Chapter 1 – Sacrifice
A shower of silver liquid flowed from a rouge-tinted bottle onto taut skin – neck, collarbone, shoulders, wrists. The stench of strong perfume clogged the air. She felt the cocaine surge, suppressed emotions simmering beneath her skin. Reality transformed into elated numbness. The stopper penetrated the bottle, obstructing the fluid from freedom, yet escape would come for her tonight.
Tracy closed her eyes and inhaled the perfume, fought the cough that built in her throat. The liquid trickling down her wrists she rubbed across her arms, carelessly scratching herself with a ruby-red fingernail to leave a ghostly trail. A scarlet dress clung to her skeletal frame; powder hid her bruised flesh. Snakes coiled around the leather straps on her feet, their garnet eyes staring into the darkness consuming her.
A last glance at her reflection: a lifeless shell, a wraith-like face framed with a wreath of black hair. Her eyes filled with tears when she thought of the sacrifice she would make. Tears seeped into her satin dress, dark stains swelling on the material. The tears would fade then disappear, evaporating like her perfume, soon her soul.
Coke, beautiful and enchanting powder, took hold of her mind and carried away her haunting sadness. A vase embracing a dozen blood-red roses stood on the table. Another unspoken apology. She hurled the vase across the room and watched it shatter against the far wall. Wiping her tears away, she grabbed her bag and marched towards the door, glass shards crunching beneath her heels.
A crisp breeze stabbed the air as she strode towards her car, a crimson Porsche parked in the driveway. The suburbs were quiet but the night purposeful, enclosed in dark energy. Slamming shut the car door, she relaxed into the seat and flexed her fingers across the cold leather steering wheel. As she sped down the driveway the imitation of a smile failed to enhance her haunted face.
Vincent Kelding downed another shot from his tumbler. The warmth of whisky rolled down his throat as he glanced at his cards. He smiled to himself and looked at the three men sitting around the table. ‘Last hand… How much are we playing for?’
Tony, wearing a shirt that stretched in protest across his stomach, threw his cards down. ‘Nothing. You’ve already taken too much of my fucking money.’
Vincent’s grin widened as he placed his cards down and pushed up the sleeves of his green shirt, a black lightning bolt marking his skin. ‘Arnie? Come on, don’t disappoint me,’ he mocked.
Arnie was an ex-soldier who didn’t lift his thin blue eyes off his cards, calculating the odds that Vincent would have another good hand. Finally, he threw down his cards and announced he folded too.
Vincent lastly turned to Joe. ‘Well?’ Vincent asked, his look challenging.
Joe Balanescu laced his hands behind his head and leant back in his chair, evaluating the other man. His maroon silk shirt was taut against his arms, a matching tie tucked firmly into pressed trousers. He folded his arms. ‘Five grand.’
Vincent sneered at by far the largest bet of the night. ‘Five thousand is stingy. I’ll raise you… to ten.’
‘Jesus,’ Tony muttered, gesturing to the barmaid to get him another beer. ‘Anyone else want one?’
‘Nah,’ Arnie replied. ‘I’ve got to get back to my shift.’
‘After you see the look on Vinnie’s face when he’s lost,’ Joe laughed.
Vincent’s eyes narrowed. Although he didn’t mind being called Vincent or Vince, he hated the name Vinnie: his father’s name. Once he hospitalised a man for calling him Vinnie. He broke the stranger’s cheekbone, nose and eye socket, leaving him unconscious and bleeding on the roadside. Tonight though he overlooked Joe’s taunt, recognising they were in competition.
Joe smiled at the barmaid collecting glasses. ‘I’ll have another whisky, sweetheart.’
‘Sure,’ the barmaid purred, reaching down to pick up his tumbler, flaunting her cleavage framed in a low-cut red dress.
‘I’ll have another too,’ Vincent ordered, glaring at Joe and sliding his tumbler across the table.
‘Two whiskies and a beer,’ confirmed the barmaid, picking up Vincent’s glass.
