Authors: Jeff Abbott
Whit passed under the eagle eye of the bouncer, who looked carved from a redwood, paid the twenty-dollar cover, walked into
the thump of the music, the strobe lights blinking against his skin.
Club Topaz was dark as a dimly lit closet, a happy-hour crowd thinning out and a well-heeled, post-dinner crowd settling in.
The only fully lit areas were the stages, awash with white glows from both ceiling and floor. The crowd was mostly men, with
the exception of a few women who wore uncomfortable smiles, as if here under mild protest. The decor was heavy on gold and
chrome, a strange mix of Roman antiquity (perhaps to suggest an impending orgy) and contemporary sleekness. The club had retro-guido
written all over it, probably part of the cheese-factor appeal, but it was spotlessly clean, the waitresses moving among the
tables with precise energy, the cogs of the club all warming up to produce a night of longing and money.
A woman was dancing solo on the stage, and her moves were not of the simple shake-the-tits variety. She was tall, redheaded,
and she moved with easy grace and wry suggestion, performing to David Byrne’s cover of Cole Porter’s ‘Don’t Fence Me In’ as
opposed to a generic dance-club beat. She was dressed as a skimpily clad cowgirl, a Stetson perfectly angled on her head,
topless but wearing a thin bandolier that divided her high and mighty breasts, leather chaps over a sparkly G-string, and
a holster. She drew her guns and sprayed a couple of heavy-jowled men with water. They hooted and clapped. She blew imaginary
smoke from the gun’s barrel and the
men howled in appreciation. She moved with the confidence and style of a Broadway dancer who happened to be showing her breasts,
a funkier Fosse girl. Removing her gunslinger gloves, she dropped them on the balding head of a delighted patron.
Whit moved to the bar, looking for Gooch. They’d decided to come in separately. Gooch had been in for ten minutes already.
He saw Gooch, sitting alone at a corner table, nursing a beer, watching the stage. He selected another corner table and sat
His stomach dropped as he realized his mother was possibly less than a hundred yards away from him. He could come face-to-face
with the shadow that had always loomed over his life. While surrounded by strippers and men waving crisp dollar bills. It
was not the reunion he had envisioned as a child. Little flowers of sweat blossomed under his arms, along his ribs, on his
A waitress, dressed immaculately in a white shirt, red leather vest, black bow tie and a black leather miniskirt, snug over
supple hips, appeared almost instantly. ‘Sir? What may I get you?’
‘A Corona, please.’
The frosty beer, with the requisite lime slice perched in the bottle’s opening, quickly materialized on a napkin before him.
He paid with cash and watched the tall redhead finish her show to wild applause while the announcer’s voice said, ‘Give it
up for Red Robin! She’s heading back to the plains to’ – a pause hung in the air – ’rope her dogies, and she’ll be back in
a while. Now coming onto our main stage is Desire O’Malley, she’s got a pot of gold at the end of her rainbow!’ And in a burst
of Celtic drums and fiddles, a bosomy colleen with a jaunty green hat and suit jacket riverdanced onto the stage, clogging
with a surprising degree of expertise, barely restrained breasts jiggling. She wore a little fake
leprechaun’s beard that she tossed into the crowd amid laughter and clapping.
It was horndog-ridiculous, but the women were extraordinarily pretty. None of them – and Whit watched a few working the room,
offering lap dances or sitting and chatting with customers – had a weary, worn look to them from eking out a living in an
could come through with a camera crew and do shots to fill a year’s worth of magazines in ten minutes.
He glanced past the stage. He saw two doors that looked like they led to restrooms and a darkened alcove, lit with a thin,
red gleam. Offices, he guessed. On the left side, away from the stage, stood a curving staircase, with burnished cypress rails.
A small velvet rope closed the staircase off, with a
sign hung discreetly on the rope. At the top of the staircase stood another door, shut.
He took a sip of his beer and a voice next to him said, ‘Would you like a dance, sir?’
Whit glanced up to see one of the most beautiful women he’d ever laid eyes on. She was movie-star gorgeous; skin the color
of lightly milked coffee, hair cut short because the hair could never be more than a frame for that stunning face. Full mouth,
cheekbones high, delicate jaw, brown eyes you could drown in. A brief bra of CDs covered her top; a thin, fake computer screen,
shaped to fit, covered her loins over tearaway hot pants.
‘I got Ds in computer science,’ he said.
