"Brownie,” Drew said, hovering behind me.  “Police lookin’ for you.”

     I’d only just begun putting my new vibrating tongue-ring to good use when I turned and saw the imposing security guard standing there, drowning me in his massive shadow.

     The trick wasn’t as upset as I was, more like petrified, fear being the only possible emotion when your pants are slung down around your ankles and an ogre is looming over you huffing and puffing.  When he set eyes on Drew, the trick jerked backward, inadvertently pushing himself deeper down my throat.  It might have been a problem, too, had I still possessed anything remotely like a gag-reflex.

     “Why me?” I asked Drew.  We were by the curtains peeking out at the two plainclothes waiting by the stage.

     “Yashua gave them your name,” he said.  “They were finna come back here and question everybody.  I think he panicked.”

     I ran my fingers through my hair and breathed a heavy sigh.  “I thought he was paid up with the police.”

     “Fuck if I know,” Drew said.  His blunt, expressionless face made it impossible to tell what he was thinking.  “He said they were here yesterday too.”

     I felt an overwhelming urge to go to Yashua’s office and slap the shit out of him.  This is why I don’t do “legit” clubs.

     Drew looked over his shoulder at the other girls, staring at us suspended in place with dicks in their hands like someone had pushed the pause button on an orgy movie.  When he gave the signal to wrap it up the scene erupted into motion, coming together in a torrent of hushed dressing and last-minute bargaining.

     “Handle him for me,” I told Drew, pointing toward the trick without looking in his direction.

     He nodded.  “You gonna give ‘im his money back?”

     I raised my eyebrows.

     “Never mind.”

     The first cop was an overripe Latino with thinning ink-black hair and twenty years-worth of hard labor and Tequila bulging from his stomach.  His partner was a tall, slightly younger Asian detective.  The Asian looked stout, less harried by the job than his weary-eyed partner.

     There was a change in demeanor when they saw me, a sudden stiffening of their muscles like they’d been ambushed by a suspect brandishing a bazooka.  Then I noticed their eyes skim quietly down my body and remembered that I was still completely naked.

     “You’re Brownie?” the Asian said.

     “That’s what they call me.”

     “We apologize for pulling you away from”——he gestured toward the VIP Room where my trick was making a hasty exit——“your work.  We just need to ask you a few questions.”

     “Just a few?” I smiled.

     The Asian put a hand to his mouth to stifle a grin.  His partner remained as stone-faced as a cathedral.

     Flirtation was a habit of mine.  At this point in the game I did it unconsciously, even at the post office.

     “Are you familiar with a girl named Cherry?” the Latino said.  Clearly the senior officer, he had no time for niceties.  He took over the questioning before the younger one even got started.

     “She dances here,” I said.  “But I wouldn’t call us familiar.”

     “When was the last time you saw her?”

     “Your guess is as good as mine.  I don’t pay much attention to New Booties.”

     “Well, when was the last time you were paying attention?”  His tone was more insistent.

     I shrugged and turned my gaze upward, pretending to search my memory.

     The club had all but come to a halt.  The music was lowered to a whisper and the lights were raised, unceremoniously revealing the ugly side of the game——a sinuous tangle of stretchmarks, knife wounds, and C-section scars——which was enough to drive most of the girls into the dressing room.

     I didn’t know Cherry that well, certainly not well enough to cover for her, but when it came to the police candor was not my first instinct.

     The Latino seemed to realize this but asked another question anyway.  “Do you know if she has any enemies?  Any customers stalking her after work?”

     I laughed, which he didn’t find amusing.  “Any half-decent-looking dancer has a couple of stalkers,” I said.  “Shit, even the busted-ass girls have a few.  That’s just part of the game.”

     “Oh really?” the Asian said, just to have something to say.  My nakedness was obviously affecting him.  His eyes were locked on mine in a sort of rabid, unblinking stare, fighting a losing battle not to look down at my Double-Ds.

     “Hell yeah,” I said.  “Most of them are harmless enough.  You cuss ‘em out, threaten to get your boys to beat their ass, and they keep their distance.”

     I hugged my elbows, squeezing my titties together like they were stuffed in a bra that was two sizes too small.  This made the younger detective even more uncomfortable.

     “If we could get back to the point...”  The Latino said.

     “Is Cherry in trouble?”

     They didn’t answer right away, which was the same as saying yes.

     “No, ma’am,” the Latino said finally.  “I’m sorry to be the one to have to tell you this, but we found Cherry’s body last night.”

     A chill scissored up my spine.  “She’s dead?”

     He nodded.

     Mistaking my shock for grief, he asked me if I needed a moment to collect myself, more out of practiced concern than genuine sympathy.

