I swore out loud as I tipped my Dopp kit onto the hotel bed. Soap, shampoo, sweat stick. I already knew there wasn’t one last blister pack of contact lenses but ran the check one more time regardless. No spares. Dumbass. I gave my blurry reflection in the blank television screen the finger and headed back to the bathroom.
The lens I had popped out of my right eye sat in its case, torn and useless. I removed the left contact with a frustrated growl and picked up my glasses. The heavy black bakelite frames had belonged to my grandfather decades ago and had somehow cycled back into fashion. The new scratch-resistant high-index polycarbonate lenses were pure 21st century, but the face staring back at me could have been my grandfather’s.
His bright blue eyes and bushy brows had been inherited by my father, who had dutifully passed them along to me, along with the dark blond hair and whiskers in every possible color, but mostly ginger. I wet my badger brush and kicked up some lather in the tin of shaving soap, spreading it across my neck and cheeks. With a straight razor I began clearing the stubble from my neck, carefully maintaining the crisp line along my jaw where beard met skin.
My phone rang. It was sitting on the desk in the other room, and I ignored it. I had twenty minutes to get shaved, dressed, and downstairs to the hotel bar. The Delaware Street Speakeasy was re-opening tonight after a six-month-long renovation, and I was one of the guests of honor.
The original Art Deco rosewood-inlaid bar had taken me a week to disassemble, three weeks to strip, another three months to replicate the missing or damaged parts, and two months to engineer a custom finish that was indistinguishable from the smoke-and-age patina of the wainscoting on the walls. I had just finished the painstaking re-assembly two days ago. It was arguably my best work.
My phone pinged, indicating a new voicemail. I ignored it. I carefully shaved the exposed skin on my cheeks, keeping the edge lines clean and precise. My phone rang again, went to voicemail, and pinged with another message alert. Whoever it was, they were persistent. A different ping, this time an incoming text message. I sighed and went to find out who was blowing up my phone.
It was Jess. My baby sister had a knack for needing me at exactly the wrong time. Car out of gas, locked out of her apartment, and need money for rent (don’t tell Dad) were in pretty heavy rotation lately, but she was about to be out of luck. This Chicago gig was over tonight, and I was pretty itchy to get home to my farm in Michigan. I loved the girl, but she was going to have to learn to get along without me and she could damn well start tonight.
I read the text, or tried to. It was nonsense. Something about money for tickets to tonight’s Blackhawks game. I wasn’t a huge hockey fan, but even superficial attention to the local news made me aware that the team was on the road. I listened to her voicemails, getting increasingly frustrated. No, I wasn’t going to drive to her apartment and bring an infusion of cash. She could ask that high-finance jackass she was dating to pick up the tab for a change.
Ten minutes left, and I was still wearing nothing but a damp towel. Couldn’t get dressed until I finished my beard. I stomped back to the bathroom, annoyed by the delay. I picked up the electric trimmer, and with a single swipe ruined what little good humor I had left.
“Well, fuck,” I swore out loud again. Wrong damn blade guard.
Instead of the neat half-inch trim, I had just taken it down to an eighth. Basically stubble. I hated stubble. I looked like shit with stubble. I squinted through my glasses at the trimmer and scowled, pulling off the blade guard entirely. Fuck it. I ran the trimmer over my chin and jaw, letting the wiry ginger hair fall into the sink. I lathered up and shaved my face smooth. It had been at least four years since I had seen my naked face, and combined with the 1960s-newscaster glasses, I barely recognized myself.
I looked like a baby-faced banker with a chest incongruously covered in ink.
Dropping the towel, I strode to the armoire where my suit hung. The mid-March weather was still chilly, so I had opted for wool, navy blue. Plain white shirt, patterned tie in shades of blue and red. Simple black leather monk strap shoes. It was an unassuming look, but the suit and shirt had been tailored for me. I wasn’t typically able to hit up department stores and find suits that fit without massive alterations. And damn, one pair of bespoke shoes had ruined me for shoving my size-14 feet into mass-produced foot-boats that never fit right.
I was only three minutes behind schedule when I stepped out of the elevator. The bar was already crowded, and it was barely 7 PM. The grand re-opening was hosted by Steve and Inés Nelson, Chicago’s real estate and philanthropy power couple. They had purchased the aging Delaware Hotel, two blocks off the Michigan Avenue Magnificent Mile, and dropped a fortune into restoring it to its former glory. The rooms looked like movie sets from the 1930s, and the restaurant and bar evoked an era of men wearing top hats and tails, ladies in satin evening gowns, and Benny Goodman playing in the background.
Steve and Inés were surrounded by a throng, so I sidled up to the bar.
“Hey, Buckaroo Banzai,” the bartender greeted me with a grin. Charli Temple was the trendiest bartender in a city full of trendy bars. Her bright orange-red hair fell in a straight sheet, barely grazing the shoulders of her black button-up.
