It was Friday night but the bar wasn’t crowded. That didn’t surprise Bryce. The whole city was gripped by fear, a trembling child with a lungful of pent up breath, eyes wide and darting. There wasn’t much that could scare a city back into its houses, but one person had managed to do just that. In a way, it was a badge of honour.
Bryce stepped forward, letting the door swing shut behind him. Music played in the background, but it only accentuated the loneliness of the place, muted notes swallowed by the dark flooring and equally dark walls.
He was here because he was curious. About whether Ray’s had changed. Whether his hunch was going to pay off. Looking around, he noticed no more than half a dozen other stalwarts claiming their own private territory in the bar’s gloom. All were male.
Strolling past the tables, Bryce seated himself at the bar, waiting for the bartender to finish with his current customer and notice him. When it happened, Bryce noted surprise, a quick smile, and hurried steps over to where he sat.
“Hit me, Ray,” Bryce said, because it was something he’d always said.
Ray jerked his head. “Long time, no see. How are you?”
“And your, er, problem?”
“Under control. In fact, I decided to come here and celebrate.” He made a show of glancing around. “So to speak.”
“Are you sure?” The bartender frowned at him. “Aren’t you supposed to lay off the heavy stuff?”
Bryce cocked an eyebrow. “Do I look six years old to you?”
Ray compressed his lips. “C’mon, you know I’m only looking out for you. After all...” he shrugged as he let the sentence peter out. It was Ray being discreet.
Bryce decided to let him off the hook. “Yeah I know, but I’m in a reckless mood tonight. Think of it as financial support for your fine establishment.”
Ray snorted, mollified, but lines of worry remained on his brow as he scanned the near-empty room. “I bet you’ve never seen the place look this empty.”
“I’m not surprised. I’ve been keeping up with the local news.”
The bartender shook his head. “I wonder how long this is going to last. What’s bad for the city is bad for me. Give it another few weeks like this and you’ll have to find another watering hole.”
“Business that bad?”
“Weeknights are slow,” Ray replied, “but ever since that killer came to town, every night’s a weeknight here.”
Bryce tried recalling the news items he had read. “It’s been two months, hasn’t it, and the police still haven’t caught the guy.”
“Ah, what do the fuzz know? All they seem to be good at are fining people for jaywalking.” He grimaced. “So, what can I get you?”
Bryce reached for the wallet that sat on the counter, opened it and pulled out a twenty. He laid it down next to his empty glass.
“Scotch on the rocks,” he said. “Make it the good stuff.”
Ray turned away, stretching to reach a bottle on the third shelf.
“What are you doing in this backwater anyway?” he asked. “I thought you were busy jetting here, jetting there.” He turned and nodded to a cork noticeboard pinned to the wall. “We still keep all your postcards. You’re one of our most celebrated locals.”
With a deftness born of long practice, he scooped ice cubes into an old-fashioned, and topped it with a measure of pale whisky. Sharp edges of ice blunted as the warm liquid ran over them.
“You waiting for someone?” Ray prompted, when Bryce remained silent.
“Just wanted to get out for a bit.” Bryce shrugged, reaching for the glass. “You know how it is. The four walls start closing in and all you can think of doing is escaping.”
He took a sip of his drink and smacked his lips with appreciation.
“Tell me about it,” Ray said. “In fact, the way things are going, this place is starting to resemble a coffin to me. Same amount of life too.”
“Say, would you like something to eat? Pete’s in the back going stir-crazy. Comes in every day like clockwork, but nobody wants to eat nothin’ any more. They rush in, grab a drink, and run out, all in a crowd like a herd of sheep. Maybe they think hanging around might make ‘em a target or something.”
“Not tonight, Ray. I’m not feeling hungry.”
A movement at the corner of his eye caught Bryce’s attention. It was a fellow drinker, morose and unkempt, signalling for attention by waving his hand in the air.
“I’ll just sit on this for a while,” Bryce said, answering Ray’s look of enquiry. “Soak in the atmosphere.”
