floor.

She straightened her left leg and raised it all the way above her head like some warped yoga move. The gathering crowd loved it. There were even a few assholes taking photographs. They couldn’t wait to tell all their friends about the nut job they had watched at Gilda’s. Jackals enjoying the entertainment. I told Keith we needed to get them out of the area and close off the room. He agreed and called in a few more guys to help clear the area. Most were co-operative but a few seemed really put out they couldn’t finish watching the freak show.

The woman continued her strange contortions and rantings. I just talked to her softly and tried to keep her as calm as possible. She kept stretching her limbs out in strange ways as her eyes darted around the room. “You’re a lie!” she yelled, over and over again. The paramedics arrived five, long minutes later. They knew what was wrong with her immediately.
“Diabetic” one said. Keith and I looked at each other. It’s not the answer we were expecting to hear. One of the paramedics, the leader, stepped forward. “Let’s check her blood.” A third paramedic opened a plastic box and got a little instrument out to check her blood level.

“Diabetic?” Keith asked. “Yeah, if their blood sugar drops to a drastically low level, it gets like this. “I never heard that” he said. The paramedic that had the task of checking her blood started to talk to the woman. “We’re going to prick your finger and check your blood. Alright? We’re not going to hurt you. We’re just going to prick your finger.” The woman saw him coming at her and recoiled in total panic. “NO!!!!” “We’re going to need to hold her down” the paramedic said. Keith and Dennis stepped back. “They’re going to help you, OK? Just let them help you” I said. I was guided out of the way.

Six of the paramedics, four of them almost my size, approached her. She backed herself up against the bar and just kept yelling. The put their hands on her, each taking a limb or section of her body and wrestled her to the ground. She screamed. It was then that her eyes locked onto mine with a look that shook me to the core. I saw the terror in them. She thought they were trying to kill her. There was a look of total panic in them as they jabbed her finger and blood came out. She didn’t understand what was happening. People were on top of her and they were hurting her. That’s all she knew. They were hurting her and she couldn’t do anything to make it stop. And the whole time she kept looking right at me.

“No!” she yelled. But this time it didn’t sound loud and aggressive. Not at all. She sounded like a small child. You could hear the fear in her voice. And it only got worse. They confirmed that she had dangerously low blood sugar levels and had to inject her and force IV’s into her. It would snap her out of her diabetic incident but it would be like a trip to hell for her. She kicked and screamed and fought them every step of the way but they had her pinned down tight and she couldn’t stop them. They were hurting her. They were trying to kill her. She just wanted it to stop. But it just went on and on as they jabbed her again and again trying to insert the IVs into her. Eventually, they got them all placed in her veins and held her down as the insulin started to take effect. There were tears in the woman’s eyes. She finally stopped fighting.

Twenty minutes later her eyes changed. The lunatic look was now gone from them. She didn’t look terrified anymore but confused. She was snapping out of her diabetic incident. “Do you know where you are?” one of the paramedics asked. She didn’t answer. “Do you know where you are?” he asked again. “You’re at a bar called Gilda’s. Do you remember coming here?” The woman seemed to snap out of her daze. “You had a diabetic incident and we gave you some insulin. If you can sit still for me a second. I’m going to take the IVs out from your arm. They loosened their grip on the woman. She didn’t resist as they started to pull out the IVs.
“Where am I?” she asked. She sounded perfectly sane. A completely normal tone of voice. “A bar. Gilda’s” the paramedic said. The woman looked at her watch. I remember coming here two hours ago but…” She sat up. She noticed all the people looking at her. The paramedics. Us. People gathering at the entrance of the room. “I’m so embarrassed” she said. Then she thanked the very men that she had thought were trying to kill her just minutes ago.

Against the advice of the paramedics, the woman didn’t even go to the hospital. I guided her out through the Propeller exit and got a cab for her. Along the way, I told her what I had seen and tried to convince her that she really should go to the hospital. She assured me that she would be fine. She also mentioned that she didn’t remember anything between coming into the club and waking up later to see everyone staring at her. She walked out of Gilda’s ten minutes later as if nothing had happened.

I couldn’t help but wonder if those memories were still there locked away in her brain somewhere. The nightmare of being held down by demons and being pricked and prodded and filled full of strange drugs. A vision of Hell that could out do Dante’s. I hoped for her sake, they would stay buried forever.

The next week or so was incredibly frustrating. Christina seemed to recover and stop hiding from the world. But it was all superficial. She would still wake up in the middle of the night from nightmares and memories. She would still insist that she wasn’t ready to have sex again and that I needed to keep being patient. And all the time we plotted and planned. The problem was Nick. He had stopped coming into Gilda’s as often as he used to. The odds of catching him alone seemed increasingly small. And we still had yet to confirm that Deborah kept any sort of drugs in her safe.

“You’re going to need to open her safe and find out” Christina said to me. It sounded logical at first but the more I thought about it the more I dismissed it. Breaking into that safe was an extremely high risk. If we did it once and got away with it, that would be beating the odds. If we did it twice and got away with it, it would be a miracle. Which was the problem with all of it. The more we got into the practical realities of it, the more unrealistic it all started to sound.

