Depending on the direction of the wind, simply approaching a strip club provides the sort of sensory overload usually reserved for livestock barns and polluted rivers. Be aware of what you may step in or on. If it slips, squishes or moans, your shoes might need a booster. The smell is decidedly biologic, with a chemical aftertaste that sticks to the back of your tongue like generic cold medicine. And we weren’t even inside yet.
The sidewalls of the black circular bar were upholstered in fake leather stitched in a repeating diamond pattern. The bar top was a wood dance floor, littered with cheap heel scuff marks and sweaty drink rings. Matching black stools stood sentinel, keeping the bar itself from running out the front door and pulling the rest of the place along with it. The bar could have been the groom at a wedding who got caught being pleasured under the table by a jealous bridesmaid. In his haste he tucked the tablecloth into his pants and ran out the front door, pulling everyone’s chicken dinner and marble cake onto the floor.
Tom and I were not even a novelty, an old white man with a much younger woman who wasn’t. His badge was more like a frequent customer card that made us eligible for every one-hundredth lap dance free.
We struck up a conversation with the bartender who swore she came in late and had no recollection of the man in question. She pointed us to the manager, Randy, a squirrely type with a gold chain buried in too much chest hair with a bad case of the sniffles.
“Yeah, no, never heard of him,” Randy said.
“Yeah? Well, he made it seem like you two was buddies, you know? I’m tellin’ ya, I just talked to the guy, Vince, says he knows you pretty good. The hell of it is if you can’t verify that your buddy was here, I may have to run him in, see what else he has to say,” Detective Tom said.
Randy stood there sweating while Tom was hitting him over the head with typically vague cop threats, intimidation scenarios with built-in back doors. The doors were there for everybody, cops and criminals alike. Everybody except justice, whose blindfold covered her ears as well as her eyes.
One of the dancers moved in close. Either she was overly ambitious or overly nosy, maybe both. Randy shoved her away hard. She tripped on her heels, stumbled, and fell into the bar stools. A regular spectacle.
“Are you fucking kidding me? Back the fuck off!” he berated her.
Although not personally, I knew her. Every single body who grew up where I did knew her, or at least someone just like her. It’s easy to sit back and judge. Nothing but a thief, a prostitute, a drug addict, and a whore. She’s just lazy. It’s easier to shake your naked ass and turn tricks for money than to actually punch a clock and be productive. A bunch of rhetoric from bar stool magistrates that never met her father or spent a night in the homeless shelter with her children. It wasn’t for me, but I know the second you think you’re too good is the same second you’ll never get any better.
“Look you mutherfu—”
“Whoa, now Phil, just hold up,” Tom interrupted.
I managed to get my hand on my gun before Tom stopped me. I may not have shot him but I was going to do my best to return some of the anxiety and fear he gave to her. I read him the riot act, left finger squarely in his face. I would have poked him in the chest if not for the fear of coming away with something.
“You feel like a big man now? You feel tough? He just saved your life fucker. For now anyways, because I swear I ever hear you touching any of these girls again I won’t make it quick. I’ll make sure you feel everything, and not even God will know where you are. Only gators, one piece at a time. Trust me, they love rotten meat,” I explained.
“Jesus man! Chick’s crazy man! Get her off me!” the manager begged.
Not having the stomach to look at him anymore I left the rest of the interrogation up to Tom. I sat at the bar and ordered a cup of coffee. Despite the atmosphere, they really did make a good cup of coffee.
“Oh yeah? Well then why don’t you just show me?”
I overheard Tom talking to the manager, it was a fake statement, inserted into the only part of the conversation loud enough for me to hear over the music. The two men disappeared into a back room. I really didn’t even want to know. The girl, the stripper, sat down next to me at the bar.
“Hi, I’m Sindy, with an S,” she said.
“Of course you are. Hi Sindy with an S. Philippine, Philippine Maximine,” I said.
“I wanted to say thanks for what you said back there. Randy can be a real jerk sometimes,” she said.
“Guys like that need to be put in their place, they need their asses kicked is what they need,” I said.
“I mean, he’s not always like that, I mean, sometimes he can be really sweet. You know?” she said.
“Don’t kid yourself, they’re only sweet when they want something Sindy,” I said angrily.
“Hey, that guy you’re looking for? Vince? Yeah well he comes in here like all the time. I saw him here, like earlier. Yeah, he and Randy are good friends. He even used to date one of the girls here. They were together for like, ever. He’s worse than Randy though, you know? And I guess she finally had enough,” Sindy said.
“Does she still work here?” I asked.
“Oh no, she hooked-up with like a major rich guy,” she said.
“Does this girl have a name?” I asked.
I really didn’t need to ask.
“Her real name or stage name?” she asked.
“Real please,” I said.
“Buffy, I’m not sure of her last name, it like, changed,” she said.
“That’s okay Sindy, I think I can take it from there. I appreciate the information,” I said.
“No problem, it was like, the least I could do after you stood up for me,” she said.
“One more thing Sin, when you see the old guy, tell him to find his own ride home,” I said.
I tucked a twenty into her G-string. She laughed and gave me a thumbs up.
“Take care of yourself Philippine Maximine,” she said.
“You too, Sindy, you too,” I said.
Sepia from the waning light of day through my old office window jaded my perspective of the outside world. Yellow light bulbs reflecting off painted things that used to be white offered a finishing touch to an artist’s rendering of another depressing day. The new window glass changed things. Clear light offers sharper images, a better look at what I rarely bothered to see.
