Club Revelations: A Sydney Brennan Short Story

[Author’s Note: This story takes place a few months after the Sydney Brennan novel, Braving the Boneyard, and before Book Six in the series.]

Anyone who says surveillance is simple … well, that’s mostly true. But anyone who says surveillance is easy probably doesn’t do it that often, and probably has the anatomical advantage of easily peeing in a cup. Since I lack that advantage, I’d spent a recent afternoon crossing my legs while watching the business I was parked outside of now. And waiting. Did I mention the crossing the legs, and the waiting? At least it was February—or what passes for it in north Florida—so I didn’t melt in my car. Although a little dehydration might have helped with that peeing in a cup issue.

Emma Larkin (the person I was looking for) hadn’t shown, but I’d gotten confirmation from a delivery guy that she’d be here tonight. He’d also warned me that she wouldn’t talk to me. He may have used the phrase, “cold day in hell.” It’s one I’m intimately familiar with in the private investigator business.

My job was to track down Ms. Larkin (mission accomplished, at least insofar as I had her place of work), make contact, and convince her to speak with my client. That’s where things got a little fuzzy. Roger Weber had been cagey—even by defense lawyer standards—about why he wanted to speak with Ms. Larkin. He’d said it was personal, and, because he was a longtime friend and consistent client, I didn’t want to push him. Roger tends to be cagey about his personal life (he’d only recently given me a head count on his ex-wives), but usually in a mysterious, cool-headed James Bond sort of way. We’d worked a Panhandle criminal case together a few months ago, and he’d still been in 007 mode then. But lately, he’d been showing signs of stress, arriving late to our meetings and looking less than perfectly coifed and attired, with his razor-sharp intellect apparently dulled by distraction. I was worried about him.

My concern for Roger was making me suffer some—dare I say it—performance anxiety. Speaking with Ms. Larkin was obviously important to Roger, which made it far more important to me than simply earning a check. And not knowing exactly why Roger wanted to speak with her made it impossible to know what angle to take with the woman, which made my job—you guessed it—even more challenging. Which is why I was still sitting in my car, contemplating how to get through to Emma Larkin. I was also contemplating another advantage of being a male private investigator: in addition to peeing in a cup, there is the ability to blend in at certain types of business establishments. Case in point…

“Tell me this isn’t a strip club,” my friend Noel said from the passenger seat, but her voice didn’t hold out much hope.

“Remember, this is the woman we’re looking for,” I said, holding up the candid photo of Emma Larkin one last time.

Cecil’s interior dome light was not flattering to the curvy brunette, giving her skin tone a yellow tint and making her long hair look stringy and dirty. The camera flash hadn’t helped, either, reflecting off the glasses of booze and a nearby sequined top in a dimly lit bar.

“What makes you think she’ll talk to you?” Noel asked.

“Why wouldn’t she? I’m charming.”

Noel snorted, which didn’t do a lot to help my confidence. I tucked the photo back in a folder between the car’s seats before we stepped out into the cool evening. I took a moment to survey the territory. We were surrounded by pine forest—beyond the parking lot, on the opposite side of the highway, and on the far side of the aforementioned high-class (that’s sarcasm) establishment. The trilling call of a chuck-will’s-widow cutting through the humid air seemed incongruous; a wolf whistle would have been more appropriate.

Club Revealations (no bets on whether the spelling was intentional or failure to proofread) had been a fast food restaurant in a former life. Rather than remove the large soft-serve ice cream cone sign, the current tenants had attempted to transform it into something more appropriate to the adult entertainment industry: a woman sitting on a reversed chair in heels and a shoulder-baring top, à la Flashdance, wreathed inside a golden heart. Unfortunately, a hint of soft-serve swirls bled through the dancer’s flesh tone, making her look more Jabba the Hutt than Jennifer Beals.

Sydney…” Noel drew out my name and clutched Cecil’s open door, as if she were about to jump back inside, slam the doors and speed away.

Not without the key, she wouldn’t. I tucked it, along with my wallet and cell phone, in my own jean pockets to keep my hands free.

“You look nice,” I observed.

We usually met after work, since Noel works in Tallahassee but lives outside the capital, and it was the first time I’d ever seen her wear jeans. They were so crisp, they could have stood up on their own. Her blouse had a bohemian feel, with full sleeves and patterned in colors that were unidentifiable in the harsh parking lot lights. High-heeled boots peeked from beneath her jeans, and gold bangles flashed on one wrist, vivid against her dark skin. Her straightened hair was pulled back in a small bun, and matching gold hoops sparkled from her ears.

“When you said you needed help at a club,” Noel continued, “I thought you meant a place with music. And dancing.”

“There will be music and dancing,” I said.

In fact, I expected Emma Larkin to dance onstage tonight as the lovely Aphrodite.

Taking Noel gently by the elbow and leaning in conspiratorially, I said, “Come on. Where’s your sense of adventure?”

“I can’t breathe your hair,” Noel replied, waving to push my fuzzy, red curls from her face. She did allow my hand to remain on her arm, but more because her pointy heels didn’t cross gravel well rather than because she was getting into the spirit of the evening. “At least tell me it’s Ladies Night,” she pleaded.

“If by Ladies Night, you mean featuring ladies on stage, then yes, it is. Every night is Ladies Night at Club Revelations.” I couldn’t bring myself to pronounce the extra “a.”

Noel stopped abruptly. “Are you serious? I can’t go in there and watch women strip! What if Grandma Harrison finds out?”

“Then she’ll think you’ve turned lesbian, blame me, hunt me down, and shoot me.” Noel’s grandmother was a scary woman, and I happened to know she packed heat, so I did not take the prospect lightly. “But she’s not going to find out you went to a shitty strip club ninety minutes from Tallahassee. I know it’s hard to believe, but the woman is not omniscient.”

A small wrinkle in Noel’s otherwise smooth forehead clearly said, That’s what you think, but she sighed and let me escort her toward the entrance.

I’d parked Cecil beneath one of the light poles—a bright spot, but certainly not the closest. We passed a few pickup trucks and a beater car or three (including one with a bumper held on by baling wire) before stepping up onto the paved ring that surrounded the club. A remnant of the original drive-through, it hosted another half dozen or so cars. It was still early—just after nine—and a few guys loitered around the entrance. I plastered a generic, not over-friendly smile on my face and concentrated on not actually making eye contact with anyone.

A large man stood in front of red double doors. He crossed his arms and braced himself, spreading his legs a bit farther, as we approached. I swiveled around to see if there was a biker gang or someone else close on our heels to trigger his territorial response. Nope, just little old me and Noel.

The bouncer was in his late twenties, wearing a black T-shirt and jeans. His belt had one of those enormous belt buckles advertising who-knows-what. I certainly didn’t, because only the bottom edge peeked from beneath his overhanging belly. The guy didn’t look pregnant yet, but I’d say a change in diet and exercise was definitely in order.