The first issue was getting Nick alone. The second problem was knocking him out. The third problem was injecting him with drugs we couldn’t sure would be there. And the fourth one, the one Christina hadn’t really even thought about, was making sure we covered our tracks and got away with it afterward. That meant nobody could see us and we had to stay off of any surveillance footage. I pointed all these issues out to Christina one night at a Mexican place not far from her apartment. It was a strange conversation.

“So, what are you saying? That you don’t want to go through with it?” she asked. “No. What I’m saying is that we have to find a way to do it right.” “Or not do it all?” she replied. It seemed like an odd answer to me. “You think we should do it even though we get caught?” I asked. “No, I’m just surprised how…I just thought it would be easier” she said. “I know. But it’s not. We have to find a way to do this right” I said again. It was then that she put something out there I wish I had never heard. She came up with a way for us to pull it off. It was similar to the one I had thought of and dismissed because it centered on her too much. I didn’t want her that involved. But she had reached the same conclusion I had. She was the one who could manipulate Nick and get him alone. Not me.

“I’ll tell him that I want to see him again” she said. “What?” “I’ll tell Nick I want to see him again and get him alone. Then I’ll drug him the way he drugged me. And then…” I told her all the downsides to her plan. “OK, first of all, he has to believe you would want to see him alone after what he did to you” I pointed out. “He will.” “How can you be so sure?” “He doesn’t think I remember” she said. “He can’t be that dumb.” Christina just looked at me. Yeah, Nick was that dumb and, more than that, had an ego. He would want to believe he had gotten away with it. He might even think Christina liked him so much, she just dismissed the whole incident from her mind. I still wasn’t sure and said so. But we moved on.

“I could try to get him to take me to his place or to a hotel instead of Gilda’s” she suggested. “No. We don’t know those places. A hotel would have too many cameras and their own security people. You would be seen for sure.” She agreed. “Then we do it in the club, like we always said. “How’s that going to work? You’re not there anymore and just stopping by will seem strange, won’t it?” I asked.

“I ask him to stay late, we meet at the club after hours.” “He would do that?” I asked. Christina looked at me. “Yes. He’ll do that. What about the other drugs?” she asked. “What other drugs?” “The ones that knock you out.” “I can get those” I said. I knew enough people that worked clubs that getting a hold of something like that wouldn’t be hard. I would get a lot of jokes about how I needed to knock out my dates to get laid but I would get the ruffies.

Christina started to look worried about something. “What is it?” I asked. “Won’t they be able to tell he was knocked out before he ODd? Isn’t there an autopsy or something?” “Yeah, there is. At least I think there is with any death that doesn’t look like it came from natural causes.” “So?” “But I don’t think if they find traces of all sorts of drugs, including the ruffie in his body, it will stand out. Nick has a documented history of drug abuse and taking anything and everything. I don’t think it will be a problem.” “Are you sure?” she asked. I wasn’t sure. I wasn’t’ sure of anything, when it came down to it. I had never killed anyone before. But it all sounded logical. At least at the time. It all sounded very reasonable and practical. We were going to murder Nick and that was how we were going to do it.

She waited for me to answer her question. Was I sure I was could get the ruffie. “I’m sure” I said. And then Christina smiled. It shook me to the core. This kid I thought was so innocent and pure grinning at the thought of killing someone. Maybe Vicky was right. Maybe Christina was nothing like I thought she was. And then Christina leaned over and kissed me and all my concerns went away.

The last remaining problem was timing. We had no idea when Nick would be back at Gilda’s. Christina would have to convince him to stay late. It didn’t matter if I was scheduled or not. I didn’t need to be at Gilda’s working that night. Even if I was, I would have to leave along with everyone else. Christina would have to let me in later. Which meant Christina would be there alone with Nick from that time she got him up there until she could knock him out and let me in. I started to worry again.

“Are you going to be able to do that?” I asked. “What?” “Convince Nick you want to see him, get him alone and knock him out. It’s going to be just you for all that time.” Christina started to think about it. She tensed up. “Yeah, I can do it. But maybe you should be around, somewhere close. Just in case.” “I can’t be seen skulking around the club after hours the night Nick ODs. You’re going to be on your own.” The fact was, I planned to be right outside, regardless. The risk of being seen was outweighed by the need to be right there in case something went wrong. But I wanted to see how Christina would react. I wanted to see if she really thought she could pull this off. She took a moment to answer. “That makes sense. Alright. I’ll contact you after he’s out cold” she said. “Just open the door. I’ll be there at a certain time and then you let me in.” And so it went. More plans. More talk. More waiting. But it was still all theory. Cheap revenge fantasies that didn’t have to go anywhere. It should have been so easy to just walk away. But it didn’t happen. Everything kept moving forward. Everything became more real. Almost as if it had to be that way from the very beginning.

I got the ruffies from another security guy I used to work with. He worked at a place in Hollywood and took pleasure in confiscating drugs from customers for his own use. It was something he had been doing for years and somehow managed to still get away with. We met in the parking lot of a diner. I asked him again and again if he was sure they were the real deal. He half-joked how my date would be out like a light for days.

