THE PARIS GAME can now be purchased in paperback, or for the Nook, on Barnes & Noble.
“Royale wants to see you.”
The maître’d caught Sera at her dressing room door, blocking her way. She tried to step around him, but he persisted. “Now. You have time.”
“I should be on stage. Our next set starts in a minute.”
“I’d love to tell him that you wouldn’t come when he ordered. Have it your way.” He turned and she caught his arm.
The back corridor of the jazz club frightened her, claustrophobic and dark. It seemed to stretch forever, until she turned the corner and a sliver of light shone from under a door. She moved towards it, her footsteps in her high heels echoing off the scuffed parquet. Cigarette smoke, and something more rancid, like rotting meat, hung in the air.
The wet sound of coughing greeted her as she opened the door. Monsieur Royale, the club’s owner, covered his mouth with a linen handkerchief. When he saw her, he tucked it away in his pocket and gave an imperious wave towards the chair in front of his desk. Sera took a seat, pushing a lock of her dark hair back behind her ear. Her gaze wandered as she tried to look at anything but him. She could pretend he wasn’t undressing her with his eyes, or calculating the money he could make from her.
The office was cramped and untidy, and it reeked of a combination of smoke and body odor. The rancid smell she’d noticed out in the corridor seemed to be from a forgotten plate on a shelf behind him, holding the remains of a meal. Her eyes followed Royale’s hand as he grasped the packet of Gauloises on the desk, bringing one to his fleshy lips. A diamond pinky ring glinted in the light. He dug a gold lighter from the pocket of his expensively tailored jacket and lit the cigarette.
“Mademoiselle Durand,” he said, clearing his throat. “You’ve disappointed me.”
Sera dared a glance at him. He glowered at her from under bushy brows, his eyes dark.
“What have I done?” Her fingers tightened on the folds of her black dress and she made herself relax. She hadn’t done anything wrong.
“When I lent you the money, mademoiselle, I told you quite clearly that it needed to be repaid swiftly. And you’re such a good girl, I thought you’d obey.” He coughed again and reached for a snifter of brandy that sat on a pile of old ledgers. “The €200 payment you left me this week is not what I would consider swift.”
“It was all I could afford,” Sera retorted, though she tried to keep her voice even. Work had been slow.
“That’s not my concern, just yours. Perhaps I didn’t make myself clear when you came begging.” He leaned forward, filling her field of vision. “If you default on your loan, you’ll pay up in other ways.”
Sera remembered, her stomach churning. He’d pinned her to the wall and yanked up her shirt. “A bit small,” he’d said as he groped her breast, his rancid breath washing over her. Now, his lewd gaze slid over her cleavage.
“I’ll give you more this week,” she replied, straightening in the chair. His eyes flicked up to her face, weighing her words.
“If I have less than €300 in my hand, I’ll consider you to have defaulted.” He looked at his watch. “And if I’m not mistaken, you have work to be doing, mademoiselle.”
Sera rose, swallowing against the bile that threatened. She smoothed her dress, anything to keep her from showing her fear to Royale. “Good night, monsieur.”
She backed from the room. Turning away from Royale always made her uneasy. Though his bulk meant he didn’t move quickly, she didn’t trust him. She pulled the door closed and hurried down the corridor. She could already hear Benoît warming up on the piano and the low tones of Patrice’s cello. She turned the corner and stepped out into the small club, nearly colliding with the bartender as he shifted a case of liquor.
He smiled at her, the dimple showing in his olive-skinned cheek. “You’re late.” He scolded her gently. She hurried down the three steps and across to the stage, darting around a table full of carousing men. One tried to pinch her buttocks, but missed. Serge, the drummer, held out a hand as she ascended the stage, helping her up.
“It’s our last set,” he said. “Then we can relax. Are you ready?”
He gave her a look and she squared her shoulders and looked back. “It’s Piaf first, then the Billie Holiday,” she replied. Any doubt in his eyes faded.
“’Le Vagabond‘,” he replied in a low tone. “Let’s wow them—make them glad they tore themselves away from M6’s cop dramas.”
Sera laughed. “Yes, let’s.” She stepped up to the microphone and looked out into the club, pretending that its faded crimson walls were instead the bright gloss of a club in Monte Carlo and the tarnished candelabra were glittering chandeliers.
A smattering of applause accompanied the first few bars of the song. She smiled, mostly to herself. One day it might be Monte Carlo. She wanted to leave this all behind.