It was a feet up, drink in hand sort of evening but peace and quiet both exist to be disturbed, otherwise you would never be able to fully appreciate either. Phone bells however are the modern equivalent of a bit playing actor you never heard of yelling “Man the life rafts!”
“Philippine Maximine. Why yes Mrs. Owens, I just wanted to, yes I suppose that, sure? Ok, I’ll…”
She kept the call as short and rude as possible. Either she was being careful keeping her pawns hidden behind her, or she was just a shitty person. As long as the phone was hot, there were other calls I could make to find out. I was invited to her home the next morning for a meeting, a meeting which was overdue.
Two stone pillars supporting wrought iron gates which never moved marked the drive at the end of the road. The house was a modern art masterpiece, boasting a museum quality design too ugly to be functional but too beautiful not to live in. A little white dog with the heart of a lion yipped and yapped on the front stoop as I pulled up, although its pinkish sweater made me doubt the veracity of its claims. Mary Owens met me at the carved wood doors.
“Good morning Ms. Maximine. I trust you have answers for me,” she said.
“Mrs. Owens, we need to have a chat,” I said.
“In that case I suppose you must come in,” she said.
The little dog with its little teeth showing through its little growl stood tall against me as I tried to follow Mrs. Owens inside.
“Oh Muffin, that’s quite enough,” she said.
Muffin, go figure.
“He’s a cute little guy, what breed is he?” I asked.
“First of all, he is a she, and she is a Maltese. Really, one would think such a thing to be obvious,” she said.
“I’m so sorry. I don’t have much experience when it comes to little dogs. See, where I’m from, they really weren’t fast enough to escape the gators so, you know, there weren’t too many of them around,” I said tongue in cheek.
I could tell by the look on Muffin’s face accompanied by her sudden silence that she was picking up what I was laying down. Mary and I made small talk as we meandered through the house. I was busy noticing.
“My, how barbaric, you must be proud of… Where exactly did you say you were from Ms. Maximine?” Mary asked.
“I didn’t say, but as long as you ask, Lose-ee-ann-a. At least as a kid anyways, before we moved up north,” I said.
“How nice for you. Tell me Ms. Maximine, what made you take up such a dangerous line of work?” she asked.
“Family business,” I answered.
Mary and Muffin led me to a quaint breakfast nook overlooking a stone fountain of what I assumed to be a holy saint with his arms extended weeping water from his eyes. He appeared to be asking ‘why’ and crying profusely.
“My, that’s rather,” but I ran out of words.
“Can I get you some tea, maybe coffee?” she asked.
“Coffee would be great, thanks,” I said.
“Of course,” she said.
Mary clapped her hands twice, but nothing happened. I wasn’t sure whether to expect a light to come on or a robot to come rolling into the room. She clapped again.
“Sarah, Sarah,” she called.
A young Asian woman walked into the room and stood by the table. Mrs. Owens gave her instructions and she promptly left the room to comply.
“You’ll have to excuse the help. To be honest, Sarah isn’t even her name, but I had to call her something,” she laughed. “I mean really, it’s not like her actual name is pronounceable in English. For goodness sake, on paper it looks like someone spilled the alphabet and tried to clean it up with, you know, something that wouldn’t work. Can you imagine? So, of course, I gave her a proper name,” she said.
“Look, before I even get around to telling you exactly how wrong and absolutely awful that is, let’s talk about all this honestly. Let’s talk about you and Mason,” I said angrily.
“What would you like to know?” she asked.
“I want to know what you hope to gain from all of this,” I said.
“Isn’t it obvious dear? Look around. You’re sitting on your answer. She’s serving you coffee, eventually. It’s over your head and under your feet. It’s out the window, it’s in the garage. It’s everything, I want everything,” she said.
“Seems to me there’s nothing here your boyfriend Wesley wouldn’t be able to provide. If I was to venture a guess, I would say he could even do a whole lot more,” I said.
“Why Philippine Maximine, what ever are you saying?” she asked.
“Cut the crap, Mary. I know all about Wesley. What’s more is I know all about you. I know about your DD214, the drugs, everything. Furthermore I’m aware that you qualified as an expert marksman before your discharge. I know a certain detective who would find that to be pretty interesting information, especially since a bullet came screaming through my office window yesterday. Maybe, just maybe that was you. Maybe somewhere in that fancy gun cabinet in the other room there’s a rifle that fits that bullet,” I accused.
I may have underestimated her acting skills as her eyes welled-up with tears.
“Why would I want to shoot you?” she asked.
“Why indeed? Hiring me would make the perfect alibi wouldn’t it. But maybe it wasn’t me you were trying to kill. Maybe it was someone who was there with me, like your husband,” I said.
Mary broke down completely and buried her head in her arms on the table.
“You’re right you’re right,” she sobbed. “I’m a fake, this isn’t me. I just have to get out, Wesley. He can get me out, he can help me. He’s why I hired you, it’s all him,” she cried uncontrollably.
Muffin was at it again, railing hard against a bevy of gardeners. Gardeners who felt the need to creep around the outside shrubbery, gardeners without tools, gardeners with their hands in their pockets, gardeners who sure as hell didn’t look like gardeners.
“Mary, Mary, calm down, calm down. Are you expecting any gardeners today?” I asked.
Mary perked up. Even if just for a second, strangely appreciating what I had said.
“Oh that’s sweet, thank you. I always felt like I had a knack for…”
“Shit! Get down!” I yelled.