‘I’m so glad you came out tonight, Brey.’ Laura hooked her arm through Aubrey’s as they walked away from the cloakroom.
‘What can I say?’ replied Aubrey. ‘You wore me down.’
She pulled a face. ‘Trust me, this is exactly what you need. All work and no play makes Aubrey a—’
‘Dull girl? Thanks for that.’
Aubrey tried to call it a night at the bar, but Laura was a force to be reckoned with and resisted all her attempts to say no. It didn’t help that Aubrey couldn’t mount a defence. In the months since moving from New York to London, she’d focused almost exclusively on her job, a fact which her co-workers commented on more than once. With the relaunch under her belt and a holiday weekend on the horizon, there wasn’t a viable reason not to let off steam. She just wasn’t sure her friend’s idea of letting off steam matched hers.
The heavy beat reverberated through the building, gaining in strength as they made their way up the stairs. Revellers lined the walls, perhaps seeking respite from the musical assault. One caught her eye as she passed, and winked. Aubrey pulled her dress tighter to her legs and hurried to keep up with Laura.
‘Hey, guys!’ Donna waved from the top. ‘This place is amazing. Who’s up for a dance?’
‘Great idea,’ replied Laura.
Donna pushed open the doors to a balcony overlooking the dance floor and the throng of bodies lost in the pulsating bass. Garish lights flashed on and off, illuminating the dancers in one pose only to have them reappear in another. Smoke curled above them, eddying and swirling as hands reached high into the air, and they danced on.
‘I’ll get us some drinks,’ Aubrey said.
After two more attempts, Aubrey gave up being heard over the music and mimed instead. Not waiting for a response, she fought her way towards the bar, wishing with each step to be as carefree as everyone around her. The clubbers had the ability to switch off, take advantage of the anonymity and merge with the crowd. Aubrey felt oppressed by it, as if the collective weight of so much forced enthusiasm was crushing down on her. Too much raw emotion, too few inhibitions, and too close quarters. Aubrey gasped when she saw the sign for the rooftop terrace and made a beeline for it.
Up on the roof, Aubrey ordered three Jack Daniels and Coke, texted her friends her location, and took refuge in a booth by the wall. Potted plants, arranged with discretion, provided her a small measure of privacy, though it didn’t blot out the few odd looks from those sitting nearby. It might have bothered her once, but being alone and being lonely weren’t the same, and Aubrey had long since come to understand the difference.
As she sipped her drink, the obligatory fairy lights strung overhead reflected in the ice cubes. Aubrey’s eyes followed the dancing spots of light and let her mind wander.
‘There you are!’
Aubrey jerked her head up, coming face-to-face with the guy who winked at her on the stairs. She wasn’t sure how long she’d sat there, but long enough to plough her way through two of the three drinks.
‘Um, hi …’
‘Mind if I join you?’
Aubrey didn’t get the chance to object before he slid into the booth next to her with practised ease. His knee bumped against hers, prompting Aubrey to cross her legs and tilt away.
‘Hey, I don’t bite.’ He broke into a wolfish grin. ‘I’m Colin, by the way.’
‘You’re a Yank. I hope not one of those ones who comes over and steals English jobs.’
Aubrey managed a tight smile. ‘Guilty as charged.’
‘I’ll try not to hold it against you.’
The yeasty stench of stale beer washed over her as he laughed, oblivious to her distaste.
‘So, Aubrey, what type of job did you steal?’
‘I’m a photographer wit—’
‘A photographer, eh? Maybe you could take some pictures of me.’ He turned one way and then the other. ‘Which is my best side?’
‘I’m sure they’re both great, but it’s not really the sort of work I do.’
‘A photo’s a photo, no?’ He leant in. ‘I wouldn’t mind examining you through a lens.’
Aubrey clasped the disk on her necklace in her fist and imagined using it as bola. Instead, she gave him a noncommittal shrug. Without encouragement, Colin prattled on about his job, amateur rugby – which could’ve gone professional, if not for his knee injury – and new car, while she did her best to look bored. Self-confidence was a trait Aubrey admired, but Colin had side-stepped into overcompensation.
