‘Walking the beat’ with Ivan took the rest of the patrol time. In that time, the only legitimate offense they stopped was a man who didn’t curb his Pomeranian. So far, being a White Knight was 99% walking around the beach and 1% being an obnoxious asshole.
The two of them stood in front of the ‘Beach Rules’ sign. At five o’clock, they saw Anfernee, Jamal, and Squirrel. Ivan turned to them with a sharp “POST UP!” They ran up and stood straight.
“Okay, gentleman. Briefings?” Ivan asked.
Each person reported on the significant events of their patrol. Anfernee had watched a potential fight between two beach bums. Jamal described how he helped an old lady carry some groceries to her car. And Squirrel told a story about a loud boom box as if he’d undergone a knock-down, drag-out brawl. Ash crossed his arms and tuned out. It was nothing more than patting themselves on the back, creating the illusion that they had accomplished something.
“All right, good work today,” Ivan said, “Meet at HQ same time tomorrow.”
Jamal, Anfernee, and Squirrel walked away. Ash held out his hand.
“What do you want? A tip?”
“No, my money. My pay. You said I could have it, if I performed well.”
“Mm… and you think you performed well?”
“Unless you think I should have helped more old ladies cross the street?”
Ivan paused. Ash didn’t plan on going anywhere without his pay, and hoped he wouldn’t have to provoke an argument.
But Ivan dug in his pocket and gave him a small sheaf of bills. “Don’t spend it all in one place.”
“Thanks,” Ash said.
Ivan pointed at him. “No more advances, got it? You still got your uniform to pay for. This ain’t a bank.”
“I will pay this back,” Ash said.
“And you better show up tomorrow.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Ash said as he counted the money. Fifty bucks for six hours of work. Not bad. At least now he had enough to call a cab, find a hospital, or at least buy a taco.
“Hey, Ash, you ready?” Squirrel called to him. He, Anfernee, and Jamal were heading back towards their car.
“For the surprise,” Squirrel whined. “For the new guy.”
“Go party, let loose, have a drink,” Jamal said.
Oh. The reward Squirrel had promised him. Ash didn’t feel like going anywhere right now. His legs felt wobbly, and he hadn’t had anything to eat except pills. Plus he was starting to get a headache. “I don’t know. I don’t really feel like it.”
“Come on, man. It’s your first day, you gotta come, man. You’re part of the team,” Squirrel pleaded.
“All right. But I’m kicking the crap out of you if this turns out to be a practical joke.”
“Yes!” Squirrel pumped his fist in the air. He ran up behind Ash pushing him down the street. “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go.” They crowded into Anfernee’s blue Honda Civic that was parked behind a coffee shop.
“Where we going?” Ash asked as he shut the door.
“The Vortex. You’re gonna love it,” Anfernee said. He started the car and headed downtown.
After ten minutes, Squirrel pointed through the windshield. “Right there,” he said, bouncing up and down like a child waiting to see Santa.
Ash’s eyes popped. The Vortex was a building with a buzzing neon sign, and the letter ‘O’ vaguely shaped into a galaxy. “It’s a strip club?” Ash asked.
“You don’t have a problem with that do you?” Jamal asked.
“The place is awesome,” Squirrel said. “Man, it’s like no place you’ve been.” They parked in a back alley across the block.
A big, white bouncer with a ball bearing pierced into his bottom lip stood framed in the flashing vanity lights around the door.
“Evening, boys,” he said as they approached. “Looking to spend some money tonight?”
“Yessir,” Jamal said and opened up his wallet, taking out fifteen dollars. Anfernee and Squirrel did the same. Ash plucked out ten and a five from the money he’d just received and gave it to the bouncer who nodded him in.
Shit, fifteen dollars gone. He hadn’t known this was going to cost so much, or he never would have come. “Shouldn’t he have checked my I.D.?” Ash said to Squirrel.
“Nah,” he said, “As long as you got money to spend, no one cares.”
“But isn’t that illegal? I mean, I could be underage.” In fact, I think I am.
“That’s why this place is great,” Squirrel said.
The first thing that hit Ash was the pungent fog of smoke and perfume. Inside, dim, fluorescent light bulbs and mirrors were scattered everywhere. It looked like someone’s dressing room. The old men and salarymen that looked like serial killers sat in the back. The teenagers, the ones who understood this was fantasy, whooped and hollered in front.
