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She was lost.
I only saw her because I was doing my job, just looking for trouble, and I must have missed him when he came in, because I didn't see him enter. He was a white male in his early thirties, neat in his clothes and precise in his movement, and he clearly wasn't with the scene, the way he lurked in the corners of the club floor. The Strap had been built in an abandoned warehouse, the walls painted pit-black and the lights positioned to make shadows rather than eliminate them. For people who were serious about the scene, The Strap wasn't a club of choice, and if they showed at all, it wasn't until after midnight, when the wannabes had gone to greener pastures or to bed.
Bouncing is a people-watching job, a process of regard and/or discard. You look for potential trouble; you isolate potential trouble; then you wait, because you can't react until you're certain what you've got really will be trouble.
I was waiting, watching him as he looked for her, as he weaved around the tops and bottoms playing their passion scenes. It was after two now, and the serious players had arrived, a detachment of leather- and PVC-clad types who took their playing very seriously indeed. Now and again, over the industrial thud of the music, the slap of a whip hitting skin, or a moan, or a laugh, would make it to my ears.
Trouble stopped to watch a chubby woman in her fifties get bound onto a St. Andrew's Cross, black rubber straps twisted around her wrists and ankles, making her skin fold and roll over the restraints. His hands stayed in his coat pockets, and I saw that he was sweating in the party lights.
His manner was wrong, though, and when the woman's top offered him his cat-o'-nine-tails, Trouble fixed him with a level stare that was heavy with threat. The top shrugged a quick apology, then went back to work. Trouble cracked a smile, so fast it was almost a facial tic, then turned and headed for the bar.
It wasn't a nice smile.
Hard case, I thought.
I followed him with my eyes, then let him go for a minute to watch two new entrants. As the newcomers came onto the floor a woman cut loose with a pathetic wail, loud enough to clear the music, and the younger of the two stopped and stared in her direction. Both men were dark brown, with skin that looked tar-black where the calculated shadows hit them. The younger looked like a shorter, slighter version of the older, right down to their crew cuts. Both were dressed for watching, not for playing, and the younger couldn't have been much over twenty-one, just legal enough to get inside. His companion was older, in his forties. He shook his head at the younger man's reaction, said something I couldn't hear, and as they began moving off again, I looked back to the bar.
Trouble had ordered a soda from Jacob, the bartender. The Strap was a licensed club, and since there was nudity on the premises, it couldn't serve alcohol. Trouble paid with a wallet he pulled from inside his jacket, and when he put it back, the hem of his coat swung clear enough for me to see a clip hooked over his left front pants pocket. The clip was blacked, the kind used to secure a pager, or perhaps a knife.
So maybe he's a dealer, I thought. Waiting to meet someone, ready to make a deal.
Or he really is trouble.
He sipped his soda, licked his lips, began scanning again with the same hard look. A man and a woman crawled past me on all fours, each wearing a dog collar, followed by a dominatrix clad in red PVC. She held their leashes in one hand, a riding crop in the other, and gave me a smile.
"Aren't they lovely?" she asked.
"Soon," she said.
Trouble had turned, looking down at the other end of the bar, and I followed his gaze, and that's when I saw Erika.
She wore a black leather miniskirt, torn fishnet stockings, and shiny black boots with Fuck-Me heels. Her top was black lace, also torn, showing skin beneath. Her hair was long, a gold like unfinished oak. The club lights made it darker and almost hid the stiff leather collar she wore, almost obscured the glint from the D ring mounted at the collar's center.
She was brutally beautiful.
She was just like her mother.
She was only fifteen.
Trouble and I watched her light a cigarette, tap ash into her plastic soda cup while watching the scenes play around her. She looked carefully bored, meeting gazes easily as she found them, no change in her expression.
The pitch and yaw in my stomach settled, and I took a breath, wondered if it really was Erika, wondered what the hell I was supposed to do now.
Trouble finished his soda and moved, settling beside her, his lips parting in an opening line. She didn't react and didn't look away, and he spoke again, resting his left arm on the bar, his right in his lap.
Erika cocked her head at him, then turned away on her stool, tossing her hair so it slapped him in the face.
He responded by grabbing her with his left hand, taking hold of her shoulder and spinning her back to face him, and that's when I started moving.
