Chapter Twenty Two
My impression of Sarah’s workplace was something so dismal and repressed. Like a tawny strip of fly paper holding the corpses of too many unsuspecting bugs. A place where dreams were shattered and morals came to die. Hallow, shameful, colorless…
The reality was quite a contrast to the picture in my head.
I mean, where were the stains on the walls? The clouds of smoke and sin? Where were the illicit graffiti, the stench of pheromones and covetous thoughts? Not a single person looked the part of fifty-something, sleaze-ball. Most of the customers were under thirty and more interested in dancing than watching the parade of naked bodies. A surprise by any standard.
As the doors closed behind our group, it was less to trap us inside and more to keep the gloom on the outside. Every aspect of the place was an assault on my senses, a balmy and disconcerting wave of light and noise, the music so loud it trembled along my skin. My mind was left in a state of petrifaction as I took in my surroundings, En Garde.
“You okay?” Under the heavy bass, Mason’s question was simply a vibration near my ear.
I could only nod, feeling certain every smell, every musical note, every restless dot of light, was a subliminal message. The conspiracy-theorist within couldn’t not search for the clues of danger around me, because I’d already committed my last careless act – losing the only piece of my mother I’d ever been privy to.
Greg led us away from the doors to a table in the corner. Each of us grabbed a leather stool and took a seat. After a minute of us looking around, not quite knowing what to do next, he offered to get everyone drinks and headed through the crowds to a glistening bar.
Sarah went to help him.
“That was pretty fast, huh?” Mason asked, leaning very close so I could hear him.
I watched Sarah as she sidled up to Greg. He put his arm around her. “Those two?”
“I’ve never seen Greg act like this around a girl, and I’ve known the guy since high school.”
“Do you think it’s weird?” I asked him, feeling suddenly protective of Sarah. I’d started to understand her a little better, and like her a little more, these last days. I didn’t want anyone coming in and hurting her.
“No, actually.” Mason removed his hat and scratched his head. “It makes me start to believe in soul-mates.”
I looked at him, trying to determine if he was being serious. “Whatever. No it doesn’t.”
He laughed and shrugged. “Maybe. Look at them. It’s like they’ve been dating for years.”
It was a strange phenomenon, how the two of them had just fit together like pieces of a puzzle. But it was a good thing for Sarah. She needed someone to ground her. And maybe he needed her, too.
When they returned, it was with five identical glasses filled with something yellow. There were lemon slices floating between the cubes of ice.
“Cheers,” Greg told the group. “So, what’s next?”
We sipped our drinks and tried to figure out if we should go in search of Marcus or wait for him to find us here.
“The champagne room is in the basement,” Sarah explained. “That’s where he always asks for me. I could go down there and see if he’s waiting.”
Greg gave her a silent look.
“Don’t worry,” she told him. “I’ll be fine. It’s not like he’s going to shoot me and burry me out back.”
“I’m still going with you,” he insisted and brushed her hair behind her ear. “Just in case.”
“Just in case, what?” She asked, lifting her shirt enough to show him her vest. “We’re totally prepared.”
“That vest won’t protect you from bullet wounds to the head.” It was too late when I realized my mistake - my callous faux pas. Apparently, it hadn’t occurred to Sarah that a silencer and close-range was a neat little avenue around our otherwise impenetrable armor. I bit my cheek, but Greg was already glaring at me.
“Don’t tell her that,” he scolded. Then he turned back to Sarah. “He’s not going to shoot you at all. The vests were just to make you feel more comfortable.”
If that was the truth, they weren’t doing a very good job being fifteen pounds of insulation. I was already sweating, and all we’d done was walk a few steps and sit down.
As soon as Greg got Sarah settled, he asked me if I liked my drink. “I was told to get you coffee,” he admitted. “But you seem pretty tightly wound.”
It was Mason’s turn to glare. “What are you doing?”
“She’s the one acting like they’re all gonna be splatter-analyzed in about an hour.”
“Seriously!” Mason cut him off.
