Plausible Deniability

the beginning

Heavy bass pounds through the building, colours flashing and swirling to the beat as a sea of bodies shift down on the floor. The air is thick with heat and various odours, and a line snakes away from the bar. It hasn’t moved in the last two minutes; too many people want refreshments, and the three bartenders are struggling to keep up with the demand.

Aila finishes off the drink in her hand and pouts when she realise it’s most likely the final one of the night. None of her friends will want to spend god knows how long in the line at the bar. Besides, they all have work tomorrow. Doing their jobs while severely hungover is rarely an appealing prospect.

“One last dance?”

She looks away from the ice cubes swimming in the bottom of her glass, red-blue-green lights strobing across Angel’s face. “If we must.”

“We must.”

Angel reaches for Aila’s hand, drags her toward the stairs. Somehow, with a magical skill Aila will never understand, Angel manages to find Cheyenne, Paisley, and Willow with no trouble. Aila lets her friends pull her closer to the epicentre of their cluster, allows the heady beat of the music and the heat of the dance-floor to drag her away from reality.

Her gaze flickers up to the balcony wrapped around the dance floor. Sharp lines, pale eyes, full lips. His hair falls over his forehead in a mess of curls. He raises his glass before swallowing down his drink in one swallow. He promises danger just by existing. Aila gulps and focuses on her friends again.

The streets of East Primden are still full of people, even though every clock in the vicinity reads well after midnight. The pre-festival excitement thrums in the air. It happens every three months—a routine Aila can rely on to never change. Cold wind nips at the faces of everyone as it breezes through the city, and Aila laughs as Paisley presses closer into her.

“You really should’ve worn a jacket,” she teases, and Paisley rolls her eyes. “That’s mean. Go snuggle with Chey. Maybe she likes you more than I do.”

Paisley shoves against her then wobbles on unsteady feet toward the other three. Aila watches as Cheyenne pushes Paisley into Willow’s side, the squeals of laughter echoing in the streets. No one spares a glance for the five drunk women, too focused on their own treks home.

Aila slows, blinks to clear the double-vision. The lump of black stays where it is in the gutter. Her friends have already gone ahead, singing to some pop song in off-key voices. Aila inches closer to the lump and breathes out a sigh of relief when it turns out to be nothing more than a wallet. Ducking down—and barely managing to catch herself before she falls on her face—she plucks up the wallet.

The pockets are empty. There are no cards in the sleeves except for a license, tucked neatly in its windowed slot. Aila has no hope of reading the name printed, but the face that stares up at her is all she can focus on. A shiver slips down her spine; she wonders if it’s the cold of the night or the chill in the man’s eyes, even through a photograph, that affects her so. She shakes her head and tucks the wallet into her clutch.

This is a mystery for tomorrow, when she has had sleep and there is far less alcohol in her system.

“Wait up!”

Her friends stumble to a stop, taunting and laughing at her as she struggles to catch up to them. Her heels make running more difficult than anticipated, so Aila settles for a brisk walk. Willow slings an arm around her neck, pressing a smacking kiss to her cheek, and Cheyenne starts shouting out the words to another song as they continue their trek to the station.

Morning comes far too early, and Aila groans as she rolls over in her bed. Paisley’s phone buzzes again on the nightstand between the beds, but neither woman makes a move to stop the alarm. Aila covers her head with the pillow to muffle the noise. It doesn’t work, so she throws her pillow at Paisley.

“Make it stop,” Aila whines without lifting her head.

“Leave me alone.”

“Then turn off your damn alarm so I can sleep.”

“You hafta work today.”

“So do you.”

“I’ll get the ibuprofen, you get the shower ready.”

“I’m taking all the hot water.”

Paisley grunts in response, and Aila smiles to herself even as she pushes herself to sit up. Her head swims with the action, her stomach churning. She sniffs then gags. She smells like alcohol and the weird combination of body odours that only ever comes from a club.

A hazy memory floats to the forefront of her mind—a black smudge on the ground, nearly falling on her face as she picked it up. The ice that fills the owner’s eyes on his license. Aila clambers out of bed and grabs her clutch from where she tossed it last night.

His eyes are the same in the daylight. Still frozen, even through a photograph. Hard. She swallows down the shiver and puts the wallet back in her clutch. She knows what she’s doing today before going to work.

If someone found her wallet, she hopes they’d return it. She has to do the same, no matter how much the picture makes her wonder if the man is really as cold as he looks.

Shower done—with plenty of hot water left for her roommates—Aila dresses in a pair of simple jeans and a sweater that falls almost to her knees. It was Colton’s, she remembers belatedly. She’d taken it shortly after meeting him. Thankfully, it doesn’t smell like him still.

It holds the aromas of coffee, her perfume, the sharp crispness of snow. Nothing left of him.

Angel and Willie are sat on the couch by the time Aila exits the room she shares with Paisley. Angel’s nut brown hair is pulled back in a sloppy bun, her sweatpants rolled up at the hems to reveal her ankles, her paint-stained T-shirt slipping off one shoulder. Willow looks completely put together for it being so early in the morning.

“Where you going?” Willow asks, glancing up from her magazine.

