It was 10:15 am and from the corner of my eye I saw Sophie check her phone again. Same little smile, same red in her cheeks, as her face was illuminated by the faint blue glow for the fifth time that morning.
“I’ll be right back, Lily,” she said without looking at me, scampering off to the bathroom.
She had been at it all week. The buzz of her phone became as familiar as the coffee machine gurgling or the birds chirping.
So my partner had a crush, but on who?
We had been working together for a little over three years. We were paired up when she was hired on after interning. She was sort of regarded as some reporting wunderkind and I was the old veteran who would show her the ropes. Well, that was modern radio news parlance for it. In actuality, I was only three years her senior.
We became good friends almost immediately. Two twenty-something girls, both living in New York but from far away small towns, hers in Vancouver and mine in Minnesota. Both Asian in a field that was predominantly white, she was Chinese and I was Indian.
Our families were remarkably similar, our struggle to make it out of our rural upbringings was similar, and so was our love/hate relationship with New York City.
We became best friends, for a while we were roommates, and from the start, we were inseparable work partners.
So what I should have pieced together, I’m a reporter too, not just a producer/editor for fuck’s sake, was that Sophie, like me, had no time for romance. Where had she met this guy? When did they have time to go on dates? We both worked 60 hour weeks and mostly hung out together on the weekends.
Her social life should have been as dead as mine, after all, we were alike in almost every way. Still, she had something to blush about and I didn’t.
It annoyed me and it hurt that we were best friends and she hadn’t said a word. I guess that spoke volumes about how close we actually were.
Then again we were both keeping secrets from each other.
As close as we were, I never admitted my true adoration of her. My true desire for her. I wouldn’t dare gamble everything else we had, so I took care of her in the ways she would let me. At work and as a friend.
She was beautiful and brilliant. When I was first assigned to work with her I was frankly pretty pissed off to be saddled to a rookie, but within a week in I understood exactly why she got hired on at a New York station right out of an internship. She had that thing. She had the talent on the mic and the talent as an investigator. She was destined for greatness and I immediately felt lucky that I got to help, and maybe hitch a ride on her star.
When she got back from her secret messaging session, we got our travel mugs filled with coffee and prepared for the first big piece of investigating we had really done in a while, researching the “sex cult.”
Sophie didn’t like it when I called it that.
“Lil, could you at least try pretend you’re impartial,” Sophie chided as we got on the train out to Brooklyn.
It was our third interview with a man who called himself Mister Blake.
Blake had been uncomfortable from the start. He didn’t want his name in the report, even his made up name, nor any pictures. He even thought about disguising his voice, but luckily Sophie talked him out of that.
There was something about him though, something intriguing. His story would work on the radio. I heard it in the very first interview. His voice was all gravel and warmth with that odd Philadelphia accent. Every time he started telling a story about his strange and wild life it was hard not to be pulled in.
He told stories of longing and curiosity and mystery and it easy to like him. Plus he used all kinds of old mob sounding slang, half of which I had to google. Got caught with a “piece” and did a “bid” in the “joint?”
“Seriously, Lil, they aren’t a cult. They’re just a group of people who look at sex a little differently than other people. It’s not religious or anything!” Sophie protested.
As we did the first two times, we took the J train to Marcy Avenue and then a bus out to the Navy Yards. Rusted scrap metal and crumbling buildings with giant cranes and construction just a few hundred feet away, where the city was reclaiming the space. Nothing abandoned stayed abandoned too long in New York.
He came in a car. A huge boat of an Oldsmobile Delta 88, gleaming black and looking like new even though it was ancient. He leaned against his car smoking a cigarette as we trudged through the ruined parking lot.
He was gruff. Tall and hairy armed. He looked about 55. He said he was Irish and Cherokee, but I had my doubts. I had my doubts about most of the things he told us. He had tattoos of all kinds. His arms were wound with serpents and dragons in faded emerald and fire engine red. His knuckles read H-A-T-E and L-O-V-E. Little symbols and animals here and there on his chest, just peeking out of his collar. Then, on his neck, a bee with its stinger poised.
His hair was steel gray, in a neat part, half combed back, with a ducktail like a 50s greaser.
As usual, he wore a white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, black work pants, and well polished black engineer boots.
He looked like a Russian mob enforcer or a retired stunt man or possible the owner of a speak easy.
He always put out his cigarette before we got to him and he never smoked inside of his car. He always smelled of whiskey, but I’d never seen him drink.