A girl with dirty blond hair, holding her breasts in one arm, wiggled her hips in front of a brass pole. She had a cute face, but her skin was all leathery and pocked from over-tanning. In the background, music from a glam rock band screeched hisses in Ash’s ear.
“I’m gonna get us some drinks,” Jamal said. He tapped Ash on the shoulder and shouted, “Ash, what do you drink?”
“Liquids,” he said.
“Ha ha, funny,” he said. “Seriously.”
“Just get me what you’re getting,” Ash yelled. What was he supposed to respond with? He had no idea what he liked to drink.
Squirrel led them to a table in the middle of the room. The place was a dive, no matter how excited the others seemed.
The blond stripper wrapped her legs around the pole, turned upside-down, and slid to the ground. Her breasts hung below her neck like rubber balls in a sack. Once upright, she spun around again, and licked the pole seductively.
“Man, look at those bazoombas,” Anfernee said. “She could solve world hunger with those.”
Ash twisted his head. Maybe it was the day of staring at girls in bikinis, but she didn’t look like anything special. Her body shape was average, her face was average. There wasn’t anything unique or attractive about her.
A young black woman in a black bikini walked up to Ash. “Hey there, want a lap dance?”
Ash frowned, angered by her presumption. “No, thank you.” She walked away.
Anfernee leaned in, “Dude, this is your first time in a strip club? Right?”
“Yes,” Ash said. He would have to call a lot of things his ‘first time’ if he didn’t get his memory back.
“Just relax. The girls aren’t going to hurt you.”
“Yeah, I know.” He felt hot. The loud music, flashing lights, and aggressive employees were making him nervous, like a fight-or-flight response.
“Are you still thinking about work? About Ivan?”
“Man, don’t let him get to you,” Anfernee shouted. “He’s a blowhard. Don’t listen to him.”
Ash frowned. Even if Ivan was unreasonable and lacking ambition, that didn’t mean he should be disregarded. Granted, Ash would be running things differently if he was in charge, but he wasn’t.
Jamal came back holding four bottles. “What’s this?” he asked.
“Sunburn Ale. House special. It was five dollars.”
“What?” Ash asked.
“Five dollars, I said.” The other two were already giving him cash.
Dammit, more money down the drain. He resolved that this would be the last thing he spent money on that wasn’t relevant to his goal.
He took a sip of his five dollar drink. As it burned down his esophagus, his stomach reminded him that he hadn’t had any food all day. “Hey, do they have appetizers here?”
“Sure,” Squirrel said, “If you like deep fried grease and microwave pizza.”
“Best to stick to drinks, if you want your money’s worth,” Jamal said.
Anfernee took a big glug of his 20 oz. beer. “Ah, nothing like a cold drink after a long patrol.”
“Long patrol? We hardly did anything.”
“We got some exercise,” Anfernee laughed.
“Yeah, but don’t you guys want to stop some real crime?”
“What?” Jamal said, “We did plenty. I talked to a guy about putting up some cones for pedestrian traffic.”
“And there was that loud music I stopped,” Squirrel said.
“What about the wife-beaters? The pushers? The muggers? The deadbeat dads who beat their kids every night?”
Jamal flicked his hand. “Shit, let the cops handle that.”
“I thought we were supposed to be like the cops. We’re supposed to be their eyes and ears. Instead, we’re spending the day at the beach. We could be so much more. Do you guys even patrol at night?”
The other three looked confused and shook their heads. “I don’t think we have enough guys for that,” Squirrel said.
“See, that’s the other thing. How are we supposed to be a city security force with only five people? There’s more bullets in a gun than there are of us.”
A girl with bright blond hair and a gold bikini walked up to the table, “Any of you boys want a lap dance?”
“No, thank you,” Ash said. She walked away, making a face.
“Dude, Ash, lighten up. There’s a chance something’ll happen tomorrow, right?” Squirrel said. “It’s a city patrol tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow is another day to set things right,” Jamal said like he was quoting something.
Ash took a sip. It had only been one day. Tomorrow he could show Ivan how he could make a difference, how he could stop the bad things from happening to good people.
“Yeah, tomorrow’s another day,” Ash said.
“Gentlemen, let’s get this guy relaxed.” Squirrel held up his beer. “Here’s to Ash’s first patrol.”
“To tomorrow,” Ash said and clinked glasses. He didn’t want to stop debating, but they seemed more interested in ogling girls. So he sat back and watched them catcall.
