She sat in her loft, cigarette in hand, watching the sun set over the boulevard. She allowed herself this time before every show. It gave her a chance to think before she had to face the audience, all those eyes and hairy faces yelping out at her like a pack of grimy, tattooed dogs. Old memories came back to her at the end of days, when she sat in her red robe and puffed little ringlets of smoke. She could burn through an entire pack of American Spirits in one day. Somehow the world was better when it could be accompanied by little piles of gray ash.

Her makeup was done and her hair curled. All she had to do was slip out of her robe and into the white, lace dress that hung on the door behind her. She crushed her cigarette into the ashtray on the windowsill and stood up. As she glided over to the dress, she let the robe fall to the floor, leaving just her lingerie.

Over a thousand shows. That’s how long this particular dress had been with her. It was given to her by her sister Mary when she returned from her trip to Paris. She was comfortable in it now, this performance dress. Like a friend that encouraged her when she had stage fright, or when a man slung some “hey pretty lady” from the club floor in a way that made her stomach turn. But it also seemed to remind her that her days were numbered, like every show was a milestone, and that the end of her run as a singer would put her in a grave. She slipped the dress on.

There was a quick knock on the door.
“Ms. Winters,” chimed the voice, “You’re on in ten.”

Lara stuck the ashtray out of the window and let the wind pick up the ashes. It swirled for a moment in front of the glass, and then dispersed into a million different directions. She turned and lit another cigarette. Below her, she could hear the audience bustling. Glasses clinking and the hum of the pre-show jazz band usually signaled her showtime.

The halls of the Sunset Club were painted black and smelled of day-old cigarette smoke. Lara’s staircase led down and opened up to the business of the backstage area, where assistants and other workers prepped for the show. She walked slowly behind the curtain in her glass-heeled pumps, the red light from the stage shining from underneath. Lara had done this so many times, but every once in a while she would stand there petrified before her name was called. As if someone would throw a hand grenade at her feet instead of a rose.

“Ladies and gentleman,” said the voice of God, “please welcome to the stage heaven’s finest angel, Lara Winters!”

The crowd started screeching. The music began to play. Lara’s heart thumped heavily in her chest. She was dizzy.

     You’ve done this before.

The curtain opened. She took a step forward, just behind the microphone. Her mouth opened and a slow, dark crooning slithered out. The voice they had all come to hear. It was singing about love lost, and all the pain of life that haunted her. While on stage, she would pretend she was a famous singer, a popular one, and that she had sold

out some massive arena. The lights blinded her, so she couldn’t really see how far back the club actually stretched. There could be thousands of people there if she wanted.

Lara was a few songs into her set when she saw it. It didn’t register with her right away because of the overheads shining in her eyes. At the door, far off to the right of her vision, was a flash of light. Bright and quick. She saw the security guard fly to the floor. A group of figures flooded in next, all wearing black jumpsuits and black masks. Maybe nine or ten of them.

Before she realized what was happening, the music cut out from behind her just as one of the larger figures raised his arm to fire a black pistol into the air. The others did the same, and the shots momentarily drowned out the screaming from the audience. The microphone feedback squealed out.

Lara had dropped back behind the curtain, behind a few large, black speakers to take cover. She could hear yelling and continuous bursts of fire. Flashes of light were bouncing off the ceiling above her.

“Get on the ground!” A man’s voice echoed through the club, followed by a shot, some crying, and a loud, wet thud.

She turned back, making an attempt for the staircase back to her loft, but was stopped by an armed figure. He had his gun pointed to the ground.

“Get up.” He barked.
Lara slowly rose to her feet.

“Follow me now.”

She did as she was told. Following the attacker, she saw what seemed to be the leader of the gang watching her walk over. In his hand, a smoking Smith & Wesson was still aimed toward a body on the floor. It was Gary, the club’s owner.

“You the singer?” he asked.

Lara nodded, staring at the pool of blood on the ground. She couldn’t believe that Gary was dead. He was such a pig. A big, fat one.

She let out a little laugh. Surprise blossomed there on the man’s face.

“Gary owed me some money . . . I take it you didn’t care much for him?” the man asked. Lara shook her head. Nobody did. In fact, she felt a little relieved. Now, there was no one to scream at her at, hit her, withhold pay. Now that Gary’s brains were splattered all over the floor she was free to do whatever she wanted.

     Whatever she wanted. Now there was a thought. Freedom. It had been over ten years since she stumbled into the Sunset Club, strung out and looking for work as a waitress. Gary had given her everything, but not without a price. Finally, on this dark Saturday night, someone came along and saved her.

