“No, it’s an exclusive men’s club. It’s like the male version of a cocktail bar. It’s smaller than a normal pub and posher. Leather couches and chandeliers sort of deal. They only open Fridays and Saturdays, and they have stage shows on both nights. Ooh," she added with approval. “Nice.”
“What?” Lia was baffled.
“The blonde,” Paris jerked her head towards the man leaning against the opposite wall.
Lia followed her gaze and accidentally met the man’s eyes. He grinned, showing white, straight teeth. He reminded her of a movie star, with his clean-cut good looks, and golden blonde hair.
She blushed and looked away towards the cork board on the opposite wall. Her eyes were drawn back to him however, and she slid a look at him from under her eyelashes, trying to be discrete.
He was still looking at her, and his shoulders shook with silent laughter which left her in no doubt that he had caught her looking at him.
“I hope he’s in our classes,” Paris sent him a flirtatious smile. “We need some more testosterone.”
Lia peeked again and he raised his eyebrows in invitation. Paris giggled.
“The guy who dropped you off last night seemed to have plenty of testosterone,” Lia commented trying to focus on the cork board.
There were adverts of every description pinned to the board, from PT groups, after hours strength training, shoes, work out wear, accommodation…
“Brock,” Paris swooned against Lia, almost unbalancing her. “Oh my god, Lia. He is such a man. Like, a proper grown up. When he kisses me, I can’t get my underwear off fast enough.”
“It’s so true, though. Here,” Paris took the sheet of paper from Lia’s hand and stuck it to the board over several other notices. She tore off the first phone number tear-away. “Creating demand,” she told Lia. “Makes people think – crap, must get onto that before someone else gets the room.
“Come on,” she linked her arm through Lia’s. “We have to get home and glamorous.”
“Are you absolutely sure it’s not a strip club?”
“Don’t worry, your clothes will stay on,” Paris laughed. She put an extra twitch into her hips as they walked past the blonde man. Lia met his eyes again. There was something, she thought, so familiar about his face.
They trotted down the stairs and out the main doors onto the pavement out front of the academy, dodging through pedestrian traffic, onto the sidewalk.
“The bus!” Lia could see it turning onto the street. They ran, giggling and breathless to the bus stop, arriving just as it pulled up.
“Close one,” the driver, Larry, commented as they scanned their cards. “I would have stopped for you, though.”
Paris blew him a kiss.
Lia eased her way between people holding on to the straps, until there was a space near the back doors. She and Paris clung to a pole as the bus lurched into motion.
“Your boyfriend isn’t in a gang or something?” Lia said, keeping her voice low.
She had been woken after midnight by the sound of motorbikes pulling up out front of the house and had watched from her window as Paris exchanged lingering kisses with her boyfriend. There had been two other bikes, and she could have sworn that one of the helmeted figures had watched her back.
“No, they’re not like that. They’re graphic designers,” Paris was laughing. “Or something for cars. I don’t know. They have a business. They make the designs that go onto cars.”
Lia had no idea, either, and her eye had been caught by the crumpled little form pressed between the guard for the seats behind and the door’s opening passage. She wondered how she was going to retrieve it without being seen.
The city streets peeled back into the elderly trees of suburbia. Once their area might have been thriving, full of young families, but the property was stubbornly held by the aging occupants, and the young families saw more appeal in new build estates than the ramshackle houses in need of renovation and new life. As a result, the once proud fences now peeled paint and were gap toothed, and the once tidy gardens were overgrown wildernesses hiding the pretty facades of the houses from the street.
Lia had inherited her house from her grandmother. It had been in the family for generations, passed down from mother to daughter, and with the house, its secrets.
She had been raised by her grandmother after Lia had been the only survivor of the car crash that had taken her parent’s lives.
Her parents had left her with a tidy inheritance thanks to life insurance, which had paid for her schooling up to this point, but the fees of her dance academy were starting to chip away at its capital, and the monthly interest payments did not provide enough to renovate the house which was starting to show its age.
Paris’ rent helped cover utilities and rates, but Lia was a long way from being comfortable. She needed a part time job, and she needed to let out the third bedroom.
The bus pulled up on her street, and Lia swore: “Earring fell out. There it is!”
She scooped up the broken form a moment before the door opened. If she wondered if the fairy was still alive, that question was answered when the damnable thing sank its teeth into her fingers.
Sharp, bloody teeth.
Lia shoved her hand into her bag and shook it off.
