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Remarkable. Just look at the use of light and shadow . . ."
"You see how this image hints at the sorrow of the place, yet manages to convey a promise of hope?"
". . . one of the youngest photographers to be included in the museum's new modern art collection."
Gabrielle Maxwell stood back from the group of exhibit attendees, nursing a flute of warm champagne as yet another crowd of faceless, nameless, Very Important People enthused over the two dozen black-and-white photographs displayed on the gallery walls. She glanced at the images from across the room, somewhat bemused. They were good photographsa bit edgy, their subject matter being abandoned mills and desolate dockyards outside Bostonbut she didn't quite get what everyone else was seeing in them.
Then again, she never did. Gabrielle merely took the photographs; she left their interpretation, and ultimately, their appreciation, up to others. An introvert by nature, it made her uncomfortable to be on the receiving end of this much praise and attention . . . but it did pay the bills. Quite nicely, at that. Tonight, it was also paying the bills for her friend Jamie, the owner of the funky little art gallery on Newbury Street, which, at ten minutes to closing, was still packed with prospective buyers.
Numb with the whole process of meeting and greeting, of smiling politely as everyone from moneyed Back Bay wives to multipierced, tattooed Goths tried to impress one anotherand herwith analyses of her work, Gabrielle couldn't wait for the exhibit to end. She had been hiding in the shadows for the past hour, contemplating a stealth escape to the comfort of a warm shower and a soft pillow, both waiting at her apartment on the city's east side.
But she had promised a few of her friendsJamie, Kendra, and Meganthat she would join them for dinner and drinks after the showing. As the last couple of stragglers made their purchases and left, Gabrielle found herself gathered up and swept into a cab before she had a chance to so much as think of begging off.
"What an awesome night!" Jamie's androgynous blond hair swung around his face as he leaned across the other two women to clutch Gabrielle's hand. "I've never had so much weekend traffic in the galleryand tonight's sales receipts were amazing! Thank you so much for letting me host you."
Gabrielle smiled at her friend's excitement. "Of course. No need to thank me."
"You weren't too miserable, were you?"
"How could she be, with half of Boston falling at her feet?" gushed Kendra, before Gabrielle could answer for herself. "Was that the governor I saw you talking with over the canapes?"
Gabrielle nodded. "He's offered to commission some original works for his cottage on the Vineyard."
"Yeah," Gabrielle replied without much enthusiasm. She had a stack of business cards in her pocketbookat least a year of steady work, if she wanted itso why was she tempted to open the taxi window and scatter them all to the wind?
She let her gaze drift to the night outside the car, watching in queer detachment as lights and lives flickered past. The streets teemed with people: couples strolling hand in hand, groups of friends laughing and talking, all of them having a great time. They dined at cafe tables outside trendy bistros and paused to browse store window displays. Everywhere she looked, the city pulsed with color and life. Gabrielle absorbed it all with her artist's eye and, yet, felt nothing. This bustle of lifeher life as wellseemed to be speeding by without her. More and more lately, she felt as if she were caught on a wheel that wouldn't stop spinning her around, trapping her in an endless cycle of passing time and little purpose.
"Is anything wrong, Gab?" Megan asked from beside her on the taxi's bench seat. "You seem quiet."
Gabrielle shrugged. "I'm sorry. I'm just . . . I don't know. Tired, I guess."
"Somebody get this woman a drinkstat!" Kendra, the dark-haired nurse, joked.
"Nah," Jamie countered, sly and catlike. "What our Gab really needs is a man. You're too serious, sweetie. It's not healthy to let your work consume you like you do. Have some fun! When's the last time you got laid, anyway?"
Too long ago but Gabrielle wasn't really keeping track. She'd never suffered from a shortage of dates when she wanted them, and sexon those rare occasions she had itwasn't something she obsessed over like some of her friends. As out of practice as she was right now in that department, she didn't think an orgasm was going to cure whatever was causing her current state of restlessness.
"Jamie is right, you know," Kendra was saying. "You need to loosen up, get a little wild."
"No time like the present," Jamie added.
"Oh, I don't think so," Gabrielle said, shaking her head. "I'm really not up for a late night, you guys.
Gallery showings always take a lot out of me and I"
"Driver?" Ignoring her, Jamie slid to the edge of the seat and rapped on the Plexiglas that separated the cabbie from his passengers. "Change of plans. We decided we're in the mood for celebrating, so ixnay on the restaurant. We wanna go where all the hot people are."