“Miss Chaudhry,” he said to me and nodded his head.
“Miss Chan,” he said somewhat softer, shaking her hand when Sophie offered it to him.
As usual, I set Sophie up with a little digital microphone and a notepad. I set myself up on a little group of cinder blocks and sat on my jacket with my laptop in my lap.
Sophie conducted the interviews in his car, alone with him. Her microphone sent sound directly to my laptop, where it was recorded. I transcribed as much as I could as I looked up facts and questions and sent them to Sophie’s phone, along with direction and time checks. We’d done it that way before, but it felt different with Mr. Blake.
Before she started, she would chat with him with the microphone off. There was something about seeing them in the car without hearing them. His grumpy smile and his gray stubble covered face. The way he eyed her. He never touched her, I noticed, but he eyed her.
His story that day was similar to what it had been before, with a few new details and answers to the questions we had come up with.
“So I did a dime in Sing Sing and I got out in ‘86. When I got out I was going to back to Philly, but my cousin knew some guys in the city, Manhattan I mean, who had some straight work. By that I mean work I wouldn’t get locked up for.”
“I’d been locked up since I was eighteen and I was almost thirty so I didn’t know nothing but prison life. It’ll fuck with you, you know. So anyhow he puts me to work sweeping up this barber shop in the Lower East Side, which is the first straight job I’d ever had. And it was a good job and sometimes rich guys came in and would hand me a twenty just for sweeping up their hair and that was 19-fuckin-86 when twenty bucks was a lot.”
“So I learned to cut hair real good and give a nice shave and I went and got my license and everything.”
“Anyhow, a year later I’m cutting hair and the boss says they are going to start doing tattoos in the back room at night, which was still illegal in New York, but not that bad and my parole was up so I thought what the fuck. So I shadowed the guy they had doing tattoos and I learned how and turns out I was pretty good at it. Now it’s 89 and all of the sudden I am this big shot in the NY underground tattoo biz.
“So one day this guy, Chinese guy, real nice suit, comes in and he asks if I want to do some special work, up in his apartment, he’ll pay me a grand, cash, and all I have to do is little simple tats on people’s necks. As many as they want in one night. I just gotta be hush hush and not do anything stupid because maybe there will be naked girls walking around. I’m like “a grand in a night, I’ll be a fucking priest.
“So I start doing that. Twice a month, this nice apartment with a red door near the Williamsburg Bridge. They have a big sex party, weird shit, masks and whips and crazy shit They’re all fucking all night and I’m in this little bedroom and they have me tattoo some little symbol, like a bunch of grapes, with vines and a little O and a little D, on girls necks. Guys too, but like gay guys who almost look like girls.
“Easy money and a show to remember. I seen shit at those parties I will never forget.
“Women so beautiful, I didn’t even know they made women like that. Guys, like I didn’t go punk in the clink but if they guys were as pretty as those guys I maybe would have you know what I mean?”
I listened from outside the car and looked up when I heard nothing but silence.
Sophie was staring intently at Blake as he looked out the window, mournfully.
“Anyhow, yeah. Good money, good work, I’m in the black, but of course, I gotta fuck it up. All that hotness all around. This one girl, she looks like a supermodel, she is getting the tattoo and she is like, having an orgasm from the pain. Right there in the chair in front of me, squirming and moaning and everything.
“After that party I tried to find her. I got in trouble for that, but they said they would give me another chance. Still, it wasn’t the same. I was like, on probation or something. Then, in the 90s it started changing. This guy Mister Henry came in and he didn’t want any non-members at the parties. No bartenders, no tattoo guys, no nothing. He gave me a big wad of cash, told me that he would appreciate if I didn’t tell anyone about things. It was a lot of money.”
Blake looked back out the window and wiped his lips with the back of his hand.
“So why are you telling someone?” Sophie asked carefully.
Blake leaned his elbow on the car window and rubbed his chin. He laughed a little to himself.
“That Henry guy. I don’t know. He was something. I’d seen him around before he was in charge. He always had a smoking hot woman with him or sometimes a guy, but you know like a David Bowie looking guy who you weren’t even sure what they were. Anyway, it just didn’t sit right with me. Who gave him the right? It wasn’t just the money. I saw behind, you know, like a curtain. How do you go back?” He asked, longing in his voice.
“And that girl. She was like. I don’t know. I sort kept trying to find her. I never got her name or nothing, people didn’t even use names there, it was like Mister Leon or Le Horse or Le Mouse or some shit, so I knew if I didn’t work the parties I would never see her again. It’s just been bothering me. You know? Eating me up, for years now.”
