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The front window of Aye Candy displayed a hand-scrawled poster warning that knife-fighting, “rough-stuff with the entertainment,” biting, and loitering would not be tolerated. Lane Watters scanned the parking lot from a puma-black Crowne Vic, watching patrons scurry between neon and shadow. He thought about calling for backup but decided against, knowing how long it would take for Dispatch to break a patrol officer free. He also considered calling home until he noticed the time. It was a school night, after all.
Watters was in his usual plain-clothes attire of sport jacket and slacks—no tie except on court days—but the clientele of bikers, inebriates, and fetishists all made him as a cop even before he got out of the car. He heard mutterings about “Five-O” from the shadows as he crunched across the gravel lot, yet no one challenged this man whose bearing conveyed skills valued in dark alleys. Watters glanced over his shoulder once as he reached the door before entering into a blast of hair-metal and haze.
The Aye Candy served no alcohol. Instead it sold “set ups,” which could be a plastic cup of ice or a tepid can of soda. Liquor was of the bring-your-own, under-the-table variety, an end-run around the fact that the establishment had lost its liquor license years earlier.
“Get you a setup, detective?” asked a humpty-dumpty of a man with hair severely parted down the middle and held in place with…grease? Watters took a moment to let his eyes adjust to the dim and smoke. Every person he saw milling about or sitting around small tables was smoking cigarettes, marijuana, or hookah pipes. Neon reds and blues filtered through the smoke, and a single track-light directed all eyes to the woman dancing on stage.
Watters had to squint to make sure he was seeing what he thought he was seeing. Sure enough, his pupils focused and some of the cloud dissipated just enough for him to confirm the dancer was a nude, gyrating, mid-thirties woman in the third trimester of pregnancy. Her nails were so long as to have started to curl, painted with a turquoise-blue polish that glowed in the neon lights. In each of those thusly decorated hands, she held her volleyball-sized breasts and slowly bounced them up and down in what was evidently an attempt at being erotic.
“I’m looking for Monica,” Watters yelled over the music as he turned back to the oily dumpling man and showed his badge.
The manager paused, either wanting a bribe or waiting to see if Watters had the moxie to threaten him.
“She’s a Publisher’s Clearinghouse sweepstakes winner,” said Watters. “I’m supposed to track her down so she can collect her millions.”
The sullen man suddenly broke into a huge grin, and Watters found the fact that he had orthodontic braces mildly surprising.
“She’s in the dressing room. She’s up in two songs.”
“I’d really like to talk to her before she goes on stage,” said Watters.
The man stared as if what Watters asked was more difficult than doing taxes. Watters began to think that he would, after all, have to start pointing out health code violations regarding the oily ice cubes in the ice bin, the fact that the soda cans were sitting on a putridly dirty floor, all the goings-on currently going on in the parking lot, the marijuana cloud descending from the ceiling, and anything else he could think of, but then the man made a sound business decision.
“Hey,” the manager called out to the pregnant woman on the stage. She looked up, annoyed that he’d interrupted her groove and the few one-dollar tips that very drunk men were occasionally flicking onto the stage near her platform shoes.
“Call Monica out here,” he demanded. The pregnant woman responded by dancing backwards for five steps until she was parallel to the wing curtain, at which point she craned her head behind the curtain and called out for Monica. From the neck down she never stopped gyrating or working her boobs like slow pistons.
“I’ll wait outside,” said Watters, who had hit his threshold for the sounds, smoke and oiliness.
He stepped out and immediately observed a bush rustling off to his left. Moments later a man emerged buckling his jeans and a woman wearing a t-shirt and nothing else followed. Both seemed irritated by his presence, and they hustled into the club.
Quiet settled for a few moments until a dark limousine pulled into the lot. Windows rolled down, and all the passengers were laughing hysterically. The occupants were all male, mid-twenties, clean-cut, and snot-slinging drunk. Watters guessed it was a bachelor party, and he scowled at the limo driver for bringing such a group to this of all places. Suddenly the groom and all his best friends went wide-eyed at the sight of skulking thugs and prostitutes, and the whimsical idea of visiting such a place vanished as quickly as their tires screeched from the parking lot.
Monica finally emerged wearing a luminescent bikini top that looked like rattlesnake skin, a pink thong, and clear acrylic six-inch heels. She had almost no fat on her, but her skin hung too loosely. Her hair was dyed platinum, and even in the poor light Watters could see it was a brittle tuft, more hair spray than hair follicle.
“Is this about that driving on suspended warrant?” she asked of Watters. “My lawyer cleared all that up a long time ago.”
“Do you remember me?” asked Watters.