"If you like dance clubs, there's a new one just opened in the north end," the cabbie said, his spearmint chewing gum cracking as he spoke. "I been takin' fares over there all week. Fact, took two already tonightfancy after-hours place called La Notte."
"Ooh, La No-tay," Jamie purred, tossing a playful look over his shoulder and arching an elegant brow.
"Sounds perfectly wicked to me, girls. Let's go!"
The club, La Notte, was housed in a High Victorian Gothic building that had long been known as St. John's Trinity Parish church, until recent Archdiocese of Boston payouts on priest sex scandals forced the closings of dozens of such places around the city. Now, as Gabrielle and her friends made their way inside the crowded club, synthesized trance and techno music rang in the rafters, blasting out of enormous speakers that framed the DJ pit in the balcony above the altar. Strobe lights flashed against a trio of arched stained-glass windows. The pulsing beams cut through the thin cloud of smoke that hung in the air, pounding to the frenetic beat of a seemingly endless song. On the dance floorand in nearly every square foot of La Notte's main floor and the gallery abovepeople moved against one another in writhing, mindless sensuality.
"Holy shit," Kendra shouted over the music, raising her arms and dancing her way through the thick crowd. "What a place, huh? This is crazy!"
They hadn't even cleared the first knot of clubbers before a tall, lean guy swooped in on the spunky brunette and bent to say something in her ear. Kendra gave a throaty laugh and nodded enthusiastically at him.
"Boy wants to dance," she giggled, passing her handbag to Gabrielle. "Who am I to refuse!"
"This way," Jamie said, pointing to a small, empty table near the bar as their friend trotted off with her partner.
The three of them got seated and Jamie ordered a round of drinks. Gabrielle scanned the dance floor for Kendra, but she'd been devoured in the midst of the crowded space. Despite the crush of people all around, Gabrielle could not dismiss the sudden sensation that she and her friends were sitting in a spotlight. Like they were somehow under scrutiny simply for being in the club. It was nuts to think it. Maybe she had been working too much, spending too much time alone at home, if being out in public could make her feel so self-conscious. So paranoid.
"Here's to Gab!" Jamie exclaimed over the roar of the music, raising his martini glass in salute.
Megan lifted hers, too, and clinked it against Gabrielle's. "Congratulations on a great exhibit tonight!"
"Thanks, you guys."
As she sipped the neon yellow concoction, Gabrielle's feeling of being observed returned. Or rather, increased. She felt a stare reach out to her from across the darkened distance. Over the rim of her martini glass, she glanced up and caught the glint of a strobe light nicking off a pair of dark sunglasses.
Sunglasses hiding a gaze that was unmistakably fixed on her through the crowd.
The quick flashes from the strobes cast his stark features in hard shadow, but Gabrielle's eyes took him in at once. Spiky black hair falling loosely around a broad, intelligent brow and lean, angular cheeks. A strong, stern jaw. And his mouth . . . his mouth was generous and sensual, even when quirked in that cynical, almost cruel line.
Gabrielle looked away, unnerved, a rush of warmth skittering along her limbs. His face lingered in her head, burned there in an instant, like an image set to film. She put down her drink and braved another quick glance to where he stood. But he was gone.
A loud crash sounded at the other end of the bar, jerking Gabrielle's attention over her shoulder. At one of the crowded tables, liquor seeped onto the floor, spilled from several broken glasses that littered the black-lacquered surface. Five guys in dark leather and shades were having words with another guy wearing a Dead Kennedys wife-beater tank and torn, faded blue jeans. One of the thugs in leather had his arm slung around a drunk-looking platinum blond, who seemed to know the punker. Boyfriend, apparently. He made a grab for the girl's arm, but she slapped him away and bent her head to let one of the thugs put his mouth on her neck. She stared defiantly at her furious boyfriend, all the while playing with the long brown hair of the guy fastened to her throat.
"That's messed up," Megan said, turning back around as the situation escalated.
"Sure is," Jamie added as he finished off his martini and flagged a server to bring another round. "Evidently that chick's mama forgot to tell her it's bad news not to leave with the guy who brought you."
