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Of the three unluckiest days in Barbara Allen's life, the first was the day Clara Rinker was raped behind a St. Louis nudie bar called Zanadu, which was located west of the city in a dusty checkerboard of truck terminals, warehouses and light assembly plants. Zanadu, as its chrome-yellow I-70 billboard proclaimed, was E-Z On, E-Z Off. The same was not true of Clara Rinker, despite what Zanadu's customers thought.
Rinker was sixteen when she was raped, a small athletic girl, a dancer, an Ozarks runaway. She had bottle-blond hair that showed darker roots, and a body that looked wonderful in V-necked, red-polka-dotted, thin cotton dresses from Kmart. A body that drew the attention of cowboys, truckers and other men who dreamt of Nashville.
Rinker had taken up nude dancing because she could. It was that, fuck for money or go hungry. The rape took place at two o'clock in the morning on an otherwise delightful April night, the kind of night when midwestern kids are allowed to stay out late and play war, when cicadas hum down from their elm-bark hideaways. Rinker had closed the bar that night; she was the last dancer up.
Four men were still drinking when she finished. Three were hound-faced long-distance truckers who had nowhere to go but the short beds in their various Kenworths, Freightliners and Peterbilts; and one was a Norwegian exotic-animal dealer drowning the sorrows of a recent mishap involving a box of boa constrictors and thirty-six thousand dollars' worth of illegal tropical birds.
A fifth man, a slope-shouldered gorilla named Dale-Something, had walked out of the bar halfway through Rinker's last grind. He left behind twelve dollars in crumpled ones and two small sweat rings where his forearms had been propped on the bar. Rinker had worked down the bar-top, stopping for ten seconds in front of each man for what the girls called a crack shot. Dale-Something had gotten the first shot, and he had stood up and walked out as soon as she moved to the next guy. When she was done, Rinker hopped off the end of the bar and headed for the back to get into her street clothes.
A few minutes later, the bartender, a University of Missouri wrestler named Rick, knocked on the dressing room door and said, "Clara? Will you close up the back?"
"I'll get it," she said, pulling a fuzzy pink tube top over her head, shaking her ass to get it down. Rick respected the dancers' privacy, which they appreciated; it was purely a psychological thing, since he worked behind the bar, and spent half his night looking up their ...
Anyway, he respected their privacy.
When she was dressed, Rinker killed the lights in the dressing room, walked down to the ladies' room, checked to make sure it was empty, which it always was, and then did the same for the men's room, which was also empty, except for the ineradicable odor of beer-flavored urine. At the back door, she snapped out the hall lights, released the bolt on the lock and stepped outside into the soft evening air. She pulled the door shut, heard the bolt snap, rattled the door handle to make sure that it was locked and headed for her car.
A rusted-out Dodge pickup crouched on the lot, two-thirds of the way down to her car. A battered aluminum camper slumped on the back, with curtains tangled in the windows. Every once in a while, somebody would drink too much and would wind up sleeping in his car behind the place; so the truck was not exactly unprecedented. Still, Rinker got a bad vibe from it. She almost walked back around the building to see if she could catch Rick before he went out the front.
Almost. But that was too far and she was probably being silly and Rick was probably in a hurry and the truck was dark, nothing moving ...
Dale-Something was sitting on the far side of it, hunkered down in the pea gravel, his back against the driver's-side door. He'd been waiting for twenty minutes with decreasing patience, chewing breath mints, thinking about her. Somewhere, in the deep recesses of his mind, breath mints were a concession to gentility, as regarded women. He chewed them as a favor to her.
When he heard the back door closing, he levered his butt off the ground, peeked through a car window, saw her coming, alone. He waited, crouched behind the car: he was a big guy, much of his bigness in fat, but he took pride in his size anyway.
And he was quick: Rinker never had a chance.
When she stepped around the truck, keys rattling in her hand, he came out of the dark and hit her like an NFL tackle. The impact knocked her breath out; she lay beneath him, gasping, the gravel cutting her bare shoulders. He flipped her over, twisting her arms, clamping both of her skinny wrists in one hand and the back of her neck in the other.
And he said, his minty breath next to her ear, "You fuckin' scream and I'll break your fuckin' neck."
She didn't fuckin' scream because something like this had happened before, with her stepfather. She had screamed and he almost had broken her fuckin' neck. Instead of screaming, Rinker struggled violently, thrashing, spitting, kicking, swinging, twisting, trying to get loose. But Dale-Something's hand was like a vise on her neck, and he dragged her to the camper, pulled open the door, pushed her inside, ripped her pants off and did what he was going to do in the flickering yellow illumination of the dome light.
When he was done, he threw her out the back of the truck, spit on her, said, "Fuckin' bitch, you tell anybody about this, and I'll fuckin' kill ya." That was most of what she remembered about it later: lying naked on the gravel, and getting spit on; that, and all the wiry hair on Dale's fat wobbling butt.
Rinker didn't call the cops, because that would have been the end of her job. And, knowing cops, they probably would have sent her home to her step-dad. So she told Zanadu's owners about the rape. The brothers Ernie and Ron Battaglia were concerned about both Rinker and their bar license. A nudie joint didn't need sex crimes in the parking lot.
"Jeez," Ron said when Rinker told him about the rape. "That's terrible, Clara. You hurt? You oughta get yourself looked at, you know?"