“Guys, please...” Sarah was wringing her hands together and looking pale under her freckles.
“Look, I’ll take Sarah downstairs,” Greg told the rest of us. “You three stay here. I don’t need this one pissing anyone off.”
“He means you,” Cat told me.
“Whatever,” I growled, still addressing Greg. “You don’t know what I’ve gone through trying to protect your new girlfriend.”
Neither of them even flinched at the term. But when Sarah started crying, Greg looked like he might give me a couple of black eyes.
“Oh, poor Laura,” he mocked. “It must be so difficult playing games all day and letting daddy pay your bills. Meanwhile, Sarah here had to sell her soul to the devil.”
“Had to?” I asked. “No, that was a choice.”
“I said I was sorry,” she choked out. Cat handed her a napkin and rubbed her arm, all the while looking from Greg to me and back again.
I ignored her implication that we were making things worse. “So, you two have known each other all of three hours, and you spent half that time talking about my flaws? What else did she tell you?”
Greg pondered my question. “That you’re a total slob.”
“Okay, leave her alone, already,” Mason cut in. “I know we’re all stressed out here, but this isn’t Laura’s fault. And it isn’t Sarah’s fault, either. It’s that asshole downstairs. We should all be focused on him.”
I glared at Sarah who looked suddenly attritional. Did she seriously say that about me? Something so demeaning and - okay, it was true - but still. After everything? After losing my mother’s necklace?
“I’m sorry,” she told me. “I didn’t mean it in a bad way. Just that it was one of your cute, little quirks. Actually, it was more about my jealousy that you had a father who wanted to take care of you.”
Her comment caused me to pause. She’d been jealous of the father who sent me money and complained each month I didn’t fly back home? It all made so much sense. Her lack of a loving parent sent her into the arms of a pimp. She’d been looking for a father-figure and wound up stripping to get some kind of positive affirmation.
I realized, in that moment, that I knew very little about Sarah, other than she was a life-long friend of Cat’s and she liked to cook. I’d never taken the time to understand her. I’d never asked about her childhood or her family. I’d never cared. I’d stayed inside my protective bubble while the world tore her apart.
Everyone watched as I slipped from my stool and walked around Greg to give Sarah a hug. “I’m sorry.”
She jerked away at first. Maybe she thought I was going to hit her. But then she leaned in and squeezed me back. “It’s okay.”
“I really am sorry. We’ll figure this out,” I told her. “And you’ll never have to come back to this place again.”
She and Cat decided on a quick trip to the restroom to freshen Sarah’s makeup, leaving me with Mason and Greg - who earned himself an irritated glare as I found my bar-stool.
“Hey,” he told me, making no excuses for his behavior. “I didn’t say anything that wasn’t true.”
“I don’t game ALL day,” I defended, meekly. I didn’t want Mason to know these things about me. That I was a lazy, self-indulged brat with too much money and too much time. Although Dad had fixed the too-much-money part. “And the game I play is not just for fun. There’s a lot of puzzle solving and team dynamics. It’s a very social experience.”
Greg’s eyes flicked to Mason and back to me before going down to the drink in his hand. He chuckled to himself like I was a total nerd and not worth his time.
Anger at being dismissed in this way burned through me. “Well, at least I’m not wearing a pink shirt.” I knew the insult was childish. But he’d removed his blue sweatshirt, and someone had to tell him this wasn’t a gay bar.
“What?” He looked down at his shirt. “It’s not - it’s not pink,” he explained. “My sister got this for me as a present. Is it pink?” he asked Mason while pulling at the fabric to see it at closer range.
Mason, taking a sip of his drink, let one side of his mouth lift into an almost-smile. “Definitely pink. Or rose – which is probably worse.”
“It probably wasn’t a gift,” I added. “It was probably a hand-me-down when she realized it was too feminine for her.”
Greg jumped from his chair in a slight panic and stood directly under a beam of red light. The effect was blinding. “It’s not pink. It’s fuschia.”
Mason was laughing. “Fuschia? What the hell is that?”