The sign next to the bouncer advised there was a ten-dollar cover.

“Hey,” I said, semi-sociably, and dug through my wallet to hold out a twenty.

The bouncer shook his head. “Sorry, but I can’t let you in.”

The loitering men had shuffled closer while I futzed with my wallet, like zombies in a late-night horror film. Being surrounded by a witless crowd made me a little claustrophobic, a little anxious, and a lot pissed.

“What do you mean, you can’t let us in?” I asked.

“Them’s the rules.”

“What rules?” I asked, taking a step toward him.

“The rules they gave me,” he said, straightening his spine and dropping his hands to his sides.

I opened my mouth, but closed it again when I looked at his face and realized I was about to embark on a conversational loop.

Noel shook her head and dropped her voice. “What’d you do, bring me to some kind of KKK bar?”

“It ain’t racist,” the bouncer said. Apparently, the constricting belt buckle did nothing to affect his hearing. “One of our best dancers is a n—”

He caught himself just in the nick. “A black girl,” he finished.

“Woman,” I corrected.

“Yeah. That’s what I said.”

Of course he did.

“Well, personally, I’d like to see this black girl-woman perform,” I said, taking another step into his space.

“She ain’t here tonight. And I done told you, you can’t come in. Women aren’t allowed inside without a male escort,” he said, smiling.

Damn, that was a chauvinistic twist I had not anticipated.

Tact had gotten me nowhere with the guy, plus it had been a long week and I really wasn’t in the mood. I barreled ahead—verbally and physically—almost rebounding off his belly.

“Listen, buddy,” I said, “there are two ways this can go down. You can be out of a job Monday because I’ve filed an injunction against this fine establishment—”

A burst of loud, foul-breathed laughter knocked me backwards. Granted, I was just about to start piling the bullshit, but still. It might have made me a little angry, especially when he nodded, inviting the rest of the men to laugh along with him.

“Fine,” I said. “Or Number Two: I can wave at your fat, sorry ass when I drive my car through that fu—”

“Sydney, there you are,” a man’s voice said behind me, and a hand came to rest on my arm.

Because the voice sounded vaguely familiar and knew my name, I clenched my fists and fought my defensive instinct to strike first, ascertain identity later. Eyes glued to the bouncer, my peripheral vision only told me the new arrival was tallish and well-built, with short hair.

The bouncer’s chest had inflated at the man’s arrival, but he hadn’t otherwise moved. When I was reasonably certain Santa Belly wouldn’t cold-cock me, I turned my full attention to the face behind the voice. What the hell?

“Off—” I nearly stuck my foot in my mouth. “Awfully good to see you,” I fumbled, trying to cover.

Officer John Driscoll of the Tallahassee Police Department linked his arm through mine. “I can’t believe you beat me here. I keep telling you, you drive too fast.”

I don’t believe he’d ever said that in his official capacity, but he had once pulled me over(ish) in the wee hours for driving erratically on a shoulder-less canopy road. I’d been distracted by the prospect of the woman in the back seat vomiting on my precious Cecil’s upholstery. Instead, she’d puked on Officer Driscoll’s shoes.

“And you drive as if there are speed traps everywhere,” I responded. “What—you think the cops don’t have anything better to do?”

I held out the twenty-dollar bill again with my unencumbered hand. Santa Belly stared at my money until Driscoll extended his own cash as well, then grudgingly took both bills in his pudgy hand. Driscoll smiled beatifically and linked his other arm through Noel’s, leading us through the door as though we were in danger of getting lost on this particular yellow brick road.

Which we might have done—it was dark enough inside the club. However, the way my feet stuck to the floor, I was happy for them to leave the lights down low. Driscoll stepped to the side of the entryway for a moment so we could get our bearings. The smell of stale beer was inescapable, but not quite overwhelming. The worst music of the late 1980s pumped from huge speakers flanking a (so far) empty stage, as a wailing man’s voice asked a woman to liberally apply sweetener to him. With the music so loud and all of the other customers lined up along the bar, there was no danger of being overheard. I leaned around Driscoll to yell introductions.

“This is John Driscoll, one of Tallahassee’s men in blue,” I said, thinking as I said it that it sounded as if I were announcing the next act. We should be so lucky. “Dris—John, this is my friend, Noel Thomas.”

A couple of men entered next to us, bumping me none too gently as they passed by, and the dozen or so pairs of eyes at the bar swung toward the motion. They remained staring at us after the new arrivals had moved on.

“Maybe we should get a table,” John said.

The layout seemed a little weird to me, until I imagined converting a fast food restaurant to a club on the cheap. The booths and counters had been removed, but they hadn’t done anything that required major structural alteration. A hall to our immediate right led to bathrooms and a couple of other unidentifiable doors. The bar lay ahead of us and to the right, where the kitchen would have been in the business’s previous incarnation. A raised stage and its surrounding sound and lighting systems took up about a third of the remaining space on the opposite side, with round tables evenly distributed throughout the open area between the stage and the bar. The tables were still empty. I headed toward one in front of the stage, and John and Noel followed.

The chairs, 70s-looking molded plastic with metal legs, had a strange seat shape that conformed to no human butt I’d ever seen, and must have struggled to contain some of the bulkier patrons. Perhaps that’s why one of the seats next to me had been replaced by a folding metal chair. John chose that spot and leaned in to speak, then shook his head in resignation. Or maybe the pounding bass just made his head vibrate. I’d wanted the best view of the dancers, but my fillings were starting to loosen and we’d have to scream to be heard.

With that thought, the music stopped so suddenly I half expected the irrevocable sound of a needle scraping across vinyl. Noel and John visibly relaxed, shoulders inching away from ears that were undoubtedly still ringing as mine were. I also tried to relax, but the chairs were a little too tall for me. Instead, I felt like an attentive schoolchild, perched on the front edge of my seat so my feet would touch the floor.

“We’ll die of thirst before someone comes to our table,” Noel said, rising from her seat. “I’ll get the first round.”

I did a double take and watched her high-heeled march toward the bar. I’d expected Noel to clean her chair with a disinfecting hand wipe before sitting down, then do the same to the table. I certainly hadn’t expected her to initiate contact with the locals. But she was a big girl; I didn’t need to watch her like a chaperone.

My voice sounded tinny in my ears as I told John, “I almost didn’t recognize you out of uniform. You’re a little outside of your jurisdiction, aren’t you?”

John glanced over his shoulder toward the bar, but no one could hear us. “I’m not on the clock right now.”

“Really?” I asked, brows raised. “Don’t tell me you’re a regular.”

He grinned. “Not exactly. What brings you here, without an escort no less?”

“Favor for a friend. Nothing special; just trying to get eyes on someone who works here. My escort couldn’t make it,” I admitted.