I thanked him but declined the offer to get breakfast together. I didn’t want to give him the chance to ask too many questions. As it was, he knew that I worked at Gilda’s. If he ever made the connection between Nick’s OD there and the ruffies, there could be an issue. I doubted that he ever would. And the fact that he had supplied them to me was incentive to make sure he didn’t get involved. But you never knew. It was a connection. One more connection between me and the crime that I would have to hope wouldn’t come back to haunt me.

As for Christina and I, we looked like any other couple with two major exceptions. The obvious one was what we were planning. The second was our sex life. We didn’t have one. We kissed and made out but that was the extent of it. Don’t get me wrong, I loved it. A girl like that in my arms. I couldn’t believe it sometimes. But it also made me want her more and not getting it was starting to become a real issue for me. I kept it to myself and remained patient. But, every now and again the cracks would show and I would let it be known how difficult the situation was getting for me.

Eventually, the problem took care of itself. It was one of those nights over at her place where we shared the bed together. Normally, it was a bittersweet experience of tenderness and total frustration. But one night she turned to me and had this look on her face. That look I’d been waiting for. I took it for a green light. I wasn’t wrong.

She was as gorgeous as I had always imagined. Part of me just wanted to stare at her all night. But nature drove me on. As hungry as I was for her, I was gentle and slow. I was still worried that she was feeling fragile and I didn’t know how she would react to even being touched or caressed. The last thing I wanted was for her to get tense and pull back. But she never did.

Three nights later, Christina told me she had arranged to meet Nick at the club after closing. I asked her how she had pulled that off. “I told him I wanted to talk to him about getting my job back. He reacted just like I thought he would. He asked me to meet somewhere to talk about it.” “He didn’t get suspicious when you said it had to be after closing?” “I didn’t have to. He said it and I just agreed to it.” My stomach turned at the thought of Christina implying that she would have sex with Nick to get her job back. But I had to admit, it was a good angle to play. I think I also like the idea that Nick’s scumbag ways would be the very things that lead to his downfall. If he wasn’t such a sleazebag, killing him would be a lot harder on all counts.

Christina said that she would be there around two or three. Nick would be waiting alone for her. It was all going to happen that night. “Are you sure you’re still up for this?” I asked. “Yes.” “It’s not too late to back out” I said. “Do you want to back out?” she asked. I thought about it a second. Killing Nick would feel good, really good, but get me nothing. I was doing this for her. I wanted to ask if she really still needed this. Hearing her say it would have helped. But I didn’t. I already knew. It had to be done. “No. I don’t want to back out. We’re going to do this” I said. The thought of killing must have done something to her. There was a look in her eyes I hadn’t seen in a long time. The little spark that had been missing. Just knowing Nick would soon be dead was enough to bring it back. Making sure it was a fact, would keep it there.

We talked more about the details. I was on the schedule the night things were to take place. Before I went in, I would make sure to give Christina the ruffies. She would meet Nick alone and slip him the drug. Once he was out, she would open the door to the club and I would do the rest. I would search Nick to see if he had enough drugs on him for an overdose. He often did. If not, I would go to the safe, open it, and take Deborah’s stash. Christina wouldn’t have to do anything but keep watch. Then I would inject him while he was still out. Once it was over, we would both just leave. As for security tapes, there were none in the office but there was one by the front door. But luck was on our side. I had heard from Keith that the whole camera system had been down and was scheduled to be replaced with a far better one. Right now was the perfect window.

Christina brought up the idea of calling 911 after Nick’s OD. Her story would be that she was supposed to meet Nick but by the time she got there he was already dead. It was a smart way to play it but it meant she would be grilled by the cops. And if they found a trace of the Ruffie in his blood, it would mean a whole lot of trouble for her. It might even be enough to bring charges. But if we got out unseen, then it was just Nick being Nick and doing one too many drugs at a time. At least, that was the theory.

There were still potential problems. Nick could have told somebody about his planned meeting with her. Maybe the police would investigate his death like a murder instead of an OD and find the call she had originally made to him. She still had a pretty good out. If the cops asked, she could even tell them about the meeting. She would tearfully explain to them the trade off she was willing to make to get her job back. Then she would say that she was too ashamed and that she couldn’t go through with it. She was sure she could sell it to the cops. I wasn’t so certain. I still wanted to avoid that if at all possible.

It also became clear that hiding our relationship was going to be next to impossible. Too many people had already seen us together. So, we decided to use it the other way. If things broke down and we got asked about where we were the night of the murder, we would use our relationship as cover. If she needed to tell them where she was, she would tell them she couldn’t bring herself to sleep with Nick because she loved me. Which is why she came over to my place instead of showing up for her meeting. It would be her alibi and mine, all nice and tidy. And it all sounded so plausible and so damn human. We would appear to be very flawed and imperfect people. Yes, very much so. But certainly not killers.

By the night everything was supposed to happen, we thought we had all the angles covered. We had back up plans for our back up plans. Our confidence was high. But of course, it never works out the way you thought it would. What we had planned and what actually happened were two very different things.

I had to work a full shift that night. It was the last place I wanted to be. I even thought about calling in sick. But I couldn’t do that. Being there would be a good way to keep tabs on any last minute changes. For instance, Deborah was usually off that night but what if she came in? What if she had one of her late meetings with Kyle. I had to make sure that Christina wouldn’t walk in on that. But she didn’t. As usual, Deborah was off and never came in.