“What’s your name?” Lara asked. The attacker cocked his head to the side, obviously a little confused at the unflinching bluntness of this woman in front of him. This woman, with her mahogany hair, pale skin, and seemingly bottomless eyes. Eyes that had been staring into the hot lights for far too long.

“Tommy,” he said, head still cocked to one side. Eyes gleaming.

“Lara Winters,” she said in her deep, singsong way. Tommy lifted her hand, with the gun still in it, and gave it a long kiss, his rough, blue eyes looking into hers the

whole time. She noticed that Gary’s blood had started pooling around her heels. But she was locked into this moment. She considered Tommy’s scarred face and messy black hair. She noticed a bit of red poking out from underneath his long sleeve. As he pulled away from her, she held onto his hand tightly and pulled up his sleeve with the other. She was looking at an old tattoo of a phoenix. It was swirling up in a blaze of smoke and fire, a mound of ash circumnavigating his wrist. The ancient bird, with wings of flame, stretched all the way to his elbow.

Lara took a step back and turned around. She lifted her dress so that Tommy, and all of his masked men, could see her backside. They all looked at each other as she revealed to them a tattoo of her own. The face of a beautiful woman was needled into her flesh. The woman seemed to have features very similar to Lara’s. The nose, eyes, lips . . . the only difference was the hair. Instead of hair, there were snakes warping out of the woman’s skull. Rattlesnakes, cobras, vipers, and one that curled down around the woman’s neck.

“What is this?” he asked, placing his finger on her back, right on the head of the snake. She knew what he was asking about.

“Black mamba,” she whispered. She dropped the white dress, covering herself back up, and turned around to face Tommy. “What happens now?”

Tires screeching and police sirens erupted from outside of the club.

“Let’s go!” Tommy ordered his men. He grabbed Lara by her arm, thrust the gun into the small of her back, and began herding her toward the door. He leaned over and spoke into her ear. “Play along.”

Gunfire rang out as a few of his men exited the club. A cloud of blood burst into the air and one of them went down. Just before Lara and Tommy walked out the door, he pulled her in close so that he was fully pressed up behind her and raised the gun to her temple.

“Show them you are afraid,” he said. Though they both knew she wasn’t. They walked out the door and the gunfire suddenly ceased. There were police cars everywhere. Maybe eleven or twelve of them, and two cops per car. They were all behind their car doors, aiming their guns directly at them.

“HOLD IT,” Tommy screamed, “Or I’ll put her down.”

A group of Tommy’s men, all with AK-47 machine guns, walked in a circle around the two of them like a unit of the Secret Service. They walked across the parking lot toward a convoy of black SUVs. Tommy pushed her into the car and jumped in after her. The driver smashed the accelerator into the floor of the SUV, and the tires melted into the pavement for a few seconds before they started flying down the boulevard. The police cars roared to life and spun clumsily onto the road behind. The SUVs were moving with precision, darting in and out of traffic like barracuda.

Tommy’s men leaned out of the trucks and started firing at the police cars. Lara laughed harder than she had in a long time. Tommy looked at her in total bewilderment. Lara turned to watch the police cars with wild eyes. And Tommy just stared at her. She started to sing a rendition of “Blue Velvet,” catching the attention of the other men sitting in the SUV. She leaned over so close to Tommy that their lips were almost touching. She sang slowly.

Tommy brought the gun up and spun it around so that the handle was facing Lara. She looked down at the gun and then back up at him. The smile fell away from her face, and she wrapped her hand around the handle of the weapon. Lara turned away from him to examine the gun. She thought of Gary. She thought of the Sunset Club, falling away in the background like a slowly crumbling empire of whiskey and cigarettes. She thought of that Black Mamba coiling itself around the neck of the woman on her back. This wasn’t a man giving her everything again. This was power.

Lara rolled down the window of the SUV. She pulled herself out and latched onto the ski rack above her, dangling just a few feet from the blur of asphalt beneath. The wind roared past her at eighty miles an hour, sending her hair whipping viciously around. She had never fired a gun before. In fact, there were a lot of things she had never done.

Lara Winters raised the gun and aimed it at the nearest police car. The other cars on the highway peeled off and out of the way. She screamed some sort of battle cry, something that had been inside of her probably since she was born. Tightening her arm, she took a long look at this speeding moment and, with that same satisfied smile, pulled the trigger.

Nathan Noyes’s short story “Blue Lara” won third prize in 2014 in the Second Annual School of Visual Arts Writing Program Contest. He is a senior majoring in Photography.