Otis poured a Scotch and flicked on the CCTV. The fight was in full flow; he could almost smell the adrenaline as punters yelled, faces red, veins bulging. He’d miss this place. He lit a cigarette, took a drag and switched to the view of the stage.
Lola stood statuesque in a blue sequinned dress. She wasn’t beautiful, exactly — nose too long, hair boyish, skin pale, far from Otis’s usual type — but there was something about her straight posture and steady gaze that was striking. Otis had insisted on booking her. Her reputation nearly made him think twice, but she was the best, and this was a night that required the best.
Trouble followed her, they said. Or, rather, her lovers. Like Ricky Fortune who, true to his name, made a killing selling coke from a Bethnal Green bakery. Until he encountered Lola Nightingale. Within a week, the operation had gone tits up, ‘flour’ delivery seized at Dover and Ricky shot in the head and half cremated in his own oven.
Then there was Leo the Brain. An ironic nickname, but he was in security, so muscle trumped intellect. He certainly wasn’t thinking when he met Lola. Not with his head, anyway. Again, less than a week: shoot-up outside a Soho club dispatched half his goons and Leo nicked on some bogus fraud charge. Sent down as London’s biggest money launderer. Apparently he looked chuffed to bits in the dock that they’d given him so much credit. And slightly baffled, but that was a given with Leo.
Lola was on straight after the fight; charm the punters before they kicked off. Otis would be behind his two-foot walls and door of reinforced steel. He wanted to see the fight, even though he knew how it would end, to see Benny Silver’s face hit the floor. And, in truth, he wanted to see Lola.
The crowd roared. Otis flicked back to the ring, but he’d missed it; Benny was down. The ref held Freddie Lane’s hand aloft, as Benny was stretchered off to gasps, cheers and — mostly — boos.
Otis brought up the stage. The first note, low and mournful, made every follicle on his body pucker. Her voice climbed. It wasn’t words, exactly, but it spoke to something deep inside Otis. The backs of heads loomed as a crowd began to form. Otis took another pull on his cigarette, stubbed it out and grabbed his headset.
“Keep the punters away from the stage, lads. Don’t want them taking their frustration out on the entertainment.”
“Yes, Boss,” said Jim and Callum in unison, moving into shot. Both former fighters, like Otis. And both looked unmoved by the music, but that could’ve been the noise cancelling headphones.
Lola’s dress rippled like the Med on a summer day. Otis knew that thought ought to lead him onto others, about Cyprus, the waiting apartment, his fresh start. But he was suddenly very much there, in that room, in a body that finally felt fully alive after many years sleepwalking. He sighed, breath catching, and realised he was crying. He wiped his eyes on his sleeve, embarrassed, although there was no one there, feeling a deep sorrow he’d never noticed before, but that seemed to have always been there.
His plans to retire to a sun lounger, piña colada in hand, seemed suddenly clichéd. He pictured himself, rich and fat, his wife Penny, skin leathery, face Botoxed to shit, and he wanted none of it. Lola’s voice sent Otis back to his tumultuous youth, to full-hearted fights, every punch carrying the full force of his anger, his fear, his fierce love. It was why he’d been so good. When his career was cut short by a knock that left him blind in one eye, balance fucked, prone to migraines and tinnitus, he had no more use for all that emotion, so he shut it away, focused on making money. Which, it turned out, he was also pretty good at. But as he sat, tears streaming, letting Lola’s voice tear down the walls he’d built inside, it all seemed hollow.
Otis glanced at his Rolex. 12.30, just gone. Cab due in half an hour.
“I’m coming out, boys,” Otis said into the mic. “Things to tie up. Crowd are calm enough, right? No trouble?”
“You sure, Boss?” Callum’s voice crackled. “Only, you said not to let you on the floor. You said—”
“I know what I said,” he snapped. “This overrides that. Send someone to cover me. Now.”
“You sure you haven’t just got a hard-on for this Lola bird?” Jim chuckled. “Half the punters here got their tongues hanging out.”
“Fuck off, Jim.”
“Whatever you say, Boss.”
Otis downed his whisky, got to his feet. He adopted a fighting stance, bounced on his toes, threw some air punches, rolled his shoulders like he used to before a bout, then skipped to the door and punched in the code. He jogged down the strip-lit corridor, Lola’s voice getting louder, his need more urgent, with every step.
Two guys waited by the door. Otis nodded at them, but his eyes sought the stage, and Lola. She looked straight at him, voice so full of passion he barely knew how he was still upright. But he was, moving towards her as if magnetised. He pushed through the crowd till he reached the front, gazing up, Lola’s eyes still locked on his. She held a last, exquisite note, sashaying forwards. Then: silence. She knelt, cradled Otis’s upturned chin and kissed him, then stood and walked offstage.
The silence lasted a moment more, before people turned to see who’d been singled out. Then they realised who he was.
Oh fuck, thought Otis, as the mob erupted. A sharp blow caught him on the temple and he was down in a sea of feet and fury. Before he passed out, he caught a glimpse of Lola, hovering in the wings, an enigmatic smile playing at her lips.
Rachel Swabey is a journalist and mother-of-three who writes short stories and flash fiction. She’s also a fully-trained yoga teacher, croupier and cocktail waitress. In fact, the only way her CV makes any sense is if she becomes a writer and can call it all ‘research’, so five years ago that’s what she decided to do. She has recently plucked up the courage to send some words out into the world and is delighted some of them have found homes on shortlists and in lit mags. She has a soft spot for quirky stories, both realist and speculative.