Charcoal was one of the most notorious night clubs on the Island. When it came to music, it took it’s inspiration from the world famous Jazz Bar on the other side of the city, but with a twist. The music was always dark and low, but with a steady beat. It attracted wanna be gangsters and the alternative party crowds. The owners officially knew nothing about rumours of drug dealer and pimps keeping up darker corners, but unofficially no one sold anything in Charcoal without the owners taking a cut. It was a good place to escape the senses of the day to day life for many people. Mood lighting, Ecstasy and free roaming prostitutes made for a good place to hide from your boring office job, plane wife and screaming kids. Winter hadn’t stepped foot Charcoal since his Beloved had died. It was where they had met. This case was starting to feel like chasing ghosts and shadows of his past, and he didn’t like it.
Winter had spent the day trying not to think about why Princess would be running from her uncle and why her uncle would hire him of all people to look for her, all the while trying not to take any more pills. He’d also decided it couldn’t have been that bad of a heart attack, for one he was still alive and for another he was starting to feel normal again. Good food seemed to help, and cold water mixed with aspirin to thin the blood.
Now a girl like Princess didn’t need to know the pimps and drug dealers of Charcoal. If she was into that kind of thing she had the money and resources to get much higher quality of what would be on offer there. If it was a bouncer he’d have an in but it would be much harder to get information from violence, bar staff were fairly hit and miss, the mangers could have some underground pull. Some got their job by being good at serves and having a willingness to look the other way, other got in by doing the things the other managers looked away from. Then there was the possibility that she was just meeting a contact there and was long gone. Also the very outside chance that Joshua had lied to him, but that didn’t seem likely. Winter’s plan was to observe the comings and goings and see who seemed the most uncomfortable by his presence. Anyone who knew Princess well enough to hide her from Keys Jr. would know who he was and more importantly what he was capable of. Charcoal wasn’t the kind of place you arrived to early unless you wanted to try show off to a girl by try bribing the bounces to let you skip the line later. Winter had a reputation with the wrong sort of people so it was 50/50 if he would be able to skip the line without paying for the privilege. Waiting in line wasn’t really an option but he didn’t want to draw the wrong kind of attention to himself. If it looked like anything other than just a coincidence that he was there, the person he was looking for could bolt before he knows who it was. Making the whole trip irrelevant and tipping off Princess who’s looking for her, which would drive her even more underground. Winter knew he had one shot at it and would need to play it perfectly. With that in mind he pulled his pill bottle out of his pocket and took two. He’d go to the door, if the rope didn’t move he’d make one attempt to bypass it then leave if rejected. It would be frustrating but it had to be done that way. The other problem he faced was Charcoals dress code. Jeans and a black t-shirt wouldn’t cut it their, he’d have to wear proper trousers and a collared shirt. Winter couldn’t help but feel like his whole plan was too thin to work. When there was no plan B plan A normally went wrong. Words he’d lived by and words he was going against. He looked himself up and down in the mirror a few times to make sure none of his guns could be seen under his suit jacket. Guns and knives and plenty of them, just in case, Winter had two revolvers under his jacket and small collection of throwing knives under his shirt, plus a pair of knuckle dusters in his pockets. Assassin work was easy, you found your target, worked out their habits and choose how and when to take them out. If you were being paid to be elegant you could do it from far away, if a message needed to be sent you got closer. But you could plan for specific problem. This however was not so simple, there were too many variable to make a specific plan of attack.
It had gotten dark and late which meant it was time for him to head out. He drove past the entrance to see if he could spot anyone he used to know working the door. Two things became instantly clear to him. One, the man in charge of door security was an ex-associate of his, which mean he could probably get passed the door no problem, the other however was that everyone was being patted down. Winter parked his car in such a way that if he needed to leave in a hurry he wouldn’t have to fight with parking, then removed all the weapons that would be found by a bouncer’s pat down. He didn’t like it, but couldn’t risk it. All he was left with were the throwing knives hidden in the lumbar support belt he wore under his shirt. If they asked he’d either take the joke about being old, or make it himself. If they asked why he was there it would have to be about getting tired of drinking alone at home. Nothing felt good about this plan, nothing in Winter said it was going to work, but it was the only lead he had, it had to be looked into. He took another pill, stepped out of his car and headed for the door. Why was Princess running from her uncle, was it simply the obvious reason that he was the scum of the earth or was there more too it? Winter walked straight up to the door with full intention of being let right in. He made eye contact with the bouncer he recognised but didn’t smile. The bounce in turn gasped and swore under his breath before saying,
“Winter, it’s been a long time.”
