Edited by Wendy Dinsmore
The charity was already in full swing. Even at two hundred dollars a chair, the place was packed. The crème de la crème had all turned out in their finery to try to outdo each other in their generosity and get photographed by the media.
The evening's theme was the roaring twenties. Toffs, flappers, men wearing monocles, boaters or straw hats, women with oxford bags, fat fur coats, cloche hats, high dress lines, or low, and back cut evening wear.
The sounds of Duke Ellington, King Oliver, Bix Briderbecke, and others led the way to the past. Small square areas throughout the large convention hall were filled with dancers cavorting about. They were doing the Charleston, the Bunny Hug, the Black Bottom, the Drag, and most enthusiastically, the Kickaboor.
The downtown Utoland Grand Hotel was the perfect choice for such a ball. Built in the late fifties, it'd been decorated with a twenties art deco flair. It was the ideal place to party with wild abandon--as close to the free spirited time it represented as the present could get.
Laughter poured suddenly from my right, where against a corner, a Buster Keaton movie was being shown to a small audience against a screen. My "date" inclined his head in that direction, the question in his eyes. I had to admit that for Rodger, he looked quite smart in the yachting blazer and flannels. The monocle he'd insisted on wearing to give himself the look of an old, retired colonel though, was a bit much. But I would never mention it to him.
For the evening, I had attired myself in a dark, red sequenced flappers dress--including a matching headband, purse, and flapper beads. They'd been Rodger's choice, despite the fact it would clash with his own wardrobe. At any other time, I would have been amused.
I made myself give Rodger the smile I'd perfected so well over the years, and tried my best to ignore the churning in my innards. "Sounds fun. But go on ahead without me. I need to go freshen up."
Rodger nodded and affectionately squeezed my arm, in no way suspecting this would be the last time we‘d see each other. I watched him start off in the direction of the laughter and then turned away to make my way toward the back of the huge room. I had other plans for this evening.
Normally I would have truly enjoyed a night like this. With the way things were in the world at the moment, such events were rare or the joviality somewhat forced. This looked to be one of the good ones. But as with everything else in my life, it was something I would probably never have again.
As I came close to the large doors leading to my first target, my eyes roamed about me looking at everyone I came near. I hadn't seen any of them this evening, but I'd learned that underestimating them could be a costly mistake.
No one moved to stop me once I made it to the hallway. I forced my pace to stay steady and then slipped into the bathroom. I can do this; I have to do this. I stared into the wall's full-length mirror trying to gather my courage. It would work. It had to!
I stared at myself in the mirror and almost didn't recognize whom I saw there. From the look of me, no one would guess I was a woman on the run. Rosa had done wonders as usual. Without much effort, she'd taken my short blond mess and styled it into the swept style of the twenties. It'd taken a little longer to apply the makeup, especially around the eyes, the hide my sunken cheeks, and the dark crescents which had become a part of me in the last few days.
It had all started but two short weeks ago, when two men in long coats and ugly expressions had shown up at my door. At first I'd been more surprised than upset at their intrusion. The high rise had a reputation for staving off unwanted riff-raff and for keeping the privacy of their tenants as their main concern-both reasons most definitely worth what I paid to live there-but these men, they'd gotten pas the front desk and up to my door without being announced by anyone.
The first words from their mouths had made it perfectly clear they knew who and what I was. That's when the demands started. Rather than put up with it, I slammed the door in their face and called security so they would come and remove them from the building. But it hadn't been the end of it. Within the hour the phone calls began. When it got them nowhere, they flooded my inbox with emails, the fax machine with calls. Day and night, they kept coming, all of them demanding the same thing.
Less than a week ago, they'd finally got tired of just asking.
A shiver tore through me and I did my best to try and ignore the memory. At least Rosa would be gone by now. I was the main target, and hopefully, most of the goons followed me here thinking her of no consequence. With the wigs and change of clothes, plus applying her skills at makeup to a different purpose, Rosa should be able to get away even if they weren't ignoring her. It was still to be determined if I would be lucky as well.
It was time to go. Taking a deep breath to bolster my courage, and squaring my shoulders, I left the powder room. If they'd been somehow able to follow me through that crowd, I should be able to spot them in the calm of the hallway.