“Hey yourself, Leeloo Dallas Multipass,” I quipped back. “Can I get the Dalmore, neat?”
She sighed. “It’s like you’re not even trying. You’re asking a concert pianist to play ‘chopsticks,’ you know.”
I gave her a shrug and an apologetic look. “What do you recommend?”
“The Dalmore,” she winked and set the cut-glass tumbler of amber liquid on a cocktail napkin before turning to a group of guests clustered at the other end of the bar.
Taking a slow sip of the Scotch whisky, I surveyed the crowd. I recognized the project architect and the interior designer, but most of the guests were the high-society see-and-be-seen crowd. Not my usual cohort. Steve and Inés were friends of my family; he had remained close to my father and my uncle since their undergraduate days. In fact, the Nelsons were my godparents, and my folks were godparents to their son Esteban, born a few months before me.
No sooner had the thought of Esteban occurred to me than he appeared at my side, shaking my hand and slapping my shoulder like an old friend. He wasn’t a friend. But he was a politician, and his star was on the rise. He had transitioned from law school to state legislator, running a successful campaign before he even graduated. After two terms, he had moved up to the State Senate and was currently exploring a run for the US House.
“I see you’re still sanding furniture for a living,” he joked. He wasn’t joking. He ordered a martini, and I sent Charli a telepathic message to spit in it.
“I see you’re still an asshole,” I replied amiably, downing the last of my drink. No point in taking his bait, but damn. I saw the man maybe twice a year, and he never missed a chance to take a dig. Charli poured me a double without asking as she handed Esteban his martini and he moved off without acknowledging me or thanking her.
“Thanks, Charli.” I raised my glass in salute. She didn’t notice, and I followed her gaze into the crowd. My eyes landed on a woman I had never seen before. Half a head taller than any other woman in the room, I would have remembered that. Blue eyes like the Mediterranean off the coast of Greece, that would have stuck with me. Skin the color of planed cedar wet with rain would have been impossible to forget.
She glanced up and caught Charli’s wave. Smiling, she threaded her way through the crowd towards the bar.
“You can thank me later,” Charli laughed and turned back to mixing cocktails.
I muttered under my breath, hoping no one had heard me. I watched with slow-motion detachment as a slender arm dripping with three diamond bracelets swung into my path. The manicured hand at the end of the arm held a mostly-full glass of red wine. As the owner of the arm threw back her head and laughed, I swerved, but not fast enough. The glass hit me in the chest, red wine soaking my white shirt.
The owner of the glass turned, her face changing from an apologetic smile to a sneer as I stumbled backward. Her companion, a short, thick man with slicked-back hair glared at me.
“I know the caterer,” he spoke loudly. “And the Nelsons.” His voice got even louder. “If you ever want a job in this town again, you’ll apologize to my wife this instant. Now go get her a fresh glass—and hope I don’t report this to your supervisor.”
I took a deep breath and counted to five. My cheeks burned with a toxic combination of embarrassment and anger. My silk Akris blouse had probably cost twice what his JC Penney suit had set him back, and those diamonds were blatantly fake. Nevertheless, I was obviously the help. Before I could open my mouth to say anything, I felt a firm hand on my elbow. I squeezed my eyes shut. Great, somebody had already called Security.
I squared my shoulders and raised my head, expecting the worst and calmly preparing to go into full lawyer mode.
The bouncer was enormous; I was 6’3” in my heels, and he topped me by at least an inch, maybe two. His blue suit jacket strained against his wide shoulders and bulging biceps, and he wore a pair of heavy grandpa-glasses without a trace of irony.
“Where have you been?” he asked, kissing me softly on the cheek and wrapping an arm around my waist. “Uncle Steve and Aunt Inés have been asking for you. What happened here?”
He turned his gaze to Mr. Cheap Suit, who refused to meet his eye. In that instant, I decided to play along.
“Now Darling,” I threw myself into the charade and gave Mr. Nerd Glasses a reproving look. “It was just an accident, no harm done. They were just apologizing—”
Cheap Suit opened his mouth, but Nerd Glasses shot him down with a withering look.
“Are you okay?” he asked, still giving Mr. Cheap Suit and Ms. Fake Ice a stony glare. I nodded.
“Baby, I’m fine,” I smoothed his tie with one hand. The arm around me was solid oak, and the chest beneath my fingertips was a granite wall. I shivered, as much from the chill of the evaporating wine as the unexpected thrill of this weird little one-act play. “And I spoke with Aunt Inés earlier,” I improvised. “We’re definitely on for this weekend.”
The jaws of Cheap Suit and Fake Ice dropped in unison, and Nerd Glasses gave me a grin and an encouraging wink.