Her eyes lingered on Joe before she sauntered out of the room, blonde hair swaying behind her back.
Joe’s eyes followed her. ‘She wants me.’
‘She wants a pay rise,’ Vincent contradicted.
Joe smirked. ‘When I win this hand I’ll make sure I give her a fucking big tip.’
‘I wonder what Tracy would say about that…’
The men glanced up as Angela, Joe’s younger sister, walked into the room. She came from the club donned in black chiffon and leather boots. Scarlet lipstick and dark eyes accentuated her pale skin. Sitting down on a bench plumped with leather cushions, she crossed her legs and leant an arm on the back of Arnie’s chair.
‘Who the fuck told you we were playing?’ asked Tony.
‘Relax, I’m not staying. You wouldn’t want me “stealing all your money” again, would you? I was just seeing what you were all up to… What’s the bet?’
Joe smiled at Vincent. ‘Twenty thousand.’
The room went quiet and Angela laughed. ‘Glad I’m not playing. Then again, it looks like Vince doesn’t want to be playing either.’
Vincent glared at Angela before turning to Joe and checking. ‘Twenty grand.’
‘Pride’s a dangerous thing,’ commented Angela, lighting up a cigarette. ‘Why do you boys always make stupid bets to see who’s got the biggest pair?’
‘Lust is a dangerous thing too,’ Vincent countered, reaching out to take a cigarette. ‘You sleep around with every man in sight just to find out who’s got the biggest balls?’
‘Hey! Come on –’ Joe interjected.
‘What’s it to you, Vince?’ Angela asked indifferently, slowly exhaling smoke. ‘Jealous?’
Vincent felt his jaw twitch. ‘Don’t flatter yourself,’ he said.
‘Drinks, guys,’ the barmaid interrupted, walking into the room holding high a black tray. She set the drinks down then nodded at Angela, somewhat coldly. ‘Ange. Want anything?’
‘I’m fine.’ Angela smiled, although all feeling seemed lost in the gesture. ‘Tell you what, Julie, why don’t you sit down next to me and we’ll see who’s going to part with their twenty large?’
The barmaid froze, unsure of why Angela invited her to sit with the group. ‘Sure, thanks.’
She took a seat and Joe winked at her, eyes sliding over her body, settling on her thighs barely covered by the red dress that rode up higher when she sat down.
Joe turned his attention back to Vincent. ‘I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.’
Rolling his eyes, Vincent picked up his tumbler to reveal a wet ring that pooled across the table. He closed his eyes and knocked back all of the cinnamon-coloured liquid, ice clinking against his teeth. The drink blended with the smoke clinging to the back of his throat. He looked up at Joe’s confident face and took another drag on his cigarette, then reached out and turned over his cards: three kings.
Joe started to chuckle quietly, picking up his whisky to take a sip. ‘Well, well, well. Three little kings…’ He took another sip, looking down at Vincent’s cards with a smile playing across his lips. ‘So the question now…’ he continued, eyes darting up to look at Vincent. ‘The question is: is my hand better or worse than yours?’
‘I think he knows how to play the game, Joe,’ Angela said under her breath.
Joe drained the last few drops of his drink and placed his glass down on the table next to Vincent’s. ‘We’re going to reveal the winner: the person with the best hand; the person who’ll collect the winnings and go home with a big grin plastered all over his face.’
‘Show me your damn hand,’ Vincent growled.
‘My hand? My left or my right?’ Joe smiled, lifting his hands up, palms stretched and fingers dancing in the air.
‘Get on with it and show me your fucking cards,’ snarled Vincent.
Vincent attempted to grab the cards lying on the table, but Joe was too quick and whisked them up before Vincent reached them. Joe then pretended to sneak a look at his cards. He feigned surprise and nodded in appreciation that he held a good hand.
‘Jesus, quit fucking me about!’ Vincent shouted.