     I’d seen Cherry a week earlier.  She'd worked at The Candy Shop three months longer than I had, but she was without a doubt still a rookie in the Life.  From the moment she first walked in the door, with a practiced melancholy and Rick Ross delusional swagger, I had known what she really was.  Girls like her could only feign the sort of gloomy cynicism that veterans like me had earned from years of tedious, gooey labor.

     The Asian stared unabashedly now at the tattoos sleeving my right arm.  He scanned the Rolling Stones logo inked on my left breast before returning to my right shoulder, where a nickel-shaped scar was surrounded by a spiral of butterflies.

     “Where did they find her body?” I said, directing the question to the enraptured young detective.

     “Not too far from here, actually.  We think someone near here may have had something to do with it.  A customer maybe . . . but not necessarily.”

     His partner’s disapproving gaze confirmed that the young detective had said too much.

     “So...” the Asian said, mindlessly adjusting his collar, “anything you can remember would be helpful.”

     “How did it happen?” I said.

     Before he could answer, his partner raised a hand to cut him off.  “We aren’t at liberty to divulge that information, ma’am.  But, as my partner said, it would be helpful if you remembered anything that could be pertinent to the investigation.”

     I shook my head.  “I saw her a few days ago.  She might have been back since then, but I don’t know.  I don’t dance at clubs that often.”  I was shaken, but it was a superficial sort of shock, the kind you get when you find out a casual acquaintance had died, like a distant relative or the mailman.  Nevertheless, for the first time since standing there I felt like covering up.

     “Where else do you dance?”  The Latino said, jarring me from my ruminations.

     “Excuse me?”

     “You said that you don’t always dance at clubs.  So where do you usually dance?”

     Stupid, I thought.  My concern for a girl I barely knew——a dead girl at that——was about to get me caught-up.

     “Nowhere,” I said.  “What I meant to say was that I don’t dance very much at all.  Just when I need some extra money.”

     I couldn’t tell them the truth of course, that I spent most of my time playing porn star in smoky basements and itinerant pseudo-brothels.  The kind of places where you had to know a guy who knew a guy who would text you the location, which was usually an abandoned storefront with garbage bags taped over the windows.

     The cops nodded, acknowledging both that they understood my answer and that it was complete bullshit.

     “Well, Ms. Brownie,” the Asian cop said, “thank you for your time.  Again, we apologize for the interruption.”  He handed me a crisp white business card.  “Please contact us if you remember anything.”

     His partner didn’t say good-bye.  Instead, the Latino fixed his gaze on the curtained entrance to the VIP Room where it remained for a long, uncomfortable moment.  When he finally looked back at me, it was clear exactly how he felt about my profession.   There was no trace of lust in that silent, reproachful stare.  Not even for the thick, Hershey-skinned girl standing naked in front of him.

     He stared at me a moment longer before turning to follow his partner out the door.

 

“You got me fucked up!”

     Sincere was in the DJ booth yelling at Yashua again.  She’d arrived just after the cops left and immediately went on a rant when she saw that Yashua had scheduled her to ride the pole after me.

     “That’s right,” Sincere continued, “you got me fucked up if you think I’m goin’ on after that bitch.  And I’ll tell you somethin’ else: I ain’t goin’ on before her either.”

     Her outburst had little to do with who got top billing and a lot to do with our nearly decade-long rivalry.  We’d bumped heads over the years at bachelor parties and lock-ins and divorce parties.  Our hostility had gone on so long and sprouted so many diverging stems of bitterness that I had a hard time remembering how it even started.

     I knew one thing, though——she better not try me tonight.

     Yashua just stood there with his arms folded across his dome-shaped belly.

     I walked up to the booth and knocked on the glass.

     Sincere continued her tirade without missing a beat.  “Yeah, hoe.  I don’t give a fuck.  You can stay yo’ ass over there somewhere.”  She waved to the far side of the room.  “I keep tellin’ Yashua not to put us on the same night.”

     “It sucks to be you, then,” I said.  “’Cause I ain’t going nowhere.”

     Sincere stepped down out of the booth, right into a three-point stance.  (That's what I called it when someone took a fighting posture, one foot in the front, one in back, like the base of a triangle.)  She stood six-four in heels, with a body Wonder Woman would envy.  The makeup she caked on every night detracted from her natural café-au-lait complexion.  Her big, pretty brown eyes were usually hidden under violet or light-grey contacts.

     Uncharacteristically, Sincere didn’t push the matter further.  “Alright, hoe.  Fuck it.  I’m gone.”

