The Masks We Wear

empty-bar

Ducking under the awning of the bar’s front door, a tall man draws his umbrella closed and shakes rain from its fabric. He gives the deserted street a final inspection, then passes through the doorway and descends a half-flight of steps to the sound of mellow Big-Band wafting through the passageway. A corner of his distracted mind recognizes the song as one he likes, but the melody fails to take hold tonight. He’s on a mission.

The underground bar is just as he remembers it—classy, cream-colored stucco decorated with ebony woodwork, booths along the walls, quaint wrought-iron tables and chairs, exposed red brick behind the rows of liquor bottles. The bartender, the same man for the last ten years, wears a necktie tucked into a pinstripe vest, a gleaming white apron covering his pants as he wipes a glass with a towel. Cliché, to be sure, but what else is there to do when your bar has barely a half dozen patrons? He glances at the new customer seeking refuge from the rain, gives him a smile and a nod of recognition, and sets a clean, dry glass on the bar.

The man nods back, then surveys the sparse clientele as the bartender pours scotch over ice in the glass. An older couple in a booth, several drinks deep and acting too young for their age. A balding man hunched over at the short arm of the L-shaped bar, his back to the door. Another man across the room, alone at a small table, frowning at the smartphone in his hands. And a younger woman, perched on a bar stool away from Baldy, disinterestedly swirling a half-finished martini. His eyes fix on her—the skirt suit, the black high-heels, the platinum blond hair pulled tight in a bun, only slightly end-of-day disheveled. Bingo.

Ignoring the soaked hems of his charcoal-gray suit pants, he casually crosses the space between door and bar. He pulls a stool out to sit down where the bartender left the scotch for him—right next to the woman in black. “Thanks, Stan,” he says, toasting the bartender while settling on his stool. He turns to the woman. “Awful weather out there, huh?”

She rolls her eyes without looking at him. “Not interested in company,” she drones. “And watch where you drip.”

“Huh? Oh, damn it.” He inches the stool away from her. “Did I get rain on you?”

“Not yet. Now if you don’t mind—“

She turns a harsh glare on him, but her severity eases visibly when their eyes meet. He knows why, knows the face that greets her admonishment—a lean, thirty-something handsomeness, dark hair and eyes, a perfect combination of suave and ruggedly good-looking. It’s never failed him before, and tonight is no exception. He keeps the satisfaction internalized, off his face. “I’m sorry, I just thought you might…”

He begins to slide off the stool, as if to leave her alone. “No, it’s fine,” she sighs. “Stay.”

“Well, if you insist,” he replies with a measure of sarcasm, then settles back onto his seat. “Rough day?”

Another roll of her deep blue eyes. “You could say that. Playing nice with a bunch of patronizing male chauvinist execs while jetlagged… not a fun combo.”

“Yeah, I can’t even imagine. What is it you do?”

“Consulting. Pharmaceuticals. My firm sends us around to companies to help them solve their problems. Trouble is, when I get to a client company, the entrenched dicks in suits don’t take me seriously, act like I don’t know a thing about their big important business. Eventually they figure out I actually know more than they do, and they don’t like that one bit.”

He nods slowly in understanding. “Hence the drinking alone on a Friday night.” She raises her glass in a silent, sardonic toast. “I wondered why someone like you would be hiding in a place like this.”

She swallows a sip of martini and arches an eyebrow at him. “Someone like me?”

“Yeah, a beautiful businesswoman. Look around, you see any others in here?” She chuckles in response and looks back down at her drink. “You say you want to be alone, and I get that. Sounds like you’ve been dealing with assholes all day. I’d want some ‘me time’ too. But maybe you just don’t know any of the right kind of people to hang out with because you’re away from home.”

“Let me guess,” she says. “You’re the right kind.”

“Oh, I have no idea. We don’t even know each other’s names. But I would like to help you with your problem, if you want. You know, the dicks in suits.”

“Really? And how could you help with them?”

“I know some people,” he says, sipping his scotch. “I could, you know”—he draws his thumb across his throat—“take care of them.”

Her head jerks back, a nervous smile twitching the corners of her lips, as if she’s debating whether she should take him seriously. He gives her an innocuous grin. “What are you, a hitman?”

He keeps his grin steady. “Corporate lawyer.”

A pause, and then her shoulders relax. “Corporate lawyer,” she echoes, laughing.

“Tyler,” he says, offering her his hand.

She takes it. “Denise.”

“I’m serious, though. I keep in touch with a lot of my law school class. I’m sure I could scrounge up a couple sexual harassment attorneys.”

She smiles, the first genuine one he’s seen on her lips so far. “Thanks, but I’ll muddle through for now.”

“Well, the offer stands. Where are you from originally?”

“My firm’s based in Boston. I grew up in a suburb, went to college in New York.”