‘Right you are,’ Joe said, reaching out to turn his cards over one by one. ‘I have a Jack of Clubs, dark-haired and feisty, perhaps a tad promiscuous, with a wandering eye for the ladies. Ladies such as the Queen of Clubs, who I also hold in my hand. The Queen’s married to the King, the King who’s gone off on business and is maybe lying in his mistress’ bed as I speak, lying elsewhere in the pack. Now, although the Queen has three children, represented by this Three of Clubs here, she can’t help but fall into the arms of her dark knight, her lover who quite easily could keep her… let’s say “entertained” throughout the night with the use of his ten wicked fingers, represented by the Ten of Clubs. Finally, last but not least, there’s the Ace of Clubs, and that fucking card, Vinnie, will be represented by this here middle finger. And I believe that’s twenty grand you owe me.’
Vincent’s face turned red and his grey eyes narrowed as a taut silence descended. He slowly stubbed out his cigarette and the barmaid’s eyes filled with fear when she realised how angry Vincent was. She scurried out of the room saying that she needed to get back to the bar.
Tony moved to the side of the room, anxiously watching Vincent whose skin was now scarlet, having witnessed his violence before. Arnie stepped away with him; he knew of Vincent’s brutality and it was impossible to calm him down when he’d had so much to drink. Angela and Joe, however, remained in their seats with amusement filling their identical mahogany eyes.
Finally, Vincent erupted, getting to his feet. ‘You fucking bastard!’
He lifted the heavy table into the air and sent it hurtling sideways, the cards, ashtray and money flying off the table along with the glasses, smashing when they hit the varnished floor. Joe stood up with fear wiping the arrogant smile off his face, yet his sister still sat poised on the cushioned bench with her legs crossed.
One of the tumblers lying on the ground remained unbroken. Vincent bent down to pick the glass up then hurled it at Joe, who ducked just in time before it sailed over his head and smashed against the wall behind him.
‘SHIT! Calm the fuck down, will you?’ Joe screamed, as Vincent marched towards him.
Vincent grabbed two fistfuls of Joe’s shirt, lifted the smaller man up and slammed him against the wall, glass shards crunching beneath his feet.
‘I’ll pay you your fucking money,’ Vincent said through gritted teeth, ‘but don’t you ever –’ He thumped Joe against the wall, ‘ever! –’ Once more he slammed Joe into the wall, ‘fuck me about like that again!’
He let go of Joe’s shirt and Joe slid down the wall, dazed and clutching the back of his head. Vincent stalked out of the room, fists still clenched.
‘Sore loser,’ Angela muttered from her seat, blowing out a ring of grey smoke.
The line was long despite the time of night, stretching down the barely lit street. Locals knew of the club on the outskirts of town as a place where cheap drink, drugs and casual sex were on offer. The building used to be a warehouse, bought a few years ago by Leon Balanescu, a local crime lord who distributed coke and wanted to set up another legitimate business to wash his money through.
The warehouse seemed transformed: lights, bars and dance floors, offices and a poolroom installed. Yet the building retained its derelict look with flaking paint and cracked plaster decorating the walls, and gold leaf peeling off the metal banisters. Clubbers danced on splintered floorboards gazing up at a mesh of corrugated metal and pipes to which dim flashing lights were attached.
Growing tired of running the club after only a couple of years, Leon gave the ownership to his son, Joe, for his thirtieth birthday. Joe didn’t have a head for business or anything involving hard work. Therefore, the club remained the same since its renovation and made little profit, at least according to the books. Those who knew of the club’s reputation, however, knew of the unofficial profit made from the sale of drugs subtly dealt out by Balanescu’s employees.
The neon sign ‘Febrile’ hung loosely from the crumbling brickwork and the doors bore numerous scars from fights outside the entrance. Two bouncers stood in the shadows dressed in black, each with darkly rimmed eyes and towering frames. One checked IDs occasionally and collected entrance money; the other man stood with his back against the wall, waving people through, prepared to deal with anyone looking for a fight. Those in the queue talked in raised voices behind railings that lined the broken pavement, impatient as they listened to the loud music blaring out into the night.
