Chapter 1: The Field House
New York City after midnight can be a perilous place. A restless sleeping giant ready and willing to devour anyone naïve enough to travel alone. Walking by yourself through a dark alleyway is probably number one on a list of things people will tell you never do here.
But I’ve been taking this path to the club for months. Besides it’s the quickest route and I’m already a little late. A safer path would add an additional subway stop and two extra blocks of walking to an already long journey. That safer path, lined with bars and strip club traffic, would probably aid in keeping me from being assaulted or robbed of the whopping six dollars and thirty-seven cents I have on me, but I can already see the back door to the Field House from here. It’s only a few yards away. Looks like I cheat fate again.
A dark SUV is blocking the back door to the club. What asshole parked this thing here? It better not be Stanley’s. It’s brand spanking new. Someone who claimed they were damn near on the verge of bankruptcy, someone who claimed they couldn’t afford to give me and the band another dime…could not afford a sapphire blue Escalade hybrid that is so fresh off the lot, it still has that new car smell.
The show hasn’t even started yet and my blood is already up. This fucker better not be holding out on us. But whatever I have to say to Stanley is going to have to wait. It’s already after midnight. Showtime!
Backstage before a gig is pure chaos and that’s putting it mildly. I get a contact high just descending the stairwell to our dressing rooms. Cynthia and Carla run right into me at the bottom of the steps.
“Sorry babe.” I apologize grabbing Cynthia by both shoulders. Leaning in close to get a better look at her eyes. Her pupils aren’t dilated. Perfect. Maybe tonight isn’t going to be so bad after all. I was on edge the whole way over. I had no idea if she was even going to show.
“Shit, wait, Carla wait,” I yell trying to grab Carla before she disappears up the stairwell. “Where’s Stanley? I need to talk to him.”
“He’s not here.”
“What do you mean, he’s not here? The show starts in five minutes.”
“I mean he’s not here,” and with no further explanation she turns and follows Cynthia to the stage. What the hell were the two of them doing together anyway? In the few years that we’d been doing shows here, she and Cynthia had never really gotten along. Now Cynthia and Stanley’s body guard were inseparable. It didn’t make sense. But who was I to judge her branching out to make new friends, I’d been in New York for seven years and my friendship with her and Michael, were all I had to show for it.
I run down the hall, passing Michael and Jason carrying stage equipment.
“You guys are just now taking that stuff up?” I ask.
“Stanley wasn’t here and it took Carla all this time just to find the key to the equipment room. We’ll set up as fast as we can.”
“Ok…well see if Ellison will help you.”
“Ell’s not here,” Michael yells as he and Jason ascend the stairs with Mike bearing most of the weight of the equipment. Jason is such a little guy that none of us ever really ask him to help pack up or unload. If Mike asked him to help set up tonight, it was out of pure desperation.
I run into the dressing room, and I use that word loosely. The Field House is a rundown old warehouse in the Bronx that Stanley converted into a club. Our dressing room is actually an old locker room where the warehouse employees would change into their uniforms. It’s a large room with aisles and aisles of old rusted lockers dividing the space. The cedar benches bolted to the floor in each row gave the workers a place to sit and change in and out of their work clothes.
Having all these lockers must have been a great convenience for the workers but it also makes it impossible to know if you’re alone. To say that the space is creepy is an understatement. You saw places like this in the background of photos of double homicides. It isn’t just the timeworn condition of the room but to add insult to injury, half the lights don’t work either. It is just my luck that the bathroom is located at the far wall.
I run in, wrenching my black tank over my head and draping it over the hand dryer. I lather up and clean beneath both my arms. I hate washing up like this. A whore’s bath as my grandmother affectionately referred to it. But tonight it can’t be helped. If I’d gone home to shower after work I would never have made it here on time.
I find the bag Mike had packed for me, leaning against one of the lockers and change into my costume. Cynthia and I do five songs while Michael plays piano for us. We don’t do much of a stage show, so our sexy little outfits give our performance a little something extra. We call ourselves, After Midnight. A name we took on after Stanley would only book us for his latest timeslot. The one nobody wanted. But two and a half years later, we’re still performing after midnight with a loyal following to boot.
