I damn near didn’t recognize Dee without her hooker’s uniform: flimsy miniskirt, crimson lipstick, black fishnet hoes. Now draped in Victorian frills and the modest half-grin of a virgin bride, she stepped up to me, gestured for a smoke and took a seat. Like we’d just spoken days ago, not years. Like I was just some guy she knew, nothing more.
The ugly truth: I was her pimp back in the day. But once we’d caught up, I’d become nothing. Just another ex-player from the joint, looking for a legit gig to keep the PO off my ass. The ride – all eleven years of it – was no joke. But Dee still looked like Dee. Eyes that shone like a matching set of nightlights, ass as tight as a snare drum. Still my top girl, my baby, my Dee.
But damned if she didn’t look strange all prettied up for the brand new gig. She was supposed to be Hero in Much Ado About Nothing, she explained. I’d done just enough reading in the joint to know the concept. But she had to break it down to me anyway:
“She’s a girl even though she’s called Hero and not Heroine and she fakes like she’s dead ’cause her fiancé or something thought she was with another guy even though she wasn’t. And then we find out she’s not dead at the end.”
But my mind raced to other places, sought answers to questions she seemed to be hiding from. I wanted to know what happened to that quiet fire that danced behind those ocean blue eyes. She seemed dragged down into a surrender.
Not that my time up in Stillwater was a backyard barbecue. And the seven weeks since my release had been rougher still. Like her, I wound up pulling in minimum wage at WillyWorld, boasting roughly nine bucks to my name and limping through the only role a brother boasting my shade could qualify for at a Shakespeare theme park. If you think it’s hard out there for a pimp, try being an Othello with a potbelly and a teardrop tattoo.
“I’m ready to make a move,” she wheezed through her third cigarette. “You with me?”
Ready to make a move. I showered in those words for a second, remembering how, back in the days before my stumble, they always meant something crazy and dangerous and rewarding.
I remembered how we made a move on that Indonesian opium supplier who made the mistake of carrying around half a million dollars in a brief case and wound up naked and broke in a Motel Six just past the Wisconsin border.
I remembered how we made a move on that napping mall security guard when we figured out where his keys were kept.
I remembered how we made a move on Fat Robbie, a rival pimp who picked the wrong hooker to muscle up to and the wrong weapon (a switchblade) to protect himself with against my Glock 17.
Mostly I remembered who I was back then – the biggest player in the biggest game. King of that sleazy, beautiful, fucked-up world.
But I wasn’t him anymore. And all I wanted now was to retire into a nice, quiet life, away from the dangerous game that made me a star among stars.
“Dee, those days are behind us, baby,” I said. “I want out. Don’t you?”
“Out? Tommy, who are you kidding? There is no out? Not for me anyway. What else am I going to do?”
“You’re doing this.”
“Yeah, and barely paying my bills.”
I had no reply.
“Tommy, if I don’t make some kind of a big score, something that gets me the hell out of here, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
Her chin got shaky and a trickle of a tear dropped from her eye. It was a performance. But a damn good one.
It was a role she could play to perfection. The fragile hooker in need of a rescue, not like the other stone-hearted whores. She was different. Somebody who could crumble like a fortune cookie.Somebody who meant it when she moaned and groaned. Somebody you could feel something for. Something real. That’s what made her the most skilled hooker in town. It’s also what made me break my one and only rule. The pimp’s version of not getting high on your own supply. Yeah, that’s right. I fell in love with Dee. A bad move, but there was no back peddling from it now. There was only surrender.
“Yeah, baby. I’m with you,” I sighed.
“We’ll talk tomorrow,” she said, easing back into the shadows. Next day I was right where she wanted me. And why not? She was my Dee.
We met at the food court on my lunch break and without delay, dove into a gripe session regarding the peculiarities of our workplace. We agreed that we’d seen enough ruffles for eleven lifetimes and that ‘iambic pentameter’ crap they made us speak to customers policy was too stupid for words. But the small talk died when Wes strolled up to us.
He had that apprentice inmate look I’d recognized from the joint, the look of a young buck searching for a face to bury his fist in. At Willy World he played Iago to my Othello; in the joint we would have called him a cutter.
“You talk to him about… the thing?” He asked Dee.
“I’m getting to it,” Dee sighed.
Lead-heavy glances all around. The glances of three people not sure who they should trust.
“They’re having this thing next week, the fat fucks who run Willy World,” she started. “A little informal after hours gathering in the basement under the food court.”
Wes jumped in. “Same story every year: they have these big investors over for a drink and a little strip show. Usually a poker game too,”
“Everybody knows about it, but nobody talks. It’s kind of illegal and shit,” Dee added.
Then Wes said, “Thing is, these guys come with cash just pouring out of them, begging to get robbed.”
“And that’s where I come in?” I asked.