He was silent for a long time after that. Sophie knew to let him settle down. She wrote down notes as he continued to look at the window. After a little while, she cleared her throat.
“Did you ever hear from them again?” She asked.
He sniffled, rubbed his nose. He didn’t answer, she didn’t push, after a good five minutes he sat up and put his hands on the steering where.
“That’s it. We’re done here,” he said and turned the key in the ignition.
“Yeah, no more questions. We’re done. I don’t want to talk no more,” he said and turned to her.
I watched, suddenly tense. The reality of this guy crept in. He was an admitted criminal. I took the computer off my lap as my heart started pounding.
As I watched, Sophie smiled at him and put away her notebook.
“Thanks for your time Mister Blake,” she said simply and got out of the car.
I relaxed. She had the same instincts I did. I should have trusted that. As she walked quickly back to me, our eyes met.
I was hopelessly in love with her.
Blake watched us as we packed up our stuff. He seemed like he was arguing with himself. After a few minutes, he revved the engine and sped away.
It was weird and we were both a little freaked out. I sprang for a cab and Sophie didn’t try to talk me out of it.
Sophie was silent through the ride back to the office. She got a text and was very careful when she read it, hiding her phone from me.
“I’m sorry if I made you feel like you can’t share whatever is going on in your life with me,” I said, watching the view as we crossed the Manhattan Bridge.
She looked surprised. She opened and closed her mouth a few times, but didn’t say anything until we were a few blocks from the office.
“I’m sorry I’m keeping secrets. It was stupid to think I could keep something from you. It’s just-” she considered her next word.
I knew that was the word. I said it to myself as she spoke it.
“Just give me a little more time. I’ll explain soon,” she said.
I nodded. I was still worried but at least the weight of silence was off my chest. I didn’t like when we kept things from each other.
We didn’t hear from Blake after that. We had some information but mostly a lot of dead ends. We had started with the generalities with him and we’re hoping to go over the specifics in our next interview.
After that day, he didn’t answer his phone and his emails bounced it was safe to assume there would be no next interview.
That weekend I had family come to town. My aunt and my cousins who I dutifully showed around town. A Broadway show, shopping at Macy’s, dinner somewhere nice because they were paying.
I didn’t hear from Sophie all weekend and when we got to work on Monday she was sitting at our desk with a huge stack of folders.
“New week, new outlook, what do you say we drop the sex cult and find a new story?”
I put down her coffee and mine and thought about it. I didn’t want to investigate the damn sex cult but it was weird that she didn’t want to. She never gave up, especially not when she got her teeth into something the way she did with that story.
But what was I supposed to do? Fight for a story I didn’t even want to work on?
“Sounds good, uh, what do we got?”
We spent the rest of the day thinking up pitches, looking at our various notes for new stories, and talking to other people in the office, looking for leads.
That night feeling very alone in bed I started thinking, which always got me in trouble.
What if she was fucking him? Blake. What if she was fucking him and he called off the article and she went along with it?
Various vivid images passed through my mind and my body got very confused because of the mix of anger and jealousy and arousal too. Because I was thinking of her. Naked. Getting fucked.
I put on my headphones and listened to the last interview again, trying to sense chemistry. If anything there was coldness. It made me feel better.
Then one line caught my attention, “Some little symbol, like a bunch of grapes, with vines vines and a little O and a little D.”
I started googling around, I didn’t find much, but O.D. was something, I knew it. On a lark, I went into the office on Sunday and looked through my notes. It was weird being in our office without Sophie, without most of the staff there. Still, it wasn’t that unusual. I looked through some of Sophie’s files. I saw a map of the Lower East Side.
“Red door by the Williamsburg Bridge?” a note said on the map.
“Is this what Beth was talking about?” said another note.
Beth? Who was Beth? I looked through more papers and saw a few more mentions. I saw a printout of a Google satellite photo of a castle. It said it was on Prince Edward Island.
I was shaking. Something was going on. I texted Sophie quickly before I could talk myself out of it.
“Who is Beth?” I wrote simply.
Her reply came a minute later.
“I’ll meet you at your apartment in an hour.”
I rushed home. I cleaned up. I didn’t know what to do. I was scared because it felt like all the secrets were unraveling at once and it might change things. It might change us.
I took out two bottles of white wine and two big glasses.
