In continuation of our #ReadPrideAndBeyond celebration, we’re sharing an excerpt from The Boy in the Red Dress by Kristin Lambert, a rollicking romp of truth, lies, and troubled pasts.
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When I got back to the bar, Duke and I kept up the steady flow of alcohol into the hands of our increasingly sloppy customers. Every time I got a second to spare, I peeked at the hallway, waiting for Marion to return, trying to gauge what each minute that passed signaled about his state of mind.
I checked the stock of clean glasses stacked under the bar—we were getting low, but I thought we’d probably make it. The flow of customers would slow once Marion’s second set started and most folks settled into their seats. After midnight, a stream of people would start trickling out of the club, though there were always stragglers hanging on until the very end when we closed at two. But by then, business at the bar would be slow enough that we could wash glasses if we had to and catch our breath.
I glanced up at the hallway again, and this time, Marion was there. According to my watch, it had been exactly twenty-nine minutes since I talked to him through the dressing room door, and now he looked exactly as glamorous as he had at the beginning of the night. No puffy eyes or red blotches on his cheeks to show he’d been crying, but then he was an expert at makeup. You couldn’t tell he had a spray of freckles across his nose either, or that he’d over-plucked his left eyebrow the other day.
I started to put down my bar rag and grab my top hat, but this time Marion didn’t wait for my announcement. She strode right up onto the stage, swished her red skirt, and kicked out one silk-clad leg. Hoots and whistles went up from the crowd. Marion leaned over the piano and gave an instruction to Lewis, who deftly changed direction mid-song. The band followed behind a beat later.
Marion led with a splashy song she usually saved for last and performed the second set even more fiercely than the first. Her voice was always throatier by now from the heavy smoke in the room, her body always looser from the single shot of honey-andwhiskey she’d sneak between sets in her dressing room. But tonight, every smile was a little too intense; every word she sang teetered on the brink of too much. Something was off, and I knew it had to do with that girl.
I slipped away from the bar when Duke wasn’t looking and braced my shoulder against a brick column in the middle of the room to watch the show, and the audience. A nervous energy built in my stomach, like I was waiting, though I didn’t know for what.
“Marion copacetic?” Olive slouched against the column beside me, with one hand in the pocket of her dress and another propping a tray against her waist.
Anyone else, and I would’ve lied and said Marion was aces. But Olive’s eyes said she already saw the truth.
“I don’t know,” I said. “He’s putting on a good show, but I think he’s rattled.”
Olive jerked her chin toward the piano. “Look at Lewis. He sees it, too.”
Olive was right. She usually was.
Lewis’s fingers played the piano, but even from across the room, it was plain his mind was on Marion. And not in the usual way. His thin shoulders were tense, and he wasn’t just watching—he was watchful. Protective. I knew that feeling, and I was glad someone else shared it. Two someones, or else Olive wouldn’t be over here.
“He knew that blonde girl asking around with the picture,” I said. “But the stubborn fool won’t tell me how.”
Olive laughed. “I think Cal made that rule about secrets just for you.”
“Hey!” I made a face at her and folded my arms across my chest. “I was right next to that girl, could’ve asked her anything I wanted to know, and she would’ve spilled it all. But I didn’t say a word.”
“You’re a real saint, Millie Coleman.” Olive’s gaze slid sideways, her mouth curving upward. “You should see if Ursuline is looking for any new nuns.”
I nudged her shoulder with mine. “I do hear there are some perks to the nunnery.”
“Oh, really? What sort of perks?” Her body moved closer, and I wasn’t inclined to get out of her way.
But over her shoulder, I saw Frank let Fitzroy return through the front door, without Arimentha, his hair no longer perfect, and an irritated expression on his face. He weaved through the crowd, smoothing his stray hairs back in place, and sat down with the rest of the Uptowners, who gave him odd looks. He’d probably stuck Arimentha in a cab and come back to watch the last minutes of 1929 drain away without her. Clearly, owning a tuxedo did not make him a gentleman.
The two girls at the table abruptly stood up, clutching their little handbags, and navigated single file between the tables toward the back of the club.
Olive thumped my arm. “You see someone you’d rather be talking to?” Her eyebrows were raised in neat, incredulous arches.
“Than you?” I forced my attention back to her face. “Hardly.”
“Then what’re you looking at?”
“That rich girl’s date is back.”
Olive cast a surreptitious glance at their table. “But she’s not back, is she?”
“Then I don’t see why you should care. A table’s waving for drinks. Talk to you later.”
“Later,” I mumbled. I looked at my watch. Eight minutes till midnight.
Marion and the band were performing the final bars of a slow song. Next up, they’d do a real toe-tapper to draw
everybody out on the dance floor ahead of the big countdown, and at midnight, Marion might lean down and give Lewis a kiss, and they’d both pretend it was for show. I’d get a bottle of terrible champagne from the bar and pour it in glasses, while the band started up “Auld Lang Syne,” and people would hug and cry like they even knew what those words meant.
That’s how it was supposed to happen. But between the slow song and what was supposed to be a fast one, there came a three-second breath of silence.
And in that silence came the scream.
Long and shrill and terrible, too strangled with emotion and fear to be a joke.
My head shot up. Every head shot up. More screams pierced the air from the same direction as the first. My eyes darted toward the back hallway, where those two raccoon-coat girls had gone.
The screams were coming from there.
I looked back at the Uptowners’ table. Fitzroy and the two other boys stared at one another with wide eyes and leaped to their feet. They’d obviously come to the same conclusion. Fitzroy grabbed his coat off the back of his chair, knocking it over in the process, but the other two left theirs and started weaving through the crowd.
Some of the customers stayed in their seats and craned their necks to see what was going on, but a good many downed their drinks and surged toward the exits in case this was a raid. Marion stood stock-still on the stage, mouth open in an O. The band members froze in place, too, embracing their instruments protectively. Olive and the other waitress, Zuzu, were in the middle of the crowd, holding on tight to their trays as overly excited customers jostled around them.
Instinctively, I looked around for Aunt Cal and then remembered she wasn’t here. I caught Lewis’s eye and gestured for him to start up the music again, and he played the first notes of “Auld Lang Syne,” even though midnight was still at least five minutes away. The cornetist lifted his instrument to his lips and joined in a beat later, and someone popped premature confetti into the air.
I spotted Frank pushing his way through the crowd toward the back hall, and I fell in beside him.
“I’m going with you,” I shouted over the din, and he nodded, his face solemn.
Whatever trouble was happening with those two girls, it was my responsibility tonight.
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