Fellow investigator and intended escort Mike Montgomery lived in the next county—a lot closer to this dump than to Tallahassee—and arriving with a man would have been less conspicuous. But when Mike had said he was tied up, I figured it’d be a good excuse to catch up with Noel. Plus, I’m a little bit evil. It was worth the ninety-mile drive to see the look on Noel’s face when she realized I’d taken her to a low-end strip club in the middle of nowhere.

“And where’s your escort?” I asked.

“Tonight’s not really a team sport kind of thing, if you get my meaning,” he said, with just a hint of Southern drawl.

I wasn’t sure I did.

John seemed like a nice enough guy, but this was the longest conversation we’d ever had. He’d had no reason to jeopardize whatever brought him here just to help me get through the door. Which meant Noel and I were more useful to him—we made a better team—than any of his buddies from Tallahassee, or the locals (and I happened to know that John was friends with at least one local LEO). The question was why we made a better team. Better camouflage, perhaps? Or less inquisitive than someone who knew him better?

Bright white, fluorescent lights burst into life overhead, and a couple of men approached the speakers in front of us. One guy pulled a screwdriver from his back pocket and squatted. I looked away from the flash of butt cleavage.

John was much more pleasant to look at anyway. A few years younger than me—maybe late twenties—his golden brown hair was accidentally hip, still short on the sides but long enough on top to have gotten a bit unruly. He appeared more poet than policeman, with full lips and heavily lashed, hazel green eyes some women would kill for, though they’d probably let him keep the broad forehead and thick brows. He blushed under my scrutiny.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “This may be the first time I’ve actually seen your face. You’re usually pulling me over in the dark, or standing over my car giving me a crick in my neck.”

“I guess that’s true,” he said, laughing and running a hand over his hair, fluffing it even more. John shifted and stood abruptly as Noel arrived at the table with a tray full of drinks.

“Some of the guys at the bar felt bad about the hassle getting in,” she said. “They were surprisingly nice.”

Noel handed John and I each a bottle of beer, then claimed all three glasses (two full and one half-empty) for herself. She adjusted the glasses and their cocktail napkins, trying to line them up as perfectly parallel coasters, before she returned to sipping at her straw.

“Tell me those aren’t Long Island Iced Teas,” I said.

She shrugged her shoulders. “I’ve never been a fan myself, but how can you say no when they’re a gift?”

I stared at Noel. She wasn’t a big drinker, thanks to the specter of her late mother’s substance abuse. She also wasn’t the most chatty person, but she’d been suspiciously quiet—even for her—on the drive. I vowed to keep a spare eye on her, the one that wasn’t watching for little Miss Emma, aka Aphrodite, to take the stage. Speaking of which…

“I’m going to go check out the restrooms. Noel?” I asked, fixing the universal go-with-me expression on my face.

“No, I’m okay,” she said, blinking innocently.

So much for a heart-to-heart in the ladies room.

There was no music playing and nothing to occupy the men at the bar except watching me. I made an effort to stride across the seating area beneath the fluorescent lights as I would have entering a prison, radiating comfortable confidence instead of aggressive arrogance.

“Hey, Red!” one of them called out. “You gonna take the stage later?”

“Sorry, darling,” I said, giving my shoulders a little hitch as I passed. “I forgot my pasties.”

“I’ll loan you mine,” another guy said, grabbing man boobs that could have used a training bra.

Their laughter faded as I reached the hallway and pushed open the second door on the right, marked with an image of a woman that appeared lifted from a semi’s mudflap. The ladies room was small—three stalls and two sinks with just enough space to pass between—and empty. I’d hoped to run into some of the dancers, but might as well take advantage of the facilities while I was there. It smelled like industrial cleaner, and the toilet paper was so bright, I was surprised it didn’t stain the water pink when I tossed it in the bowl. Spare rolls were stacked on the toilet tank like Barbie’s pyramids. Maybe the management got a good deal because of a carcinogenic dye recall.

The paper towels were the normal brown, abrasive kind, and I noticed my hands were shaking when I dried them at the sink. Just a little. Self-defense training was helping me deal with the residual twitchiness of a rough year, but crowds (especially crowds of boisterous men) still did not take me to my happy place. I leaned my elbows on the laminate counter (a raw flesh color even worse than the pink toilet paper) and took a few deep breaths. Well, one deep breath anyway.

I nearly banged my head on the faucet when the bathroom door burst open.

“No puking in the sink!” a tall brunette yelled as she hurried into one of the stalls without giving me a chance to reply.

A tanned blonde, wearing shiny black boy shorts and a red, twist-tie top that barely contained her ample breasts, squeezed through the door next. The busty blonde leaned against the sink, arms crossed, staring at her companion through the closed stall door. “You know you still have to get dressed and do your makeup.”

“If I got food poisoning, I’m gonna kill Derek. I told him we shouldn’t eat that fish,” came the brunette’s voice from behind the door.

“I think you’d be pointing the other direction, if it was food poisoning,” the blonde said. She sighed, then seemed to notice me for the first time. “You okay?” she asked.

I nodded and grabbed a couple more paper towels to wipe my forearms, now wet from the counter. “Yeah, fine.”

The blonde looked me over, stem to stern. I’d done as much as I could to blend in, or at least look a different type, wearing a black Harley Davidson tank top with faded jeans over cowboy boots, and a little makeup, but nothing over the top. The boots were new, and I was beginning to wish I’d broken them in somewhere with less disgusting floors.

“You’re not here looking for a job, are you?” the blonde asked. By the tone of her voice, my prospects were dubious.

“No,” I said, balling up the paper towels and reaching around her to toss them in the trash. “I was just hoping to run into Emma.”

The toilet flushed and the feet inside the stall began shuffling.

“Emma’s working tonight,” the blonde said, “but she’s in a little bit of a mood.”

“That bitch is always in a mood,” came the voice from the stall.

I wasn’t sure which bothered me more—the prospect of speaking with moody Emma, or having a conversation (even through a door) with someone in gastric distress. The blonde distracted me before I could decide.

“On second thought—” She reached out and casually buried a hand in my loose, red curls. It was a low humidity night, so her hand came back out intact. “You could do well dancing with that hair, especially private dances. I wish I could get curls like that. Is that your natural color?”

“Yeah,” I said, “but I’d trade you the curls for some skin pigment.”

She lifted my chin casually, tilting my face to one side, and said, “I’ll bet you do burn easy.”

“Like hairspray and a match,” I said.

The brunette emerged from the stall, rubbing her stomach beneath her close-fitting T-shirt. She eyed me as I backed against the wall so she could get to the sink. “Her boobs are kinda small.”

The blonde rolled her eyes. “They’re fine. Not everyone likes to be buried in boobs.”

The brunette shook her hands and wiped them on her jeans before taking one last look at me. “And she’s too short.”

The blonde sounded at the limits of her patience as they pushed through the door. “Well, what do you think high heels are for?”