She scrutinized him in the yellowed street light and suddenly her eyes opened in recognition. “You’re the one who bought me that happy meal the day I fell in that cold-ass creek!”
“Thought you were gonna freeze to death,” Watters acknowledged. “No telling how long you’d been there…”
“And Larry was too stoned to figure out how to pull me out. Could’ve died. Swear to gawd, that coffee and cheeseburger saved my life.” She smiled finally, and he could see her teeth had worn down to tea-colored nubs.
“I don’t know about all that, but I wasn’t sure you were ever gonna stop shivering.”
“Watters, that’s right. Glad to see you’re off the streets.”
“Not that this is much better,” she said nodding in the direction of the club. “But I do have a roof now.”
“That’s good. That’s good. So, I have a question for you about a case.”
Monica looked stricken. “Snitching buys you a death warrant around here.”
Watters assured her. “Look, no one will know you told me anything. You can curse me up one side and down the other when I leave, just so they won’t suspect you told me anything.”
“Can I slap you?”
“No, you can’t slap me.”
“It’d make for a better story when I went back inside.”
“No thank you.”
“Didn’t know you was a punk,” said Monica, though grinning wide enough to show off her gums once more.
“Yep, I’m a real flower petal. So, anyway, I’m looking into a sexual assault, and I need to know about a place called the Mansion. Have you heard of it?”
Monica crossed her arms and then let them drop to her sides. She stepped back in her huge heels and then back toward him. Her lifeless hair turned this way and that as she tried to decide if anyone out there watching them could overhear. Finally, she took a deep breath and paid Watters back for the cheeseburger and coffee that once saved her life.
“It’s a party house. Dude there likes girls who are into meth. He invites them to his place, gives them a few tokes on a pipe, and then he tells them they gotta take a needle if they want more.”
Watters also looked around, both because he didn’t want her to be overheard, and also because there could be any number of people lurking beyond his line of vision that would love to crack him in the head.
“Thing is, once he gives them the needle they can’t move no more. They’re awake, but they can’t move. It’s something different than crystal meth he gives them. Dude’s mean. He hurts them real bad, but there’s nothing they can do about it.”
“Anything else?” Watters asked, knowing her apprehension about speaking to him was about to overwhelm any gratitude she felt.
“He shares the girls with a friend of his. Supposedly the two of them take turns doing the girls while they’re all zombied out like that. Swear to gawd, them girls can’t move or nothing, and they just use ‘em up.”
A siren howled off in the distance, and an Aye Candy patron stumbled out to vomit on a dead shrub rose. Monica tried to light a home-rolled cigarette, but her hands shook. She seemed about to give up until Watters took her lighter and helped hold it steady. Neither spoke as she took three long drags and spit out flakes of tobacco. Finally, with a deep breath followed by another drag, she continued her story in a whisper.
“He likes to wear masks and costumes and shit. And there’s tunnels all over his house. They say he can go anywhere and nobody sees him.”
“How does he…?”
“Look, I gotta go. My song’s getting ready to come on, and…”
“Why do I feel like you’ve been there?”
Monica scowled, but she answered. “Two guys who work for him came here, asked me if I wanted to party and promised all the crystal I wanted for the night. I mean, what the hell, right?”
“You remember anything about how you got there?”
“I remember passing this place with horses. I used to love horses. I had posters of them in my room.”
“Horses,” said Watters.
“Pretty close to the dude’s place. There were horses, and a sign out front on their fence that says free manure. I thought that was pretty funny. Who wants free manure?”
Just about every gardener in the world, thought Watters.
“That girl okay? I’ve been thinking about her ever since that night.”
“That one we took to the hospital. She was way too young for that old dick. Figured that’s who you was talking about when you said you was looking into a rape.”
“You took a girl to the hospital? From that party?”
“We was gonna take her home, but she got all freaked out, screaming that Elvis attacked her. She tried to climb out of the back of the truck, and I had to grab her to keep from jumping out.”
Watters was quiet for too long, thinking about what Monica’s information meant to his case. The pause seemed to make Monica even more nervous, and she stepped back toward the entrance of the club.
“That’s all I know. And I really gotta go.”
“I appreciate your help. Take care of yourself.”
The front door opened and the oily manager stepped halfway outside. Monica glanced over her shoulder with a look of apprehension. Watters sighed.
“Okay. Slap me,” he whispered.
“Yeah, just don’t scrape me with your fingernai...”
She slapped him hard enough that he had to wriggle his jaw back into position.
“Screw you, pig! I ain’t no goddamn snitch!”
Monica pivoted on her stilettos and marched back in to work, cursing Watters every step of the way.