Gabrielle watched for another moment, long enough to see a second biker move in on the girl and descend on her slackened mouth. She accepted both of them together, her hands coming up to caress the dark head at her neck and the pale one that was sucking her face like he meant to eat her alive. The punker boyfriend shouted a string of obscenities at the girl, then turned around and shoved his way into the spectating crowd.
"This place is creeping me out," Gabrielle confided, just now noticing some clubbers openly doing lines of cocaine off the far end of the long marble bar.
Her friends didn't seem to hear her over the driving pound of the music. They also didn't seem to share Gabrielle's unease. Something wasn't quite right here and Gabrielle could not shake the feeling that eventually the night was going to get ugly. Jamie and Megan began talking between themselves about local bands, leaving Gabrielle to sip what was left of her martini and wait on the other side of the small table for an opportunity to break in and make her excuses to leave.
Essentially alone at the moment, her gaze drifted over the sea of bobbing heads and swaying bodies, as she surreptitiously searched for the sunglass-shaded eyes that had been watching her before. Was he with the other thugsone of that gang of bikers still stirring up trouble? He was dressed like them, certainly carried the same dark air of danger about him.
Whoever he was, Gabrielle saw no trace of him now.
She leaned back in her chair, then nearly jumped out of her skin when a pair of hands came to rest on her shoulders from behind.
"Here you are! I've been looking all over for you guys!" Kendra said, sounding breathless and animated at the same time, as she leaned over the table. "Come on. I've got a table for us on the other side of the club. Brent and some of his friends want to party with us!"
Jamie was already on his feet, ready to go. Megan took her fresh martini in one hand, Kendra's and her pocketbooks in the other. When Gabrielle didn't rush to join them, Megan paused.
"No." Gabrielle stood up and looped the strap of her handbag over her shoulder. "You go on, have fun. I'm beat. I think I'm just going to catch a cab and head back home."
Kendra gave her a little-girl pout. "Gab, you can't go!"
"You want some company for the ride home?" Megan offered, even though Gabrielle could tell she wanted to stay with the others.
"I'll be fine. Enjoy yourselves, but be careful, right?"
"You're sure you won't stay? Just one more drink?"
"Nah. I really need to take off and get some air."
"Suit yourself, then," Kendra chided with mock venom. She stepped in and planted a quick peck on Gabrielle's cheek. As she withdrew, Gabrielle caught a whiff of vodka, and, beneath that, something less obvious. Something musky, queerly metallic. "You're a buzzkill, Gab, but I still love you."
With a wink, Kendra looped her arms with Jamie's and Megan's, then playfully tugged them toward the churning mass of people.
"Call me tomorrow," Jamie mouthed over his shoulder as the trio were slowly engulfed by the crowd.
Gabrielle immediately started her trek for the door, anxious to be out of the club. The longer she had stayed, the louder the music seemed to get, drumming in her head, making it hard to think. Hard to focus on her surroundings. People pushed at her from all sides as she tried to pass through them, squeezing her into the press of dancing, flailing, gyrating bodies. She was jostled and nudged, pawed at and groped by unseen hands in the dark, until, finally, she stumbled into the vestibule near the club's entrance, then out the heavy double doors.
The night was cool and dark. She drew in a deep breath, clearing her head of the noise and smoke and the unsettling atmosphere of La Notte. The music still throbbed out here, the strobe lights still flashed like small explosions behind the tall stained-glass windows above, but Gabrielle relaxed a bit now that she was free.
No one paid her any mind as she hurried down to the curb and waited to hail a ride home. Only a few people were outside, some passing by on the sidewalk below, others filing up the concrete steps and into the club. She spotted a yellow cab coming her way, and thrust out her hand to call it over.
As the empty cab navigated across the lanes of nighttime traffic and roared up beside her, the doors of the nightclub burst open with the force of a hurricane.
"Hey, man! What the fuck!" Behind Gabrielle on the steps, a male voice rose to an octave just north of fear. "Touch me again, and I'll fuckin'"
"You'll fuckin' what?" taunted another voice, this one low and deadly, and flanked by several others that were chuckling in amusement.
"Yeah, tell us, you little asswipe punker piece of shit. What're ya gonna do?"
Her fingers gripping the door handle of the cab, Gabrielle swiveled her head, half in alarm, half in knowing dread of what she would see. It was the gang from the bar, the bikers or whatever they were, in black leather and shades. The six of them circled the punker boyfriend like a pack of wolves, taking turns jabbing at him, toying with him like prey.