People go missing. Llewellyn knew that as well as anyone but when a whole family fell victim to such a fate, that tended to get his attention. It had the interest of someone else as well. Threats had been made. But the way he saw it, with Millie gone, he didn’t have all that much to lose anyway.
Llewellyn watched his step as he moved from the sidewalk to the street, for it was dark, the sun skimming the bottom of the sky in a thin, red line, the color of embers clinging to life in a dying campfire. A disturbing thought—a deep suspicion that had grown to such proportion that he feared it might twist his reasoning—snaked through him. He’d previously abandoned the project with good reason.
At times like this, he would think back to when he was a boy, visiting his mother. Her house sat on a small hill and behind it was a pond with huge willow trees growing from its banks. It always struck him as odd that the surface of the water remained calm and never rippled, as if it were not real at all, but a painting, an artificial backdrop put there for the effect.
Llewellyn had resolved that he too would be like the waters of the pond, unmovable, unflappable, and later, during his adult life, he would call on that image, not every time the going got tough, but when life got particularly hard.
He stared at the dilapidated building with a sign hanging from it; a cheap plastic job with florescent lights inside that backlit the bar’s name: CYMRY’S.
He shook his head and pushed open the door, a heavy wooden model that looked out of place, as if it had been ripped from the hinges of an old house and brought there against its will.
Just inside the door, Llewellyn paused, and when his eyes adjusted to the darkness he took a seat in the second booth by the window, like the man who called himself Jerry Sinclair had told him to do. Llewellyn was five minutes late, and he hoped that wouldn’t matter, though he saw no one fitting Sinclair’s description. At least the darkness was explained. It was the décor, which included the walls and the ceilings, and even the floors. Everything was black with the exception of a large piece of red artwork that radiated from the center of the floor in a rather unprofessional manner, as if it were a bad afterthought, the awkward brushstrokes obvious even from a distance.
Llewellyn waited but no one showed. He checked his watch. Thirty minutes had passed. He slid out of his seat and went to the bar. The man had his back turned but a mirrored wall showed his face. He must’ve known Llewellyn was there though he did not acknowledge him. Llewellyn laid a five on the counter. “I’d like a beer, please.”
The man gave no visible indication he had heard the request.
“I’ll just cut to the chase then,” Llewellyn said. “What I really need is some information.”
Turning around, the man drew a pint of lager, then set it down and snatched up the five. “What kind of information?”
Llewellyn slid his hand around the cool, damp handle, then brought the mug to his lips, relishing the bitter yet soothing brew. After a few sips, he said, “Does the name Jerry Sinclair mean anything to you?”
“Doesn’t jump out at me.”
“He said he would be wearing blue jeans and a tan corduroy jacket. Have you seen anyone like that?”
“Not since the eighties.”
“Right, some people are habitually late. Perhaps Mr. Sinclair is one of those.” After a pause, unable to control his inquisitiveness, Llewellyn asked, “What’s up with the artwork on the floor?”
The bartender leaned forward, placing his beefy hands on the railing. “Don’t know. It’s always been there.”
Llewellyn had dealt with his kind before; smug, confident with his size, and, as with any animal, the less challenging you could make yourself the better your odds were. He slouched a little. “Do you know what it is?”
The bartender said this with a crooked grin, as if he and he alone were privy to the mysteries of the universe, which undoubtedly meant he knew nothing.
“If I had to guess,” Llewellyn said, “I’d say it has something to do with the occult. But what do I know?”
Llewellyn retrieved one of his business cards and held it out. “I’m a reporter, on assignment.”
Taking the card, the bartender examined it. “Florida? Long way from home, aren’t you?”
“I go where the story takes me.”
“Is that right?”
“So you haven’t seen him, the guy I asked about?”
The bartender squinted. “Are you sure you’re in the right place?”
“What kind of assignment are you on?”
Llewellyn sipped his beer, then set it down. “I look for the unusual. A few years back, I was working some leads, concerning a small town near here. You know, bizarre circumstances and all of that. Good Stuff. I decided to revive it, made a few phone calls, sent some e-mails, ran an ad in the paper. Then I get this reply from Sinclair. He claimed to have some information. It’s not unusual. I get lucky like that sometimes.”