She laughed. Politely. Like the line wasn’t new.
‘I’d die of happiness if you danced with me,’ Whit said.
‘Not with you,’ she said. Letting him have his joke. ‘For you.’
‘A lap dance?’
‘How about just sitting and talking to me for a minute?’
She hesitated. He supposed there was actually more intimacy in talking than in dancing; she could gyrate, give a little hip
sway, expose her breasts and it would be less revealing than a conversation, where they would have to scope out each other
as actual human beings.
He asked, ‘How much is it for a dance?’
‘Well, you put a hundred on my tab but sit here and chat with me for a minute,’ Whit said. ‘No dance. I’m recovering from
She signaled the waitress with a twirl of her finger. Whit realized he’d have to give a credit card; he didn’t have that much
cash on him. A risk. But he had to talk to people, and there was no reason to believe if his mother worked here she would
see one out of dozens of credit receipts. He gave the waitress his card and the black girl sat down next to Whit at the little
table. ‘What’s your name?’ he asked.
‘Geekgirl,’ she said.
‘Hi, Tasha, I’m Whit.’
‘I’ve heard a lot of lines in this place but heart surgery is a new one.’ She fixed him with an intelligent, amused gaze.
‘I’m a weak man, like every other man here.’
‘You in town on business like every other man here?’
‘Yeah. I’m a location scout for a film company.’ He’d considered several ploys to get him into the offices of the club and
in an instant decided on this one.
She raised one perfectly styled eyebrow. ‘A film company.’
‘Sorry. I’m not in casting,’ he said. ‘I assume this place is thick with aspiring actresses.’
‘Yeah, we got girls here hungry to do Shakespeare.
Hoping to bring deep new angles to Ophelia.’ Sarcasm in her tone. ‘Not me.’
‘What are you aspiring to?’
‘World peace,’ she said.
He swallowed a thick gulp of beer. The waitress came and brought Tasha a club soda, slice of lime bobbing among the ice cubes.
‘Blessed are the peacemakers.’
‘Don’t take anything I say,’ she said, ‘seriously.’
‘You strike me as a woman of refinement and intelligence.’
Her smile got tight. ‘I’m a naturally friendly person.’
‘I’m not that friendly,’ she said.
‘I didn’t mean to imply that, Tasha,’ Whit said.
‘Private suites. We get a lot of famous people here, like to have their food and drinks and dances out of the glare. So are
you trying to impress me with your Hollywood connections or are you really looking for a place to shoot your movie?’
‘I suspect I can’t impress you very easily. You seem too smart for that.’ And too smart for this place. He watched as Desire
O’Malley finished her number, wearing a glittery shamrock-shaped G-string over her clover as she bounded off the stage. ‘And
yes, I’m scouting for a thriller. Hero is a spy trying to capture a rogue agent who’s stolen a deadly virus. His romantic
interest goes undercover as a stripper in three scenes to get close to an informant. So we need a club.’
‘Why aren’t you shooting in LA?’
‘Texas is cheaper. So who would I talk to here about filming?’
‘Frank. But be warned, he’ll want to be in the movie.’
‘Frank Polo. He’s the manager. But kind of a figure-head.’
‘I know that name.’
‘Sweetpea, if you know his name you don’t have good taste in music.’ Tasha leaned forward, started to sing in a clear alto
that cut through the humping music of the performer on stage.
‘Baby you’re my groove
baby you’re my groove
‘I know that song.’
‘Frank never recovered from his Saturday night fever.’ She shrugged. ‘He had gold records then and now he’s managing this
place. How far can you fall?’
‘This is a very nice club, Tasha.’
‘Absolute paradise. I hope to retire here one day.’
‘So how could I get a meeting with Frank Polo?’
She studied him. ‘If you’re not legit, honey, I won’t waste Frank’s time with you. No offense. You got a business card?’
He didn’t of course, but he made a show of searching his wallet and his shirt pocket. He’d dressed in khakis and a loose shirt,
and now he thought he didn’t look Hollywood enough. No mousse in his hair, no way-cool sunglasses. ‘I don’t have one on me.
I must’ve given out the last one at Club Yes.’ This was another fancy strip club; he’d seen a billboard for it on the highway.
‘You must’ve,’ Tasha said, polite and unconvinced.
