The doorman opened the glass inlaid front door of the Kingdom night club, and Jake nodded a thank you as he strode in to the lobby. Passing the maître d station, and the groups waiting for a table, Jake walks up to the rail of the landing between the twin stairs curling down to the restaurant floor; a recorded Sinatra crooning “Strangers in the Night” drowns out the chit chat of the people behind him. From his perch Jake could survey the floor of the night club and scout tonight’s players. On the large dance floor in the center of the room couples swayed from left to right, shuffling with all the grace of kids at a high school dance. Surrounding the dance floor were the tables, the larger ones filled with groups of old friends lying to themselves about their yesterdays, and the smaller tables cocooning new lovers as they lie about their tomorrows. At the opposite end of the night club stood the bandstand, empty at the moment as the boys chugged drinks and burned a quick smoke during their ten minute break. To Jakes right, past the tables, stood the heart and soul of any night club, the bar. Jake smiled when he saw Benny cleaning the glasses and taking orders.
“Well, I’ll be damned, if it’s not Jake Ballard. I heard you hit it big in Florida. I thought I would never see you again” a man with salt and pepper hair said as Old Blue Eyes wrapped up. The man stepped from behind the maître d stand, crossed the deep red carpet, and held his hand out to Jake.
“Tony!” Jake replied shaking the man’s hand.
Tony griped Jake’s hand, dropping his practiced smile, and stepped in close, whispering in his ear “I told you – don’t come back – but here you are. You’re either stupid, or you don’t get how serious I am. Either way...”
Jake stepped back, yanking his hand free. “Sorry Tony, can’t talk, I’m late to meet a lady friend at the bar.”
Jake turned and headed for the stairs, but Tony sided up next to him, stretched his right arm across Jakes shoulders, and pulled him to the left, overlooking the club, so their backs were to the other people in the lobby.
“Get your drink, your moron broad, and get the hell out. You’ve got ten minutes, then...” Tony smiled “Then I’m sending Pauley after you. Are we clear?” Tony asked with his left index finger jabbing Jakes chest.
“It’s been good seeing you Tony.” Jake turned and Tony let him go.
“Don’t worry; I’ll catch up to you later.” Tony faked a cough to shake off the predator smile, replacing it with his best Dean Martin grin to work the room.
Stepping down the stairs, Tony’s threat running up his spine, Jake was thrown off his game.
“Come on; relax” he told himself “you’ve got ten minutes, like you own the place.” Jake straightened up and his swagger slid back into his stride.
Benny smiled when he looked up from cleaning glasses and saw Jake standing there.
“Whoa! To what do I owe this pleasure? Jake Ballard in the flesh.” Benny said as he put the glass down, and stretched across the bar to shake Jake’s hand.
“You know South Florida is beautiful, but I can’t find anyone down there that can make a smoked martini like you.” Jake said.
“Well then I better make you one.” Benny said as he pulled out the vodka and Jack Daniels “You found your treasure, so you decide to come back here and let Tony kill you?”
“To be honest, I thought Tony would be over all that by now.”
“Over it?” Benny said pulling back the drink he was handing Jake “if you think Tony will ever be over finding you jumping out of his daughters window on the morning of her wedding – my friend you are already too drunk for me to serve you.”
“It all worked out. I heard she still married the guy; she just wanted one last fling before her big day.”
“Yeah well, don’t break your arm congratulating yourself. Her big day came and went but from what I hear you weren’t her last fling.”
“Yeah but, I’m still the bad guy, right?”
“Somebody’s gotta be.” Benny said with a shrug. “So, really, what’s up? Why you back in town?”
“I’m here to find a brave few souls to help finance my next discovery.”
“Well you picked the wrong night to come here.” Benny said as he surveyed the vacant bar “no whales here tonight, just the anniversary and first date set.”
“That’s okay I just wanted to stop and say hi. I saw Tony on the way in and you can guess how that went. I got him to give me 10 minutes before he sets the dogs on me.”
“Well then, you better put that drink back and get gone if you’re smart. I saw Pauley earlier and he’s in some kind of mood tonight, he’ll be only too happy to beat that half ass smirk off your face.”
Jake laughed and turned to look at the tables. Benny was right; the nervous first daters surrounded by the calm anniversaries meant there wasn’t anyone with any money that Jake could talk into investing tonight.
“Another dead end.”
The moment Jake saw her everything else in the restaurant fell away. Jake watched her petite fingers twist a napkin in bold-faced boredom; he could almost hear the swish of her curly brown hair against her shoulders as she turned her head back and forth to watch the other diners pass. He had never seen her, but he had to meet her.
“Hey Benny, what’s she drinking?”
Benny looked across the restaurant to the girl twisting napkins.
“No, no, no - this is not a good idea buddy boy. Pauley is going to come out here and take your head off in about two minutes - you gotta disappear.”
“What’s he going to do? Beat me to death in front of a restaurant full of people? Besides Tony gave me 10 minutes that should be enough time for a dance. Give me one of what she’s drinking.”
Benny reached over and grabbed the amaretto bottle pointing it at Jake.
“I’m not coming to identify your body - you got that?”
“It’ll be fine. Give me a drink and text me when you’re off shift. We’ll meet up somewhere and catch up.”
“More balls than brains” Benny said as he handed the drink across the bar. “That’s what my mom always said about you. She had you figured at nine years old.”
Jake laughed “Shame you didn’t get her brains. Text me when you’re done. I’ll talk to you later.”