“Sure thing, but if you want anything, just holler. And...” Ray looked away for a moment, abashed, “it’s good to see you again.”
Bryce raised his glass in salute. “Good to be here.”
He watched as Ray walked away to tend to the other customer.
The alcohol was welcome relief against air that felt too cold, even beneath his sweater. If he asked, he knew Ray would turn up the thermostat, so he didn’t. He was sick of getting preferential treatment from people who’d known him…before. He knew they were just trying to be considerate, but it rankled. It was as if nobody thought he was capable of doing things for himself any more. He took another sip, savouring the burn as the alcohol slid to his stomach, setting a small inferno deep in his belly.
Why had he come to Ray’s? Was it because he sought some degree of closure? Because it was close to home? Maybe it was because he liked the place?
A small voice disagreed, whispering in the back of his head.
Because she’ll be here. Maybe not tonight. Maybe not till next week. But she’ll be here. All you need is timing, and a bit of luck.
Luck. How ironic. Because, for the past year, it seemed he hadn’t had any luck at all.
And yet, ten minutes later, while he was tracing lines down the side of his glass with a fingernail, she walked in. He knew instantly that the new customer wasn’t one of Ray’s regulars. Even with his back to her, he knew when her gaze rested on him, the slash of a red-hot razor across the nape of his neck. The heat moved away and he assumed that she was eyeing the other customers in the bar. Most of them were middle-aged businessmen, grabbing some relaxation at the bottom of a glass before they headed home for the night. Bryce knew he was the youngest customer there tonight, knew her gaze would come back to him. And it did. The heat returned, warming his back, and even though the worn carpet muffled her steps, he knew she was heading in his direction.
It was going to be his lucky night.
She sidled onto the stool next to him and he finally turned his head to look at her, making sure his movements were casual, that the only expression on his face indicated nothing more than friendly curiosity.
She wasn’t so much beautiful as she was arresting. Her dark hair fell in artful waves over her shoulders, but some curled into playful ringlets around her face. Her skin was pale, except for two rosy slashes along her cheekbones. Bryce didn’t know if the carmine strokes were make-up or part of the natural colour of her skin, but they gave her a spiky, alluring look. Intelligence burned brightly in her tawny eyes, slanted and cat-like.
The dress she wore was burgundy with a deep v-neck and Bryce saw the shadow of her cleavage, pale and full, thrusting against the satin material with carnal promise. His cock kicked in his trousers and he suppressed a smile. It had been too long since he’d held a woman in his arms and he’d never imagined that she—the next one; maybe the last one—would be so tempting. It made the night ahead seem more fate than design.
“Buy a girl a drink?” she asked and her voice was a rich contralto, a creamy dark caramel that he longed to devour.
“That would be illegal,” he said with a smile, “but I’d certainly buy a beautiful woman a drink.”
He gestured towards the far end of the counter.
“A repeat for me, Ray,” he said when the bartender appeared. “And a…”
“Cosmopolitan,” she said.
“…for the lady.”
“It’s very quiet here,” she said, after Ray moved off.
“Well it is a weekday night.”
“So it is.”
They both knew he was lying. The plain truth was, there was a horror loose in the city and people valued their lives too much to be caught on the streets. Alone. After dark.
Bryce drained his drink and set the glass on the bar with a sharp clunk.
“Anyway, I prefer it when this place is quieter. Gives me more time to think.”
“You like thinking?”
He flashed her a grin. “Beats the alternative.”
She smiled at the joke, and it lit up her eyes like cabochons of golden topaz. He thought he could drown in those eyes…before the inevitable happened.
“And do you live around here?” she asked.
Bingo! To Bryce, it felt like he’d been jiggling a line in the water for a few hours and now a tug pulled at his fingers. He had to move carefully or she might slip off the hook. And if she did that, caught an inkling of his plans, Bryce knew she would disappear into the night and he would never see her again.
