Black Velvet, at eleven o'clock on a Friday morning, wasn't much to look at.
Hunched between a bottle shop and a McDonalds on Darlinghurst Road, the nightclub hadn't been designed to stand up to the harsh clarity of daylight.
Winter sun filtered through the single barred pane of glass in the battered front door, catching floating dust particles in the weak rays that penetrated the vast, dingy space inside.
There was a vaguely desolate air to the club, to the wide emptiness under its soft down-lights. Everything was in readiness – the scuffed herringbone dance floor had been polished, the chrome-and-black-granite bar wiped and sparkling, the indigo carpets vacuumed spotless. But while the world outside was moving and living, Black Velvet was in limbo, just waiting.
Behind the bar, twenty-year-old Sid Grobart was carefully trying to refill his pewter hip-flask from a large bottle of Johnnie Walker scotch he'd pinched out of the storeroom. He was bent low, his clean-shaven chin almost touching the cool granite surface, inhaling the sharp burned-gold smell of the alcohol.
"We need to talk." With a sudden thump, a small grey backpack landed heavily beside Sid's elbow, making him jump.
"Shit!" He hissed, accidentally splashing scotch across the bar, then straightened up to face the backpack's owner.
"Sorry." Ross Webster said, a slight grin flitting over his sharp, narrow features as he brushed his messy mouse-brown hair out of his eyes.
"Forget it." Sid shrugged off a mild flash of irritation and reached for some paper towels. "What's up?"
Ross unzipped the backpack and held it open, so Sid could see that packed inside were several small bundles of dried plant matter packed in sandwich bags.
"Where did you get that?" Sid demanded, frowning.
"It's mine." Ross explained proudly. "I grew it. I've got a set-up in my room at home."
"Oh my God." Sid shook his head exasperatedly. Trust Ross to do something like this without consulting him first. "So what do you want from me, exactly?"
"Well...I wanna sell it, right? I just thought, if I start offloading it and I don't tell you, it might not turn out very pretty for me. And I don't really wanna end up with my face smashed in or something, so...would you mind?"
Sid folded his arms, and bit the inside of his cheek thoughtfully. Of course he'd say yes to Ross, but there was no harm in taking his own cut of the profits while he was at it. As the boss of their gang, he was entitled to it. "Hmm. How much have you got?"
"'Bout five hundred grams."
"How much are you going to charge for it?"
Ross shrugged. "Twenty-five bucks a gram?"
Sid did some quick calculations in his head. "That's about twelve and a half thousand, total, right?"
"I dunno, you're telling me."
"You give me twenty percent of what you make and it's a deal."
Ross nodded and held out his hand to shake on it. "So I've already got some buyers lined up. If...when I finish work, maybe I could meet up with them, and get something moving?"
"Whatever you want." Sid shrugged. "Take someone with you though."
"I can look after myself." Ross scoffed, waving the warning away.
Sid glanced him up and down doubtfully. As savagely violent as Ross's temper could be, he was still just a skinny seventeen-year-old kid. "Take someone with you." He ordered firmly.
"Okay, fine." Ross conceded, sighing, before his face brightened and he asked cheerfully, "So what's on our schedule for today?"
"Well, I have a delivery to make, and you have some appointments." Sid drew a piece of paper from the breast pocket of his charcoal blazer, flattened it on the bar between them, then called out, "Holden!"
Something rustled on one of the black leather couches grouped together at the back of the room, and the closely-shorn head and wide shoulders of Sid's sixteen-year-old cousin, Holden Grobart, appeared over the back of the seat. "What's up, bro?"
Sid motioned him over to the bar.
"Yeah, coming." Holden put a hand down to push himself up. One finger slid into the space between the cushion and the back of the couch, and brushed a wad of something soft and frilly. On his feet, he withdrew a scrap of bright red lace and held it up. "There is a g-string in this chair." He said, astonished.
"Gross." commented Ross, who was famous for his habit of coercing half-conscious girls into sex. "Where did that come from?"
"I dunno." Holden shrugged and folded his thickly muscled arms on the bar-top. "It was behind a cushion."
A sudden stream of vague memories from the night before flashed through Sid's mind as he watched the red lace swing from his cousin's index finger. He could picture her hair - long, wispy and light blonde. An almost skeletal figure; all sharp hipbones and shoulder-blades and ribs. But her thighs had been soft, when he'd slipped a hand up under her dress. She'd let him slide that g-string off her hips, before they'd gone upstairs to finish on the desk in his office. He struggled to think of a name to match these images, without any luck. He couldn't even picture her face, blurred as it already was with the countless girls who'd been in her place.
