(Missed the last chapter? Go to 34: Worlds Collide)
AS DR. GREY imperiously hailed the bartender, I slid down one stool, trying to blend in with the giggling Chardonnay ladies embarking on their Light trip. I hoped Dr. Grey wouldn’t deign to notice them—or me.
Dr. Grey wore the silk suit I’d seen her in a few hours ago, still unwrinkled, though she’d obviously either driven or ridden in a car for an hour to get here. If you paid enough money, could you get silk that never mussed? Did she have multiple, identical suits that she changed over the course of the day? Did she have minions on standby, slavering with the desire to iron her clothes while she stood impatiently by in her slip, tapping one toe of her red designer stiletto? None of it would have surprised me.
The Goth bartender had come to attention like a tattooed military gnome. “Good afternoon, Dr. Grey. The usual?”
“Tell Walt I’m here.”
“I’m sorry, Ma’am, but he’s not in yet.”
Even from my sheltered vantage I could feel the temperature drop. I couldn’t see Dr. Grey’s face, but I could see the bartender’s, glazing over with dread.
“Tell him to meet me at the other place. It’s important.” Dr. Grey spun around, graceful as a ballerina, and left without sparing another glance for anyone or anything in UrgePool.
I let out the breath I hadn’t realized I was holding. I grabbed my drink and polished it off. For the second time that day, worlds had collided. John and Dorothy in my house. Dr. Grey at UrgePool.
Throat closing with claustrophobic anxiety, I signaled to Goth. When he came over, I asked for a glass of water.
As he set the water on the bar in front of me, I asked, “Does that tall woman come in here often?”
The bartender’s eyelid twitched involuntarily. “All the time. Friend of the boss.”
I gulped the cool water, trying to quell the panic bubbling inside me. There were close to a million people in the Richmond metropolitan area. What were the odds of running into Dr. Grey here? But deep down, I felt the horrifying inevitability. UrgePool was the “it” place, and Dr. Grey seemed like the type who would be found swanning around InnerPool’s VIP room, watching other people get drunk and have sex, but never mussing—never mind shedding—her own clothes.
That did it. I asked if I could see Branson. Goth nodded and went to pick up the bar phone. A moment later, he returned and told me that Branson would meet me at the door to InnerPool.
WHEN BRANSON CAUGHT sight of me, he looked surprised for a fraction of a second before breaking into a big smile. Anyone else probably would have missed it entirely, but I knew him too well. The flicker of emotion behind that surprise was guilt. “Lacy! I thought we were meeting later.”
“I texted you I was on my way,” I said.
I heard the edge in my voice. Branson’s smile dimmed a bit. “I texted back that I would meet you at Bee’s at six.”
I shook my head. “I didn’t check my phone after I got here. I was planning on having a drink and relaxing until you were finished doing…what is it you do here, exactly?”
“Lacy.” Branson’s voice held a warning. “We can talk on my break. At six o’clock.”
I lowered my voice. “Would you have time to talk to me right now if I wanted to buy some Light?”
Branson’s eyes shifted. “Possibly.”
I grabbed his arm. “I work with kids, and I just saw my boss walk in here and ask for Walt. The bartender said she comes here all the time. They’re friends. ”
“Okay.” Branson shrugged. “Then she’s probably cool.”
“Dr. Grey is a lot of things, but cool isn’t one of them!” I snapped. “Cold as thumbscrews in dry ice, more like it.”
“Doctor… you mean, Linda Grey?” Branson’s face lit up with an unmistakable glow of admiration. “She’s your boss?”
“Yes, Branson. If she found out I was dating a drug dealer, I would lose my—”
“Now hold on a second!” Branson pulled me away from the door to InnerPool toward the back of the room. “I am not a drug dealer!”
I felt a wave of relief. “You’re not selling, then?”
Branson frowned. “The term ‘drug dealer’ implies illegal activity.”
“So, you think that makes it okay?”
Branson gestured dismissively. “Lacy, please. This is nothing for you to worry about.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?”
Something across the room captured Branson’s attention. I followed his gaze to a couple of hopeful-looking skate punks making straight for us. Branson shook his head and they stopped in their tracks and slunk off.
“And so it begins.” I stared at Branson in dismay. “How, why…?”
He sighed. “Remember I told you about the chemist buddy of mine who designed the Light?”
I nodded. Now that he mentioned it, I did.
