Short - A City in the Desert, Part II
Updated: Nov 6, 2020
*READ PART 1 --- SPOILERS AHEAD*
For the next few hours the police asked us questions, but unable to get any useful information out of Liza, they eventually sent us home. She was catatonic in the car. A mood I might have surrendered to had I not been driving. I felt numb. I had to keep shaking the blood back into my tingling fingers just to keep my grip on the steering wheel.
Mike was dead. He was dead and I couldn't even be in denial because I witnessed it. Seeing Liza weeping into the window made me angry. So angry that I punched a hole in the wall when I returned to my dorm. In a sick way I blamed Liza. Even though I know full well that Mike made his own decisions that night. That's how the mind works. You find anything to blame just so you can hold onto your anger and you don't have to give into despair. It's a survival mechanism. At least if you're angry you can still fight. You still have the will to live on.
I didn't make it in for that test. I didn't need to seeing as class was cancelled, and there was an emergency assembly called the following day. Five students died that night and the buzz around campus was that Papillon was being investigated and had been shut down until further notice. Nobody seemed to care. It seemed a heavy blanket of melancholy had hit UNLV. As if, in a way, they all felt complicit in those deaths. Even me. How crazy is that?
In the weeks that followed I did not see much of Liza and each time I did she was thinner and more dead looking than before. I knew she’d been hard on it but I just didn’t know where she was going to do it.
The girls from her dorm said she was barely ever home and she had stopped going to classes since Mike died. I could understand how she felt, most days I didn’t even feel like getting out of bed let alone sitting through lectures. Eventually Liza stopped turning up around campus at all and I feared the worse.
Concerned for Liza, and fast running out of ideas, I took a trip to the West City hoping someone there might have seen her. Liza and Mike had taken me there many times to meet their dealer, Caleb.
Venturing behind Murray’s Liquor Stop I found him dealing Flake to a pair of mess heads, exactly where I thought he’d be. I’d met Caleb several times and, despite being a dealer, he was actually kind of a nice guy. He caught my eye as I was approaching and acknowledged me with a jut of his head before waving his customers on their way.
‘Hey, how’s it going man?’ Said Caleb, counting dollars with a cigarette tucked between his lips.
‘Have you seen Liza?’ I replied not really wanting to make small talk.
He threw his butt onto the asphalt stubbing it out with the heel of his boot giving him time to think.
‘She’s that Italian chick, right?’ The clench of my jaw was answer enough to make him get to the point. ‘I saw her a few days ago. She was begging me for Ace o’ Hearts but I told her I don’t sell that crap.’
Oh, you don’t sell that crap. ‘Do you know where she might have gone?’
Caleb looked distressed pursing his lips and looking anywhere but at me.
‘Do you know where she is?’ I pushed.
‘Not really. The top chain are laying pretty low since that bad batch went out at Papillon so if she’s looking to chase the dragon she’d have to be in a squat somewhere.’
‘What the fuck does that mean?’ I snapped.
Caleb seemed taken aback by the sudden abandonment of my good manners, ‘Look, town’s pretty dry at the moment, especially for the hardcore stuff you can’t just buy it on the streets. You need to find a squat house to take it at, you get me?’ Not really.
‘Well where can I find these squat houses?’
‘Look man, it’s not my scene. I can’t help you’, he said, while floating a hand over his back pocket poised to grab a weapon. I must have looked crazy, I’ve never had anyone be scared of me before. I returned home angry and no closer to locating Liza.
It was that same night that I learned that Club Papillon had reopened.
I can't quite account for why I did what I did next. I wanted someone to pay for what happened to Mike. But I'm a smart guy, I couldn't go around just accusing anyone. I needed to bide my time, see what I could find out about these people.
If I went to the press, started shooting my mouth off, then the culprits would just go underground, or worse, find a way to silence me. I needed to play it cool. I needed to hurt them.