Nick showed up around midnight. Vicky greeted him with a hug and a laugh. It seemed weird, even for her. She hated Nick. She told me time and time again what a slimy little worm he was. Yet, there she was, acting like she was his best friend. She saw me looking at them and seemed amused. The fact that it bothered me must have thrilled her. Anything she could do to get a reaction out of me seemed like a victory to her. I tried to put it out of my mind and focus on Nick. I wasn’t happy that he had showed up so early. I was even less thrilled that he was with two of his drugged out friends.

If his friends were there when he was supposed to meet with Christina, the whole thing had to be off. It was unlikely, unless Nick was so drugged up he forgot about his meeting. The second worry was that he would brag to his buddies about it all. How he had some hot girl wiling to do whatever he wanted just to get her lame job back. The thought disgusted me. It all disgusted me. Even knowing Christina was lying about the whole thing to Nick, it still made me ill because I knew it was close to the truth. There were people like Nick. There were women like Christina pretended to be. Women like Vicky. I put it all out of my mind and just tried to do my job.

Later that night, I tried to imagine again and again what it would be like to inject Nick with a lethal amount of drugs. I just stared at him and pictured it in my head. The needle going into the vain. The little drop of blood. Listening to his breathing stop…I started to tense up. My heart started to race. The reality of what I was about to do suddenly hit. I was about to kill someone.

I couldn’t calm myself down. I was sweating. My heart was racing. Keith walked over and looked at me. My distress must have shown. “You alright?” he asked. I was far from alright. I was planning on committing murder. I was about to do something that could end my life as I know it. Something that could put me in prison until I died. “My stomach is bothering me” I said. “Yeah, you don’t look so hot. Why don’t you take a quick Code Five.” I thanked him and took him up on his offer for the quick personal break. I almost ran upstairs to the employee break room. Tara was in there but I ran right by her and into the bathroom. “You OK?” she asked. “Stomach” I said and shut the door behind me.

I paced for a second in the tiny room but then forced myself to sit down on the toilet seat lid. Tara might have been able to hear. I buried my head in my hands and just thought about the process of killing Nick over and over again. The thought of prison came back to me. I closed my eyes and forced it out. Or tried to. But the panic wouldn’t go away. Finally, I started thinking of Christina. Of our nights together. Of what Nick had done to her. Ever so slowly, anger replaced fear. He had to pay for what he had done. He had to pay and tonight he would. It would work out. It would all work out. Nick would be dead and Christina and I could move on.

I heard a loud knock on the door. “You alright?” It was Tara. “Yeah, thanks. I’ll be fine. Just something I ate” I said. “That sucks. Be careful with that. I had a friend who ended up in the hospital for three days with food poisoning. It can be pretty serious” she said. “Thanks. I will. But I think I’ll be fine.” “OK.” I heard her walk away. The brief conversation with Tara had actually helped calm me down. I could breath again. I was fine. Everything was going to be fine. A few minutes later I returned to post. I even refused the offer to go home early and stayed my full shift. I thought I was just being paranoid but I swear I saw Vicky looking at me and knowing what I had just been through. I thought I could even hear her laughing.

Closing time came and it went fine except for the usual argument Dennis had with someone. I had to hand it to him. He was rude but effective at clearing a room. We had Gilda’s closed by ten to two. Nick walked his friends to the upstairs lobby. They were all completely wasted. He told them he had to stay at the club for something. I looked to see if his buddies made any jokes about having a good time. They didn’t. Instead they made fun of him for not going with them to a mutual friend’s house. From all outward appearances, it didn’t look like Nick had told his friends about his secret meeting.

I returned my radio and said my goodnights. I was out the door by five after two. I got into my car, drove it around the block and re-parked it at a meter on Los Angeles Street. I got out and walked back over to the club. I wanted to text Christina and let her know it was all good. But I couldn’t afford the risk of leaving a trail. I would only contact her if it was to keep her from coming. As we had arranged, I would say “I’m headed over to your place. See you soon” and she would know to stay put. If she didn’t hear from me, it meant everything was still on.

I watched the bar backs who cleaned up and some other staff leave about two-thirty. I saw Keith leave shortly afterward. As far as I knew, that was everybody. Everybody but Nick had cleared the club. Everything was set to go.

I saw Christina approach forty minutes later, it was ten after three. She was wearing a tight fitting black dress and heels. It was a far cry from the simple Midwestern girl look I had gotten used to. We hugged in a doorway away from the street lights. She held on to me tightly. When she pulled back, I tried to read her expression. She didn’t seem nervous at all. “How do I look?” she asked. “Gorgeous” I said. “And a bit slutty, I hope.” I looked her up and down. “Mission accomplished.”

