Eyes On Me
Rhiannon’s Law #51: It’s a crime not to take a fool’s money. If they are stupid enough to put it on the table, be smart enough to take it off their hands. Stupid is as stupid does -- so don’t be stupid.
Lining up the short shot, I decided not to baby the ball and sent it rocketing into the tight corner pocket, using a bit of draw to make the cue roll back nice and fancy. The moment the money arrived to its destination, I slowly eased from my crouch, slid my stick onto the table, and faced my opponent. I could have asked for the dinero he owed me, but it wasn’t necessary. He was already reaching into his back pocket for his wallet. The poor bastard didn’t seem too happy about his first hand introduction to Law #51, but I relieved him of his crisp and shiny Andrew Jackson just the same. His expensive Meucci with the ivory and jade inlay told me he had plenty to spare, and besides, it was a slow night to hustle.
“Funny, you didn’t play this well twenty minutes ago,” he informed me as he passed the money over.
“That’s because I wasn’t warm yet.” Accepting the bill with a smile, I hiked my chin in the direction of the table. “Do you want to go another round?”
He allowed the stick to slide through his fingers, until the plastic bumper rested on the floor, and leaned forward as he wrapped both hands around the shaft. “Are you going to let me break?”
Smirking, I lifted my index finger to my forehead and swiped it across. “Do I have stupid written across here?”
“Excuse me,” a smooth, husky southern baritone drawled.
The hair on my nape rose on end, tingling as my heart hammered a fast staccato. The gift of necromancy told me what was standing behind me; a familiar and unwelcome hum accompanied the vibration under my skin. I would have welcomed anything else at the moment -- a battered wife, the victim of a gunshot wound to the head, a machine operator who lost their grip and fell into a meat grinder.
Anything but what I knew stood at my back.
As I turned toward the voice, I steeled myself to remain expressionless and tilted my chin to look into the face of the newest challenger to step up to the table. He was dressed in his fuck me best -- a snug black T-shirt that displayed his defined, muscular torso, blue jeans that molded to his thighs like a worn, second skin, and battered combat boots. Strands of dark, red hair fell across his forehead, his ocean blue eyes vibrant inside the smoke filled room. His non-threatening stance, handsome face, and friendly smile were the deceptive devices of a hunter, used to lower the defenses and make it easier to move in for the kill.
As if they needed another weapon against helpless, horny females -- fucking vampires.
He winked at me like the practiced panty charmer he undoubtedly was, plopped a twenty onto the green felt, and lounged against the table. “Are you up for a game?”
“No can do, I’m already --”
“I’m done here,” sour puss loser interrupted, breaking down his stick. “Just don’t let her break or play safety. You’ll never get to the table.”
I was left to gawk as the man I’d just hustled strode to the small round table with his belongings, collected his case and beer, and headed for the bar. Aside from my desire to chase the asshole down and force him back to the table, I cursed my decision to visit Shooter’s Pool Hall versus Harry’s Pub and Grill across town. It had been a hasty decision when I’d noticed Harry’s was slammed to the gills, and I realized there wouldn’t be a free table unless I won it and kept it.
The vampire grinned when I returned my attention to him, extending his hand. “Cash.”
I didn’t mirror the movement, folding my arms across my chest, and sized him up. He wasn’t carrying a cue or case, which didn’t mean much. Most hustlers -- myself included -- carried cues that resembled the house sticks lined along the walls, trying to pretend they didn’t know what the fuck they were doing. It was easier to blend in as a newbie and scam those who didn’t know better. His posture, however, told me he wanted to play for fun, and aside from the boots, he didn’t appear to be someone who was in dire straits or feinding for drug money or the like.
To hell with it. If he wanted to play for money, I was game. There were enough people in the joint to keep things safe, and money from a vampire spent just as well as anyone else’s.
Shrugging, I turned toward the table holding my case and chalk. “Cash works for me.”
He laughed, and the unexpected, humored sound caused me to glance in his direction. He was right on my ass but stopped before he got too close, as if he was aware I wasn’t entirely comfortable with his company.
