“You don’t think it’s weird? I think it’s weird, that’s all I’m saying.” Carver leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms, defensively. He looked at each of the other men at the table in turn, and then glared up at the woman on the stage, who had her legs wrapped sensuously around the pole. She noticed him looking and blew him a kiss.
There was nobody in the rail-row of seats in front of the stage, in spite of the relatively busy night. All of the booths along the wall were full, and most of the tables on the floor had somebody at them, but nobody was paying more that perfunctory attention to the girl on stage.
Except Carver. Carver thought it was weird that she had a big globe-and-anchor tattoo on her right side, just below the lacy bra that was about to come off. Again. There were only two girls dancing tonight, and they were on stage for three songs each, so Carver and the other men at the table with him had seen her clothing come off a couple of times now.
Not that they were paying more than rudimentary attention to the stage. All three of them were paying attention to the door: There was someone else coming in, someone they were expecting, and had been expecting with a growing sense of nervousness and unease as the dinner dishes were cleared away and a third round of drinks appeared. All of them were more or less fully engaged in pretending not to be watching the door closely.
Except Carver. Carver had his back to the door, so he had to find other things to worry about.
“Seriously, it’s a Marine Corps tattoo. My brother-in-law’s got one just like it, on his bicep.” He looked back up at the girl on the stage, who gave him a sultry smile. He glowered back at her.
“So?” The big guy across from Carver, a beaten-up looking guy called Shute, gave the girl on stage a long look, up and down. She was long-limbed and sort of sveltely thin — Shute would have said ‘skinny,’ which was not particularly to his liking, except that she had some musculature on her which accentuated the pleasant curves around her hips. She was the exact same color that Shute’s wife took her coffee, lots of milk and sugar, and she had a huge, rough-edged afro.
And the globe and anchor tattoo, right there on her rib cage.
“They let girls in the Marines now,” said Shute, who had a daughter in the Navy. He tried not to think about how close in age she and the stripper probably were. “You got to figure there’s going to be some ex-Marine strippers.”
“Sure,” said Campbell. Campbell’s basic function in life was to agree with Shute. “You know, I mean, when I was in, the Army I mean, I wasn’t actually in the Marines, in the Army, just as tough, that whole thing about Marines being super tough or whatever, it’s just bunk, just bunk, I mean Army guys are just as tough, on the whole… “ Campbell looked around the table, saw the eyes glazing over, pulled himself together.
“What I was saying, I mean, used to be this woman, dated three guys in my platoon, finally married the fourth, she had a big 10th Mountain tattoo, them crossed swords, you know, right on her… Listen, I’m just saying, she might notta been in, just been, you know, around.”
Campbell looked up at the stage and then around at the table, and got a naughty look on his face.
“She kinda looks like she been around, am I right?” Campbell cracked himself up. Everybody else at the table smiled politely, to show that they’d figured out he’d made a joke.
Except Carver, who frowned and looked back up at the stage, and then around the room. His beer was empty, and he hadn’t seen the waitress in a while.
“You guys want to play cards?”
The fourth man at the table, whose name was Adrian but who introduced himself as Ace, had a deck of cards between his hands, on the table. He touched the deck with one finger, reverently.
Adrian liked to play cards, especially, poker, which wouldn’t, in and of itself, be a problem, but that seemed to be the only thing that Adrian liked to do. And he wasn’t particularly good at it; he’d routinely lose all his pocket money at a casual hand of cards and then mooch off whoever he’d just lost his money to.
Nobody wanted to play cards. It was the third time he’d asked tonight. Everybody looked sheepishly up at the stripper, avoiding eye contact with Adrian.
“Where the hell is the waitress?” asked Carver.
The waitress, whose name tag said Jolene but who’d made it up while filling out the application for this job, was standing at her station, staring off into space, letting her dinner get cold. She’d been frustratedly waiting for a chance to have dinner — she was the only waitress on a busy night — but once she’d carved out the time to eat, skillfully balancing everyone’s drink refill expectations with the periodic rushes of new people, she was spaced out, just staring at the wall.
It was a rush, keeping the entire place in her head at the same time. She enjoyed the sensation of being totally engaged: fifteen tables, plus the bar — although the bartender was supposed to be keeping track of the bar orders, really all he did was hand them off to Jolene — and whoever was sitting in the stage seats: it was a lot to keep track of, and it kept her brain humming.
She couldn’t imagine how she’d done this through college. How had she had the space intellectual capacity to do homework?
Of course, when she’d waited tables as an undergrad, she’d been one waitress among a fairly big crew, at a fairly nice restaurant. She’d had, at most, five tables at once, and someone else was in charge — there’d been a floor manager, who was also the host…
She couldn’t believe she’d reached this place in her life, where she was fantasizing nostalgically about her college job.
This place wasn’t terrible. Most nights it wasn’t this busy, and the tips tended to be pretty good.
