Upon reflection, standing outside my flat, shivering violently, was one of the better moments of my night. If only I could have appreciated it a little more at the time; or better yet, done myself the huge favour of going in, locking the door and making a cuppa instead. But no, I muttered a curse and stayed put, waiting.
The wind blew bitterly cold, chilling my body so much that every inevitable shiver ached my very bones. My dress provided little protection from the icy gusts. Thank heavens the street was dark and I was alone otherwise I would be so embarrassed about my uncontrollable flashing whenever the wind caught itself under my skirt. It was pretty much a re-enactment Monroe's iconic scene in 'The seven year itch'.
Finally, a lot longer after than the 'see you soon' text implied, I saw the bright glare of headlights and a car door open in front of me, beckoning me in with the promise of warmth. I slipped into the passenger's seat.
"Hey there," I said, smiling at the driver beside me.
"You look really nice for our date," he gave me a sideways glance before turning his eyes back to the road to pull away.
I tried to conceal the sudden flush of my cheeks at his words. It was nothing too special, just your standard LBD. I inhaled silently, praying that my next words wouldn't come out as a mouse's squeak.
"Thank you," I gave him a smile in the mirror. He was still focused very much on navigating the car through the winding estate which I recently learnt to call 'home'. It had been three years already and I wasn't planning on making the big move away anytime soon so I might as well.
My mind's eye drew back to him and focused on every feature.
Connor Thain was one of those slender, six feet tall types who worked and played hard in life. An avid rower and it showed, even through the sleeves of the pressed shirt and tight jeans that he wore. His eyes were the same shade of brown as his crew cut hairstyle. When I first saw his picture, I assumed that either it was a fake image or he was going to be another self-centred pretty boy who hadn't quite grown up yet. But I'm happy to say I was very wrong. And here we were, out on a date together. And not the first one, might I add.
We had already driven past the main centre of town and down some small darkened roads which I didn't recognise. I didn't even realise we were even near anywhere that we could go until the car slid in between rusty Ford Fiesta and Fiat Punto and the overhead light flashed on.
"Where are we going?" I asked.
"We're near that nice club I mentioned last time, the place I said you'd like."
Truth be told, I didn't remember any mention of a club but what was the harm in it all? It couldn't be any worse than my previous clubbing experiences. I won't even dare to delve into the memories of those dark days. I was just happy we were out together.
I staggered out of the car and onto the pathway; he took my arm to lead me in the right direction. There were no words spoken between us, just the click-click-click sound of my heels on the tarmac and the hushed noise of a bustling main road not too far away. We turned into an alley and there was a large set of black double doors, decorated in white sparkling leaves. Above the door, in white swirling writing, was the name 'Monochrome'.
Though it looked heavy, Connor managed to open it with one hand and we went inside into a little brightly lit corridor. A man stood beside a set of glass doors.
"Evening Raoul," Connor gave a head nod towards the bouncer as we passed through the doors which led to the darkened club, the bright lights of the dance floor reflecting off the door's edge. He didn't say anything back but held the door for us politely as we walked into the club.
The dance floor was large space off to one side with a DJ stand nestled nicely into a corner. Lights flashed all around but no one was about, even the DJ was absent, the music speakers softly played a premade mix CD. We made our way to the sleek black bar just past the dance floor. If the lack of people around wasn't enough of an obvious giveaway that is was a quiet night, the fact that only one woman sat at the bar surely made it clear. She turned as we approached and smiled.
"Connor, it's been awhile."
Connor chuckled, obviously recognising her too.
"Has it?" He pulled up a stool for me like a gentlemen next to the girl and I sat myself down. She pouted at him, running a manicured finger around the rim of an empty wineglass, "I'll say. I was starting to thinking you'd forgotten all about us here."
Connor pulled out a stool between the two of us, as he sat himself down he looked at her.
"Now how could I forget about you?"
"I don't know, I am rather unforgettable," she shrugged with a chuckle causing her loose curls to bounce. She then looked at me, "Oh, and who's this shortcake?"
He wrapped an arm around my waist, bringing me closer to be shown off. "Nora, this is Lily. We've been seeing each other for a little while now"
Nora gave me a momentary look, surprise I think but I'm not exactly sure, it was so fleeting before she smiled enticingly.
"Really? Well, I have been saying a beauty will come along soon enough and was I wrong? I think this calls for celebratory cocktails, on me. What looks good to you, Lily-dear?"
