The bouncer was standing underneath the VoRTEX marquee, next to the sandwich board propped up on the sidewalk–the one with flashing lights and the words GIRLS, GIRLS, GIRLS.
Ash couldn’t tell if it was the same bouncer who kicked him out before. He had been focused on Ivy at the time.
He didn’t want to go through the front door, but sneaking in through a skylight didn’t make sense either. All that spy movie stuff looked appealing on TV, but he didn’t want to plan out the logistics of it. The best plan right now was to talk to him.
“Hey,” Ash said, “Do you know a girl named Ivy?”
“Ivy?” the bouncer said, “Yeah, I know her. Nice piece.”
“Do you know if she’s in tonight?”
“You got money?”
Ash shook his head.
“Take a hike, kid.”
“What?” Ash tightened his fist. “I just want to talk to her. I’m not going to spend any money.”
“Oh, that’s even better. Go visit the ATM. No money, no honey.”
“Cute. You come up with that all by yourself?”
The bouncer leaned into Ash’s face. “You can walk out of here or you can crawl. Your choice.”
Ash slumped his shoulders. “Well…” he sighed. “If that’s the way you feel about it, I guess I can’t- JESUS CHRIST! THAT THING’S ON FIRE!”
Ash pointed to the sandwich board, which had burst into flames. A bulb shattered and tinkled, followed by three others.
“Holy shit,” the bouncer exclaimed and kicked the sign down. The fire spread over the plastic and cardboard. Ash snuck past him, checking back once to see the bouncer stomping on it with his leather boots.
“Love those Plan B’s,” he commented to himself.
The club was like he remembered–all flashy and sparkly, designed to draw your eye to the stage and your hand to your wallet. A chunky black woman dropped to her hands and knees, swaying her torso so that her breasts hung down like udders. Cocktail waitresses and strippers solicited drinks and lap dances from the few patrons. No sign of Ivy though. Maybe she was backstage.
He couldn’t waste time waiting for her to present herself. There were death threats against her life. That was his job, after all, wasn’t it? Protect the innocent, punish the guilty.
He kept to the dark corners, almost tripping over the ultraviolet wall graphics. There had to be some way into the back room. Following the black walls, he found a small hallway titled ‘Champagne Room’. A bouncer was standing in front of a door that said ‘Employees Only’.
Ash rubbed his chin as he thought of a plan. Then he approached. “Excuse me, sir. I was hoping you could help me. I noticed there’s a smoky smell coming from one of the outlets. I don’t know if it’s a short or a fire or what.”
The bouncer cocked his head. “What?”
“I’m serious. I wasn’t sure who else to talk to.”
Ash led him back to a dark corner, far away from the door, and searched for an outlet. “There,” he pointed at the first one he saw.
The bouncer bent down to his hands and knees to peer at the socket. At first, there was nothing to see. Then the tiny slots sparked yellow and blue and a thick wisp of dark, sulfurous smoke rose up.
“Goddammit. This place is gonna burn to the ground. Figures. Building’s not up to code at all, and now-“
Ash didn’t hear what else he had to say. He was already halfway across the room, practically running for the employee door. That was too simple. He was beginning to think everything in the world could be solved by setting it on fire.
He grabbed onto the metal handle and pulled. Locked. “Damn.”
Hmm, maybe he could melt the lock. How hot did metal need to be to melt? Thousands of degrees? How much heat could he generate?
He summoned a surge, feeling a tingling moving into his arms, and into his hand. He felt stronger, like he had when he’d shoved the bouncer. He tried pushing the door handle, and it gave way with a hard snap. The door opened and he slipped inside. Apparently, his power was good for more than just burning things.
The hallway was no brighter than the floor. They must save a lot of money on electricity. He snuck down through the thin corridor, keeping an eye out for anyone coming behind him. If he got caught now, he’d have to do something drastic.
He came to the dressing room door, and staircase to the right, leading downstairs. Female voices sounded from the dressing room. “Tiffany, do you have my boa?”
“I gave it back to you.”
“Check out that guy in the middle row. The one wearing the Black Flag t-shirt.”
“Yeah, he’s a target. And don’t bother with the guy in the corner. He’s been saying no all night. All he’s bought is a Diet Coke.”
“You can’t do that, that’s my music.”
“I called it first.”
“That’s my fucking music. I’m talking to Steve.”
“Oh, god, I don’t know why I came in tonight. I’m not making anything.”
The door slammed opened. Ash panicked and pressed against the wall.
Two blonds walked out–one wore a cowgirl outfit, complete with ten-gallon hat. The other was completely naked, her giant wrinkled boobs hanging like potato sacks.
“I don’t know if my costume’s working tonight,” Cowgirl said.
“Of course, it is. You’re fabulous. You just gotta work the crowd. You shouldn’t feel bad…” They walked away, drowned out by the thumping music.
Either they didn’t notice him, or didn’t care. Ash watched the nude one walk away, then thought how she looked pitiful compared to Ivy.