I looked her in the eye. “You still don’t have to do this” I told her. She started to get angry. “Yes. I do. And if you don’t understand that by now, maybe you shouldn’t be here” she scolded. “Stop with the attitude. I was just giving you a final chance to back out.” “I’m not backing out. You can if you want but I’m doing this.” “Even without me?” I asked. “If I have to.” She waited for me to respond. “You don’t have to. You know I’m with you on this. Do you have the ruffies?” She reached into her purse. “Yes.” “Any idea how you’ll get them into his drink?” “I’ll figure it out. You sure he’s there alone?” she asked. “Yes.” “Alright then.” She took a deep breath. I felt like I should say “good luck” or even that I loved her. I didn’t. Either did she. Neither of us said another word.

She took out her phone and called Nick. I watched her wait for him. She didn’t seem nervous at all. She gave it a minute and walked over to the front door. Nick came down and opened it for her, a couple of minutes later. She smiled and they made small talk. Then she disappeared into the club and the door shut behind her.

Just standing there, hiding in the alley, was the longest fifteen minutes in my life. I had no idea what was happening. My imagination started to get the best of me. I started to think that maybe Nick had caught her. Maybe he was even hurting her as I was just standing there outside, doing nothing. I had no way of knowing anything. I could only wait. I saw a police car drive down Spring Street very slowly. For a second I thought it was going to pull into the alley and drive right up to me. It didn’t. It kept going and disappeared. But time dragged. I couldn’t stand the fact I couldn’t see what was going on. I kept thinking of all the things that could go wrong. I kept thinking of how we never should have done this.

It was then that I saw the door to the club open. Christina started waving at me to come in. Something was wrong. I knew it right away. Something was wrong. I ran over to her and saw her face. Her hair was a mess and she looked upset. “What is it?” I asked. She pulled me into the club and let go of the door. I grabbed it just before it slammed. Before I could turn around she had buried her head into my chest. I put my arms around her and whispered. “What happened? Is he out? Did you give him the drugs?” She didn’t answer. I pulled her further into the lobby of the club and away from the door. “Christina…” She still didn’t say anything. “Christina, is he awake or not?” I asked. “No” she mumbled back. But that’s all she said.

I slowly made my way up the stairs to the office. Christina just stood in the lobby and watched me. I went through the little outer office area and through the open door to Deborah’s office. It was then that I saw Nick behind the desk. He was slumped over it. At first I thought it was the ruffies. Christina had done what she had to do and it all went as planned. Then I saw the blood. There was blood coming from the side of his head. Lots of it.

Christina came up behind me. “What did you do?” I asked. She didn’t answer. “Christina, what happened?” She looked at me, still panicked and frightened. “He caught me” she said. “He caught you putting the ruffie in?” she nodded yes. “So, you hit him with something?” “I had to. He was going to hurt me. I could see it in his eyes. He was going to hurt me.” I tried to calm her down. I looked closer at Nick’s body slumped over the desk. “What did you hit him with?” She pointed to something in the far corner. It was a statue. That thing of the woman with bow and arrow Deborah liked so much.

“What do we do?” Christina said. I didn’t have an answer. The cops were going to have a field day with this. Nick didn’t OD. He was bashed in the head by someone. I had no idea how we were going to cover it up. And then things got even worse. We heard a moan. Nick was still alive.

“Let’s just go” Christina said as she pulled me away. I didn’t move. “Come on. Let’s go!” she said. “We can’t” I said. “Yes, we can. Come on!” She pulled my arm more forcefully. I grabbed her. “We can’t leave it like this. Don’t you understand?! He knows you did this to him” I said. “I don’t care. I’ll get a good lawyer. I’m leaving.” She tried to break free of my grasp. I wouldn’t let her. “Lawyer? You’re going to need a lot more than that. You said yourself Nick could get away with anything he wanted. You really think he’s just going to forgive you for this?” And then it clicked. The position we were in. The cops could nail her for attempted murder. But that was only the beginning. If Nick told Deborah and Deborah told Kyle…It could all get very ugly and very personal. We had to finish this.

I scrambled my brain to come up with the best of several bad options. Then I saw the plate and silverware sitting on the bookcase. I told Christina to grab them for me. “And the stack of napkins” I said. “Why?” I didn’t answer. She handed me the napkin and I put one in Nick’s mouth. “What are you doing?” she asked. “Give me the knife” I said. She did. I wiped everything down and held the knife with a napkin. Then I stretched Nick’s arm out in front of him. I was going to just go ahead and do it but I was afraid Christina would scream. So I laid it out to her. We had to make it look like a robbery. We had to make it look like someone saw Nick in there alone and tortured him until he gave them the combination. Christina protested at first but when I asked her to give me a better alternative, she didn’t have one. We had to do what we had to do.

“Hold his arm for me” I told her. She took his arm and stretched it out a little more. Then she held his wrist. “Tightly. He might wake up.” Christina started to shake. She was already picturing what was about to happen. At least the first part of it.

I spread his hand out flat. Then I brought the knife down with all my strength. It plunged all the way through his hand and into the wooden desk. Nick’s entire body spasmed and his eyes shot wide open. He looked at us in terror as he realized what was happening. As the horrible pain ripped through his body, Nick screamed through the gag. He struggled furiously to get his hand free. He couldn’t. It was nailed into the desk and I held him down in the chair.