He grimaces playfully. “Guess you can’t show your face at a Red Sox game anymore, huh?”

“Like I have time to hang out at Fenway Park.”

“I know what you mean,” he replies, nodding. “I’m from Westchester County. Can’t count all the Yankees games I went to before college. Miss it. Of course, it’s not the same since they tore down the old stadium.”

He takes another sip of scotch, aware of her eyes on him. “My condolences,” she says, “if sympathy from a Masshole means anything to you.”

“Thanks,” he chuckles, then glances around at the clientele. To his left, Baldy is sulking into a beer. To his right, the older couple are red-faced and oblivious to the world around them. He turns slightly on his stool, resting his arm across the back of hers and glancing over his shoulder. Smartphone guy is still frowning, now tapping intently on his device’s screen. Time to get to business. “Listen, you shouldn’t be brooding down here, letting the work day eat away at you. Why don’t we go find a livelier place, maybe get some dancing in, shout personal anecdotes to each other over deafening house music?”

Another delightful laugh slips between lips glistening with gin. “That sounds… delightful, but I’m pretty comfortable right here.”

He smiles, groaning lightheartedly and glancing down at his scotch. “Well, if that’s too much fun for you, we can always go back to my place. I live nearby, walkable if the rain’s let up—“

Now she’s uncomfortable, shifting in her stool to reach for her purse hanging under the bar. “No, thanks.  I think I’ll just have—what’s his name? I’ll have Stan call me a cab to take me back to my hotel.”

“A cab? At least let me give you a lift, make sure you get back safely—“

Her stare snaps to him. Her smile is gone. “No. Thank you.”

She looks up and down the bar. Stan is nowhere to be found. Time for plan B. His hand shoots out, fingers firmly grasping her arm. His voice drops to a murmur. “Stan’s not going to help you. I know about your extracurriculars, Denise. What you do on your downtime while traveling for work. You’re coming with me. Now.”

For emphasis he brushes back the left side of his coat, revealing the grip of the handgun holstered under his arm. Her eyes linger on it, her discomfort twisting into fear. She looks up at him. “Are you a cop?”

“Far from it. Now I’m going to let go of your arm, you’re going to stand up, and we’re going to leave the bar together. Quietly.”

Her lip trembles. His heart races. “What do you want with me?” she whispers, her eyes wide and watery.

He glances to his right. Smartphone guy has stopped tapping on his screen. He’s watching the two of them. Tyler turns back to Denise. “Get up. Now.”

Denise slides off her stool and begins walking slowly to the door, watching her feet the whole time. Tyler follows, glancing a last time at smartphone guy as he follows Denise. As he passes baldy slumped over his beer, Tyler claps him lightly on the shoulder as if in consolation. No words or looks are exchanged, but baldy promptly drops from his stool and crosses the bar as Tyler and Denise exit without looking back. The door closes behind them.

Denise stumbles on a step as she ascends the stairs outside the bar. As soon as she reaches ground level, a loud crack splits the night air, muffled by the door into the bar. A gunshot, from inside. She whirls around. “What the hell is going on?”

“Keep going. Move!” Tyler urges her forward, away from the bar, away from the stairs, across the rain-slick pavement of the street. He steers her toward a black luxury sedan parked at the far curb, unlocking the doors and starting the engine remotely. He pulls the front passenger door open. “Get in.”

She stares at him with both indignation and shock, clearly trying to form words but failing to extract them from her throat. His own expression has lost all playfulness, his dark eyes silently commanding her into the car. When she doesn’t move, he grabs the purse from her hands and grabs her shoulder, spinning her around and shoving her toward the car. The purse is heavy. Too heavy.

Glancing back at the bar, Tyler circles the sedan, climbing into the driver’s seat as Denise whimpers next to him. He instantly pulls away from the curb, urgently but not recklessly putting distance between them and the bar. Denise’s tears flow freely now as they drive in silence, her hands folded motionlessly in her lap. Tyler’s own fingers grip the steering wheel with white knuckles as he concentrates to steady his breathing. He really hadn’t wanted, or expected, to resort to plan B.

He guides the car as inconspicuously as possible across town, but his nerves and Denise’s crying are difficult to ignore. Each compounds the other, until he forces himself to pull off an otherwise deserted road underneath a highway overpass. Parking and cutting the lights, he takes another few seconds to collect himself, knowing that Denise watches him through tears and terror. “I didn’t want to scare you,” he says finally, “but we needed to leave.”

“Are… are you gonna kill me?” she whispers.

He sighs, keeping his eyes on the dashboard as he shakes his head. “I’m not here to hurt you.” He reaches into his coat, withdrawing the handgun from his waistband. “This was for your protection.”