In that case, I should probably stick with being a private investigator. I could walk in high heels, but I’d have to be stark naked to cover my complete inability to dance in them.

The women turned right in the hallway toward one of the unmarked doors, while I headed in the opposite direction back out to the entertainment area. The atmosphere was still music-free, but the lighting was back to the subdued levels appropriate for drinking and stripping rather than tech troubleshooting. And the tables in front of ours were now filled.

“What did I miss?” I asked, settling back in my funky-shaped chair.

“We were just trying to decide how many of the Ten Commandments a person could break in a place like this,” John said.

“I’d imagine you could break all of them anywhere,” I said. The speakers buzzed as current surged through them, and colored spotlights flashed on the stage before the room went full dark. “But it does look like coveting and adultery are about to rise to the top of the list.”

Three scantily clad women strutted past the bar and the tables toward a screened area along one side of the stage. They’d made it about halfway when the catcalls started.

“There’s my Angel!” yelled one burly man, raising his beer bottle high.

“Bobby, what’s your old lady doing letting you out this late at night?” a woman responded without breaking her long-legged stride. “How’s she gonna sleep, without you there to bore her to death?”

Amid the sounds of masculine laughter, Noel leaned forward to ask, “So how naked will the women get?”

“I don’t know,” I admitted, ignoring the semantics of whether there are degrees of naked. I suspected the dancers wouldn’t get completely nude because the club served alcohol, but it was only a guess.

Adult entertainment is regulated at the county and municipal level in Florida, and the rules vary widely from place to place. With its tens of thousands of undergrads, Tallahassee would seem to be a prime strip club market, but strip clubs aren’t allowed in the capital. (Of course, that doesn’t stop enterprising entrepreneurs from sending strippers to your home.)

As for the rest of the state, some towns have an anything goes mentality, while others set forth complex if … then conditions around food, alcohol, and nudity that keep the lawyers in business. Clubs might feature buck naked strippers but no booze (if alcohol is being served, then no nudity is allowed), or strippers wearing pasties while customers get plastered but go hungry (no full nudity, and if there’s partial nudity then no food served). And with the multiplicity of municipalities in Florida, you can find just about any permutation in between.

The club abruptly went dark, and a cheer rang out from the bar. The PA system must have been on the fritz, or maybe they didn’t bother with one. A deep man’s voice yelled, “Let’s hear it for Clarise!”

The bass of a hip-hop song thumped through our chests, and our firsthand lesson in degrees of nudity began as the lights came up to reveal three women on the stage. A blonde wearing something like a gold bikini was leaning provocatively against a pole in the center of the stage. The stage jutted forward on both ends, and two dancers in silver (another blonde and a brunette) crouched near the floor on the stage extensions.

A woman’s husky voice broke out over the bass line, and the center-stage golden blonde—presumably Clarise—went into action. Her legs were so long, I felt like they’d reach my armpits. She strutted and shimmied on them from one side of the stage to the other, pausing here and there to make eye contact with the men who’d materialized in front, but never getting close enough for physical contact. It was all part of the tease, and soon she made her way back to the pole where the real show started. Clarise lifted one long leg and stretched it up the pole, and I found myself rubbing the back of my own legs as my tight hamstrings twinged in sympathetic protest. Then she slowly bent backwards (more sympathetic twinging) until her hands reached the ground and she lifted her other leg to join the first in a pole handstand.

I couldn’t watch without cringing, so I turned my attention to the silver-clad women at the ends. They’d remained crouched until the golden blonde attached herself to the pole, but now they were both moving. It seemed their job was to stay low to the ground and provide stripping support without distracting. The blonde on the left looked as if she’d rolled into a mound of fire ants, but the brunette on the right had skills. Her writhing looked sensual rather than pained or panicked, and she rotated forward and back, side to side, through a series of elaborate splits using a thick, silver cord as a prop. A spotlight swept over her on its way to the pole, and I recognized her… Emma. Or rather, Aphrodite.

The tables in front of us erupted in whooping and applause. I looked toward the pole just in time to see a golden top hit the floor beneath it. The dancer was hanging upside down again, hands reaching to the floor, so I couldn’t figure out what appendage she’d used to unfasten her top. She flipped her legs over in a slow, deliberate dismount and stood, giving her golden pasties a little shake. At the risk of jumping to conclusions about her assets, I observed—without judgment—that there wasn’t a lot of movement.

The club went dark again, just for a moment, and then dim lights came on around the tables. Noel leaned forward to ask me something, but soon gave up battling the raucous noise and settled back in her chair. It had been a short number, but I was surprised when the next song started with no real break, although they did switch out the dancers. At least the music wasn’t as loud with the women performing as it had been when we’d first come through the door.

“You guys be okay for a few minutes?” John asked. He flicked his eyes significantly to Noel—whose own eyes were once again glued to the stage—as if to ask me, you got this?

“We’ll be fine,” I said.

“Peachy keen,” Noel said. I’m not sure how she managed to slur those two words, but she was halfway through her second Long Island Iced Tea, so I’m sure that helped.

“That was her, wasn’t it?” Noel asked, after John had left. “The one we’re looking for is the one who did the splits.”

“I think so,” I said, and reconsidered my assessment of Noel’s inebriated state. “I wonder what the protocol is for getting some personal attention.”

“You mean a lap dance?” Noel asked, her voice getting louder as she tried to whisper. Nope, she was drunk all right.

“I need to talk to her, and I just want to feel her out a little first.” I realized I could have chosen my words better once I heard them out loud, but the subtleties of language were quickly escaping Noel anyway. “Got a better idea?”

Noel was tilting her head sideways, mesmerized by the woman on the pole. “Is that abs or legs or… what?” she asked. “How does she do it?”

The question may not have been rhetorical, but I couldn’t answer it. Cephalopod suckers on her calves? Some mornings I struggled to climb the front steps to my office, much less a smooth, steel pole. I rose and gripped Noel’s forearm until she looked at me.

“I’ll be right back,” I said. “Don’t go anywhere.”

The place had nearly filled up during the first number. A bouncer blocked access to the partitioned area where the dancers hung out between sets, but thankfully it was not Santa Belly from the entrance. This guy was tall and muscular and bald—not quite Mr. Clean, but he looked the part. Of a bouncer, that is, not a genie in a bottle. A genie would never wear all black. I’m sure that’s in their rule book. The music was louder this close to the wall, and I had to stretch up and yell in his ear to make my intentions clear.

“Which one?” he asked.

“Emma,” I said, holding up a twenty. “Aphrodite.”

He shrugged his massive shoulders. I handed him a five, and he nodded with his suddenly improved memory.

A man was sitting in John’s seat when I returned to our table. I couldn’t make out much in the dim light—mid-thirties, dressed casually with a baseball cap on backwards. Never trust a man old enough to legally drink who still thinks it’s cool to wear his hat backwards.

“Hey, Romeo,” I said. “Does my friend know you?”