‘You got a boyfriend then?’
‘I … not right now.’ Aubrey wanted to scream at herself as his eyes lit up. Why did she not say yes? ‘But I’m with my friends and not looking for anything serious.’
Again, she sensed she’d said the wrong thing and gulped the last of her drink, nearly choking on an ice cube when he placed a hand on her knee. She snapped her leg up, stealing a moment of satisfaction as the table sandwiched his fingers.
She donned her most unapologetic smile. ‘Whoopsie.’
Colin shook out his hand. ‘So, what you drinking? Hold that thought, I’ve got to take a piss.’ He reversed, pointing a finger at her. ‘Don’t go anywhere.’
Aubrey scooted out of the booth the moment he disappeared from view, but only made it a few feet before she ran into Donna.
‘Impeccable timing. Listen, I’m going to go. Say bye to Laura for me.’
Donna put her arm out. ‘Hang on, that’s what I was coming to tell you. Laura bumped into an old uni friend and we’re heading to a party at her flat. You up for it?’ Donna glanced round as she caught Aubrey looking over her shoulder. ‘What’s the matter?’
‘Some douche who isn’t getting the message. I’d like to be gone when he gets back from the bathroom.’
‘Gotcha.’ Donna grabbed Aubrey’s hand. ‘Let’s go.’
The two women descended the stairs, back into the pounding, strobe-lit confusion of the club. Progress was slow through the press of clubgoers, zigzagging to squeeze past immovable huddles of people. By the time they fought their way back to the cloakroom, they both felt worse for wear.
‘It was a lot more fun when I was one of them,’ said Donna, adjusting her outfit. ‘I nearly lost my skirt.’
‘Sorry, I think that was me,’ said Aubrey.
Donna laughed. ‘Did you also grab my boob?’
‘Possibly.’ Aubrey grinned. ‘I couldn’t see what I was grabbing in there.’
‘Best offer I’ve had all nigh— hang on, my phone is buzzing. It’s Laura. Hi, where are you? … Yeah, she’s here … I don’t know … Brey, the others are outside in a taxi. Are you coming?’
‘I’m going to call it a night. Too much excitement for me.’
‘No, she’s heading home … Laura, she doesn’t want to … Just you guys go then … Oh, right. Let me come and get it … Yep, bye.’ Donna slipped her phone into her bag. ‘Laura has my jacket. I’ll be right back.’
‘Listen, why don’t you go with them?’
‘It’s fine, I’ll catch a cab with you.’
Aubrey smiled. ‘We live on opposite sides of the city and I still need to get my coat. Go have fun and I’ll call you tomorrow.’
Torn between her conscience and continuing the night out, Donna took quite a bit of persuading to leave. Even as she waved goodbye, Aubrey saw the conflict, but she kept her smile on, determined not to ruin anyone’s good time.
Aubrey handed her ticket over at the cloakroom, drumming her fingers against the desk as she waited. All that stood between her and a pair of pyjamas was a taxi ride. Then slippers, a glass of wine, and an episode of something trashy on Netflix.
‘You read my mind.’
Aubrey squeezed her eyes shut as Colin’s voice came over her shoulder. ‘Far from it,’ she muttered. She turned around. ‘Listen, Colin, I’m sure you’re a perfectly nice guy, but I’m going home. Alone.’
‘Kiss goodnight?’ He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her in close.
Aubrey shoved against his chest with both hands, incredulity and anger giving her a strength she didn’t know she had. Colin stumbled backwards in a sprawl of arms, straight into the man behind him. She grimaced as the contents of his glass went up in the air and splattered all over his shirt.