The sound of a car speeding down the street subdued the music. A Porsche screeched to a halt outside the entrance and a woman in an expensive red dress slid out of the car. She smiled and beckoned to one of the bouncers with an index finger. The bouncer grimaced but walked towards the woman, cursing the power she held over him due to her husband’s position. She dropped her keys into his outstretched hand then strode past the other bouncer and into the club.
A pulsating beat echoed through her body, shook her bones, limbs humming to the rhythm. Her footsteps fell, resolute, perfectly in tune to the pounding music. She headed towards the toilets, past the security door and cloakroom, and pushed the red door open.
She slammed the door against the white chipped tiles. She loved to make an entrance when she was high. The music seeped into the stuffy room that stank of cigarettes and spilt booze with traces of urine, vomit and bleach. Two girls stood in front of the mirrors, retouching their makeup and squealing to each other about the barman who last served them drinks. Both had peroxide blonde hair showing dark roots, fake tan smeared across their skin and layers of dark foundation coating their faces. One was dressed in overly tight jeans and a sequinned strip of material; the other wore a fuchsia dress with matching bag slung over her shoulder.
The girls stopped gossiping to stare at the woman who glared at them in disgust. Tracy sighed loudly and turned towards the toilets, taking the stall next to the window. Slamming the door shut, she heard the girls giggle before resuming their conversation. She hated young girls who painted themselves orange, dyed their hair, squeezed themselves into cheap clothes and all looked the same, anything but natural, but mostly were perceived as attractive by the opposite sex, including her husband. She perched on the edge of the toilet and wished she could rid herself of the nausea that replaced the buzz she felt earlier.
After she rested for a few minutes, cleared her mind and focused on breathing, her nausea disappeared. A determined look filled her eyes as she unfastened her handbag and took out a small case. She opened the lid of the silver compact and carefully removed the tray of powder. In the compartment hidden beneath was a thin vial, which she opened to reveal her white powder. Her pulse quickened as she anticipated the rush of her next hit…
She floated in a drug-induced delirium, the blood-red walls of the corridor beating like a drum, constricting, getting closer with every pulsation of the music, the vibrations triggering the ecstatic pounding in her head. The world heightened; her vision seemed sharper, her eyes wide trying to take everything in. She leant against the wall and laughed to herself, head back, mouth wide, knees buckling, hands pressed against the cold paint on the wall as she tried to steady herself.
Maybe she’d taken too much… She had a mission though and the mission needed to be successful and completed tonight. Her face became serious, her eyes filled with resolve and she found her feet again, her right hand gripping her bag so tightly her knuckles turned white.
Smothered by darkness, writhing bodies filled the dance floor. As strobes flickered across the room, she wove a path through the dancers, their faces hidden behind a mask of energetic euphoria. It was as if she controlled everyone, knew where everyone was and what everyone felt, everything bathed in bright white light and given sudden purpose now that she was in the room.
She turned towards the stairs and held tightly onto the banisters, ascending to the next floor in time to the beat from below. The feeling of purpose lifted her and grew stronger with every step, so her body seemed lighter, more agile and graceful on her exhilarating climb, her mind floating on a cloud of rapture. Finally, she reached the summit of the staircase, running her fingers along the red walls of the corridor as she approached the doors.
‘Arnie,’ she said in greeting.
Arnie frowned, wondering what she was doing in the club, but nodded his head in acknowledgement as he opened up the doors behind him. ‘Joe’s in his office. I’ll let him know you’re here.’
‘You don’t need to fucking announce me, Arnie. I’m his wife,’ Tracy said, barging through the door.
She knocked on the door and waited for him to invite her in. Then she walked inside the office and shut the door, smiling seductively as she leant against the doorframe.
Joe sat behind his desk, scratched red leather surface set into dark mahogany. He poured champagne into a flute with frosted strips curling up the sides like flames. Lust darkened his face and he walked over to her with the glass in his hand. He slipped an arm around her waist and took a slow sip of the champagne before lifting the glass to her mouth to pour the liquid between her scarlet lips.