Erika tried to shrug his hand off, but he didn't let go, and I was close enough now to hear her saying, "Fucking fuck off, asshole."
"We're going," he told her.
Jacob had turned behind the bar, figuring maybe to break them up, but Trouble's right went to his pocket, and it wasn't a pager he'd been carrying, but a knife. He thumbed the blade out and it left a trail of silver in the light, like water streaming in a horizontal arc, and he casually swiped at the bartender's eyes. Jacob snapped his head back, both hands coming up for defense. Trouble kept the point on him over the countertop, his other hand still on Erika, and I arrived to hear him saying, "Don't be a hero." He had an accent, British and broad.
His back was to me, but Erika saw me coming, her mouth falling open with surprise and recognition as I brought my left forearm down on Trouble's wrist, pinning it to the bar. The surprise of the blow made him lose the blade, and it skidded over the edge, landing in a sink full of ice. It was a nice-looking knife, with a chiseled tanto point, the blade about three and a half inches long, and Jacob went for it immediately as Trouble started swearing. I felt him shift to move, and I snapped my right elbow back as he was bringing his free hand around for my head. I hit first, catching him in the face, and I came off his pinned arm, turning, to see him staggering back. He had released Erika, and had one hand to his nose.
She said my name.
"Erika," I said, still looking at Trouble. If he had reacted with any pain or surprise, I'd missed it, because now his hand was down and he was smiling at me. He looked at Erika for an instant, then back to me, and I took the opportunity to check his stance.
He knew what he was doing. He knew how to fight.
Blood flowed over his upper lip, and the smile turned bigger, and I could see dark pink around his teeth.
"You want me to show you out?" I asked him.
Trouble shook his head, and the smile blossomed into a grin.
"You took my knife," he said. The lighting made the blood from his nose look black. "That's a fucking precious knife, and you took it."
"You didn't have a knife. If you had a knife, you would have just committed a felony, and we'd have to call the cops."
"Fuck that," Jacob said. "I am calling the cops." I heard the rattle of plastic on metal as he reached for the phone.
Trouble shifted his weight, settling and coiling, wanting the fight, and I took a step to the side, putting myself between him and Erika, figuring that if I was about to get beaten, at least he'd walk away without her. His hands were up and ready, and his breathing was under control.
If he was a serious martial artist, I was deep in the shit. Despite my chosen profession, I don't like pain, and at seven-fifty an hour, I'm not getting paid enough to change that fact.
"You've no idea the world of hurt you've bought," Trouble said, showing me his teeth. His eyes moved from me to see beyond my shoulder, and then everything changed. His glee vanished with the grin, face turning into a battle mask, and he spat blood onto the floor.
I wondered how much this was going to hurt.
His hips began to torque, and I thought he was starting with a kick, prepped myself to block it.
But the leg didn't launch.
Instead he turned, breaking for the fire door, pushing through the people who had stopped to watch this different scene being played, knocking over the PVC woman with the leashes. She went backward, falling onto her slaves, crying out, and he kept going.
I went after him, trying to be more polite about my pursuit, but the fire door had already swung shut by the time I reached it. I slammed the release bar down and pushed, stepped out into the alley, checking left and then right, spotting him as he reached Tenth Avenue, then turned the corner.
By the time I could make the avenue, he'd be gone.
I thought about going after him anyway, then decided I'd gotten off easily and had better not push my luck. My breath was condensing in the mid-November air, and it was cold out, and getting colder. There was a wind blowing, too, floating the smells of alcohol, urine, and exhaust down the alley.
I heard the rubber seal at the base of the fire door scraping the ground, saw Erika stepping out to look past me to the avenue. The door swung shut slowly, and I heard the latch click.
"You broke his fucking nose," she declared.
"Probably," I said. "What'd you do?"
"Me? I didn't do anything."
"Something scared him off," I said. "What did he want?"
"He wanted to top me."
"With a knife?"
She shrugged, faked a shiver, and said, "I'm going back inside."
"The hell you are."
Erika stopped, turned her head and tossed her hair much as she had done to Trouble. "What?"
"You're fifteen, Erika. Isn't that right?"
"Twenty-one," she said immediately.