“That’s where we come in,” Wes Corrected.
Dee said, “I’ve been checking out their routine for years now – even worked security for them one year. My supervisor Mike is the guy who puts it together. It’s not hard to get him to spill some secrets after a few cocktails,”
Wes said, “This should be an easy score. In, out, gone in three, maybe four minutes. We get somebody who wants to be a hero, we put him down. You cool with that?” Wes asked.
Dee answered for me: “He’s cool with that,”
Wes then broke down the blueprint. Me and him were supposed to rush in, guns drawn, and empty the place then get out in time for Dee to roll to the exit in the getaway ride. I had no qualms with the plan. The math added up. But something still shook me to the core – and kept on shaking even as Dee strolled away.
Wes studied his shoes for a moment, like somebody scraping up the courage to deliver bad news. “Look, about Dee…”
“It’s just… I don’t know about this Mike thing. I mean, can we trust her if she’s so friendly with this guy?”
This Mike thing?The man hadn’t even entered the picture. Then all of a sudden, he pushed everybody else to into the backdrop.
“You may want to watch her,” Wes said. “That’s all I’m saying.”
I nodded and shrugged as he left me alone with my uncomfortable thoughts. I shot my gaze into the distance, checking out Dee’s pasted-on smile for a few customers. It had never before occurred to me to wonder what was happening behind that friendly grin. The tricks were tricks. It was her job to jive them. But not me. I was her man, her big daddy, her meal ticket. But things had changed. And maybe she had changed with them.
I decided that if I was going to move ahead with the plans, I’d do it with both eyes wide open, trusting nobody. Not even Dee.
It started on a clunky note, a stumble. Wes bumped into a wall in the hallway as we edged toward the room. Stealing a glance through a side window we saw them all freeze into statues. But by then we’d seen all we needed to see:
Three empty suits – all drunk – awaiting lap dances.
A chubby stripper, too coked up to qualify as a worry.
A security guard, giddy and stupid.
Mike, less drunk than his buddies, but not a dude you’d worry about having to fight. Too skinny and nerdy to do any damage.
“The hell was that?” one of the suits asked. Heads swiveled. Eyes nearly popped from their sockets.
But no panic from us. So long as the choreography’s tight, the dance can survive a little clumsiness. We lost the element of surprise but regained it soon enough when we stormed inside with a couple of toys: my Lugar, wes’ sawed-off forty-five.
“We want everything you got and we want it now!” Wes announced.
We had them jolted them into instant sobriety. Obedience quickly followed. The stripper surrendered her tip money. The suits emptied their wallets. But something was moving the wrong way. The room seemed to tilt towards an uncool quiet.
Everything blurred into chaos when the security guard found the right open moment to fire a shot – it missed us, but kicked us off balance. The stripper’s scream didn’t help. Mike dashed behind a desk, drew a gun.
Wes took the security guard out; I shot the stripper in the knee cap, but that only made her scream louder. Only one way to take care of that. Wes put a bullet into her chest and swung to greet the suits.
“So we’re gonna’ have to do this the hard way, huh?” he barked.
Three more shots, three dead suits. Wes turned back to me. A lifted eyebrow seemed to ask if he did good. But my gaze was locked on Mike.
“What the hell is going on?” Dee called from outside. She arched her head in the doorway to spy the unfolding horror show unfolding inside.
The distraction slapped us off balance again and Mike – too cocky, too clumsy – lurched ahead, gun half-assed drawn, right into my line of fire, took one to the belly, one to the crotch.
“Michael!” Dee Screeched, her voice laced with enough regret to tell me something I didn’t want to know.
I wish I could say that my next shot – the one that split Dee’s face into a slow motion gusher of dark red – came from a slipped finger, an ugly accident that snuck into the fog of echoing gunfire. But I’ve been alive too long to believe that. I’ve seen too Goddamned much.
I’m not sure how I lasted so long in the flesh-peddling trade without being haunted by those faces: The businessmen, the lonely boys, the Michaels. I guess I just pretended not to notice their scent all over Dee’s body. It was probably just a matter of time before the demon dog snapped free from its chain. I could only ignore those faces for so long.
With the room now shattered into silence, Wes and I turned inward, shoving our guns in each other’s faces.
“Why the fuck did you do that?” he demanded, veins in his neck bulging into garden hoses. “She’s on our side!”
“I know who she is!” I answered. And when he shoved the gun’s barrel up my nostril, I could only repeat, “I know who she is!”
Wes’ eyes widened, searching for an answer. All he knew is that I had killed a member of our team. So his gun stayed put.
And mine didn’t move either, because I felt like I’d just been set up like a bowling pin.
We stayed locked in a standoff for hours, him sweating like the rookie he really was; me wordlessly begging him to shoot first, begging for a way home. A way out of seeing those faces ever again.