“That’s my name. Not the score, sweetheart.” His pronunciation of sweetheart left out the all important “h,” making it sound more like sweet-art.
Terms of endearment -- how I fucking hate them. “That’s nice.” I blew him off and snagged my bottle of water. “I’m breaking. Go rack.”
He hesitated and his smile slowly vanished, as if he found my disinterest unexpected. When he turned around and walked to the end of the table to do as I requested, I noticed the set of his shoulders was tense now versus relaxed. They stayed that way even as he retrieved the balls from the pocket and pulled the wooden rack from the light fixture above the table.
Reaching inward for that mental headspace I needed to focus on a game, I took one final swig of my drink, screwed the lid on the top, and turned to place it on the table when I came face to face with another vampire seated on my barstool. Whereas Cash was friendly and offered an easy going smile, this one studied me with a knowing expression, his eyes the color of pristine aquamarine. It was impossible to silence my alarmed gasp or mask the reaction that was second nature. I jerked back, moving away, and tripped over my cue case when it fell from the table top.
His large hand wrapped around my forearm, keeping my ass from connecting with grimy carpet. He pulled me upright, his grip steady and firm, and released me when I regained my balance. As I stepped back, we faced off, although I was forced to look up to maintain eye contact.
His thick, dark coat made it impossible to tell just how broad in the shoulders he was, but judging by the skin tight black turtleneck tucked into his tailored slacks, I was fairly certain the bulk was all him. His honey blond hair was neatly trimmed and brushed away from his face, bringing focus to defined cheekbones and the squared line of his jaw. Although he looked like he was nearing thirty, I knew he was a hell of a lot older. He didn’t speak, sizing me up. To his credit, his gaze remained on my face versus taking a leisurely trip down my body as I was accustomed to.
Those eyes, and the concentrated stare he was aiming in my direction, caused my palms to go clammy and my breathing to stint. This was a vampire that could rip me wide open using his bare hands. I knew it, could feel it. He would eat my ass, leave my gnawed carcass in a dumpster in an abandoned alley, and continue on with the nightlife as usual. As much as I wanted to play off my nerves and act unaffected, I knew he could see my fingers tremble as I bent at the waist and retrieved my case from the floor. Mr. Tall, Dark, and Terrifying was waiting for me when I righted myself and took the case before I dropped it again, confirming my suspicion as he placed it on top of the table.
Shit, shit, shit.
“All set,” Cash called out from behind me and, for the first time in my life, I wanted to thank a god damned creature of the night for saving my wretched ass.
Pivoting away from the vampire in my seat, I faced the less-threatening but equally deadly fire crotch with the winning smile. Two vamps in one joint. What were the odds? Dismal. Which told me they were together.
Cash collected my stick from the table, brought it to me, and placed it into the hand I extended as my brain began functioning on automatic. “Take it easy on me,” he said jokingly, keeping things light, as if he could tell just how rattled I was. “I’m fragile.”
The moment he stepped past, walking toward the table to his friend, my brain kicked into gear.
Fragile my ass.
I focused on the comforting weight of the cue in my hand and welcomed the smooth glide of the wood between my fingers, but I knew I was fucked. While it wasn’t visible to those who weren’t looking, I was trembling violently, like a lowly tree trapped in a category five hurricane. I’d left Miami to get away from this very thing; to keep a safe distance from what I knew would most certainly kill me. Past experience taught me that once you were on the blood sucking radar you’d better start working out an escape strategy, lay low until an opportunity to slip away presented itself, and get the hell out while you still could.
Placing the twenty onto the side bumper, I held my breath, hunkered down and got comfortable, and said a prayer to the pool gods that I made the nine on the break so I could call it a night. One stroke, then another, and I put all my strength into my hip as I stroked through the ball and shifted my weight into my shoulder. The tip connected with the cue which then slammed into the first two balls on the right of the racked diamond. A loud crack resounded in my ears and the rounded spheres of resin scattered like pinballs. The cue ball rolled forward for a moment and, due to the draw I’d put on it, began creeping back toward the middle of the table as the two and eight ball dropped.
