“I don’t need any help dealing with guys,” Kristina said.
“That’s not what Mark tells us,” Harrison said with a condescending pat on the shoulder for Kristina. “He says you need some serious training.”
“You were never satisfying, Kristina,” Mark said. He began rubbing his sore knee. “I hope your skills with your lady friends are better.”
“Oh, you’re one of us!” Harrison squealed. He clapped his hands together and jumped up and down in front of Kristina, and she resisted the urge to kick his legs out from underneath him.
“You mean I’m a gay man?”
“No, you’re one of us!” Harrison squealed again. “One of us queers!”
“I’m flattered, really,” Kristina said. “But I’d rather be one of me instead. I’m much better at that.”
“Of course, of course,” Harrison said as he swept his hands in front of him apologetically. “Being one of us is all about being who you really are.”
“That’s the most backwards thing I’ve ever heard of,” Kristina said. She turned to Mark. “Have fun flirting with an engaged guy.”
“Oh he’s not flirting with me,” Harrison hissed through his broad grin. “I’m flirting with him.” Harrison smacked Mark straight on his ass, and Mark laughed. Jack continued to play on his phone. Kristina rolled her eyes and left the boys in their corner near the bar. The cute bartender with no brain from before who had served her a drink smiled, handing her another.
“Your friends keep buying you drinks,” she said, and nodded over in the direction of Liz and Aiden’s table. “You’re a very lucky lady tonight.”
“Why do I not believe you?” Kristina said. She took the drink anyway and began to take a big gulp before someone in a red evening dress came out of door near the bar. She waved towards Kristina and smiled hopefully.
“How are you, Kristina?” Scarlett asked. “Are you looking into that thing we talked about?”
“I have been,” Kristina replied. “There’s nothing to look for.”
“Okay,” she said, confused. She sighed deeply and began ringing her hands. “I hope everything turns out for the best.”
“Hey, sug.” The voice came from one of the bartenders who looked like she square-danced straight out of the Bible Belt. Her half shirt was tied up just north of her belly button, and her Daisy Dukes were tasteful, or at least as tasteful as Daisy Dukes could be. She had long, rich blonde hair and a friendly smile, and despite the fact that she looked like a Shove the Dove conservative, Kristina couldn’t help but feel a warmness radiating from her.
“Hello, Brandy,” Scarlett said with a wave.
“Ready for your set, hon?”
“Almost,” Scarlett said. “Just came to the bar for a glass of water.” Brandy smiled and filled one up for her. While Brandy’s back was turned, Scarlett gave Kristina a significant look, as if to say ‘help me’. Kristina gave her a thumbs up, and Scarlett took her drink and sauntered to the back room of the Dingy Den. Kristina went to sit back with her friends.
The other bartender came over to her table with a tray full of drinks. Kristina smiled. “Great service here,” she replied.
“We’re lazy,” Clara said. “We wanted to get beers without getting up.”
“Plus, I like to take care of my customers,” the bartender said. “You’re good to me, so I’ll be good to you.” She passed a dark beer over to Clara and a much lighter one over to Quentin. Kristina smirked.
“What kind of beer did you get?” Kristina asked the married couple.
“I got myself a Guinness, and got him a Land Shark,” Clara replied. She shared her friend’s smirk, and Quentin noticed both of their faces.
“I like light beer,” he said defensively. “It’s delicious.”
“It’s water,” Clara said. “Dark beer is the best kind.”
“I know, honey.” Quentin planted a quick kiss on her right temple. “We also won’t bring up your fondness for hard lemonade, which is even less a real beer than Land Shark.” Clara glared at him playfully.
“You two are adorable,” the bartender said. “I’d like to take you home and cuddle your brains out.”
“We have a strict agreement wherein we only sleep with each other,” Quentin said, holding up his right hand so she could see his wedding band. “It’s called marriage.”
“That’s part of why I’m still single,” the bartender said. “Are any of you?”
