The Sinner’s Club

Prologue

When you’re up this high, wind has no direction. It writhes and whirls like white-water. Eddies, sudden and immensely strong, pull and twist at your clothes. Cold whips slash across any exposed skin. My cigarette is fighting a losing battle. I spit it into the river and throw my lighter in after it.

Behind me, the bound man struggles.

Below, the East River seems still. Slate grey and clogged with ice. As terrifying as forever.

From here, the city looks like urban poetry. Classic European cinema. Black and white cinematography at its finest. A beautiful lie made of shadows and highlights. It has the air of Nero’s Rome about it. A dilapidated greatness that makes its aesthetics more suited to distant, aspirational spectacle than an in-your-face experience.

When it’s nothing but illuminated crenelations in the night sky it’s easy to romanticise it. When you haven’t walked past towering piles of trash bags, or smelt the heated steel musk of the subway in August, you can picture anything you want. Like falling in love with someone you barely know.

The bound man shivers in the wind.

Damien says…said. Damien said. He said a city is like a woman. He was original like that. He said you can’t truly know it, but you can love what it chooses to show you. Damien was an asshole. And Damien was wrong.

I know this place. Know how it works. Know all its secrets. I have frozen in sudden snowstorms. Had to choose between the perpetual churning hum of an air-conditioner and the shrouding, suffocating, sponge of humidity that sits over the streets like a hot towel four months of the year. I don’t love it. I hate it.

But I still had to save it.

It has the air of Nero’s Rome about it, but I can’t just let it burn. That’s why I’m up here. Why I’m about to take a life.

*

Him

He puts the card on the desk in front of me.

I look at it. The pristine white card jars against the cheap yellow paper that litters my desk. Perfect printing. Arial. Bold. Capitals. Underlined subtly in silver. It’s a nice card. Patrick Bateman would be sweating by now.

I read it. The Sinner’s Club. That’s all it says, no address, no telephone number, not even e-mail. I turn it over, a large silver number seven is the only thing on the back. Seven. Sins. How droll.

I tell him there’s nothing on it. He smiles.
“Primordial, huh? Classy.”
My word would be pointless, I tell him that.
“Don’t be an ass, you’ll love it. You’re coming.”
I say I’m not. He tells me I am. We appear to be at an impasse.
This man is everything to this floor. He is life and light and soul. He’s what they call magnetic, it’s an interesting study.

Damien is his name. Damien Hearst, make a joke, everyone does. He’s 5’8 and dark, peculiarly hairy around the cheek bones. He wears perfect suits that always clash with his shoes. He has a squint. Tells bad jokes loudly. He’s a turd. But everyone loves him. I love him.

It’s an interesting study.

He smiles and flicks the card back into his hand using my notebook. He tells me I’m coming with him to this club. I wordlessly acquiesce.
“Wear a suit.” He says, as if I have a choice. As if I own anything else. I’ve worn a suit everyday for 13 years. Except Sundays, on Sundays I wear jeans. Everyone wears jeans on Sundays. The “I don’t have to wear a suit today” suit. Worse than a suit.
This won’t be the first “hip” place I’ve been dragged to by Damien. Barring divine intervention it won’t be the last either. He needs me you see. We’re friends. Friends by default.

We work in the same office. Moving numbers or data processing or management consultancy or chartered accountancy. It doesn’t really matter. Nothing high profile. Nothing difficult. Good money for easy work. The firm is profitable but small. Two or three hundred people in five floors of office space. Good real estate. Sixty-thousand square feet wedged between a theatrical agents and small-market porn magazine in one of those really tall buildings we all take for granted in this city.

Of those three hundred people roughly half are women, so they’re out. Thirty-five are over fifty. Sixty more are married. No good there. Forty-eight are prepubescent
interns who can barely drive, let alone drink. So that leaves Damien, the dozen or so guys who were smart enough to say no, and me. Friends by default.

I spend the rest of that week inputting data and reading reports and sipping bad coffee. My assistant tells me little stories about her new puppy in the down time. Damien texts me all day Friday, reminding me what to wear, telling me it’s a great place. Telling me it will be a night I’ll never forget. He’s right.

As the last minutes of Friday tick by into the first seconds of the weekend I have no idea how much I’m going to regret not being smart enough to say no.

