One cherry garnishes a brown-brimming cocktail glass, handed out by Flames to one who cuts in from somewhere, passing Kev without obstruction—a dark-eyed Latino boy of maybe twenty-one, whose spiteful sleek depraved face radiates decadence and damage from its sharp beauty. “And for Angel, one Manhattan,” Flames announces, takes a bow and returns to the bar.
With the arrival of drinks, talk around the table starts to drift and split. This newest face, I observe, is active here, though incongruous. He is shadowy, effete, both unhealthy and luminous: I picture him a pirate-queen scuttling up the masts of a slave-ship, to keep watch. Aside from a silver earring in his right ear, a shiny black vinyl brassiere is all that he wears above the waist, above black leggings and pointed black boots. Through his smooth brown skin I can sense the charge of nerves around his ribs beneath the faint swell of his breasts. His smooth little torso is built like a whip, thin and supple. Beautifully tattooed down the length of his back is a stark, emblematic pair of angel’s wings, cross-cut with faint lash-marks. Half the time his mouth, with its lips painted cinnabar, is sulky; and half the time his teeth are bared, jaws tense and snapping like a starved baby she-wolf. His voice is intersexual, with a degenerate breathiness underlying a fluid steel edge and a slight lisp on every s. A clean but musky sexual scent coils about him, even through the smoke. When his eyes fix mine for the first time, I have to make an effort not to flick my gaze away, so potent is the damage and so luscious is the blackness of fever within them. Hard excitement and the pulsing of attraction to the beauty of the dark spills out of him, as if his sweetest wish is for a violent revenge against life and all who live it.
One hidden thing do I let myself tune in to as yet, for a split-second only: tattooed on his forehead, in an ink that’s invisible, a single word flickers up and shouts out—SLAVE.
He leaves the group and heads towards the rear of the bar. Passing by, Flames peers down at Angel’s glass on the table, saying, “Angel’s lost his cherry—but I thought that was years ago?”
Hearing, Angel turns: “Don’t make me slap you, Flames—I only need to look at you, to know you need slapping.” And he turns away and slinks to the corridor’s mouth, like a little black dragon with a scorpion’s sting.
He could have taken revenge by overpowering me physically, and he has the aura of one who will have considered this as an option, but he hasn’t done this. My active hypnotic look at him on the street was discreet enough, to all but him and me, to have done no real damage to his image; but he may reckon that the gaze I turned on him is too quickly deployable for him to make any hasty moves. So, amid the noisy high spirits prevailing at Downstairs, we end up just having a loud good time, saying not much of substance: within half an hour I am tipsy and within an hour verging on drunk.
When I slip down the corridor at the back, I see Damian must have left us without my noticing, for here he is beside the doors to the toilets, selling drugs to a couple of punters. He has raised the collar of his battered leather jacket, making himself look even shiftier than usual. His customers eye my approach with suspicion, but he grunts a curt reassurance and they return their attention to him. Someone has thrown up pungently, I surmise when I enter the gents. As I stand at the urinal, Damian finishes his sale. “Someone bring a mop and bucket here,” he bellows down the corridor towards the bar. He spits savagely on the glistening floor, then tries to wipe the sweat from his tired face with his hand, but only succeeds in smearing it around.
The only illumination in here is from the bright yellow bulb of a street-lamp shining through the broken window from outside, where furtive figures go in and out of shadows in an alleyway. Finishing at the urinal, I peer with curiosity through the thick sultry heat, to locate the source of a constant jagged buzz, and discover that it emanates from an orange neon fuse nailed to the grimy bricks outside the broken window. Seeing this, Damian cracks the first grin I’ve yet seen on him and mutters at me, as if unearthing a conspiracy, “That’s the ‘s’ of ‘Downstairs’,” and grimly nods.
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