The crowd clapped. The girl on stage gathered her bikini remnants and held them to her chest, as if she had anything to hide anymore.
The song segued into ‘Girls, Girls, Girls’, and the DJ came over the loudspeaker. “Let’s give it up for Allison Chains, gentlemen. Show her you appreciate her.” Then he spoke deep into the microphone, “Candy, stage five, please. Candy, stage 5.” Then back to the auctioneer’s voice. “Don’t forget, businessman’s lunch every Monday through Thursday from noon to one. And every Tuesday night is Twofer Tuesdays. Now coming to the stage–she may be poison, but she promises to be nice to your skin. Ladies and gentlemen… Ivy.”
A woman strutted out from stage right with bobbed black hair and a black leather bikini. She was toned in all the right places, and eyes rimmed with dark eyeliner. Every part of her body was naturally pure and smooth. When Ash saw her, all thoughts of the White Knights fell away. Cat calls and hollers shrieked in the room, but Ash was oblivious.
“Holy shit,” Ash said.
Anfernee and Squirrel laughed. Jamal touched Ash’s chin. “Hey, Ash, let me pick up your jaw there.”
“What?” Ash said, stunned.
“Man, you really never have been to one of these places before.”
“No,” Ash turned back to the stage, watching Ivy slide her long legs up the thrust platform. “My experiences are… limited.”
Ivy danced smoothly, erotically. Gyrating her hips in time with the heavy metal music. A minute into the song, she reached for her bra strap and unbuckled it, facing away from the stage. She knew all the right times to hide, to prolong the experience, to enhance the allure. It was like he had been taken back to the times when women danced for kings, when seduction was an art.
A man in a white shirt and tie approached the stage, holding a rumpled dollar in his hand and a smug grin on his face. “Right here, baby,” he said.
She bent her ass toward him, letting him put the dollar in her g-string. He plucked the string away, placed the dollar, and flicked it back. She reacted with a smile, and kissed him on the cheek.
Ash turned red, and if there was enough light, his friends would have seen it. How dare they treat her like that? The one girl here who was real, who looked genuinely sexy instead of like some chunky whore.
Ash couldn’t tear away from her eyes. He tried to stare at her breasts, her butt, like everyone else, but her eyes were too hypnotic. The expressions on her face gave him more satisfaction and joy than any part of her body.
She finished her dance with a demonstration of how far she could spread her legs, then rolled onto her stomach. The DJ announced “How about that Ivy, huh? Show her you appreciate her, men. Candy, stage five. Candy, stage five. Don’t forget about our champagne room…” he drolled on.
“Hey, she was pretty good. Have we seen her before?” Jamal asked.
“I can’t remember anyone. They have different names every time,” Squirrel said. “What was she called?”
“Ivy,” Ash said, as if in a dream. “Do they ever come back again?”
“Oooh,” Squirrel said. “I think Ash is in love.” Ash’s ears turned pink as the others laughed.
“Man,” Anfernee said. “Never fall for a stripper. They have baggage like you wouldn’t believe.”
“What do you mean?” Ash said.
“They’re either on crack, or they got a deadbeat boyfriend, or a kid. Something like that.”
“No, this one’s different,” Ash said. “I can feel it.”
Anfernee laughed, “Yeah, I bet you do.”
Ash sipped his drink. The memory of those eyes made his fingers tingle. The alcohol was starting to go to his head with his empty stomach.
Another woman approached the table. Ash grunted and turned, ready to answer her question before she even asked it.
“Any of you boys want some company?”
It was Ivy.
Same luscious deep eyes. Same lithe body. Same earnest sexy smile that was friendly and seductive at the same time. And here she was, inches away.
“Uhhh…” Ash said.
“Right here!” Squirrel pointed at Ash. “This guy wants some. Right here.”
“Dude,” he whispered angrily. This was money he couldn’t afford to spend, no matter how much he wanted it.
“Don’t worry. It’s on me.” Squirrel shoved a twenty dollar bill at her. “He’s the newest member of our tribe.”
Ivy put her hands on his knees, leaning forward to show off her ample cleavage, “What’s your name?”
“Ash,” he said, trying to maintain eye contact.
“Ash, I’m Ivy. And to answer your first question, yes, they’re real.”
“Oh,” he said. “I had no doubt of that.” Everything about Ivy was genuine–that’s why he liked her. She was having fun, she was being who she was. Not like the other strippers, the ones off in la-la land.
“Well, come on, sugar,” she said as she pocketed the money. “Let’s get going.”