*

Away

The boy woke up and his mother was in his room. Sitting on the end of his bed. Watching him sleep, he supposed. The door was shut, the window open. A shaft of moonlight cut across the room as his Superman curtains blew open. It broke over his bed, hiding her in shadows at the far end. He could hear she was breathing heavily, and his nightlight bounced weird highlights off the beads of sweat that ran down her forehead.

Before he could say a word, or even make a noise, she reached out and put a finger over his mouth. Urgent, but gentle. Smiling a fragile smile.
“Shhhhhh, baby. Ssshhh now, ok? You have to be quiet now, alright?” He nodded, there was very little else he could do. Her arm was reaching through the beam of moonlight, so pale that blue veins broke through the skin.
“Good boy, Mommy’s good little boy!” she whispered as she gathered him into a strong hug that crushed his ribs, but in a reassuring way. He could feel the pulse of her heartbeat against his temple. The white plastic bracelet on her left wrist caught in his hair and tugged painfully at his scalp. He didn’t say a word though, because mommy needed him to be quiet.

He hadn’t seen her in a long time. She’d been…Away. That’s what Dad called it. He knew it wasn’t right. He knew she shouldn’t be here. But she was his mommy, and he was four and he was happy. Happy in that basic, primal way that only small children truly understand. Happy because mom was here to look after him again.

She stood up, lithe wire-thin arms lifting him on to her hip, and carried him to the window. The house in Ossining was all one floor, and from his window it was easy to climb out in to the backyard. She lowered him down to grass, “Wait here, monkey.” She said as her head disappeared back through the window.

It was a clear night, more stars were shining than he could ever remember seeing before. There were no clouds for the gentle breezes to move, but the fronds of the willow tree in the neighbour’s yard were dancing in the wind. He bunched his bare feet into fists in the turf, enjoying the feeling of cool, dewy grass between his toes. Maybe if he’d been older he would have been scared. Maybe he would have resisted. But he was never afraid of mom. Never. Not even after they told him he should be.
It was a stark room with stark men in stark clothes. Dad was there. Next to him. Quiet, gray. With him in body, but not in spirit. He was alone with strangers who muttered scary words in kindly voices. “Look out,” one said. “If you see her, run to your Dad.” said another. Between them an old table wobbled on four legs with four lengths. They never told him why. It didn’t matter, they were wrong.

Mom was back, carrying his suitcase and backpack. She dropped them silently onto the damp grass and started to climb out. For the first time the boy felt the need to talk, some panic erupting deep in his child-brain. This was important, this was Vital.

“Mommy!” he whispered. A child’s whisper, his voice was no quieter, just a lot gruffer. She looked up, startled. “What is it?” she hissed at him, her head scanning the yard. Suddenly he was afraid. He wanted to cry.

“Raffles…” he forced himself to say, almost breathlessly. Mom was through the window and out of sight before he could finish. “I can’t leave him by himself!” he muttered into the empty yard. A second later she’s back, a large fluffy rabbit wearing a yellow bow-tie hooked under her left arm.
“Here you go baby, Raffles is right here, see?” She lowered him down to her son by his ear, and the boy grabbed him. Crushing the toy into his chest with both arms. He was his best friend, he’d be all alone if they went away without him.

Finally clear of the window, Mom snatched up the makeshift luggage in one arm, and the boy’s left hand in the other and made her way down the side of the house and out into the driveway. Her leading her son, the son leading Raffles. She opened the passenger door of an old station wagon by the curb and the boy hopped in without instruction. With the appearance of Raffles, all his fear turned back into excitement.

He tracked mom in the mirrors as she ran around to the driver’s side, her bare feet making faint slaps on the concrete. She throws the bags in the back and climbs in.
“OK,” she pants it from behind lank hair. Smiling that same fragile smile. “Are you ready for an adventure? Hmm?” she asked him as she reached over and fastened his seatbelt. He nodded a frantic yes. She kissed his forehead.
“My brave boy. Mommy loves you so much.” She started the car and drove them off into the night. Singing to the boy softly until he fell asleep, safer than he had ever felt before.

*

There

Saturday rolled around with a curious mix of never and immediately. Inevitable suddenness. The weeks roll on when you work office hours. The weekends never come and yet it feels like I’ve had so many.

Damien messages me the address. The address and a smiley face. Some converted warehouse or abattoir on the south part of the island where the numbers turn into names and grid-lines start to curl around each other.