The two men shook hands,
“Yes, it has, I figured I’d see if they’d improved the quality of the vodka yet.”
The bouncer wasn’t sure if he was supposed to laugh of not, so spluttered a little half heartedly.
“You’re gonna be disappointed.”
Winter smiled for a second then returned to his natural scowl, and simply waited for the bouncer to move the rope. Which he did after an awkward moment, and although Winter was prepared to be patted down, he wasn’t going to volunteer it so walked right past him aiming at the door but was stopped by a nervous hand on his chest. It occurred to Winter that this bouncer was more scared of him than he expected him to be, either he knew something or had started believing some of the rumours about him.
“Is there a problem?”
“I just need to pat you down quickly, we do it to everyone, no exceptions.”
Winter narrowed his eyes and held out his arms. The bouncer quickly ran his hands down his jacket and over the pill bottle in his pocket which he also ignored. He then checked his ankles and cuffs,
“All clear, have a good night.”
“You too, if I’m still around at closing time, maybe we could have a drink, catch up, for old time’s sake.”
“Yeah, yeah, that’d be… uummm great.”
The bouncer was a man named Thomas Custom. He’d worked the door at Charcoal as long as it’d been open, and he’d been nervous of Winter for longer than that. He knew Winter because Beloved used to work at Charcoal, it’s where Winter and her met. Even when Winter was happy he was cold, and it made Thomas nervous, but never this nervous. Was he hiding something? Did he know something about Princess? Or was it just that Winter’s new reputation had reached his ears and it frightened him. Winter decided he’d ponder those questions over a few long vodkas and see if anything else interesting presented itself. He walked straight up to the bar, to his surprise there were more people in the line outside than in the club itself. First he’d get a drink, and then he’d sit down at a table until he spotted something interesting or he’d push on Thomas for information. Winter ordered a couple of large vodka’s with a couple of lime wedges in each and a cold beer then found a not to dark corner to skulk in. He had time and didn’t want to spend it going back and forth to the bar, he also didn’t want to get stuck in standing room only when the outside people were eventually allowed in. He needed to be seen, but also not to obvious that someone could spot him and leave before he noticed. It was going to be a long night.
The place was sleazier than Winter had remembered, it had apparently stayed on it’s steady decline from when he was last there. Before it was dirty, the drug dealers sat in corner, bookies and the pimps operated in a back room and you had to know which barman to ask to be allowed in. Now the drug dealers were doing lines off the bar while it was still empty and the pimps were sitting in corner booths with woman all around them. The door to the back room was now a red velvet curtain and the drug dealers seemed to wander freely through. What a shit hole, why did people still come here, what was the crowd going to be like, surely not the same, alternative bohemian wannabes? It now gave off a distinct depraved drug addict vibe, cheap booze, cheap drugs, and cheap woman. What kind of sanctuary could Princess have found here? How bad was it with Keys Jr. that this was a better option. Slowly Winter was shifting opinions that perhaps he shouldn’t be looking to find Princess but help her … and maybe kill Keys Jr or at least hurt him significantly. A few hours past and Charcoal filled at a steady rate the whole time. Winter scowled at anyone who came near him, only breaking his moody silence to order drinks from the now on duty waitresses. For the first time in a few days his pills were successfully suppressing memories of his Beloved. There was a moment’s flash back when the first waitress came up to him in the same branded shirt, but his focus on work quickly knocked him back to his sense. Winter was pacing himself, he knew he had a long night ahead of him, and the longer it got the more he thought his only lead would be Thomas the bouncer. Then just after two in the morning it all seemed to kick off. One of the pimps had apparently traded a girl for a score, but the dealer was so high on his own stoke he decided to treat the girl to a drink. The girl was almost naked and stumbling. Thomas the bouncer came tearing through the crowd to sort the mess out. As bad as it was in there, they still couldn’t have naked, high sex works falling on people in plane sight. It wasn’t until Thomas lost his poker face and sent a sweaty nervous glace at Winter, that he realised the mostly naked girl was Princess. Jesus, was this the escape she was expecting, was it so bad before that this was better? Or had she been sold out by someone she trusted, either way it didn’t matter. In an instant Winter was on his feet and across the room. Along the way he grabbed a half empty wine bottle and before Thomas could even think the words ‘I can explain’ Winter kicked him between the legs and broke the bottle over his head. The dealer who’d traded the drugs for a good night nervously pulled out a Knife which Winter quickly took and used to pin one of the dealers hand to the bar. The pimp who ‘owned’ her was next, he got up with intent to let off a few rounds but Winter had already scooped Princess up and was running for the door. The Pimp suffered a moment of confusion then started shooting at them, but he was a few moments to late, Winter was out the door and heading for his car. The pimp made chase and shot off a few more rounds at Winter’s car as it sped off. The closest hitting one of the wing mirrors. Winter growled, pulled up the handbrake swinging the car 180 degrees and drove straight at the pimp who just managed to dive out the way as Winter drove away. Meanwhile all the jostling of being carried and swung around had turned the girl’s stomach and she proceeded to be sick in the back of the car. Two main thoughts came to Winter’s mind. One, he couldn’t return Princess to Key’s Jr without finding out how she ended up in Charcoal as a whore and two would the cleaning company did car interior.