“Technically no, but I wouldn’t kick you out of my bed,” Kristina said. “Everyone else here has a ring, so I might be your only option at this table.”
“Well, that’s very sweet of you,” the bartender
“Thanks,” Kristina said. “What’s your name?”
“Molly,” the bartender said with a grin. “It’s nice to meet you. Are you local?”
“Yeah, but I don’t get out much,” Kristina said. “I haven’t been here before. Kinda like it though. When do the pianos start dueling?”
“They’re getting ready,” Molly said defensively. She turned around and began to walk back to the bar. “Hold your horses.” Kristina sighed and took a sip from her beer.
A few minutes later, Kristina watched as Scarlet came out of the same door followed by a man dressed in a suit and a red tie. The two of them walked over to the pianos. Scarlett took the far one, on the other side of Liz and Aiden’s table. The other pianist flashed a winning smile at the crowd, though he didn’t seem to notice that it went unnoticed. Scarlett smiled weakly at the crowd and waved as well, and it went unnoticed as well. Everyone was animated and interested in their beers and their conversations.
Kristina watched as Scarlett’s nimble fingers flew over the piano keys, and the crowd immediately quieted down. Kristina recognized the piece; it was Billy Joel’s An Innocent Man. It took some serious fingers to play piano like he did. She clearly had some talent. Her accomplice began to pound out the bass line and a counter melody, and his eyes followed his fingers across the black and white ivory. He and Scarlett plunked out their parts on the piano and the chatter in the bar dropped away completely.
It wasn’t surprising that everyone had stopped paying attention to each other and more to the pianos, because Scarlett had finished putting her outfit together. She had finished her makeup, and her red dress was accentuated by her flashing lipstick. Her shortly cropped hair had been styled and pulled back into a small bun just above the nape of her neck. How she played piano that quickly in those gloves, Kristina had no idea. She must have the dexterity of an acrobat. As the music began to wind down, the second piano player cut own and only Scarlett was playing, softly and not nearly at the speed she was before, just plunking out a tuneless ditty while her partner talked.
“Welcome to the Dingy Den,” the second pianist said. He had a loud voice, and he knew damn well how to project. He filled the whole bar with his words, and Kristina almost didn’t notice his prominent bald spot. “It’s nice to see all of you folks out here, coming to see little ole me. We’re sure glad you chose to come out here tonight, and we’re sure glad to help you all have fun. Everybody make sure to order a drink from one of our sexy bartenders, cuz otherwise, you just won’t have as much fun.” He segued back into a song that Kristina didn’t recognize and continued to play. Mark sat down next to her, a crumpled piece of paper in his hand.
“Well, I beat you,” he said. “I got the digits.”
“They know you’re not gay, Mark, right?” Clara asked seriously. “You did tell them that you’re not gay, didn’t you?”
“Of course,” Mark said. “They know, they just gave me their number in case I decide to change my mind.”
“You’re unbelievable,” Kristina sighed, and decided not to push the issue any further. The pianists continued to play on the stage, and Kristina looked around at the four friends that she knew from high school. Clara was always smart, but now she would be a successful… something or other – Kristina didn’t catch whatever the hell it was Clara did nowadays, but she and her husband looked like a million bucks. Liz and Aiden had the same deal, just with two kids attached. Liz was a high-powered lawyer, judging from her pencil skirt, and she probably made millions every year, at least enough for Aiden to stay home with their boys. And Mark? Well, at least there was someone here to make Kristina feel good about herself.
How’d they do it? Where was Kristina’s life going? She was working at this shitty college in the middle of nowhere, her doctorate was going nowhere, she hated her parents, and so on. She had a great relationship with Nikki and Sarah, but it could be better. If only they got along.
“Hello, Kristina?” Mark was staring her in the face, tapping on her forehead. “You in there?”
“What do you want?”
“We’re going to dance,” Mark said. “Liz and Aiden are already there. So are Clara and Quentin. Do you want to feel left out?”