I was handed a black menu card listing all the cocktails in pretty white writing. There were so many drinks I could choose from, a great number of them I had never even heard of before. If someone else was kind enough to buy for me though, I was just simply going to go for a classic that always went down well.
"A Pina Colada would be nice, thank you."
Nora flashed a smile, "Good choice and…" she pressed a finger on her bottom lip, softly to not smudge her dark pink lipstick, whilst narrowing her eyes at Connor, "a White Russian for you?"
"You know me;" he said.
"Oh yes, I do…" Nora's tone sounded hollow, but it must been something in her throat because after a quick cough she was musically calling over to the barman who'd been in the kitchen area this whole time. Washing up I would guess from his damp hands and the cloth tucked into his apron rather haphazardly. Though I do question how much could he really had to wash - it was a ghost town out here.
"Oh Gilly, can I get a White Russian and a Pina Colada for my two friends here?"
"Certainly Nora, and for yourself?" He asked.
Pausing, she glanced questioning at the menu, obviously conflicted by the array of choice as I was briefly. Eventually she gave up and said, "Hmm, I don't know. Why don't you pick for me?"
They exchanged a look, as if he was expected to know the correct response to solve this predicament.
"Okay then. Pick a number between one and twenty-seven."
If this turn in conversation already seemed surprising, the level of enthusiasm mustered to answer by Nora was simply baffling.
"Five," she announced, loud and certainly proud.
It was then I was very aware of someone staring at me. It started as a tingle on my back, easy enough to ignore, but then it was like someone blew at the smouldering embers and my body was burning. I had to look. I turned my hips so I was sat sideways on my stool so I could glance over my shoulder, an attempt to not be too obvious about it all.
Over the other side of the club was a woman. It was dark, but I could tell she wasn't much older than myself with a small, dainty frame, dressed up in white. For a moment, I could have sworn that we shared eye contact before she stepped gracefully to, what I first thought was more wall besides the DJ booth from this side of the club, a large door into a blindingly light corridor. My previous jests about this place being a ghost town seemed to be more literal than I could, ironically, imagine.
"Right then, how does a Grasshopper sound?" The barman, Gilly, asked Nora.
"Then I'll get right on that."
The barman left to start our order and Nora returned her attention to us, or should I say me as that's how it felt when she shifted her chair nearer, leant her body in closer and gazed right through me with pale blue eyes.
"So, where did you two meet?" Though I was pretty sure I was the one the question was directed towards, but Connor took the reins and I graciously allowed him to carry on.
My attention drifted back to where that woman went. I squinted and I could just see the light outline of the door. I wonder where it went to? The chances are it was some staff area but she didn't look exactly like a member of staff, that said, I had only seen two staff members in this whole club so far. Maybe it just so happened that everyone was on a break.
Beside the allusive door, was a beautiful white swirling staircase that extended up to the ceiling and onto the next floor. A railing covered the front of the stairs which must have meant that they descended down as well. I craned my neck to try and see more of it, maybe even a suggestion to what was on these other floors, but without getting up to get a better look, I wasn't seeing anything new. A few of those comfortable round booths were sat solemnly down the end of the bar, just waiting for people to come and use them. They were such a pristine cream colour; either just cleaned or not been used in a while. I knew which one I would put my money on.
Beside me there was a clinking sound. Next thing I knew, my lap was cold, wet and smelt like sickly sweet pineapple. I couldn't stop the squeal that escaped as I jumped up off my seat.
"Oh no!" Nora jumped up too at the realisation of what had just happened, "And it's all over your dress…"
"I am so sorry," Gilly apologised, "there are towels and a hand dryer behind here so you can clean yourself up." He moved to the end of the bar closest to us and clicked open the door, he flicked his hand, gesturing me to come behind the bar. I followed him and then through the door to the kitchen area.
I glanced at Connor and Nora as I went through, he was exhaling deeply, not quite sighing though; and Nora gave me a quick smile, as if to assure me it would be fine. However, it was only a half smile, so her eyes seemed rather forlorn. I suppose she wouldn't want to seem too happy that my drink was split on me. Damn, she actually seemed concerned about me and my dress unlike Connor who didn't say a word. But then again, he wouldn't know dress dilemmas quite like she did- or if he did, that was something we'd never spoken about before. Now, how could I slip that sort of topic into future conversation without seeming weird?
I snapped out of my thoughts when Gilly handed me a paper towel. I thanked him and started dabbing at my dress, it quickly became a sodden mess and Gilly handed me a handful more.