It was then that I began spending more time at Papillon. I wanted to learn the names and faces of everyone who went there. I knew the tainted X hadn't come out of the club directly, but somehow Papillon was still the centre of everything. I knew Mike and Liza's killers would return sooner or later, when the dust had settled. All rodents need to feed eventually.
Club Papillon became my new obsession. Every night I went there to stand in a dark corner, drink light beers, and try my best to blend into the background. Just so I could watch them all. Learn their movements. After a few weeks I became familiar with a few of the regulars. Underground types who looked like they came to Papillon for more than just a kick back.
One of these regulars was Alice Litvak. I couldn't count a single night that she wasn't there at least briefly. Usually hanging around the doorman, observing. Like me. From asking around I learned that she was presumed to be covert muscle for one of the gangs who frequented the Papillon, although people were always fuzzy on who exactly she worked for. Sent in to supervise supply and report back about any new dealers trying to shoe in on their turf.
I learned that people generally kept Alice at a wide berth. She had large round eyes and gave off a vibrating intensity that suggested she wasn't quite running on the same mental playing field as the rest of us. The muscle rumour came from the fact that she wore an armoured glove on her left hand, which weirder still had been melted into her skin like a brand.
She'd clearly had the armour for a long time, as patches of her skin had started trying to grow over it in places. Of course, everyone had a different story for why her arm looked that way, but no-one had ever dared to ask her. In fact, I never saw anyone speaking to Alice at all.
She could usually be seen making the rounds. Observing everyone with her signature quiet intensity. I found out that her drink was Zubrowka and apple juice. After my 5th visit to the club in as many days, I thought it might make sense to buy her one. I found her sitting at a VIP table. She gave me a strange look when I dropped the glass in front of her. Complex, but those round eyes still did a good job of convincing me I should turn and run.
'You looked thirsty', I said, after a pause long enough to destroy any illusions that I was aloof. She didn't smile but I got the sense that she was amused by my actions. However, after several painful seconds of silence, I turned to leave.
'Sit down', she said. Her face remained neutral, but she had stopped blinking. I took the seat, hoping she wouldn't realise that I had done it out of fear.
'What is that?' she indicated the glass. I had never heard anyone speak with such a flat cadence or lack of intonation. Although her voice wasn't droning, just emotionless. It's hard to put it into words. Almost deadpan, but without any humour.
'It's apple pie', I smiled, subtly dabbing away the nervous sweat that had gathered at the nape of my neck. She didn't take her eyes off me as she reached across the table to take a sip from my offering. She gave no indication she liked it, or even appreciated it, having turned her attention back to the other people in the room.
'What's your name?'
There was another long pause. I almost felt like she was an old computer that needed to finish a previous task before processing the next.
'I'm Alice', she said, unashamedly offering me her left hand. The metal was cold, and close up it was more like scales than a glove. I got no sense that she was embarrassed by it, in fact she seemed to be favouring the hand. As if to show it off. In an odd way, it kind of made me like her. Although it was jarring to make small talk with someone so completely unreadable.
We talked for a while and she told me she was a promoter for Papillon, although I found this hard to believe considering her default stony silence. Alice guessed that I was a student, and I admitted that I was a Chemistry Major. She seemed to like the sound of that. For the most part I told her the truth. I figured there was no sense lying if you don't have to. There would be plenty of opportunity to tie myself in knots later.
Someone dropped into the booth beside Alice, an Hispanic girl with a short blunt bob that had been tinted green at the ends. The girl began whispering something to Alice, but noticing me she clammed up.
'Whose this?' she said, her look had the same effect as a hand being shoved into my face.
'This is Attol', said Alice.
'Get out of here', the girl snapped, and I leapt from my seat as if I had been stung. Quietly I stashed myself across the bar, but continued to watch them from the shadows. The girl began whispering to Alice again, her golden septum ring glinting in the low lighting as she moved.
The girl pointed towards the back fire exit just as a young man was being forcibly removed through it, apparently unnoticed by any of the other patrons. Seeing Alice and the girl leaving the booth, I decided to slip out of the front way to see if maybe I could tail them.