And if it wasn’t what she went to college for — if it wasn’t her true calling — well, lots of people had to play bills somehow while they worked at getting a toehold in their real job, this was no different, it didn’t mean she wasn’t an artist, it was just… temporary.
Hopefully over soon, at that.
She noticed, at the table with the four guys at, one of them was looking around for her. She sighed, heavily. The bunch of them didn’t have enough brain power together to hitch a tricycle to, but they were in here every weekend like they were the conquering heroes or whatever, the lords of the strip-club.
She put down the fork-full of cooling noodles and pulled her pad out of the pocket of her apron and walked over to the table with the four idiots, all business and bustle.
“What can I getcha?”
Carver had actually lost interest in the waitress, his eyes following everyone else’s and watching the girl on stage. It was her third song, and she’d managed to get rid of all of her clothing, and what she had underneath her clothing was worth seeing.
It was the third set she’d danced since they’d been in, but still.
“Uhhh…” With some effort, Carver tore his eyes off the dancer and looked at the waitress. “Another beer, okay?”
She suppressed a sigh. She could, she realized, have finished eating, and they’d just have been happy sitting here staring until the end of Rafeeqa’s set.
Rafeeqa had that affect on people, especially when her clothes were off.
“The rest of you guys want another one?”
There were a series of mumbles that she chose to take as assent.
What the hell, she had their credit card.
She had turned to go, but stopped, looking over her shoulder.
“You know that girl?”
She looked up at the stage, then back at Carver.
“Yeah,” she said. “I’ll send her over when her set’s up, if you like. Lap dance is twenty bucks a song, or five for sixty…”
There was a pause while all four men took in this information.
“She been here long?” Carver was looking at her, and not at Rafeeqa.
“I dunno,” said the waitress. “I only been here a month myself, she was here when I started.” A month, she though. Had it really been that long? Her life was draining away, one mindless conversation about booze and strippers at a time.
“You know anything about her?”
Well, thought the waitress, I know she has an IQ of about ninety and a passion for America’s Top Model.
“She was in the Army or something, went to Iraq. Not at the beginning, at the end. I dunno how she got here.”
Carver was thoughtfully silent for long enough for her to think about walking away, and then said, “You know what her MOS was?”
Motor Transport Operator, she almost said, but bit her tongue.
Part of the craft, she reminded herself sternly, was inhabiting other people. The Marine/Army gaff had been actually painful to make, Jolene the Waitress didn’t know the difference between the Army and the Marines.
“Em Oh What?” She made it come out impatient.
“Never mind,” he said.
The set ended, the mens’ attention wandered back to the vicinity of the table, and the waitress was able to extract drink orders: Whisky, whisky, whisky… and a beer, for Carver.
“Hey,” said Carver, “You remember to send that dancer girl over here, okay?”
The waitress shrugged. She didn’t like being ordered, but she was going to do that anyhow; now she felt like not doing it, just because the dude had told her to.
It was an irritating sensation.
“Yeah,” she said, “Sure.”
The new girl on the stage was plumper and blonder than Rafeeqa; altogether a pleasing bundle of corn-fed next-doorish goodness, but after Rafeeqa she seemed a little… heavy footed, a little… less… something.
It was hard for her to get attention when she alternated sets with Rafeeqa.
The waitress caught Rafeeqa as she came out from behind the little stage.
“Those guys at table six are asking after you,” she said. “I imagine you can get a dance or two out of ’em, but they’re kind of creepy.”
Rafeeqa gave her a big, shimmering smile.
“Thanks,” she said.
Rafeeqa was never anything but positive and smiling. Jolene wondered if it was some sort of natural chemical mix, or whether enough terrible things happening to someone can just shake them into a permanent pleasant buzz: Rafeeqa had been blown up twice in Iraq — if you looked, you could see scars on her left leg and a big one covered up by that Marine Corps tattoo — and come home to a boyfriend who married her and then started beating her; she currently had a little girl and a half a college education and that was about it.
Rafeeqa slunk her way over to the table as Jolene took the men’s drink order to the bar.
“Hi,” she said, bending over in exactly the right uncomfortable stance to make everyone at the table unable to respond. “Jolene said you guys wanted to talk to me.” She said it breathily, like she was in an old movie.
“Uh,” said Carver.
Shute glanced at Carver, grinned, and then let his eyes wander back to where Rafeeqa’s gravitational field pulled them. “What are you going to do, Carver,” he said, “Drag her into the back and, ah, interrogate her?”
“I…” Carver grinned back at Shute. “That’s, yeah, pretty much…”
“Man,” said Adrian, “I sure would like a private dance, if that’s OK.”
Rafeeqa smiled, and dimples appeared in just the right place on her cheeks. She looked like she was just hoping she might get to give one of these guys a lap dance.