Winter gently pulled the car into his parking spot and turned to look at Princess. She looked so different to the spoilt girl he used to protect. Beyond the smeared makeup and the drug haze there was a grey sadness about her that he’d not expected. It was a feeling he well understood. The effort of vomiting coupled with the insanity of the situation left Princess passed out, which worked in Winter’s favour. He rapped her up in his jacket and carried her to his apartment. He carefully removed what little she had on and pulled one of his shirt onto her along with a pair of his boxers. Then he whipped her mouth and put her in his bed. Whatever was happening to her, he needed some answers before. The idea of delivering her back to Keys Jr. seemed more and more like a bad idea. In a strange way Winter felt comforted by the presence of someone else in the apartment. He’d kept himself so removed for company for so long that it felt new and almost refreshing, and she had an air of something familiar. The couch wasn’t exactly a welcome change after the motel bed, but it was still a comfort of home. Before going too sleep himself Winter placed four large glasses of water next to Princess’s bed and two pills on a sheet of paper with the words “Pain Killers” written big and clear. As Winter lay on the couch replaying the night in his head he though that maybe Charcoal had had more of an effect than he thought, the way he was looking after Princess, worrying about her, it was all so familiar, reminding him of the day he met his Beloved. Then Winter took a couple more pills and closed his eyes.
A sharp burning pain in the back of Princesses eyes eventually caused her to give up on the idea of sleep and wake up. Cautiously she opened one eye then quickly opened the second while sitting up. An action she regretted. Nervously she looked around the room hoping to spot something familiar but found nothing. Eventually she saw the glasses of water and the sheet of paper pointing out the painkillers, which she took instantly while downing the first glass. She then picked up the second and leaned back against to wall to try finding a memory of the night before, hoping to find a clue as to where she was, but found it very hard to think. Taking another long drink of water she looked out the window and realised it was still dark outside, or dark again, either way she put the water back on the table, lay down and closed her eyes waiting for the painkillers to kick in, hoping that with pain relief and more sleep clarity would come. It hadn’t been the first time she’d woken up in a strangers bed not remembering how she got there, and she figured it probably wouldn’t be the last.
Periodically Winter quietly opened the door to check on Princess, making sure she was still alive. The first time he checked after waking up he noticed the painkillers and some of the water had gone, which he took as a good sign. He then called his cleaning serves and quietly went about his apartment waiting for her to wake up. He’s also decided to only take a maximum of three pills over the whole day, one in the morning to start things off, but resist until he had to. He ordered food in, enough for two but didn’t wake Princess; he knew the best thing for her was to sleep off as much of what ever she’d been doing as possible. After the third look in where she had moved but not woken up Winter decided to refresh the water and painkillers, but also changed the piece of paper to say “More pain killer”. In case she thought she’d dreamt the first lot. Winter didn’t really like having to hang around at home all day, but he knew that if she woke up in a strange place, in strange clothes and there wasn’t anyone around to answer questions when they formed he’d loose her again. Finding her was the job he was paid to do and until he decided once and for all not to bring her back home, he was still working.
Princess opened her eyes again and looked around the room, less hung over but more confused than the first time. Realising that it hadn’t been a dream caused a conundrum in her mind. She was clearly somewhere strange but also hadn’t been hassled, she had more water, was in a clean bed, she was slightly shocked to discover she was in strange clothes but that too passed. The question was still where was she? But she also wasn’t too afraid. Her head still hurt, so she took the ‘more painkillers’ with another glass of water, then quietly she got out of bed and headed for the only door. On the other side Winter could hear her moving around and decided to wait rather than confront her. Unsure of weather or not she’d recognise him or not. Nervously Princess opened the door and found him sitting calmly on his couch, in an otherwise fairly empty room. She recognised him instantly but it took her a few extra moments to work out why she recognised him. Although it was a relief to find him on the other side of the door it didn’t fill her with joy, she knew that there would have to be a lot of things explained and she wasn’t sure if she really had the words or emotional stability at the moment to explain them. Winter could see the sudden drop in energy and knew the look all to well.