Sid grinned uncomfortably, yanked the underwear out of Holden's hand and stuffed it in his pocket.
Holden pulled a face at him. "Classy."
"Yeah?" Sid challenged. "What happened with that Brazilian chick you were trying to get in with last night?"
Holden raised his eyebrows and almost shuddered. "Some advice for the future? Just because a chick says she's Brazilian, does not mean she waxes like one."
"Gross." Ross repeated emphatically.
"I know, right? She said 'come back any time', but I'm like, next time I wanna hack my way through the Amazon jungle, I'll just get on a plane."
Sid blinked at him. "...anyway. Like I was saying, guys, you've got three meetings this afternoon. They're new clients, it's all written here – Dr. Meiers will meet you at the Justice Coffee Shop on Glebe Point Road; Robertson works at the glass place in Surry Hills, go round to the delivery bay, ask for Mick; and Nevin – that's a home visit. Address is on the list."
"Ohh, I love home visits!" Holden said, rubbing the knuckles of his right fist enthusiastically.
Sid shook his head. "First warnings. No touching. Don't lose the list – destroy it when you're finished."
"Yeah, yeah!" Holden snapped, looking disappointed as he snatched the list from his cousin. "Done this before, you know."
Before Sid could retort, a door beside the bar opened, and Sid's best mate, Jerry Dabrowski ambled out of the club's storage corridor. The nineteen-year-old's hands were shoved in the front pocket of the dark green hoodie wrapped around the wide girth of his torso, and a fringe of unbrushed brown hair fell over his forehead. "Mission complete." He said cheerfully, setting down what looked like a metal can of cleaning spray in front of Sid.
"Nice one." Sid whipped a brown leather briefcase out from under the bar and popped it open. The inside was filled with a stack of important-looking business papers – which were just for show – and a thick CD wallet with all the sleeves ripped out.
Jerry twisted the plastic spray-top off the can and stuck his fingers inside to pull out several small plastic bags like the ones in Ross's backpack – only these were filled with fine white power.
While Holden and Ross watched with interest, Sid packed the merchandise of today's special delivery inside the shell of the CD wallet and tucked it safely back into the briefcase. He gave Jerry a brisk nod, ready to leave.
Together, the four of them made up half of Sid's gang, a group of delinquent teenagers who were just one branch of a much larger organisation run by Eddie Grobart, Sid's father, and the owner of Black Velvet. As lucrative as the nightclub business could be, the majority of the Grobart family's substantial wealth came from the business Eddie had started more than two decades earlier: the importation and distribution of cocaine.
At his cousin's cue, Holden slid off his barstool and stretched his arms above his head, his large biceps straining against the fabric of his grey t-shirt. All the boys in their group were taller than Sid, but only Holden – hulking and muscular, clearing almost six feet already – made him feel self-conscious of his own short, stocky build.
"Let's go, bro." Holden slapped Ross on the shoulder.
"Hey, Sid, what time's your meeting?" Jerry asked, squinting through his hair at his black Adidas watch.
"Eleven-thirty, just like every other fortnight."
"Ah. Well, do you know it's quarter past?"
"Is it?" Sid's dark brown eyes widened in dismay. "Shit." Snatching up the briefcase, he began to shuttle everyone else out of the club.
Walking backwards to get Sid's attention, Ross slung his bag over one shoulder. "So I'm good to go for this afternoon. Where do you reckon I should set up?"
Sid couldn't afford to be late for this meeting – as long as he got his share of the profits, he had no time to care about Ross's marijuana sideline. "Wherever you want, it's up to you! Stop holding me up." He gave Ross a shove through the door and into the street. "Come on, out!"
After leaving Jerry in the lobby to wait for him – in case he should need back-up in a hurry – Sid took the lift to the twenty-fourth floor of a towering commercial building, and pushed through a set of double glass doors into the foyer of the Marina Press Publishing Company. He breezed past reception and on through the office as quickly as he could, without making it look like he was in a hurry.
"Good morning." He said brightly, stopping at the desk of the company co-director's personal assistant.
A young platinum-haired woman he'd never seen before glanced up at him, her ice-blue eyes narrowed with cool disdain. "Can I help you?"