     She stomped past me, knocking into my bad shoulder, usually more than enough reason to go upside her head.  Instead, I went after her.  In the middle of our stand-off, I remembered that Sincere had worked on Cherry’s last night.

     The Asian detective’s suspicion that Cherry may have been murdered by a customer had unsettled me.  In this line of work you were always at risk of running into a crazy trick.  Just part of the game.  But nothing like this had ever hit so close to home before.  There was also the possibility that whoever killed Cherry would be back to sink his teeth into another girl.  I sure as shit wasn’t going to let it be me.

     Butter and Diabolikal were in the dressing room spackling their faces with makeup when Sincere and I burst through the black impact door.  Seeing the two of us together sent up a red flag and they immediately abandoned what they were doing and scuttled out of the room.

     “Sincere,” I said, catching up to her.  “I need to talk to you.”

     She turned around and cocked her head to the side in disbelief.  “What the fuck we got to talk about, hoe?”  Her face was scrunched up like a palsied old woman.

     “You were here on Cherry’s last night, right?  What happened?”

     “Bitch, you got me fucked up.”  She went to her locker and pulled off her lace bandeau top, thong, then her big hoop earrings with the word SLUT in the center spelled out in rhinestone.

     “Look,” I said.  “All bullshit aside——“

     “Hell naw!  Ain’t no all bullshit aside, hoe.  You need to get the fuck up out my face.”

     Three-point stance again.

        The last time we went in on each other ended with both of us in the emergency room, her with a mild concussion and ruptured eardrum, me with a hyperextended elbow and twelve stitches on my leg where she’d slashed me with a broken bottle.  I could tell she meant it.  But I wasn’t going to stop there.  If we ended up back in the emergency room, then so be it.

     “Don’t you wanna know what happened?”

     “Bitch got killed, that’s what happened.”  She snatched off her peroxide-blonde wig.  Her natural silky brown hair was pulled into a tight cinnamon-roll-shaped bun.

     “But the police think it could have been one of her customers.  I know you thought of that already.”

     She froze for a second, then finished dressing.  She pulled on jeans and a patterned chiffon blouse.  Outside of the club you would have never suspected she was a stripper.  Even with her makeup still on, she looked as innocuous as a school teacher.

     She remained silent so I continued.  “Do you know if any of her tricks that night looked off?”

     “Bitch...” Sincere started, then sighed and dropped her shoulders, her eyes betraying a moment of weariness.  “She started fuckin’ with one of my regulars,” she admitted.  “I got in late one night, so I guess he went with her instead.  Then next thing you know, he lookin’ for that skinny hoe every time he come in.  Normally, that woulda made me mad as fuck——‘Bitch, yo thirsty ass gon’ steal my trick?’——but I was like, ‘Fuck it.  You can have that one.’”

     “You didn’t like him?” I said.

     “He alright.  I mean, he got money.”  She paused, folding up a big wad of ones and shoving it in her bra.  “But he into some creepy-ass shit.”

     I knew the type.  They were usually weird little white guys with serious money and deviant appetites.  The ones that wanted you to piss on them or let them slap you around and call you a nigger-bitch.

     We sat in silence for a moment, not looking directly at each other lest our mutual enmity resurface.

     “I’ve seen him one time since what happened to whatshername,” Sincere said.  “He just came in and asked for me, like he didn’t want the other bitch nomore.”  She slipped on a pair of flats and stood.  “But he had me fucked up, though.  ‘Cause he a nigga.”

     “For real?”

     “Uh-huh.  Dude is black as a oil slick.”  She shook her head.  “You know, usually it be the white niggas that's into the crazy shit.  I wasn’t expectin’ it from a nigga nigga.”

     Sincere, for all her bullshit, was the best when it came to handling the freaks.

     “He s’pose to be coming tomorrow night,” she said.  “Fat motherfucka.  He usually comes on Saturdays.”

     I raised an eyebrow.

     “Yeah.  I don’t give a fuck, though.  He can wait his ugly ass at the bar all night for all I care.  I ain’t gon’ be here.”

     We locked eyes suddenly, all at once remembering that we were supposed to hate each other.

     As if on cue, Butter and Diabolikal crept back in.  Yashua refused to let them work the floor in half-applied makeup.

     Sincere slapped her locker shut.  “Yeah, hoe,” she said.  “You can have that crusty motherfucka if you want him.”

     She stomped away, pushing herself between Butter and Diabolikal on her way out.

 

I lived thirty minutes from The Candy Shop in a two-bedroom apartment on the South Side of Chicago.  I could have had a house in Beverly or a condo in Jackson Park Highlands, but I didn’t see myself playing well with the highfalutins.  It would probably be a month before some crabby white lady came at me for blowing her husband in the forest preserve.