“Not yet,” he said, with a shit-eating grin. I tried not to gag.

Romeo was kind enough to buy me another drink,” Noel said.

Good girl, I thought. The touch of sarcasm in her voice suggested she wasn’t ready to pass out yet.

“My name’s not actually Romeo,” he said. “It’s Ricky.”

The song ended, and there was a round of appreciative whooping.

“Well, Ricky,” Noel said when the applause died down, “I appreciate your kind offer to keep me company, but now that my friend has returned, I don’t need any.”

He rubbed the top of his cap, then stared at me, his grin long gone. “So, are you two ‘together’?” The man actually raised his fingers and used air quotes. “Did I just waste a drink on a lesbian?”

I held my tongue and waited to take my cue from the way Noel handled him. She was more civilized than I would have been. In other words, she didn’t begin by kicking him in his fun bits.

“Look, Dicky, I’m sorry if I’ve offended you by not falling for your considerable charms, but I didn’t ask you to come over here, and I didn’t ask you to bring me a drink.”

Romeo-Ricky-Dicky opened his mouth to respond, but the blood flow to his brain was interrupted by the arrival of a glittering woman. One look at her silver pasties, just a few feet away, and his mouth stuck, gaping.

“Emma?” I asked.

Up close, the dancer looked younger than she had onstage, despite the heavy makeup. She was busty, but not freakishly so like the brunette from the bathroom. I doubted she was more than a couple of inches taller than me, but clear plastic platform shoes gave her a significant boost.

She blinked her metallic false lashes at the name, but didn’t answer me directly. “Who wanted the lap dance?”

“That was me,” I said, handing her the twenty from my pocket.

“Shee-it,” Romeo said, whether in disgust or anticipation I wasn’t sure. And I didn’t care.

“I thought my friend told you to get lost,” I said.

“Sorry,” the presumptive Emma said. “He stays or I don’t. Management gets twitchy if there’s not a man at the table for private dances. The rules are single contact—meaning if you invite me to touch you, I may, but you cannot touch me.”

“What about me?” Romeo asked, reaching out to cup her closest ass cheek. “Can I touch?”

“No,” she said, and he squealed when she deftly pinched the webbing between his fingers.

“He’s not with us,” I assured the dancer, “but my boyfriend should be back any minute.”

A pulsing drone suddenly cut through the crowd noise, one of those Nine Inch Nails songs with disturbing lyrics but perfect, primally tuned instrumentals that make it impossible to sit still, even in numb-butt chairs.

“He better be,” Emma said. “Or he’ll miss the show.”

Her body rolled from head to knees in a sinuous, snake-like motion toward mine. Surprised, I backed up, scooting my chair farther away from the table. The chair stopped when a leg caught on something. My butt, on the other hand, kept moving until it reached the seat back, lifting my feet from the floor. Emma laughed, stepping over and around my raised legs. She straddled my knees, and, as her hips swiveled, her well-glittered bottom shone almost as much as the silver thong between her cheeks.

We must have been the most entertaining act going; men from the nearby tables gathered around. Emma played to the crowd, grabbing one of my boots and extending my leg, making it a horizontal pole of sorts. Her booty was pointed toward me, and I was torn between the urge to play along and the urge to look away, lest I see more of Emma than anyone should who was not her gynecologist.

Just when I thought my leg would need a prophylactic, Emma looped the end of her silver cord over my foot and wrapped it around both ankles. Then she circled behind me, gently pulling my legs back against the chair. She buried a hand in my hair and I felt long, acrylic nails against my scalp, tilting my head back.

“I love your boots,” she said in my ear, in the same tone of voice she might have used while window shopping at the mall.

“Thank you,” I said, in the same tone, and nearly told her where I bought them.

Of course, the music masked our words, and the men roaring around us obviously made up their own dialogue. I hoped the dim light would mask my blushing, too. Emma continued circling my chair, and embarrassment abruptly morphed into something else. Fear.

My heart beat faster as she coiled the cord loosely around my arms, and I couldn’t get enough air. Grabbing the restraint, I tugged Emma’s head down toward my own. Objects seemed to be sliding by in my peripheral vision, and when her face swam into focus, I grew dizzy.

“No,” I said, trying to hold the panic down.

“Just relax,” she said, and stepped over me. Then she sat on my lap, facing me. I could make out tiny beads of sweat on her upper lip, and her chest shone with more than just glitter. Emma arched and slowly bent backwards until she was facing the crowd, upside down, her hair pooled on the floor and her head hovering just above it. She gave the cord another tug—probably just trying to balance—and reality started to slip sideways for me.

I heard a voice from the past say in a matter-of-fact tone, I don’t believe in torture, but…

“I said, take the fucking rope off!” I screamed, channeling anxiety into anger, and stood up.

Or at least I tried to stand up. Her rope, her heels, my chair, and what seemed like yards of hair—somehow everything went over sideways like a stripper ball of yarn.

The sounds of men laughing and hollering reigned as the evocative music trailed off into its final dinging notes. Emma and I wound up face to face—on our knees—as I tried to untangle myself and she tried to reel the silver cord back in.

“What the hell is your problem?” she yelled, giving my shoulders a shove.

We got to our feet simultaneously and squared off. A little voice in my head said, Don’t piss her off; remember—she’s why you’re here. Unfortunately, it was hard to hear that little voice while I was still shaking with adrenaline. I stepped into Emma’s space and said, gritting my teeth, “Back off.”

Ladies, let this be a lesson to you: if you have long hair, wear it up when you go to a shitty strip club.

Emma lunged for me, getting one hand in my loose curls. Everything Glenn and Vince had taught me recently about martial arts discipline went out the window as I grabbed a handful of her flying mane in retaliation.

“Hey!” John Driscoll yelled. He came out of nowhere, stepping between us and slowly prying our hair holds free. “Just take it easy, you two.”

Emma rubbed the back of her neck indignantly. She opened her mouth, and I waited for She started it! Instead, her eyes grew wide, then narrowed again as she said, “Why the hell are you here?”

It took me a moment to realize she was talking to John, not me.

John didn’t speak.

Still panting with anger, I fought to shift my brain into damage control mode. Obviously Emma and John knew each other, which meant she probably knew John was a cop. Maybe he’d even arrested her before. John had said he was off the clock, but he didn’t seem keen to let people know he was a LEO. Was he undercover, and was Emma about to out him? It seemed a diversion was in order.

I turned on Emma. “So you’ve knocked knees with my boyfriend. Is that it? I can’t say I blame you—there’s a reason they call them ‘bedroom eyes.’ But if you knew how many bedrooms he’s seen with them, you would’ve used a full-body condom.”

John really did have the most amazing eyes I’d ever seen.

Then I spun to John, poking him in the chest with a finger as I stood. “You told me you were done. No more strippers if I went to the clubs with you! That was our deal. You lying sonuvabitch!”

