Okay, so last week was hot and steamy. This week, we're heading back to the crime itself...kind of. Sorry, but I can't resist using these scene, for a variety of reasons. It is a bit on the longer side--but totally worth it.
“Casey Lynn sure this is the place?” Jack shifted in his seat and tugged at his tie. “I’ll be honest; I’ve seen worse places a girl could be working.”
“Samantha Abernathy wants to dance on stage. For her, this is about as close to rock bottom as she can get without falling straight into hell.” Even though the heat index outside was still close to triple digits, I shoved my arms into a cropped leather jacket. It suited the image we were going for. I did a quick glance in the visor mirror and a quick fluff of my hair. “Let’s get this done. Despite what you may think, I really didn’t plan to spend my evening watching naked women dance and look bored.”
“Of course not. That’s what we have Cinemax for.”
“I actually wanted to catch the Braves game tonight. I’m pretty sure we’ve seen everything Cinemax offers.” Jack laughed before getting out of the car, coming around to open the door and pull me to my feet. Tonight’s heels weren’t high enough to need the help, but I took it anyway. “Don’t laugh. Besides, I know you’d try and steal the remote and switch the channel over to the Giants.”
“Guilty as charged.” Jack pressed the alarm on the key fob, the high-pitched beep echoing off the building walls. “Hard to believe Ground Zero is only a few blocks away from here.”
“What’s more American than sex, drugs and rock ’n roll?” I leaned closer to him, brushing my lips over his ear. “Did you bring your gun?”
“Don’t be stupid.” Jack pulled on my hair and poked a finger into my side. “Did I ask if you brought your Taser?”
“It’s inside my jacket.” Along with my ID and a credit card with a two hundred dollar limit. No way in hell I’d bring cash and a decent card down in this area. NYPD may have cleaned up things, but it still wasn’t a walk in the park.
“You’re not wearing it.”
“Down here? Jack, I’d like to get through this without being mugged. Or worse.” Still, I squeezed his hand tight, until the tension eased from his fingers. “I’m putting it back on when I get home.”
I stopped and turned to face him. Only two out of the five streetlights had bulbs, but that was enough to show his face, highlight the uncertainty. “Yes. I promise.”
“Now I’ve got even more incentive to get this done and get home.” He pushed open the door, grimacing at whatever he’d touched. The gold lettering, faded and peeling, read Stacy’s Playground. “Did you bring hand sanitizer?”
We stepped inside, taking a moment to adjust to the lack of lights. Bile rose in my throat at the sight of the overflowing garbage can in the corner, the plastic plant in front doing nothing to disguise the used condoms hanging from the rim. “Forget hand sanitizer. We’re gonna need a decontamination shower and a series of vaccinations.”
“We’re completely up to health code here.” The hostess rasped out a cough, rich and full of phlegm. Turning her head, she spat in the direction of the garbage can. A set of impressive breasts, with the exception of the orange, leathery tone of her skin, rose from a shirt so tight she probably needed a straw to breathe. “Wanna see our papers?”
“I’d rather not.” Jack pulled out a photo of Samantha, flashing it at the woman. “We’re looking for this girl.”
“Shit. She do something?” Ignoring every ban on indoor smoking, she pulled out a mile long cigarette, touching the end to the flame of her plastic lighter. “She’s the best dancer we got. This place will go even further downhill you haul her in. Besides, everybody knows a solicitation charge is always trumped up. Fucking cops.”
“Someone recommended her.” He slid the picture back in his inner jacket pocket, tugged at his tie, even though the knot was somewhere around the third button of his shirt. “My girl and I wanted to spend a little time with her.”
The hostess’s glare bored through me and out the other side. I resisted the urge to shift around on my feet, instead scanning the room with practiced nonchalance. Jack pulled out his wallet, nipped a twenty out. He folded the bill in half, held it out. “She here?”
The twenty disappeared in the orange cleavage, followed by another cough and spit. “She’s on stage right now. Middle of a song and then you can spend all the time you can afford with her.”
Careful not to touch the walls, I followed Jack down the narrow hall, stopping when it opened into an even more dimly lit room. Mirrors reflected what little light there was, showcasing the tiny crowd around the even tinier stage. Loud music with a driving bass line blared, making the bottles on the bar vibrate. A handful of tables surrounded the stage.
Samantha Abernathy dominated the entire scene.
She wrapped one ridiculously long leg around the pole, shifted her weight, flipped upside down. Dark hair hung like a curtain, nearly touching the stage. Reaching up, nearly folding herself in half, she spun and landed on her knees. A whip of her head flung her hair behind her shoulders, bringing her face into view. The look was hard and predatory, despite the upward tilt of her lips.
Her crawl toward the stage edge showcased long, lean muscles, tanned skin. Silver glinted in her ears and at her wrist. It complemented the few scraps of clothing she hadn’t stripped off yet, the silver pasties and G-string blinding in the strobe lights. As we watched, she slid a wad of bills into her garter and leaned forward until the man could bury his face between her breasts.
I wondered if anybody else noticed the disgust that flashed over her face.
Jack tugged on my hand, pulling me toward a table. I looked at the seat, shaking my head. “I’ll stand.”
“Let’s pray the VIP room is better.”
“Let’s pray they have a VIP room.” I started to lean back on a pillar, changing my mind. “Definitely scrubbing with bleach when I get home.”
“You wanna take point on this?” Jack scanned the room and grunted. “Christ, this place is a dump.”