Llewellyn heard the door and realized someone else had finally come into the place. The bartender had noticed as well, and Llewellyn took the opportunity to return to his booth by the window.
Three people had come in, and unlike Llewellyn they did not look out of place inside Cymry’s, which meant they were not wearing dress pants and button-down shirts. Nor were any of them wearing blue jeans and a corduroy jacket.
One of them, a tall, slender girl wearing tight leather pants, strolled across the floor, stopping in front of the jukebox. Llewellyn couldn’t imagine what kind of music might be popular in such a place, but it wasn’t the anticipation of the music that held his attention. Even dressed as she was, the girl captivated him and he could not stop looking at her, which was a mistake. That indefinable female sense that alerts a woman to a man’s attention seemed present in full force; she turned her head toward him.
Llewellyn looked away. He was asking for trouble. He thought of Millie. Not once during their thirty years together had he cheated on her, and he wasn’t about to start now. He heard someone walk across the floor toward him, and he prayed that it would be Sinclair, that he had come through the door while Llewellyn wasn’t looking and was even now preparing to slide into the other side of the booth across the table from him.
As a thick, musky smell of perfume crossed Llewellyn’s senses, desperation shot through him. He turned his head, looking at the smooth patch of skin between the bottom of her shirt and the beginning of her leather pants. A tattoo of Saint Brighid’s cross moved sensuously with the muscles of her stomach.
She said nothing. Llewellyn could feel her staring down at him, and when he finally raised his head, allowing for the first time their eyes to meet, he felt like the victim in an old vampire movie: frightened by the nature of his captor but hopeful that she would find him desirable and as he looked into her face, the thought occurred to him that if the eyes are truly the windows to the soul then hers was surely dark.
A color somewhere between purple and black graced her lips, as it did her fingernails. Her hair, which jabbed at the air in choreographed insolence, was as dark as either of these.
Llewellyn slid deeper into the booth, exposing an unused section of the vinyl cushion. She sat down. Llewellyn began to wonder, and not for the first time, what sort of person she really was and why was he, a slightly over-the-hill freelancer, entertaining romantic thoughts about a distant cousin of Vlad the Impaler? She was no teenager, but still half his age, twenty-four or twenty-five he suspected, and about as far away from his type as you could get. The pressure of her leg against his made none of that seem to matter.
She grinned. “You look a little out of place. Are you lost?”
“I’m here on business.”
She lit a cigarette, and in response to Llewellyn’s answer, she blew the smoke out a little harder than she needed to, the exhaust propelled into the air by something that could only be described as a prelude to a laugh. “What kind of business?”
Llewellyn checked his watch. Nearly forty-five minutes had passed and still his contact had not shown. In his opinion, that was late, even for the very lax. “I’m meeting someone, or at least I was supposed to.”
“Sounds to me,” she said, playing with the lapel of his jacket, “like maybe you just did.”
Llewellyn nodded. He tried to concentrate, but his thoughts were all over the place.
“Maybe your girlfriend changed her mind.”
“Your little trick.”
Llewellyn shook his head. “There’s no trick.”
She leaned closer, bringing her shoulders forward in an unspoken offer.
Llewellyn glanced up to see the bartender hovering over the booth. He wasn’t sure how he’d gotten there without his hearing him or seeing his approach. “This guy bothering you?” the bartender asked.
The girl smiled and touched his arm, old friends apparently. “Nothing I can’t handle, Snub.” She reached over and took Llewellyn’s hand. “Just a little business.”
“You know this guy?”
She winked. “I do now.”
The bartender turned and stalked away. He acted protective, like an older brother, siblings from the dark side looking out for one another. It amazed Llewellyn that no matter how low you sank in life, you could still find evidence of a sense of community.
Llewellyn wondered what it might be like to be with this strange woman. Then, she leaned close, and with a kiss that teased with a slip of her tongue she said that she wanted him as well, or at least she intended to give him that impression.
