Ross awoke with a start, flying to a sitting position so quickly that it made his head spin. Literally. A hundred white flashes of lightening went off inside his mind, his temples pulsing. He closed his eyes and grimaced against the pain.
Where was he? What time was it?
The last thing he remembered was a bottle of wine in his hand, inverted, the liquid pouring past his lips and settling like hot acid in his stomach. And the taste of cigarettes and coffee. And the smell of perfume. His eyes settled on the coffee table. A used condom wrapped lay accusatorily beside the remote control.
"Jesus Christ," he sighed, shaking his head in regretful shame and moving towards the bathroom.
Not bothering with the lights, he grabbed an Advil and cupped his hand beneath the faucet for water to wash it down with. He braced himself against the sink, finding it difficult to look up into the mirror. He didn't want to see what was there. Whatever it was, he wasn't going to like it. He'd never done anything like that before. The closest he'd ever come was a one-night-stand in college, and what he'd felt after that wasn't even half of what he was feeling now. He struggled to recover some memory of the previous night's events.
He'd come home from the bar even more dejected than when he'd left for it, if that were possible. He'd started drinking and hadn't stopped until he was fitful and uninhibited enough to chuck Cindy's ring from his 3rd floor balcony. He'd hoped to hear the sound it made when it hit the street. He couldn't remember now whether it made a sound at all.
He was lonely. He was lonely and angry and bitter and desperate, and he felt too old and too young for his own life, both at the same time, and he'd had enough. Somehow, he supposed he thought he could purge all of those feelings (or at least momentarily forget about them) with the wine and the woman. So he'd drunk a bottle and dialed a number.
And now he felt even emptier than before.
And dirtier. He returned to the bathroom and turned on the shower, stripping himself of his clothes and throwing them in a pile in the corner. He briefly considered burning them, but then figured it wasn't worth the effort. Under the steamy spray of the water, he scrubbed his skin until it turned red. Part of him wished he could just scrub off the entire first layer and start over. It was the closest he'd get to starting over, now, he thought.
Once out of the shower, he threw on a pair of dark brown khakis and a white long-sleeved shirt, towel-drying his hair for only a few seconds before giving up. He even shaved, which was quickly becoming merely a bi-weekly operation. He wouldn't eat breakfast, though. He hardly ever got hungry anymore. Other than that, finally able to look himself in the eye in the mirror, he felt almost normal.
Then he remembered what day it was.
It was Sunday the 4th. Shit. Tonight he was supposed to stakeout some big charity event on Wall Street with Jerry for a potential leak in their 'business'. Neither Jerry nor Ross knew much about it, but their boss had it in his head that their latest conquest was onto their scam and that the informant was 'on the inside'. Ross almost chuckled even thinking about it. The very notion that what they were doing was a legitimate business, warranting terms like 'inside job' or 'information leak', was beyond absurd. Maybe the rest of them liked to lie to themselves about it, but Ross had come to terms with the harsh reality of their job a long time again.
They were con artists. Pure and simple.
Frankly, he was surprised they hadn't already been caught, having been doing it for almost 2 years. The prospect of having to go to this thing both sickened and frightened him. Sure, he was honest with himself about the nature of his job, and he'd come to terms with it, but that didn't mean he took pride in it. He did it for the easy money. It still made him feel like a failure and a phony, though, and both of those feelings would be heightened tonight.
He dreaded it.
Bank of Manhattan Trust Building 40 Wall Street New York City November 4, 2004 9:33 p.m.
The ballroom was decorated elegantly, with twinkling lights and polished surfaces and ice sculptures and white tablecloths and red rose centerpieces. Ambient classical music hummed softly in the background as lavishly-dressed men and woman, most of whom were in their late 40s or over, laughed and drank and danced. It was extraordinary.
It was miserable.
Rachel leaned stiffly against the emergency exit door in the far back corner of the room, hiding out of sight from the prying eyes of old, dirty, crooked politicians and the judgmental whispers of their wives. How was it that she was now in her 30s, had been doing this for over a decade, and still felt like someone's little sister or mistress? She was either overlooked entirely or stared down for being anything less than a man or dressed in Ann Taylor.
