Every man in the cathode colored nightclub looked to the woman. Save one, who sat alone at the counter, beyond the sibilating dancefloor, shoulders bent, plying charcoal to a weathered sketchbook. Before him, a mug of brass, furnished with an orange rind. Hips swaying, stygian hair half covering a gussied oval face, she daintily sat one of the numerous wooden stools arrayed about the busy umber bar and leaned toward the somber patron. Upon the page of the solitary drinker’s folio, a centipede, phantasmal and peculiar of proportion. The man paused. Waiting.
He began to ply his tool once more. Piceous trails ate an eggshell void.
“Buy me a drink?”
The man did not look to the winsome questioner as he spoke.
“Every thing has its price.”
She smirked. The expression faltered in the gray zone of uncertainty. Was he jesting? He did not seem to be. His pale face was partially veiled by a battered baseball cap and his mouth held an even line, liken to the granite maw of a gothic altarpiece. He wore thin pitch sheepskin gloves, a sleek jacket with a stylized chrysanthemum emblazoned upon the back, camo cargo pants that gave the appearance of variegated shale and steel-toed work boots of rough and faded leather. From the taunt slant of his cheeks and vasculature visible at his scantily exposed wrists, she induced a lithe, toned physique.
“How could I pay for it?”
“This establishment has a reputation. If you know it, you know the answer.”
The woman titled her head and spewed a sotted laugh. The man turned to her. Eyes opaque to umbral pall.
“I’m Serena, by the way.” She leaned forward, cheek to left palm, crossing smooth, toned legs, revealing the upper regions of a milky thigh.
He looked to the fourth finger of her left hand, the tissue paler than that surrounding, as from a band removed, and slid the mug to her. She took the vessel and sipped the cool beverage within.
“Where is your husband?”
The woman squinted and lowered the cup.
“What makes you think I have one?”
The man raised his left hand and moved his fourth finger back and forth. The woman looked to her corresponding limb.
“Observant. Does it matter?”
The man did not answer. Distant chatter rose. She brightened. Tongue flicking about thick, glossy lips.
“Mm. What is this?”
“If you answer my question, I will answer yours.”
She put on a pout. Annoyed. Playing up the vexation.
“He’s at home. Same as the ring. Preparing for a business presentation, probably. As usual.”
“You see. Can you tell?”
“Its called a Moscow Mule.”
“Like a donkey?”
“A mule is not a donkey. A mule is the offspring of a donkey and a horse.”
“Oh. I never knew. What’s in it? Tastes sweet, like-”
“Ginger beer, vodka, lime juice and garnish.”
She nodded and swayed on the seat.
“So?” This time it was the man who leaned toward her. His shadow eclipsing her soma.
“How can I pay you back?” She brushed her index finger lightly against his knee.
“By coming to my room.”
Her brows leapt at his staid forthrightness. She pretended to mull the idea. Made a show of it as jagged music flooded from wall mounted speakers. Gray. No petals. No introduction. Gray matter. For introspection. Water making. And breaking. Seeming fine.
The man tilted his head to the entrance.
“At the hotel, across the way. The Cineraria. Know it?”
“Mm hm. However.”
She smiled like a sphinx.
“Everything has its price.”
“We can discuss that later. Can’t we?”
“Oh, I think so.”
The man took out his wallet as the inked bartender paused before them. The man with the chrysanth jacket removed a clip of hundred dollar bills, from which he unfurled two fives and set them on the counter. The bartender nodded and took the money as the two patrons made for the exit and stepped into the night.
Outside the wind howled between great towers. Smog choked the moon. Scarce residents slipped into the black. On the cracked and heel-worn sidewalk before the egressed lounge was the corpse of a bird with empty eyes and ants where innards once lay. The man with the chrysanth coat watched the avian carcass shift and heave with the carnivorous multitude. Overstepping the fleshy dross, he led the woman left, up the otherwise empty road, to a massive tenement dwarfed by even larger edifices, half formed and skeletal against the murk. Bathed in sky-wrought tears. Before the lobby three men spoke together with wild animation, seemingly in the midst of a humorous story, and paused as the duo approached.
“Ay, yo. Look at this,” the bulkiest of the men cooed, raising his brows, one shaved through the middle, rubbing his hands together as if in anticipation of a succulent dish.
“Shit. You know they banging tonight.”
The third member of the troupe leaned back and laughed like a jackal.
Serena’s guide waved politely toward the lurkers and opened the door to the hotel lobby.
“Ey, listen.” The barrel-chested urbanite held the door shut and leaned to Serena. Too close for comfort. “He not giving it right, we here for you.” The two carousers behind the door holder chortled.
Serena withdrew with disgust. The man with the chrysanth parka fixed the youth in his shadowed gaze.
“The fuck you looking at?” Scoffed the urbanite, tattooed face shimmering in the lamplight.
“A man eager to see his insides.”
Much to Serena’s surprise, something in the man’s brim-shaded eyes and unwavering tenor compelled capitulation from the rogue. The youth released the door and backed away. Joining his fellows. Like rats, they slunk to shadow.
The duo proceeded inside, Serena soughing.
“God, I thought they were gonna jump us.”
“That would have been unwise. There are cameras along the exterior.”
“This place is so old, didn’t think they had any. I’ve stayed her before. Didn’t notice any cameras. Not that I was looking. I remember they didn’t have fire alarms.”
The pair strode across the rust colored carpet of the archaic lobby and entered the lift. Languid, ethereal waltz music resounded from the brass speakers and the lights flickered. The woman put her arm around the man’s own. He gave her a look of appraisal, as a sculptor measuring the proportions of a cast.