‘Oh God, I’m so sorry,’ said Aubrey, rushing over. ‘It had to be red wine, didn’t it?’ She started mopping at the stained material. ‘Let me buy you another …’
The words dried in her mouth as she registered who she’d thrust Colin into. The words ‘brick shithouse’ sprang to mind. He had thick, dark hair, flecked with grey, and it fell wild about his roguish face. Amused eyes peered down at her.
‘Don’t worry about it,’ he said. ‘These things happen.’ He looked down at Colin, attempting to pick himself up off the floor. ‘This one yours?’
‘Not if I can help it.’
‘Up you get, youngster.’ The man hauled Colin up as if he weighed nothing. ‘Time for you to go home.’
‘Get your fucking hands off me!’ Colin swatted away the man’s hands and glared at Aubrey. ‘Stuck-up bitch.’
Aubrey recoiled, the sting of his insult and morbid glee of the onlookers making her face glow red. Excited chatter ran through the air, as torrid and suffocating as the music and bodies on the dance floor.
‘I don’t like you,’ said the man, his gaze turning to steel.
‘And?’ said Colin.
As Aubrey watched the two men, something became clear. Despite his gentlemanly behaviour and appearance, her would-be protector was altogether more, and infinitely capable of destroying the idiot stood before him.
‘No,’ she said. ‘Please don’t.’
Though her words had scant been above a whisper, he heard her, and his aggressive stance became nonchalant once again. A glazed stupor came over Colin’s face before he did an about-turn and headed straight out the front door.
‘He seems to have had a change of heart.’
Aubrey wasn’t fooled. Something beyond a change of heart had just occurred, and she took a step back. His eyes found hers and she squirmed under the scrutiny.
He put his hand out. ‘I’m Nate,’ he said. ‘Who might you be?’
Fighting a tremor, she accepted the handshake. ‘Aubrey.’
The blood thudding inside her head didn’t disguise his sharp intake of breath, and his other hand closed over the top. His gaze remained trained on her.
‘Well, Aubrey, it’s a great pleasure to meet you. Perhaps I’ll let you buy me that drink after all.’
Aubrey smiled a thin smile, fished in her purse and handed him a twenty-pound note. ‘That should cover it, even at London prices.’
‘Well played,’ he replied, shaking his head and refusing the money.
‘My boyfriend wouldn’t like it if I had drinks with a strange man.’
‘Is that so? It’s been my experience that women tend to say they have a boyfriend to avoid awkward situations with men who are hitting on them. No excuses necessary.’
‘Okay then,’ she said. ‘I’m not interested in seeing anyone.’
‘Thank you for being honest. Just so you know, I wasn’t hitting on you.’
‘No.’ Nate bent down to her ear and whispered, ‘You’ve been touched, Aubrey, and by something incredibly powerful. I won’t lie by saying I’m not interested in what, but you need to be very careful. Plenty out there would use you for it.’
She glanced up, searching for any hint of deception. ‘But not you?’
‘I have no desire or need to. You saw enough to believe that, I think.’
‘What are you?’ she asked.
‘Naive or playing dumb?’ He stroked his thumb over his bottom lip. ‘The real question is, what are you?’
It was a question Aubrey had asked herself many times but hadn’t summoned the courage to answer. Over the years, Aubrey had become adept at seeing beneath a person’s surface. But, just as she’d seen through his veneer, he saw through hers. She couldn’t deny a certain allure, but interactions broke the golden rule.
‘It’s late,’ said Aubrey, ‘I’d better be going.’
‘If I give you my number, will you call me?’ He held out a business card. ‘You know, if you’re suddenly wracked with concern for whether the stain comes out of this shirt. Or the urge to confess how a young woman came to hold the power you do overwhelms you.’
She took the card and put it in her purse without looking. ‘I don’t have any power.’ He raised an eyebrow. ‘Bye, Nate.’
Nate watched her as she grabbed her coat off the counter and hurried out the door, trying to rationalise the bizarre emanations she gave off.
‘Found something interesting?’
Nate turned to face his brother, the epitome of the persons he’d warned Aubrey against. An enigma like her would never escape his attention.