She looked down at herself. She was wearing a simple long black dress with thin straps and a slit up one side. Her hair was down and straightened, a silky sheet of light brown that cascaded around her shoulders and framed her face. It was hardly innocent, but certainly didn't deserve the death stares she'd been receiving all evening. It was always like this, just because she refused to placate these condescending bastards. She was a lot of things, but she wasn't phony, and she wasn't intimidated easily. She was young and attractive and she'd dress her age, even if it was half that of most of these people.
Just then, she noticed a fellow outcast mingling amongst the crowd on the dance floor. It was immediately obvious that he stuck out like a sore thumb, being so young. The second thing she noticed was that he looked a bit bewildered, if not sad, his eyes downcast and his smile forced. She'd never seen him at one of these things before.
She watched him maneuver about the crowd, shying away timidly when bumping into someone, shuffling his feet awkwardly, constantly checking his watch. Wow, she thought. He must look how I feel. Hell, he must look how I looked at my first one of these things. Seeing that little bit of herself in him formed an immediate connection inside her, like a tiny piece of invisible string linking them together amidst the crowd. She smiled weakly.
Before she knew it, she had pushed away from the doorway and was making her way across the room, towards this mysterious stranger with hair and eyes the color of chestnuts and a demeanor just as dark. She didn't know why she was doing this, but almost felt as if she didn't have a choice. Something about him spoke to her, ignited something inside her, which was a hell of a lot more than she could say for most things these days.
"Excuse me," she cooed softly, touching his forearm to get his attention. She must have startled him, because his neck snapped around quickly, his eyes locking with hers.
Wow, she thought. She hadn't expected to see such ferocity there, judging by how timid and unassuming he'd seemed from across the room. Those eyes were anything but unassuming, though. They probed her, raking their way up and down her body. She was so captivated that she left her hand on his arm, the presence of mind to remove it having been momentarily numbed by the unexpected intensity of the moment. It was like time had stopped.
"Hi," he replied, his voice hesitant. He must think I'm one of them, she thought.
"You looked bored," she explained, smiling warmly, hoping the observation would accredit her with something— set her apart from the rest of these stiffs. His face showed no evidence of this, however. In fact, it didn't show evidence of anything. His expression was like stone. He still seemed uncomfortable.
"Oh, no, this is…"
"…terrifying?" she offered, smiling again. This time, he smiled too.
"Yeah, I guess you could say that," he admitted, nodding absentmindedly. "Am I that transparent?"
"Oh, don't worry," she answered dismissively, shaking her head. "By now, even the ones who would have paid attention to you are too plastered to notice."
His eyes dimmed at the words 'paid attention to you', like she'd offended or even scared him. He looked like a dear in headlights, nervous and confused at the same time. It was like he'd been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. It was all she could do not to smile. It was quite adorable.
"Oh, no, I just mean…nevermind," she chuckled, deciding to leave it alone. The poor kid was already nervous enough. She was obviously only making it worse. Looking up at him again, she extended her hand and smiled. "I'm Rachel."
Hesitantly, he took it, his eyes still skeptical and anxious. He smiled gawkily. "Ross. Nice to meet you."
As he let her hand go, she found herself wishing that he hadn't. No matter how uncomfortable he seemed, something about him was making HER very uncomfortable, and in a very unsettling yet welcomed way that she wasn't sure she'd ever experienced before. He seemed familiar yet mysteriously, alluringly strange at the same time. His timidity and vulnerability were refreshing. Most of the people she came in contact with these days were too busy kissing their own asses and admiring their own reflections to even walk straight. Something about him…moved her.
She couldn't remember the last time she'd been moved.
She decided to take a chance.
"Hey, listen, Ross, you wouldn't want to maybe get out of here, would you?" she whispered, her voice weak but hopeful. She didn't know why she'd said it or where she wanted to go or what she wanted to do, but some part of her wanted to stay with him…and away from these people.
"Oh, I, um…" he stammered, obviously surprised by her question. He looked as if he were really rolling over the possibility inside his mind, his gaze far-off and thoughtful, before his face fell to stone again. "I actually have to be going."
