The Bau Bau room was in an unlovely part of downtown, near a lot of check-cashing places and liquor stores and greasy pizza joints and a few weird remnants of Felport's rusty industrial past: a machine shop, a small-engine repair company, and a place that sold chemicals.
Marla found the ugliness comforting and familiar. With a name like The Bau Bau Room she hadn't exactly expected something swanky, but she'd worried.
The club occupied one bottom corner of a squat three-story building with offices above, mostly for the kind of lawyer who advertises on late night TV, though there was also a private detective, which Marla found sort of interesting. She'd only read about such people, never met one, though she suspected reality would diverge from fiction pretty swiftly if she ever did.
It was only about noon, but the front door of the place was unlocked, so she pushed her way in.
The Bau Bau Room owed a lot to red velvet. Red velvet walls, red velvet booths, even ratty red velvet on the bar stools, worn through in places by years of prolonged ass-contact. There were a few booths against the walls and lots of small round tables crowded around the clear focal point of the room: a hexagonal stage with mirrors on the wall behind it and a vertical metal pole in the center. Marla had never been inside a strip club before, but she knew one when she saw it, even sans strippers.
She hesitated, almost walked away, then thought of Jenny, all clean and together and unscarred, and went toward the bar.
A middle-aged bald guy with a bushy mustache and a diamond earring leaned on the bar flipping through a newspaper. "We're not open yet," he said, then glanced up at her. "And you're too young to drink anyway. Beat it." He went back to his paper.
Marla sat on the stool in front of him. "Are you Rollo?"
He looked up from the paper again, this time more carefully. "You don't look like a process server, but to be on the safe side, who wants to know?"
"Jenny sent me."
"Who the fuck is Jenny?"
That was not encouraging. "Jenny Click. Blonde, kind of skinny, long nose" -- was that unkind? -- "she said she got a job here a while --"
"Right, firebug Jenny, sure." He looked at Marla more closely, then shook his head. "Shit. How old are you?"
"Eighteen," Marla said promptly. Only a lie by 18 months or so. And she knew she could pass for older if called upon.
Rollo wasn't buying it though. He shook his head. "You got ID?"
"Not with me."
"Not anywhere, more like it, or if you do it's a lousy fake. But if you're friends with Jenny, you probably can't afford a fake ID. That kind of stuff's for the rich north side kids, or the suburban ones. But, okay, maybe we can work something out. You want to work here?"
"If the money's right."
He snorted. "A waitress job, you get about half of minimum wage and whatever tips you can hustle. You can make more dancing, but we're full up right now."
Marla shook her head. "That's fine. I'm not much of a dancer."
"It's more, you know, undulating than actual dancing, but anyway. Okay, waitress it is, if you qualify. Let's see 'em."
Marla frowned. "See what?"
"Your tits, hon. You can learn how to carry a tray full of drinks and make change, but good tits can't be taught."
Marla nodded thoughtfully. "So the waitresses are topless, too."
"The dancers are more than topless, eventually, but, yes."
Rollo didn't seem particularly interested in leering at her. He seemed to mostly wish she would go away. "No touching, right?"
"What, from me, or the customers? From me, no. From the customers, no, not in theory. Sometimes somebody might get grabby, you just catch the bouncer's eye and we toss him out. Maybe you think you can make like a private arrangement with a customer, but the management frowns on that kind of freelancing. Now show 'em or go apply for a job at McDonald's, would you?"
There was a perverse pleasure in the thought of taking money from drunken assholes -- she assumed that would describe the clientele, imagining a roomful of men like her mother's innumerable boyfriends -- and knowing a bouncer would toss them out if they dared to touch her.
Marla lifted up her shirt.
Rollo squinted, nodded, and said, "All right, you'd get better tips if they were bigger, but you're, what, sixteen, seventeen? Nobody's exactly gonna complain. And you're not so skinny I can see your skeleton, which was the main thing I worried about. We made Jenny go eat cheeseburgers and milkshakes for a week and come back when we couldn't count her ribs anymore."