“Good,” he nodded, planting another soft kiss on my temple that rippled along my spine and radiated goosebumps down my arms. “Let’s go before Uncle Steve sends out a search party.”
He led me to the bar, which had been my original destination. I hadn’t recognized the bartender, but her friendly wave opened the possibility that I had met her but didn’t recall. The room was full of people I knew vaguely, and after a bare half-hour of
schmoozing polite conversation, I was already exhausted by the bullshit small-talk. This particular soirée hadn’t been on my calendar, but my boss had sent me in his place at the last minute. There wasn’t time to change out of the white blouse and black suit skirt that had gotten me mistaken for a waitress.
Nerd Glasses pulled out a bar stool for me, and I slid onto it. The bartender eyed my stained shirt sadly.
“Not enough club soda in the whole world for that, I’m afraid.”
Before I could reply, Nerd Glasses spoke up. “Charli, can I have another Dalmore? And the lady will have the Macallan 18.”
“Sherry Oak or Double Cask?” the bartender replied, giving me a questioning look.
“The lady would prefer a Lagavulin 16,” I replied to Charli, pointedly ignoring the man beside me. “A double, no ice.”
My contradiction was sheer spite; I did prefer the Macallan, but he didn’t need to know that. I purposely chose a smoky, peaty Islay Scotch—the exact opposite of the sweet Speyside single malt he had suggested.
Behind his nerd glasses, Nerd Glasses’ eyes crinkled at the corners with a smile. “I stand corrected.”
I turned to him, eyes narrowed menacingly. “Let’s get something straight right now, Mister Whoever-You-Are,” I said in a silken but unmistakably icy tone.
His smile disappeared.
“You touched me.” I held his gaze until he blinked uncomfortably. “I don’t know who you are, but you don’t get to touch me. You don’t get to kiss me. I played along rather than make a fool out of you in front of those even bigger fools, but I really do know Steve and Inés. They have six nieces. In Barcelona. What they don’t have is a nephew.”
The bartender set our drinks before us and I gave the redhead a warm smile. “Thank you, this is lovely.”
“Thank you, Charli,” Nerd Glasses nodded to her, then turned to me. “I’m sorry.”
“I hope so. I’m not a damsel. I wasn’t in distress. And if you hadn’t inserted your ridiculously large self into the situation, I would have had their apology. They would have cheerfully handed me a check for the full value of this blouse, and if I had insisted upon it, they would have marched up to Steve and Inés and begged forgiveness for disrupting the party.”
“You think so?” His tone was skeptical.
“Oh, honey, please,” I gave him a scathing look. “They were amateurs.”
“Then I’ll say it again: I’m sorry.” He drank his whisky in a single swallow. I watched, noting the contrast between his callused hands and how smooth his cleanly shaven his face appeared. Either he was far younger than the laugh lines around his eyes indicated, or he wasn’t able to grow a proper beard. Pity, really. I loved a full beard on a man. Even on a man I didn’t know and was never going to see again.
“I’m Henry,” he introduced himself, pausing to set the empty glass on the bar top. “And it never occurred to me to have them pay for the shirt.” He ran his eyes over the wine stain, looking bored. “It didn’t look worth the hassle.”
“I’m Trieste,” I replied mildly, masking the anger simmering below the surface. I didn’t know if I was being personally insulted, or if Nerd Glasses genuinely thought I was wearing a knock-off from Target. “And it’s not the price, it’s the principle.”
“Then I think you should pay them for doing you a favor.”
“I beg your pardon?” Who did this over-confident alpha-ape think he was? And who the hell did he think I was?
He shrugged. “If you’re gonna pay eight hundred dollars for a shirt, the least you could do is buy one that suits you.”
It wasn’t fair, and I regretted it the instant it came out of my mouth.
Just because I was having a shitty evening didn’t mean I needed to make her shitty evening worse. Charli had clearly overheard the exchange; she plunked down a glass of club soda in front of me, sloshing it onto the coaster and the cuff of my jacket and removing the whisky glass without comment.
“Can I bring you another?” she asked Trieste, who had thrown back her Lagavulin in an easy swallow.
“No,” she replied with a shake of her head that sent a few of her walnut-colored curls bouncing. “I was just leaving.”
Bull in a fucking china shop. The glasses, the beard fiasco, the incoherent messages from Jess, the sniping from Esteban, it all added up. And now, instead of taking my lumps for elbowing in where I was neither needed nor wanted, I was insulting the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. For absolutely no reason. I had to make this right.
“Please don’t,” I almost put a hand on her arm, but stopped myself just in time. “Please have another drink, on me. I didn’t mean to make your evening worse than it already was.”
I slid off the barstool without grazing her knee or hip and gave Charli a significant look over the top of Trieste’s curls. As I moved toward the end of the bar, the bartender moved with me, wiping down the inlaid rosewood surface.
