My contentment was short-lived. Plum burst into my room and I awoke with a start, sitting bolt upright in bed and throwing an arm over my bleary eyes to block out the light that she flicked on without warning. My heart galloped painfully in my chest.
“Wha- what’s happening?”
“What’s happening my little lovely is you and I are going to celebrate the completion of your first assignment.”
“That’s very sweet of you Plum, but I’m kind of exhausted and my back is stiff. Maybe we could go out some other time. All I want to do right now is sleep,” I mumbled as I lay back down.
“You can sleep when you’re dead darling. Now come on, up and at ’em. We’ve got to make you presentable. Let’s see what kind of clothes you brought with you.”
Plum took one look at the clothes in my dresser and declared everything unfit. She grabbed my hand, walked me to her bedroom and flung open her walk-in closet. I sucked in my breath. It was like a small boutique with countless racks of clothes organized by season and color.
There were rows upon rows of shoes neatly displayed. She asked me about a lavender body contouring silk sheath dress for herself and I nodded dumbly. Plum untied the belt on her robe and let it fall to her feet. I tried not to looked too shocked by the realization that she had obviously decided against underwear.
Plum slipped into the dress and donned a pair of ankle-strapped slings. She gave her wardrobe careful consideration before picking out a fuchsia bodysuit and black miniskirt for me. She sat on her bed and watched me disrobe, wrinkling her delicate nose when she caught sight of my unimaginative beige underwear.
“Patricia darling what are you wearing?”
“What? You mean my underwear?”
“There is enough fabric in those bloomers to sail a small ship. Take them off and get rid of that granny bra while you’re at it.”
“Then what will I wear? All my underwear looks like this, in different colors of course.”
“You don’t need any underwear. No wonder you’re so repressed! Free your body and your mind will follow. Loosen up and live a little.”
Against my better judgment, I did as Plum commanded blushing to the roots of my hair. It felt indecent, walking around without undergarments. I put on the bodysuit and skirt. Plum used her fingers to scoop my hair up into a messy bun and secured it with a hair elastic. She stood back to admire her handiwork and nodded before handing me a pair of black pumps.
“You look like you’re about a nine and a half. I borrowed a pair of Flame’s shoes. Let’s go darling. I’m driving.”
“Wait, I’ve got to get my purse.”
“You mean that potato sack with handles? You don’t need a purse. It’s my treat.”
We walked down to her spacious garage and strolled past the row of sports cars and sports utility vehicles, stopping in front of a purple Volkswagen. Plum laughed at my startled expression.
“We’re slumming tonight.”
“Where are we going?”
“You’ll see when we get there. Just sit back and relax,” she purred.
I shrugged my shoulders and tried to act nonchalant. The suspense was killing me though. I contented myself with looking out of the window as she drove. The scenery went from opulent to average and then gradually worsened to rundown. We were in the city when Plum pulled up in front of a neighborhood convenience store with a group of roughnecks out front eyeing everyone going in and out. Plum smiled at me.
“Darling, would you mind trotting in and getting me a carton of cigarettes?”
“Are you serious? We must have passed a hundred stores on the way. Why did you stop here? I really don’t feel like getting stabbed trying to get a carton of cigarettes.”
The smile slid off of Plum’s face and I was climbing out of the car before I was aware of what I was doing. She had that effect on me. Lucky for me, she never asked me to kill anyone. Otherwise, I’d be penning this tale from a jail cell.
“Alright, give me the money and keep your cell phone out in case you need to call me an ambulance,” I snapped.
“Sorry sweetie, I haven’t got anything smaller than a hundred dollar bill and you know how these hole-in-the-wall places are about breaking big bills.”
“I don’t have any cash with me remember?”
“You don’t need any money.”
“Oh yeah, well I’m wearing the wrong shoes to pull of a smash-and-grab.”
“Must I teach you everything? Watch and learn because I’m only going to do this once.”
