The walls were also made of brick, and all along them were corkboards peppered with flyers, business cards, lost cat posters, and the like. Advertisements for bands were the most popular kind, and there were even a few playing here on some weekends, after the main event, of course.
The main event was more than obvious: in the far corner, back up against the wall, sat two baby grand pianos, black as Ann Coulter’s heart, but a thousand times more gorgeous. Kristina hadn’t seen many pianos up close – she wasn’t really involved in music programs or band, so most of the pianos she saw were on television – but she had always hoped they would be this beautiful. She wanted to go over and touch them, but she figured that would be against the rules. This must be the dueling piano part of the bar. Kristina sincerely hoped that two people would pick the pianos up and wield them like broadswords, but that was unlikely, awesome though it would be.
There weren’t that many people in the bar that night. Kristina counted six aside from herself. A gay couple sat at the bar, nursing something that looked like hot chocolate. The other group consisted of two people Kristina didn’t recognize, a college-aged boy and two girls. They were sitting in the corner with a pitcher of beer. Cadie Harris was the third person at the table. Kristina tried to make herself small so Cadie wouldn’t see her. That was the last thing she needed tonight, to run into one of her students out on her first night of drinking this semester, especially that student. The last person was someone she knew all too well. Mark Eddowes, Clara’s brother, waved her over to the corner of the bar nearest the pianos.
“Long time, no see, Kris,” he said with a grin. Mark always had a grin on his face. He shared Clara’s sandy blond hair, but his wasn’t as neatly kept. He was wearing a plaid button-up and nicer jeans than she remembered being part of his wardrobe, and his arms were crossed over his chest.
“Don’t call me Kris,” Kristina reminded him.
“You used to love that in high school.”
“I also used to love Tim Burton in high school,” she said. “Now I’m old enough to know better.” Kristina flagged down the bartender, a pretty little thing with short, dark hair, and ordered a beer.
“You’re only getting one? You’ve changed, sweetheart,” Mark said. He swallowed the rest of his drink and ordered another one from the same bartender. He took a sip from it and set it back down on the table with a loud smack. “But I suppose the night is young, and so are we. Are you still single?”
“It’s complicated,” Kristina said. It was not worth explaining what she had with Nikki and Sarah to Mark. He would probably be all for the concept of polyamory and free love (read: the freedom to be a man slut), but wouldn’t understand that Kristina didn’t just need both women for sex.
“Everything about you is complicated,” Mark replied with an audible sigh. “You don’t seem to have changed much.”
“Neither have you,” Kristina said, trying not to stare at his hips or crotch. “You’re still hitting on everything that moves.”
“When you look like this, you have to spread the wealth,” he said, sweeping his arms up and down his body to indicate how hot he thought he was. Kristina rolled her eyes. “Why, keeping this body monogamous would be a crime, don’t you agree?”
“Yes, I do,” Kristina said. “Adultery is a crime in this state, right?”
“Only if the Republicans have their way,” Mark quipped. “But in all seriousness, how have you been? You kind of fell off the map after we graduated from high school. I live an hour away from here, and this is the first time I’ve seen you since then. How is that even possible?”
“I’m a very private person,” Kristina admitted after taking a sip of beer. “I don’t really get out much.”
“Now that I don’t believe,” Mark said. “What happened to the girl who would hold me down and take my lunch money in fourth grade? What happened to the overconfident chick who would buy us beer for our parties? You used to be so awesome.”
“I’m still fairly awesome,” Kristina rationalized. “I just have a job now, a career. I have a life, two relationships to maintain, a doctoral program to study for, a writing career to start, and all sorts of shit to keep me busy. I can’t go out drinking every night like we did in high school and undergrad.”
“Maybe not every night, but more than once a semester,” Mark said. “When was the last time you were out?”
“Last August, maybe?”
“You don’t remember?”
“It was a while ago.”