‘Nothing much, just a pretty girl,’ Nate replied.
‘She must’ve been special to spin your head. Want to go after her?’
‘No, thanks. If our business here is finished, I’d like to head back to New York. Is the plane ready to go?’
Warren narrowed his gaze as he regarded Nate.
Nate sighed. ‘I helped her out. She was getting some hassle off a guy and spilled my drink.’
‘That would explain your shirt, although it is an improvement.’
‘We don’t all want to look like Hugo Boss’s love-child,’ said Nate. ‘Anyway, the guy pissed me off, and I want to leave before I hunt him down and beat the shit out of him for being drunk and stupid.’
‘I’m game for that too.’
‘Let’s just get to the airport and go home.’
‘Fine, but we both know you’re a damn liar, Nate.’
Nate shrugged and walked away.
The crisp night air hit her as she stepped outside, a sweet relief after the stifling atmosphere of the club. Aubrey breathed deep, letting the chill reach all the way to her lungs, and exhaled again, watching the vapour crystallise. Through the billowed breath she saw Colin standing at the corner, and the bewilderment marring his face almost made her go over. Almost. She pulled her coat tighter around her and headed off towards the taxi rank.
As she rounded the corner and took in the queue, Aubrey prayed it wasn’t for taxis, but her plea went unfulfilled.
‘Hey, lady, the end is back there.’
‘I know, I was only—’
‘No queue jumping!’
‘Get to the back of the line.’
‘I was just taking a look,’ said Aubrey.
‘Well, you’ve seen, so back you go.’
Aubrey swore under her breath and stomped away. Clearly the universe had conspired to make her night as complicated as possible and, having reached her wits’ end, opted to walk it off. She marched until her initial agitation abated, replaced by the melancholy she’d been resisting. Moving to London might’ve been the right choice for her career, but it was miles away from her family, and time off only made her homesick. She had few friends in her new city and, if she were being honest, let the ones she did have talk her into going out simply to avoid missing home. Add to that the stress of meeting Nate and whatever he was, and the weekend stretched out ahead of her.
A stiff gust of wind blew along the street and Aubrey shivered, realising how cold she’d become. But it wasn’t the temperature: the air felt different, harsher and less forgiving. She looked around the deserted street – apparently others had noticed it too.
‘Please, help! Can help?’
The young girl ran towards her, her thick accent coming through the broken English. Not older than eighteen, she wore ripped jeans and a tank top, and her scraggy hair lay dirty across her narrow shoulders.
‘Are you okay? Tell me what happened!’
‘Men, they come. Please?’
‘Is someone after you?’
‘I get away, but they follow me. Please help.’
‘Okay, okay,’ replied Aubrey, taking off her scarf and putting it around the shivering girl. ‘We should find a police station.’
The terror in the girl’s eyes told Aubrey there wasn’t much comfort in the idea.
‘What’s your name?’
‘I’m Aubrey. I get that you’re scared, Bianca, but we need to get you somewhere safe. The police will protect you and I’ll be there too. I promise.’
Bianca’s eyes darted from side to side as she chewed on chapped lips but eventually nodded. ‘Mulțumesc … thank you.’
Aubrey pulled out her phone and found the nearest police station.
‘There’s a station about half a mile from here. Come on.’
Too short a time passed before they heard footsteps and raised voices. Snatches of a language she didn’t recognise reached Aubrey’s ears and her gut clenched.
‘Who’s after you?’
‘Men who bring me here. I have debt.’ Bianca tugged Aubrey’s arm. ‘We must go quick. They kill us … or worse.’
Aubrey didn’t ponder what worse meant. She could well imagine fates worse than death. They didn’t get far before a car came hurtling down the road towards them. It shot past and then braked hard. Four men piled out.
They raced towards the little dot on Aubrey’s phone, their pounding feet echoing across vacant concrete. She knew this part of the city, but it never felt less familiar. No longer a cosmopolitan hub filled with shoppers and families, but an isolated arena where she was the quarry.