     There hadn’t been anything to do all day really, and I felt an inexplicable urge to busy myself.  I’d recently purchased a new pair of clear heels.  They were an uncomfortable fit, so I molded them to size with a hairdryer.  Once the plastic was malleable enough I slipped my feet in and——after walking around the block three times, catching the disapproving glances of little old ladies——they were perfectly shaped to my feet.  The soles of plastic heels are slippery, so I made sure to stop at random intervals during my walk to scuff them up on the concrete to create some tread.

     I spent the afternoon updating my escort ads on Backpage and Cityvibe.  My ad photos were over a year old, so I took new ones, posing in front of the bathroom mirror, filling up the tub with bikinis and lingerie.  By early evening my cellphone battery was dead and I’d gone through my entire whoredrobe.

     I had just made up my mind to start cleaning Oregano’s cage when someone came knocking.

     An old woman, who looked too much like somebody’s grandmother to be Chicago PD, stood on the other side of the door.  She wore a bright, floral-patterned skirt suit with an enormous white church hat crowning her head.

     “Can I help you?” I said when I opened the door.

     She started to respond then went suddenly rigid, her eyes bulging with fright.  She jerked backward, barely stopping herself from tumbling down the stairs.

     There had only been time enough to drape a short satin robe over myself before I came to the door.  The robe cut off just beneath my coochie, cat’s-paw tattoos snaking up my thigh and disappearing under the glistening fabric.  Still, I thought her reaction was a bit extreme.

     I jumped back as well, ready in my three-point stance.

     Before I started swinging on the poor woman, I realized that she’d only caught sight of Oregano.  He was coiled around my neck like a piece of alien jewelry.

     “Sorry,” I said with a sigh of relief.  “I forgot he was there.”

     “That’s a snake,” the woman whispered.

     “Yeah,” I said simply.  “A ball python.”

     She took two tentative steps forward and stopped.  She didn’t want to get any closer, which was fine by me.  I still didn’t know who she was or what she wanted.

     “Um...are you Ursula?”  She reached in her burlap shopping bag and pulled out an envelope with a name scribbled on it.  “Ursula Terrell?”

     “I prefer Brownie.”  My tone was suspicious.  In my line of work you become wary of uninvited guests.  For all I knew she was some trick’s bitter wife looking for retribution.  Though the look on her face, before freaking at the sight of Oregano, hadn’t been hostile.  “How did you get my name?”

     “My name is Rosetta Washington,” the woman said.  “I came because of my daughter, Janelle.  I think you knew her.”

     “I don’t know any Janelle.”

     She frowned, shook her head then added, “She was calling herself Cherry.”

    “Well...” the woman said expectantly.  “Can we go inside?”

     I invited her to sit on the couch and offered her some tea.

     Back in his tank, Oregano slithered around for a while before disappearing under the fake wooden log.

     I handed the woman a can of Arizona iced tea and sat down.  “I’m sorry, ma’am,” I said.  “I’m not sure how it is you came by my name.  Or what exactly you think I can do for you.”

     She took the can, regarded it curiously, then sat it on the coffee table.  “Yashua,” she said, staring at her palms.  “His mother and I attend church together.  He didn’t go into much detail, so I asked him if she had any friends at the club.”

     Yashua was giving out my address to strangers?  Now I’m definitely going to slap him, I thought.  Plus, he knew how much I hated my government name.

     “Did he say we were friends?”

     “No, not exactly,” the woman said.  “He said that you were the only one that Janelle ever talked to more than once or for longer than a couple of minutes.”

     “I’m not sure how I can help,” I said, feeling suddenly off-balance.

     “Well,” she said.  “You can tell me what you remember about Janelle...Cherry.  Who was she spending her time with?”

     The truth is, I barely remembered Cherry at all.  All that came to mind were her sub-par pole skills, affected ghetto accent, and the cherry pendant she’d worn every day I had known her, dangling from a cheap gold chain.  Sometimes, despite my best efforts to dissuade her, she would prattle me half to death with her TeenNick problems.  None of the other girls gave her the time of day, and apparently she sensed some sort of charitable manner about me.  But she’d been mistaken.

     “I don’t spend much time with the other girls outside of work,” I said.  “Neither did she from what I can remember.”

     For the next fifteen minutes the old woman unleashed a string of questions to which I could give no satisfactory answer.

     “I’m sorry,” I said.

     She didn’t cry at first.  Her face just went blank, emotion overloading her system, and all she could manage was an abstracted scowl.  There was nothing I could do for her.  And the fact that she was here with me meant that the police had given her little hope that the killer would be caught.  She was grasping at strings.