If her unattractively out-of-proportion features hadn't been off-putting, her air of superiority definitely was.
Taken aback by this unexpected impolite stranger, Sid forgot to ask who she was or what she'd done with the desk's usual occupant, and just frowned. "I'm here to see Bruce. Can I go through? He'll be expecting me."
Her mouth tightened. "Do you have an appointment?"
"I'm his eleven-thirty. You just have to let Bruce know I'm here-"
The blonde flicked a look at the diary on the desk in front of her. "Mr. Parrish doesn't have an eleven-thirty." She said coldly. "What did you say your name was?"
Sid tried to contain his impatience. Just his luck, when he was late, to be stuck with this bitch who didn't understand the procedure. "Grobart." He said, his jaw set. "Sidney."
"Well," She replied brusquely, tilting her head back to literally look down her nose at him. "If you must see Mr. Parrish, I would suggest you make an appoin-"
"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" Bruce Parrish's real P.A., Brent, came running from somewhere behind Sid and swung around the corner of the desk. A tall, blonde, and unfeasibly good-looking guy around Sid's own age, the smile he flashed was friendly and placating. "Hey. Buzz you in?"
"Please." Sid said flatly, making it clear he didn't appreciate what was happening.
Brent picked up the receiver of his desk phone, and announced Sid's presence to his boss, while the girl glared sourly between them. He hung up and nodded. "Okay, go ahead."
Sid heard Brent mutter harshly at the girl, "You can go now," before he gave a perfunctory knock on the door, and let himself in to Parrish's office.
"You're late." A deep voice laced with disapproval greeted him. Cold and unapproachable, Parrish had no breath to waste on pleasantries.
"Yes, I know." Sid considered mentioning the hold-up outside, just to see if he could get that pain-in-the-arse girl in trouble, but because he didn't want it to come back on Brent, who he quite liked, he kept quiet. "Sorry."
Parrish hummed, unimpressed. "Don't let it happen again."
Sid smiled back tightly, thumping his briefcase onto the massive walnut desk. He still wanted to protest that it wasn't his fault, but Parrish was his biggest customer, and one of the first he'd picked up on his own, without help from more senior gang members. Sid was in no hurry to get on his bad side.
"I'll see the product, then." Bruce leaned back in his cream leather chair, and waved one dismissive hand.
Sid opened the CD wallet, and spread its contents over the desktop, waiting while Bruce selected a plastic baggie and held it up to the light, examining the colour and texture of the powder. It was grating, the way he always had to do this. Sid had been selling high-quality cocaine to Parrish for most of the two years since he'd left high school, you would think by now he'd have earned a little bit of trust.
At last, Parrish nodded shortly and grunted, "Fine." He swept the baggies into a pile in front of him, drew a wad of fifty-dollar notes from his breast pocket, and counted them aloud before handing them over – something he always did, proving he didn't expect Sid to repay the trust he didn't give.
"Thanks." Sid stashed the money in the CD wallet and packed up his things.
"Same time next fortnight." Parrish said, with another nod that meant Sid should leave now. "Pleasure doing business with you."
Was it? Sid had to wonder; it never seemed like it. To him, it was a relief to close the door on Bruce Parrish.
"Good meeting?" Brent asked brightly, peering over the top of his computer screen.
"Not bad." Sid said non-committally. Like everyone in the country who'd ever read a newspaper or been online, Brent believed there had to be some truth to the rumours surrounding the actual nature of the Grobart family business, so the less that was said about it, the better.
Brent tried again. "Anything interesting on this afternoon?"
"Nothing much." Sid shrugged. "Couple more meetings, bit of paperwork. Then I usually go to the club Friday nights."
Brent's face lit up with interest. "Yeah? Where do you normally go?"
"My dad's got a place on the Cross. It's pretty convenient – you know, not having to pay for anything."
"Ohhh, that would be cool!" Brent said appreciatively.
"It is." Sid agreed, more than a little smugly. "You should come up tonight, if you're not busy. I could score you some free drinks."
Besides liking Brent, Sid figured he might be useful some day – it was always useful to have as many people in your pocket as possible, just in case – and you had to invest in people before you could call in a favour.
"Man, I wish I could." Brent said disappointedly, his face falling. "I'm going to Singapore for two months with my dad, to work with some company over there."
Brent's father, William Crawford, was Parrish's businsess partner and co-CEO of the company.
"Two months?" Sid raised his eyebrows. "When do you leave?"