“Well,” she said, “I think we can make that happen.” She held out a hand, and Adrian took it.
“Hey,” said Campbell, weakly. He’d been hoping to do exactly that, but he’d been too busy processing her perfume.
The three men watched Adrian led away toward a walled-off area in the back.
“If she’s an FBI agent,” said Shute slowly, “I’d like to sign up as an informant, right now.”
Campbell snorted. “Boss’d shoot you for sure,” he said. “He said…”
“Totally worth it,” said Shute. He watched as Rafeeqa disappeared behind the little wall; Adrian looked over his shoulder and grinned at the other men as he disappeared behind her.
“Does he even have twenty dollars?” asked Carver.
“Well,” said Shute, “I haven’t played poker with him today. Have you?”
“If she was an agent, she’d be an amazing one,” said Carver. “I mean… think about it, who’d say no to her? Everybody turns into an idiot when she’s standing there, and nobody’d ever wonder why someone went out of their way to do stupid shit for her…”
“Ha.” Campbell actually said the word “Ha.” Carver and Shute both stared at him. He looked back, suddenly confused.
“You guys need anything else?” The waitress was back, with a tray full of drinks. She set down three whiskeys, one, two, three, and the beer in front of Carver. “I’m going out and get a cigarette.”
“No,” said Carver, “I think we’re good.” He looked the waitress up and down. She had a good enough body, he thought, and wondered if she’d ever taken a turn up on the stage. Probably make better money.
“Good then,” said the waitress, and snapped the tray up to her chest. “Back in a bit.”
The waitress went straight out through the swinging doors, through the kitchen, and out the back door. It was a hot night, and the little yard behind the roadhouse trapped heat from the kitchen stoves, but it was better than being inside. She dug under her apron and pulled a pack of cigarettes and a lighter out of one of the waitress uniform’s pockets, tapped one cigarette out of he pack, took it between her lips and lit it.
Jolene didn’t smoke. It was part of the character’s differentiation: She always made a little list of specific ways that a character wasn’t like her, for use when she needed a reminder that she was playing a role.
Of course, the other use for those differentiators was when you needed to remind yourself that you were’t really Jolene the waitress. That you didn’t actually come from Sedona, that you weren’t quietly conflicted about working in a bar with a stripper pole, that…
The back door opened. She made the lit cigarette disappear, cupping it in the palm of her hand.
It was Luis, the cook. She wasn’t sure who else she thought it might be.
“Hey,” he said, looking at her funny. She remembered that Luis, unlike Jolene, often stepped out the back door for a cigarette.
She grinned at him. “Promise you won’t tell?” She made the cigarette re-appear.
Luis looked surprised, then returned her grin with the sly look of someone who’s been let in on a secret.
He lit his own cigarette and they stood out there, smoking together. The moon was out, not quite full.
The waitress could feel the nicotine flowing through her body, right out to her fingertips. She closed her eyes and let the sensation overwhelm her.
“Those guys at the table in the middle,” said Luis. “Are they some kind of, you know, trouble?”
She let the question hang in the air for a second, holding on to the transcendent feeling of a first cigarette after months of abstinence. As the feeling flowed away, she felt Jolene the waitress flowing away with it.
“Those guys,” she said, “are the worst kind of trouble.” She took another drag of the cigarette, held it, exhaled.
“Drugs?” Luis had seen a lot of movies, so he had certain expectations about the source of trouble.
“Land developers,” said the waitress. She looked at the cigarette critically, trying to decide whether she was done with it. She had a rule about not smoking them down to the nib; on the other hand, she wanted more.
“Land developers,” said Luis. “What’s… I mean…”
“You know how there’s like, a nice little town, and then some guys show up and start building things, and after a while it’s a shitty strip-mall-ridden suburb?”
Luis shrugged. “I guess.”
“Maybe a casino resort thing?”
“That’s those guys.”
“So… they’re going to build a bunch of strip-malls in the middle of the desert?” Luis sounded more skeptical than upset.
“S’how Vegas started,” she said. “Tiny-ass town in the desert, and then…”
“Yeah,” said Luis, “But that was the Mob, right? And that was Nevada, I mean… they got different laws there, right?”
“The Reservation,” she said, “Has its own laws, maybe easier to change than state laws, right?”
“Huh,” said Luis.
Fuck it, she decided, and lit another cigarette, using the cherry of the first one.
“So, what, they could just… do that? And nobody could stop them?” Luis sounded indignant, though what he was indignant about was anyone’s guess.”
“What, build stuff on land they own? I guess they can.”
“Somebody ought to do something though, right?” Luis was sounding more agitated. She looked over at him out of the corner of her eye, a hint of a smile playing on her lips.
“Somebody probably should have been at the tribal council meetings, like a year ago,” she said.
“Fuck,” said Luis.