Greg took his seat again. “It’s like burgundy. Totally masculine.”
Seeming to be stifling even more laughter, Mason nodded. “Okay, if you say so. This isn’t the first time you’ve worn a girl’s shirt.”
“Okay, okay,” Greg took down the rest of his drink and set his glass in the middle of the table. “That was a long time ago.”
I listened as Mason relayed their first day of Freshman year when Greg accidentally wore one of his sister’s dress shirts.
“It was dark when I was getting dressed. I was tired,” he shrugged, smiling.
“You didn’t feel the lace down the front?” Mason asked him.
Without a proper comeback, Greg made an inappropriate hand gesture which Mason merely laughed at. Clearly, the two of them shared a tolerant and long-standing relationship. One that had weathered more than just tonight’s storm. I saw between the lines of their banter that brotherhood could exist without the tie of blood.
When Cat and Sarah returned, it was with matching, carefree smiles. They’d fixed their makeup and gotten everyone another round of drinks.
“This is not a good idea,” I told them as I hesitantly accepted their gift.
Cat explained that they were energy drinks. “No alcohol,” she said.
“Probably still a bad idea,” I grumbled. Now we could all run downstairs and yell at Marcus that we had his money.
“Okay, it’s ten-oh-one,” Cat informed the group. “What’s the plan?”
“I’m going down there alone,” Sarah insisted with new-found confidence. “I got myself into this mess, and I’m getting myself out.”
Greg was shaking his head. “Nope. Not alone.”
Having finishing her drink, Cat jumped off of her stool. “I thought we were all going together.”
Sarah looked unsure. “I don’t want to make him mad...”
“Why would he get mad?” I asked. “You have his money. He should be elated. It’s like a two-hundred percent profit.”
“Exactly,” Cat agreed.
“Besides,” I added. “You’re not the best at...”
“What?” Sarah asked, rightly suspicious that I was about to say something mean.
And I didn’t WANT to say it, but it needed to be said. “You’re not the best at... being assertive.”
She scowled. “You mean I let people walk all over me?”
I shrugged. “A little.”
“You think I’ll mess this up?”
I sighed, trying to figure a way out of the hole I was digging. “I think you are too sweet and kind and gentle. And people see that and take advantage of you.”
Greg actually looked approving of my words. He turned to Sarah and agreed with me, saying, “You are sweet and kind and gentle.”
“And we just want to help you,” Cat added.
Sarah looked around at all of us, her eyes glistening. We waited for her to decide, because it was ultimately her decision. Finally, she pulled the check out of her pocket and slid it across the table toward me. “Okay, we can all go together, and Laura can be our spokesperson.”
“What!?” Greg shouted. “No. Absolutely not. She’ll get us all killed for sure.”
“I will not!” I yelled back.
“Her dad negotiates for a living,” Cat told Greg, trying to reassure him. “It’s kind of in her blood.”
“Fine,” he finally conceded, lifting his hands off the table in a motion of surrender. If you want to do the talking, that’s fine by me. I just hope you’re better at negotiations than you are at healing.”
My blood ran cold. How could he know about that unless Sarah had told him? And why would she even bring that up? Had they laughed about me behind my back? I felt hurt and betrayed and a little broken-hearted as I looked at her. “Seriously?” I asked.
Sarah looked confused. Perhaps unsure of how to make this better. But before she could even try, two men walked up and asked if one of us was Sarah.
“Um... that’s me,” she told them.
“Marcus is waiting,” one of the men told her. “We’ll take you to him.”
Sarah slid from her stool. Before she could tell them we were all going with, the second man addressed the table with, “All five of you. Let’s go.”
One of them led the group, one followed behind, as we trekked through oblivious partiers toward a threadbare staircase. It wore the same antiquated carpet it was given in the early nineteen hundreds when this place was still called a saloon. Each step, shorter than the traditional height, was a jarring reminder of our destination.
We passed three closed doors, turned down a hallway, and met with a final door. This one had a large EXIT sign over top. Our little gathering was washed aglow with green, neon light.