Let Stanley tell it though, he was destitute. A fact I just couldn’t believe considering how crowded the place always was. If that SUV turned out to be his; I was going to rip him a new asshole.
“Sky, let’s go.” Mike yells banging on the dressing room door. I run out and followed him up the stairs to the back of the stage. Everyone was here.
Michael, Cynthia, and I stand just beyond the curtain waiting as Carla announces us to the crowd. They shout, screaming my name and I can almost feel the tension radiating off of Cynthia’s body.
When Carla is done we run out on stage and do our thing. The only thing we do well together anymore. We give the people what they came to see.
After the show, Cynthia dips. Typical. But Michael stays behind to help me clean up the dressing room. We take the service elevator down to the basement to avoid the growing crowd backstage and on the stairwell. I never understood why Stanley allowed this kind of chaos behind the scenes. I mean it wasn’t like he had the Rollingstones performing here but it was still a big security risk.
Alone in the elevator with Mike I feel like I can breathe again. I like performing but it’s a means to an end. Rent…bills, they have to be paid. And performing at Stanley’s club is a quick, easy way to make some cash. But every show put tremendous butterflies in my stomach. Unlike Cynthia, I’m horribly shy at times. Every time we step down off that stage, I feel an enormous sense of relief.
“Did you notice that SUV parked out back tonight?” I ask Michael.
“I don’t know…Stanley keeps saying he can’t give us more money but he has money to buy a new car.”
“It might not be his Skylar.”
“If it is…I’m going to flip out.”
“I don’t think you should do that, he’s like seventy.”
I laugh. “He is not seventy.”
I know for a fact Stanley isn’t seventy but he is getting on in years. I guess Michael’s right, I shouldn’t let my imagination run wild. But if it turns out the car is his, he’s definitely going to have to start giving us something extra. These crowds are showing up to see our set and he knows it.
Now that I have Michael alone for a change, there’s something even more pressing than money that I need to speak with him about. Although I know he probably isn’t going to want to hear it.
“I think Cyn is using again.” I finally confess. I throw the statement out into the air. There’s really no point in dancing around the issue. We’ve both been dealing with Cynthia’s addiction for a long time now.
“What makes you think that?” he asks after several excruciating moments.
“I don’t know, she’s just been off lately.”
“Cyn is always like that.” Mike’s joking but I’m really not in the mood.
“MORE than usual Michael. Plus I found an empty needle in her bag when we got back from last week’s show.”
“You go through her bags?” he asks sounding a little appalled.
“Michael I have to, sometimes I half expect to find my stuff in them. I don’t put anything past her anymore.”
Michael, Cynthia and I had been living together for almost five years now. Somewhere along the way I’d inadvertently become den mother: paying bills and cleaning up their messes both physical and emotional. But if I was the mother than I guess that made Michael the father.
He and Cynthia had been best friends since they were kids. When I first met them I’d mistakenly assumed they were a couple but Michael’s gay. He’d been keeping his sexuality a secret from his family for what I can only assume was his whole life. When his parents found out his senior year of high school they’d put him out; insisting that he keep his lifestyle a secret from the rest of the family; shaming him into thinking it would kill his devotedly Catholic grandmother if she knew the truth.
“Thomas wasn’t at the show tonight,” I mention offhandedly, fishing when I know I shouldn’t. Michael has been dating Thomas for a while now. He’d moved into the apartment a while back and ever since, Michael has been bending over backwards to make him happy and I was starting to think there was no limit to what he wouldn’t do to please him.
Every now and then I inquire about their relationship. Not simply to be nosey. It’s out of genuine concern. Thomas expects so much from Michael—too much.
“How are things by the way? Are you guys still having issues? ”
“It’s not great but it’s a lot better than it was. He’s promised me there’ll be no more temper tantrums like what happened on my birthday.”
Michael’s tanned muscular arms are wrapped around me from behind. He always holds me like this. Our relationship is so natural. Even though I’ve known Cynthia longer; years of working and living side by side, taking care of her has built a deeper affection between us.
Mike’s phone begins to vibrate in his front pocket. Sliding his hand down my backside to remove the phone, he checks the caller ID before pressing talk and putting the phone to his ear.