     A bitter taste of familiarity crept up my throat.  I knew from experience what the old woman was feeling.  A year earlier I had lost my son, Zion, when we were caught in a drive-by.  We hadn’t been the intended targets, just guilty of the unforgivable crime of crossing the street in Englewood.  I woke the next day in the ER with a 9mm bullet permanently lodged in my shoulder and a crêpe-paper-skinned doctor telling me that my son was dead.

     Suddenly I regretted inviting the woman in.

     “I don’t know what I’m doing,” the woman said, swinging her arms up and letting them fall in a defeated gesture.

     “The police think it was one of her”——she strained to get the word out——“customers.”

     “How did it happen?”

     She turned the can up and gulped down the last of her tea as if it were a shot of Patrón.  She took a deep breath as if preparing to relive the event firsthand.  “The police found her in an abandoned building while they were shooing away some crackheads.”  She finally let loose the tears.  “My baby girl...They said whoever killed her, tortured and raped her for days.  She was beaten within an inch of her life then he stopped...stopped to keep her alive so he could keep on going.”

     Hesitantly, I put my arm around the old woman.  At least Cherry had someone to mourn her.

     I was loath to wonder who would cry for me.  Most of my relatives were locked-up, dead, or strangers.  I couldn’t remember the last time I’d entertained the thought of having a boyfriend or girlfriend; at this point in the game, I just didn’t see myself involved with a square.  I’d yet to find any female fetching enough to become Mrs. Terrell, and it was getting hard for me to view men as anything but potential tricks.  I had no one close to me, only 'relationships' that could be severed as quickly and easily as throwing out a stale thong.

     “I still don’t understand what she was doing in a place like that,” she said.  “I didn’t raise her to go around selling her body to the highest...” she looked at me.  “No offense.”

     “None taken.”

     “But if I had taught her better, maybe she’d still be alive.”

     I remembered what my own mother had taught me: A woman should never be broke, she had said.  Not as long as you got a mouth and a pussy.

     We sat in silence for a while.  Then she pulled something from her bag and handed it to me.  It was a picture of Cherry as a skinny, elfin-faced child, the same tacky gold necklace wrapped around her skinny neck.  She couldn’t have been more than six or seven.  The same age Zion would have been if...

     When I tried to hand it back she refused.  I didn’t know what she expected me to do with it, perhaps it was a simple token of gratitude for a sympathetic ear, but I was sure about what the faded picture had stirred in me.  Something blinked in front of my eyes.  Unclear at first, but then the form began to take shape, not in my mind but within the images dancing across the photo in my hands.  Cherry's doe-eyed face melted away, overwritten by freckled, almond-brown skin and hazel eyes.  It was Zion's cherubic face I saw now, staring back at me through the veil of time.

     I squeezed my eyes shut to keep the tears in.  The old woman’s pain had become my pain somehow.  No.  She had reawakened the sorrow that I had been hiding beneath a year’s worth of hoeing and liquor and loneliness.  But there it was, clear as day, burning a hole in the front of my mind, lighting the path for what I was going to do next.  There was no distinction between the two of them.  Cherry and Zion squatted in the same desperate corner of my mind.

     “I’m so sorry, Ursula,” the old woman said.  “Coming to your home and intruding on you like this.”

     I had to stop myself from wondering if my mother would go to the same lengths had I been the one found decomposing in a crackhouse.

     “Brownie,” I said, cradling the photo in my hands as delicately as a snowflake.  “Call me Brownie.”

 

Sincere’s trick came to the club that night.  She hadn’t given much of a description, but I knew right away that it was him.  Rust-colored clouds of eczema peppered his spongy arms.  His dark, marblelike eyes were covered by a pair of crooked wire-framed glasses.  He looked around——I thought, for Sincere——then headed to the bar, waving off the herd of hoes trying to intercept him.

     It didn’t take long to get the trick——Crunchy Black, I called him——to play my game.

     He sat at the bar, staring down the perspiring neck of his beer.  I walked up behind him and rubbed the back of his neck.  When he didn’t protest, I started fondling his second brain through his pants.  We were in the VIP before he finished his beer.

     Sincere hadn’t been lying when she said he was a freak.  When he sat down, I grabbed the nappy mess on top of his head and yanked him forward until his face was smashed against my coochie.  He grunted sheepishly and I slapped him across the face with my free hand.  Digging my nails into his scalp, I got him to tell me a story.  There was more than one of them.  Crunchy Black worked as a paralegal at a law firm on 115th and Halsted.  Speaking through blissfully clenched teeth, he told me that his bosses liked to blow off steam occasionally by booking some afterhours entertainment and they had sent him out to scout for new talent.