With my heart beating too loudly in my ears, I slowly glanced from one side to the other, but aside from an amorous couple, there was no one else. Instead of turning to the right to the return to the party, I went left.
Never in my wildest dreams had I thought my nine-month stint in this hotel would come to serve me later. It was the one factor I'd been able to use to convince Rosa and myself that this wild plan of mine might work. Long before I reached the lobby and the long men in coats I knew would be waiting for me there, I stepped through a nondescript door into a narrow hallway marked for employees only.
The corridor led to the kitchens, crisscrossed by other shortcuts for the staff. They'd served me quite well a number of years ago when I wanted to avoid unwanted questions by certain personnel. I'd worked here when I was sixteen as a maid, already full of plans for my business.
What I had in mind though hadn't been the type of thing management approved of, and so these corridors had at times been quite handy. It was also here I'd met Titania, after one of my more daring escapades. It'd been this meeting which had given me the break I'd longed for. Titania took me under her wing and showed me everything there was to know about the business. I inherited everything from her when she decided to retire.
With a painful pang, I regretted yet again not being able to ask for her counsel. But it was too dangerous; there were too many unknowns. Getting her into danger would be a horrible way to repay her for her kindness in my youth. I'd seen only too well what these men were capable of to ever take the chance.
Entering the kitchen, I found it thrumming with activity. The pumpkin soup for the party's first course was simmering lightly in large pots even as the main chef hovered over the immense roasts coming out of the oven. The succulent scents wrapped themselves about me, trying to tempt me, but they might as well have never bothered. I had no thoughts or room for that now. There would be time for it later, once I was away and safe.
Startled glances followed me across the room as I made my way across the kitchen with an air of belonging. Only one of those present worked up the gall to question me, and when he stepped forward to do so, I beat him to it.
"I'm only passing through. I'm not staying."
Surprised, the young man stopped, and before he could recover, I'd crossed the room and was out the other door. Once more alone, I glanced down at my watch. It was only a few minutes till nine. I was early. I would still have plenty of time to get to my destination, assuming things hadn't changed drastically from when I worked here before.
These sets of hallways were wider, uncarpeted, bare to the concrete beneath. The doors led to a multitude of storage rooms for food, dry goods, linens, tables, anything the hotel might need for the convention hall. Down several turns, in a broad room at the end was a large board on the wall with detailed pick up and delivery schedules. Flicking a glance at it as I came in, I felt instantly relieved to find that the particular delivery I was counting on was still on the board and at the usual time.
Still with plenty of time, I walked over to a far corner then stared with coiled tension at the two large metal rods and the accordion shaped supports rising up to the ceiling. It was my hope, my only chance, that my pursuers didn't know about this old fashioned system. And even if they did know of it, that they didn't realize I did.
Glancing at my watch again, I saw I only had twenty minutes to go. I tried not to fidget as I waited, knowing it would only make me more nervous. I was tempted to go find a phone, to call the hospital to see if there'd been any change, but didn't do it. I couldn't. If things somehow had turned worse, my resolve would crumple and I'd rush straight to her, missing any chance of saving us both.
Rosa had all the accounts, she knew who to contact, that she would need to do everything through a third or fourth party so they wouldn't trace it back to her. If the time ever came, and I prayed with all my heart and soul it would, Rose would use the letters I'd given her as well. I didn't know if they'd be enough, couldn't take the risk to check, so could only hope they'd do. There'd been so little time for everything.
My head snapped up as something rang off the metal in the roof above. A minute later, a warning bell and red light went off moments before the accordion supports scrunched down and the large rods came down with it. As the top came into view, I spotted a teenager wearing white, the Crescent Bakery logo on his shoulder. Bundles of dough tucked into various types of pans filled the shelves of a wheeled cart beside him. These would be placed inside room wide refrigerators and kept there to be baked first thing in the morning for the breakfast crowd. Some of it would complement part of the evening meal tonight.
As the open elevator came even with the floor and stopped, the hole to the street above closed. This would be the means of my escape; this antiquated but quaint system from years past. "Excuse me, sir."
The teenager jumped around, not having seen me in the corner.