"So I'm hired?"
"Come into the back room for a minute, and you will be."
"I'm not fucking you," Marla said.
"That's for sure. I prefer sleeping with women old enough to know their way around a little. Come on." He came around the bar and led her to an unmarked door near the back wall, then led her into the backstage area, where there were chipped vanity mirrors, cardboard boxes full of high heels and feather boas and miscellaneous bits of underwear, and a row of gray lockers. Beyond that was another door, with a cardboard sign reading "Office" tacked into the center. The room beyond was surprisingly spacious, furnished with dented filing cabinets and a big desk covered in paper clutter.
Rollo opened a closet and took out a camera on a tripod, then tacked a dark blue cloth up on the wall.
"Oh," Marla said. "You're making me a fake ID."
"Gotta have ID on file for you, and since you don't have your own..." He shrugged. "The cops don't bother us much, but every once in a while somebody comes down and wants to see our records."
"I can't pay for this," Marla said.
"So no money up front, and we'll take it out of your earnings, all right? And you'll be able to buy your own booze afterward."
Marla didn't drink much. She could rarely afford to have her faculties blurred. "How much will it cost?"
Rollo shook his head. "You are one cautious kid. Tell you what, we'll call it half the tips you make tonight, okay?"
Marla nodded. She was having a hard time seeing how one went from serving drinks topless to being detoxed and scar-free and apparently happy like Jenny was, but this didn't seem the time to ask.
She stood for the camera, trying to "Look bored like you're at the DMV" as Rollo suggested. He took down her name and birthdate -- "We'll just change the year" -- and height and weight, and made her fill out some employment forms "Come back at 7, I'll get this laminated for you, and one of the other waitresses will show you the ropes. Not literally the ropes. It's not that kind of club. Don't fuck up tonight and you can come back tomorrow. Okay?"
"Sure," Marla said. Then, after a moment's thought: "Thanks."
"Thank Jenny," Rollo said. "You hadn't dropped her name, I'd have kicked you out the door on your ass."
Having a job, and being expected to show up somewhere at a certain time, was a novelty, but the structure wasn't entirely unpleasant. The uniform -- which consisted of rather tight shorts, a little apron, and nothing else -- initially made her uncomfortable, but after a few hours the first night she hardly noticed her own nudity. She had little in common with the other waitresses, and didn't spend much time talking to them, but she shared their universal dislike for the dancers, who looked down on the waitresses as inferior beings.
Nobody ever mentioned Jenny, and Marla didn't bring her up, either.
The clientele was as boorish as she'd expected. At first she made an effort to smile at them, but soon realized that the few men (and occasional women) who paid attention to her at all didn't look much higher than her chest anyway, so she allowed herself to be impassive or scowl as much as necessary.
The tips were pretty good, though, at least on weekends. At the end of her first week, when it was clear she wasn't a drunk, a thief (at least in this context), or a drug addict, Rollo got her a room in a run-down apartment nearby, the kind of place with one shared bathroom per floor and a hotplate on a table for a kitchen. But it came with a bed and a dresser and it was hers.
Customers occasionally swatted her ass as she went by, and she learned, to her annoyance, that the bouncer was unwilling to throw them out for that, though he'd warn them to keep their hands to themselves. Marla consoled herself by wishing horrible deaths upon them, but resisted the urge to assault anyone.
Until one Saturday night, after about a month working at the bar, the best man at a bachelor party full of merry twentysomethings grabbed her as she was going by, knocking the tray from her hands as he pulled her into his lap. He reached around with both hands to grab her breasts, laughing raucously in her ear, and even though Marla saw the bouncer coming her way, she didn't wait.
Marla stomped his instep with her heel, threw her head back -- he gasped, and she felt his nose crunch -- and seized his hands, twisting his thumbs back as hard as she could as she stood up. "No touching," she said, and half the club applauded while the other half, including the rest of the bachelor party, gaped.