I grabbed John by the arm and looked around. “I will not do this in public. Come on, Noel—we’re leaving.”

Noel remained in her chair, looking from Emma/Aphrodite to John to me, and shook her head as if she were confused. It seemed the Long Island Iced Teas had finally caught up with her, and I just hoped she wouldn’t pass out at the table.

Meanwhile, our old friend Romeo-Ricky-Dicky stepped up as another hip-hop song I didn’t recognize blasted over the speakers. “Well, if you guys are done with her, I’d say it’s my turn with the Goddess of Love,” he said, reaching for Emma.

She pulled away. “Hands off, asshole. I’m on break.”

Romeo grabbed her arm hard and pulled her toward him. “You’re one short step up from a hooker. What do you think, you got a union? You don’t get breaks.”

Emma must’ve dealt with a lot of grabby assholes over the years, because she knew how to take care of herself. She took Romeo’s hand and twisted it from her arm in a quick motion that made him yelp and take a step back. He clenched his fists at his sides and mumbled something I didn’t need to hear to know it wasn’t good. He was so angry, so focused on Emma, that he hadn’t noticed John stepping closer.

“Hey,” John said.

Romeo looked toward him, and John drove a fist into his face.

Romeo went down like a bag of bricks. He rolled over, hands to his face, and stayed down.

So much for getting out of here without attracting more attention.

I didn’t like the looks of a guy approaching John. About John’s height but thirty pounds heavier, he wore a camouflage vest, and I’d seen him speaking with Romeo earlier. I waved and yelled a warning, but too late—Camo Vest drove his fist into the side of John’s head from his blind side.

John dropped as though someone had flipped a switch, landing on the floor next to Romeo.

“Hey, yourself,” Camo Vest said, standing over John.

Two more of Romeo’s crew shuffled forward like a slow-motion defensive line. That made John the broken quarterback in the scenario, still motionless on the nasty floor, while Romeo had made it to his knees. Camo Vest bent down and grabbed John’s shirt, rolling him over to take another shot.

Well, shit. I was outnumbered, outreached and outweighed. What was new?

At least this time, I was wearing cowboy boots.

I hauled back and kicked Camo Vest’s ass as hard as I could while he bent over John. I’d hoped to pitch the man head over heels, but either I didn’t put enough force into it or the angle wasn’t right. I got lucky, though. The angle was right to impact the delicate bits forward of his derriere. Camo Vest’s knees buckled, and he immediately went into a tuck.

Another of Romeo’s friends—taller than Camo Vest, and less bulky, with a gangly awkwardness—loped toward John and me with a beer bottle in his hand. I grabbed the back of the nearest chair and shoved it at the lean man, running as if I were pushing a sled. He was so tall, the chair clipped him beneath the knees, taking his feet out from under him. I ducked sideways to avoid the stranger’s head smacking into my own as he fell forward. Noel yelled my name, and I looked up to see her hurling the drink tray from the table at me. I caught it and swung it backhanded into the guy’s head. The tray didn’t have a lot of heft, but he was off balance enough that it knocked him the rest of the way from the chair onto the floor, and he didn’t rush to get up.

John began to stir, and I leaned down to check on him.

“Who’s the boss?” he asked.

Or something similarly nonsensical; I couldn’t be sure. With the lights still low and me squatting, I couldn’t make sense of anything going on around us. All I knew was that John did not need to be laid out, waiting for the next fist looking for a place to land.

I got to my knees and tried lifting John’s shoulders, but he was heavier than he looked. The stickiness of the floor made me cringe, but it also helped keep my knees from sliding. Once John was sitting, he planted his hands flat on the floor like a toddler unsure about the whole gravity thing, unable to stand without help.

“Sorry,” I said, jabbing him in the armpit while I adjusted my hands beneath his arms. Though I wasn’t sure why I should be apologizing to the dumbass that started it all. Also, the dumbass my back would be cursing tomorrow, I thought, as I dragged John across the floor toward the cover of our table.

Suddenly someone grabbed me from behind, and my hands tore loose from John, dropping him. My feet left the floor as the man who’d grabbed me squeezed my arms to my body in something like a bear hug. I slammed my head backwards, but he was so tall, I only felt a chest—no chin or face. Pinned tight and out of my league, I screamed like a banshee and kicked my boot heels into his shins as hard as I could. He grunted and dropped me to the floor, but didn’t let go completely until I stomped his foot with everything I had.

Falling to my knees, I tried to scramble away, only to slide on a patch of beer, right into another pair of boots. I looked up to find them attached to the big, bald bouncer. I smiled up at Mr. Clean, and he smiled back, like a man who was about to get paid to do something he gladly would have done for free.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” he said, and motioned for me to duck out of the way.

I tucked my head into my hands as his fist swung by and didn’t stick around to watch it connect behind me.

Why didn’t someone turn the damn lights on? What started as a single punch had progressed to an all-out brawl, and I’d lost track of John and Noel. Finally, I saw a dark form on the floor, partially under what may have been our table. I sidestepped most of the action, suffering nothing more than a jostle from a body as it flew past, and reached the table relatively unscathed. Almost…

Someone slammed a glass bottle into my elbow as I reached out to touch the man on the floor. Hard.

“Ouch!” I grabbed my arm, where pain shot from the impact to my skull and kept on looping, around and around and around.

“Oh, God, I’m sorry, Sydney.” Noel’s face emerged from the shadows beneath the table. “I didn’t know it was you.”

I hugged my arm and held my tongue, knowing it would spout nothing but profanity until the shooting pain began to dull.

“What should we do?” Noel asked. A single strand of hair had come loose from her heavily hairsprayed bun and stuck out at an odd angle. “We need to get John out of here.”

“Okay,” he said, but didn’t move.

John’s head was in the vicinity of Noel’s lap, eyes neither entirely open nor closed. Absent a flaming building, I doubted I could carry the man without some help. Maybe if Noel grabbed his feet? But I’d prefer at least one of us to have eyes out for incoming yahoos. If I could get John into a chair, then I could drag the chair to the exit. So long as he didn’t fall off it and crack his head again.

All right, furniture scooting qualified as a plan.

I dragged a chair into position, then squatted under the table next to John, deciding how best to get him into the chair and still be able to stand upright tomorrow.

“Need a hand?” a voice asked behind me.

Standing automatically, I banged my head and shoulders on the table. A pair of well-worn sneakers came into view. A familiar pair of well-worn sneakers, attached to a familiar investigator/otherwise-engaged escort.

Noel stuck her head out. “Mike—thank God!”

“Thought you couldn’t make it,” I said, peeking up at him.

“Well, if you’d told me it was going to be someplace this fancy,” he said, grinning.

I tried to rub the last electric jolts from my elbow as I stood. Mike had left his glasses at home, but he’d worn one of his favorite math joke T-shirts. If he didn’t get out of the club quickly, someone was sure to hit him just on principle.