“That’s my point exactly,” Mark said. “Why don’t you come visit me more often? I live an hour away and you never come and see me. What happened to the whole Fab Five thing?”
“You do live an hour away,” Kristina repeated. “And strangely, you never bothered to contact me, either. You keep saying that I should come visit you, but when was the last time you tried to get in contact with me?”
“Your sophomore year, when you told me to eat a dick?”
“Yeah, and you haven’t since.”
“You made it very clear that I wasn’t supposed to.”
“You’re right, I did,” Kristina said. “Why do you suppose that was?”
“Because I’m too much awesome for you to handle?”
“Because you can’t keep your hands to yourself,” she said. “When dealing with me or with anyone, really. Sarah and I have an agreement now: we can both sleep around as long as we agree to it before hand. She chooses not to, and I’ve only got one other partner. It works out great. With you, you’d sleep around and not tell me. You wouldn’t be careful, you never were, and everything would go to hell in a hand basket pretty goddamn quick. You know that.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” he said. “We were always pretty disastrous as a couple.”
“Not nearly as bad as Liz and Aiden,” Kristina said. “Speaking of, where are they?” Not a subtle subject change, but it would work.
“Clara and her douche husband are going to be late,” Mark said. “And Liz and Aiden went out to the ATM.”
“Let me guess,” Kristina ventured. “She had the idea and he followed her out like a little hound dog.”
“Just like high school all over again,” Mark agreed. “Aiden hasn’t had an original thought since he came out of the womb, poor guy.”
“That’s why he and Liz make such a great couple,” Kristina replied. “She likes ordering people around and he likes taking orders. They’re a perfect match, made in Heaven and all that.”
“I thought you didn’t believe in Heaven.”
“And I thought you were smart enough to take the hint that I’m done talking about me.”
“Maybe if you talked about yourself a little more, you’d have gone out more than once in the past year.”
“What is the matter with you?” Kristina said. She began to raise her voice. “You say things like that to me and I’ll feed you your own testicles. Maybe I just don’t want to talk about myself. Ever thought of that, asshole? Maybe I don’t want you to be in on my life. What now?” Kristina was right in his face, practically spitting all over him.
“Getting a little out of hand, aren’t we, sweetheart?” Mark said.
“Don’t call me sweetheart either,” Kristina spat. “I’m not your sweetheart.”
“Calm down, Kristina. You’re such a drama queen. You always have been.” Standing near the door was another member of Kristina’s former clique, Liz Pryce, or, according to Clara, Liz Pryce-Caughdenoy. She hyphenated her name because she’s better than everyone else. You know she is because only the best kinds of people wear their power suits to the bar and pin their hair up in an obnoxious beehive.
“Liz,” Kristina said. “How are you? How’s your dog?”
“You know Aiden and I don’t have a dog,” Liz replied. “How’s your cat?”
“He’s doing well, actually,” Kristina replied coldly. “He’s visiting Sarah’s parents. Sarah is there as well. They’re having a lovely time bonding, or so I hear.”
“How nice,” Liz replied, uncrossing her arms. “I’m glad that you two are getting along so well.”
“Geez, if you ladies weren’t ladies I’d tell you to just whip it out and measure so you could get it over with,” Mark said as he took another swig of his beer. “What is up with you two?”
“We’re best friends, obviously,” Kristina said sarcastically. “She and I have our differences, but we trade barbs because we love each other, or something like that.”
“It’s like high school all over again,” Liz said with an exasperated sigh.
“Yeah, I find that life often is,” Kristina replied. “That’s the reason why so many people hate it so much.”
“What are you babbling about?” Liz asked. “Aiden, would you like something to drink?”
“Nothing for me, hon,” he said. “I’m driving home, remember?”
“You can’t have one drink?”
“Maybe later, Liz,” Aiden said. “Why don’t you get yourself something nice? Let me buy you something.”
“No, it’s alright,” Liz said. “Today was payday anyways. I can get you a drink if you like.”