“I got you stir fry, it’s cold now, but it’s still good. Would you like me to warm it up for you?”
Princess’s voice was broken and shaky but Winter wasn’t going to hold it against her. He patted an empty seat on the couch before getting up and heading towards the kitchen. Princess walked over and slumped down on the couch wondering what would happen next and how she ended up there, but also knew that he probably had more questions than she did. Winter popped the bowl of food into the microwave and took the liberty of pouring her another big glass of water to go with it. He then let her eat and regain some strength before starting his interrogation, hoping that she’d just volunteer the information he wanted. Once she’d finished the two sat staring at each other in silence for a few minutes, both wondering who was going to start asking questions first, Princess knew that Winter was the less patient of the two and she didn’t want to give away any more than she absolutely had to so decided to stay quiet, but it didn’t take long before Winter gave up on waiting,
“God I can’t believe you still call me that, it’s not my name you know.”
“I know, but I can’t say that name.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Princess looked even more confused by Winter’s cryptic response but Winter wasn’t really in the mood to explain and when she thought about it she felt like she knew what it meant but couldn’t put her finger on it.
“I’ll tell you later, just don’t say your name. Now tell me, how did you end up working as a whore in Charcoal?”
Princess blushed and gasped exasperated, she didn’t realise Winter’s questions were going to be so blunt. She put on her best defence look but quickly realised that Winter didn’t look or really sound that judgmental. His question was plain and matter of fact, which was more surprising than anything else leaving her a little lost for words.
“Well, it’s wasn’t really the plan, I got dropped off there to meet a friend who said he could get me off the Island and away from my uncle but I would need money and well it was Charcoal and he said the quickest way to make a enough cash would be to work a few nights.”
“And the drugs? I thought you were all clean living, save the tree hippie?”
Princess’s discomfort grew and she started to fidget and sweat,
“Well yes, but I was getting nervous about the whole idea, I mean at first is sounded fine have sex with some people for just a couple of night make enough money and run. But the first guy through the door was super creepy and gross but the pimp guy said he had paid extra to be with me so I had to do it and then one of the dealers said he had something that would calm my nerves so I took it, and next thing I know that dudes on top of me and I didn’t care. Then there was another guy who wanted to buy me some drinks first and take some more drugs and one thing led to another it all gets a bit fuzzy after that.”
Winter watched her carefully, he didn’t think she was lying but she was also not being very forth coming with the truth which made him cautious.
“So was last night your first night working then?”
Princess had lost the ability to maintain eye contact with him and he could see her shut down slightly,
“When did you start?”
“I first arrived there two weeks ago.”
Winter took a deep breath and thought back to his Beloved and her time spent working in Charcoal, and said nothing allowing Princess to fill the silence when she was ready. It didn’t take long before she continued talking,
“Well the first night was strange and creepy but manageable and kinda fun I mean, it was just like a party only you got paid to have sex while off your face. I was only supposed to do last night and then leave the this morning. I guess that’s not happening.”
“Again, I thought you were good and clean, getting a degree and fighting the power.”
“I was, I am.”
Her eyes took on a slight shine telling Winter she might tear up,
“Ever since my dad died and my uncle took over I … I had to pull everything together and get away from him and I missed just being reckless and doing something stupid and I figured this was something stupid all of it at once and out of my system. Then I’d go back to being me.”
She practically spat the words ‘my uncle’ when she said them, for the moment she thought about him and her face contorted with disgust. Winter wanted to ask why she’d run away but perhaps now wasn’t the right time. She still looked very pale and if she really had been on a two week drug bender she was going to get worse before she got better.
“Alright, well you should take a bath and then try getting some more sleep. Do you know what you were taking?”
She smiled sweetly,
“I think the first one was E, then maybe some cocaine, a lot of alcohol; there might have been some other things, MDMA powder, pot?”
“Other than here have you slept much?”
“Yeah, during the day mostly.”
“And how big is the black out?”
“The missing bits of memory?”
“Oh, that’s not so bad, the biggest is how I ended up here, how did I end up here I remember offering one of the dealers a go for some more coke but it tasted funny and then everything after that is a blur or just not there.”
