Winter seemed benign enough at first. A beautiful young woman in the full flush of youth. Thin but not skinny. Her skin was light and flawless. Her blonde hair was so light that it looked almost white in the bright sun, dancing around her face on soft breezes as if angels worshipped her and played with her hair. The name made sense. She hugged me as if we were old friends, and I immediately felt like a dirty old man, aware of how firm her body was as she squeezed against me. Winter smelled of exotic lands; a mixture of essential oils and coconut. I was glad Lydia hadn’t come with me. This would have gotten me into trouble if anything ever did.
As she stepped back to look me over, I liked Winter immediately. She possessed that serene confidence of someone who knows exactly what she’s doing, and knows it’ll take a few minutes to get you to see her way of thinking. She wasn’t at all the kind of person you would expect to invite you to Hell. But she had done just that. And I was considering it.
“Oh, it’ll be fun,” she assured me with a motherly smile.
I stared into her blue eyes. “I don’t mind the idea of doing something like that,” I told her, though the doubt crept across my face. “I like the idea. It’s just not much warning. We’re not ready for a regular gig, much less writing something from scratch.”
“You could improvise it,” she assured me. “No one will know.”
“A whole show?” I shook my head. “Not with one guitar and two people singing. Too many holes in the mix. That could go awry quickly.”
Winter sighed, nodded, and pursed her lips, then took a sudden breath. “What if I could find you some other musicians?”
I held up my hands, trying to block her enthusiasm, even as I found myself smiling. “Look. I appreciate the offer. We’re flattered. Who wouldn’t want to play the biggest room in St. Pete? I just don’t know how we could improvise a whole show with people we’ve never met. There’s a dynamic…”
“Oh,” she said quickly, “I didn’t mean to improvise with them. I meant to help you write the piece. Or perform it. You write it. They play it.”
My impulse was to say “no” and be done with it. But Winter had that crazy light in her eyes. She made you feel like anything was possible. She was one of those people who lit up a room just by walking through the door. She lit up the sidewalk we were standing on. Few people went by us, on foot or in a car, with taking a double-take at Winter. Nobody noticed me. Standing in front of a presence like that, everything might seem crazy later on, but when you were talking to her at the time it all sounded perfectly reasonable.
“Four weeks?” I heard myself ask, even as the voices in my head screamed, “No fucking way!”
“Four weeks,” she said. “Five thousand for the commission. Five thousand for the performance.” She laid her hand on my arm and batted her eyelashes at me playfully. “Oh, come. I’ll pick up the expenses for the other musicians, and pay them for the performance myself.”
I nodded, thinking it over, trying to find a way out of it, but instead coming up with plenty of reasons to do it. I’d just won the lottery, basically, and was wondering where the catch was. There’s always a catch.
“I appreciate it,” I told her, “and I want to do it. But I gotta be honest. This feels like… some kind of prank. I keep looking around for hidden cameras.”
Winter laughed. “No prank. I love your music. Love what you’re doing. You’re perfect for our Arts Outreach program. Hey, it’s not all benevolent. There will be a lot of wealthy Arts supporters at the event. I’m going to run my hands through deep pockets. You’ll help the foundation bring in a lot of money.”
I nodded doubtfully. “You’ve heard our music, right? We’re… odd.”
“Trust me. Odd sells. These people love ‘odd’. This isn’t a crowd that wants Beach music and songs about margaritas. They want to feel like they’ve just experienced something few other people ever have.”
I chuckled. “Well, in our case they’d be right.”
Winter squeezed my arm. “Listen. I want you to do this. I know you can do this. The false modesty thing is tiring. You know how good you are. As do I. So… do you want to do it or not?”
Images of a ten thousand dollar check wafting away on the breeze danced through my head. No. I wasn’t going to lose it. I was going to chase down that damned thing, and damn the torpedoes.
“Yes,” I said quickly. “Look. We’ll do it. I’m just a little overwhelmed thinking about it. But I think I can do it.”
“Excellent!” Winter exclaimed, reaching into her bag and pulling a slip of paper, which she handed to me. “Here we go, then. Five thousand for the commission. And the other five after the performance.”
I tried not to stare at the much needed, and well-timed, check, and, as nonchalantly as possible, folded it and put it away in my shirt pocket. I smiled at Winter. She beamed and threw her arms around me again.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” she said.
As she pulled away, I asked; “So… what does one do in the fifth circle of Hell, anyway?”
Winter grinned mischievously, and said, “I can’t speak for the real Hell, but in our fifth circle we drink and dance and kiss.”
I nodded and shrugged, and pointed out, “That’s not much to go on.”
“Look it up,” she said. “Dante’s Inferno. And just think. Our dance floor is clear acrylic over a mural of angry, wrathful people trapped in the water.” She grinned again. “Maybe they’re angry because they can’t dance. You could write something about that.”
I nodded again and tried to absorb the imagery and some small part of Winter’s energy. I felt like one of those lost souls struggling in the water. But I had a nice check in my pocket and, for the moment, the favor of a pretty girl. I’d make the best of it and pray I came somewhere near what she was hoping for.
Winter kissed me on the cheek. “I’ll have David contact you about the musicians.”
“Okay. Thanks, Winter. For everything. I look forward to it.”
“It’s going to be fun,” she said, turning to leave. “Give Lydia my love.”
I nodded hopefully, my bobbing head beginning to feel like a nervous tic, and returned the cute little finger wave that was Winter’s signature salute (though not as well). She walked about ten feet from me, then stopped and looked back, striking an accidental pose that lesser women might practice in their mirrors.
“Hey, Luther?” she asked me with a wicked grin on her face.
“See you in Hell, then?”
I grinned, and, again, I nodded. “See you in Hell.”