Theophilia St. Claire © 2017
All Rights Reserved
Nick glared at the fingers on his arm, the grip tight enough to be offensive. His gaze crawled its way up to the owner’s face. Handsome guy. Tall. European-looking with stylish dark-blond hair and piercing hazel eyes. He stared at Nick expectantly, waiting for his response. His full mouth parted slightly.
I’m at work, Nick reminded himself. He couldn’t go off on a rude customer again. Not if he wanted to keep his job. Nick shrugged off the stranger’s grip. “Sorry, no.” He carried the empty water pitcher through the lively crowd toward the bar.
His best friend, Eric Ruiz, raised a brow at him. “What was that about?”
“No clue. He called me Christian.”
Eric frowned, stroking his goatee. “Christian? What? The name or the religion?”
“Do I care?”
“Sounds like a poor attempt at hollering at you, hermano.” Eric sneered as he took in the customer’s appearance. “Upper East Side boys ain’t got no game.”
Nick glanced over his shoulder, back at the table he’d just walked by. Even though he had company, the stranger focused on Nick. His expression hardened, dangerously so. “What the hell is his problem?”
“Don’t worry about it, yo. Let’s get back to work before Phil sees us slacking.”
Nick agreed. Taking his thoughts away from the man, Nick headed off to check on his tables.
It was Valentine’s Day, so Jenkins’ Jazz Bar was busier than usual. Loving couples and groups of friends celebrating their singleness occupied every table and booth. Food and drinks flew from the kitchen at a rate almost too quickly to comprehend. Hell, Nick wasn’t even sure the house band had taken a break yet. Since the bar opened that evening, it’d been one fast-paced blur.
Nick checked on a stylish older couple who should have been dining on Madison Avenue, not a basement joint in East Harlem.
That guy too, Nick thought. He stole a glance at table nine, which Mercedes tended. The stranger wasn’t looking his way anymore, so Nick studied him a moment. The guy was groomed and decked out in top-notch designer clothes. Everything about him—from the way he sat to the way he sipped his cocktail—screamed money. He probably owned a penthouse on Fifth Avenue too. Nick gave a wry smile at the thought.
“We’ll take two rum cakes. And I’d love another glass of this wine, if you don’t mind.”
Nick brought his attention back to the smiling woman. “Sure thing.” He headed to the brand-new station to key in their orders.
The front door opened.
A young man wearing a black hoodie paired with loose-fit jeans stepped inside.
Nick sucked in a deep breath, inhaling the mingled scents of soul food. The visible tattoos on the guy’s knuckles and neck did not bode well for Nick. Had they found him already? After only a year?
“Shit.” Nick needed to check on two tables, but he didn’t care about anything other than staying out of the guy’s sight. He rushed into the kitchen, glad for the safety of the steel double doors.
“You okay? Look like you saw a ghost.” Mercedes Shaw was the eighteen-year-old niece of Phil Jenkins, the bar’s owner.
“Yeah,” Nick replied. “Actually, you mind taking these rolls to table seven for me? I need a breather.”
Mercedes’s brown eyes softened with understanding. “Yeah, I got you. It’s been like this all day, huh?”
Nick nodded, even though the fast pace wasn’t the problem. He hurried out the back door with a sigh of relief.
The temperature had dropped into the low twenties, but the cold air soothed his flustered skin. Nick leaned against the building, raking a hand through his hair while trying not to think about the tattooed newcomer inside. Instead, he focused on his immediate surroundings, though there wasn’t much to look at. The back door led to an alley that smelled like trash and piss. Police sirens and the occasional gunshot created life’s soundtrack there in his corner of Manhattan. That, he was used to. He didn’t want to give up the life he’d found there. Not yet. More than anything, he dreaded being back on the streets.
Nick didn’t stay outside long. He wasn’t looking to give Mr. Jenkins any reason to fire him. He just hoped the asshole had left already.
Nick’s shift ended at one in the morning. Fortunately for him, the night flew by without further incident. Only the staff remained, bussing tables and cleaning floors, while the band put away their instruments and wiped sweat from their foreheads.
“Good job, everyone,” Phil called out. He draped the towel onto his graying ‘fro and glanced about the space with a hearty smile. “Boy, it’s been a long time since I’ve played back-to-back like that. Stamina ain’t what it used to be. I’m getting too old for this.”
Nick nodded in agreement as he took a seat at the bar. He was only twenty-four, but all the running around had him feeling like a middle-aged man.
Eric set a shot of something in front of him. “You wanna stay at my place tonight?”
Nick barely peered up. He sifted through his tip money, calculating how much he needed for Amy’s medical expenses and to get caught up on his rent. The night had been packed, but his tips were only marginally better than what he usually made on a good night. Most of the couples had probably bought expensive gifts first, then came out to dinner. Nick inwardly groaned. He was still short a few hundred dollars.
“Yo, Nicky. You ignoring me?”
“My bad.” Nick grabbed the shot glass and downed the alcohol in one go. Tequila. He stuffed the money back into his pocket. “I’m just gonna go home. Coming with me to the bus stop?”
“Naw, I’m here ’til two. Inventory and shit. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Good luck with that.” Nick gathered his things and left the bar.
Outside, the temperature had dropped from earlier, but the cold didn’t faze Nick as he slid into his worn puffer coat. The bus stop was a half mile away on East 116th Street.
The darkness seemed heavy whenever Nick left work alone around that time. Sometimes, listening to music helped him not to notice the lack of streetlights in the area or imagine what lurked in the shadows, waiting to jump out at any moment. But he wouldn’t be listening to anything, not after earlier. He pulled the hood of his coat on top of his head and tucked his hands into the pockets like he clenched something other than his MP3 player. He looked menacing, no doubt about it. The defense mechanism surprisingly kept him from being bothered most times.
Nick quickened his pace to the bus stop. He didn’t enjoy being alone out there. Heavy footsteps followed closely behind Nick, noticeable without the sound of traffic. Nick glimpsed over his shoulder.
There, following a few feet behind him, was the tattooed gangster from earlier.
Nick’s heart pounded. He almost stumbled as he continued to move forward, even while gazing backward.
The guy reached into his coat pocket.