“Are you lost?" I braced myself for the man in front to deliver his response with a backhand. I held my breath and squinted my eyes just enough to blur his outline as he turned in a slow arc to face me, one hand pulling his coat away from where it covered his gun. A very shiny gun. Probably loaded.
“The meeting place has changed,” he informed us in a gruff voice. “Any questions?”
“Uh, yeah,” I said. “I have a few.”
“No you don’t,” Mason told me from behind. Certainly good advice as both guards could easily top the six foot marker at the police station.
We exited into the snowy night, feeling a chill that was from more than the weather. I counted my escape routes, thinking this all felt very far from necessary for a simple debt we were prepared to pay. Did Marcus have plans for us beyond collecting his check? Or was he simply taking precautions?
The two men escorted us to an SUV. All the while giving instruction not to talk or someone might get a stray bullet in the head. I bit my tongue to keep from asking how someone gets good at directing ‘stray’ bullets and climbed into the rear bench seat.
Mason took the spot to my right, Sarah sat in front of me with Greg next to her and Cat next to the door. When I looked over at Mason, it was to see my own look of sincere apology reflected back at me. I felt horrible that I’d dragged an innocent bystander into the mess of my life. And I knew what he was thinking, too - that he’d known this was a possibility and didn’t prevent it.
“It’s okay,” I whispered even though the men were still outside the SUV. They were arguing about something for long enough to give us a moment alone.
Mason’s expression changed, then he used one hand to pinch his temples and push back his hair. “No, it isn’t.”
“Yes, it is.”
I watched his shoulders rise with a deep breath. He held it momentarily before letting it escape. “I don’t think we’re talking about the same thing.”
Sarah turned around in her chair and whispered that everything would be fine. “Marcus isn’t the type of guy to do his own dirty work,” she explained. “He just sent people to collect us, so he wouldn’t have to do anything himself! Even Greg agrees - after we pay Marcus, he won’t spend another second on us. We’ll be free to leave.”
“Oh, yeah?” I asked, sarcastically. “Did you guys figure all that out before or after you ridiculed my life.”
“What?” She asked. “I just said you were a little messy, that’s all. And I apologized! I thought we were over that!”
“Not that,” I corrected. “The stuff about my gaming. How all I do is sit in front of my computer like a loser and what a horrible healer I am.” I may have been exaggerating a little.
She looked at me in question. “What’s a healer?”
And everything went quiet inside, everything went still with shock. I could only stare at her, then at Greg beside her. He’d turned around to witness the conversation.
“What do you mean, ‘what’s a healer’,” I asked Sarah. “You told Greg-”
She shook her head; her curly hair bounced around her shoulders. “I never said anything about your game. I don’t even know what it’s called.”
“Then how did he know...” My sentence trailed off at the look on Greg’s face as he glanced from Sarah to me to Mason.
“Sorry, bro,” he said before turning around in his chair.
Before I could get an explanation, the two men had come to an agreement and climbed into the front seats of the SUV. One of them turned and tossed a few handkerchiefs at Greg.
“Pass these out,” he instructed. “I want everyone in a blindfold. And tie ’em tight. Anyone who peeks get’s a lobotomy.”
How did any of this make sense? Greg knew I was a healer, though Sarah had never mentioned it? The only other person who could have told him was Mason, and Mason had no clue himself. Unless... My hands were shaking so badly, I was having trouble unfolding my scarf. Had Mason actually taken the time to hack my computer? I knew he had the skills for such an intrusion, but the will?
“What is going on?” I asked him in my quietest voice. Even though everyone else was too busy figuring out their own blindfolds to pay much attention to our duo at the back of the vehicle. “How does Greg know about my personal life?”
Mason didn’t answer. He was watching me fumble with the square of black cloth in my lap. Then, slowly, he reached and touched my hands, silently offering his help.
I released the handkerchief, feeling very far away from the moment, and watched him fold it into a strip and smooth it across his knee with care. “You... told him?”