‘I’ll give Frank a call,’ Whit said. ‘Or does he have an assistant I should talk with?’ He patted his pockets again, as though
gathering his thoughts. ‘See … you don’t want to commit to people that you have an interest in filming at their business.
Get their hopes up if it’s not right. That’s why they call it scouting.’
‘Sure,’ Tasha said.
Whit realized he was overexplaining, talking too fast for much credibility. ‘My assistant did call club management earlier,
though. She spoke with Eve? Eve Michaels?’ He made it a question.
‘Yeah. I know Eve,’ Tasha said. ‘But she’s not …’
‘Tasha,’ a voice rumbled behind Whit. ‘Your presence is requested upstairs.’ A wiry guy who looked rather corporate-drone
for a strip-club employee walked past Whit’s chair, leaned down on the other side of Tasha, whispered to her. She nodded once,
gave Whit her indulgent but professionally distant smile.
‘Excuse me. It was very nice meeting you, scout. Enjoy your evening at Club Topaz.’
‘Thank you, Tasha.’ She rose and walked past the wiry guy, who turned to leave.
Whit said, ‘Excuse me.’
The guy turned back to him and gave him a smile cold as ice. ‘Yes?’
‘I’d paid for her to sit with me for a bit,’ Whit said. ‘I believe I’m due a partial refund since you’ve whisked her away.’
‘Whisked,’ Cold Smile said. His bad-mood scowl deepened. ‘Sorry. No refunds.’
‘How about a favor instead?’ Whit said. ‘Where could I find Eve Michaels?’
Cold Smile sat down across from him.
‘I understand she’s involved in the management of the club,’ Whit said.
‘Not really. Why were you looking for her?’ Cold Smile did not have the look of a club thug. Nice suit, conservative haircut,
a rep tie over a pale blue shirt. But a freshly swelling lip, like he’d taken a punch in the past hour.
‘What are you, her receptionist?’ Whit asked.
Now Cold Smile didn’t smile. ‘What’s your name? I’ll tell her you’re looking for her.’
‘Never mind my name. My business with her is private.’
Cold Smile looked at Whit as though trying to fit him into an odd equation. ‘Well, come with me, buddy. I’ll take you to her.’
Whit glanced through the strobing lights over at Gooch. Desire O’Malley, the wild Irish rose, shimmied out a lap dance for
‘You want to go or not?’ Cold Smile said.
This was happening too fast. Being taken before his mother. But he thought of his dad and he stood up. His stomach felt like
it was left behind in the chair.
‘This way,’ Cold Smile said and Whit followed him, moving past the velvet rope and upstairs toward the suites. Whit glanced
back at Gooch, couldn’t see his friend’s face, obscured by Desire’s smooth back.
The second floor had the reddest, richest carpet that Whit had ever seen, and they made no noise as they went along a row
of doors with gold numbers gleaming on them. Cold Smile knocked on number five, opened it, peered in.
Here we go
, Whit thought,
. He followed Cold Smile inside.
But the room was empty.
Cold Smile grabbed the back of Whit’s neck in a pincer hold, working the nerves and carotid like dough with his other hand.
Whit gasped, the air in his lungs thickening into jelly. One arm went around his throat. Then he felt the unwelcome jab of
a gun into the small of his back.
‘I pull the trigger,’ Cold Smile said, ‘and you’re riding a wheelchair for the rest of your life.’
Whit held his breath. Not hard; he barely had any air left.
‘It’s not been a good day at the office,’ Cold Smile said in a low growl. ‘I want to know why you’re looking for Eve, and
I want to know in the next five seconds. Five. Four. Three—’
‘She owes me money,’ Whit said. It was the first thing that came to his mind, a blast of lightning through his brain.
The gun didn’t waver from nestling against his spine. ‘For what?’
Whit’s mouth dried. ‘I had money I needed moved offshore, cleaned up.’ Harry had said his mother worked in mob finance, this
was a possibility. ‘But she didn’t return my money.’
‘That bitch is freelancing now?’ Cold Smile said. ‘Turn around.’
Whit did and Cold Smile socked him dead-on in the face and Whit staggered back. He closed his hand into a fist and lurched
forward but the gun’s cool barrel abruptly pressed against his forehead.
‘How much money?’ Cold Smile said.
‘What does it matter to you?’ Whit said. The guy was being too artful, too fancy in his handling of the gun, in his stance
right now, like he held a sword’s tip at Whit’s throat. Enjoying it now, not being brisk and businesslike.