The club was finally empty. Music still played softly and the house lights were turned down low. In the centre of the dance-floor, Aurora was wrapped in Steve’s arms and moving slowly to the music, his mouth still on the pulse of her neck, his hands holding her hips firmly against his.
Graham and Neil were still at the bar, exchanging small talk with the bar staff as they tidied up and got the money ready for taking to the bank in the morning.
At last Aurora emerged from her dream. She had things to do before she could really give Steve her undivided attention. She pushed him gently away, crossed to the console to turn off the music and bring up the lights, and taking his hand, walked back over to the bar.
‘Finished yet, Ricardo?’
‘Almost, Miss Davenport.’
‘Can I leave you to turn everything off and lock up? I need to have a meeting with these gentlemen.’
‘No problem, Miss Davenport. You have a nice night.’ The barman hung up his apron.
‘Thanks for all your hard work, guys, you were all wonderful this evening. I’m very grateful.’
‘It was my pleasure, Miss Davenport. I thought everything went off very well. A great success.’
Aurora smiled at him. She was lucky to have found him.
‘I thought so too. Goodnight Ricardo.’
‘Nighty-night, Miss Davenport.’
Aurora led the way up to her office, wiggling her hips a little too much as she walked. Steve grabbed her as she climbed the stairs in front of him, but she smacked him away gently, playfully.
They all sat on plush violet sofas in the subdued lighting of the office. Aurora offered them coffee but they refused.
‘Okay then, to business,’ she said, but still she hesitated. No one spoke, and the tension was mounting. Finally she got up and paced the floor, wringing her hands, subconsciously still the performer.
‘It’s like this, guys,’ she said, trying to keep her tone light. She perched on the corner of her desk, facing them like a guest speaker at the Women’s Institute. ‘I’ve sunk every penny I have into this place, and quite a few I don’t yet have—I’ve taken out huge loans. You have no idea—well actually you probably do—just how expensive it is to get everything just exactly so, to realise a dream is a bloody expensive business. I want the Starlight Club to be the perfect venue for sophisticated and colourful shows, and for people to come to from all over for a lovely evening out, to experience wonderful dining and dancing. It’s almost killed me getting the place ready: contracts, deadlines, workmen, for God’s sake—bastards to a man, never here when they say they will be, drinking tea half the day, leering at the girls and making disgusting comments, feeling people up in the corridors and on the stairs—it’s been hell. But tonight—tonight—finally it was worth it.’
There were keen nods from Neil and Steve, whilst Graham kept saying, ‘Oh I know! You don’t need to tell me!’
Now it came to the crunch, and Aurora suddenly found she struggled to hold back the tears. Steve leaped to his feet and came to her side, a strong arm around her shoulders. She leaned against him.
‘I’ve had threats!’ she finally blurted out, not in the dramatic, brave way she had intended to tell them, but scrabbling frantically in a drawer for a tissue to wipe her nose. At that moment the barman tapped lightly and looked through the gap of the door.
‘Everyone’s gone home, Miss Davenport. Everything’s locked up and I’m going myself now. I’ll leave the takings on here.’ And he set a large cloth bank bag—well-stuffed—on the desk.
‘Bless you, Ricardo, Darling. See you tomorrow.’ He nodded then left, closing the door behind him. ‘His name’s really Richard Roberts,’ she went on, ‘but Ricardo sounds much more—well—you know, more.’
There was a pause. She didn’t know how to get back to what she wanted to tell them.
‘Just tell us everything,’ Steve urged her, his arm still bolstering her.
She let out a sigh, straightened her somewhat broad shoulders. Best get it over with.
‘Well, as soon as I got the planning permission through from the Council and work got underway, and I got my licenses and everything, I started getting calls. Just odd phone calls at different times. I guessed I was treading on someone’s toes—I assumed they were from a rival, someone worried about losing revenue.’
‘Not us!’ Graham and Neil chorused.
‘No, I would never suspect you, Darlings. Someone else. At first I tried to be all business-like, you know, ‘I can’t comment’, ‘speak to my solicitor’, that sort of thing. But the calls became quite menacing, and then they started telling me I’d better close the club, or rather, you know, not open it, that I’d be sorry, that kind of thing. Well, you wouldn’t get far in our business if you took too much notice of that sort of threat. But it was very unpleasant. I tried to shrug it off and get on with the job in hand. Then we had a small fire. No one knew how it started—backstage, daytime, no one hurt. No one saw anything.’
‘I heard about that,’ Neil told her, ‘one of our bar staff heard it from a mate of his at Fat Nigel’s, who heard it from his friend who works at Top Floor, and he heard about it from a pal of his at Someplace Else.’
‘Sounds like everyone knows all about it? Not that that’s surprising, it’s a small gay world. Well, anyway, we got over it—no serious damage done, a few more lectures delivered to the staff about being more careful blah di blah di blah. Then two of my people just upped and left, no notice, no nothing, just didn’t come into work one day. Again, it was just an annoying setback but that’s all it really was, we weren’t even open at that stage. But because I already had so much on my plate, I was probably more upset than the situation warranted. Had a bit of a screaming bitch-fit at the others, which was stupid of me as that led to one more person leaving.’ Aurora lit a cigarette with trembling fingers and took a long drag on it before continuing. ‘Next, about a week ago, our big street windows were smashed, four of them—they cost thousands to replace, not to mention time, not to mention having to call out a joiner to put up great sheets of plywood in the meantime. The insurance premium has rocketed, we’ve already had three large claims on the policy, so now my premiums have hiked by almost 50%.’
She took another drag on the cigarette and Steve took it from her and did the same before handing it back.
‘Then about four days ago, we had the police raid. Before we’d even opened, for fuck’s sake! They’d apparently had a report from someone ‘claiming’ to work for me that we had under-aged girls on the premises, working the shows and doing a bit of the extra-curricula. It was quite funny actually, I mean none of my performers are what our beloved police service would technically class as ‘Girls’, under-age or not. But it’s been a nightmare. Just one thing after another. Things have got so bad that I need the takings from tonight just to pay the staff their wages, and I still need pay our alcohol bill, and to buy myself some toilet paper.
‘But all that was just the annoying stuff. Now, things have taken a much more frightening turn. The night before last, as he was leaving work, Ricardo was attacked by a man with a baseball bat. He—Ricardo—had come in to set up the bar. Luckily Ricardo knows how to handle himself; if it had been anyone else it would have been disastrous. But there’s another boy, and he’s, well, I think he’s missing. He’s a student at the Beauty Academy, a pretty, tiny little thing, he’s only 19. I’m so worried…’
She broke off, too upset to continue, and tried to pat away her tears with her immaculately painted nails. Steve came to stand in front of her and held her. She leaned against him for a moment, her eyes closed, before taking a few calming breaths and breaking free to walk around her desk. She took a small padded envelope out of the drawer. She gave it to Steve with a small, tight nod. Then she turned away, hugging her arms around herself and visibly shaking.
Curiosity brought Graham and Neil to their feet and across to Steve’s side as he extracted a torn and dirty piece of paper from the envelope. On it, written in a black marker pen, were the words Cancel Your Opening Night: Final Request. There were brownish smears on the paper.
Something else was in the envelope. Something that seemed to be quite small. Steve shook it out into his open palm. It was a human ear.