Headlights flickered through the bakery’s rain-splattered front window. Red and white orbs grew and shrank as cars made their way along Perry Street. Even with the front door closed, the sweet smell of freshly fallen rain permeated the bakery.
I hoisted up the last metal chair, flipped it upside down, and deposited it on top of one of the tables. Closing Crumbs wasn’t that bad.
At least that’s what I tried to tell myself.
After a ten-hour shift, my calf muscles begged to differ, but I at least got to be alone while I closed. A full day of ringing up Greenwich Village wives dressed head to toe in Louis Vuitton and college kids stoned out of their minds had the tendency to run you down. Before working at Crumbs, I never would have guessed how important it was for people to get the cupcake with the most icing on it. At least once a day, someone acted like the selection of their afternoon treat was the most crucial decision they’d made all day.
The chairs off the floor, I headed for the broom closet. A sharp rap on the front door made me turn. My roommate peered at me above the closed sign, her hazel eyes wide and her wavy, auburn hair thick from the evening’s humidity.
I unlocked and cracked the door but didn’t let Ann-Marie in. “Our cash has been deposited for the day. Go rob someone else.”
She grinned. “How do you know I’m a burglar and not a rapist?”
I opened the door the rest of the way and motioned for her to enter. “That’s sick.”
She flounced across the floor, her flowy summer skirt billowing behind her. “How long till you’re finished?”
“If you leave now? Twenty. With you distracting me? A few hours, give or take.”
She ignored me and settled onto the plump cushions on the window seat. Ann-Marie and I gave each other shit all the time. She was the only person I could be like that with, but I guessed our shared caustic sense of humor was a testament to our closeness.
“I can help,” she offered.
I quickly shook my head. “No, but thanks. If Dan happened to stop by—”
“Isn’t he out sniffing coke off hookers’ boobs?” she interrupted with a flip of her head.
Folding my arms, I cocked my hip out to the side. “That’s a rumor. One person said that, and she doesn’t work here anymore.”
“That doesn’t mean it’s not true,” she singsonged, an auburn eyebrow raised nearly to her hairline.
“I’ve never heard anything about him and hookers. Anyway, I need to hurry up and close, but you can put some music on while I sweep and mop.”
Ann-Marie huffed. “Aren’t you wondering why I’m here?”
Before I could answer, she held up a folded piece of paper. It was thick, off-white material with a ripped, red wax seal at the end. It looked like a wedding invitation and an acceptance letter to Hogwarts had a baby.
Ann-Marie grinned in an almost wicked way. “Ever heard of Enigma?”
Heard of it? I think I’d had wet dreams about it. “Yeah.”
“This, my dear, is an invitation to it.”
“No,” I breathed, unable to believe it.
She nodded. “It’s for two, and it’s only good for tonight.”
The floor could wait. I sat down on a cushion and took the invitation in my hands. “How did you get this?”
“You know Bethany from work? Her cousin works for Marc Jacobs, and she’s kind of high on the rung. I’m not sure what she does, but anyway, she got these for Bethany. Thing is… she couldn’t go tonight because her sister is having a baby. So, yay for us!”
I dragged my eyes from the invitation to Ann-Marie’s face. “How do you know Enigma is even real?”
Her forehead wrinkled. “What are you talking about? I have the invitation right here.”
“Yeah, but it could be fake,” I blurted, then cringed at how stupid it sounded. As excited as I was about the possibility of visiting such a place, I was equally as nervous. Maybe more so.
Ann-Marie’s head slowly fell to the side as she studied me. “You don’t want to go?”
My heart hammered, and I twisted my hands in my lap. “Yes… no.” I chomped down on my lip. “I’m pretty tired.”
“Is that the only reason?” she asked in a tone that said she knew it wasn’t. “It’s Friday night, and you seriously don’t want to go to what might be the hottest club in New York?”
“I don’t know,” I admitted, biting my lip as anxiety threatened to send me crawling into my shell.
“What don’t you know about, specifically?”
“I’ve heard things about that place. Like, it’s really wild… and kinky.”
She rolled her eyes. “I’ve heard everything under the sun about Enigma, including that it doesn’t exist. But it does.” She shook the invitation in front of my face. “We’d be idiots to not go. We’re never going to get another chance, Riley.”
“True,” I conceded, anticipation stomping on the nerves.
She grinned. “Besides, I did some research online.”
“What did you find out?”
“Well, mostly crazy things, like the place is owned by Leonardo DiCaprio and he keeps it as a retreat for the Masons.”