He opened the peeling eggshell door and ushered her within. The room was bare, save for a bed on which was a folded towel, in the right corner, a flat-screen television on the floral-patterned wall behind it, a smoke detector above it, and a small wooden table to the left of the door, on which stood an immaculate gramophone, the horn, dark and dull-gleaming like the carapace of a giant beetle, turned to the center of the chamber, a record upon the spindle. Behind the music device, a bathroom. She paused by the doorway as he bolted the lock.
“You said we’d talk about it later. Its later.”
“Two hundred. For the night.”
The man moved to the bed, removed his sketchbook and charcoal pencil from an inner jacket pocket, set it on the bed, then sat down and removed his wallet, from it he drew a pair of hundred dollar bills and laid them on the sheets.
She smiled a little at the sight of green. Wending wary.
“Whatever you want, just nothing rough, ok?”
A muted, shuffling sibilation intruded. The man dipped into his left outer jacket pocket and removed an argent cell phone. He looked to the number and held it to his ear.
He waited for the reply from the other end of the line. Too low for her to hear.
The man gestured with his head to the door adjacent the bed. She went through to the bathroom and undressed, leaving only her scant, black lingerie. Posturing lasciviously in the mirror, she fluffed her silky hair and heard the stranger speak to the caller from the room beyond, muffled through the wall.
“It’s as you thought. No. That won’t be a problem.”
She walked out from the privy and leaned against the doorway. Assuming a sultry posture. She frowned when he took no notice. He was starring out the window at the starless void beyond.
“Understood.” The man snapped the phone shut and pocketed it. He turned to the woman. Her frown vanished. She ran a hand lightly across her taunt, pallid abdomen. The scent of perfume thick in the air. “Like what you see?”
“Stand there.” He pointed to the ground by the shuttered door and moved to the gramophone, turning the crank until a low, ghostly serenade filled the room. An ambient susurration. Solemn opera. Fronted by a elderly male singer. Libretto unfolding. Language beyond Serena’s ken.
Da’ fortunati campi, ove immortali
godonsi all’ombra de’ frondosi mirti
i graditi dal ciel felici spirti,
mostromi in questa notte a voi mortali.
Quel mi son io, che su la dotta lira
cantai le fiamme celesti de’ celesti amanti
e i trasformati lor vari sembianti
soave sì, ch’il mondo ancor m’ammira.
“Are you familiar with Rinuccini?”
Serena shook her head.
He motioned to the antiquated device. “My favorite of his works.”
Unsure what to say, she gave an awkward nod.
“Take off your bra.”
She tried to force smile. Mirth waning. With mounting hesitancy she slid the covering from her chest and dropped it to the floor.
“Now the rest.”
She did as he commanded and slid her panties to the floor and kicked them toward the bed. Holding her hands over her chest, swaying.
“On your knees.”
“So you’re one of those guys.”
She knelt and batted her lashes, hands on her knees, pushing her small breasts together.
“What have you got to shut me up?”
She pawed at his pants, fumbling with button and zipper, grinning. He batted her hands away and walked to the bed and sat down. Disgusted.
He raised a finger to his lips. She fell silent.
She began to stalk slowly forward on her hands and knees. When she was within ten feet of him he held up his hand.
“Stop. Now, slither.”
“On your stomach. Like a snake.”
“That’s a new one.”
He didn’t reply.
“You don’t seem interested.”
“Why should I be?”
“You’re paid to give pleasure, not be interesting.”
Serena’s brow creased with injury, perplexity and a mounting dread she couldn’t place.
“You don’t seem pleased, either.”
“Because you aren’t slithering.”
“Look. Uh.” She raised her hands. “This is getting weird.”
The man withdrew another hundred dollar bill and laid it upon the others.
For several seconds she looked to the rising pile of currency and lowered her arms, then herself onto her belly. She turned her head to the side to avoid striking her chin and undulated across the ground. Writhing like a fungal mop. “Hiss.” He commanded as she came within three feet of the bed. She ejected a series of reedy exhalations.
“Good. Now, lick my boots.”
She looked up, alluring face marred by resentment. He returned her gaze, visage impenetrable.
He set another hundred dollar bill on the stack without looking at her. Sketchbook on his thigh. Stylus scratching. Absorbed in his creation.
She opened her mouth, inches from his right boot and licked the surface, from tip to ankle.
She drew back and plied another lap. Drooling across the roughened leather.
“This get you off?”
“That’s enough. Clean it up.”
He threw the white towel lying at the foot of the bed to her.
“If you’re not into it, why are you having me do it?”
A shake of tenebrous locks. “Whatever.” She buffered his boots until every speck of saliva had been removed, folded the towel and handed it to him. He returned the cloth to the foot of the bed, set his notebook down, on it, the centipede illustration she had previously observed; beneath it, herself. The man rose. Opera music swelling.
“We’re done here.”
“Collect your money and go.”
“What do you mean, go?”
“I meant what I said.”
“You paid for the night.”
He said nothing. Staring down at her naked body impassively.
“Stop looking at me like that.”
He maintained his gaze.
“Fuck you.” She unfurled herself from the ground, collected her clothes and returned to the bathroom to change. When she emerged the man was staring once more out the window, cell in hand. She snatched the money off the bed and stood a moment uncertainly.
“Thanks for the money, asshole.”
“Currency is paltry compared with what you’ve afforded.”
“And what’s that?”
He pressed a button on the phone. The wall-mounted television lit up. On the screen was a still frame of Serena crawling nude across the apartment floor, overlayed with a missive.