"Tomorrow morning." Brent sighed.
Sid was tempted to ask who his replacement at Marina Press was going to be, because if he had to spend two months coming here to deal with that stupid blonde bitch-
"Did I just hear you say you had a club at King's Cross?" As if on cue, she popped up behind Sid's shoulder, her entire demeanour changed at the prospect of free clubbing.
"Go away, Tanya!" Brent muttered severely, to no response.
"Yes." Sid returned stiffly. "That's what I said."
Tanya's irritating grin stretched further. "That sounds great!...I'd love to see it."
The nerve of this girl. As though Sid was going to invite her to Velvet after the way she'd spoken to him. He was tempted to tell her exactly where she could shove that invitation...but then again. Her attitude needed some work, but she wasn't bad looking from the neck down. A pale grey pinstriped blouse covered her satisfactory bust, and a tight dark grey pencil skirt showed off her hips and thighs. Yeah, he could work with that, if he didn't find anything better to do tonight. And if he did – at least he'd have some fun ditching her.
Smirking slightly, he produced a card from his wallet – naming him as the 'assistant manager' of the club – and said, "Sure. Let me know when you're on your way in, I'll show you around."
"Thanks!" She actually batted lashes coated in clumpy mascara at him as she took the card out of his hand. "Hopefully I'll get a chance to drop in tonight."
"Hopefully I'll see you then." Sid replied evenly.
Tanya spun on her heel and strutted off, flicking her high ponytail as she went.
Brent glared sourly after her, then raised an eyebrow at Sid. "You're seriously gonna take her out?"
"I'm not taking her out." Sid corrected. "I'm publicising my business. And you never know, she might be entertaining."
"She's a pain in the ass." Brent replied bluntly.
Sid nodded in agreement, and glanced at his watch. He had another meeting at twelve-thirty. "Well, have a good trip, mate. See you in two months."
"You know, when you said you had "clients" lined up for this gig," Holden said idly, "I didn't realise you meant kids. Seriously, Ross."
He was lying on his back on one of those uncomfortable textured metal platforms on a children's playground in Chatswood, arms folded behind his head, watching tiny puffs of cloud drift around the blue sky above him.
"Dude, money is money, no matter who it comes from. I don't give a shit if they're six or ninety-six." Ross perched on the edge of the platform, swinging his legs in the space underneath, his backpack at his side.
While Sid had been busy making his delivery, Holden and Ross had finished all their 'meetings', collected what they were owed, and dropped the cash off at the club. Now they were free to do as they pleased, and today that meant sitting on this playset charging extortionate prices for marijuana to people who weren't even old enough to be in high school, and giving lessons in how to roll a joint. Ross was doing pretty well so far. Word seemed to be spreading among the local pre-teens, and the customers had been coming in a steady stream.
"You have no morals." Holden observed. He felt for the pack of Horizon Blue cigarettes in his hip pocket, and slid them out. Even as he spoke, a fresh knot of five children – aged between maybe twelve and ten – walked into the park.
The biggest one, a solidly-build boy with white-blonde hair that fell into his half-closed eyes, stepped forward, eyeing them brazenly. "Are you Ross Webster?"
"Yes." Ross replied slowly, feeling unusually confronted by the kid's gaze. "Why?"
One of the younger kids stepped away from the group, texting on a tiny phone he was too young to even own.
"We heard you had some good stuff." The blonde boy challenged. "And we want some."
"...well, okay." Ross said. "All you had to do was ask. How much do you have to spend?"
Blondie stepped forward, pulling a wad of money out of his back pocket.
Where did these kids get all this cash from? Holden wondered to himself. He was sure he'd never had more than a dollar at a time for the school canteen when he was that age.
Ross quickly wrapped up a hundred-and-twenty-five dollar deal, wanting to get rid of these kids as quickly as possible. There was something unsettling about them.
Holden sat up to watch the little group slope off, shielding his eyes with one hand. "I think we should go." He said, in a low voice.
"I'm not done yet!" Ross protested, frowning irritably.
"Ross." Holden said curtly. "I want to go." He lowered his voice, and went on, "You know we're not even supposed to be here anyway."
Ross rolled his hazel eyes, impatiently brushing off his friend's warning. "How likely is it that anyone's gonna see us, really?"
Holden cocked one eyebrow at him.
"Okay, okay." Ross sighed. "If it worries you that much, just give it fifteen minutes, and we'll go."