Plum climbed out of the car, smoothed down her dress and sauntered right up to the biggest man in the group loitering on the sidewalk outside the store. I followed reluctantly a few steps behind her. They closed in around us and I held my breath, feeling their hungry eyes crawling over us like insects.
Plum whispered something in the man’s ear that raised his eyebrows. He muttered something and the group erupted in laughter. Plum planted a hand on her hip. I couldn’t hear her reply but he took some good-natured ribbing from his cronies. I relaxed a little. Laughter was good.
Her new friend disappeared into the store and emerged moments later with a carton of cigarettes. Plum accepted them, turned on her heels and walked away with her hips swaying sensuously. Much to my surprise, he didn’t try to stop her. I had to scurry to catch up with her. We climbed back in the car and I couldn’t stop gaping.
“What did you say to that guy,” I asked incredulously.
“In a nutshell, I told him I’d appreciated it if he’d make a gift of the cigarettes.”
“You’re kidding me right?”
“I rarely ever kid darling. You’ve got an amazing rack. Don’t tell me you’ve never gotten anything for free.”
“I’ve never been the kind of person who could talk someone into giving me something for nothing.”
“Sweetie, when you look as good as we do, you don’t have to do much talking. Men are like puppies. All they need is a firm tug on their leashes.”
Our next stop was in the heart of downtown. Plum parked in front of an old office building. I glanced at it and looked over at her quizzically. Surely that couldn’t be our destination. She chuckled, grabbed a briefcase from the backseat and climbed out. Plum was full of surprises.
The place looked abandoned. I didn’t really want to get out of the car but I followed her to the front door anyway. Sitting outside in the dark in that neighborhood wouldn’t be wise. As we approached, I could hear base thumping. Plum opened the door and muffled, pulsating music assaulted my ears.
I crowded into the narrow stairwell behind her and tried to breathe only through my mouth. The mingled odors of urine and funk were positively oppressive. Mossy filth covered the walls so densely in places that it blotted out the accumulation of graffiti. I reached for the bannister and nearly impeded the progress of an enormous cockroach.
We climbed fifteen stairs to the second floor. The transformation was astounding. Those walls were covered with an enormous mural of outer space inhabited by the likenesses of music legends like Bob Marley, Mama Cass and Jimmy Hendrix. It glowed under the black lights illuminating the hallway. Plum walked to the end of the hall and used her keys to rap on the door.
I took my time catching up to her, marveling at the illusion of winking stars and the eyes in the life-like faces which seemed to follow me. After a lengthy pause, the door swung open and a blast of incense-laden air blew into our faces. The music pounded at my chest and vibrated my ears. A tall, lanky, shirtless man in paint spattered overalls filled the doorway.
He and Plum embraced like old friends before he stepped aside and motioned for us to enter. The room turned out to be an enormous loft that took up the entire second floor. Walls had obviously been knocked out to create a space that ringed the building. Clouds of pungent smoke hung in midair.
Plum linked arms with the stranger and they strolled away. He said something and she laughed hysterically, swatting him on his muscular arm. I did manage to make out his name. So that was Randy. I took in his tattooed biceps and waist-length dreadlocks secured with a length of hemp.
Not bad. The piercings were a bit much but then he was clearly cultivating a “look.” I decided to keep my distance. It was obvious that he and Plum had business matters to discuss and she hadn’t exactly invited me to sit in on their pow wow.
I joined the rest of the crowd milling around. Judging from the paint splatters on his jeans, Randy was probably the artist responsible for the mural in the hallway. There were paintings throughout the space of the same caliber of the mural. However, most were abstract paintings composed of violent brush strokes in day-glow hues.
I grew bored and began to people-watch. Next to them, I didn’t feel so daring. In fact, I felt downright run-of-the mill next to them with their distressed clothing and razor cut hair. The skin-tight leather skirt Plum had bullied me into wearing was actually cutting off my circulation from the waist down.
