Inspiration for new stories can come from anywhere. A photo of a gentleman’s club in the days of prohibition and an advert for tracing old friends set off this train of thought.
I nearly didn’t recognise her. Could this be the same plump little girl with fly-away hair who followed me around like a puppy dog when we were growing up? She had been a sweet kid, but as a seventeen-year-old with raging hormones I didn’t want a pre-teen cramping my style while I tried a new chat up line on an older woman.
‘Hello, Max. Good to see you again. You’ve filled out a bit since the last time we met,’ she said in a sultry voice that would melt diamonds.
‘Do you two know each other?’
I recognised the older man possessively holding her arm as being one of the high flyers in the organisation; not someone to mess with.
‘Good evening, Mr Lombardi. Yes, but it must be what, Suze, about fifteen years ago?’
‘Something like that. And it’s Suzanne now. You were probably the last one to ever call me Suze,’ she smiled, with a sideways glance at her companion. ‘Tony, shall we go on through?’
‘Yes, of course, my dear. Nice to have met you Mr er..’
‘Romano. Max Romano. Don’t let me keep you Mr Lombardi. Have a nice evening.’
I noticed he bent close to her as they moved into the dining area, and guessed he was giving her the third degree. Better to keep out of their way for the rest of the evening. Not quite as easy as I hoped when the maître d’ led me to a table only three away from where they were sitting. Although there were eight people on each table Suze was facing towards me, making it difficult to avoid her gaze. For a moment I saw the scared little girl behind the veneer of the sophisticated, expensively dressed woman dripping with sex appeal.
Although the food was excellent, and my business companions good company I found it difficult to concentrate, and was relieved when the band started up and conversation became more difficult. It was a private members club, exclusive and with an annual fee to make your eyes water. That’s not to say it didn’t have its sleazy side, which was the main reason I was there as part of an undercover investigation. The stakes were not about a few girls making money by providing personal services, it was much bigger than that. Money laundering on a scale to feed a minor African country for a year, people trafficking, drugs, you name it, and the prime suspect was the man leading my childhood friend into dinner.
Somehow I found it difficult to imagine Suze getting into something so obnoxious. Okay she hadn’t had the easiest start, a father who was a drunkard and a mother who made money any way she could, but at heart I’d always believed she was a decent girl. Some of my family still lived close to hers, and over the years had kept me informed. I knew when her father died of alcohol poisoning, her mother married another deadbeat and she left home at sixteen amid rumours her stepfather had seen her as fair game. She had taken a job as a waitress in a Honky Tonk club fifty miles away and was gradually building up a better life for herself. For a few years there was no more gossip, and although I never forgot her I was concentrating on building up my own career.
Needing a cigarette break I excused myself and made my way to the conservatory designated as the smoking area. It had become such an anti-social habit I had the place to myself, but not for long.
‘May I join you?’
‘Of course,’ I said, as she sat down next to me. ‘We polluters have got to stick together.’
‘Actually, I very rarely smoke these days. Just sometimes when it gets a bit much. Thanks. How have you been Max? Rumour has it you’re working for the government. You seem to have done well for yourself. That suit and the Rolex didn’t come out of a Christmas cracker.’
‘I could say the same for you Suze,’ I replied, not wanting to go into explanations about my job. ‘You’re looking good, but I’m not so sure about the company you’re keeping. He wouldn’t be my first choice of companion, or is it more than that? He looked very possessive of you.’
‘He has his good side, but that’s what I wanted to warn you about. You should leave. Now. He’s had a tip off about you and ….What about old Mrs Jones and her chickens? Do you remember how she used to shout at us? Oh, hello Tony. Sorry. We were reminiscing about….’
‘Perhaps it would be better if you returned to our table. Our guests were concerned you were unwell.’
‘Yes, of course. Well, goodbye then Max. Take care.’
Why was she warning me off? It was more than just a jealous patron. Something must be going down tonight. I needed to get back to warn my associates. As I resumed my seat waiters came out of the woodwork, offering us brandies and checking our meal was satisfactory. It should have been good customer service but my instincts told me it was more than that as their constant presence made it impossible to have a private conversation. Five minutes later four gorillas took up positions near the door, confirming my suspicions.
‘Perhaps it’s time we called it a night?’ I suggested, trying to give my team mates a hint.
‘Unusual for you to be a party-pooper, Max,’ one of the younger team members laughed.
‘Normally it’s us having to drag you away. The night’s still young and I intend to make the most of it.’
Stupid idiot, why didn’t he watch my body language? It was a basic part of the training.
‘Anything wrong, Max?’ The chief followed the direction of my eyes as I glanced towards the bouncers standing by the entrance. A frown crossed his face but he made no effort to move. ‘Perhaps just extra security for pub kick-out time,’ he said quietly.
Then all hell let loose. A woman screamed as a range of firepower appeared and the goons made their way towards us. Without a second thought I upended the table, sending glasses and tableware crashing to the floor, but giving me a few vital seconds to dive towards the stage at the far end of the building. With the main exit blocked I was banking on there being a back entrance somewhere behind the dressing rooms.
‘Quick. This way.’
Just in time I recognised Suzanne’s voice before opening fire with my own pistol. She dragged me into a small back room, used a key to open another door hidden behind a rack of costumes, and pushed me towards the iron staircase leading down from the fire exit.
‘What about you? Come with me, you can’t stay here.’
‘No, Tony’ll get suspicious if I don’t go back. Take care of yourself,’ and with a quick kiss she went back the way we had come and closed the door behind her. I heard the lock turn and had no choice but to flee down the steps and fetch help.
Despite being on high alert it took fifteen long minutes before back-up arrived and forced their way into the club. What met us was a scene of devastation. From our party two were seriously injured, the youngster was dead, and only the chief had survived with just a few war-wounds. I was able to identify the goons, but Lombardi had disappeared.
‘Check out the other rooms,’ I yelled as I pushed aside the clothes rack to find my Honky Tonk Angel lying behind it in a bright red dress. Except her dress had been white until the gunshot wounds had changed its colour.
‘You’re safe,’ she whispered. ‘Good. Have a great life. Your angel will be watching over you.’
My promise to you, my sweet little friend. I’ll find the man who gave you your wings and send him to the hell where he belongs. He will pay dearly.
© Voinks May 2018
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