She hadn't really been expecting that. To be honest, not many men turned her down, no matter the circumstance. She wasn't used to the feeling of not getting what she asked for, and needless to say, she didn't care too much for it. Though she didn't have much experience in the field, somehow, coming from him, even if he was just some stranger, she thought the sting of rejection was probably more hurtful than usual.
"Oh…well…okay then. In that case, I guess I'll be seeing you around, Ross." She tried her hardest to smile and extended her hand once more. Though he returned the smile through tightly closed lips, he did something else that seemed incongruous in comparison. He leaned in close to her and, holding her extended hand tightly in his, lowered his voice to an intimate whisper.
"I hope so." His breath was hot against her ear and his tone smiled.
As she watched him turn and disappear into the crowd, her mouth agape and her head feeling inexplicably light, she felt something between her fingers. She looked down to find what looked like a business card.
Docks Bar & Grill 600 3rd Avenue New York, NY
Scribbled messily beneath that was a single, hand-written word.
Holy fucking shit.
What had he just done? That was not smart. In fact, that was the opposite of smart. He might as well just handcuff himself and sit down in the back of the nearest cop car and save himself the go-between.
"Ross, will you slow down?" Jerry called from several yard behind him on the sidewalk. He turned to find his friend running after him wearing a tux that looked only slightly more ridiculous on him than Ross' looked on himself. When he finally caught up, he looked very confused, if not a little angry. "What the HELL was that, man?"
"I don't know," Ross answered, shaking his head, his mind still racing and his nervous eyes giving that fact away. Why had he done that? What could have possibly made him think it would be a good idea?
"No, come on, man, something's up. Did you find the guy? What happened?" Jerry questioned eagerly, still out of breath from chasing his friend for almost 5 blocks.
"Jerry, you can't tell Bill," Ross finally relented, but his voice nonetheless still apprehensive.
"Tell him WHAT? Jesus, have you lost your fucking mind?"
"Maybe," Ross deadpanned, nodding. Jerry's narrowed his eyes and tilted his head in confusion.
"I gave someone my real name…" he whispered.
"Jesus, man, is that it? Just your first name? That's not a big—"
"And the address at the docks," he finished, looking down in shame. Jerry's eyes grew to the size of golf balls.
"WHAT? Who? Wh…wh…WHY?" he yelled, now gesturing broadly, attracting the attention of bystanders.
"Shhhh," Ross warned, looking around nervously. "Lower your voice!"
"May I ask WHY?" he whisper-yelled, in that way that was harsh enough to be angry but not above a normal decibel.
"I don't know!" Ross admitted, burying his face in his hands. "It was this woman…" he trailed off, shaking his head.
"Ah, Jesus, Ross. If you wanted to fuck her, you should have given her a drink, not your whole fuckin' life story! What are you going to do?"
"It wasn't like that," Ross corrected, shaking his head and ignoring Jerry's last question entirely.
"She was…I don't know. I don't know why I did it, man," he admitted, averting his eyes. "I just…I had to see her again."
"You couldn't have given her, I don't know, YOUR address? Why the docks? You know you could get us all thrown in jail, right? I mean, you do realize that?"
Ross sighed and nodded, running a hand quickly through his hair. Of course he realized that. That, along with the intense blue shade of her eyes, was the only thing he could think about. He didn't know what had possessed him to do it. When she'd asked if he wanted to 'get out of here', his immediate reaction had been suspicion, just as he'd been told it should be if anyone approached him. That inclination had quickly given way to something else—something much more selfish.
He'd felt excited.
Her hair had been so shiny and perfect, and her lips so red, and her eyes so blue, and her skin so tan, and her dress so elegant and classy, and he'd lost it the moment those first few velvety words had escaped her perfect mouth. In all his life, he'd never even talked to a woman like that, much less had one approach HIM. She looked like an angel and a celebrity and an illusion and everything else elusive and unattainable and beautiful.
He knew he couldn't accept her request and leave the party with her. While he had no real loyalty to the 'assignment', Jerry was his friend, and he couldn't just ditch him. Then there was always the possibility that, despite her breathtaking beauty, the woman really WAS onto him and leaving with her would only further incriminate him. Mostly, though, he'd just been too surprised and numbed by her request that he'd wimped out. As soon as he'd declined, though, and saw the way her face had fallen, he'd quickly begun back-peddling in his mind, wracking his brain for a way to rectify the situation.