Jake turned and walked around the dance floor, avoiding the shufflers and the band as they made their way back to the bandstand.
The sound of instruments being picked up and musicians settling in drew her attention towards Jake as he approached.
Jake set her drink on the table in front of her with a smile, pushed the half-eaten dinner plate out of his way and sat down in the chair opposite her.
“And you are?” She asked, right eyebrow arched.
“Worried you may pass out from boredom.”
A crooked grin lit up her face for just a second; she took a sip of her drink to hide it and looked back up at him.
“I’m not bored.”
“Really? I think your strangled napkin would disagree.”
She pulled the napkin straight and laid it across her lap “I’m sorry maybe I wasn’t clear enough, I’m not so bored that I would spend time with the likes of you.” She said with a look that dared Jake to get offended
“Ouch! You could’ve left it a little fuzzier for me.”
“I just call ‘em like I see ‘em. If you don’t like that you should probably move along.”
“Is that what happened to Mr. Cornish game hen?” Jake asked nodding to the half-eaten dish he pushed aside
Her eyes rolled and she turned toward the side door, the one smokers use to get their fix, and the one polite people use to take a call.
“No he’s out there wheeling and dealing on some phone call. He owns his own company; he likes to think he’s a pretty big deal. ”
“I’ve known men who are big deals.” Jake said as he leans across the table, dropping his voice to just above a whisper, as if he is sharing a great secret with her. “They are usually smart, but only a real moron would leave a pretty girl like you at a table alone.”
The girl’s eyes rolled “You sure do lay it on thick. I should’ve brought my boots tonight.”
It was Jakes turn to let a smile slip out.
“Well” Jake said as he stood and pulled his jacket straight. “I guess I’ll have to show you what it’s like to spend some time with the likes of me.” Jake reached his right hand out to her. “Can I have this dance?”
She looked from his hand to him, and back to his hand.
Jake put his hand down and she took another sip of her drink.
“So… you’re having more fun here? Alone?”
“If I wanted my toes mashed I’d go out to the parking lot and stick my foot under a cab.”
“Mash your toes?” Jake tilted his head “You don’t know me. I’m a great dancer!”
“I know enough. I know you’re the kinda guy that’ll ask a girl to dance, but not think to ask her name.”
Jake smiled and shook his head.
“Your right, I’m sorry, my name is Jake. What’s your name?”
She took another sip, and looked at him over the rim of the glass. She put the drink down, and straightened her dress.
“My name is Karen, thank you for asking.”
“Karen, would you like to dance?”
“Why Jake!” she announced as she stood up. “What took you so long to ask?”
The marimba rhythms started to play. Karen’s right hand slid into Jakes left. Jakes right hand found the small of her back. Karen tilted her head and narrowed her eyes as she reached her left hand behind her, and slid his right hand up her back. Jake smiled and stepped backwards, Karen stepped forward. Like waves following each other, they moved, swaying, stepping, and swaying again with the music. The other dancers made way for them. Jakes right foot slide back as Karen’s left foot slide forward, and they step to the side. Karen’s left foot retreated but Jake’s right foot chased. They clung to each other as they moved, one completely comfortable with the other.
“Having fun yet?”
“You’ve managed not to mash my toes… so far.”
“I’ll take that as a yes”
“Well, as much fun as you can have with these remedial dance moves.”
“I told you - I call ‘em like I see ‘em.”
“I was just going easy on you. But if you think you’re up for it.”
Jake slid his right foot back, Karen followed and when he slid his left foot over to the side he held his arm up, spinning Karen and making her giggle. When she stepped back into his arm he dipped her and this time she laughed out loud.
Karen stood up and saw, over Jake’s shoulder, a large man staring at them. Jake saw her eyes and turned to see Pauley. Jake smiled and nodded at him.
“I’ll admit your better dancer than I thought you were.” Karen said “But I didn’t realize there would be a line to dance with you.”
“Oh him? He’s just a fan of mine, probably looking for an autograph.” Jake said
“Really? He’s the angriest looking fan I’ve ever seen. You had better give them that autograph.”
“He’ll be fine. He won’t interrupt.”
Jake felt a huge hand grab him. Before Jake could say anything to Karen, Pauley squeezed a nerve in Jake’s shoulder, hurting him just enough to make him compliant, but not enough to cripple him. Karen stepped away from the two men, and back to her table as the song ended.
“It’s been 10 minutes pretty boy. I’m going to take you out back and beat you. I’m going to beat that pretty out of you.”
“Oh my God!” Karen said loud enough for everyone to hear. Karen had pulled her cell out of her purse and was holding it up to her ear now. “Jake, honey, we have to get home! Selma lit one of the kitchen cabinets on fire and the fire trucks are there now!”
Pauley looked stunned, but didn’t let go of Jake’s shoulder. All of the eyes in the room were on him and Pauley froze, not accustomed to the attention.
“I’m sorry honey you’ll have to catch up with your friend later. We have to go!”
“Sorry we can’t do this right now, you heard the Missus.” Jake said as he pulled free of Pauley.
Pauley let go of Jake shoulder, faded back in to the crowd, and watched as Karen lead Jake up the stairs toward the exit.
Passing the maître d’s desk Jake rolled his arm trying to relieve the pain in his shoulder.
“I’ll see you soon” Tony yelled after the pair.
The club’s doors closed behind them and Jake turned to Karen.
“You’re pretty quick on your feet, thanks for the assist.”
“Don’t thank me yet.” Karen said as she waved down a cab. “The way I see it you owe me a couple of drinks, an explanation, and another dance.