None of them looked as though they were wearing underwear either. That made me feel more comfortable. All I had to do was remember to cross my legs when I sat down. The day-glow paint, black lights and red lights, blaring music with thumping baselines (which felt as though it was vibrating my brain) and clouds of marijuana smoke, had my senses on overload.
I couldn’t figure out what was taking Plum so long. I started searching for a place to sit down. There appeared to be a body in every nook and cranny. Some guy smiled at me and I made the mistake of smiling back. He came swimming towards me through the dense crowd and invaded my personal space.
That’s when I noticed the odd way his eyes ceaselessly darted around. He got right in my face. I could see and smell the rotten teeth festering in his mouth. He held out a hand full of pills. I shook my head and began backing away from him, hoping to get lost in the crowd, asking myself for the tenth time what the hell was taking Plum so long.
I found an empty spot near a window and leaned gratefully against the wall, turning to press my forehead against the cool pane. The room was beginning to spin. I closed my eyes momentarily, praying that Plum would find me before long. Surely she didn’t plan on spending the entire evening here. If so, I was going to have to make my apologies and call a cab.
“You know, you really should be a bit more selective about who you hang out with.”
I smiled and turned towards the sound of Plum’s voice. My eyes were deceived for a couple of seconds. Then I noticed the clothes. Instead of the form-fitting dress that I had helped pick out, this woman wore a zebra print silk shirt open down to her pierced belly button, faded black jeans and black stiletto heeled pumps.
She stepped towards me and the moonlight momentarily highlighted her face. I caught my breath sharply. She looked just like Plum! After recovering from the initial shock, I realized that there were slight differences. Her hair was only shoulder length and the eyes were shaped a little differently. Even if I couldn’t see her face, I’d know this woman was Plum’s sister. She had the same presence and she sounded just like her.
“I-I’m not sure I understand,” I stammered.
“You came in here with Plum right? I haven’t spoken to her in over a year. I would appreciate it if you didn’t tell her that we talked. She always has been rather possessive of her friends.”
“Plum has always been good to me.”
The woman brayed laughter and I suddenly felt foolish. Was she on bad terms with her own sister? More importantly, why did her sister feel the need to tell a complete stranger about it? I fidgeted, not quite knowing how to respond.
“Mother always said that if you play with dirt, it gets in your eyes. Watch your back or you just might wake up with a knife buried in it. Let me explain something to you. Right now, you’re in the honeymoon phase of your friendship. But rest assured, after she makes you over in her own image she’ll get bored and decide to have a little fun at your expense.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Plum is my best friend. She would never hurt me.”
That cynical laughter erupted again and I tried to ignore the way my stomach clenched up. This woman was a complete stranger to me. How did I know she was even telling the truth? It wasn’t her laughter at my expense that troubled me. It was the fact that everything she said had the ring of truth to it.
In all my time with Plum, I had never been able to comprehend how someone like her could legitimately be interested in the likes of me. I thought about the way she had manipulated me into using my job to help her friends launder money and suddenly felt sick. I almost didn’t hear the woman’s next words.
“Huh, I’m sorry. What did you say,” I murmured.
“I said, would a friend run the risk of getting you busted for possession of narcotics?”
“What are you talking about? She brought me to this party to get my mind off of my problems.”
“Oh, I get it. Is abandoning you in a sea of drug addicts Plum’s idea of a good time or yours,” she sneered.
“She’ll come and get me in a few minutes. We just got separated that’s all,” I lied lamely.
“Whatever. Hey, when she comes back, ask her what was in the briefcase. I don’t mean to disillusion you… okay, that’s a lie. I do want to disillusion you before it’s too late.”
“What difference does it make to you what goes on between me and Plum?”
“To be perfectly honest, I give less than a damn what happens to you. My motives are self-serving but we can help one another. Plum has something that belongs to me. When she starts losing interest in you, give me a call. Something tells me you’ll be in dire need of a friend before long.”
She pressed a small square of paper into my palm and my hand reflexively closed around it. I stood riveted to that spot watching her walk away. My mind raced through a hundred scenarios, each more troubling than the last.