My heart felt as if it exploded in relief when the nine stopped in front of the corner pocket and the one ball slid into perfect alignment. I’d always loved slinging the money, and I found it rather damned poetic I was about to against a vampire. While it was apparent Cash wanted to play, I certainly didn’t. Now, only a single combination stood between me and the door of the building.
Thank Christ for small favors.
As I lined up to take the shot and got comfortable, I noticed a lurker was standing just over the pocket. My focus quickly drifted from the balls on the table to the shadow he created, breaking my concentration. It was a diptwat thing to do -- causing a distraction during a game -- and I waited for the asshole to get out of the way. There was no way I was risking making this combination and sticking around to shoot the breeze with vampires.
“Do you mind?” I grumbled loudly enough for him to hear while keeping my focus on the shiny yellow one ball when he didn’t move. The alignment was just right. If I glanced up to glare at the person, I’d have to stand, take another look, and get back into position. Second guessing a shot caused you to take what was natural and apply additional pressure where none was necessary, which was something I didn’t want to do.
“Need some help?” Cash asked from just behind me, and I could hear the laughter in his voice. “You can bribe me with the promise of sexual favors.”
Cursing beneath my breath, I bit my tongue and took a deep breath before I yelled, “Hello, Captain Oblivious. You want to move? I’m trying to shoot here,” but for all the venom in my voice, the fucker ruining my game might as well have been deaf.
I heard Cash murmur something behind me, followed by another, deeper voice that I couldn’t make it out. The conspiring whispers only agitated me. One word from them and the dick stalling things would move it along. Of course, if they did that, then my night would be peaches, and God just couldn't have that, could he?
That thin string that held my temper together began to unravel, the already worn threads that consisted of my patience snapping one by one. First, it was vampires. Now it was an asshole who was making a bad night into the fucking pits.
Annoyed and exasperated when he remained where he was and the leeches at my back continued whispering, I unhinged the bridge my fingers created along the shaft of my stick, slapped my palm on the table, and looked up at the shadow hovering over the nine ball as I snarled, “Would you get the fuck out of the way?”
Horror swept through me the minute my furious gaze passed through the shadow, and I saw the people standing across the way who were looking at me as if I’d grown another head. A man wasn’t standing over my pocket, a ghostly torso shrouded in black was. I gawked like a star-struck teenager who’d spied Robert Pattinson with K. Stew at the local 7-Eleven, eyes wide and mouth gaping, mortified that I’d not only slipped up, but had screamed at someone who, to the average person, wasn’t even there.
“Who are you talking to, chica?” Cash had come around the side of the table, looking at me oddly, and my face flushed, growing white hot in embarrassment.
It was damned hard to tear my eyes away from the male, twenty-something ghost who stood at the end of the table staring directly at me, but somehow I did. Relying purely on instinct, I crouched over the table, got into position, and let it rip. The cue sent the one into the nine and the striped ball sank with a deafening pop. I yanked my stick back, snagged the cash from the bumper rail, and rose in the same motion.
When I began breaking down my Sneaky Pete, Cash stepped in front of me. “Come on now. You can’t leave yet. We were just getting started.” His smile said he was at ease, but his jerky mannerisms and flickering glimpses behind me -- which were uncharacteristic of his kind -- gave him away. “You can’t take my money and run.”
I turned, kept my attention on the ground, and hurried to retrieve my case. Unfortunately, the cheap leather holder was clutched inside the hands of the vampire with a black hard-on. When I looked him in the eye, silently dared him to fuck with me, and tried to take it from him, he hoisted his much longer arm up into the air and placed it out of my reach.
The expensive clothing and his immaculate appearance told me he was wealthy, but he carried himself like a street brawler; his observant, glittering eyes too disconcerting for comfort. I’d steeled myself for the cadence and dialect of a predator -- braced to go head to head with a bad attitude and an ego to match -- and was completely taken off guard when a silken, sophisticated baritone caressed my ears.
“What’s your name?”
I had no idea why he was staring at me so strangely, those glorious blue peepers far too inquisitive. However, it wasn’t the fact that he was staring at me so directly that made my skin crawl and my stomach contort. It was the fact that the harshness in his face was gone, smoothed by what I perceived to be a dawning understanding and awareness -- as well as something I didn’t care, or want, to define.