     My hands were around his throat at this point and I could tell he was struggling to breathe.  I would have gladly kept choking the fat bastard until his eyeballs popped out, but when the song ended I gave him one final bitchslap upside his head and let him go.

     I sought out Crunchy Black’s employer the next day. Their website listed an opening for an executive assistant.  After making a few cosmetic changes to my résumé (like actually typing one), I had to do the same with my appearance.  I found my only pantsuit hiding in the back of my closet, charcoal-gray with long sleeves and a high collar to cover my tattoos.  Something felt odd about wearing the clerical threads, claustrophobic.

     An acne-scarred intern directed me to an office where a large, Bulgari-smelling man stepped out from behind a massive oak desk.

     “Greg Clements,” he said.  “Nice to meet you, miss…”

    “Terrell,” I said.  “Brownie Terrell.”

     Clements was better looking than his employee, Crunchy Black.  His eyes were light brown and inviting.  Soft waves marked his low-cut black hair.  He had an effortlessly muscled physique.  Big arms, wide shoulders, and a massive chest.  He seemed too foppish to be a gym rat——short manicured nails and eyebrows too perfectly arched to be natural.  He wore a thin gold bracelet on his wrist with a tiny charm dangling from the end.

     “Now, let’s take a look at that résumé,” Clements said.

     I handed it to him. He took his sweet time inspecting it, unclasping the bracelet from his wrist and rubbing it gently between his fingers.

     Just when I was convinced my ruse had failed, Clements looked up with furrowed brows.  “You went to the University of Chicago?”

     “Yes,” I said. “But I didn’t finish.”

     “That’s a shame.  Why did you leave, if I may ask?”

     “I had some medical issues, which were exacerbated by...family troubles.”

     During my second year of college my mother got locked up for cheating on her income taxes (hers and about thirty other people she’d helped get disproportionately large refunds by claiming other people’s children as dependents) and ordered me to come up with money for an attorney.    In short order, I started fucking a married professor, got pregnant, tried blackmailing him, failed, got arrested and ended up losing my scholarship.

     “I’m sorry to hear that,” Clements said.  There was something behind his eyes that I couldn’t put my finger on, something that made my flesh crawl.  “You should go back.”

     “I’ve thought about it.”

     “Don’t think about it, do it.”  His tone was that of a pimp ordering one if his hoes back on the stroll.

     “You understand,” he said.  “That we just don’t hire people off the street.  There is a protocol.  You call for an appointment, we see each other at a designated time, and then we, my partner and I, review your qualifications.”

     I nodded.

     Taking another long look at my résumé, Clements folded the gold band up and put it in his desk drawer.  “But where’s the fun in always playing by the rules?” he said, smiling at me with naughtiness in his eyes.

     He asked me to wait while he went to the copier.

     Sitting in the empty office, anesthetized by the hum of the computer, I considered the reality of my quest.  The righteous anger I’d felt the day before had begun to fade.  I suddenly felt silly sitting here playing detective.  I wasn’t even getting paid.

     Fuck it, I thought.  It wasn’t worth the trouble if I was wrong, doubly so if I was right.

     As I rose to leave, a troubling thought crept into my mind.  I listened for footsteps outside the door.  When I heard none, I climbed on top of Clements desk, my stomach sliding across the burnished wood.  I opened the drawer and pushed past the bric-a-brac.  There it was.  What I’d thought was a bracelet was actually a woman’s necklace.  A cheap gold band, like the ones you get at the jewelry kiosk at Evergreen Plaza.

     There was a noise from the hall.  Voices in the front.  Then silence.

     A teardrop-shaped jewel hung from the end of the chain.  When I held it in my palm the ornament’s shape came into focus: a pair of ruby-red cherries dangling from a gold vine.

     Footsteps from the hall.

     Without thinking, I snatched up the necklace and shoved it into my bra.

     Clements walked in and handed back my résumé along with his card.  “Just in case you have any more questions,” he said.  He pointed to the spot on the card that had his cell number.  He offered his hand.  “Until next time.”

     I smiled, shook his hand.  Staring into those thin pitiless eyes, the urge to stab him swelled within me.

     “Next time,” I said.

 

Later that night I was parked across the street from Clements’s office in the parking lot of an abandoned shopping mall.

     I called my brother Jemarion after meeting Clements and gave him an abbreviated version of the story.  Not that he needed one.  Beating the shit out of someone was an end in itself.  I hadn’t seen my brother since Zion died.  I thought about contacting him when I heard he was out of prison, but just couldn’t make myself do it. Jemarion (possibly because, like my son, he too had a white father) bore a passing resemblance to Zion.  Maybe it was all in my head, but I saw him, like a grainy reflection, in Jemarion’s banana moon-pie face.