“Fifteen minutes,” I spoke so Trieste couldn’t hear me. “Can you keep her here til I get back?” Her look said ‘Seriously?’, but she nodded and started wiping her way back towards the lovely woman in the wine-ruined shirt.
I hit the hotel lobby and pulled out my phone, typing as fast as my thick fingers could manage. One block over, one block down. La Chemise closed at eight, but they would wait for me. About a year ago, I had done a project for the boutique, restoring an antique French bibliothèque that now displayed couture accessories instead of 18th-century books.
They owed me a favor, and I was on my way to call it in.
The manager met me at the door and I swept past him, straight to a display of feminine clothing. Scanning the selection, I found what I wanted. Silk charmeuse. The fabric was soft and fluid, substantial without being heavy. It shimmered with the barest hint of color, a warm candlelight blush tone. The French cuffs were secured with a pair of subtle silk cufflinks, copper and rose threads twisted in an intricate double-knot. I held it up to gauge the size: the shoulders were slim and the sleeves appeared long enough.
“This one,” I handed the blouse to Pascal, who deftly folded and wrapped it in tissue.
“Add it to your account?” he grinned, handing me the gift box. I was already halfway out the door.
She was still at the bar, nursing a drink. Sending Charli my silent telepathic gratitude, I slowed my pace, took a deep breath, and tried to look unhurried. I slid the box onto the bar as I resumed my former position on the leather-covered stool beside Trieste.
“It’s an apology,” I explained.
“Who’s this really for?” she asked, giving the plain white box a dismissive wave. Her azure gaze looked unimpressed. “Honestly, what the hell is wrong with you? Is this a thing with you? Where you manhandle and insult total strangers, then try to buy them off? You really need to rethink your strategy. This one’s not working.”
She was right and I tried not to grimace.
“I’m really not an asshole.”
“Possibly not, but I have yet to see the evidence. I am having—in case you missed it—a really bad time at a party I didn’t even want to attend. I’m tired, my shirt is ruined, and for some unfathomable reason, I am still sitting here. Unless you’ve got a time machine in that box so I can rewind two hours and tell myself to go home and take a Zomig instead of coming here, I’m not interested.”
“I get, I screwed up,” I sighed and raked a hand through my hair. “I’m trying to repair the damage. Can you meet me halfway and at least look in the box?”
Elbows on the bar, she pressed her slender fingertips to her eyebrows and exhaled. “If I look in the box, will you go away?” Her tone sounded resigned.
“Headache?” I asked quietly. Eyes closed, shoulders tensed, lips pressed together, drink mostly untouched. She looked like a migraine waiting to happen. “Do you need anything?”
“Of course I’ve got a headache. It’s the cherry on top. Excuse me.”
She rose suddenly and walked towards the Ladies’ Lounge with a graceful gait. Under different circumstances, this evening could have taken an entirely different tack. Making a good impression on a woman had never been a problem before.
“Are you always such a dick?” Charli’s disapproving tone turned my attention back to the bar and the unopened box. The gift was far too personal, I realized. Twenty minutes ago, it had seemed like the obvious solution to an obvious problem. Now it just made me look both overbearing and condescending. Maybe a little creepy.
I rubbed my newly-bare chin ruefully. “Only since about 6 o’clock this evening.”
“Sounds like maybe you could use a time machine, too,” she sympathized.
My phone pinged, and I glanced at the display. Another text from Jess. I pressed the sleep button without reading it, and another text arrived two seconds later. Before I could hit the sleep button, it rang. I sighed and stood.
“I gotta take this,” I explained to Charli. “If I’m not back in three minutes, could you make sure Trieste takes the box?” She nodded, and I headed from the noisy bar to the relative quiet of the hotel lobby before answering the call.
“What is it this time, Jess?”
“Can you come get me? Please?”
I cracked my neck from side to side, but it didn’t ease the tension. “Where are you?”
“I’m at the police station. The—” I heard muffled voices in the background. “The 19th District station house.”
Maybe I should have been more alarmed.
“What are you doing at the 19th District station house?”
I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. Damn it, I was being an ass again. What if someone had tried to mug her, or stolen her car?
“It’s gonna take me a minute,” I reassured her, “but I’m on my way.” I strode through the lobby and onto the street. My truck was in the parking garage on the next block east. “Why are you at the police station? Do I need to call Dad?”
“NO!” she practically shrieked, and I almost dropped the phone. “You can’t tell Dad!”
Our father was a criminal defense lawyer, so whatever the problem was, she didn’t think she needed legal representation.
“I have to go now,” her voice suddenly sounded small and frightened. “I think they’re going to book me, and they’re taking my phone. Please hurry.”
I started to run.
© 2019 Tinsley Sellers
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