“Oh, my God. Oh, my God” Christina mumbled. “Just hold his other wrist down!” Nick tried again and again get up out of the chair. I smacked him one in the jaw. He fell back down. Not out but dazed. Then I really went to work. I hit him again. And again. I just kept hitting him, over and over. It wouldn’t have been a fair contest in normal circumstances. But considering that the knife through his hand had him pinned to the desk, he was truly helpless.

I don’t remember what I was thinking. I just remember the feeling of things giving way when my fists landed on him. And I remember the sound behind me of Christine trying not to scream or cry out. And I just kept doing it. Punch after punch with every ounce of strength that I had. It was methodical and vicious. Each blow did more and more damage. Each blow brought Nick closer and closer to death. Finally, I stopped.

What had once been Nick’s face was now a bloody mass of pulp and blood. I looked at my hands expecting them to be bruised or broken. They weren’t. Then I saw Christina. She was shaking. She was just standing there looking at me and shaking. I tried to move toward her. She pulled back. And then I saw the way she was looking at me. Like I was some sort of monster. A twisted psycho that she was frightened of. “Christina. It had to be done. It had to look like someone beat him until he gave up the combination.” She didn’t say anything.

I looked back over at Nick. There was blood everywhere. Over his face, his body, the desk…And then I realized how much was on me. My jacket was covered in it. Blood and bits of bone and flesh. Christina mumbled something I couldn’t hear. “What was that?” I asked her. “Let’s just go” she said. “We can’t. Not yet.” “Yes, we can. Let’s go” she insisted. But I ignored her. We had to make it look as good as possible. I grabbed a napkin and wrapped it around my finger. Then I walked over to the safe.

“What are you doing?” Christina asked. “Opening the safe.” I punched the numbers I had seen Deborah enter a few weeks ago. Nothing happened. The safe didn’t open. “Shit. She may have changed it” I said. I re-entered the numbers. This time, I heard the click. I opened the safe. The first thing I noticed was the cash. There was a lot more inside than I had expected. I expected maybe ten or twenty grand, tops. It looked like over a hundred. Over a hundred thousand dollars just sitting in there. But I ignored it. I was looking for something else and I couldn’t find it. “Where’s the drugs you were talking about?” She didn’t answer. “Christina! Where’s the drugs you were talking about?” I asked again. “Why? What do you need them for?” “Just help me find them!” She came over to the safe. Then she saw the cash. She stood there mesmerized by it for a moment. Then she snapped out if it and dug around inside the safe. She found a small leather pouch. She pulled it out and handed it to me. I wiped it down with the napkin and then unzipped it. There was a syringe inside and a small bag of heroin, just like Christina had said there would be.

I put the unzipped bag on the desk by Nick. “To explain what Nick was doing up here alone” I explained. Christina nodded. I’m not sure it even made a difference but it seemed important at the time. I wanted the cops to walk in and see Nick for what he was. A degenerate, evil little prick that deserved what had happened to him. I mattered that people saw that to me. It shouldn’t have. At least, not as much as it did. But it did.

Then we both just stood there. Nick’s bloody, battered body behind us. Over a hundred thousand dollars in cash in front of us. Neither one of us wanted to touch it. I asked Christina to find us a bag or something. She scrambled around the room looking for something. She couldn’t find anything suitable. “Dump out the wastebasket. We’ll use the trash bag.” She picked up the basket and dumped the garbage right on the floor. She came over and handed me the trash bag. I was worried that it was too small or not going to be strong enough. There was a whole lot of cash to be dealt with. But it would have to do.

I started tossing the money into the trash bag. I saw Christina move suddenly. “Did you hear that?” she asked. I hadn’t heard a thing. I stopped and listened. There were people talking in the alley. Christina and I didn’t move. There was no possible way they could see us or hear us outside unless we started yelling. But we both stood there like frozen rabbits. Finally, the people walked on.

I loaded the bag up with every bit of cash. Deborah’s money. Kyle’s money. I tried not to think about it but to remain focused. We had to get out of there without being seen. And I was still covered in blood. I took off my jacket and dress shirt and shoved them in the bag with the money. Christina was still jumpy. “Let’s go!” she pleaded. I was almost ready. I walked to the door and looked things over. I tried to think if we had touched anything else that needed to be wiped down. It would be fine if our prints were found in the office. But if they were found on the knife or the safe keypad, we were screwed. I tried to think if there was anything else that our prints were on that couldn’t be explained. There wasn’t. Christina waited for me in the outer office.

I took one last look before leaving Deborah’s office. I ran through a mental check list of things that needed to be done. I saw Nick there, beaten to death, the knife holding him to the desk. I saw the drugs in front of him. I saw the open safe behind him. It all read like a robbery, just the way it was supposed to. At least, I hoped it did.

We walked down to the lobby. “You wait here with the money and I’ll get the car” I told Christina. My thought was that being seen together carrying a garbage bag would be the worst thing that could happen to us. “That doesn’t make sense” she said. Then I thought about it. She was right. I was being so damn stupid. Pulling my car right up to the club would have been idiotic. I was shocked I had thought that it wouldn’t be. It made me question everything else I had done. “So, we just walk out of here together with the money and hope nobody sees us?” Christina asked. I didn’t have a good answer for her. None of this was planned. None of this had gone the way it was supposed to.