He pushed away slightly. “Look, I’m not sure this is a good idea.”
“Yes you are. You’re just afraid to give in to it.”
“You read me pretty well.”
“I usually do.”
Llewellyn felt insecure, trapped. “I really am meeting someone.”
“So where are they?”
“I don’t know. I’m starting to have my doubts.”
She let go of Llewellyn’s hand and lit another cigarette. “Okay, I’ll lay it out straight. Sinclair sent me.”
“Is that right? Why would he do that?”
“I don’t know. But he said to tell you that he has the whole story, everything that you’re looking for.”
She took a long draw on her cigarette. Llewellyn usually felt a mixture of sorrow and disdain when he saw someone do that, but she impressed him as someone who could handle just about anything, and anyone. His sense of good judgment, what he had left of it anyway, was telling him to excuse himself from this odd encounter, yet he resisted that urge. He hadn’t told her Sinclair’s name, and yet she knew it. He certainly hadn’t said anything about a story. He’d always been drawn to the unusual, the unexplained, that which frightens most people—and here it all was, epitomized in this intimidating yet fascinating person. “So what happens next?”
“I’m supposed to take you somewhere. A private place where you can talk.”
“Thanks,” Llewellyn said, indicating with a nudge that he was ready to leave. “But I really should be going.”
He half expected her to move closer and refuse to let him out, but instead she slid from the booth. Llewellyn did the same and started for the door, and then it occurred to him that he had no car and there would be no cabs waiting on the street in this part of town. He signaled the bartender. “Could you call a cab?”
The strange girl put her arm through Llewellyn’s, and he realized that not only had they not exchanged names but he had anticipated her actions and welcomed her touch. She evaluated him with her gaze. “Save the call, Snub. I’ve got a car.”
The look on the bartender’s face said he was confused, and it seemed that in some strange way he might even be concerned for Llewellyn. “Whatever you think,” he said.
“It’s nice of you to offer,” Llewellyn said to the girl, “but I hate to impose.”
His resistance, though, was superficial at best. Still holding his arm, she shook her head and guided him through the door. Once they were outside, she pulled him close and they kissed again. He was in deep, and he knew it, but he kept going along with it. In the parking lot, they stopped beside a red Monte Carlo, and she did something that surprised Llewellyn. She tossed him the keys. “You drive.”
Llewellyn stuck the key into the slot and opened the door, and after getting inside he reached over and unlocked the passenger side. She gave him directions and Llewellyn followed them, driving farther from his place with every block. A little later she said, “Turn here. We’ll park in the back.”
When they got out of the car, Llewellyn glanced around the area, seeing a few spent wine bottles. “No offense,” he said, but I’m starting to have second thoughts about this. Maybe I should go.”
“All right, but come in for a quick drink. I won’t keep you. I promise.” She ran a long nail along his jaw, making it an almost predatory gesture and an enticing one.
As they approached the building, it occurred to Llewellyn that her place didn’t look much better than the bar.
She turned to look at him and caught him surveying the lines of the building. “Neat old place, huh? I like it here, love the vibes, if you know what I mean.”
“It does have character,” Llewellyn said.
She unlocked the door and they stepped into a small landing. The place was grim, and populated, Llewellyn suspected, by various strata of socioeconomic defeat, and as they walked the red, carpeted hallway, a red that reminded Llewellyn of blood, he thought of Dante’s Inferno, for as they walked deeper into the building each successive apartment appeared more steeped in despair.
The girl’s place was no exception, and once inside, Llewellyn could not imagine anyone actually living there. From a chip-edged kitchen table, she grabbed a bottle of bourbon and poured some into a glass, mixed in a little soda, and handed it to him.
He swirled the amber mixture, unable to meet her eyes. His heart pounded. Leave. Just gulp it down and leave.
Before he could consider other options, she took the untouched drink and placed it on the table. Then she took Llewellyn’s hand and placed it on her stomach, where she began to guide it upward, beneath her shirt, until it came to rest upon the warm, soft flesh of her breast.