It’s hard to make out exactly what’s being said over the blare of the music in the background but it’s obviously Thomas on the other end. Where ever he is, he’s having a blast and he clearly wants Michael to join him. When Mike ends the call I throw both my hands in the air in defeat before he can tell me he’s ditching me to go clubbing.
“Go.” I say smiling.
“I’m not leaving you kiddo.” Mike says reestablishing the tight hold he had on me only moments ago.
“Mike, it’s ok. Go enjoy life. Enjoy having a boyfriend, one of us should. Besides you can pay me back tomorrow morning by making me breakfast. Pancakes, sausage, toast and scrambled eggs with cheese, please.”
When the elevator finally reaches the basement, I hop out, blow Mike a quick kiss and head toward the dressing rooms to clean up and pack our stuff.
Waiting for me all alone is Stanley R. Gillespie. He was once a big name in the music business but years of drinking and bad investments had all but destroyed any evidence of his former life. As far as I know, The Field House is the only thing he managed to hold on to from his glory days. Some of his close friends affectionately call him Gilly, but he and I don’t have that type of relationship.
Stanley has a rough manner that isn’t entirely uncommon of men who’ve lived this type of life, but on top of that his appearance matches the coarseness inside. Black eyes mare an aging face that is often scrunched up giving off a look of disgust. He keeps his thinning salt and pepper hair pulled tight away from his face in a short ponytail.
Putting his cigarette out when he notices me, he crosses the room slowly with one hand in his pocket looking tired and a bit sad.
“I was looking for you earlier, Stanley. But your body guard told me you weren’t here,” I say to him before he can open his mouth. Stanley doesn’t actually have a body guard. It’s Carla’s nickname, or what everyone affectionately calls her behind her back. Carla is a tall, dark haired former professional bodybuilder. She’s actually pretty good looking but her muscular physique often makes her look more man than woman. She and Stanley are attached at the hip. We weren’t sure if they were lovers, business partners, friends or what. And everyone’s unspoken fear of Carla ensured no one would ever bother to ask.
“Someone wants to meet you kid,” he says in a hoarse voice as if I’ve said nothing.
“Who wants to see me?’
“Someone important. A guy I know from a ways back. It won’t take long. You can leave this stuff till tomorrow. I’ll have Nick lock this room up. No one will bother it.” He walks out of the dressing room with no further explanation. I follow him back down the corridor and out the service entrance. We walk side by side through the alleyway and make a right on Travis. We’re only a couple hundred yards from The Field House but the bar we are standing in front of is a totally different atmosphere from the club.
It’s a renovated bank from the early nineteen hundreds with much of the original metal work still intact. It’s also quite upscale but not too stuffy. It’s a half-assed attempt to cater to the neighborhood locals that frequent this strip.
Stanley and I are promptly approached by a waitress who obviously knows Stanley because she greets him by name. She’s a petite brunette wearing a tan mini skirt and a jersey shirt with the words Midnight Bar & Grill across her left breast—how fitting. We’re escorted to a large booth near the back that is separated from all the bar activity by a low partition. Stanley and I sit with our backs to the door, joining a man and a woman who are already seated enjoying their drinks and typing on their tablet and cellphone respectively. Neither one of them speaks to us or even bothers to acknowledge our presence. We sit there for several minutes in an awkward silence before the couple at our table hurriedly put away their electronics and sit at attention.
I feel his presence before I see him and smell his alluring fragrance before I ever lay eyes on him. A tall man in a sharp navy blue suit, saunters past me in quick deliberate strides with one hand at his jacket button; which he unfastens before sitting down. He slides gracefully into the booth in front of me and without looking up pulls his cellphone from his pocket and places it on the table. The menu in front of him is hastily pushed to the side, as if he wants nothing blocking his access to me.
When he finally raises his gaze to meet mine, he is by far the most gorgeous thing I’ve ever seen. I’m instantly jealous of every woman who’s ever drawn his bath, washed his clothes or cooked his food. He smiles at me, if you can call it a smile. The corners of his mouth turned up in a wickedly delicious way and his eyes are lit like a fourth of July skyline. He’s enjoying the view and makes absolutely no attempt at hiding it. He sits in silence examining every inch of my body, even the parts that were partially concealed by the table.