Too proud to beg, I lowered my hand and narrowed my eyes. “Give me the case.”
Apparently, my anger amused him. “Give me a name.”
Anger -- hot and welcome -- pulsed through me. Right now, I wasn’t alone in an alley or someplace he could play his hand. I was surrounded by people, meaning I was safe and he was shit out of luck.
Smiling sweetly, I lifted my arm, balled up my fist, and gave him a middle finger salute. “Wilma,” I said. “Wilma Fingerdo.”
“Don’t antagonize her, Disco.” Cash’s voice at my ear caused me to jump to the right, and my elbow caught the side of the table. My water bottle fell from the surface, along with the wooden box that stored the fast food menu, salt and pepper, and mustard and ketchup.
“Shit,” Cash muttered and moved to retrieve the mess, opening a window of opportunity for me to dart forward, grab the case that was now within my reach, and snag it from the hands of the asshole who flashed narrowed eyes of his own at me before I began a hasty retreat toward the bar.
I shoved the divided cue into the allotted slots of the case without the normal care I usually gave them, forgoing the plastic joint protectors that were nestled inside the zippered compartment on the front. I’d only been at the table for an hour, which meant the twenty I’d swiped from Cash would take care of things.
“Yo, BB!” I called out as I approached the counter, glancing past the shoulders in my way, and extended the bill to the greying bartender filling a mug full of Smithwick’s on tap. He frowned when he saw me, stopped the tap, and immediately started walking to the end of the bar. I knew it was because he’d never seen me so demanding or edgy. Normally, I was cool as a cucumber. It was a necessary evil when hustling. Just like poker, you never revealed your hand. “Here’s the money for the table.”
“Is everything okay, Rhiannon?”
I passed the money to him and smiled thinly, desperate to get the fuck out of the building. “I just have somewhere I need to be. I lost track of time.”
He accepted the cash, but I knew he didn’t buy my excuse. Not that it mattered. I didn’t plan to return to Shooter’s. Not for a long, long time. The truth was I’d gotten too comfortable, having forgotten cardinal rule number one -- never let your guard down.
I felt eyes on me and glanced over my shoulder, wincing as I realized BB had just given the vampire -- Disco -- my name. He was standing just a few feet away, observing our conversation. His black coat was thrust back just enough for him to place his hands inside his slacks, his feet placed shoulder width apart. Gone was the curiosity and intrigue in his attractive face, replaced by the cool, aloof, and frankly terrifying demeanor that had created my first -- and lasting -- impression of him.
The ID checker at the door moved aside as I hustled for the exit. People were standing directly outside, smoking cigarettes. The grayish clouds parted when I rushed through them and began waving frantically at the lone cab that was steadily approaching. As it slowed to a stop, I stepped onto the street, yanked open the door, and lunged inside.
“Where to?” the cabbie asked as I slammed the door closed and he started the meter.
I was about to answer when I glanced out the window and saw a dark form step through the misty vapor I’d just abandoned. His blond hair reflected the red neon light above the building, the red hues shadowing his shoulders making him appear far more sinister. He took a box of cigarettes from his pocket, pulled one out and placed it to his lips, and promptly lit the tip with a practiced flick of the flashy Zippo he produced that caused the neon to cast a mirrored shade of ruby across his face.
As he took a long, deliberate drag, he met my eyes and didn’t look away.
“Greenpoint,” I replied hoarsely and averted my gaze, shifting away from the door.
The cab shifted and started to move down the street, putting distance between us, but my nerves didn’t settle and heart continued to race. That horrible sense of intuition I’d always relied on warned me that while I might have gotten away tonight, this wasn’t the last I’d see of him.
Rotating in the seat, I took a final glance through the back window. Disco remained in the same spot, toking on his cig.
As if he had all the time in the world.
Rhiannon’s Law # 44: Don’t believe the shit adults pawned off on you as a child. The scariest monsters do not live in closets or come out from under your bed at night. They survive right along beside you, out in the open -- right where you can see them.
© J.A. Saare 2010