Paris touched Vicki lightly on the arm, slowing her walk to match his. Behind them, Jan Sleet stopped and leaned on her cane. Ahead, under a street light, were a man and a woman.
The woman's face was in shadow, her long straight hair glowing golden in the warm light. The man was tall and gaunt, curly black hair framing his hawk-like face. He was dressed the same as the woman. She leaned back against the lamp post. He stood very close, leaning forward but not touching her. They both wore jeans and a worn leather jackets over a black T-shirts.
Vicki was about to say something, but Paris squeezed her upper arm.
The man was speaking quickly, quietly. The woman lit a cigarette in slow motion, never taking her eyes from a point beyond the man's head. Then, turning her wide, pale face up into the light, she said something and giggled. The man said something curt, then made a gesture of frustration and turned away from her. Still leaning back against the lamp post, she planted one booted foot in his rear and pushed. He fell forward, stopping himself by grabbing a mail box.
He turned and grabbed her upper arm, yanking her towards him, slapping her with his other hand.
"Can't we do something?" Jan Sleet whispered as the woman doubled over and the man backed off. She came back at him and kicked him in the stomach.
Paris shook his head, leading them off.
Paris, Vicki and Jan Sleet stood outside the door as the small panel opened and someone peered out.
"Mystery Dance," Paris said briskly, and the panel closed.
After a moment, the door opened and they went in. There was no one there, but they passed in and down a long corridor. There was a weird shuffling sound from somewhere ahead of them. They turned a corner and went down a short flight of stairs. At the bottom they opened a steel fire door and found themselves in a huge, very hot basement room. The lighting was eerie, and it was hard to tell the size or shape of the room, especially since it was full of people.
The effect was like suddenly going deaf. Vicki stood in the doorway trying to absorb it all until somebody behind her, impatient to get in, pushed her and she fell against Paris, who grabbed her elbow, first to steady her and then more firmly to prevent her going after the guy who had bumped her.
The room was full of people dancing, all of them frantically, energetically dancing. There was no music, and Jan Sleet turned to Paris.
"What's going on?" she asked.
He was about to reply when a girl who looked like a female version of him came over and said, "Hi, who are your friends?"
"From the Duffy's shoot-out. You got head-sets?"
She pointed at a folding table in a near corner, where several people clustered around.
"You got any money?" Paris asked Jan Sleet as they moved along the wall towards the table.
She looked up. "What? Oh, yes, I've got–"
"Good. You can pay for all three of us. I could get them to do me for free, but I don't like to take advantage."
"Take advantage of what?" Jan Sleet asked as he moved ahead, but her bad leg slowed her down so that he was out of earshot.
"Maybe he's the Pope," Vicki suggested.
There was an eerie wail from outside, and a few people turned to look, but of course the windows were all painted black. The sound faded away.
Vicki was starting to look more carefully at the people dancing. Most of them were young, dressed in everything from tattered T-shirts and jeans to bright colors and shiny fabrics to skimpy shorts and halter tops. Many of the men were naked to the waist, covered in sweat, droplets flying from their hair as they moved.
Hair in general seemed to be a big deal. In Vicki's home town, hair came in only a few basic configurations, but here it was something different.
A knot of three very acrobatic dancers moved out of the mass in the center of the room to come between Paris and the women. They seemed to be typical. There was one woman and two men. The woman was tall, wearing denim shorts and a red bikini top, her long blonde hair whipping around. One of the men was Black. He looked like a weight-lifter in black sweatpants and tank top, his shirt plastered to his chest. He had a shaved head and wore huge chandelier earrings that gave off multi-colored light.
What Vicki had thought was a second man was, she suddenly realized, also a woman. Vicki had originally only seen her from the back, naked to the waist, and had assumed she was male. She was obviously a teenager, bony and angular, wearing face paint and something in her hair that made it glow, like Frances at the Quarter.
The threesome melted back into the crowd, and Vicki noticed two things. One was that quite a few women were shirtless, and nobody seemed to be making any fuss about it. The other was that everybody seemed to be wearing some sort of strange, nearly invisible headgear. The head-sets the girl had asked Paris about. In each case it was a small plug in each ear, the plugs held in place by a couple of pieces of thin, transparent tubing.
Paris leaned over the big folding table, saying something to the smiling man on the other side. He gestured at Vicki and Jan Sleet, who was fumbling in her wallet.
"It's cool," Paris said to her. "Ron will hook us up. They're not taking any more money."
Paris leaned over the table again and Ron popped the small plugs into his ears. Paris' eyes snapped open wider as the man's experienced fingers connected the plugs with two lengths of the clear tubing, one around the back of Paris' neck and the other nearly invisibly under the bill of his cap.
Vicki was much too short to lean over as Paris had, so she came around behind the table. Ron grinned as he tweaked one of her high pointed ears, then popped the plugs into place.