"I am really sorry about that, I completely misplaced where the glasses were on the side."
I gave him a smile, "It's fine, accidents happen sometimes," giving my dress a few more dabs for good measure. It was still damp, there was no denying it, but I could be in here for ages drying it. You could barely see the spot, it was black against black.
"There you go, good as new!" I announced, throwing the damp towels in the bin beside me. Gilly looked at the spot and pulled a face at me.
"Don't you want to make sure it's all dried out first?"
Honestly, at this point, I would be wasting my time on a losing battle; towels were the sword brought to the gun fight in this soggy situation. All the effort now used would not be relative to the dryness of the dress, it would just be a waste. To be honest, the worst part was the shock of having something cold and wet end up unexpectedly in my lap and that had been and passed in moments.
"It's only a damp spot, I'm sure it will dry on its own."
Eager to sit back down and resume the conversation I had left, I stepped quickly towards the door back to the bar.
"Wait!" Gilly's eyes widened as he tried to grab my wrist but he missed, I was already too far away and almost through the door.
At the time, I thought that was so weird. I suppose, now, it doesn't seem weird at all. But that is the problem with hindsight - you can only learn the error of your ways after you make the mistakes and have time to reflect. And man, this mistake had to be one of the biggest I hope I will ever have the misfortune of making; because next time I do not think things will end in quite the same way…
The first thing I noticed was the empty space where I expected both Connor and Nora to still be sat, but neither were there. Almost as fast as this thought registered, I was awestruck. She was back. The woman in white. Her back was turned, but it was definitely her who stood before me. And to her side, Nora spoke in hushed tones, frequently focusing on something at their feet. The bar blocked quite a large portion of my view of the floor, but there was a small shadowy shape of a hand laid outstretched there, still and lifeless. My heart began to race and I could feel my chest tighten.
"What the-" I gasped, struggling to breath, "What is-"
They both twisted around at the sound of my words. I was met with cold, hard stare of the woman in white that gave me a shiver. I was gripped by her riveted gaze, only managing to flicker briefly away, onto the item in her hand. A sword. Slender blade, rather rectangular in shape, splattered with a crimson substance.
Oh my god. It couldn't be…
Nora looked shocked to see me but probably not as much as I was to see her. Surely she didn't have anything to do with this. What was I thinking? Everything was there right in front of me. I would have to be absolutely stupid and blind to not understand. I would also be stupid to believe that Nora was just an innocent bystander and still alive, standing there, not even an arm's length away from the weapon covered in Connor's blood.
"It appears we now have a witness here, Nora."
"Thank you. I am more than aware," she responded with a tone coated with clear annoyance at the glaring obvious statement made and scowled at the other woman. Her gaze shifted and focused behind me, I looked over my shoulder. Gilly stood very sheepishly in the kitchen doorway with recognisable reasoning, if I'd stayed in that kitchen a little longer, this awkward exchange wouldn't be happening right now.
"After this is all over, Gilly, I'd like a word. Alone." Nora said calmly. He nodded then she looked at me again, her face instantly softening. She moved to the door at the end of the bar and came up to me, her blue eyes never leaving my face, and she took my hands in hers.
"Oh, Lily, you seem like such a sweet girl. How does someone like you get involved with someone like that? Hm?" Her head tilted in the direction where Connor lay. "We… we met online…" I stuttered, very aware of how flushed my cheeks suddenly were.
Oh man. I had heard many lectures on the dangers of the internet men before and the thought that this may become another one of those got me very worked up indeed. Maybe next time I will simply let friends set me on blind dates. If, you know, I did actually get around to a next time.
"And how well would you say you knew him?"
Yes, this was becoming an internet stranger danger talk. Oh my…
But wait, hold up, why the procrastination? My date was dead on the floor and I had clearly seen it all. Killing me would be simple and quick then the problem here would be solved. Two murders, no witnesses. Done. But instead I was being slowly tortured by the prospect of a gruelling talk about computer safety that, if I was simply going to die, was a real waste of time. What was I missing here? It all had to be important if it was worth the time and effort; surely.
I gave a cough, "Relatively well considering how long we've actually known each other." I answered as honestly as possible. As my mother always said, honesty was the best policy and I feel best policies had to be used in circumstances such as these.
Nora leaned herself against the bar and relaxed her grip but still kept the hold on me.
"So, what types of things do you know?"
You know how under pressure you can have a blank and forget everything of importance? Yeah, I was experiencing that right now. Oh my god, what did I know? What did I know?!