When he finally met my gaze, his eyes were pained, his admission wordless.
I shook my head, trying to comprehend. “How...?
Mason bit his lip, released it. Took a breath, released it. He looked away and back again but said nothing.
I felt breathless, saying, “I never... told you...”
“Blindfolds!” One of the men shouted. “Now!”
Mason gestured that I turn around so he could fix the blindfold over my eyes. The cloth was stiff and scratchy, but Mason’s hands were gentle. He even took care not to pull any of my hair as he tied the knot. Without sight, my sense of touch was amplified to the point that every bit of physical contact caused chills to travel along my skin. Mason’s fingers brushing my cheek, even though they didn’t need to for the purpose of securing the blindfold; his shirt sleeve grazing my shoulder; his knee touching my leg.
And finally, his breath on my neck as he spoke very softly near my ear. “Yes... you did.”
“No, I didn’t,” I whispered. “I know because I specifically didn’t tell you about that part of my life - it’s embarrassing.”
“Why would it be embarrassing?”
“That’s not the point!” My voice rose above a whisper, but one of the men had turned on the radio, so nobody could hear us anyway. Oddly, he’d chosen holiday music, so we drove through the streets blindfolded and listening to songs about Christmas cheer. “You invaded my privacy!”
“How?” He asked, quietly.
I could feel his entire side touching mine as he leaned close enough for me to hear him speak. But I refused to enjoy the closeness. “I know what you did. I know you hacked my computer and saw everything. You obviously watched my game. Did you read my emails?”
“Laura...” He sighed, sounding resigned. “I did not ghost your computer.”
“How else would you know about my healing?” Or lack thereof.
There was a long time between my question and his answer. The car turned a couple of corners, the song changed to something less merry, more serious and emotional. Slow guitar and a soft voice singing Lay down with me, I’ll be your safety.
The minute it took for him to speak lasted ages, each second stretching a hundred beats. Eyes closed, all I could do was rest in the moment, breathing in the sour and musky warmth that was Mason’s skin. It was all I could focus on. Did he have an explanation? Would he fix everything with a sentence?
The pressure bloomed, the tension swelled until he turned and rested his forehead against the top of my head. “What if everything was different?” He asked, an ache of apology in his voice.
“Different, how?” Suspicious, I felt the slightest hint of de-ja-vu. “What do you mean?”
“I mean...” he breathed. “What if things were different? What if I wasn’t the jerk you met online?”
Suddenly, I couldn’t breath, I couldn’t think, I couldn’t understand what he was trying to say. These were words Smith had written to me, and only me. Private words not meant for the rest of the world. A wave of numbness washed through me as Mason continued.
“What if... I was the guy you met in a coffee shop. And I bought you a drink. And we talked forever about life and books, and why we would ever...” Fingers trailed the length of my arm, from shoulder to wrist. “Spend... another... minute... apart.”
He was begging me to understand, pleading with me not to be mad. But how could I forgive such an intrusion? “You read my conversations with Smith?”
I clenched my teeth together, then, “Don’t call me that.”
The weight of his head increased as he relaxed into me, acquiescing. “Alright.” Then he pulled away and took the warmth of his body with him.
“Did you read the parts where I talked about you?” I whispered, angrily.
His tone was flat. “Yes.”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
Nearing tears, I resisted the sway of the vehicle as we followed a winding road. I didn’t want to bump into Mason and be reminded how nice it felt to be this close to him. Didn’t want to yearn for the person who’d pushed me so far away. By the time we came to a stop and the engine went quiet, I was beside myself with misery.
Three doors opened. Three doors closed. We were led, completely blind, into a house that smelled like cigars and aftershave. And was probably filled with marble, and statues of icons, and too much glass. Through a room, down a staircase, along a hallway, we were tempted into a lair, one step at a time. Always aware of the exit and it’s reachability until we were so far in that there wasn’t one. Not anymore. Whatever Marcus had planned for us - he would get away with it.
Because here in this place, we were at his absolute mercy.