He'd known he had to see her again.
Then, he'd remembered the card in his pocket. Their boss, Bill, had stolen a handful of them from the restaurant when they'd started doing business at the docks behind it. He'd write various times on the bottoms and covertly hand them off to Ross or Jerry or whoever else when he wanted to have a secret, impromptu meeting. Ross had just happened to be still carrying this one from a meeting staged earlier in the week, and it had been the only way to give her a location and time without saying it aloud.
It had been his only chance of seeing her again.
He'd known all along it was stupid, but he had to take that chance.
Docks Bar & Grill 600 3rd Avenue New York City November 5, 2004 12:00 a.m.
When she stepped out of the cab, her skin was met with the cool chill of a breeze coming off the water. Since she'd gone without a jacket that night, so her only defense against the cold was her two hands rubbing friction into her arms, and she couldn't help but feel a little overdressed in her sleek black gown, standing in front of what appeared to be a renovated fish market.
She was definitely having second thoughts.
She checked the address on the card, almost hoping she had the wrong place. The area was shady and damp and poorly lit and smelled of fish, the only commercial building for blocks being the grimy, scantily populated bar she was standing outside of. She looked around for signs of him and saw none. Maybe this wasn't the smartest idea. She didn't even know this guy… Just as she turned back toward the street to hail a cab, she felt two big, warm hands on her shoulders and jumped with a start.
"Easy," came a masculine voice from behind her, the feeling of warm breath tickling her ear. When he stepped around to face her, she was met with those sad poppy-dog eyes for the second time that evening. He smiled feebly. "Sorry I'm late."
"Oh, um…that's okay. What is this place?" she asked, a bit skeptically, nodding toward the hole-in-the-wall bar behind them.
"Yeah, I bet you don't come to places like this often, huh?" he wagered, his smile broadening. She smiled black.
"Well, it's no Ritz Carlton, that's for sure," she admitted, looking back over her shoulder at the damp alleyway leading to the docks behind the restaurant. "They're probably running some kind of con business out of the back of this place," she joked.
He obviously didn't find it too amusing, however. His face immediately fell at her words and eyes began darting about wildly. She took note of this and, afraid she may have offended, placed her hand on his arm and shook her head.
"Relax, I was just kidding."
"So do you want to go inside?" he asked quickly, changing the subject. "I know it doesn't look like much, but they make a mean Singapore Sling," he offered, his eyes softening at her.
"What the hell?" she laughed, deciding to throw caution to the wind and following him towards the entrance. Though she'd never heard of this place or a 'Singapore Slinger', it was new and exciting…just like him. Something about the combination of spontaneity, irrationality and danger made this unknowable situation (not to mention this man) all the more appealing. She'd never done anything like this before. Maybe it was time to try something new…
The inside of the bar was not betrayed by its exterior. It was just as crummy on the inside as the façade might have suggested. The thick stench of cigarette and cigar smoke overwhelmed all other senses. She was the only woman in the place, as s few old men were scattered about the bar and tables, either passed out or well on their well. All alone.
They sat down at the bar and Ross, without asking, ordered them both a legendary Singapore Slinger. She watched him discard his tuxedo jacket and bowtie, loosening the collar and rolling up the sleeves. His slightly tousseled hair and faint 5 o'clock shadow gave him an appealing air of both danger and vulnerability. Not to mention his eyes. She hadn't stopped staring at them since they sat down. Finally, he seemed to notice, turning his attention toward her and smiling. "What?" he asked, genuinely wondering what she was thinking. She shook her head to stir herself from her reverie, blushing slightly for having been caught.
"Oh, it's nothing. I was just, um…thinking," she whispered, clearing her throat nervously.
"'Bout what?" he asked, picking up his glass of lime-flavored gin and brandy and taking a sip. He slung his arm casually over the back of her stool.
"Well, I guess about the fact that I don't know much about you, Mr…" she trailed off, realizing she didn't even know his last name, punctuating her point. He chuckled and nodded.
"You actually don't know ANYTHING about me," he corrected, suavely side-stepping her enquiry and taking another sip. Ah, so he was loosening up a bit, she noted. He was much more at ease, now, smiling and relaxed in his body language. She was glad they seemed to have sunk into a comfortableness, but it was obvious he was going to make her work for this.