She rang my bell almost exactly an hour from her text. She looked pretty in a summer dress. Her face was marked with worry.
I poured us both a tall glass of wine and she took a long sip before starting. We sat on my couch.
“So it all started with some forum. This is when we first started talking to Blake, more than a month ago. I found a post that connected to something he said, something about that tattoo. It was a clue. I replied to a post about ‘a secret sex club on the Lower East Side’ and from there I found some more clues. I was going to tell you about it, but then that evening, I got a message on my phone. A message on Snapchat of all things. It was a picture of a handwritten note that said ‘Sort of defeats the purpose of having a secret society if people do news articles about us,’ and it was signed ‘Beth.’”
That was crazy. How would someone even get her Snapchat? I was trying to keep calm. I let her talk.
“So that started it. We moved to Facetime after that. She was, well, is very beautiful. She made a very compelling argument. She was aware of Mister Blake and most of the research we had done. She said we found what they let us find. They understand curiosity but a news report was a bit too much. I was waiting for a threat but she only explained it was an old organization they didn’t hurt anyone. But being exposed would ruin lives. For what? A scoop? Is it really news that some people get together for kinky fun and play at being the Hellfire Club?”
She took another sip. I took another sip.
“She sent me pictures. Always through Snapchat so I couldn’t save them. I was very curious. I was also well- she was very beautiful. I didn’t think I’d stop the article, but it was fun and naughty to hear her out, see the pretty things she showed me. Eventually, she wanted to meet me.”
She looked away. I wonder if she was ashamed. She was certainly blushing.
“We’ve been so focused on work for the last year. Everything is going great, but there hasn’t really been time for dating or anything. Then I am suddenly texting with this beautiful woman who is telling me all of these dirty secrets of a sex cult,” she said, laughing because she used my term for it, the one she always got mad about.
To say I was confused was an overstatement.
“I never knew you liked women, I mean that you were attracted to them,” I fumbled.
She considered this.
“I’ve always thought about it, I mean I had a huge crush on you through my whole internship,” she said with a laugh.
I didn’t laugh. She raised an eyebrow.
“Sorry if that is weird to say. There is something about Beth though. She makes me brave. She makes me think about things in a different way. We, um, we met once. She lives up in Canada in some castle or something. But she comes to New York a lot. I went to her hotel,” she said, but then stopped when she saw my face.
I felt like all the blood was draining out of my body. I felt like I was dying.
“What about the article? What happens now?”
It felt like the safest thing I could think to ask.
“We don’t really have anything. A few vague interviews with some weird guy and some online posts that mostly just lead to more questions. What is the article about? A sex club in New York that may or may not have been around for more than a hundred years?”
“Blake’s interviews didn’t give us much and the things Beth told me are off the record. Plus now, it just seems, I don’t know, like I have a conflict. You can keep going with it, I’d understand. You don’t have an emotional connection.”
“Don’t I?” I blurted.
She turned and stared at me.
“What does that mean?” She demanded, somewhat angrily.
She looked beautiful like that, eyebrows furrowed, mouth a tight Cupid bow. I wanted to smile but she would have probably thought I was making fun of her and so I held it in.
“Are you in love with her?” I asked trying to keep my voice steady.
She laughed her sweet kind laugh.
“With Beth? No. She is fun. So fun. And sexy. Fuck is she sexy. But it’s not love. Definitely not love. It’s something else. Lust. Desire. It’s something like a drug. The power thing. The way she hurts me,” she said, but the word hurt sounded more like kiss or maybe even fuck.
She looked at me as if I wouldn’t understand, but I did. I had felt that.
Then there was silence. It was a weighted, hungry silence that grew between us until I whispered “I’m jealous you get to have that. I had that once with someone.”
We both sighed, then she put her arm around me.
“I’m-” I started but then I felt the tears coming.
“What?” She said, her arm around me, her eyes full of kindness and confusion.
“I’m jealous she gets to touch you.”
Then the whole world was her eyes, looking into mine, understand the thing I had kept from her for so long.
I waited for her to look away, for the reason to creep in, for her to start the process of letting me down easily.
But then her hand was on my cheek and her eyes were wet like mine.
“You should have said something. I didn’t know. I didn’t know how to know that,” she said, but then I was kissing her.
I’d like to say the romance of the moment transported me, but honestly my head was going a million directions at once. I just moved forward and she saw me moving forward and she smiled a little and closed her eyes and then bang.
