The Bank was a decrepit stone building at the tail end of Houston Street, on the last divide between the gritty East Village and the wilds of the Lower East Side. Once the headquarters of the venerable Van Alen investment and brokerage house, it was an imposing, squat presence, a paradigm of the beaux-arts style, with a classic six-column fa?ade and an intimidating row of ?dentals? - razor-sharp serrations on the pediment's surface. For many years it stood on the corner of Houston and Essex, desolate, empty, and abandoned, until one winter evening when an eye-patch - wearing nightclub promoter chanced upon it after polishing off a hot dog at Katz's Deli. He was looking for a venue to showcase the new music his DJs were spinning - a dark, haunted sound they were calling "Trance."
The pulsing music spilled out to the sidewalk, where Schuyler Van Alen, a small, dark-haired fifteen-year-old girl, whose bright blue eyes were ringed with dark kohl eye shadow, stood nervously at the back of the line in front of the club. She picked at her chipping black nail polish. "Do you really think we'll get in?" she asked.
"No sweat," her best friend, Oliver Hazard-Perry replied, cocking an eyebrow "Dylan guaranteed a cakewalk. Besides, we can always point to the plaque over there. Your family built this place, remember?" He grinned.
"So what else is new?" Schuyler smirked, rolling her eyes. The island of Manhattan was linked inexorably to her family history, and as far as she could tell, she was related to the Frick Museum, the Van Wyck Expressway, and the Hayden Planetarium, give or take an institution (or major thoroughfare) or two. Not that it made any difference in her life. She barely had enough to cover the twenty-five dollar charge at the door.
Oliver affectionately swung an arm around her shoulders. "Stop worrying! You worry too much. This'll be fun, I promise."
"I wish Dylan had waited for us," Schuyler fretted, shivering in her long black cardigan with holes in each elbow. She'd found the sweater in a Manhattan Valley thrift store last week. It smelled like decay and stale rosewater perfume, and her skinny frame was lost in its voluminous folds. Schuyler always looked like she was drowning in fabric. The black sweater reached almost to her calves, and underneath she wore a sheer black T-shirt over a worn gray thermal undershirt; and under that, a long peasant skirt that swept the floor. Like a nineteenth century street urchin, her skirt hems were black with dirt from dragging on the sidewalks. She was wearing her favorite pair of black-and-white Jack Purcell sneakers, the ones with the duct-taped hole on the right toe. Her dark wavy hair was pulled back with a beaded scarf she'd found in her grandmother's closet.
Schuyler was startlingly pretty, with a sweet, heart-shaped face; a perfectly upturned nose; and soft, milky skin - but there was something almost insubstantial about her beauty. She looked like a Dresden doll in witch's clothing. Kids at the Duchesne School thought she dressed like a bag lady. It didn't help that she was painfully shy and kept to herself, because then they just thought she was stuck-up, which she wasn't. She was just quiet.
Oliver was tall and slim, with a fair, elfin face that was framed by a shag of brilliant chestnut hair. He had sharp cheekbones and sympathetic hazel eyes. He was wearing a severe military greatcoat over a flannel shirt and a pair of holey blue jeans. Of course, the flannel shirt was John Varvatos and the jeans from Citizens of Humanity. Oliver liked to play the part of disaffected youth, but he liked shopping in SoHo even more.
The two of them had been best friends ever since the second grade, when Schuyler's nanny forgot to pack her lunch one day, and Oliver had given her half of his lettuce and mayo sandwich. They finished each other's sentences and liked to read aloud from random pages of Infinite Jest when they were bored. Both were Duchesne legacy kids who traced their ancestry back to the Mayflower. Schuyler counted six U.S. presidents in her family tree alone. But even with their prestigious pedigrees, they didn't fit in at Duchesne. Oliver preferred museums to lacrosse, and Schuyler never cut her hair and wore things from consignment shops.
Dylan Ward was a new friend - a sad-faced boy with long lashes, smoldering eyes, and a tarnished reputation. Supposedly, he had a rap sheet and had just been sprung from military school. His grandfather had reportedly bribed Duchesne with funds for a new gym to let him enroll. He had immediately gravitated toward Schuyler and Oliver, recognizing their similar misfit status.
Schuyler sucked in her cheeks and felt a pit of anxiety forming in her stomach. They'd been so comfortable just hanging out in Oliver's room as usual, listening to music and flipping through the offerings on his TiVo; Oliver booting up another game of Vice City on the split screen, while she rifled through the pages of glossy magazines, fantasizing that she too, was lounging on a raft in Sardinia, dancing the flamenco in Madrid, or wandering pensively through the streets of Bombay.
"I'm not sure about this," she said, wishing they were back in his cozy room instead of shivering outside on the sidewalk, waiting to see if they would pass muster at the door.