I have to admit he makes me a little nervous, handsome men always do and in his case the word handsome doesn’t do him justice. Two large hazel eyes with flecks of green and a long sharp nose, fit his face perfectly. They are balanced out by soft full kissable lips and beautiful bronze skin that looks soft to the touch. Fondling his phone with his right hand he continues to stare at me and the entire table seems to be waiting with bated breath for this Adonis to make a decision about something—but what?
He holds my gaze for what seems like an eternity. Faced with a similar situation I normally would have looked away eventually surrendering to my own insecurity, but I can’t take my eyes off this man. He stares at me and I stare right back at him, our eyes lock in a sensuous trance that fills me with warmth.
“I’m John—Johnathon Winters and you are Skylar Reeves.” He doesn’t need to tell me this, I am perfectly aware of my own name, but hearing it dance across his beautiful lips makes me blush. I enjoy it immensely. It comes across so soft and so sweet, the way I imagine his kisses must be. He continues speaking before I can respond.
“These are my associates Marcella Greyson and my lawyer Edward Layton.” Finally releasing his phone he gestures to the people at his right with a flick of his elegant wrist which is dressed in a stunning Patek Philippe watch.
“I caught your act tonight and really enjoyed it.” Tilting his chin up, he continues, “It was something—special. Stanley assured me it would be and he’s not prone to exaggerating; which is why I knew I had to come and see you.”
“Well it’s not just me, Mr. Winters. My bandmates, Cynthia and Michael aren’t here.”
“Right,” he says nodding his head. “And where are your bandmates now, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Out clubbing…I believe.” I mumble, shrugging my shoulders. “It’s what they usually do after shows. Then we meet back up later at the apartment.”
“You all live together?” he asks raising an eyebrow and balancing his chin on the tip of his fingers.
“So what exactly is your role in the group Ms. Reeves? Stanley tells me you’re a songwriter.”
“Um… I sing lead on most of our songs—actually. But Michael and I have been writing our music for a little while now.” The last few words fumble out of my mouth. He’s flashing that beautiful smile again, exerting an invisible pressure on me that makes me squirm restlessly in my seat and finally look away.
Johnathon’s hazel eyes are examining me like a scientist peering through a microscope. He’s picking me apart slowly probing the mental and emotional parts of me until he finally arrives at the physical.
“Do you always dress like this?” jutting his head in my direction and smirking.
Looking down at myself, I realize I’m was still wearing my stage clothes. Feeling incredibly self-conscious all of a sudden; I fold my arms across my chest in a hopeless attempt to conceal my breasts.
“I like it. Your look. The whole thing is working, even more importantly it works well on stage,” he says deliberately as if schooling me. He fondles his tie as he speaks, glancing down at his phone which keeps vibrating against the table but he doesn’t reach to pick it up.
“Judging by the way the men in the crowd were yelling your name, they liked it as much as I did.” His tone is seductive and for a moment I think I’m imagining this but then the woman sitting to his right shifts uncomfortably and I know she noticed it as well. Her movement causes him to finally break his focus on me to glance in her direction.
She obviously doesn’t care for his comment. In fact she’s been eyeing me uncomfortably since he sat down. I can’t help but wonder if in addition to being his business partner, she’s also his lover. I can’t imagine any woman being around this man for long without giving it up.
He looks slightly annoyed by her reaction but I’m relieved. It breaks his fix on me. I was beginning to shrink under the intense scrutiny.
Before I can enjoy the brief respite, the questioning starts up again.
How long have you been performing? How much do you usually make from a gig? Do you see yourself doing this long term? He keeps firing at me and I’m doing my best to keep up, but it’s late and the show has all but worn me out. My head is spinning when I finally throw both my hands up in exasperation.
“Wait! What exactly am I auditioning for here? What is this?”
The entire table goes silent. Johnathon’s two associates finish their conversation and Stanley says “I’ll call you back later” to whoever he is speaking to on the phone. All eyes are on Johnathon.
“I want you to sign with me. Like I said, I loved what I saw tonight and I want to manage you.”
“You mean us?” I ask leaning forward releasing my hold on myself to put my hands on the table; then quickly sit back, covering myself again.