"You got some proof of that?"
"Atticus. You know who I am."
She waited for more, and then realized that was my whole argument.
"Fuck you," she said, finally, then spun on one of her too-high heels, making to go back inside. I let her, because she couldn't get far. It was a fire door, after all, and there was no handle on the outside. Great for exiting the building in a hurry, not so good for a return trip.
It took her a second to come to the same conclusion. "I'll go through the front. No problem. I've done it before." She brushed past me, heading down the alley.
"I'll make sure you're carded."
"I've got ID."
"I'll tell them it's fake," I said.
That stopped her once more. Without turning, she said, "I fucking hate you."
"Nice to see you, too."
"Go to hell," Erika snarled. She turned and pointed a finger at me. "Where the fuck am I going to sleep tonight?"
"You are so wrong." She threw her hands out as if to ward me off, then began shaking her head and muttering. The wind kicked up, gusted down the dark street, and I felt its teeth through my jacket. Erika had goose bumps on her skin, and the cheap lace of her top made her pale breasts stand out in contrast. I looked toward Tenth Avenue, feeling like a dirty old man.
She certainly wasn't dressing fifteen.
"Why the fuck are you doing this?" Erika demanded.
I took off my jacket and offered it to her.
She ignored it. "Where the hell do you get off telling me I can't go back in there? What's your fucking problem, huh?"
"You're underage, Erika," I said. "Will you put this on?"
"So fucking what?"
"So it's illegal, that's so fucking what. How'd you get in there?"
"None of your business."
"Will you please put this on?"
"Because I can see your nipples and they're erect and I embarrass easily," I said.
Erika checked her front, then grabbed a breast in each hand and looked at me. "That's the point, asshole," she said, squeezing, her thumbs and forefingers pinching flesh.
"Put on the goddamn jacket, Erika."
She grabbed my coat and put it on.
"Thank you," I said.
"You're a fucking asshole," she said.
I began heading toward Tenth Avenue, walking slowly, hoping she'd join me. After five steps, she did, falling in on my left.
We were almost to the corner when Erika asked, "How you been?" She asked it like I'd seen her yesterday and we'd maybe just caught a movie, then done some window-shopping at Macy's.
"I've been better. Why aren't you at home? Why aren't you in D.C.?"
Erika laughed. "The Colonel retired, lives in Garrison, now. I don't even live with him."
"So where do you live?"
"Wherever I find a bed, dipshit." She stopped, checked her tone, then continued, more patiently. "That's why I need to get back in there, Atticus. That's where I'm going to find my shelter for the night."
This time, I stopped. "You're tricking?"
"Sometimes, I guess. Sure."
"What the hell's happened? Why aren't you living at home?"
Erika took an impatient breath and looked off past my shoulder, shoving her hands into the pockets of my army jacket. The gesture revealed her age, the jacket much too big for her, the miniskirt almost entirely swallowed by its hem. The light on the street wasn't fantastic, but I could see her eyes clearly, and they looked fine, her pupils equal. She didn't seem to be on anything. I waited.
Erika said, "They got a divorce, you know that, right?"
"I heard a rumor."
She ran a knuckle over the bridge of her nose, wiping imaginary club grime away. "Yeah, well, the rumor is true. Maybe a year after you left, Mom took off. They've been fighting since then, over money, over me, you name it. It all went final about a year ago. I don't even know where she is these days, and frankly I don't fucking care. So, I live with the Colonel, just him and me . . . and he doesn't go out much anymore, you know?" She was still watching something beyond me, keeping her gaze distant. "He sort of sees me . . . he sort of sees me as in-home entertainment. So I don't like to be around the house that much."
In-home entertainment. I swallowed, felt a little sick as all of the implications of that phrase hit home.
An NYPD sector car turned off the avenue and headed down the street, passing us. Erika watched its progress, and when it stopped in front of the warehouse, she said, "Guess somebody called the cops, huh?"
"How long has it been going on, Erika?"
She shrugged, picking a spot on the pavement that interested her. "He retired a little before it went final, brought me home from school; I was going to boarding school in Vermont." She rubbed her hands against her upper arms, making friction for heat. "You going to take me home now? I'm fucking freezing my tits off."