“Let’s go separate” I suggested. “You go first and meet me at my car. It’s at Los Angeles between Second and Third” I handed her the keys. “I’ll come out a few minutes later and meet you.” “OK. What about the bag?” she asked. The bag. The bag with my bloody clothes in it and all the stolen cash. Getting caught with that would be as bad as being caught in the act. “I’ll take it” I said. Christina agreed. She was still a mess of nerves, fear and anxiety. “Don’t worry. I won’t run off to Bermuda without you” I said. She didn’t think the joke was funny. She took my car keys and slowly opened the front door to the alley. She didn’t move.

“Don’t stand there. Go” I said. She did. She walked out the door and left me standing there, alone in the lobby. A murdered man behind me. A bag of incriminating evidence in my hand. But by then I didn’t care. My mind had already moved on to something else. We had just stolen money from drug dealers. Getting away from the club was just the beginning of our problems.

I walked down the alley carrying the bag. It was almost four AM and few people were out. But that didn’t mean the streets were empty. A man was standing outside the parking structure, staring off into space. It was the parking attendant smoking a cigarette. I probably could have walked right by and he wouldn’t have thought twice about it. But what if they asked him? What if he remembered me or saw me well enough to give a description? I stopped and stood there in the alley. I would give him a few minutes to finish. If it didn’t happen quickly, I was going to have to take my chances and walk by. Luckily, after a few minutes, he turned around and started walking in the other direction. I kept walking.

I got down to the end of the alley and heard people talking in Spanish in one of the buildings. I couldn’t see them and assumed they couldn’t see me. So, I kept walking. But my luck didn’t hold. I turned the corner onto the sidewalk of Los Angeles and saw two men looking at me. Homeless. And staring right at me. I buried my panic and kept walking right toward them. I saw their eyes look down at the bag I was carrying. I had visions of them trying to steal it and a fight breaking out. The bag falling and spilling. Or getting ripped. Or maybe they did take it. The money. The evidence. All sorts of bad outcomes to any sort of confrontation. And then they just walked by. Nothing.

Of course, it wasn’t nothing. They had seen me. I could only hope they would never be asked about it by anyone. Maybe they were too drunk or nuts to even notice. I didn’t know. I just knew they could place me near the crime scene, carrying a trash bag, near the time of the murder. My legs started to fell weak. Walking became a chore I had to concentrate on, step by step. Suddenly, it all hit. The magnitude of what I had done. Somehow, someway, we were going to get caught and my life would be over.

It was only seeing the car and Christina’s face in the windshield that kept me moving. I saw that face, that beautiful face, and kept walking toward it. I finally reached the car and opened the door. I carelessly shoved the garbage bag into the back seat. Then I started the car and drove off. I thought she was going to ask if there were any problems or if anyone had seen me. She didn’t. In fact, neither one of us said a word the entire time we drove.

It was only as I was about to turn off of Eighth Street towards my dumpy little apartment that the silence was broken. Christina stared straight ahead as she spoke. “Let’s just keep going. If we stay here, they’re going to kill us.” “Where would we go?” I asked. “I don’t know. San Francisco, New York, anywhere.” I thought about it for a second. I pictured the two of us in Central Park, orange and red trees everywhere, cool autumn air…The two of us, walking together and laughing. And I knew it couldn’t happen. At least not yet. “If we run, they’ll know it was us” I pointed out. “They’ll find out anyway” she said. “Don’t think like that.” I was amazed how stern my rebuke was, considering I had been thinking the exact same thing ten minutes earlier. “We’re not going to get caught” I said. And I almost believed it.

My mind flashed back to the fantasy. Her and I running off together somewhere. Away from everything. Just the two of us. But it had to wait. We had to be smart about things or we would end up dead or in jail very quickly. “If we run, at least we’ll have a chance” she said. “We have a chance if we stay. Better than a chance. People are going to think it went down exactly as we want them to. Nick was alone doing drugs and someone got into the club. They tortured him to get the combination to the safe, then killed him and took the money.” “They’ll know” she said. “No, they won’t. As long as we act normal and stick to our usual routines.”

Then Christina hit me with something that made me feel sick. A question I didn’t have an answer to. “How do we know Nick even knew the combination?” she asked. I thought about it. She was right. The whole idea of doing things as we had ended up doing them was to make it look like a torture/robbery. If Nick never knew the combination he couldn’t have given it to us. The whole thing feel apart. “We don’t. But Deborah was pretty careless about opening it in front of other people. He was certainly up there enough where he could have seen it just like I had.” Christina looked at me wanting more reassurance. I tried to give it to her. “If we stick to the plan, nobody will connect us to any of it. As long as we’re calm and smart about things, it will be OK.” She still wasn’t convinced.

“Where are we going?” she asked. “My place like we agreed. It’s right up the street” She looked around the neighborhood with all its signs in Spanish and the dozens of homeless men sleeping in the park down the block. We arrived a few minutes later and I parked. “Come on” I said and reached for the door handle. “Wait” she said. “Are you sure we shouldn’t just run? Mexico maybe. People always go to Mexico in the movies to get away.” “I’m sure” I said. I could see her hesitate and try to think things through. And then she seemed to make a decision. Her hand reached for the door handle and she started to get out. She would trust that I knew best. That I would make sure we didn’t get caught. She would trust that I would always make sure that she was OK.