“Lucky,” Paris commented. “It would have been a shame to lose it.”
“Mhm,” Lia tried to inspect the wound as she faked putting her earring back into the hole. “So, this new guy, Brook.”
“Brock,” Paris corrected.
“Right. Where did you meet him?”
“The club of course,” she fluttered her eyelashes. “I’m telling you, Cecilia, it’s more than a job, it’s a future husband shopping mall. Exclusive men’s club means men with money,” she made the money symbol with her fingers and thumbs. “What every wannabe dancer needs is a man with the moolah. Stick with me kid,” she hipped the rusty gate open. “And you’ll be on your way to easy street.”
The house had not changed much in Lia’s lifetime. The same furniture, the same decorative plates and creepy china-dolls in the hallway, the same faded curtains, and threadbare carpets. The same pictures on the walls. Every time that Lia thought to change something, guilt prevented her from doing so.
It was not as if her grandmother was gone, after all. Her ghost still wandered the halls, phasing between moments of coherency where she would interact with Lia, and moments where she seemed to be caught in memories of the past and not to know that Lia was there.
Perhaps if her grandmother had died and gone, as most people’s grandparents did, Lia would not be so hesitant about changing things.
Paris, of course, could not see her, and was always baffled by Lia’s wish to change the house, but reluctance to do so.
They made salad from ingredients that were just on the right side of overripe, and ate it in the kitchen, before drawing straws for the shower. Paris had an unerring ability to draw first shower, but, today, Lia did not mind. She had a fairy to deal with, after all.
Once she was sure that Paris was otherwise involved, she emptied her purse, spilling the fairy out onto the kitchen table.
“That one’s like a cat I once owned,” Lia’s grandmother’s ghost paused by the table to observe. “All hiss and attitude. But once you won that cat’s love, it was yours for life.”
“What’s wrong with it?” Lia wondered.
“Nothing that a few days in an atrium won’t fix, sweetie,” her grandmother was in one of her coherent moods. “Pop him in there, and let him rest a bit, and then set him out the window.”
Lia used the kitchen tongs to collect the fairy and took him to the solarium. Her grandmother’s plants still thrived here, despite Lia’s best efforts to care for them.
She deposited the fairy into one of the delicate glass houses and shoved a piece of dried apple it at it. She hoped for the best as she returned to the kitchen in order to scrape the contents of her purse away before Paris finished in the shower.
Her shower was, typically, short of hot water, and therefore brief. Under Paris’ direction, she pulled her dark hair into a high ponytail and applied a full face of make-up.
“Are you absolutely sure…” Lia asked again when Paris instructed her to put on black underwear, and a suspender belt to hold up the thigh high fishnet stockings.
“Trust me,” Paris insisted.
Lia pulled a t-shirt dress over the underwear, and a coat over top, thinking that she looked like a stripper-gram, her dress hidden by her coat, and the fishnet stockings and black high heels on full display.
They caught the bus back into the city and had to rebuff the interest of a group of young men on their way to a good night out. Rain streaked across the windows, making Lia glad to be inside the bus despite the overtures of the half-drunk men.
“You would think,” Paris said, “that after a few weeks, they’d get the hint.”
“This happens every week?” Lia asked, daunted.
“Mhm. It’s nothing. Baby boys, just wait, Lia,” Paris said. “The men at this club,” she rolled her eyes heavenwards.
“Are you sure…” Lia caught herself again.
Paris laughed as the bus stopped and they stepped off into the cold of the night.
The streets were rain-washed, and the air was heavy with the smell of wet tarmac. The darkness was cut with the bright artificial lights from neon signs, car headlights, streetlights, and shop windows.
Music pounded from the nightclubs, the late-night shops luring in shoppers, and the wound down windows of cars doing rings of the city streets so that the occupants, mostly male, could call out to the women on the street.
Girls dressed for dancing shook in the chill of the night, their breath hanging like smoke clouds in the air as they huddled together for warmth, their voices bright and excited, and their high heels clip-clopping through the puddles. The queues into the nightclubs were long and trickled off the red carpets.
The hobgoblin looked like a drunk or homeless person, huddled in his cloak, and muttering to himself as he wound his way closer to the unwary girls at the tail of one of the queues that had curled around into the alleyway between buildings. One was speaking on her phone, and was further behind the others, distracted by her conversation.
The hobgoblin stretched out his gnarled hands.
“Hands off,” Lia snapped, startling the girls.