“Well, you’re just in time to save me the heavy lifting,” I said, pointing down at John. “Be gentle. He’s a cop, and a friend.”

“Hello,” John said. Well, technically he made a sound I interpreted as hello.

Mike grunted as he lifted John, tucked the man over his shoulder, and straightened. Mostly. Mike looked a couple of inches shy of his usual 6’2” height beneath the other man’s weight.

“I didn’t know you had any cop friends,” Mike said, straining a little. He should have stretched first.

“It is a pretty elite category,” I admitted.

The fighting seemed to be settling down (Mr. Clean’s shiny head was still visible above the crowd), but Noel and I flanked Mike just in case. We’d made it nearly to the front door when a flash of flesh and silver stepped in front of us.

“Is that John?” Emma/Aphrodite asked, gesturing at the butt on Mike’s shoulder. “You can bring him to my car.”

I glared at the woman who’d set it all in motion, considering my options (which included an uppercut to her lovely jaw), until the sound of breaking glass behind us broke my concentration.

“Fine,” I said. “Let’s go.”

*     *     *

Emma Larkin had likewise parked beneath one of the lights in the lot. She also kept a first aid kit in her car. A Honda hatchback from the previous decade, its hood was just the right height for our field hospital.

“Sorry if it seemed like I left you on your own,” Emma said, swabbing at John’s eyebrow. He’d come around when the cool night air hit him, but Mike stood next to the car, ready to catch John if he slid off. Better Mike than me. I was still a little miffed at John. After all, he’d thrown the first punch.

“I can’t afford to get hurt,” Emma continued. “If I can’t dance, I don’t get paid. And if I look like crap, I don’t get tips. Without tips, I might as well be working at Walmart.”

I sat next to John, wincing as Noel wiped beer away from my bruised elbow and upper arm as far as my shoulder. She’d insisted on inspecting the damage she’d inflicted. When Noel finished, I rolled my shoulder, trying to get the tingly ache in my arm to subside, and watched Emma. I was tempted to tell the woman she didn’t owe me anything, having lost the inclination to take a swing at her after my temper had cooled. However, it was better for me if she thought she did.

Emma had replaced her silver bikini top over her pasties, but her bottom was still clad only in the matching G-string. I guess eventually you got used to it. Her hands moved efficiently, competently, as if she was no stranger to cleaning up damage, and no stranger to John. His eyes were locked on her face, but she seemed at ease, giving a feeling of intimacy to their interaction.

“So, you and John …” I said.

“No. He’s not my boyfriend,” Emma said, and gave a small laugh. “And he’s not yours, either. John is gay.”

John tensed next to me, then closed his eyes and sighed. “Gee, thanks, Emmie.”

“Sorry,” Emma said, but didn’t sound it. “I keep telling you, you can’t be half in and half out of the closet. You gotta pick one, or life will pick it for you.”

“Life, or my favorite cousin,” John said, wincing.

Cousins, eh? That thought was immediately followed by, John Driscoll, gay. Hunh. I glanced at him, but his eyes were still closed. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was, and it must have shown on my face.

“Don’t look so disappointed, Sydney,” Noel said. “You’ve got enough men fishing around your pond already.”

She glanced past me at Mike and I laughed. Hopefully, I was still flushed enough from the fighting to hide the rush of blood to my cheeks. “You get that turn of phrase from Grandma Harrison?”

“I’m not sure,” Noel admitted, leaning against the side of the car. Now that the excitement had worn off, she was looking a little green around the gills. “But you should have known he was too good-looking to be straight.”

“Excuse me,” Emma said, but without any heat. She secured a bandage to John’s forehead before crumpling the wrapper. “Does the black woman stereotype much?”

“Sorry. I seem to be intoxicated. And mildly ill.” Noel straightened, only to slump back against the car again. “Maybe more than mildly.”

Mike, ever the gentleman, stepped around the car and offered Noel his arm. “Why don’t we go for a little walk?”

Noel accepted, and together they wobbled slowly toward the overgrown periphery of the parking lot. Mike towered over her, and it was almost funny to see their height difference, until I remembered that Noel wasn’t much taller than me, and that must be what I looked like standing next to him. Huh. Not so funny after all.

“Hey!” Emma yelled, and tossed Mike a bottle of water. “Take her over by the white truck. That’s the ass-grabber that started it.”

I grinned, grateful that something satisfying would come of Noel’s misery. Emma was grinning, too, but for a different reason.

“Nice reflexes. You think your friend was an athlete in college?” Emma asked.

We watched Mike and Noel make one last, desperate mini-dash to reach the white truck before she bent over and began retching next to the driver’s door. I cringed in sympathy—for Noel, not the driver—and looked away. John stood and looked us over for a moment, before apparently deciding we wouldn’t go for each other’s throats as we had inside. Or that he didn’t care if we did.

“I’ll be in the car,” John said.

Emma closed up the first aid kit and handed it to him. “Put this in the trunk while you’re at it.”

We both watched John until he settled into her back seat without keeling over. Then Emma leaned on the hood next to me and together we watched the entrance to the club. Things must have returned to business as usual, because no one else was leaving. Hell, maybe a brawl was business as usual for Club Revealations. Poor Noel had started another round of retching alongside the truck, and Emma went back to observing Mike, bent next to Noel.

Emma tilted her head sideways. “Basketball is the obvious sport of choice, but if I could just get a look at his legs under those pants… could be soccer.”

“I’ll be sure to ask when he’s done,” I said sharply.

“Don’t worry,” she said, raising her hands with a smile. I had a feeling she’d been testing me, to see if I’d react. “I surrender the field to you on that one. But I wouldn’t wait forever. Not everyone has my restraint.”

“He does,” I said, surprising myself.

“Ah, so it’s like that. Well, you never know. Brawls do get the blood up,” Emma mused. Then she sat next to me on the hood of the car on the backs of her hands. Still, her bare cheeks had to be making contact with the buggy, metal surface somewhere.

“John and I were close, growing up,” Emma said, shifting the conversation, while I tried to mentally shake off my heebie-jeebies. “He still thinks he has to keep an eye on me.”

“Yeah,” I snorted. “Looks like that goes both ways.”

“Yes, it does. Thanks for that,” she said, nodding at my arm.

I’d been rubbing the aching muscles unconsciously as I relived dragging John across the floor. Now I grunted and rubbed my back as well. “I’ll be lucky if I can walk tomorrow.”

“Okay, okay. I get it. I owe you. So, what is it you want?” she asked grudgingly, wiggling her bum on her hands.

“A friend of mine wants to talk to you,” I said, holding out Roger Weber’s business card.

Emma stood and took it from me, holding it close to her face in the dim light. She flipped the card back and forth between her fingers, making a scraping sound that would have annoyed me if I hadn’t been so tired. It was going to be a long drive back to Tallahassee.