"Miss, should you be in here?" He didn't look all that concerned to see me there.
I turned on my smile, slightly tilting my head for effect, so it would never occur to him. "I realize this is slightly irregular, but would you be willing to do me a favor?" I seductively pulled out the two twenty dollar bills I'd previously concealed in a strategic place exactly for this purpose. As I watched him swallow hard, I turned up the smile a notch. I knew I had him.
Less than ten minutes later, I was wearing a smock over my red dress and rode up the elevator with Eddie out onto the street. Using him and the tall cart for cover, I climbed into the back of the waiting bakery truck.
"I've only got one more of these to take down, then we can go." He stared sheepishly at me, as if afraid I'd leave, even as he started reloading the cart.
"No problem." I gave him another smile.
I felt it dissolve into a frown as he closed the doors to the back of the truck. If they'd seen me leave, it wouldn't be long before they let me know it. With Eddie gone back downstairs, at least he would be out of the way and wouldn't be hurt.
The minutes ticked by and though I strained my senses to listen to anything and everything, nothing happened. I was just starting to believe I might just get away with it when the doors opened again.
I backed as far as I could inside the truck expecting the worst. Instead, Eddie's eager face popped into view. "Hey, you still okay back there?"
I forced myself to come out from between the racks to where he could see me. "I'm fine. Are you done now?" I was amazed my voice wasn't shaking.
Eddie bobbed his head. "Yeah. Let me just put this up." He rolled the cart up the small ramp and clamped it down. "I didn't see anyone looking for you, so I think you're okay."
"I really appreciate this."
Eddie patted his front chest pocket where he'd stashed the forty. "No sweat." He closed and locked the doors. We were soon underway.
I massaged a stiff shoulder trying to get as comfortable as possible. I hadn't liked lying to Eddie, but like my smile, it was something I'd learned to do easy enough over time. A bad date with an overbearing boyfriend was a lot easier to believe anyway than the fact I was running away from goons in trench coats. It also made for a lot less questions--and no testosterone laden heroics.
My shoulder was feeling better by the time I felt the truck slow and then come to a stop. I took off the white smock and folded it, leaving it on one of the racks before moving toward the doors.
Eddie opened the truck and helped me down, a hopeful look on his face. "Say, I only have a few more deliveries to make, then I'm on my own. I'd be happy to take you home after that."
"I appreciate the offer, but..." Before he could try and protest I leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek. I could see his face reddening as I took a step back. "Thank you for your help."
I turned away and left.
I'd made it. I'd actually gotten away from them. I stopped abruptly at a street corner as I realized I'd not given any thought to what I'd do once I was free of them. That somewhere deep inside me, I hadn't actually thought I would succeed.
I rubbed my hands over my arms, suddenly cold in the sleeveless dress. Though I'd thought differently, it seemed their tactics had done more to undermine my inner self than I would have imagined. Despite that, I'd at least made it this far. It was too late to turn back now. So picking a direction at random, I started walking.
I'd made it, at least for now, and in doing so I had maintained my integrity, guarded what I'd been entrusted with, but at what price? All I'd built for myself was now lost to me, my life, my friends, my work, my daughter. I had started from nothing before and I could do it again. But others had paid a price too, others who'd had nothing to do with this stupid business. Worst of all, if I did get away, I would never know if things would ever be put right again.
Regardless I needed to be looking for someway to get a different set of clothes, to find a place to spend the night. Just because they'd lost me at the ball, they wouldn't give up that easily. I was sure of it.
Over the last week, Rosa and I had gathered as much cash as we thought we could get away with without attracting attention. With the way they'd been able to get my unlisted numbers, I was sure they knew about my bank accounts too. They knew so much about me! The money I'd been able to gather wouldn't last long.
If only there was something I could do! Those monsters destroyed everything that meant anything to me, and were now making me a fugitive, and there was not a damn thing I could do about it.
"Yo, hot mama!"
I jumped, startled by the shout and the even louder honk of the customized mustang. I blinked, almost paralyzed with fear as the car passed by, the driver making a lewd offer with his hand even as his friend gave a whoop of delight. I stared after them, my heart pounding in my chest.