“No, you talk with her. She doesn’t seem the type to be into girl chat.” The music ended, followed by a smattering of applause and whistles. Samantha scooped up the money on the stage, gave the pole a quick wipe, then descended the stairs to cross to the bar. A man too drunk or too stupid for common sense reached out, tried to touch her. Her fist connected with his jaw. She didn’t pause in her walk. “I kind of hope she’s not a criminal. Seems like my kind of girl.”
We watched as the hostess came in and talked to the bartender who could have passed for her twin. The bartender took a stack of bills from Samantha, pointing in our direction. She pulled something over her head that might have been a dress and shook back her hair before walking toward us.
“You wanted me?” She got points for the deliberately provocative question. More for the light husky tone to her voice, the artful skim of her fingers down Jack’s arm. The teasing smile was directed at both of us. More points. She might have hated her work, but she did an excellent job.
“For a few minutes. Got someplace we can talk?” Jack pulled a hundred from his pocket, casually tucked the bill under the edge of her bra. “Both of us.”
“Sure.” She pushed past us, dipping under a curtain with a sign above saying Private. She led us down a hall lined with doors, suspicious noises coming from behind most of them. Stopping at the last one, she cocked her head and pushed it open. “Come on in.”
The room held a variety of chairs, a rickety table with a CD player, a rumpled cot. Shutting the door, she leaned against the dingy wood, apparently unconcerned with diseases. “The hundred’s a down payment. Single lap dance for the pair of you is another hundred fifty. Or you can do an hour for another four hundred. Anything involving that bed costs you at least a grand and don’t even think of asking unless you have a condom.”
My eyes widened but I didn’t say anything. Either she had a very high opinion of herself, she was trying to hose the tourists, or she was that good. I’d bet the truth was a combination of all three.
“How about you keep your clothes on, answer a few questions, and earn another hundred?” Jack pulled out his tape recorder, waggled it at her. “Or I can go ahead and haul you in for solicitation? And don’t give me any crap about entrapment.”
“Fucking cops.” Samantha pushed off the door, fists clenched at her side. “Don’t you have a drug dealer or murderer you need to go arrest?”
“Actually, we’re more concerned with finding your roommate.” I shoved my hands into my jacket pockets, fingering my own tape recorder. Jack’s was better, but it never hurt to have a backup. “And for the record, I’m not a cop.”
Samantha narrowed her eyes, crossing her arms over her chest. “This about Audrey?”
“Why? Did Shelly go missing since yesterday?” Shifting weight on my feet, I returned her glare, cocking my hip. “You don’t seem too concerned Audrey’s missing.”
“Shelly’s the drama queen.” Samantha stalked over to a chair and dropped down on the seat. The frame creaked, but held. “Drama queen, fairy princess, total disconnect from reality.”
“If you hate her, why have you roomed with her since college?” Jack placed the recorder on the table. She eyed it like most people eyeball rattlesnakes. Didn’t mean she couldn’t roll her eyes at his question.
“I don’t hate her. I’m just not stupid enough to overlook her flaws.” She sighed and closed her eyes. Suddenly, she looked a lot younger than mid-twenties. “Shelly keeps thinking Audrey’s mom will take care of the bills, same way Audrey did. She’s not reading the writing on the walls.”
“Which would be?” I eased myself down into a chair, perching on the very end. The dress wasn’t a favorite, but I still didn’t want to stand up and find something disgusting clinging to me.
“Audrey’s gone. Maybe she’ll be back tomorrow. Chances are she won’t, whether she’s gone because she wants to be or because she doesn’t. But eventually, her dad’s estate is going to stop paying for shit, including the apartment.” Samantha opened her eyes, narrowed them. “Either of you got a cigarette?”
We both shook our head and she snorted. “Course not. Anyway, when the rent stops getting paid, I’m going to need a place to live. Can’t get one without cash.”
“So you only started working here after Audrey’s disappearance?” Jack remained standing, his back to the door. Given the general rickety appearance of the chairs, he probably had the right idea. “Because I’m pretty sure you didn’t mention any employment when I spoke with you before.”
She snorted again. “Thought you looked familiar. Hot cop. But I see so many faces, I lose track of all but the big money ones.”
“Still didn’t answer the question.” I bounced the question at her, shifting her focus back. “When’d you start working here? And why off the books?”
“That’s two questions.”
“Answer both of them. And then I got one for you.” Jack pulled out another hundred, waiting until her eyes latched on before putting it away. “And then we’ll go.”
“Fine. I started working in May. Day shift. When I got better, I moved to evenings.” She crossed her legs, smirking. “And it’s off the books because the Stacys don’t believe in paperwork. They hate red tape of any kind.”
“Not worried about putting all that money in the bank without a verifiable income source? The IRS will be knocking on your door soon enough you keep up the way you’re going.” Jack held up a finger. “That wasn’t the question.”
“Aw, shucks. Here I thought we were done playing.” Samantha grinned, baring clenched teeth. “What then?”
“Why would you think Audrey might want to be gone?” Jack paused, cocking his head. “Are you implying she left of her own free will?”
The grin died, leaving her face blank. After a long moment, she snorted again. “I’m not implying anything. Audrey has everything she’s ever wanted, right at her fingertips.” She stood and straightened her clothes. “I got to get back to work.”
Jack handed her the hundred, holding the door open long enough for her to exit. Crossing the room, he picked up the recorder and pressed the stop button. “Thoughts, Frankie?”
“Someone’s getting played.” I stood, brushing my ass off. “Question is, who?”