“Attorney, huh?” Emma said. “Thanks, but no thanks. I don’t need to be messing around with any lawyers.”

I sighed. “Look, I’ll be honest. I don’t know what it’s about, but you’re not in any kind of trouble. Roger’s not that kind of lawyer.”

Now it was her turn to snort. “What other kind is there?”

“The kind you want on your side,” I said. I grinned as I thought of Roger and his tenacity, his love of the fight. “The kind that pisses off the other ones.”

She waved a hand dismissively.

“I’m telling you, Roger is a good friend to have. You never know when his help might come in handy.”

Emma tugged at her costume unselfconsciously. “Wait a minute,” she said. “Roger in Tallahassee… you mean Deidre’s fancy brother, Roger?”

I blinked, feeling each neuron slowly fire in my brain. If I didn’t know better, I’d think Noel had hit me in the head with the bottle, as well as the arm. Was Deidre the name Roger had said a few months ago, the sister whose dress I’d borrowed for a black tie event? I was pretty certain it was. And if I was right, would Roger want me to admit their connection to Emma before he spoke with the woman? A moment later, I answered myself: if it were the only way she’d speak to him, he would. Or if he wouldn’t, then he should have been more forthcoming with me from the outset.

“Yes, that’s Roger Weber,” I said.

Emma nodded. “All right then. In that case, I’ll give him a call. I haven’t seen Deidre in forever, but he sounded like a good guy.”

I watched Noel gather herself as Mike finally led her back to Emma’s car. “How’d you meet Deidre?” I asked.

“Deidre and I used to dance together,” Emma said.

My mouth dropped open. Roger’s sister, a stripper? Roger Weber, whom I’d never seen look anything other than elegant? Who’d called me a philistine for keeping the Macallan he’d given me under my kitchen sink?

Emma grinned. “I’m just all about blowing your mind tonight, huh? We danced at clubs a helluva lot better than this one. Deidre was really talented, but her brother convinced her to try another career. Probably a good thing. The low lights on the floor can hide a lot of sins, but you age out of the center stage spotlights fast.”

Some movement behind us caught my eye. John’s dark form straightened in the back seat, and he got out to rejoin us as Mike and Noel arrived. John fumbled in a pants pocket for his keys.

“You’re not driving tonight,” I said, looking at John. “You probably should have gone to a hospital.”

Having said that, I was at a loss as to where the nearest ER would be. Tallahassee?

“Don’t worry. My roommate used to be a nurse. We’ll take care of him,” Emma said. “And his car will be fine here tonight.”

“Can you leave now?” I asked, nodding toward the club.

She shrugged. “Worst they can do is fire me. And they’d be idiots to do that. I’m one of their biggest earners.”

I wondered if Emma’s ginormous metallic lashes were a driving hazard. They probably weren’t any more distracting than her mostly bare derriere sticking to the car seat. She must have thought the same, because she went digging in her car for more clothes. No doubt she’d left a bag in the club, but I didn’t blame her for not going back.

In the meantime, Noel held out her hand for my keys, then said goodbye to John before taking Mike’s arm again and wobbling toward Cecil with her high heels and empty stomach.

“What is it about you and vomiting women?” I asked John. He didn’t respond, but he was still looking a little wobbly himself. “Thanks for getting us through the door tonight.”

He nodded spacily, then blinked hard, as if trying to regain his equilibrium.

“To be honest, I’d hoped you’d keep Emma from noticing me. Thanks for helping me make it back out,” John said, and touched the small bandage on his brow. “Hell, who knows what they would have done to my pretty face.”

I laughed, and he seemed to relax a little.

“You really didn’t know I’m gay? Eugene never told you?” he asked, referring to our mutual friend who worked for the nearby Stetler County Sheriff’s Department.

“No,” I said, but I recalled the certainty Eugene Sutton had once expressed about me not being Driscoll’s type. Sutton had said it was just his intuition. Speaking of intuition… “I take it Sutton won’t be trying to warm my bed, either.”

“Probably not unless you’re camping in Antarctica,” John said.

“That’s a relief,” I said.

John chuckled and gave a wave, getting in the passenger’s side as Emma appeared with marginally more skin covered. She hadn’t found a shirt, but she was wearing a pair of sweats, colorless in the lights of the parking lot, with a team’s logo running up the legs. Emma opened her car door and paused, bare arm on its frame.

“Deidre always said she’d be in touch again. Maybe that’s why her brother wants to talk to me, to connect us again,” Emma said.

“Maybe,” I said.

My hesitation concerned her. “You think Deidre’s in trouble?” she asked.

I considered. I didn’t think Roger was worried about his sister. Or at least, not just about his sister. If he had been, he would have set me on tracking down Deidre directly. There was something else, something bigger, and I probably should have pushed him on it before now. Isn’t that’s what friends do, stick their noses where they may not be wanted, but are needed?

“No, I don’t think she’s in trouble,” I said. “I think he’s probably lost touch with her, and he’s just trying to track her down.”

Emma nodded. “So you live in Tallahassee, too?”


She motioned toward John in the car. “Keep an eye on him. John might wear a gun,” Emma said, grinning, “but he never could take a punch.”

As I walked toward my car, I gave thanks that John hadn’t been wearing his gun tonight, nor had anyone else. Noel was waiting inside, head fallen against the passenger window. Mike had parked his Jeep alongside Cecil, and he was leaning against my door, waiting.

“Sorry I missed all the excitement,” Mike said.

“Not quite all,” I said, then added, “Next time.”

“Promise?” he asked, reaching down to brush a curl from my face.

“Promise,” I said. “Next time, I might even let you pick the strip club.”

He smiled. “Are you okay to drive?”

I nodded. “Half a beer—unless you count the one Noel threw on me—and no head injuries. I’m good to go.”

“Okay,” he said, and bent down to kiss my temple. “Drive safe.”

My skin tingled where his lips had touched, and I felt a little light-headed, nearly banging my head when I got in the car. My hands shook—just a slight tremble—while I fastened my seatbelt. I took a deep breath to get my bearings, and glanced over to see Mike smiling at me from his driver’s seat. He motioned for me to start my car. Hopefully he could feel me roll my eyes, if he couldn’t see it.

My hand sparkled when I turned the key in the ignition. Damn glitter. I wiped it on my jeans and tried not to think about where the glitter had come from, and where else it might have transferred. I put Cecil in gear and gave a last wave as I drove past Mike toward the exit.

I’d thought Noel was asleep, so she startled me when she said, “See. All kinds of men fishing around your pond.”

Her eyes were closed, but the corner of her mouth twitched.

“Keep it up, smart-ass,” I said, pulling out of the parking lot and onto the highway, “and we’ll see how fast I take those turns on the way home.”

“Go ahead,” she said, rubbing her stomach beneath the seat belt. “It’s your upholstery.”

Good point. Next time I checked out a place with shiny exotic dancers and booze, I was renting a car.