“What colour was it?”
Princess tried to think but her head ache was coming back with a vengeance.
“It was white but different.”
“Can you remember if the dealer took the same stuff?”
Again Princess ransacked her mind for answers, then suddenly a flashback to her and the dealer standing over a mirror in her little room and the dealer smiling telling her it was all for her, it would take the edge off make the sex even better.
“No, just me.”
“Ok, well let’s just hope that it was Rohypnol.”
“Date rape a prostitute?”
“People are into some very strange things Princess, now go take a bath, I’ll find you some more clothes then I want you to get some more sleep. You’re going to continue to feel shit for a bit, but sleeping and water are the best things at the moment.”
Princess felt very parented and strangely safe and comfortable around Winter, although she had originally meant to ask his a few question about the night she couldn’t really think of anything and a hot bath did sound great. She figured if it was important she’d remember what she wanted to ask him later. Winter on the other hand had decided that giver her back to Keys Jr. was a bad idea. He didn’t know what Keys was up to, but if it drove his niece to prefer prostitution over spending time with him it couldn’t be good. This of course also meant that he was going to have to find a way to help Princess and possibly stop Key Jr. from continuing to look for her. None of which sounded like something he would normally do, he review his decision to lower his dosage of pills and decided that if he was in fact going to go through his Beloved wardrobe looking for clothes he was going to need ‘help’. He popped two pills with a double shot of vodka, took a deep breath and started looking for something that would fit Princess. When his Beloved had died he’d simply moved all her clothes into one cupboard and closed it, unable to throw it away or even look at it again, until now. Winter was strangely aware of feeling very protective of Princess, she didn’t annoy him in the way other people did. She reminded him of her father, who had been the only person there when he needed someone and so it felt natural to look after her now.
Meanwhile Princess lay naked in the bath letting the warm water slowly rise around her. The food had made her tired but she was also starting to feel a little on edge and anxious. She was however grateful to be where she was, feeling like if she was anywhere else in the world she wouldn’t be able to cope, but with Winter she’d be safe, he’d keep her safe. With that she closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep. When Winter saw the water pouring out from under his bathroom door he found the his instincts reacted much faster than his mind did. In the time it took him to think ‘oh god’ his body had reacted and he’d knocked the door wide open. The loud bang of the door bursting open woke Princess from her nap with a start. She clung to Winter and he scooped her out the bath and spluttered,
“What’s going on what’s going on!”
After a moment Winter realised what had happened, and frowned at Princess before putting her down and handing her a towel. He then turning off the water and pulling out the plug.
“Perhaps you should just go to bed?”
Princess blushed and frantically wrapper herself up, yet again taken aback by Winter’s lack of saviour judgment or lingering star, in fact he barely looked at her at all, no more or less than usual like he wasn’t even away that she had been naked. It then also dawned on her that he’d probably dressed her the night before, causing her to blush some more.
“S…sorry about the water, and the floor.”
“You just get to bed, get some sleep, I have more questions for tomorrow, there is water and another pill next to your bed, it’s not a pain killer but it will help ease you mind and help you sleep.”
She quietly headed for the bedroom, slipped on the shirt she’d had on before and the fresh panties that had been laid out for her then climbed into bed. Her head wasn’t as bad as it was before and she realised that she wasn’t usually the damsel in distress, she was proud of being confident and capable and doing what had to be done. But somehow Winter drew it out of her. Then she thought that perhaps damsel in distress was wrong, it was more, child, he made her feel like a child and she was just going with it, it was nice for a change to not have to be the adult. She thought about talking to him about it but it was too late, she was already mostly asleep with her head on the pillow.
Winter throw down as many towels as he could find to soak up all the water then just threw them in the bath when he was done. He poured himself some more vodka and went back to his couch. If he wasn’t going to give Princess back to Keys Jr. what was he going to do with her and why wasn’t he going to give her back? He could just make a call have some guys arrive to pick her up, he’d get the rest of his money and carry on his life. But he couldn’t do that, no part of him was willing to do that. Winter downed his glass then topped it up, maybe she was the big change he needed, or maybe it was another side effect of the heart attack and it too would pass. Either way, he had more questions he wanted answers to before he did anything. He looked at his glass still half full, or half empty depending on how much longer it would take for his pills to kick in, and decided to leave it that way. Sleep was probably the best thing for him too, given the last few days. He lay down on the couch and closed his eyes, letting the faint image of his Beloved dance off into the distance as he drifted off into the usual nightmares.