She sighed. The cigarette buzz was wearing off, and she felt slightly nauseous, but the trick had worked: her Jolene the waitress costume was floating away into the desert night with the smoke.
The woman who’d been pretending to be Jolene smiled.
“I wouldn’t worry about it too much,” she said. “They’ve pissed somebody off bad enough that I don’t think you need to worry too much about them.”
“Yeah?” Luis was all caught up in the story now.
She ground the half-smoked second cigarette out under her waitress shoe; Luis put his out at the same time.
“Yeah,” she said, and went inside.”
When the door opened, everybody in the place turned to look at it.
The man standing in the doorway was wearing a suit that had obviously been cut for someone else; it hung on him. His hands were on the edges of the double doors, about head level, and he paused there, looking around the room, framed in the doorway. He obviously spotted the men waiting for him; they’d all looked up with various degrees if “thank God he’s finally here,” on their faces.
Except Carver. Carver had to turn in his seat to look at what everybody else was looking at, but the arm rests on the chair made that uncomfortable, so he turned back after getting a single glance, and then quickly got bored with waiting for everybody else to stop holding that dramatic tableau.
Adrian was coming out of the back, with Rafeeqa in tow. He’d decided that he was going to marry her; six lap dances had sold him completely. He was determined to ask her and get an answer by the end of the night; it never occurred to him that the answer might be anything but an enthusiastic “yes!” squealed at high volume while jumping up and down clapping.
He might have been right. Rafeeqa had enjoyed the company, had enjoyed the hundred-and-twenty dollars plus forty dollar tip, was feeling good, better than she had in a while. She was in the kind of mood where changing her whole life on a whim seemed like a good idea.
The sight of the man standing in the doorway brought Adrian up short. The stupid grin on his face broadened.
“Boss!” he said, loudly.
The guy in the doorway gave Adrian a nod, then let go of the doors and walked into the room, moving like he was very conscious that he should be walking like it was his room. He crossed the floor quickly and sat down in what had been Adrian’s chair.
“Boss,” said Shute, “It’s good to see you. You lost weight.”
He had, in fact, obviously lost a lot of weight, but the glare he gave Shute said he didn’t want to talk about it. Shute was quick enough to put that together with rumors he’d heard here and there and come up with a reason: Probably, he thought, it meant that the Boss was using his own product again. He exchanged glances with everyone else at the table.
Except Carver. Carver wanted to talk about Rafeeqa, who was holding Adrian’s hand and standing beside him.
“Boss,” he said, “Don’t you think it’s weird that a stripper has a Marine Corps tattoo?”
The Boss looked at Rafeeqa, first in the face and then up and down her body once, then again. She was wearing ultra high heels and a transparent neglige, so the tattoo in question was easy to spot; The Boss’s eyes settled on it.
“Baby,” said the Boss, “Where’d you get that tattoo?”
Rafeeqa had opened her mouth to answer when Jolene, the waitress, arrived. Jolene put one hand on her hip, holding the order pad, and was waving a pen in the other, like a conductor keeping time with the words coming out of her mouth.
“You want anything?” She looked around at everybody, and then at the Boss, seated in the center of attention. Everybody looked back at her as though she was a sudden unwelcome apparition.
Except Carver, who met her eyes, deliberately, and nodded, very obviously, then sort of moved his head to indicate the Boss.
Jolene brought her notepad hand around from behind her, but it was holding a short pistol with a big suppressor on it and an almost comically long magazine sticking out of the grip.”Michael Turner,” she said, and saw the barest hint of recognition of the name in the Boss’s eyes before she pulled the trigger and a single small hole appeared in the center of his forehead.
She turned slightly to the left and shot Adrian twice in the chest, then moved back to the right and caught Campbell in the throat, because he was diving for the floor; when he hit the floor he lay there and bled for a little bit before going still.
The gun was making these little “poot, poot” noises, like silenced guns do in the movies, which Shute knew for a fact was not what suppressed weapons fire sounded like. He was feeling an overwhelming and, he realized, completely irrational urge to correct her, to tell her that she couldn’t shoot people like that without making more noise, when she shot him, twice in the chest and then once through the bridge of the nose.
And just like that, in the space of about five seconds, everybody at the table was dead.
Except Carver. Carver was just gone. His chair was knocked over and he was nowhere to be seen.
The rest of the people in the restaurant were slow to react, those who even noticed something had happened; it had been surprisingly quick and quiet.
Jolene turned to Rafeeqa and smiled an attempt at a gentle smile. “Don’t worry,” she said, “Just tell the police everything, it’s going to be fine.”
Then she turned and walked back into the kitchen, pulling a rag out of her pocket as she went and carefully wiping every inch of the gun before wrapping it in the rag and dropping it into the big grease trap by the back door.
Then out the back door into the night, shedding waitress costume as she went.
It felt good to be practicing her craft again.