"His middle name is William, his favourite colour is forest green, he prefers to cook his own egg-fried rice rather than order it from the Chinese, he has two younger sisters and one brother also-"
"Okay, alright." Nora interrupted, "What did he say he did for a living?"
The intense unwavering presence of her hands on my own reminded me that this would not end well, procrastination or not. I was not going to be able to walk away from this club and pretend none of this night has happened even though that is what I really wanted to do right about now. I could have been on my sofa, curled up in a blanket with a cup of tea if I gave up waiting in the cold and went back inside; but no, I was persistent and look where it landed me.
But was this set change the missing link? Everything in our conversation had been pushed into this direction and now, looking back, this was never a subject Connor felt happy to talk about with me. His jaw tightened and he spoke very little, giving the most minimalistic details. I always thought that maybe he just didn't like the job much. Now I wonder.
"He said… he said he was an accountant."
Nora genuinely looked sorry for me. Maybe my number was coming up.
"Oh sweetie, he might appear to have a way with numbers and dealings with other people's money but, I can assure you, he's no accountant." She drew herself closer. Her voice turned grave, "This poor excuse for a man is a thug and thief and one who occasionally sells drugs on the side. Did he ever talk about his past relationships at all?"
I shook my head. In fact, I was the one who suggested not talking about the exes. Dredging up the past, in my experience, only causes confusion when you're trying to work out whether or not the person you're with is someone you can see in your future.
"I will spare you the details, but he's a serial abuser. To be honest, this could have been a lucky escape for you - a clean break. Except, of course, you've just seen everything that has happened here and that greatly complicates things for us. We have people and businesses to protect. If someone went running to the police, then we'd be in a lot of hot water. So, we eliminate any potential threats before they become problems… usually."
The white woman had been very quiet up till now but her eyes narrowed at Nora's slight change of tone and interjected sharply, "Where are you going with this?"
Nora looked directly at her and spoke, "Hear me out, Shiro..." She exhaled and released the grip from my wrists. Then, oddly enough, she smiled. "Lily, you're a threat but that doesn't mean you have to become a problem. So, a proposition for you, you join us… or you can join your boyfriend. Your call."
"You have got to be kidding! She can't live - she's a huge liability!"
"Not if she is willing to keep our little secret."
They both stared at each other, neither backing down. Shiro's hand tensed, clenching her sword. What was going to happen now? My pulse was starting to ring in my ears as thoughts of my very uncertain future hung in the balance. What I did know for certain though was I wasn't going to be able to run out of here. Even if I could slip away from both Shiro and Nora, there was no way Raoul the doorman would let me escape from here.
So my choice was life or death?
Was it really a choice?
"I'll do it! I won't say anything to anyone and I'll do whatever you want," I said. They both looked at me in silence for a moment.
"Fantastic. So, it's settled," Nora raised up her glass and took a swig whilst Shiro gave her a cold glare.
"Wait, no, it isn't. What do you propose to do with her?"
Nora took another sip, slow and deliberate, before she answered in a calm, collected manner.
"Princess is always appreciative for an extra hand and Rue said only the other day how she could use some help here and there. Another person around here could ease pressure anywhere necessary and you know it." She swirled the green liquid around the glass with a slightly smug smile playing on her lips. Shiro gave a soft exhale.
"That aside, you are putting a lot of trust into her and I'm not sure if you're letting your heart get in the way of your head here."
"If you're so concerned, she can stay in my room here. That way someone can always keep an eye on her."
Shiro looked tired with this all. To me, she didn't seem the type to back down easily but her eyes mirrored a sense of past experience that if she didn't stop this now, it wouldn't stop. They would be arguing all night only to end in a stubborn stalemate.
"Fine," she snapped. She glided closer so only the bar separated us. "But if you even think of betraying us, that will be you there. Understood?"
I gave a curt nod to accompany my equally curt "Yes."
An arm curled around my back and Nora's hand pressed against my hip.
"I'll take Lily up now and I'll get someone to clear that up so you can just…" she paused for a moment, "Relax, Shiro". Before hearing a response from Shiro, I was being led out of the bar area and across the dance floor, past the swirling staircase to the door I spotted before. The door was opened and I had to squint as I entered the bright corridor.
Thank heavens. This light was a new beginning for me. Maybe not one that I wanted or had ever thought I would be in for, but a beginning nonetheless, and not my end. The end that I narrowly missed today.