“I don’t mind,” Kristina said, irritated. “I like being left out.”
“Oh come on,” Mark said. “Have a little fun. You know you want to. Dancing is fun. I seem to remember you doing a lot of it while we were in school.”
“I am a very different person now.”
“Not that different,” Mark said. “Please? It’ll make me feel a lot better about myself.”
“And since when has that been a priority of mine?”
“It’s always been a priority of mine,” Mark said. He extended his hand in front of her. “I want to dance with you. Don’t you want to dance?” Kristina looked at the couples dancing on the floor in front of her while Mark kept his hand extended.
“Fine,” she relented. “Why the hell not?” She took his hand and he led her out onto the dance floor past another couple. She saw Jack and Harrison not far away, dancing cheek to cheek. It was quite adorable. She smiled a little. Mark put his hand on her waist, and she nearly slapped it away.
“You forget how to dance?”
“I forgot how to follow,” Kristina replied. “So if we do this, I have to be able to lead.”
“Can you do anything else?”
“Would you like me better if I followed? Cuz that’s not happening.”
“I wouldn’t have you any other way.” Mark snaked his arm around her back and Kristina pulled him into a spin. The music was no longer a poppy piano remix, but something classical, probably Vivaldi, but Kristina didn’t know enough about music to know which one. It could have been Pachabel’s Canon in D for all she knew. Whatever it was, it lent itself to a nice waltz, and Kristina felt herself becoming swept up in it. She led Mark over the dance floor, past Liz and Aiden, past Quentin and Clara, past the gay couple, and she even let Mark spin her around for good measure, just to let him hold on to a shred of his manliness. The music stopped abruptly, and Kristina came to rest. She looked frantically around for the rest of her group, but they were perfectly fine. The only person missing from the bar was Scarlett Powers.
“Why did the music stop?” The attractive young man who had sat down with Cadie Harris held onto the hand of a frail but attractive brunette. “Where’s the other pianist?”
“I’m not sure,” said the bartender. This time it was Brandy, the southern looking one, who spoke. “She seemed fine, but then she just up and ran off the stage like something was on fire underneath her.” Scarlett had run out of the place in a hurry. She must have had a reason to leave in the middle of her precious set like that, and a damn good one at that. Who, or what did she see? What had scared her into running off in the middle of her song? Kristina tramped over to the table and picked up her coat.
“Where are you going?” Mark asked. “The guy will probably start playing again soon enough.”
“It’s not working out for me,” she said. “Who waltzes in a bar, anyway?” She pushed past him and ran up onto the stage and back into the backstage area. She pushed past someone on her way out, multiple someones in fact, and as she came to the door, she saw that it was already propped open. Scarlett must be going for her car. Kristina ducked out the door and raced over to the parking lot on the other side. Scarlett was indeed getting into her car.
“Scarlett!” Kristina called out to her. Scarlett didn’t appear to hear her. “Scarlett, don’t turn the ignition!” Scarlett looked out the window of her car at Kristina. Her eyes widened, and from a distance, it looked like she jammed her key into the ignition and turned it. Kristina ran towards the car as quickly as she could.
The resulting explosion was something Kristina never thought she’d witness firsthand. It wasn’t like in the movies, not at all. The flames weren’t huge and towering, but they had consumed the entire car, as well as its passenger. Kristina heard the tortured screams of the piano player, smelled the sickening burnt flesh as Scarlett cooked inside that hunk of melting steel and glass, and it was only when she tried to reach out to the car that she realized she was lying face down on the pavement. She got up and ran over to the car, but two pairs of arms grabbed her from behind.
“Let me go!” Kristina screamed. “She’s dying in there.”
“No, sweetie,” Clara said gravely, and Kristina became aware that she was being held by Clara and her brother. “I don’t think she is.” Kristina looked back at the burning car. No movement. No one was moving inside. Kristina wrenched out of their grip and got as close to the car as she could, but it was pretty clear from a distance what was going on: Scarlett Powers was dead.