Ernie took a roll of bills from his pocket, peeled off two hundreds, thought about it for a couple of seconds, peeled off a third and tucked the three hundred dollars into her backup tube top. "Get yourself looked at, kid."
She nodded and said, "You know, I don't wanna go to the cops. But this asshole should pay for what he did."
"We'll take care of it," Ernie offered.
"Let me take care of it," Rinker said.
Ron put up an eyebrow. "What do you want to do?"
"Just get him down the basement for me. He said something about being a roofer, once. He works with his hands. I'll get a goddamn baseball bat and bust one of his arms."
Ron looked at Ernie, who looked at Rinker and said, "That sounds about right. Next time he comes in, huh?"
They didn't do it the next time he came in, which was a week later, looking nervous and shifty-eyed, like he might not be welcomed. Rinker refused to work with Dale-Something at the bar, and when she cornered Ernie in the kitchen, he told her that, goddamnit, they were right in the middle of tax season and neither he nor Ron had the emotional energy for a major confrontation.
Rinker kept working on them, and the second time Dale-Something showed up, which was two days after tax day, the brothers were feeling nasty. They fed him drinks and complimentary peanuts and kept him talking until after closing. Rick the bartender hustled the second-to-the-last guy out, and left himself, not looking back; he knew something was up.
Then Ron came around the bar, and Ernie got Dale-Something looking the other way, and Ron nailed him with a wild, out-of-the-blue roundhouse right that knocked Dale off the barstool. Ron landed on him, rolled him, and Ernie raced around the bar and threw on a pro-wrestling death lock. Together, they dragged a barely resisting Dale-Something down the basement stairs.
The brothers had him on his feet and fully conscious by the time Rinker came down, carrying her aluminum baseball bat; or rather, T-ball bat, which had a better swing-weight for a small woman.
"I'm gonna sue you fuckers for every fuckin' dime you got," Dale-Something said, sputtering blood through his split lip. "My fuckin' lawyer is doin' the money-dance right now, you fucks ..."
"Fuck you, you ain't doing shit," Ron said. "You raped this little girl."
"What do you want, Clara?" Ernie asked. He was standing behind Dale with his arms under Dale's armpits, his hands locked behind Dale's neck. "You wanna arm or a leg?"
Rinker was standing directly in front of Dale-Something, who glowered at her: "I'm gonna ..." he started.
Rinker interrupted: "Fuck legs," she said. She whipped the bat up, and then straight back down on the crown of Dale-Something's head.
The impact sounded like a fat man stepping on an English walnut. Ernie, startled, lost his death grip and Dale-Something slipped to the floor like a two-hundred-pound blob of Jell-O.
"Holy shit," Ron said, and crossed himself.
Ernie prodded Dale-Something with the toe of his desert boot, and Dale blew a bubble of blood. "He ain't dead," Ernie said.
Rinker's bat came up, and she hit Dale again, this time in the mastoid process behind the left ear. She hit him hard; her step-dad used to make her chop wood for the furnace, and her swing had some weight and snap behind it. "That ought to do it," she said.
Ernie nodded and said, "Yup." Then they all looked at each other in the light of the single bare bulb, and Ron said to Rinker, "Some heavy shit, Clara. How do you feel about this?"
Clara looked at Dale-Something's body, the little ring of black blood around his fat lips, and said, "He was a piece of garbage."
"You don't feel nothin'?" Ernie asked.
"Nothin'." Her lips were set in a thin, grim line.
After a minute, Ron looked up the narrow wooden stairs and said, "Gonna be a load `n' a half getting his ass outa the basement."
"You got that right," Ernie said, adding, philosophically, "I coulda told him there ain't no free pussy."
Dale-Something went into the Mississippi and his truck was parked across the river in Granite City, from which spot it disappeared in two days. Nobody ever asked about Dale, and Rinker went back to dancing. A few weeks later, Ernie asked her to sit with an older guy who came in for a beer. Rinker cocked her head and Ernie said, "No, it's okay. You don't have to do nothin'."
So she got a longneck Bud and went to sit with the guy, who said he was Ernie's aunt's husband's brother. He knew about Dale-Something. "You feeling bad about it yet?"
"Nope. I'm a little pissed that Ernie told you about it, though," Rinker said, taking a hit on the Budweiser.
The older man smiled. He had very strong, white teeth to go with his black eyes and almost-feminine long lashes. Rinker had the sudden feeling that he might show a girl a pretty good time, although he must be over forty. "You ever shoot a gun?" he asked.
That's how Rinker became a hit lady. She wasn't spectacular, like the Jackal or one of those movie killers. She just took care of business, quietly and efficiently, using a variety of silenced pistols, mostly .22s. Careful, close-range killings became a trademark.
Rinker had never thought of herself as stupid, just as someone who hadn't yet had her chance. When the money from the killings started coming in, she knew that she didn't know how to handle it. So she went to the Intercontinental College of Business in the mornings, and took courses in bookkeeping and small business. When she was twenty, getting a little old for dancing nude, she got a job with the Mafia guy, working in a liquor warehouse. And when she was twenty-four, and knew a bit about the business, she bought a bar of her own in downtown Wichita, Kansas, and renamed it the Rink.
The bar did well. Still, a few times a year, Rinker'd go out of town with a gun and come back with a bundle of money. Some she spent, but most she hid, under a variety of names, in a variety of places. One thing her step-dad had taught her well: sooner or later, however comfortable you might be at the moment, you were gonna have to run.