Club Revelations: A Sydney Brennan Short

Following is an unedited version of a Sydney Brennan short story that I’m sharing week by week, chunk by chunk. Well, I didn’t just vomit it onto the page (sorry about the chunks reference), but it hasn’t been professionally edited yet, and I’d consider it an early draft. You can start from the beginning, or click to jump to where you left off.Bright alcoholic drinks by energepic from

Club Revelations

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. 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.”

As I sat in my car, considering how to get through to Emma Larkin (i.e., procrastinating), I was struck by another advantage of being a male private investigator—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, 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 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. I tucked the photo back in a folder between the seats before we stepped out of the car into the cool evening.

“You look nice,” I observed.

It was the first time I’d ever seen Noel wear jeans. They were so crisp, they could have stood up on their own. Her blouse had a bohemian feel, with full sleeves and a pattern whose colors 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.

“Sydney …” Noel still 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 with my wallet and cell phone in my pockets to keep my hands free, then took a moment to look around. We were surrounded by pine forest—beyond the parking lot behind us, on the opposite side of the highway, and on the far side of the aforementioned high-class (sarcasm) establishment. The trilling call of a chuck-will’s-widow seemed incongruous, cutting through the humid air where a wolf’s whistle would have been more appropriate.

Club Revealations (no bets on whether the spelling was intentional or failure to proofread) used to be a fast food restaurant. Rather than remove the 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, the hint of soft serve swirls bled through her flesh tone, making the woman look more Jabba the Hut than Jennifer Beals. Calling the place a strip club might be giving it too much credit.

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

“There will be music and dancing.” In fact, I expected Emma Larkin to dance onstage tonight as 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 a hand to push my fuzzy curls from her face. She allowed my hand to remain on her arm, more because her pointy heels didn’t cross gravel well than that she was getting into the spirit of the evening. “At least tell me it’s Ladies Night.”

“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 omnipotent.”

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

Part Two

I’d parked Cecil beneath one of the lights—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 pavement 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 hovered around the entrance. I plastered a generic smile on my face and concentrated on not actually making eye contact with anyone.

A large man standing in front of red double doors 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 behind me that would logically trigger such a territorial response. Nope, just little old me and Noel.

The bouncer was in his late twenties, wearing a black T-shirt and jeans with a belt that had one of those enormous belt buckles advertising who-knows-what. I certainly didn’t know 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 until I held out a twenty.

The lump of a man shook his head. “Sorry, but I can’t let you in.”

The hovering men had shuffled closer, like zombies in a late-night horror film, while I futzed with my wallet. Being surrounded by a witless crowd made me a little claustrophobic, a little scared, 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 his 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.

“Are you serious?” I asked. Tact was getting me nowhere with this 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. “What is this, Saudi Arabia? You do realize I drove myself here, don’t you? I bet you’ll figure out there’s not a man behind the wheel when I drive my car through that fu—”

“Sydney,” a man’s voice said, 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. A quick glance over my shoulder only gave me tallish and well-built, with short hair. The bouncer’s chest had inflated, but he hadn’t otherwise moved. When I was sure he wouldn’t cold-cock me, I turned my full attention to the face behind the voice. What the hell?

“Off—” I almost stuck my foot in my mouth. “Awfully good to see you,” I continued awkwardly, 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 think he’d ever said that in his official capacity, but he had once pulled me overish 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. What—you think the cops don’t have anything better to do?”

I held out the twenty-dollar bill again with my unencumbered hand. The bouncer stared at my money until Driscoll extended his own cash as well, then the big guy grudgingly took both bills in his pudgy hand. Driscoll smiled and linked his other arm through Noel’s, leading us through the door as if we were in danger of getting lost.

We might have done—it was dark enough inside the club. However, considering the way my feet stuck to the floor, I’d be happy if they left the lights down low. Driscoll stepped to the side of the entryway for a moment so we could get our bearings. A wailing man’s voice asked a woman to liberally apply sweetener to him as the worst music of the late 80s pumped from huge speakers flanking a (so far) empty stage. I leaned around Driscoll and yelled introductions. With the music so loud and all of the other customers lined up along the bar, there was no danger of being overheard.

“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. “Drisc—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 doors I couldn’t identify from where we stood. 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 strained 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 looked attentive, perched on the front edge 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 stride 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, not 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? 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 friend 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 couldn’t go, I figured it’d be a good excuse to catch up with Noel. Plus I’m a little bit evil, so it was worth the ninety-mile drive to see the look on her 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.

I wasn’t sure I did. John seemed like a nice enough guy, but this was probably 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 his local buddies. The question was why.

Part Three

I was still mulling John’s motivation when the bright white fluorescent lights burst into life overhead. A couple of men approached the speakers in front of us, one guy pulling a screwdriver from his back pocket. He squatted, and a flash of butt cleavage made me look away.

I found myself staring at John Driscoll instead. 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 looked 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.”

He laughed and ran a hand over his hair, fluffing it even more. “I guess that’s true.”

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 the three glasses (two full and one half-empty one) 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, willing her to go with me.

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

So much for a heart-to-heart.

There was no music playing and nothing to occupy the men at the bar except watching me. I consciously strode across the seating area beneath the fluorescent lights as if I were 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. The toilet paper was so bright, I was surprised it didn’t stain the water in the bowl pink. Spare rolls were stacked on the toilet tanks like Barbie’s pyramids. Maybe the management got a good deal because of a recall on its carcinogenic dye.

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 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 pink) and took a few deep breaths. Well, one deep breath anyway.

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

“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 worn 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.

“She’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 indirectly) with someone in gastric distress. The blonde distracted me before I could get too worked up about either.

“On second thought—” She reached out and 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 one on one. 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. “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 PI. I could walk in high heels, but I really would have to be naked to cover for my complete inability to dance in them.

The woman turned right in the hall 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 replied. 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.”

Part Four

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 in fact, none of the adult entertainment is allowed in the city. (Of course, that doesn’t stop enterprising entrepreneurs from sending strippers to your home.) Some towns have an anything goes mentality, while others set forth complex if … then conditions around food, alcohol, and nudity that’ll give you flashbacks to your least favorite math or logic class. 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 suddenly 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!”

Our firsthand lesson in degrees of nudity began with the bass of a hip-hop song thumping through our chests. Then 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 in front of 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 provide support without distracting, staying low to the ground. 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 … 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 finally 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 third Long Island Iced Tea, so I’m sure that helped.

“That was her, wasn’t it?” she asked, after John had left. “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 used better phrasing once the words had escaped me, but the subtleties of language were quickly escaping Noel anyway. “Got a better idea?”

Noel was tilting her head sideways, mesmerized (again) 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 the same one from the front. 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. The music was louder this close to the wall, and I had to lean 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 open.

“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 of his hand with two fingers.

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

The pulsing drone of Nine Inch Nails suddenly cut through the crowd noise, one of those 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.”