“So, you get paid by the hour, and we will split the tips,” Paris trailed Lia down the dance academy hall. It was busy as students spilled out of the classrooms, the noise of their conversations echoing off the high ceilings and glossy floors. Cecelia dodged dancers stretching against the wall between classes, or preparing their shoes, the tap-tap of the toe-boxes against the floor a percussion to life as a dancer. “What do you think?”
“Are you sure it is not a strip club?” Lia was dubious. Sometimes Paris’ ideas were reckless and ill-thought-out. It would not be the first money-making scheme that she had talked Lia into joining, and the last time the audition for “entertainment dancing” had turned out to be for jobs as mobile strippers for private events, so her suspicion was well founded.
“No, it is an exclusive men’s club. It is like the male version of a cocktail bar. It is 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, his posture deliberately elegant as if he wanted to attract their attention.
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. Vain, she thought, and with good reason. He would be popular around the dance academy, with both male and female dancers, he had the sort of glow to him that attracted people and made them want to look and touch him.
“I hope he is 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, but the blonde man was like the glow of the sun in her peripheral vision, enticing her to look again.
Cork board, Cecelia, she told herself sternly. Male dancers were just trouble, and she wasn’t in the market for a boyfriend. What she needed was a regular source of income. 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 is so true, though. Here,” Paris took the sheet of paper from Lia’s hand and stuck it to the board over several other notices with complete disregard for whatever they were advertising. 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 is not a strip club?”
“Do not 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, the golden pull of him irresistable. There was something, she thought, so familiar about his face. Perhaps her initial impression had been correct, and he had featured on a soap opera, or something on TV, someone not quite famous, but seen often enough to trick the eye into thinking it knew them.
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 swell of traffic noise rolling over them, it’s music as well known as the pieces that they danced to.
“The bus!” Lia could see it’s yellow roof over the cars as it turned the corner onto the street. They ran, giggling and breathless to the bus stop, arriving just as it pulled up with a blast of metallic air from it’s radiator.
“Close one,” the driver, Larry, commented as they scanned their cards. Larry was a regular on the route, and knew all the dancers from the academy who caught his bus by first name. He bought tickets for his granddaughters whenever he could get them, and his familiarity with the dancers guaranteed them entry to backstage and the change rooms, much to his granddaughter’s awe and amazement.“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 roar of motorbikes pulling up out front of the house and had watched from her window as Paris exchanged lingering kisses with her boyfriend in the soft glow of the streetlights, their breath misting in the chill of the night.
There had been two other bikes, and she could have sworn that one of the helmeted figures had watched her back, his face lost behind the glossy face shield. His leather jacket had hugged broad shoulders and lean waist, and bunched on the muscles of his arms. She had returned to bed once Paris had not-so-quietly snuck inside the house and down the hall to the staircase, and imagined the man behind the mystery of that helmet to the gentle buzz of her vibrator.
“No, they are not like that. They are graphic designers,” Paris was laughing. “Or something for cars. I do not 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, the track worn shiny in the matte floor. 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 with a regular paycheck, and she needed to let out the third bedroom to supplement it, though the house was not large, and the idea of a stranger living with her and Paris was not a comfortable one.
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 and the passengers pressed forward towards her, almost unbalancing her onto the street. If she had 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, the pain putting her beyond caring if she damaged it further in doing so.
“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 am telling you, Cecilia, it is more than a job, it is 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 will 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. The slightly musty smell of wallpaper and old carpet recalled many fond childhood memories.
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, she thought.
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 heard the hammering old old pipes straining under the pressure of the shower water, she emptied her purse, spilling out onto the kitchen table amongst the rubble of her life - chap sticks, tissues, small change, mints that had escaped their container, receipts, compacts, and old bus tickets tumbled out onto the tabletop, and amongst them, the indignant fairy with it’s crumpled wings.
“That one is 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 is wrong with it?” Lia wondered.
“Nothing that a few days in an atrium will not 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 rubber ended 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, the leaves shining in the bright light that spilled through the many little panes of glass, and the moisture from their pots filling the small room with the scent of soil and green life.
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 suspiciously when Paris instructed her to put on black underwear, and a suspender belt to hold up the thigh high fishnet stockings. “Why does a waitress need suspender stockings, Paris?”
“Trust me,” Paris insisted.
Lia pulled a t-shirt dress over the underwear, and a coat over top, thinking that she looked like exactly like a stripper-gram, her dress hidden by her coat, and the fishnet stockings and black high heels on full display. She was beginning to dread what the night held ahead, but Paris had been working there for three months, and said the pay was good.
She needed the money. She sighed.
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, the male laughter and cat calls filling the chamber of the bus with sound and causing other passengers to look up from their phones or books and shift uncomfortably, recognizing the tone of those voices as young men looking to stir up trouble.
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 would get the hint.”
“This happens every week?” Lia asked, daunted.
“Mhm. It is 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 at being seen, and recoiled, babbling as he scurried down the alleyway, disappearing behind an overflowing and stinking 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 am freezing.” She huddled her jacket closer to her but it did little against the cold.
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 am sorry,” Lia folded it and put it into her pocket. “But I will 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 did not 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, sending stray cats and rats scattering into the shelter of the shadows as they made their way to a solid door, it’s chipped surface showing the layers of paint beneath it in a rainbow of hues. 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, the tiles old and dingy looking, although Lia could smell disinfectant.
“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. “Don’t they have heaters here?” She asked.
“It’s warmer in the club,” 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 are kidding,” Lia pulled a face. It was one step above a cheap Halloween costume in quality, the material holding an acrylic sheen and the tulle netting coarse, the petticoat meant to protect it’s wearer from it’s edges too short to serve it’s purpose.
“It is what it is,” Paris pulled on an identical dress, tugging it down, and reaching inside it’s neckline to lift her breasts and the lace of her bra. She used safety pins on the waistband to hold the dress to the garter belt, before tying the white apron around her waist. “If you pin it to the garter, it’ll stop it riding up so much,” she advised. “Don’t look at me like that, Lia. 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, following Paris’ directions to pin the waist to her garter belt, and arranging the bodice so that her breasts and the top edge of her bra were on display. “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 is yours. If Elior likes you, that is. And he had better like you, Lia, because it is the only way that we are getting onto that stage.”
The dress barely covered her arse as the skirt was fluffed out by tulle despite the safety pins, and the bodice was scooped indecently 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.
“I guess it is not the worst costume that I have 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 walls were all wood paneled and painted in a grey so dark it was almost black, the effect both opulent and masculine.
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 are late,” he yelled over the music to Paris. “Who is 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, their arms over the back of the armchairs they sat on and their long legs sprawled out in the type of confident, relaxed abandonment men achieved when their day was done and they were amongst themselves and surrounded by alcohol.
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.