"Don't be so negative," Oliver chastised. It had been his idea to leave the comfort of his room to brave the New York nightlife, and he didn't want to regret it. "If you think we'll get in, we'll get in. It's all about confidence, trust me." Just then, his BlackBerry beeped. He pulled it out of his pocket and checked the screen. "It's Dylan. He's inside, he'll meet us by the windows on the second floor. Okay?"
"Do I really look all right?" she asked, feeling suddenly doubtful about her clothes.
"You look fine," he replied automatically. "You look great," he said, as his thumbs jabbed a reply on the plastic device.
"You're not even looking at me."
"I look at you every day." Oliver laughed, meeting her eye, then uncharacteristically blushing and looking away. His BlackBerry beeped again, and this time he excused himself, walking away to answer it.
Across the street, Schuyler saw a cab pull up to the curb, and a tall blond guy stepped out of it. Just as he emerged, another cab barreled down the street on the opposite side. It was swerving recklessly, and at first it looked like it would miss him, but at the last moment, the boy threw himself in its path and disappeared underneath its wheels. The taxicab never even stopped, just kept going as if nothing happened.
"Oh my God!" Schuyler screamed.
The guy had been hit - she was sure of it - he'd been run over - he was surely dead.
"Did you see that?" she asked, frantically looking around for Oliver, who seemed to have disappeared. Schuyler ran across the street, fully expecting to see a dead body, but the boy was standing right in front of her, counting the change in his wallet. He slammed the door shut and sent his taxi on its way. He was whole and unhurt.
"You should be dead," she whispered.
"Excuse me?" he asked, a quizzical smile on his face.
Schuyler was a little taken aback - she recognized him from school. It was Jack Force. The famous Jack Force. One of those guys - head of the lacrosse team, lead in the school play, his term paper on shopping malls published in Wired, so handsome she couldn't even meet his eye.
Maybe she was dreaming things. Maybe she just thought she'd seen him dive in front of the cab. That had to be it. She was just tired.
"I didn't know you were a dazehead," she blurted awkwardly, meaning a Trance acolyte.
"I'm not, actually. I'm headed over there," he explained, motioning to the club next door to The Bank, where a very intoxicated rock star was steering several giggling groupies past the velvet rope.
Schuyler blushed. "Oh, I should have known."
He smiled at her kindly. "Why?"
"Why apologize? How would you have known that? You read minds or something?" he asked.
"Maybe I do. And maybe it's an off day." She smiled. He was flirting with her, and she was flirting back. Okay, so it was definitely just her imagination. He had totally not thrown himself in front of the cab.
She was surprised he was being so friendly. Most of the guys at Duchesne were so stuck-up, Schuyler didn't bother with them. They were all the same - with their Duck Head chinos and their guarded nonchalance, their bland jokes and their lacrosse field jackets. She'd never given Jack Force more than a fleeting thought - he was a junior, from the planet Popular; they might go to the same school but they hardly breathed the same air. And after all, his twin sister was the indomitable Mimi Force, whose one goal in life was to make everyone else's miserable. "On your way to a funeral?"
"Who died and made you homeless?" were some of Mimi's unimaginative insults directed her way. Where was Mimi, anyway? Weren't the Force twins joined at the hip?
"Listen, you want to come in?" Jack asked, smiling and showing his even, straight teeth. "I'm a member."
Before she could respond, Oliver materialized at her side. Where had he come from? Schuyler wondered. And how did he keep doing that? Oliver demonstrated a keen ability to suddenly show up the minute you didn't want him there. "There you are, my dear," he said, with a hint of reproach.
Schuyler blinked. "Hey, Ollie. Do you know Jack?"
"Who doesn't?" Oliver replied, pointedly ignoring him. "Babe, you coming?" he demanded in a proprietary tone. "They're finally letting people in." He motioned to The Bank, where a steady stream of black-clad teenagers were being herded through the fluted columns.
"I should go," she said apologetically.
"So soon?" Jack asked, his eyes dancing again.
"Not soon enough," Oliver added, smiling threateningly.
Jack shrugged. "See you around, Schuyler," he said, pulling up the collar on his tweed coat and walking in the opposite direction.
"Some people," Oliver complained, as they rejoined their line. He crossed his arms and looked annoyed.
Schuyler was silent, her heart fluttering in her chest. Jack Force knew her name.
They inched forward, ever closer to the drag queen with the clipboard glaring imperiously behind the velvet rope. The Elvira clone sized up each group with a withering stare, but no one was turned away.
"Now, remember, if they give us any trouble, just be cool and think positive. You have to visualize us getting in, okay?" Oliver whispered fiercely.
Schuyler nodded. They walked forward, but their progress was interrupted by a bouncer holding up a big meaty paw "IDs!" he barked.