He made her consume the whole flute, casually stroking her hip with his thumb while she drank deeply until the wine ebbed. Placing the glass down he grabbed her waist with both hands and kissed her forcefully.
She kissed him back, tongue slipping inside his mouth, and felt his hands sliding under her dress as he lifted her up to pin her against the door. His hands roamed to her breasts and slipped inside her bra to push the material down. He branded a trail of love bites across her skin, her fingers digging into his silk shirt.
His mouth once more found hers and suddenly he was lifting her towards the desk. Sitting her down on the edge, her legs wound around his and she pulled the shirt from his trousers to unbutton it. His fingers found the clasp of her bra and he threw it to the side of the room. Then he found the zip at the side of her dress and slowly slid it down until it reached her hips.
She pushed him slightly so she could stand and switch places with him. Her desire-filled eyes locked with his as she slipped the dress from her shoulders and it pooled at her feet. She stood over him wearing black lace knickers and heels. Straddling him, she kissed him again.
His hands once more found her breasts while hers undid his belt and the button on his trousers. Her mouth travelled from his lips to his neck while her hands finished unfastening his trousers, then her lips moved down his chest, over his navel and across the thin line of hair trailing down to her target. He looked down and stroked the top of her head, Julie’s blonde hair smooth beneath his fingers.
The door burst open and Tracy stood in the doorway, glaring at the sight of Joe and Julie, face contorting in rage. Julie screamed and leapt up, covering herself with her hands before she reached for her dress.
‘Shit, what the fuck are you doing here?’ Joe said, zipping up his flies and buttoning his shirt.
Tracy ignored him. She threw at Joe the wedding ring that was snaked around her finger, which had been eating away at her like a cancer for years. She was tired of his cheating and lies, his fists when he came home drunk and wanting to fight, hiding the bruises and tears after he’d beaten her. No longer would she put up with his excuses for staying late at the club to have sex with cheap barmaids looking for cheap favours, how he treated her like dirt, his arrogance and selfishness.
She pulled a gun from her bag and aimed the barrel at the evil bastard she once thought she loved. Joe grabbed Julie by the shoulders, using her as a shield to defend himself from the weapon in his wife’s hands. Julie struggled, screaming and staring with wild eyes at Tracy, before the gun fired and a bullet shot through the air to lodge in her chest. Her eyes went wide in shock before they glazed over, blood pouring from the wound in her torso and from her mouth.
Joe dropped Julie’s dead body onto the floor.
‘Please, baby,’ he pleaded with Tracy, his ears ringing from the shot. He held his arms up in a praying gesture, face flushed and tears rolling down his cheeks. ‘Baby, please… Think about what you’re doing.’
His last words were muffled by the loud ringing in her ears, but Tracy read his lips and laughed. ‘I’ve thought about doing this for years,’ she said, before pulling the trigger once more.
Too late, Joe threw his arm up to protect himself, but the bullet sailed across the room and buried itself deep inside his skull. He collapsed to the floor, eyes filled with fear even in death.
Arnie ran into the room, gun raised. He took in the scene and Tracy pointed her gun straight at him.
‘Shit,’ he said under his breath.
Before he could do anything, Tracy turned the gun on herself. Pointing the barrel at her head and looking at Arnie for the last time, she pulled the trigger. The shot rang out and she blinked unexpectedly before the life left her eyes. She fell to the floor with a faint smile gracing her lips.
By Laura Read
How far would you go to escape from your sins?
Angela Balanescu is the daughter of an organized crime boss. Her father feeds on power, solely focused on how he can gain more territory. Hating the violence used by her family, Angela yearns to leave town, instead of using drink and sex as escapism.
When she falls for corrupt detective Sean, Angela wonders whether she can learn to trust him and put a life of crime behind her. But Vincent, her father’s violent lieutenant, is jealous of their relationship and wants her for himself. He reminds her that she shouldn’t trust anyone.
Will Angela choose to stay and help her family, or leave town with Sean to start a new life where she can escape her past?