“A ten-minute walk away.” Then added, because he knew it was the polite thing to say, “And you?”
A pensive expression flitted across her face so swiftly that, if Bryce had blinked at that moment, he would have missed it.
“I live on the other side of town.”
“And what brings you so far from home?” He was genuinely curious, wondering what she would say. She was the equivalent of a different species to him and he was fascinated by the way she moved and spoke, by how she couched her words and what she chose to portray with that expressive face of hers.
“Sometimes you need a change,” she said. “Something to shake you up a bit. Know what I mean?”
He nodded. “I know exactly what you mean.”
Their drinks arrived, his pale and icy, hers the colour of crushed garnets.
He held up his glass. “To serendipity,” he toasted.
She laughed and gently touched her glass to his. “To happy surprises,” and took a sip of her drink.
Bryce imagined the cool sticky liquid staining her lips. He imagined her draped over his bed, with the contents of the cocktail glass strewn over her pale, naked body. He wanted to lick it all off, suck at her flesh until no trace remained of the drink’s semi-sweet astringency. Until all that was left was her bare body, blood pulsing beneath her skin, offering itself to him.
“Are you part of the military?” she asked, in between delicate sips of her drink.
His eyebrows rose. “What makes you say that?”
She indicated his head with a nod. “Your hair. Usually only soldiers have it cut so short.”
“You’re right,” he said, “but, no.” He paused. “Or maybe yes, in a way. You could say I’ve been through the wars these past few months. One tends to pick up souvenirs.”
She laid a hand on his wrist and he noticed that she’d painted her nails. They were the exact same colour as her dress, the hard manicured ovals glistening wetly under the small spotlights set high in the ceiling.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
He shook his head. “What’s done is done. Reliving the past doesn’t bring it back. All you can do is move forward.”
Her hand moved back to her drink. Bryce missed its warmth.
“So you’re not an actual soldier but you’ve been in battle.” There was a smile in her voice that he liked. A lot. Her gaze was speculative yet friendly. “What does that make you? One of those highly paid security consultants I keep reading about in the news?”
“I don’t need a job.” He took a mouthful of highland malt, swallowed it, and sent an oblique glance her way. “I’m independently wealthy.”
“Wow. That must be nice. Rich parents?”
“I’ll have to hire you as my advisor then,” she said with a laugh. “I’m not very good with money.”
“I’d love to share my expertise with you.”
Bryce was enjoying their conversation. On the surface, it was about finances, hobbies and interests. But below, it bubbled with flirtation and innuendo. It seethed with passion and adroit verbal duelling. She was solidly caught on the hook and, as he slowly reeled her in, he savoured each moment, committing them to memory. They were going to have sex that night. He knew it and so did she. And as for what came after? Well, that was another matter completely.
“What’s your name?” he asked after they’d been drinking for half an hour. He’d finished another whisky and was starting to feel a little light-headed. She’d ordered another cosmopolitan but still appeared in full control of herself. That, he hoped, would change once they were at his place.
“Cleo Prentice. And you?”
She frowned. “Bryce Craven,” she repeated slowly. “Why does that name sound familiar?”
“It’s not as common as ‘John Smith’,” he told her in a smooth voice, “but I doubt it’s that rare. I’m sure there are a few Bryces around. Not to mention Cravens.”
Lines still marred her brow for another minute before clearing. She shook her head and smiled at him with a wry twist of her lips. “I have the memory of a goldfish sometimes,” she said. “Put that together with my lack of money sense and it’s a wonder I can still afford to live here.”
“Speaking of living in the city, would you like to come back to my place and see my etchings?”
She wrinkled her nose. It made her look cute and precocious. “Didn’t that line die out with the dinosaurs?”
“It’s making a comeback. Tempted?”
She picked up her clutch purse from where it lay on the counter.
“I think so. Besides, it’s impossible to get a taxi this time of night.”
“That’s right,” he said. “Much better to try for one in the morning.”
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