"You bitch," the best man said, clutching his bloody nose, "I'll beat the shit out of you --"
The bouncer put a big hand on the man's shoulder, and said, gently, "You want her to hurt you worse? Time to go, pal." He hustled the whole group out of the bar, and Marla smoothed down her hair and squatted to pick up her tray -- she didn't feel like bending over and giving the room a nice look at her ass.
When she stood up, a fat guy with a comb-over and a cigar in his fingers beckoned to her. "Come here, would you?"
Marla had seen him before a few times, drinking Scotch and watching the dancers and not causing any fuss, but she'd never waited on him, and didn't have a good sense of whether he was an asshole or not. "Why, you want some of what that guy got?"
He was a red-faced guy, and his face got redder when he laughed. "Nah, just come here, sit down."
Marla shook her head. "My boss won't like --"
"Kid, I'm your boss. I'm Artie Mann. This is my joint."
"Oh," Marla said. "Am I fired? For hitting that guy?"
"Don't make it a habit, but no, you're not fired. You had some cause. Sit and talk to me." Marla joined him, secretly happy to be off her feet for a little while. Artie stared fixedly at her breasts while he spoke, which didn't do much to endear him to her. "How long you been working here?"
"A few weeks."
"What made you come into this place?"
She shrugged. "My friend Jenny said you were hiring."
"Jenny. Jenny Click?"
"Yeah. She used to work here?"
"But now she's... moved up in the organization?" Marla figured this had to be the crime boss, the guy Jenny wanted to meet.
"Sure," Artie said. "You're a friend of hers, huh?" He looked at her speculatively. "You seemed to know what you were doing, cracking that guy's nose, stomping his foot, like that. Somebody teach you?"
"There was a guy who used to hassle me, back home, so my brother showed me a few things, to take care of myself." That guy had hassled her one too many times, and things had gotten out of hand, and now he wouldn't ever hassle her or anyone else again -- but that wasn't something she wanted to talk about, or even think about.
"Pretty tough, kid. What's your name?"
"I think Jenny mighta mentioned you. When's your next night off?"
"Tomorrow," she said.
"Listen. You want to come over to my house, maybe have some dinner, and see Jenny?"
Marla's resisted the urge to sigh. So that was the explanation. Jenny hadn't "moved up in the organization" -- she'd just moved in with the boss, who had doubtless paid for her hair, her clothes, and to clean up her scarred hands. And, what, now he wanted Marla to join his harem or something? "I don't know..."
"Don't say no to the boss," he said, mock-sternly.
"I guess it'd be good to see Jenny again." If he tried anything on her, she could just walk away. And if he didn't want her to walk away, she could persuade him. Breaking two noses in two days would be a new record for her.
"It's a deal," he said. "Come over here around six, I'll have a car waiting. Now go earn some money."
When the club closed, Marla nodded her farewells and went out into the street. It wasn't the best neighborhood, but her apartment was only a block and a half away, and Rollo had assured her that the local thugs knew better than to mess with any of the Bau Bau Room's girls -- Artie Mann had juice around here, apparently. Though she saw the occasional shadowy figure lurking in a doorway, she'd never been bothered.
Until now. The best man who'd pulled her into his lap earlier stepped out of an alley just a few doors away from her place. He had cotton wadding sticking out of his nostrils -- his friends must have taken him to the emergency room to get his broken nose patched up. He looked ridiculous, but he also looked pissed-off, and three of his friends were lurking behind him, shadowed by the old brick buildings that lined the street.
"Thought I'd let you get away with hitting me, bitch?" the best man said, voice thick and mushy from his blocked-up nose and, probably, booze. "Nobody fucks with me. How about we drag you back here and see how tough you are?"
Marla glanced around, knowing it was futile -- this late the street was deserted, and her neighbors weren't the sort who'd come to the aid of a screaming woman. Which meant her options were limited. But that didn't mean she had no options.