With shaking fingers, Schuyler retrieved a driver's license with someone else's name - but her own picture - on its laminated surface. Oliver did the same. She bit her lip. She was so going to get caught and thrown in jail for this. But she remembered what Oliver had said. Be cool. Confident. Think positive.
The bouncer waved their IDs under an infrared machine, which didn't beep. He paused, frowning, and held their IDs up for inspection, giving the two of them a doubtful look.
Schuyler tried to project a calm she didn't feel, her heart beating fast underneath her thin layers. Of course I look twenty-one. I've been here before. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that ID, she thought.
The bouncer slid it under the machine again. The big man shook his head. "This isn't right," he muttered.
Oliver looked at Schuyler, his face pale. Schuyler thought she was going to faint. She had never been so nervous in her life. Minutes ticked by. People behind them in line made impatient noises.
Nothing wrong with that ID. Cool and confident. Cool and confident. She visualized the bouncer waving them through, the two of them entering the club. LET US IN. LET US IN. LET US IN JUST LET US IN!
The bouncer looked up, startled, almost as if he'd heard her. It felt as though time had stopped. Then, just like that, he returned their cards and waved them forward, just as Schuyler had pictured.
Schuyler exhaled. She and Oliver exchanged a restrained look of glee.
They were inside.
Right next door to The Bank was a very different kind of Manhattan nightclub. It was the kind of nightclub that existed only once every decade - at a point in the social nexus when the gods of publicity, fashion, and celebrity converged to create a singularly spectacular environment. Following in the hallowed tradition of mid- 70s Studio 54, late- 80s Palladium, and early- 90s Moomba, Block 122 had entered an iconic realm that defined a movement, a lifestyle, a generation. A cocktail-combo clientele of the city's most beautiful, envied, notorious, and all-powerful citizens had christened it their place to be - their natural habitat, their watering hole - and since it was the twenty-first century, the era of super-exclusivity, they even paid astronomical membership dues for the privilege. Anything to keep out the hoi polloi. And inside this blessed sanctuary, at the most sought-after table, surrounded by a glittering assortment of underage models, post-pubescent movie stars, and the sons and daughters of boldfaced names, sat the most gorgeous girl in the history of New York City: Madeleine ?Mimi? Force. Sixteen years old going on thirty-four, with a shot of Botox between the eyes to prove it.
Mimi was popularity personified. She had the golden-girl good looks and tanned, Pilates-toned limbs that came with the Queen Bee position - but she transcended the stereotype while embodying the essence of it. She had a size twenty-two waist and a size ten shoe. She ate junk food every day and never gained an ounce. She went to bed with all her makeup on and woke up with a clear, unblemished complexion, just like her conscience.
Mimi came to Block 122 every night, and Friday was no exception. She and Bliss Llewellyn, a tall, rangy Texan who'd recently transferred to Duchesne, had spent the afternoon primping for the evening's festivities. Or rather, Bliss had spent the afternoon sitting by the side of the bed making complimentary noises while Mimi tried on everything in her wardrobe. They'd settled on a sexy-but-in-an-off-beat-bohemian-way-with-straps-just-falling-off-the-shoulder-just-so-Marni camisole, a tiny denim Earnest Sewn miniskirt, and a sparkly Rick Owens cashmere wrap. Mimi liked to travel with an entourage, and in Bliss she'd found a suitable companion. She'd befriended Bliss solely at her father's request, since Senator Llewellyn was an important colleague. At first Mimi had chafed at the directive, but she changed her mind when she realized Bliss's equine good looks complemented and emphasized her own ethereal beauty. Mimi loved nothing more than a suitable backdrop. Leaning against the stuffed cushions, she glanced at Bliss approvingly.
"Cheers," Bliss said, clinking her glass against Mimi's, as if she'd read her mind.
"To us." Mimi nodded, chugging the last of her luminescent purple cocktail. It was her fifth of the evening, and yet she felt as sober as when she'd ordered the first one. It was depressing how much longer it took to get drunk now. Almost as if alcohol didn't have any effect on her bloodstream. The Committee had told her it would happen - she just hadn't wanted to believe it back then. Especially since she wasn't supposed to avail herself of the other, more potent alternative as often as she'd have liked. The Committee had too many rules. At this point they were practically running her life. She impatiently signaled to the waitress to bring another round, snapping her fingers so hard it almost shattered the glass coffee table in front of her.
What was the point of going out in New York if you couldn't even get a little buzzed? She stretched out her legs and lay them languidly across the couch, her feet resting on her twin brother's lap. Her date, the nineteen-year-old heir to a pharmaceutical fortune and a current investor in the nightclub, pretended not to notice. Although it would be hard to say if he was even conscious, as he was currently leaning on Mimi's shoulder and drooling.