Ivy’s gentle palm touched his and dragged him away from his hooting friends. Ash was too high on heaven to resist.
She led him to a dark corner of the room and sat him down at a table. None of the others took the man to a different location, but maybe this was part of Ivy’s special way.
“Buy me a drink?” she asked.
There was a cocktail waitress standing there, ready to take her order. Quite the scam, but she was worth it. Besides he didn’t want to look cheap.
“A Sunburn Ale for me, and whatever the lady wants,” Ash said.
“Cosmotini,” she said and stood. “You ready?”
Ash bit his lip. He didn’t want his first encounter with her to be transactional and cold. This was a pinnacle of woman.
“You know what? To tell you the truth, I’m doing good right now. But how about you just sit with me, and…” She looked uninterested. “Tell you what, I’ll make it double.” He pulled out another twenty.
“You sure you want to waste your friend’s money like that?”
“With you, nothing’s a waste.” Ash smiled. He hoarded every smell, every touch, every image into his brain.
She smiled as she took the bill. “Looks like your buddies work for the fire department?” She touched him on the arm, bare skin to bare skin. He shivered.
Jeez, man, pull yourself together, he thought. Why are you nervous? You could set fire to the whole building if you wanted to.
Ash straightened up. “No, actually we’re a security detail for the city.”
“Ooh, that sounds exciting. You beat up anyone today?”
“What? Oh.” He was tempted to say how they weren’t like that, but didn’t want to bore her. The waitress came back with their drinks and Ash placed a ten on her tray. “Unfortunately, no. Though I did almost set a guy on fire.”
She choked on her drink. “W-what?”
“Uh, never mind.” Shit, this wasn’t going the way he wanted. Time to change direction. “How long have you been working here?”
“Well, like, a year. Off and on.”
“You got a boyfriend?” Ash immediately regretted saying it–too forward.
“Why? Are you offering?” She touched him on the shoulder again.
“I was just hoping you were as independent as I thought you were.”
“Oh, I am,” she said and took another sip. “I’m trying to get some scratch together for school. But it’s never enough, you know?”
“Yeah, I’m trying to get some money together myself.”
“I mean the pay’s good here, but you have to deal with some real creeps. Like my stalker.”
“Yeah, he comes in every once in a while, always asks me for a lap dance. He’s a sick shit–never keeps his hands down. Sometimes I see his car parked behind the club and I know he’s watching me. Yesterday I know he followed me home from work.”
“Really?” In Ash’s mind, he was hearing the hero’s call, and resisted the urge to say something starting with ‘This sounds like a job for…’.
The song ended and the DJ announced Diamond to the stage.
“Well, time’s up. I gotta get ready for the next number. It was nice talking to you, Ash.” She picked up her drink and stood.
Ash held out his hand. “Can I talk to you some time outside the club? Like after you get off? I mean, stop working?”
“Huh?” Ivy said.
Ash regathered his thoughts. “What time do you get done?” Ash looked around for a wall clock, but there was none. “Can I swing by afterwards? I’d like to talk to you some more.”
She smiled. God, he loved that smile. “Why don’t you come by tomorrow? I think I have a shift.”
Ash smiled and was about to respond when a boorish hulk of a man in a bad outfit stormed up. “Hey, Ivy, what are you doing? You don’t get paid to yap.”
“Christ, Mick,” Ivy said. “I’m in the middle of a fucking transaction here. You gotta interrupt me?”
He pointed at her. “Hey, don’t fuck with me. Cause if you fuck with me, you don’t come in here again. I’ll find a dozen girls just like you.”
“Fuck you,” she said getting into his face. “I’ll find a dozen strip joints, just like yours.” He pushed her back roughly.
Time to be a hero.
“That’s assault, asshole,” Ash said. It was only polite to let him know why he was about to get the crap kicked out of him.
Ash spun up, kicking his chair out. The ‘surge’ moved through his arms, and he saw sparks light up his fingers. Ash shoved him forward.
The force propelled him ten feet away, crashing him into a stage speaker.
“Now that’s how you bust someone,” Ash said.
Two rough hands grabbed his arms and legs from behind. “Son of a bitch,” someone said, likely a bouncer. “You can’t play nice, you don’t get to stay.”
The surprise diffused his reactor core, and he let them carry him away. He managed to glance at Ivy before they carried him back out the foyer. She had a sympathetic look on her face that made his tumble on the concrete not seem so bad.