Denise stares at the weapon as he slowly holds it out to her, butt first, jerking it slightly in offering. Her bewildered eyes lock onto his as she tentatively reaches for it, fingers wrapping around the grip. When he releases it fully, she suddenly raises the gun and aims it at his chest. The fear in her eyes is gone, her terrified-and-crying act replaced by ruthless intent. Without hesitation she squeezes the trigger. The firing mechanism clicks impotently. Tyler can’t keep himself from flinching, though he never feared for his life.

“It’s not loaded,” he says as he bends down, reaching under his seat. “But this one is.” He straightens, a second pistol in his hand. In his other he holds her purse up by its straps. “As is the one in your bag, I’m guessing.”

He tosses the bag into her lap. Her cold gaze falls, and she drops the unloaded pistol to the floor of the car. She doesn’t try to retrieve her own gun from inside her purse. “You mind telling me why you dragged me away from my drink?”

The gun from under his seat replaces the unloaded one in his waistband. “Remember the guy sitting behind you? Playing with his phone the whole time?” She doesn’t respond. “He was taking pictures of you. Sending them to his boss. Waiting for a signal to lure you out and drive off with you.”

“Sounds familiar,” she seethes. “Why should I believe you? You know that guy?”

“I know of him, and his employers. You should believe me because you’re still alive. If he’d gotten to you, you’d be dead by now.”

A flash of something crosses her eyes, perhaps a flicker of fear, but it’s too vague and transient for him to pin down. Her severe apathy is nearly unperturbed. “Says you. I can handle myself. I don’t need your help.”

“The fact that they know about you, that they’re after you, means you do.”

“Who is he?” she demands. “And who the hell are you, for that matter?”

He closes his eyes, sighing. “It’s better if I just show you.”

“Meaning?”

He looks at her, at her accusing blue eyes, her red lips stretched into a taut line, and wishes once more that the night had all gone according to the other plan. It’ll be much harder to convince her now. “I’m returning to my headquarters. I want you to come with me, so I can explain everything there. And before you ask, no, it’s not a law office.”

“Doesn’t seem like I have much choice.”

“Of course you do. You’re welcome to get out of the car right now, walk back to your hotel. Or we can sit here all night. But this car is only moving if it’s headed back to headquarters.”

Her glare feels more lethal than either of the loaded guns in their possession. “Aren’t you afraid that the phone guy from the bar is following us?”

“He’s dead by now.”

Her eyes widen slightly. “The gunshot as we left?”

He nods. “But don’t worry, there’ll be others to take his place.”

“Lovely. Well, this still beats a lot of other first dates I’ve had. What are we waiting for? Let’s go.”

Though he keeps his expression neutral, a wave of relief sweeps through him. “All right,” he says, hoping she can’t hear the surprise in his voice. Flicking the headlights on, he steers the car back onto the road. They drive for several more minutes, the neighborhoods growing bleaker and more abandoned, until Tyler pulls into a driveway leading to a dark, decrepit warehouse.

Denise shifts in her seat as they follow the gravel path to the rear of the building, slowing to a stop in a parking lot that looks more like a junkyard. “Well,” she says  “if this doesn’t scream ‘murder shack,’ I don’t know what does.”

Tyler sighs as he shuts the engine off. “I can’t expect you to trust me right now, but I’ll say it again anyway. No one’s going to hurt you.”

“Are you sure this isn’t a sting op to nab me for my ‘extracurriculars’?”

He thinks for a moment on how best to respond. “They’re a big part of why I wanted to get you out of that bar. But no, you’re not about to be arrested. Far from it.”

They exchange a tense stare, but Denise eventually steps out of the car, following Tyler to a rusted metal door at the building’s rear. He unlocks it with a swipe of a magnetic card against an unseen sensor, then pulls it open and leads her inside. She looks around as the door slams shut behind her, finding nothing but a short hallway leading to a set of elevator doors. This time Tyler presses his thumb against a dark panel that flashes red at his touch. The doors slide open silently, revealing a blindingly bright car that Tyler enters. “I’m surprised anything in this place still works,” Denise remarks, stepping into the car with him.

“This was part of a… renovation.”

He presses a button on the control panel, and the car descends. “You’re going to have a lot of questions, but it’s best if you hold onto them for a while, until we get a chance to talk privately again.”

She frowns up at him, obviously confused, but he remains silent as they slow to a stop. Guessing what her reaction will be, he moves away from the doors as they open and watches her face. Her blue eyes widen impossibly at the sight that greets her, her lips parting as a gasp slips from between them. “Whoa.”

TO BE CONTINUED…

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One Response to The Masks We Wear

  1. J.S. Mueller says:

    Nice work! Great pacing and sustaining the suspense! I’m really looking forward to the continuation. Very impressed.

    Liked by 1 person

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