“Get yourself a drink,” Aiden repeated calmly. “I’ll stay here and catch up with Kristina and Mark.” Liz smiled warmly at him, glared coldly at Kristina, waved at Mark, and made her way towards the bartender. Aiden turned away from her and touched Kristina lightly on the shoulder.
“How are you, Kristina?”
“I’m fine, Aiden,” Kristina replied. “You’re a brave man to marry that Ice Queen.”
“She’s not that bad,” Aiden said defensively. “She’s nice to me most of the time, except when she gets stressed out from work; then she kind of shuts down. Other than that, though, being married to her is great.”
“Please tell me she’s a stay at home mom,” Kristina pleaded.
“Actually, I stay home with the boys most of the time,” Aiden said. “I like it. It’s good to have a chance to get to know my kids. They’re good boys. Roan, our oldest, is in band this year. He plays trumpet. He’s… well, he’s not very good. He’ll get better, I’m sure.”
“I’m sure,” Kristina repeated. She tried very hard not to lose her focus. Aiden was a nice guy. “He sounds like a great boy.”
“Kurt, his little brother, he’s the same way,” Aiden said, beaming. “He’s going to turn into a wonderful young man someday, just like his brother.”
“And his daddy,” Kristina added, and Aiden’s smile got even wider. “Sounds like you’ve got a pretty good set up there, Aiden.”
“It keeps me busy and happy,” Aiden said with a smile. “It really is nice to see you. How have you been?”
“Really good,” Kristina replied. “I’m looking into getting my doctorate, I’m in a healthy relationship, and my cat loves me. Things are looking pretty good for me right about now. I’m working at Devlin for Professor Atkinson.”
“I didn’t go to that college, so I have no idea of who that is.”
“She was kind of my mentor in undergrad,” Kristina replied. “She’s a professor of Mythology and History at Devlin, and she won a bunch of awards from some museum. She’s incredibly smart. I’m really lucky to get to work for her. She may not be doing very exciting things at Devlin, but she’s more than willing to help me do some later in my career.”
“Oh, good for her,” Aiden said. “Well, I hope you succeed. You were always so smart. I half expected you to become president someday.”
“Let’s not get out of hand,” Kristina said. “That is one hot potato I’m throwing at somebody else if I ever get the chance. No one comes out of that looking okay.”
“But still, it’s good that you have something positive going on,” Aiden said. “The other half of me expected to hear that you’d been found in a gutter somewhere, or somebody would find your body, all hollowed out and emaciated from drug use or something.”
“Was that really something everyone agreed on?”
“Not everyone,” Aiden replied sheepishly. “But not no one.”
“Great,” Kristina mumbled.
The ditzy bartender who Kristina had ordered her drink from set another down on the table for Aiden. “From the blonde woman over at that table.” The bartender pointed over to where Liz and Mark were sitting. Aiden sighed deeply. He walked away from her and went to sit down with his wife and Mark Eddowes at a table over by the pianos, probably hoping to get a good seat for the upcoming musical number. Kristina figured she should join them any minute now, but Clara still wasn’t here. She had no idea where Clara was. Wasn’t it her idea to meet here? She must not have wanted to come in the first place. She was probably just being polite, and Mark and Aiden and Liz had shown up here by accident. That must have been what happened; either that, or Clara was trying to prank her for all the stuff Kristina pulled in high school. Kristina never put much thought into what other people thought of her. She couldn’t have cared less. She didn’t care in high school, and she cared even less now, but she wanted Clara to show up and go drinking.
“Kristina, come sit with us,” Mark said. “We have a pitcher now. Come have another beer.”
“I’d rather fellate a cactus,” Kristina said. She downed the rest of her drink and grabbed her coat. “Clearly, this was a mistake. This was fun. Let’s do it again next decade.” Kristina stomped out, slinging her coat over her shoulders and thrusting her arms inside the sleeves. She stormed out the door, pushing her way past the bouncer. The night air stung her cheeks, and she really wished she brought something to cover her face. Kristina ducked into an alley near where she parked her car, and tugged her coat closer around her chilly arms. She saw someone out there, taking a drag from their own cigarette. The figure wasn’t in the light quiet yet, but Kristina could tell it was a woman.