"Fine." Holden grudgingly agreed. He was just about to lay back down, when the gunmetal-grey Nissan Skyline drew up to the kerb.
"Shit." Ross muttered under his breath.
As the car pulled to an ominously slow stop, Ross ripped off his maroon zip-up hoodie and stuffed it in the backpack, then closed the bag and slid it behind himself.
Holden seriously doubted that would fool anybody. "I told you." He couldn't resist snapping.
Ross didn't answer him, just resumed swinging his legs back and forth in a fake show of idle innocence, and watched a full carload of familiar teenage guys spill onto the grass.
The newcomers made up most of a rival gang, who were also heavily into dealing and various other illegal activities, and led by nineteen-year-old Bruno Ciotta – whose family had been embroiled in a vendetta with the Grobarts since long before any of their generation could remember. Mostly, the two groups were out of each others way, since it was generally understood that the Ciotta gang controlled the suburbs north of Sydney Harbour, while the Grobart gang's territory included everything to the south. Right now, Holden and Ross were way behind enemy lines – which wouldn't be a problem as long as Bruno's boys didn't find out they'd been flogging pot to all the local primary school kids.
Holden was tempted to leap off the playset and face off against Noah Unwin – Bruno's best friend – who was in front of the other group, substituting for their absent leader. But he stayed where he was, and called out boldly, "What's up, boys?"
The look Noah gave him back was stony. "What are you doing here, Holden?" He demanded.
"I'm just sitting here!" Holden shot back indignantly. "Minding my own business. It's a free country, isn't it?"
"Not when you're moving in on our turf." Noah snapped harshly.
"We're not moving in on anything!" Holden protested, as innocently as possible, while Ross sat there, as mutely useless as a barnacle on a rock.
Noah turned his attention sharply to Ross. "What's in the bag, Webster?"
Ross shrugged uninterestedly. "Just my jacket."
"Oh, right." Noah's tone was airy, but his eyes showed scornful disbelief. He reached out for the bag. "Let's have a look, then."
With a huffy little sigh, because he couldn't refuse, Ross handed the backpack over.
Noah came up with Ross's jacket, balled it up and tossed it to him. Reaching back inside, a triumphant smile lit up his pale, freckled face, and he pulled out a handful of the pot-filled plastic bags.
"That's not mine." Ross said immediately.
"But somehow it managed to get into your bag, under your jacket, without you noticing?"
"Well, maybe it's Holden's." Ross suggested flatly.
"What?!" Holden whipped around indignantly.
"It doesn't matter whose it was, it's ours now. You can keep whatever cash you've made so far, but we'll be taking the rest." Noah passed the bag to red-headed Jackson Reid, who was at his side.
"Fuck you!" Ross sprang off the platform to the ground below. "You can't do that!"
One corner of Noah's mouth turned up smugly. "Whatchya gonna do about it?" He challenged.
"Give it back." Ross demanded through gritted teeth, his hands clenching into fists at his sides.
Noah made a derisive noise in the back of his throat, jerked his head at the rest of the boys, and turned to walk away.
In a movement so swift it surprised even Holden, Ross lunged at Noah's back, knocking him onto his hands and knees in the bark. They hit the grass together and Ross rolled sideways to his feet, ready to jump at Kris, who had the backpack slung over one shoulder.
Before he could move, two of the others – Troy Shackleton and Chris Bonnici – were on top of him. A fist hit him in the side of the head with such force he was almost blinded with pain, but he stayed on his feet, throwing punches wildly in every direction, as all five of the others closed in on him.
Holden winced, watching from his spot on the platform. He didn't know what to do. It wasn't like Noah was crossing a line by taking the marijuana – they was working his gang's turf, and it was completely his right to punish them for it. Wouldn't Holden himself do the exact same thing, if their positions were reversed? It was Ross's own fault, really. He'd set up shop here on purpose, just for thrill of breaking the rules, so didn't he deserve to take the consequences? But still, just watching him get his ass kicked went against Holden's deep-rooted sense of loyalty. Whatever happened, no matter who was in the wrong, they were still part of the same crew – and that was something Holden couldn't turn his back on.
He sighed resignedly, gripped the bright red metal bar near his head, swung himself off the platform and waded in to save Ross, who was on his knees now, encircled by the Ciotta boys. Though they were outnumbered, Holden was still bigger than any of the others. There was still a chance they could get out of this, if not with the drugs, at least with their faces and dignities still intact.