October nights are always cold in the city. Autumn winds cut down these narrow streets, slicing through the layers and mocking man’s’ attempts to keep it out. I’m wearing a suit, as instructed. Not a suit, the suit. The suit Damien knew I would wear as soon as he mentioned the club. Casual but cut. Subtle but noticeable. It’s a nice suit. It cost a lot, but looks like it cost more.

That’s the art of the club scene, spend a lot of money so you can look as if you’ve spent a lot of money.

It’s eleven thirty, and the doors will open at midnight. Midnight sharp. It’s part of their whole gimmick I guess. I turn the corner on to the right street and meet the ass-end of a line that stretches way over the horizon. Cordoned off from the rest of the world by an insurmountable wall of velvet rope. I join it, noting the twenty yards or so of roped off pavement waiting eagerly for the people of New York with more money than sense. Twenty yards isn’t enough.

I set my face to my club smile. Smug and confident and above being here even though I am. I have plans, it says. You’re lucky to catch me. I lean gently against a cold stone wall and pat my pockets down for a cigarette. I only smoke at night-clubs, because it gives me an excuse to go outside.

The group in front of me is a hive, buzzing with excitement. A dozen or so pristinely dressed, perfectly manicured girls, each with a mountain of dark hair adding a foot to their height. All talking. Phasing seamlessly between English and some middle-eastern language. Probably Arabic. From what I pick up, I think it’s somebody’s birthday.
Oh, and Rawan’s boyfriend is like a total douche and sooo not good enough for her. She should totally dump him. He’s a sharmoota too, whatever that means. The explosion of giggling makes me think it’s nothing flattering.

A change in the wind wafts a solid cloud of perfume over me, reeking of flowers and privilege and money. It makes me look up and I notice that despite it being midnight in October several of the girls are wearing enormous sunglasses. This must be the place to be seen. Over my left shoulder I can see the rest of the more-money-than-sense crowd has arrived. The rope is full.

“Hey! Hey! Over here!” Damien has spotted me between the slopes of the Winehouse mountain range between us and is beckoning me up the cue to join him. I step over
the velvet rope, leaving a one person vacuum that the press of people behind me instantly fills, and walk up the line.

When I get to him he pulls me into a tiny gap and just smiles wordlessly for a surprisingly long time. I try to nod an apology at the people behind us for cutting in line, but they don’t care.

I’ve come from home. I’m neat, I’m sober and I’m bored already. He’s been out for pre-drinks at some bar or bistro or lounge. He’s soft around the edges already. He’s also acquired some company.

Two young women, the kind that hang around in night spots waiting to fall instantly in love with a man based on the colour of his credit-card, the brand of watch he wears, the logo on his car-keys. He doesn’t tell me their names and I don’t care. They just want to get inside. We’re cab drivers right now, except we smell better. Well, I do, at least.

From here I can see the abrupt end of the velvet roped road, the front of the club. It’s nothing special to look at. Wood panel double doors in an anonymous frontage flanked by two bouncers stretching matching dark suits to limits of their endurance. No sign. No light. No windows. Trendy minimalism taken to its own preposterous zenith.
To break the silence I ask what the minimum spend here is, Damien just smiles and shakes his head.
“S’not like that here man, s’different kinda place…” I ask if that means he booked a table. A table would probably be half a grand each. At least. The more the better. Looking rich is worth going broke at these places. Great business, they charge you to charge you. You pay them to take your money. Damien is still smiling.
“No…man, dude, it’s free. Totally free. You’ll see.” I open my mouth to call him a drunken moron but he waves me quiet. It’s midnight, the doors have opened.

Jacob is among us.

*

Chosen

“Forty-nine. They only let in forty-nine. Seven sinners for each of the seven sins. Seven is kinda their theme. It’s how they choose that’s weird. Jacob touches you….”
Damien is whispering this to me, hot whisky breath drumming the syllables against my neck. Jacob, I presume, is the tall man in red standing in the now open double-doors of the club entrance. He’s wearing robes. The drunks find this funny. The tourists, fascinating. I find it cheesy. That’s what I tell Damien. He just waves me into silence.