Music rammed through her head from one side to the other, and she was only remotely aware of the two ear-phones being secured in place by a thin piece of plastic around each ear.
The music was throbbing, bass-heavy. Suddenly the various styles of dancing in the room all fell together and made sense. She wondered if there was any way to make the music quieter as Jan Sleet got her head-set installed. Vicki noticed that she got brightly-colored tubing rather than clear plastic. Perhaps Ron thought her rather drab appearance could use some sprucing up.
Vicki and Paris danced for some time. They both left their jackets with Jan Sleet, who was sitting on one of the rows of bleachers along the side of the room, looking glum.
Vicki shrugged. She felt a little bad for her new companion, who was obviously not the dancing type. However, Vicki reflected, she'd only met the woman a few hours ago, and she wasn't going to let anything spoil her first night on her own in the big city.
She and Paris danced for some time. Even without their jackets they were both immediately drenched in sweat, and Vicki kept pushing the sleeves of her T-shirt up over her shoulders, but they would always slide down again after a few minutes.
Finally, as one number ended, Paris tapped her on the shoulder and motioned towards the far wall. He carefully pulled the ear-plugs from his ears as they slipped through the crowd, and she followed suit.
The effect was like going suddenly deaf. The only sounds in the huge room were the shuffling of dancers' feet and panting and grunting as people exerted themselves in the extreme heat.
There was a crude bar along one side of the room, on the opposite wall from the bleachers. They took two stools and Paris signaled the bartender.
"This beats that music Chet's hearing back at the Q," he said, breathing heavily. "I mean, I like the guys in the band okay, but that shit's old." He wiped his forehead with his bandanna, and Vicki suddenly wondered if he'd been expecting her to get tired first.
She shrugged as the bartender placed a frosty glass of an orange drink in front of her. She tried it, expecting something like a daiquiri, but it was just sweet and refreshing, not alcoholic at all. She was just as glad.
Paris drained half of his in one swallow. "Your friend's kind of a mope, isn't she?" he asked.
She shrugged. "She's not my friend. I just met her."
Vicki climbed down from her bar-stool and said, "I'll be right back."
Paris nodded, sipping his drink, looking around the room.
A couple of minutes later Vicki stumbled back into the room, bleary-eyed, coughing into her hand. Paris grabbed her wrist to keep her from wandering out onto the dance floor.
"Hairspray," she coughed, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. "You could cure a ham in there."
Paris smiled, and pointed down at her hand. She was still holding the handle from the Ladies Room door.
A dancer whirled by them and Vicki thought she saw a familiar insignia on the shoulder of her jacket. She wiped the tears from her eyes again and tried to see it clearly as the person whirled away again, but she couldn't be sure. She turned to ask Paris about it, but his attention was suddenly focused on the far side of the room.
Vicki felt Paris stiffen next to her, and quickly tried to see what he was looking at. There was a side door she hadn't noticed before, in a far corner of the huge room, and two people had just come in. Both were dressed in leather jackets, jeans and T-shirts, with bandannas over the lower part of their faces. Then one pulled the bandanna down as she looked around the room, obviously in a hurry to locate someone. It was the girl who had greeted them when they had come in. She spotted Paris and gave him a signal. Vicki couldn't tell if the person with her was a boy or a girl.
Paris said, "I'll be right back," and quickly weaved his way through the dancers to the door, where he conferred briefly with the girl. Then, looking grim, he moved over to where Jan Sleet sat, grabbed his jacket and said something to her that she obviously didn't understand. He ran towards the door, pulling his bandanna up over his face. The other two had already gone outside.
Not sure why she was doing it, except that she wanted to find out more about Paris than she was likely to learn any other way, Vicki ran over to Jan Sleet.
"Wait here," Vicki said to her, then grabbed her leather jacket and turned towards the door.
"Wait," the other woman said loudly, but of course no one else heard.
"What is it?" Vicki asked impatiently.
"I went through his jacket pockets while you were dancing," she said quietly. "He's carrying a gun."
Outside, the cool night air made Vicki's sopping wet T-shirt cold against her skin, and she quickly put her jacket on.
Paris and the others were already two blocks away, running as fast as they could. They turned a corner. She started running in the same direction.
She quickly drew within a block of them, but they were too intent on what they were doing to hear her running. Then they turned a corner and slowed down. She quickly pulled up to a stop, ducking behind a car seat that lay on its side in the middle of the street. She peeked out.
Under a street-light, a slender man lay on the pavement, holding a bandanna to the left side of his face. There was blood on his shirt, and he wasn't moving.
There was another man standing next to him, and he and Paris conferred very intently. Vicki tried but she couldn't hear what they were saying. She was still a little distance away and they were speaking quietly. Then she noticed a girl around her age sitting on a nearby stoop, her face buried in her arms, sobbing. Her hands were covered in blood.