"Ok, then," she gave in, smiling and turning her stool to face him. She took her first swig of the bittersweet concoction and felt it slide down her throat. "Start talking."
"You first," he requested, turning, too, to face her. He rested his hands on his thighs and stared hard into her, as if he were trying to uncover something about her before even asking. And he kind of was. "Why did you approach me at the ball?"
"I don't really know," she shrugged. "You reminded me of someone."
"Myself, when I was younger," she clarified, taking another sip. "This is good," she nodded, holding up the drink.
"How old are you now?" he asked, provoked by her response. He suddenly realized that he'd only assumed she was around his age, maybe even younger. Some women were good at hiding their years, though. He was now wondering if maybe he'd misjudged.
"35," she answered, quelling his concern. "You?"
"36. What did you mean, then, by 'when you were younger'?"
"Well, I've been going to those things almost half my life. I'm used to it. You looked kind of scared, though, and I hadn't ever seen you there before. Who do you work for?" she asked, realizing that was something else she didn't know about him. She noticed him tense a bit at the question, averting his eyes.
"Um, well, you know how it is. I just started. Not really sure if it's going to last," he answered vaguely, hoping to a God he didn't believe in that the answer was enough for her. She seemed slightly confused but satisfied.
"Believe me, I know the feeling," she scoffed, somewhat bitterly and nostalgically, blunting the harshness of the statement with another sip. She was beginning to feel the alcohol go to her head as the glass emptied before her.
"What about you?" he asked, hoping to turn the focus toward her. "What do you do?" "I'm an investment banker. I work at the Trust Building. To be honest, I really don't even belong at those things. My boss makes me go for show. They're put on for all the hot-shot, old money investors."
As Rachel rambled on, Ross' mind wandered. Wait, she actually worked AT the Trust Building? For the Bank of Manhattan? Shit. He knew most of the people ther that night were investors, but he wasn't sure who worked where or for whom. The Trust Building was the one they were currently working. Mixing business with pleasure was never good. Neither was fraternizing with the enemy, so to speak, though he was sure he'd never be able to see the woman sitting beside as his 'enemy'. Not with those eyes…those lips…that skin.
"Ross?" she prodded, noticing the detached, daydream look in his eyes and the way he was staring at her. Not that she really minded. His gaze could cut glass. It was like he was looking through her.
"Is there anything else you want to ask me?" she asked, her voice softening to almost a flirtatious tone, her eyelashes batting slightly.
Watching her, his heartbeat slowed some and he began to fall back into that comfortable lull they'd found before, now that the conversation had turned away from business. He found it hard to register what she was saying, however, now that he'd noticed the way her dress dipped down so low in the back, revealing a broad expanse of smooth tanned skin in a V-shape that stopped just above her ass. Her taunt back muscles shifted beneath her skin and his eyes as she moved on the chair. He knew she was watching him watch her— take her in. He didn't care. He also knew this could potentially be very bad news— consorting with the other team— but he didn't care about that, either. In that instant, all he saw was her, and all he heard was the faint drawl of music coming from the dusty jukebox in the corner, and all he felt was this moment. For reasons intangible to him, he extended his arm to her.
"Yeah. Will you dance with me?"
Her eyes widened a little, astonished by both the suddenness of the question and the certainty in his voice. He said it with such an even confidence, like he knew she'd say yes. And she did.
"Yes," she agreed, smiling bashfully, taking his hand as she slipped off the stool.
They found an open space in the middle of the bar, amidst the smoke and the crowded tables and the broken windows and the dusty hardwood floor, hardly romantic by anyone's account, and he slid her into his arms. And a peaceful calm came over them that neither had felt since they could remember. He placed one hand at the small of her back and the other atop one of hers. She rested her head against his chest and smiled, allowing herself to close her eyes, the oddest epiphany washing over her.
She'd never felt this safe before.
Meanwhile, as he softly stroked the exposed skin at the small of her back with his thumb, he clenched his eyes shut and exhaled deeply, not ever wanting to let her go but simultaneously not ever having been so afraid of hurting someone in his entire life.