“I told you that it was pure and legal and safe. All that is true!” Branson’s eyes shone with excitement. “The designer’s name is Luc. I know him from college. He’s been working on this formula almost ten years. The drug is chemically distinct enough that it doesn’t fall under any existing drug class. His father is a lawyer for the ACLU and he’s researched the whole thing. I’m telling you, we’re not in any danger!”
“Then why are you skulking around, selling out of a backroom?”
“Because if the DEA finds out about it, they’ll get laws passed to make it illegal. Not to mention the issue of taxes.” Branson frowned. “That’s one reason I wanted you to try it. I wanted you to see for yourself how mild it is. Making recreational drugs illegal is a big scam to put certain people in jail and keep others rich and powerful. You’re a smart woman. You know it’s true.”
“I’m not interested in having a debate about drug laws and the socio-economic abuse of power right now.” The music had gotten louder—death metal with a gravelly Germanic voice grinding out the vocals, and I had to raise my voice to be heard. “You have @TechFix, and you have the band. Why are you fucking around with this?”
Branson leaned closer. “This is my way in.”
“This. UrgePool! He grabbed my arm and looked at me intently. “They want the Light. Without it, Walt has no reason to take on another partner. With the Light, I can write my own ticket.” Branson had an avaricious expression that I didn’t like. “I need this.”
“I don’t understand.”
Branson shook his head like I was being dense. “Being a rock star is a pipe dream, and fixing computers is boring. I can grow here. Learn the business. Walt says I’m a natural salesman and manager. He thinks I have potential.” Branson’s face darkened with resentment. “Unlike some people.”
“I hope you’re not talking about me,” I snapped. “Because I know you have potential, and for a lot better things than this. If Walt thought so much of you, he wouldn’t be asking you to pimp drugs.”
Branson started to protest again, but I stepped back and held up my hand. “Legal or not, it’s sketchy. This place is dangerous, Branson. Walt is dangerous.”
The muscles in Branson’s jaw tightened. “This conversation is over.” He was angrier than I’d ever seen him, his voice a low growl.
I shook my head, feeling sick. “I dated a pot dealer once. Calls at all hours of the night, paranoia—not only of the police, but clients who want what you’ve got and can’t afford it. People who act like they’re your friends when all they want is a high. Weirdos. Sycophants. Imposters. It’s not a lifestyle I want anything to do with.”
“I don’t respond well to ultimatums.” Branson narrowed his eyes. “In fact, I tend to do the opposite, just on principle.”
Just then the DJ put on Green Day’s American Idiot. I felt hysterical laughter bubbling up. I tried to choke it back, to no avail. Branson’s expression darkened further. He looked furious and humiliated.
“I’m … so… sorry!” I managed to gasp out. “I just…I just…thought there was one sane person in my life!” I hiccupped so hard I got a cramp in my belly.
Walt materialized next to Branson, looking crisp in an Armani suit and wingtips. The two of them watched me as I bent over, giggling and hiccupping. I was mortified, but I couldn’t stop.
“I …” hick, “need,” hick, “a drink of,” hick, “water.”
“Is she drunk, again?” Walk asked, giving me a look of pity.
Branson turned without answering and went toward the bar.
I tried to get myself to the door, walking half-bent over, holding my stomach. Branson met me with a glass of water. “Take little sips,” he said, but there was no warmth in his voice.
I obeyed. In a moment my hiccups abated and my stomach uncramped enough that I could straighten up. Walt still hovered behind Branson with a condescending smirk on his face.
“Goodnight,” I said, mustering as much dignity as possible.
My heart twisted at the sadness in Branson’s voice, the urgent appeal in his eyes. I didn’t want to leave. God knows, part of me wanted to say fuck maturity, common sense, and my career. But then I might as well cancel that appointment with the therapist while I was at it. Get a waitressing job, party all night, and sail off into the future in a haze of vodka and Light.
“I better go.” I stole one last look at Branson’s sweet, sad face. “Let me know if you change your mind about your career path.” I turned and started toward the door.
“Lacy, I wish you’d just listen to—”
“Let her go, son.” I heard Walt’s sonorous, paternal voice behind me. “Never chase after a woman. She won’t respect you if you do.”
I whirled around. Walt stood with his manicured hand on Branson’s shoulder. A wave of fury hit me. Branson wasn’t starving or unemployed. He didn’t need this. He just wanted it. God only knew why.
“He’s made his choice, and no, I don’t fucking respect it. And I definitely don’t respect you, Walt. He’s all yours. I hope you two will be very happy together.”
As soon as the words were spoken, I regretted them. It sounded so final. Branson’s eyes snapped to my face, and I saw the hurt there. But I couldn’t take it back.