“Excuse me,” Kristina said. The figure stopped smoking and turned her way. “Are you feeling all right?” The figure came into the light, and Kristina could see her more clearly.
“You’re Kristina Pagan, right?” The woman had dark hair cropped at her shoulders and big brown eyes, like a deer. Her bright red dress hugged her curves in ways Kristina hadn’t seen on many women before, and she wore elbow-length red opera gloves. Why she was dressed like that, Kristina had no idea. She recognized the woman from somewhere, but couldn’t place exactly where it was.
“That depends,” she said. “Who’s asking?”
“Someone who really needs your help,” she replied. “I work here in the Dingy Den.” And then it hit Kristina: this was Scarlett Powers.
“What’s the matter?” Kristina was trying not to act starstruck. “You want to know which god to pray to to revitalize your performing career? Cuz that’s about all I can help you with.”
Scarlett leaned in closer and whispered in Kristina’s ear. “I need you to help me get out of here.” A chill raced down Kristina’s spine as Scarlett’s breath hit the most vulnerable part of her flesh. “I’m in a lot of danger here in Morhurst, and I need to get out. Can you help me do that?”
“Maybe,” Kristina said breathily. “But why me? What have I got that you can’t do yourself?”
“You’re the mystery writer, yes?” Scarlett said, and Kristina tried once again to keep her eyes from lighting up. She had no idea that anyone had actually read her book. “You wrote One for the Road?”
“I did,” Kristina replied, still failing to contain her excitement. “I had no idea anyone bought it. Did you buy the eBook or the paperback, because I get more money if-”
“Please,” Scarlett said. “I have to get out of here, and you were the only person I could think of who could help me.”
“What about your co-workers?”
“What about them?” Scarlett said with worry in her voice. “Paul hates me and would rather see my car explode, Molly has barely even noticed that something is wrong she’s so oblivious, Brandy has kids to worry about, and Miranda just wants to milk her cash cow.”
“I don’t know who any of those people are.”
“Just take my word for it when I say that there’s no one else I can ask,” Scarlett hissed. Her eyes were wide and desperate. “You have to help me, Kristina.”
“Okay, I mean, if I can I will, but I have no idea how you expect me to help,” Kristina said. “What do you want me to do?”
“You’re a mystery writer and a mystery fan, right?” Scarlett said. “There’s something very, very wrong around me. Every city I’ve been to in the past few years, there have been some pretty horrific murders. A girl was strangled in the hotel room next to mine in Chicago. In New York City, my pianist was shot in the head. Buffalo was the city where those five people were killed in back of that club.”
“Um, sweetheart, you toured in Chicago, New York City, and Buffalo,” Kristina said. “I’m pretty sure that not all the murders in those cities have to do with you, but if they do, kudos. That’s quite an accomplishment.”
“You’re not listening to me, Kristina,” Scarlett pleaded. “Someone is following me. Someone is following me around and killing people around me. I know it. I can feel it in my gut. There is something wrong here. I need your help, Kristina.”
“Okay, fine,” Kristina replied defensively. “What do you want me to do?”
“Solve the mystery, obviously,” Scarlett said. “Before I’m next.”
“Do you think you’re in danger of being next?”
“I think it’s possible enough that I don’t want to tempt fate,” Scarlett said. “I took this job to get away from the private concert scene. No one I work with knows where I live. I don’t have any regular hang out spots, and I tried to keep my personal life as private as possible. This is the only place where someone would regularly be able to catch me. I don’t know if he’s followed me here tonight, but since you’re here, could you keep an eye out?”
“Yeah, whatever,” Kristina replied. “I’ll keep an eye out for shady people, you know, if there are any around.”