     Seeing the office at night gave it a new perspective.  A starless sky canopied the squat, sharp edged building.  Cars rolled past at infrequent intervals, their headlights throwing gloomy shadow-shapes across the sidewalk.  It was the perfect killing ground, sitting isolated in the middle of the block with nothing but open asphalt on either side.

     Clements hadn’t left yet.  Fucker.  I figured him for the narcissistic workaholic type, with his Spartan office and enotmous desk, but this was ridiculous.

     The plan was to follow him when he left the office and, at some point between there and his home, Jemarion and his crew would pounce.  The problem of course was what to do next.  We couldn’t very well go to the police and say, “We found the killer and he confessed to everything!  Lock him up...and just ignore those broken ribs.”  That was pushing it, even for Chicago.

     Cherry’s necklace dangled from the rearview mirror.  I knew what I wanted to do.  Despite what I’d said earlier, I was seriously entertaining the thought of letting Jemarion choke the life out of Clements and leave his broken, decaying body in the Dan Ryan Woods.  The more I turned it over in my head, the more it felt right.  Cherry would be avenged and my conscience could take a ten year nap.

     Jemarion was over an hour late, probably somewhere knee-deep in pussy.  I had my cell to my ear about to leave message number four when a black Mercedes pulled in behind the office.

     Something didn’t feel right.  I sank low in my seat.  The Mercedes had chrome rims, pink running lights and a vanity plate that I couldn’t make out.  At that point, I didn’t have to.

     Sincere got out, walked to the door and rang the bell.

     Shit!  If I continued to wait for Jemarion, Sincere would end up like Cherry.

     I had to do something.  Sincere was a bitch to the Nth degree, but she didn’t deserve to die.  Get her ass beat maybe...

     I pawed the .38 revolver in my coat.  Having it now gave me comfort.

     There was a projected window tilting open over a big metal door at the rear of the building.  It was dark inside.  An empty office?  There was no dumpster to climb up on, only a row of pregnant garbage bags.  I grabbed hold of a rusty pipe running along the side of the building.  Years of acrobatics up and down a stripper pole had given me strong arms.  Half pole-riding, half rock-climbing, I hoisted myself up, trying not to break a nail as I struggled to get a grip on the moldy brick.  I positioned myself close enough to the window to look in.  The bathroom.  Holding on to the pipe with one hand I pushed the sash open further.  Familiar bathroom odors hit my face.  I went in head first, narrowly squeezing the rest of my body through.  Breaking-and-entering had been so much easier when I was a bony girl of twelve.

     I hit the floor with a light thud, freezing for a moment to listen for movement.  When I heard none, I straightened up, only then thinking, What the fuck am I going to do now?

     The doorknob rattled.

     I slipped behind the door, crouching down as it opened, the gun already in my hands.  My heart thumped like a trapped, frantic bird.

     Sincere’s tattooed ass-cheeks sashayed into the room.  She went to the mirror and adjusted her polychromatic wig.  She wore her special thong, the one with dangling crystals, and a pair of blue fence-net leggings.

     I breathed a sigh of relief, which scared the shit out of Sincere.  She jumped back wildly, slamming into the mirror.

     “Brownie?” Sincere said with something between outrage and relief.  “Bitch, what is you doin’ here?”

     “I came to save you.”  The words tasted ludicrous considering who I was talking to.  “You just hooked up with the wrong ones.  I think they’re getting ready to kill you.”

     “Bitch, is you crazy?” she said, smacking her lips.  “Never mind...I know you are.”  She returned to preening herself in the mirror.  “I knew you was thirsty, but this is fucked up, hoe.”

     I stood up, furtively replacing the gun in my back pocket.  “I’m not trying to steal your thunder, Sincere.  I’m serious.  I think these are the ones who killed Cherry.”

     “I swear to God...” Sincere chuckled.  “You is a stupid bitch.”  She wasn’t talking about our current predicament, just making a general observation.

     I swallowed my temper.  “Sincere, look——“

     “Sincere look nothin’, hoe.  You need to get outta here ‘fore somethin’ bad happens to you.”

     On cue, Clements burst into the bathroom.  A look of muffled shock then happy recognition came across his face.  He glared at us with a crooked grin.

     “You really want that job, don’t you?” Clements said.

     I reached for the gun, but Clements swatted me across the floor with one swipe of his apelike hand.  I went flying into the wall, smashing my bad shoulder on the tile.  For a moment, I thought Sincere had been right——I was a stupid bitch.