“Yes, all of you.” He flashes that remarkable smile at me and leans back in his chair as if waiting for me to explode with gratitude. He is clearly the kind of man who isn’t used to being told no. He’s done this many times before and this scene probably plays out the same way each time. Struggling performer gets offer from thee Johnathon Winters, making all their dreams come true. But that isn’t going to happen this time.
Michael, Cynthia and I aren’t a real band. At least not anymore. Maybe it had started out that way but now we were just doing this for the money. It was just a way to keep a roof over our heads. Besides Michael has a great job as an assistant manager at a bank in midtown. And I just can’t imagine myself performing full time.
“I don’t think that’s such a good idea. I mean, I appreciate the offer but I don’t think we’re interested.” There’s a horrible silence at the table as if someone just died. Stanley finally breaks through the stillness with a guttural noise that I’m not sure signifies annoyance or shock.
Neither register on Johnathon’s face. He’s completely impassive, regarding me shrewdly. My response is insignificant to him. He came here with a mission and I can tell this is a man who gets what he wants.
A waitress abruptly arrives with food and drinks for everyone; that must have been ordered by Johnathon’s associates before we arrived because I haven’t ordered anything. I’m broke. The money Stanley’s paying us for tonight’s gig is already spoken for.
Plates of hot wings, chicken tenders, potato skins, fries and several bottles of beer are set about the table. Your typical bar food. It smells delicious though and I’m starving.
“Dig in,” John says still staring at me.
Is he really going to sit here and watch me eat?
It appears so. For the next fifteen minutes Stanley, Marcella, Edward and myself sit there eating and making small talk while Johnathon takes four quick incoming phone calls orders a rum and coke and watches me eat.
I’m trying desperately not to make eye contact, but it’s next to impossible. The most beautiful man I’ve ever seen is less than two feet away and he can’t take his eyes off me. When his phone rings again, he puts down his drink to check the caller ID and frowns.
“Yes,” he says curtly. “Look, I’ll be there in a few days just keep her comfortable until then.” There’s a long pause and Johnathon’s face shifts from irritation to concern. “Put her on the phone, I’ll talk to her.”
Rising from his seat to button his jacket, he excuses himself with a polite ‘pardon me’ before walking toward the front of the bar and I privately hope that he’s not leaving. As much as his endless scrutiny was embarrassing me, I don’t want it to end. No man this gorgeous has ever paid me this much attention and I have to admit, I like it. I want desperately for him to continue watching me as though I’m the only woman in the room; glaring at me from across the table with a silent affection.
His absence from the table is obvious. His sweet scent still lingers but the seductive atmosphere created by his presence evaporated the moment he walked away. I am suddenly all too aware of my surroundings; the clanking of glasses, harsh laughter from the men two tables away and the rushed footsteps of the wait staff traveling in and out of the kitchen. Johnathon had blinded me from all of it like the sun. Returning from his phone call looking every bit the powerful young mogul; he slides languidly back into the booth.
Picking his rum and coke back up he says, “Hello again Ms. Reeves. Sorry to have kept you. Unfortunately I have some important business to take care of, so I must go. Please think over my offer and give me call.”
With that he takes one last sip of his drink and reaches into his pocket to pull out his wallet. He slides a crisp white business card across the table. He holds it there until I reach for it, using the opportunity to caress my hand with the tip of his finger.
“Call me,” he repeats more command than plea as he rises to leave the table.
“Gilly,” he nods. Giving his goodbye before exiting the bar without his associates.
Stanley turns in my direction, reaching across me to grab the last chicken tender before reminding me not to worry about my stuff, informing me that I can pick up my things from the dressing room tomorrow. He then rises from his seat and follows Johnathon Winters out the door.
His associates, including Marcella unfortunately, linger while I finish my food and then excuse themselves as well. Only Edward stops to say goodnight to me before exiting and to tell me not to leave any money because everything has been taken care of –including the tip.
I sit there alone for another ten minutes, nursing my drinking playing with Johnathon’s business card in my hand.
What the hell just happened?
I need to go back to the apartment to think all of this through more clearly. It’s just too much. Two hours ago I was performing on stage at The Field House trying to figure out how I was going to make some extra cash and now I have Johnathon Winters card in my hand and I can’t get his beautiful face out of my head.