The hobgoblin met her eyes, startled, and recoiled, babbling as he scurried down the alleyway, disappearing behind a dumpster.
“Flasher,” Lia explained to the girls.
“Oh,” they said, in a rising chorus. “Thanks, eh?”
“I did not see that,” Paris said in admiration. “You have sharp eyes, Lia.”
“I guess,” Lia shrugged. Paris had no idea how sharp. “Are we far? I’m freezing.” She huddled her jacket closer to her.
A woman, her hair hidden beneath a knitted hat and her face all but lost in her scarf, was trying to get passers by to accept a flyer from the stack she clutched to her chest like a last hope.
“Please,” she appealed to the girls as they passed her. “My daughter is missing.”
Lia paused to take one, looking at the black and white photo of a laughing young woman around her own age.
“Have you seen her?” The woman asked hopefully.
“No, I’m sorry,” Lia folded it and put it into her pocket. “But I’ll keep it with me, and ring if I do see her.”
“Thank you,” the woman was pathetically grateful for so little. “Bless you and stay safe.”
“You didn’t have to do that,” Paris murmured as they walked away. She linked her arm through Lia’s.
Paris turned them down a side alley and they dodged the filth and puddles on the ground as they made their way to a solid door. She entered a code into the pad and pushed the door open.
The hallway beyond was dark and narrow, and they felt their way along the walls with the music from the club pulsing around them like a heartbeat. Paris pushed open a door into artificial light and perfume.
This room was lit by a ring of lights around a long rectangular make up mirror fixed to the far wall. Freestanding racks queued to the right, holding a variety of costumes. A door to the left opened into a small bathroom, with a shower and toilet.
“Give me your coat,” Paris reached out her hand for Lia’s coat.
Lia shivered as she stripped it off. The change room was warmer than outside, but only just, and her skin crawled with goosebumps.
Paris hung the coats onto a rack and flicked through the costumes until she found what she sought.
She handed Lia a French maid’s dress. “Here you go.”
“You’re kidding,” Lia pulled a face.
“It is what it is,” Paris pulled off her dress and on with an identical dress. “Waitresses wear this. If we do our dues as waitresses, Elior will let us audition as acts. So, put on the stupid dress and come and haul some trays around with me.”
Lia sighed heavily and pulled on the dress. “I hope these are laundered in between,” she complained.
“When you take them off, you give them a steam. Write your name on the tag, and it’s yours. If Elior likes you, that is. And he’d better like you, Lia, because it’s the only way we’re getting onto that stage.”
The dress barely covered her arse as the skirt was fluffed out by tulle, and the bodice scooped low, but it was hardly worse than any other costume she wore as a dancer. Except that normally the costume was like that for dancing, not so that she could be leered at by men.
She opened her purse and touched up her lipstick.
Paris posed next to her. “We look cute,” she said with a giggle and pulled out her phone. They posed for a selfie.
“It’s not the worst costume I’ve worn,” Lia decided trying to see an upside.
“Yeah, I remember when we were both trees. Ugh. Alright,” Paris pouted at the mirror. “Let’s go. Remember, tables are numbered left to right, starting in the back booths, and they have the numbers on the tabletops, so you can’t go too far wrong, really.
"Just grab a tray, check the number on the docket, and put the drinks onto the table. We don’t take orders, just deliver. They have an app for ordering”
Paris led the way back into the dark hallway and they felt their way to where a doorway was outlined in light through the doorjamb and the music pounded out louder. She pushed open the door and they stepped out into a large room filled with tables and chesterfield couches arranged around a central stage, currently occupied by a burlesque act.
The men around the tables fell into two categories, Lia noted, those still in business suits who had come straight from work, their ties and attitudes loosened, and those whose business did not require suits or who had changed before coming, in their jeans and steel toed boots, leather jackets and tattoos.
The bar was to the left of the doorway and the barman was just sliding a tray onto the glossy surface. “You’re late,” he yelled over the music to Paris. “Who’s the fresh meat?”
“Lia,” Paris yelled back checking the docket and handing the tray to Lia. “Table four.” She took a tray that was already waiting.
Lia counted the tables as Paris had told her and moved with confidence towards a group of men in jeans and t-shirts.
Werewolves, she realized with a fission of surprise as she drew close enough that the Other in their eyes reflected back golden in the darkness. She checked the table number before leaning between two of them to slide the tray onto the table.
She began to offload the drinks.
“I haven’t seen you here before,” the man to her right did not have to raise his voice above the music.