The man who had been talking to Paris walked over to the girl as Paris and his two companions ran off down the street. Vicki was tempted for a moment to follow Paris and the others, but she knew she couldn't ignore the fact that these people were in serious trouble. She got up and went over.
"Need some help?" she asked.
The man and the girl looked up, surprised at her appearance, but the man shrugged. "Not unless you have a car. We need to get to a hospital."
"Where is the hospital?"
He gestured down a side street. "About ten blocks."
Vicki turned the corner onto the narrow street that led to the old warehouse building. She hadn't been sure she could find it again, she hadn't really been paying attention when Paris had brought them there, but it was right where she expected it to be. Three stories high, apparently long abandoned, it looked like the last place in the world you'd expect to find something as lively and crowded as the dance that was going on the basement. Which was, she knew, the idea. Even right in front of the building, she couldn't hear a thing.
As she tried to remember how Paris had got them inside, she heard a yell from above her. She looked up and saw someone sitting on the edge of the roof. From the voice, it was Jan Sleet, and Vicki has a sudden irrational fear that she was going to jump.
There was a second floor fire escape above her. She jumped for it, grabbed the rusted metal and pulled herself up. She swarmed up the two ladders to the roof and tried to grab Jan Sleet, who was sitting, placidly puffing on a pipe. Vicki slipped on a greasy rag, though, and fell on her back on the gritty tar paper.
"What are you doing?" Jan Sleet asked.
"Saving your life?" Vicki asked, suddenly feeling foolish.
Jan Sleet pursed her lips around the stem of her pipe, obviously trying not to laugh.
"I do appreciate the thought," she said, "but I'm not about to jump. I just couldn't take the heat down there any longer. A few of us came up here for some air not long after you left. We stayed here for a little while, and then the others went back downstairs. But I kind of like it up here, so I decided to wait here until you or Paris came back. I didn't expect . . ." She looked at Vicki for a moment. "Are you okay?"
"Sure. I'm just looking at the stars."
Jan Sleet placed her pipe carefully on the ledge so it wouldn't tip over, climbed down, got her cane from where it leaned against a chimney and limped over to Vicki.
"Well, don't just lie there. It's all sooty." She bent over and tugged at the sleeve of Vicki's leather jacket. "Come on. You'll get your clothes even dirtier than they are already."
Vicki at up, then got to her feet. "You sound like my mother."
Jan Sleet returned to the ledge and picked up her pipe again. She sat down, looking out over the city. "By the way," she said without turning, "thanks for everything. You're definitely the only person I've met tonight who cares whether I live or die."
Looking out over the city, Jan Sleet's mind started drifting, but it snapped back when she felt an arm across her shoulders. It was Vicki, smiling a sort of half-smile.
"I guess the dance isn't really your type of scene. You might have rather stayed at the Quarter."
Jan Sleet nodded. "Maybe so. What was all the fuss about? Where was Paris going in such a hurry?"
"I don't know where Paris is. He and a couple of other guys went a few of blocks over that way, to where some people had obviously just been beaten up. They asked them some questions, then started off running again."
"I don't know. They looked like they were ready to kick somebody's ass, though. Maybe they thought they could catch whoever did it. I stayed with the other people, though, 'cause they needed help. I went down the block until I found somebody who'd let me use their phone. Most houses, nobody even answered the door. Finally I got a woman who said she'd call the ambulance for me. Nobody would open their doors, even if they could look through the peep-hole and see how small I am.
"Then I waited with them until the ambulance came."
"This whole night has been . . ." Jan Sleet said quietly. "I had no idea this kind of thing was going on, and not very far from where I live."
"Where do you live?"
She gestured towards the skyscrapers in the distance. "Over there. Well, I don't really live there, but Marshall and I are staying in a hotel."
She shook her head. "Oh, no, he's my assistant. He's probably frantic right now, wondering where I am. At least he'd better be." She puffed on her pipe. "Is anybody wondering where you are?"
Vicki sighed. "Oh, probably. Let them wonder."
At three-eighteen in the morning, as they were walking down a deserted street, wondering where they could sleep, a police car screeched up and three officers piled out. They ignored Vicki and one demanded Jan Sleet's name. When she told them, they grabbed her and threw her roughly into the back of the prowl car. Then they sped off.
George, Vicki, Pete and Paris talked under the stars.
Philip Henshaw lay awake in the hospital, staring at the ceiling. Jenny was asleep curled up in the chair in the corner. She had snuck back in when the nurses weren't looking.
Donna (the bartender from the Quarter) lay in her bed, wondering if she had done the right thing in not letting Carl come home with her.
Jan Sleet was at the police station, waiting.
Chester and Randi slept in a spacious loft with no doors or windows, and Randi dreamed.
And the old man was still working away in the back room of Duffy's.