“Leo is good,” I nodded. “I’d go if there was the slightest chance he might be there. But what if the place really is crazy? What if everyone who enters is required to get naked?”
Ann-Marie’s eyes grew wide. “I haven’t heard that one.”
She huffed out a breath. “Nudity being a requirement doesn’t sound likely. Let’s just go. We’ll scope it out. If either one of us feels weird, we’ll leave. No questions asked.”
My heartbeat increased, but now it was from excitement. The rumors about Enigma might have run rampant, but one thing was true — the club was a legend. Though I’d heard about the place, I didn’t actually know anyone who’d been there. Like Ann-Marie said, we’d be crazy to pass up the opportunity.
I stood up. “All right. Let me finish here, and then we’ll go home and get ready.”
Ann-Marie’s hands, one still clutching the invitation, shot into the air above her head. “Yes! That’s my girl!”
I rushed through the cleaning on autopilot, barely seeing what was in front of me. The mysterious club and what might or might not have been going on there was the only thing on my mind.
I didn’t know what to expect when we stepped through Enigma’s doors. But I had a feeling that, no matter what was to come, it would be big.
We caught our first subway train just as we entered the station. Still, we had to transfer, and it took forty-five minutes to get to our Brooklyn apartment. There, Ann-Marie and I rushed through showers and helped each other pick out outfits. I could hardly breathe as I wiggled into my black sequined miniskirt, and I turned to deep breathing to calm my nerves. I told myself that most of the things I’d heard about Enigma were probably false, but that didn’t stop my nerves from skittering to the top of my skin.
The address on the invitation took us back to Manhattan. It was close to midnight as we walked through Alphabet City, but the late hour didn’t mean anything to the crowds milling around us. Most of the clubs were probably only just filling up.
Ann-Marie scanned the passing addresses as I carefully watched for subway grates. Jumping sideways to prevent my high heel from catching in one of the steel traps, Ann-Marie stopped a few feet behind me.
“What’s up?” I asked, backtracking to stand next to her.
She peered at a glossy black door and lifted her hand to trace a bold red stripe. There was also some graffiti on the walls around it, and a faintly flickering lamp, but no sign hinting at where it might lead. “I think this is it.” She checked the invitation again. “Yep. This is it.”
A shiver ran down my spine. Sure, Enigma was “underground,” but I didn’t think its facade would be so… creepy.
“You okay?” Ann-Marie asked.
I swallowed and nodded, but avoided her eyes. I was nervous, but not about to chicken out. “Let’s do this.”
She pulled on the door’s handle, but it didn’t budge. Just as she raised her hand to knock, the door flew open. A bulking man in black, who couldn’t be anything other than a security guard, gazed down at us. His eyes fell to the invitation in Ann-Marie’s hand, and one of his brows slowly rose.
“Invite?” he asked in a low and rumbling voice.
Ann-Marie nearly shook with excitement as she handed our invitation over to him with a flourish. “Here it is.” He checked it, tucked it into the breast pocket of his sports jacket, and stepped aside. Anne-Marie and I entered a dimly lit hall where a second security guard nodded and opened another heavy door.
I braced myself for an assault of music and lights, but there was none of that. Instead, the club was subdued. We stepped through the doorway onto a small platform and paused to take in the room spread out in front of us. A short bar sat to the right. In front of it were about a dozen round tables with cushioned, curved booths. The place wasn’t exactly crowded, but each table was occupied by at least a couple people. On the far wall, an empty stage waited to be used. The place was decorated in red and black, much of the low lighting due to red bulbs. A second tier resting above our heads was even darker, but I could make out tables and a few bodies moving around.
The place was small, no doubt, but whoever designed the club was an expert at working with constrained spaces. There was also a sensual, mysterious quality to the room that gave me a whole new kind of shiver.
Ann-Marie squeezed my hand and grinned at me. I smiled back — seeing the inside of Enigma had immediately put me at ease.
“Oh my God,” Ann-Marie gasped. “Is that Gisele?” I followed her eyeline and found the supermodel sitting at a table only a few yards away. “This place is amazing,” Ann-Marie practically squealed.
A man in a tuxedo approached us and gave a slight bow. “Ladies, welcome to Enigma. I am your host, Fernando. Please let me know if you need anything during your visit.”
I slid my eyes toward Ann-Marie. This whole expedition was her idea, so I was pretty much deferring to her. She grinned wide. “Thank you, Fernando. We’ll just grab some drinks and have a seat.”
“If there is anything I can do to make your time here more enjoyable, it will be my pleasure.” With a half bow, he gracefully went on his way.