"Quit it," Benjamin Force snapped, brusquely pushing her off. The two of them shared the same pale, platinum blond hair, the same creamy, translucent skin, the same hooded green eyes, and the same long, slender limbs. But they couldn't have been more different in temperament. Mimi was loquacious and playful, while Benjamin - nicknamed Blackjack in childhood because of his tantrums, and shortened to Jack in adolescence - was taciturn and observant.
Mimi and Jack were the only children of Charles Force, the sixty-year-old, steely-haired media magnate who owned an upstart television network, a cable news channel, a popular newspaper tabloid, several radio stations, and a successful publishing empire that made profits from autobiographies of World Wrestling Federation stars. His wife, the former Trinity Burden, was a doyenne of the New York society circuit, and chaired the most prestigious charity committees. She was instrumental in the foundation of The Committee, of which Jack and Mimi were junior members. The Forces lived in one of the most sought-after addresses in the city, a luxurious, well-appointed townhouse that covered an entire block across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
"Oh c'mon," Mimi pouted, immediately placing her feet back on her brother's lap. "I need to stretch my legs. They're so sore. Feel," she demanded, grabbing a sinewy calf and asking him to feel the muscle tense underneath. Strip Cardio was a bitch on the joints.
Jack frowned. "I said quit it," he murmured in his serious voice, and Mimi immediately retracted her tanned legs, tucking them beneath her butt and letting the undersoles of her four-inch Alaia heels scrape against the white suede couch, leaving dirty scratch marks on the immaculate cushion.
"What's wrong with you?" Mimi asked. Her brother had arrived in a foul mood just a minute ago. "Thirsty?" she taunted. Her brother was such a party pooper lately. He hardly ever went to Committee meetings anymore, something their parents would freak out about if they ever found out. He wasn't dating anyone; he looked weak and spent, and he was undeniably cranky. Mimi wondered when the last time was that he had had any.
Jack shrugged and stood up. "I'm going out to get some air."
"Good idea," Bliss added, rising in a hurry. "I need a smoke," she explained apologetically, waving a pack of cigarettes in front of Mimi's face.
"Me too," Aggie Carondolet, another girl from Duchesne said. She was part of Mimi's crowd, and looked just like their leader, down to the $500-dollar highlights and sullen expression.
"You don't need my permission," Mimi replied in a bored voice, although the opposite was true. One didn't simply leave Mimi's presence - one was dismissed.
Aggie smirked, and Bliss smiled nervously, following Jack toward the back of the club.
Mimi shrugged. She never bothered to follow the rules, and tended to light up wherever and whenever she felt like it - the gossip columns once gleefully published the five-figure tally of her smoking fines. She watched the three of them leave, disappearing into the crush of bodies throwing themselves around the dance floor to obscene rap lyrics.
"I'm bored," she whined, finally paying attention to the guy who had hardly left her side all evening. They had been dating for all of two weeks, an eternity on the Mimi time line. "Make something happen."
"What do you have in mind?" he murmured groggily, licking her ear.
"Mmmm," she giggled, putting a hand underneath his chin and feeling his veins throb. Tempting. But maybe later, not here, not in public at least. Especially since she'd just had her fill of him yesterday ... and it was against the rules... Human familiars were not to be abused, blah, blah, blah. They needed at least a forty-eight-hour recovery time ... But oh, he smelled wonderful ... a hint of Armani ...aftershave and underneath ... meaty and vital... and if she could just get one little taste... one little... bite... but The Committee met downstairs, right beneath Block 122. There could be several Wardens here, right now ... watching... She could be caught. But would she? It was dark in the VIP room... Who would even notice in this crowd of self-involved narcissists?
But they would find out. Someone would tell them. It was eerie how they knew so much about you - almost as if they were always there, watching, inside your head. So, maybe next time. She would let him recuperate from last night. She ruffled his hair. He was so cute - handsome and vulnerable, just the way she liked them. But for now, completely useless. "Excuse me for a second," she told him.
Mimi leaped from her seat so quickly that the cocktail waitress bringing a tray of lychee martinis to the table did a double take. The crew around the banquette blinked. They could have sworn she was sitting down just a second ago. Then in a flash, there she was: in the middle of the room, dancing with another boy - because for Mimi, there was always another boy, and then another and another, each one of them all too happy to dance with her - and it seemed like she danced for hours - her feet never even touching the ground - a dizzying; blond tornado in eight-hundred-dollar heels.
When she came back to the table, her face glowing with a transcendental light (or merely the effects of benefit high beam?), her beauty almost too painful to bear - she found her date sleeping, slumped over the edge of the table. A pity.
Mimi picked up her cell phone. She just realized that Bliss had never returned from that cigarette break.
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