I needed to get off the street. I needed to start thinking. Whether I wanted to face the truth or not, I was putting myself in danger out here. It was time to hide for a while.
For the first time, I truly looked at my surroundings. I didn't immediately recognize this part of town. None of it looked familiar. How long had I been walking? How far had I come?
The dilapidated state of some of the buildings and the bright colored graffiti on others told me I'd not picked the best direction to go. A far off humming, thrumming sound echoed toward me from the west. I latched on to it, trying to see if I could recognize it, hoping it would give me a clue as to where I was. After a minute or so, I realized the rising and falling sound was the echoes of speeding cars. I must be south of downtown, close to the racetrack. I definitely could have picked a better direction to go.
Deciding it was too late to do anything about it, I started searching for a place I could hole up in for a while. Now that I knew how far I'd come, my feet began protesting my previous treatment. Eventually, I spotted a likely place called ‘Paradise Forgotten.' The f and g of the neon sign were blinking, the last three letters of the name not functioning at all. Not letting this stop me, I approached the pitted door and let myself in.
Dim lights suffused the interior, conveniently hiding any number of flaws. Tables as well as booths filled the space on the dark tiled floor, all watched over by a giant bar on the far end. Just like in the old styled saloons in spaghetti westerns, the back wall of the bar held a huge mirror across it. At the end of the bar was a door, which sat half open into another room.
I slowly made my way across the floor to the bar.
An aging accountant was the only other customer, and with a row of filled shot glasses before him, was making his way methodically through them. Behind the bar, a black, broad faced man, was rubbing the inside of a glass with the end of his apron.
I picked the center stool at the bar and sat down. Now that I was here off the street and out of immediate danger, my brain wasn't cooperating in helping me figure out what to do next.
"May I help you, miss?" The bartender's tilted accent washed over me.
An American, had to be. I would guess from the eastern states by the sound of him. It was incredible how even in such a tense time as this I could still follow the old habit of ‘trace the accent.'
"A whiskey sour for starters, please." I ran my fingers over the buffed bar top. Though the rest of the place reeked of age and abuse, the bar was obviously lovingly cared for. I could even see places on its surface where damage had been sanded and filled, yet made to look as much as the original as possible.
My opinion of the bar went up another notch as I saw the bartender squeeze a real lemon into the whiskey and not some pre-concentrated extract. I was even more impressed when he used brown sugar instead of white, and lots of it. He then set a white, crisp napkin on the bar and sat my drink on top of it. "Here you go, miss."
I lifted the glass to take a drink and found that my hand was shaking. So I used two to lift the glass and took a drink. I closed my eyes with pleasure as the brown sugar and lemon fought with the liquor inside my mouth. Heavenly. If I'd known before a place like this could make drinks like these, I would have been here long before now. As it was, this would be the only chance I'd get to enjoy it. It would have to do.
The sip of liquor hit my stomach hard and I decided it'd be best to take my time with it. I hadn't eaten yet this evening, but it didn't matter, my appetite had been almost nonexistent for days, and all the excitement of the day had now made it disappear entirely.
I stared into my glass and thought of Anna again--her little face, her cute smile. My precious Anna...
I closed my eyes, the vice, which had clamped itself around my heart a week ago, slowly squeezing everything it could out of me. If, if only nothing had happened to her. I could have borne anything else. And even now not knowing if she would be all right...
I looked up and gazed into bar's mirror trying to distract myself. Through it's reflection, I could see that the accountant had pretty much worked his way through his row of shots. His tie lay askew, and his glasses sat on crooked, his cheeks flushed. If I'd actually believed it would help, I wouldn't mind going down the same road. But all getting drunk would get me was a horrible seasick feeling for days and my troubles no closer to being resolved. It was a pity really. He truly appeared as if he were enjoying himself.I was almost finished with my first drink when the door to the bar slammed open. I felt my pulse speed up for a moment, my mind already imagining men in long coats on their way in. What my frightened eyes found instead was a young man. His face was set in a half snarl, his hands shoved deep into his pockets. He crossed the room to one of the booths and then dumped himself behind the table. Medium brown hair framed a squared face, giving him an air of hardness. He didn't look a day past eighteen. What was he doing in a bar?