Jacob is now making his progress, walking slowly down the line of New York’s bright young things. It’s quiet. Oddly so. There’s traffic less than 50 yards away, I can still see the headlight’s flashing, but it has fallen silent. The nattering and chattering of the Arab girls behind us has stopped dead. The drunken singing of a hobo on the corner is the only sound. A strange soundtrack for a Damascene conversion.
As he walks the line in slow, graceful strides he extends his left hand, reaches out…and touches each sinner-to-be on the forehead. The first dozen times he does this, total silence follows. Punctuated by the disappointed sighs of the recently touched and the hasty whispering of people who, like me, have no fucking clue what the hell is going on.

Ten yards from the door he stops, his finger lingers on the forehead of a short, over-weight blonde woman. He looks up at the sky and, as if tied to him by invisible strings, the crowd does the same. It’s a dark night. Inky and starless. A single light blinks its way toward JFK. Jacob lowers his head, and his marionette crowd follow.
“Wrath”

A small word said in a smaller voice. It fades away into the night and yet carries far longer than it should. A single breath of silence follows, and then the sounds rush in to fill the void. The people already passed over curse under their breath and begin to step out of line and melt into the night. The blonde’s friends laugh, pat her on the back and high five each other. Some people cheer. Some people applaud. Jacob simply looks her in the eye. She steps over the rope as well as wide legs in narrow heals allow and makes a self-conscious bow to the cheering strangers, enjoying her brief celebrity. A huge bouncer takes her by the arm and leads her indoors. With her disappearance, silence is restored, but a busier one than before. A silence humming with anticipation.

By the time Jacob is half-way down the line the choices are coming faster. Different noises erupt at different sins. A slight young man, gay at a guess, is pulled out of a large group of similar looking guys and selected for lust, he is followed all the way to the door by the kind of noise only drunk gay men can make. Lust seems to get the biggest response from the crowd. Predictable I suppose.

Jacob is only a dozen or so paces from us now, and I can finally see him clearly. He’s a little a taller than average, and a little thinner. His hood hides most of his hair but the few loose strands look dark. An ordinary face. Chin, nose, brow, lips…all arranged in not-displeasing fashion. He looks a bit like me, I realise, and I’m not sure how I feel about that. His eyes are very blue, and seem to shine in the night.

The immediate crowd around me is preparing for imminent forehead fingering. I can’t help but smile at the pointlessness, and yet somewhere down in my gut I’m nervous. Damien and the girls push toward the rope. The princesses behind us are checking make up and arranging their expensive hair extensions in neat patterns around their collar bones. Another puff of wind douses me in their scent. Ralph Lauren and Coco Channel and Calvin Klein mix in the air. Money and luxury and indulgence and vanity and self-import.

Jacob is at us now, the girls Damien has brought push forwards, showing a lot of smile and a little cleavage. He passes over them without a second look, both tits and teeth disappear behind pouts and folded arms. Damien receives more attention, Jacob’s finger lingering ever so slightly, I can see in the excitement building in Damien’s eyes. As if this is the part he comes down here for. The anticipation. The thrill. Like Russian roulette. I shudder. Jacob pulls his finger away in silence and Damien’s smile barely falters. He grabs me and pushes me forwards, I nearly fall over the rope. “Your turn, dude.” He says, and slaps me on the back.

I can see why the owners of the club picked this guy. The actor playing Jacob, I mean. His eyes rest on you uncomfortably. He reaches out and touches me, and though I want to pull away, I don’t. He stares at me, right in my eyes, and all I can do is stare back. As if reading my mind, his look trails over my shoulder to the hushed crowd of money and hair and make-up behind me, and then languidly rolls back to mine.
“Envy.”

The voice was so soft I assumed only I could hear it, but it carried along the line instantly, and the noise blew a silent world apart once again. Damien slapped me on the back, harder than before. I wanted to refuse, to say no, give my spot to Damien and go home. Maybe I should have done. I didn’t. Without thinking, I stepped over the rope and walked towards the door. People ahead of me in line, passed over for entry but waiting to see how it all ended, reached out hands for shakes or high fives or bro fists, I gave a couple and ignored most. I got to the door and looked back. I was suddenly annoyed at myself for being pulled in this far.

It’s not too late. I could walk away. I can see Damien giving me a thumbs up and a smile. I scowl back. Stupid default friendship. I should have told him to fuck off years ago. I turn and walk inside, hating him. I’ll be surprised how upset I am in two weeks, when he’s dead.

*

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