They hadn't gone far. Two meat heads were holding the man against the wall in the back alley. Seeing them there, I felt my heart flutter. Just feet from where Papillon had dumped Mike and Liza into the street. I felt angry, but did my best to remain passive, watching them from the shadows.
The girl with the bob seemed to be in fighting stance, while the muscle held the man pinned, and Alice watched indifferently from the periphery.
'Tell those Rochers I want a summit'.
The man laughed. Furiously the girl slammed the heel of her hand down onto his nose, causing him to yowl loudly in pain.
'Did I say something funny, lackey?'
The man didn't respond, staring down at the ground, and watching the blood start dripping down his face.
'Tell the twins they will meet with the Halos. The Butterfly is pissed. She wants to know who set off that dirty X in Papillon, says they're going to reimburse her for loss of earnings. Right now it looks like us since we had the floor that night, but I know it was you Rochers that did it. We deal in powders and smoke only'.
The man looked up, clearly mulling something over, he looked like he might be about to speak but instead spat, missing the girl by inches. Smirking bitterly the girl moved aside, indicating that it was Alice's turn to intervene. Calmly Alice stepped forward, but the man shrank back from her, immediately regretting his decision.
Alice stood staring at him for a moment, before delivering a powerful gut punch using her armoured hand. The action looked like a jump cut from a Bruce Lee movie. There was no indication in her body before or after that gave any inference that she had moved, or intended to move, at all. Yet the aftermath was apparent, as the guy began seeping down the wall having been brutally winded.
Before the man had recovered, Alice stepped forward brandishing a blade that looked to have appeared from thin air. The man cowered, glancing between Alice and the knife, and squirming as she pressed the sharp edge into the notch of his upper thigh. Right against his femoral artery.
' Are we clear?' said the girl with the bob.
The man still did not respond, fearfully transfixed on Alice and her large round eyes. Rolling her eyes, the girl with the bob let out a bored sigh.
'I guess we can get the information to them some other way', then she waved like an emperor giving the signal, causing the captured man to squeal pitifully.
'I wouldn't do that', a voice called from the neck of the alley, drawing my attention to a presence beside me. A woman with bleach blonde hair and a well-tailored white fur coat that had been cinched at the waist. She was a small woman, pitched up on gigantic black heels, but everyone froze the moment she stepped into the light.
I don't know how long she had been standing beside me, but she gave me a knowing look that sent terror rattling down my spine. I didn't dare move. Rooted to the spot, I couldn't tell if the others had seen me, hoping that maybe she would think I was stashed there as look out and not just a voyeur.
Everyone in the alley averted their gaze, trying to appear meek, as the woman came slowly clicking towards them. Alice didn't flinch, keeping the knife pressed into the man's groin.
'I'm just trying to get the Rochers to meet with us', mumbled the girl with the bob, inciting the ire of this mysterious woman who paused just beside her, causing the girl's body to tighten.
'By murdering one of their underlings in my alley', every word struck the girl like a knife edge, 'Are we trying to get me closed down?'
The girl with the bob shook her head frantically, trying to shrink herself, mortified to have angered this woman.
'I expected better from you, Florencia', the woman purred, gently tapping Alice on the shoulder to dismiss her. The woman clicked and immediately the meat-heads released the man, who allowed himself to slide onto the ground in exhaustion.
The woman crouched down, her face serene as she placed her gloved hand under the man's chin to direct his gaze towards her. 'You'll tell the Rochers I asked them to meet with the Halos, won't you'.
'Yes, Butterfly', the man whimpered, quickly getting to his feet and running off into the night. The Butterfly bobbed her head signalling the muscle to go back into the club, as she too made her way inside. Then she paused. Moving back to Alice, she whispered something that caused Alice's face to whip towards the neck of the alley.
I didn't wait to see what happened next. I was already sprinting down the strip, uncertain whether the drumming in my ears was them chasing me or just the thumping of my own heartbeat. When I was through the gates back at my dorm I knew I was alone, but I knew I had been seen.
From now on I’d now be looking over my shoulder.