He descended the wooden staircase that led to another door. It was unlocked and he poked his head in. Not much was in here besides a metal desk with a wood top, a coat rack, a filing cabinet, and a mini-fridge. There was another door on the side wall for a closet.
Ash opened the desk drawers. It was full of manila folder, with employment applications inside. Jackpot. Each of the folders had a picture paper-clipped over the name box. It took him seconds to find Ivy’s.
“742 Harper Park,” he said. He’d passed that road on his way here. All he had to do was follow it–it couldn’t be more than ten miles away. He also added her phone number to his cell phone contacts.
Footsteps tapped on the wooden stairs. Ash looked up and suppressed the urge to swear.
He shoved the folder back in the drawer and ran into the closet. It was bigger than he expected, about the size of a walk-in. But instead of clothes, there was a desk and multiple closed-circuit camera monitors. This must have been some kind of security room.
Maybe he could find where Ivy was, if she was here. She wasn’t in any of the VIP rooms, the dressing room, not on stage, not in the bathroom stalls…
Wait a minute. Something was fishy here. There must have been twenty-five angles available, at least ten of which were in the women’s bathroom. Was safety that much of an issue?
Did Ivy know about this? Did anyone? If each of the women’s stalls had three cameras, Ivy was at more risk than he thought.
The office door closed. Someone said, “Now, here’s the deal. Specially arranged time is two-fifty. For a phone number, it’s five hundred. For an address, it’s a thousand. More than that, and we talk.” He sounded like the manager.
A different voice said, “Address.”
There was a rustling sound. Ash wished he could tell what was going on. Sexual voyeurs didn’t care about peeping on the manager’s office.
The manager said, “This th’ girl?”
“All right, let me write this down.” More scuffling sounds. One like a drawer opening. The second voice said, “S’right near Harper Park. Only ten miles away.”
Ash blinked. No way. Ivy’s stalker was on the other side of that door. He could get him right now, if he wanted. Open the door and fry him. Fry them both. A perv room like this was certainly against the law. Even if it wasn’t, would humanity be at a loss if they went away?
Ash raised his hand to the doorknob, but stopped. No, he wasn’t a murderer. Not in cold blood. He didn’t come here to find delinquents, he wanted to protect someone.
“Remember,” the owner said, “This never happened. I don’t know you. You don’t know me. I know some very bad men, got me?”
“Yes, I understand,” the man said. “Not a problem.”
“Thanks. You want the room today?”
The only ‘room’ without a name had to mean this one. Ash started looking for a way out, knowing he wouldn’t find one.
“Not necessary. I got what I wanted,” the stalker said.
“All right. Pleasure doing business with you,” the owner said. His muffled voice was fading away. A few seconds later, the sound of a door closing.
Ash counted off thirty seconds, wanting to make sure everyone was far away. There was only silence during the countdown and he walked out to an empty room.
“Good,” Ash said. Maybe he still had time to stop him. He grabbed the door handle, but it stuck.
“Locked?” Ash said. He tried again, “This can’t be good.”
Who would lock a room from the inside? Again, he summoned the fire, but held it back so it pooled in his hands and he cranked the knob. It snapped, but the door didn’t open.
“Dammit.” He released the knob. He must have broken the lock.
Ivy’s stalker was getting away. How was he supposed to get out? Burn the house down? No, all that would do was set off the sprinklers and evacuate the building with him still trapped. Call for help? Again, counterproductive to a covert operation.
He searched through the desk drawers for a key, but they were empty except for a cash box and useless papers. Maybe a button opened the door, like a secret lair.
Then he spotted the basement windows flush to the ceiling. They were barely two feet tall, but if they opened, he could squeeze through.
Ash stood on the desk and leaned over a gap in the floor to reach the little brass knob. It wouldn’t budge–the gray windows looked like they hadn’t been opened for decades.
“Dammit.” Ash felt heat in his face rising. The longer he stayed here the better chance that he would be caught and Ivy would be dead.
He pulled with all his might, surging power into his hand. The brass handle snapped off.
The time for thinking was done. Ash grabbed a heavy stapler off the desk and hurtled it through the thin glass. He used a coffee tumbler to clear the remaining shards from the frame and leapt up.
With no leverage, he only had pure arm strength to scurry out. Grunting and groaning, throwing stealth to the wind, he emerged in an alley similar to where he’d been born.
He ran towards the street. Thirty yards away, the bouncer and club owner stood in front of the smoking sandwich board. Neither noticed him.
A good five minutes must have passed. Plenty of time to get in a car and start driving towards someone’s prey.
“Fuck,” Ash exclaimed. He had no money, no car, no way to get to Ivy’s house except a long walk. Ten miles meant at least four hours on foot. But he had no choice. Better to be there late than not at all.
As he passed by, Ash waved his hand toward the sign. A column of flame burst up. The owner and bouncer stumbled away, shrieking.