     She looked on, shaking her head.  I thought I heard her say something like, “It ain’t her fault,” or “Don’t fuck her up too bad,” before leaving the room.

     Clements bent down and took hold of my ponytail, dragging me up off the floor.  Only then did I notice the short curved knife in his hand.

     I reached for the gun again.  It was gone!  It must have fallen out when I smashed into the wall.

     “Oh, no,” he said.  “You’re not in dress code.  This simply will not do.”  He slipped the knife under my shirt, slowly splitting it in two.  My titties were secure in a pink lace bra, which he took a second to admire.  “And, I’m sorry, but all this hair’s got to go too.  We hold ourselves to a higher standard here at Clements & Ware.”  He gripped my hair tighter and pulled me close so that my face almost touched his and began hacking off tufts hair.  I felt the cold steel on my scalp as the knife sawed through my curls.

     Clements held a clump of hair to his nose, closed his eyes and took a long, ecstatic breath.

     Not being one to sit and take a beating——I was from Englewood after all——I took advantage of Clements’s distraction, snapping at him like a startled snake, the same way Oregano does when you jerk him too fast from his tank.  My teeth sank into his neck, catching the bottom part of his ear.  I clamped my legs around his waist, gnawing and tearing like a dog.

     He shoved me away, blindly swatting the air with the knife.

     I spit out part of his ear lobe.  If I was going out, at least I had a piece of him to take with me.

     He saw himself in the mirror and looked furiously back at me.

     “Okay...Okay...” he said over and over, nodding mechanically like a bobble-head doll.

     I lunged for the door.  He caught my ankle and dragged me back across the floor.

     “Okay...”

     He snatched at my neck, catching the edge of my torn shirt.  He held me down by thrusting the butt of the blade against my throat and started smashing his fists into my head and chest.

     “Okay...”

     There was one last option.  If only...yes!  I pulled my switchblade from its hiding place, stuck snuggly in my sock.  My eyes were starting to swell shut under Clements’s blows.  I brought the business end of the knife up to his armpit.  Jemarion taught me that after his first stretch in prison.  Always go for the arteries.

     I stabbed at him repeatedly, the first jab causing his hand to flick open and the knife to go sliding across the floor.  The second stab was at his neck, opening a deep wound that started gushing.  He caught my wrist and swatted the switchblade across the floor.  The blood pouring down his neck and arm didn’t slow him down.  He howled furiously and started drumming his fists into my face before finally clamping his hands around my neck.

     I felt like there was a spinning top inside my head.  The fluorescent light flickered from intense white to dull grey.  It wasn’t the light, I realized, but my consciousness slowly fading.

     There was a blinding flash of white light.  The gleaming tunnel to Heaven, I thought, where Zion was waiting for me.  Hoeing isn’t a damnable sin after all.  Neither is petty larceny, breaking-and-entering, assault, or any of the many sins that trailed behind me.  I closed my eyes and let the light fold over me, blissfully succumbing to the whirling glow.  I couldn’t tell for sure, but it felt like I was smiling.

     The flash of light came with a loud pop, like someone bursting an overinflated paper bag.  Then it went dark again.  I felt a terrible weight fall on my chest, crushing me.

     When I opened my eyes, Clements was crumpled on top of me.  There was a hole in his cheek the size of an orange, like a cherry bomb had gone off in his mouth.  Blood fell in viscous folds over my face.

     I wiped the muck from my eyes just in time to see Sincere standing at the door.  She must have heard Clements’s caterwauling and come to see what the fuss was about.  She held my gun, still smoking, at her side.

     We looked at each other, then at the body splayed out on the floor.  There was a moment of quiet panic when Sincere gave the gun a knuckle-whitening squeeze.

     “This is why I don’t do private shows,” she said, then dropped the revolver in the sink and walked out the door.

 

The police found another girl gagged and shackled in the boiler-room.  She’d been there for days, they said.  When they found and questioned Crunchy Black, it became clear that the group was much larger than the little law firm.  Encrypted websites.  Mountains of trophies from their victims.  There were phone numbers to at least a dozen others who watched and participated in Clements’s sick game.

     Sincere and I concocted a story about being hired to do a private party when we were attacked.  I told the police that the gun belonged to the killers.

     We made a good team when it came to fabricating events.  Sincere backed up my account, adding a few false details that probably didn’t make a difference but gave our story more substance.  She told the cops how she’d wrestled the gun away from Clements and dispatched him in the manner of Pam Grier in Coffee.

     And that was that.  The paramedics patched me up and the victim was whisked away to be reunited with her family.

     With more than a little trepidation, I thanked Sincere for saving my life.

     She sneered and replied, “Don’t start thinkin’ we friends now, hoe.”

 

 

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