I grabbed Ann-Marie’s hand and pulled her down the platform’s few steps. Now that I was in Enigma, I was pulsing with energy. “Let’s get drinks!”
The bartender saw us coming and stepped up to meet us before we were even at the bar. “Good evening. What can I get you, ladies?”
We went with his suggestion of two Old Fashioneds. The whole experience of getting a drink at Enigma was different than at any other club or bar. There was no hoard of people pushing and vying for the bartender’s attention. The guy getting our drinks didn’t stare at us with zombie-like eyes, slam a beer bottle on the bar, then walk away. Instead, the bartender carefully garnished our drinks with perfect orange slices and a cherry each, then served them to us like he was serving the queen of England.
“Cheers.” Anne-Marie held her cocktail up, and I clinked mine against hers. The sharp whiskey filled my nose, and the orange peel hit my lips as I drank.
Fortified with alcohol, I looked around again. Ann-Marie and I settled into two stools at the end of the bar. It was a perfect vantage point, one from which we could see almost everything happening around us.
“See?” Ann-Marie asked. “This isn’t so bad, is it?”
“No. It’s amazing.”
She twisted on her stool to gaze at the stage. “They have shows. Maybe there’s something tonight.”
No sooner had she said the words than the lights came up on the stage. Soft music began, and for the first time, I noticed the upright piano pressed into the corner. At it, a man played the keys like he was making love to them.
A woman dressed in a slinky gown that shimmered like melted gold slipped onto the stage. She fluttered a peacock fan and began to dance. I wasn’t sure just what I was watching, but it was captivating—like a cross between modern dance and burlesque, but also so much more. The woman on the stage moved with a passion that I’d never seen. Like she was full to the brim with this life force, this agonizing sensuality, and not moving wasn’t even an option. She took each step like it was both the most painful thing she’d ever done and the most exquisite.
Sweat from my Old Fashioned collected in my palm, and I went to set my drink on the bar. As I did so, I got that sensation of being watched. My head automatically turned up and to the left as if drawn by some magnetic force. A man stood on the second tier, just above me, his legs pressed against the railing. His face was shadowed, but I knew he looked at me. I could feel his gaze pressing on me like a heavy weight.
The piano played on, the notes filling the club and wrapping all around me. I stared back at the stranger’s dark face, wondering if he could see me watching him. My head spun, and a strange, ballooning feeling filled my chest. It was like I was flying away into space.
The song ended, making me jerk and look down at my lap. My heartbeat filled my throat as the blood rushed through my ears. What was going on with me? I was staring at that man like I was in a trance. It couldn’t have been my drink. I only had two sips.
No, it was Enigma itself. It was something about the whole place. The second I walked through the doors, a spell was cast on me. I could now see why the club had such a reputation.
The small crowd clapped, and I surreptitiously glanced back at the balcony, but the mystery man was gone. My heart immediately sank. In the course of ten seconds, I had grown insanely attached to the dark figure lurking above. My stomach twisted at the thought of never knowing who he was.
I leaned forward until my lips were inches from Ann-Marie’s ear. “I’m going to the bathroom.”
She didn’t look away from the stage, where a second woman had joined the first. “Want me to go with you?”
“No, I’ll be okay. Be back soon.”
I grabbed my clutch and headed for the short hallway the bartender pointed out for us when he served our drinks. The sconces placed along the walls made it lighter than the main floor. I pushed my palm against the door to the ladies’ room and stepped into the powder area. Leaning against the counter, I stared at my reflection. My pupils shrank and grew, and a few beads of sweat glistened on my upper lip.
I looked like I was having a panic attack.
Taking blotting papers out of my clutch, I dabbed the moisture on my skin away. After a reapplication of makeup, I finally looked normal again.
I just didn’t feel it. My heart still hammered, and there was a giddiness flooding my entire system.
I’d gone too long without the touch of a man. That was it. I’d been so busy working two jobs, just trying to pay rent and impress Crumbs’ manager, that I hadn’t even thought of dating in, like… God, I didn’t know how long.
I’d stopped thinking about it. That was the real answer. It had been a little over a year since I last saw Jesse. Our surprise break up kind of killed my desire to ever interact with another man again, much less share a meal with one.
But I couldn’t think about that anymore. Snatching up my mascara and lipstick, I dropped them into my clutch. This night was about having fun, not about dwelling on the past.
I exited the bathroom, took two steps, and stopped short. A man walked down the hallway, his broad shoulders seeming to tower halfway toward the ceiling. My heart flipped and then stopped beating altogether.
It was the air around the man. It crackled like lightning, causing me to freeze in shock.
It was him. The man from the balcony.