I walked her into the building and watched her reaction. I felt ashamed that it was such a dump. It wasn’t a bad place for the money. But it was a far cry from the surface shine of the micro-loft she lived in. She didn’t seem to mind. If anything, she seemed curious about it all. Under other circumstances, I might have enjoyed showing her around the neighborhood. I could have played the guy with inside knowledge on all the best little places for food. I could have rambled on about the history of the area. It could have all been so different. Then again, if things weren’t as they were, Christina might not have even been with me.

As we got into the elevator and pulled the cage shut, I realized how both of us seemed to be trying to think about anything but what was really happening. Christina even commented on the carpeting as walked to my door. I let her in and she entered my apartment. She seemed a little surprised how nice it was inside, given the neighborhood and the building. I walked in, trash bag in hand, and locked the door behind us. It was just after four AM.

I set the bag next to the bed as she looked around. I offered to make her some coffee or something but she declined. She sat on my sofa and stared at the TV, even though it was off. “The remote is right there next to you. I need to take a shower. You should to” I said. She looked at me with disdain. “You expect me to have sex with you right now? I’m sorry, after what we just did, I’m really not feeling very aroused.” My words came out tinged with anger. “No, actually. I expect you to take a shower to clean any evidence off of you, as quickly as possible. You probably have some of Nick’s blood on you somewhere.” I regretted my words almost as quickly as I said them. Christina closed her eyes and tried not to cry.

I walked over and sat beside her. I put my arms around her. She didn’t push me away. The opposite. She forced her way as close to me as she could and she cried. She kept apologizing for it but I told her it was normal. Not having some sort of reaction to everything going on would have been impossible. I started to wonder if she was going to be able to hold up her end of this. If she was going to be able to act like everything was fine when she was back at Gilda’s talking to Deborah and the rest. I started to reconsider the idea of fleeing to a new city. I believed everything I had said about it being a bad option. But if Christina was this emotional, maybe it was our only choice.

“How can you be so calm about this?” she asked. “I don’t know” I replied. “Seriously, you’re acting like nothing happened. How can you do that? I just don’t understand. How can you do that?” she asked. I tried not to take her question as an accusation. Better she thought I was some sort of sociopath than to not think logically. It was up me to make sure we never got caught. I had promised her as much in the car. We weren’t going to run because I was going to make sure we stayed put and convinced people we had nothing to do with the crime. It would be tough. But we would get through this and it would be done.

But she didn’t let up. “When you did what you did to Nick, it was like you didn’t care. Like he wasn’t a person” she said. I didn’t like where she was going with her comments and tried not to let it get to me. “Don’t you realize what you did? What we did?” she said. “Of course I do.” “We killed someone” she said, pointing out the obvious. I wasn’t going to take the bait. I wasn’t going to remind her that she was the one that hit Nick in the head with the statue. Or that she had gone along with the plan to kill him from the very beginning. This was all for her. She knew that. She knew that but was so wrapped up in the horror of what happened that she was saying stupid things she didn’t mean. I let her ramble on.

“You seemed like a robot or something” she said. I refused to comment or justify finishing the task that she herself had started by hitting him in the head. I took a deep breath and made sure I was calm. Then I finally spoke out.

“Christina, we did what we had to do. We both agreed that Nick had to pay for what he did to you. It didn’t go exactly as planned but it still turned out the way we always talked about. Nick is dead. The scumbag that raped you and was going to get away with it, scott free, is dead. That’s what you said you wanted. That’s what we planned to do and we did it. Nick is dead.” She didn’t say anything for a minute. Then she looked up at me. “You’re right. I shouldn’t be blaming you for any of this. I know you did this for me.” I half-expected her to thank me but she didn’t. She just got quiet again. “I’m going to take a shower” I said again. “OK.” “Feel free to watch TV or snoop or whatever” I said. “Snoop?” “Sure, it’s not like we can be hiding secrets from each other at this point.”

I took a long, hot shower. I scrubbed carefully trying to get all the blood off of me. For a moment, I felt the fear again. I imagined hearing the knock at my door. The police. The police coming to tell me they were there to arrest me for murder. I shoved the thought out of my mind. I couldn’t afford my nerves getting the better of me. For either of our sakes. I slowly calmed down again. It felt good to be clean and to put on fresh clothes. I was alert and ready to work through the next set of issues. I even had some thoughts on how to deal with Deborah when Christina and I saw her next. It was then that I walked out of the bathroom ready to tell Christina all this when I forgot every thought. The money was gone. So was Christina.

I had been played. Christina had used me this whole time and I had fallen for it like a sap. She had gotten me to commit murder and hand her a bag full of cash. The cash she had wanted to get her hands on all along. Just like Vicky had said, she was nothing like what people thought. The nice girl from the Midwest thing was just an act. A part of the scam to find some poor, desperate fool, probably an old, desperate fool, that couldn’t wait to get his hands on her firm young body. Even the sex was delayed and rationed out to make sure she strung them along. I had fallen for it all, hook line and sinker. I had fallen for all of it. And now I was a dead man.

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