She took her keys from her pocket and grasped the longest one firmly between her thumb and fingers. It wasn't much of a weapon, but it was better than fingernails. Maybe she should start carrying a knife. As calmly as she could, she said, "There are four of you, and one of me. That means I probably can't stop you."
"Damn right you can't --" the best man began, but Marla shook her head sharply.
"Shut up," she said, because it was worth a try. Amazingly, he did, though probably not for long, so she went on while she had the floor. "I can't stop you. But I can make it cost you. If I can gouge out your eyes, I will. If I can bite off an ear, or a nose, or something more tender, I will. I'll fight as hard and as long as I can, and whenever I can, I'll make sure to hurt you where it shows. You'll have some ugly marks on your faces to explain at that wedding you're all going to."
"Come on, man, maybe we should go," said one of the lurkers. None of them seemed particularly happy about this situation, judging by their body language. Marla began to see a glimmer of hope of getting out of this unhurt. If she could do something sufficiently nasty to the best man, fast enough, the others would probably just melt away.
"No way," the best man said. "She can't weigh more than a hundred, hundred and ten pounds. Couple of you grab her arms and she won't be able to do shit."
"You sound like you've done this before," Marla said. "You make a habit of jumping girls alone in the street? Probably the only way you get any action at all, right?" Maybe taunting him was a bad idea, but she was tired, and pissed off, and he was some idiot from the suburbs who thought he was a big man. She wanted to tell him how small he was, and make sure his friends heard it, too.
"That's it, you're fucked now," the best man said, and came toward her, two of his companions moving away from the wall to join him, while the one who'd acted as the voice of restraint just stood there shaking his head. Three against one wasn't much better odds than four against one, unfortunately. She'd promised to make this cost them, and she would.... but she didn't want to think about what it would cost her.
"No touching the girls without their permission," said Artie Mann strolling out of -- where, exactly? The middle of the street? But she hadn't seen him there. He wore the same untucked Hawaiian shirt, and had perhaps the same fat cigar in his mouth. "That rule applies inside and outside the club."
"Get lost," the best man said, still staring at Marla. "This doesn't have shit to do with you."
"Okay," Artie said, and sucked on his cigar, making the end glow redly. Then he flicked the ashes toward the best man --
-- and the ash somehow swelled into a fist-sized fireball that struck him in the chest, knocking him down. His friends jumped back, and the best man screamed, beating at his shirt, which was singed and smoking. The men all looked at Artie, who took another long pull on his cigar, and exhaled a cloud of smoke.... and kept exhaling, smoke thick as fog, great rolling gouts of it, and when the smoke touched them, the men dropped to their knees, gagging.
Artie walked over to Marla, put his hand on her shoulder, and said, "I'll walk you home, kid."
"What did you do?" Marla said as they walked wide into the street to skirt around the choking cloud and the men inside.
"Nothing permanent. Mostly just scared 'em."
"What'd it look like?"
"It looked like magic," Marla said. "But I want to know what it was."
"You got it in one. Magic."
Marla shook her head. "You have a magical cigar?"
"No. I have magic, and I also have a cigar."
"I don't believe in magic," Marla said, though the statement was slightly less true than it had been two minutes ago.
Artie sighed. "Come on, kid. Skepticism might take you farther than faith, but you won't have nearly as much fun getting there. We'll talk about it more when you come over tomorrow." They reached her building and went up the steps, and Marla, who still had her key clutched defensively in her hand, unlocked the door. She wasn't sure what was happening, but she was very interested in finding out.
She had one thing to say, though: "I didn't need your help. I can take care of myself."
Marla was afraid he'd laugh, or argue, but he just nodded seriously, cigar bobbing in his mouth. "I believe it. But you shouldn't have to do it all yourself. You work for me. That includes a certain protection. Besides, our situations were reversed, you'd do the same for me."
Marla shook her head. "I can't do... things like that."
"Don't worry about it," Artie said. "You're young yet." And he sauntered off into the night.
Click here to see trivia and authorial blather about chapter 2.