That was it! That was finally it!I finally found out what kissing Sophie is like? Fuck, how could someone’s lips be so soft? How could someone taste so good?
And then we cried a lot and finished the bottle of wine and tried to figure out what was next.
A few weeks later we were in a cab, stopping in front of the red door of an apartment building downtown.
There was still an electric novelty to holding Sophie’s hand. It made me feel like a kid with a crush, which is what I was. She smiled at me as we rang the bell. Worlds colliding.
The woman who answered the door was petite, with makeup like a doll’s. Circles of blush high on her cheeks and her lips a tiny cupid’s bow. She led us up a flight of stairs and brought us to a small landing where there was a table, laden with masks.
“And who will we be tonight?” the doll asked.
Sophie smiled at me. She had told me some details, but not all. She had been to this party before and she knew the rules. We were both guests of the mysterious Beth. Sophie picked up two small masks, one black and one white and both with whiskers and small pointed ears.
“We’ll both be cats tonight. I explained what that means to my partner,” Sophie said to the doll.
The word “partner” rang in my ears and made my face flush. The word had a new power and new meaning.
She had explained about the cats and the mice and the foxes and the horses and rabbits. All the roles and masks and what they meant. The cat was the most versatile and it meant we could do as much or as little as we wanted.
The pretty doll helped Sophie with her mask and then Sophie put mine on for me. She leaned in close and kissed me lightly, smiling against my lips.
“You’re mine you know,” she whispered.
I swallowed and nodded.
“We can do anything we want tonight, but we’ll check in a lot. You let me know if you are feeling weird,” she said, looking me in the eye.
I nodded and kissed her again.
Then we were shown into the beautiful apartment. A huge railroad flat with many framed paintings on every wall and long tables overflowing with flowers and candles. There were silver trays of cheese and grapes as well as carafes of dark red wine. Low music played from speakers I couldn’t spot.
There were perhaps twenty people there, all in masks, in various states of dress. Handsome suits and pretty black dresses, lingerie and leather straps and harnesses. Sophie stood close to me as we walked through the light crowd to a couch at the other end of the apartment. There was the woman Sophie had shown me pictures of, Beth.
She was gorgeous, almost intimidatingly so. She stood as we approached. She wore a nearly transparent black dress, with nothing under it. The way the gossamer fabric flowed over her breasts was breathtaking.
Her dark hair was shoulder length, her lips were painted bright red, and her eyes were a deep brown that reminded me of Sophie’s. She wore the mask of the fox, with its red lacquer matching her lips. It was one of the masks not offered to guests and I knew it meant she was one of the hosts of the party.
She smiled and held out her hand to Sophie, who took it and then hugged her. Their connection was palpable, but the jealousy it set off was wrapped in curiosity and something else, some new lust I wasn’t sure how to process.
“Ah, and this is your dear friend you’ve told me so much about,” Beth said as she looked at me.
I had worried about what to wear and settled for my simple black suit, no tie. It made me look a little butch, which felt like armor in a new situation. Sophie had a black cocktail dress and we made a pretty couple. I liked that.
“It’s lovely to finally meet you,” I said, catching myself before I said her name.
There were no names at the party.
Beth shook my hand, which seemed oddly formal, but there was some strange feeling as she touched me, some release of tension.
Then Beth turned to the woman who sat next to her, who also stood. Just as Beth was beautiful in a soft elegant comforting way, her partner was radiantly gorgeous and sultry. Taller than all of us and in high heels, she wore an ornate black corset, stockings and garters, and a strappy complicated bra. Her hair was a mass of inky black curls and her eyes seemed to look right into my head.
This mystery woman wore the most impressive mask of them all, a dark brown leather mask with tall antlers that reached almost a foot above her head. It was all intricately tied together with clips and straps in her hair.
She took my hand as well and I realized how odd it was to meet someone and not be introduced by name.
“Two lovely Cats for our party. My little Fox has told me all about both of you. I want you to know that as the Stag and host of this little get together, it is very important to me that you both get anything you desire this evening,” she said, still holding my hand.
“Anything,” she reiterated, looking me in the eye.
As I looked around the apartment, to the people mingling and kissing, I wondered what exactly I did want. I turned to Sophie and she smiled sweetly at me, then, as I looked into her eyes her smile changed. Her eyes narrowed and her grin grew wicked.
“Well, I know what I want,” she said with the confident voice that had made me fall in love with her.
“Ms. Fox, will you show me how to hurt my pretty girlfriend?”
And that was the beginning of our story.