Aila pauses. She doesn’t know why she’s hesitant to tell her friends about the wallet. “Got some errands to run before work.”

“Have fun,” Angel slurs before she stuffs a spoonful of cereal into her mouth.

Aila shakes her head and makes her way to the front door. She slips her feet into the boots her mother sent two years ago—“I know it gets cold there in the winter, and I don’t want you breaking your neck by falling on ice”. Thanks, Mom, for the wonderful Christmas present. It’s almost like you put thought into it. Aila hadn’t said it, though. It was a good period, and she didn’t want to ruin that.

Four different cab companies refuse her request for a ride. Aila frowns as the last one merely hangs up when she says the address of her destination. Sighing, she resigns herself to taking the commuter train as far as it will go then walk the rest of the way.

By the time she arrives, she can’t feel her face, her fingers, or her toes. She double-checks the address in the wallet with the numbers on the brick pillars, stepping closer to the tall iron gate. The barbs on the pickets give her pause. The height of the fencing is enough deterrent from trespassers, she would think.

Beyond the gate, snow blankets the grounds, thick and undisturbed except for a long snake of asphalt leading the house. ‘House’ is not enough of a word to encompass what she sees. Beige stones make up the front, and the enormous windows reflect the weak December sunlight. The mansion—because that’s what it is—could fit at least four of her house with room to spare. Twelve-hundred square feet hardly seems large enough for four women.

Aila blows out a breath. Obviously, this man is filthy rich. Maybe she’ll get a reward for returning his wallet? She turns her gaze back to the fence and very nearly touches one of the barbs with her fingertip. Her brain kicks in before she makes contact. Scolding herself for being so careless, Aila looks around for some way of announcing her presence.

A black intercom box hangs from the pillar to her right. A wrought-iron awning protects it from the elements. Aila clears her throat and presses the button. A squawk comes through the speakers, then a cold voice fills the air, asking what she wants. She steps closer.

“Hi, I, um, I found a wallet that belongs to someone at this address?”

“Name?”

“Mine?”

“No, on the license,” the man corrects, and derision floods his voice.

“Oh! Of course.” Aila opens the wallet. She almost drops it in the snow at her feet. “A Mister Niall Ho-ran? I think that’s how it’s pronounced.”

“Stay there.”

Another squawk, and the box falls silent again. Aila frowns, muttering, “Yes, because I’m going to leave when I still have this man’s wallet, after you already know I’m here to give it back. How dumb do you think I am?”

After a minute, a car pulls up on the other side of the gate. Sleek and shiny. Well taken care of, judging by the purr of the engine. A man steps out of the front seat, approaches the gate. He’s dressed in all black, and Aila wonders if she could see her reflection in his boots.

She makes a show of comparing the license photo with the man that stands before her. “You don’t look like Mister Ho-ran. I wanna make sure I give it back to the rightful owner.”

He doesn’t say anything. He only holds out his hand, stony-faced, as immovable as the stones of the house. Aila sighs and passes it through the pickets. She takes care not to get caught on the barbs.

“Fine. But if he comes after me because you don’t give this back to him, I’m haunting your ass. I know where you work.”

Something flickers across his face. She thinks it’s amusement, but then his face shifts back to stoic. He turns on his heel and heads back to the car.

“Oh, and it was empty when I found it. Make sure he knows I’m not a thief.”

He doesn’t reply. Aila watches as he reverses up the driveway. It isn’t until he’s out of sight that she remembers the numbness in her body. She goes back to the intercom box.

“Hey! How am I supposed to get home? It’s fucking cold, and I don’t wanna walk all that way.”

No answer. Of course. Just my luck. Rolling her eyes, she turns to stare down the road for a moment. She sighs and sets off, snow crunching beneath her feet. Maybe she’ll become an Aila-shaped icicle and the guard will feel bad. Maybe it will haunt him for the rest of his life. Maybe he’ll be old and grey and thinking to himself, ‘I really should have given that poor girl a lift. I’m a monster.’

Aila is nearly ten minutes away from the house when another car slows to a stop. The candy-apple red paint glitters even beneath the overcast skies. She raises a brow as the passenger window rolls down, ducking down to look at the driver. His eyes are hidden behind sunglasses, and his lips are set in a hard line amongst the stubble.

“Get in.”

“Excuse me? I don’t know you.”

“You asked about a way home. I’m it. Unless you want to walk.”

Aila really, really doesn’t want to walk. So she blows out a breath and grabs the handle. The man’s expression turns mildly surprised when she slides into the front seat. She ignores it, twisting to buckle up. He puts the car in gear and asks where she’s going. She gives the address and hopes she isn’t going to die.

Joseph would have her head if she didn’t show up for her shift at the Northend.

Thankfully, the man drops her off in front of her house without any murdering, and Aila thanks him as sincerely as she can. The ride had been full of awkward silence—she’d barely managed to not ask what it’s like living in such an enormous house. Or if Mister Horan’s eyes were as cold in person as they are in his license photo.

He peels away the instant she closes the door behind her.

“Well, that’s just rude,” she mumbles before turning toward the house. Best to not dwell on it.

She has enough to think about.