She knew he would be but just seeing him again makes her catch her breath. She struggles to remain calm, to control the blush in her cheeks, the light in her eyes at the sight of him. But she is out of practice. Just another crowd. Just another day, she tells herself. She keeps up the charade, smiling coyly at the rapt crowd but watches him from beneath lowered lashes.
He looks good. Dammit. He always did.
He’s not smiling. Just looking at her in that way of his that made her feel as if she was the only woman in the world. She was used to men looking at her. Men had looked at her all her life. But no one had ever looked at her like that before.
Doesn’t he know he’s being set up?
Why is he here? He must have seen the posters. But he knows she’s not allowed to perform. Why is he here?
Thoughts run through her mind in double time.
Fear, guilt, anguish all sear through her and she feels the cuts like they were from one of her husband’s jeweled knives. God knows she’s been at the receiving end of those blades often enough. The pretty gown hides the scars. She has many pretty gowns.
The rest of the men see only what they want to see – a beauty, theirs for one night to look at, but not to touch. They don’t know the truth. She doubted they’d care very much if they did.
That’s the trouble with beauty. It’s difficult to look beyond it; easier to linger on the surface. Enjoy the pretty face. Move on.
Many men had swooned at her beauty. Only one cared to look beyond it. She had lost track of the mindless flattery, endless eloquence about her face, features, body. Only one had ever used the same words to describe her soul. Many men had claimed to love her, but only one had feelings for her that weren’t a consequence of her beauty. That man wasn’t her husband. Her husband was better with knives than he was with people.
But don’t change a hair for me. Not if you care for me. Stay, little Valentine, stay…
In quieter moments, she would sneak towards the cabinet where her old enemies slept, deceptively dormant on their silk cushions. Light would bounce off the jewel encrusted handles, warming her face with kaleidoscopic colour. She used to stare at them numbly for hours, fingering raw cuts, wondering how something so beautiful could cause so much destruction; so much pain.
She raises her eyes to look at him and recognizes the look on his face. It’s the one she would wear when she looked at those knives, hurting, wondering.
He knew she was bait. He knew this would be the end of him. But he had come to see her anyway.
Oh Jimmy. You wonderful, foolish, wonderful man. Why did you come for me? You know I’m a lost cause. You know you can’t save me. You know I love you. Why did you come?
Time flies when you’re having fun.
The sequence of events that followed were a blur, Jack would later relate to wide-eyed customers as he poured out drink after drink. This story was always his ticket to good business on any night, slow or busy. The more engrossed they were, the more they wanted the drinks to keep coming,the alcohol fuelling their imagination as they pictured the events…
It was somewhere in the middle of the song when the regulars realize that something’s different. The place is fuller. Still quiet, but fuller than it was a few seconds – or was it minutes? – ago.
They look around in confusion and realize they’ve been duped. Snatches of their earlier conversation come back to them, ringing with irony.
“There must be a job going down tonight.”
“Wouldn’t miss the show tonight. It promises to be big.”
This was the job. This was the show.
The Boss’s men had slipped in like shadows but now their collective presence thickens the air enough to suffocate. They look fresh, energized and ready for the kill.
The stranger’s eyes flit around, acknowledging their entry, but he stays put and returns his attention to the jewel on stage.
Her eyes are nervous but she continues to sing, her hands still held tensely behind her back.
Stay little Valentine, stay… Each day is Valentine’s d-
Her voice wavers and breaks. The mic catches one helpless whispered phrase before she looks away.
The hands which had remained locked behind her from the start of her performance break apart. One of them loosely holds a gun and the sight of it gets the whole club scrambling in a panic. Only the gangsters keep their cool.
This is all part of the plan.
…to be continued.