Sitting outside the back door of a strip joint at 3:30 a.m. isn’t as exciting as it sounds.
A bright red “NO ENTRANCE” sign above the doorway glared at the darkness, the only light up and down the alley. A broken streetlight hung over the sidewalk outside the club’s entrance. The trash bins crammed up against the walls were locked and rusted. Graffiti stained the brick walls with shapes and symbols I couldn’t decipher. I thought I saw a rat dart down the side of the building, but it may just have been a wad of paper blown by the draft.
At 3:45 the door opened. The woman I was supposed to drive home stepped out. “Tom? Is that you?”
I opened the door and stood up. “Hi there. Everything okay?”
“Yeah. It’s just . . . come on, come on!”
Her name was Alexa Spring—or at least that was her working alias in the Tiger Club. I’d met her in the manager’s office that afternoon. Alexa had been getting some disturbing text messages, so the manager—a woman named Kyra—had hired me to make sure she got home safely. I’d tried to tell her that I wasn’t much of a security guard. I carry a Taser sometimes, but mostly I run when things get weird. But someone had recommended me, and Kyra insisted I was the guy she wanted.
Alexa had a nose that slanted left, long black hair, and shoulders that looked like she worked out a lot more often I did. She’d been wearing a skintight black tank top and leggings when the three of us talked, but right now, in sweatpants and a gray T-shirt, she was somehow even sexier.
But Alexa wasn’t alone. Three other women stumbled behind her as Alexa trotted around to my front door.
"I'm sorry." Her voice had traces of a Russian accent. “I know it’s only supposed to be me, but can you drive my friends home? All their rides bailed. And getting a cab . . .” She squeezed my arm.
I shrugged. “Sure. Your chariot awaits.”
“Thank you.” Alexa twirled around like a—well, like a dancer. “Hey, girls, this is Tom Jurgen! He’s the PI Kyra hired. He’ll drive us all home.”
“Hi, Tom!” A long-legged blonde in red shorts waved at me. The rest just crowded around the doors.
They managed to cram themselves into the Honda’s back seat. Alexa rode in front next to me. She bent over, her breath against my ear. “Dawne just lives a few blocks away. Take her home first.”
“Which one is—” It didn’t really matter. “Everybody in?”
A foot pushed at my seat as I started the car. “Sorry,” someone grunted behind me. “I’m Nikki.” She patted my shoulder.
“Hi, Nikki.” What could I say? “Okay, ladies, let’s roll.”
I was pointed into the alley away from the street, so I backed up slowly as I turned on my headlights. I heard struggles with the seat belts in back.
“Hey, get your hand out of my crotch, you whore!” The dancer in the middle laughed.
“You love it, bitch!” I heard the seatbelt click. “There. I got it. Deep. You want me to help you down there?”
“Hey!” Nikki kicked my seat. “What the hell?”
Alexa clutched my arm. “Tom?”
I gripped the wheel. “Yeah. I see it.” Holy sh—
The beast lurched from the darkness in the back of the alley. Eight or nine feet tall, it had claws in its fingers and spikes of sharp bone jutting from its wrists. Red fur, burning eyes, yellow teeth, and thick legs that looked like it could hop over my car to the far side of the street.
It reared back on the pavement, arms raised over its thick hairy shoulders, and then it charged forward.
I kicked the accelerator. The Honda shot backward, and I could only hope that at 4:00 in the morning no pedestrians were walking down the sidewalk behind me.
I got lucky—or everyone else did. I didn’t hit anything, and I managed to twist the wheel, swing the car around, and shift into drive, all pretty much at the same time. Yee-hah! I hit the accelerator again and raced down the street, feeling like Steve McQueen in Bullitt. I even ran a red light.
The creature didn’t follow. I checked the rearview mirror and saw only streetlights and empty sidewalks. I eased off the accelerator, my heart still pounding. “Everyone okay?”
The back seat was silent. What the—? I glanced over my shoulder.
All of the women were suddenly passed out. Heads on each other’s shoulders, eyes closed, snoring softly. As if they were drunk. Or in shock.
But Alexa was still awake next to me. She grabbed my leg. “Tom?”
My fingers were tight on the wheel. “Yeah. What the hell was that thing?”
“I don’t know. But I can’t—we can’t just go home. Can you . . .”
The blond dancer moaned as if she was having a nightmare. Another one murmured a sleepy prayer in Spanish.
“Okay.” I looked for the right intersection. “Don’t worry. They can all come back to my place. And then we can talk.”
So I had four drop-dead gorgeous dancers in my apartment, and none of them remembered why they were there—except for Alexa. I offered them all the beer in my refrigerator, along with soda and pretzels, and found an all-night pizza place in my collection of delivery menus. “Pick whatever you want.”
“Tom—it’s Tom, right?” It was Nikki, the woman who’d kicked my seat. A tall black woman in jeans and a dark sweater, dreadlocks dangling over her shoulders. “What are we doing here?”
“You’re completely safe.” I made sure to stay far from the door so none of them would think I was trying to stop them from leaving. “But something happened when you were leaving the club. Tell them.” I looked at Alexa for help.
“There was this big monster.” Alexa looked from one dancer to the next. “Don’t you remember?”
“Oh, I know!” Dawne was the tall blonde in shorts. “It looked like King Kong. And Godzilla. Rolled into one. But I thought I was just having a bad dream or something. What are you talking about?”
“I don’t remember anything.” Marta was short and busty, with black hair tied in a long braid. “I want to go home now.”
I lifted my hands. “Fine. I’ll drive you, or call you a cab—”
“What thing?” Nikki narrowed her eyes at me. “I don’t remember anything after we got in this guy’s car.”
“I hired Tom to take me home.” Alexa swung her head from Nikki to the rest of the dancers. “None of you had rides, remember?”
“Oh, right.” Dawne crunched a pretzel. “Yeah, my boyfriend’s an asshole.”
Marta looked confused. “Wait—what time is it?”
A knock on the door. I hadn’t even ordered the pizza yet. I checked the peephole and stifled a groan. “Hi, Rachel.” I almost would have preferred the beast.
Rachel’s my upstairs neighbor. Kind of psychic. Kind of my girlfriend. Which made the presence of four strippers in my apartment—even with all their clothes on—kind of awkward.
“I sensed a disturbance in the Force.” Rachel’s hazel eyes scanned the living room. “Hi. Am I interrupting a party?”
The women just stared at her. Marta muttered a Spanish curse.
“Tom was driving us home.” Alexa came up next to me. “We’re dancers.”
“Oh.” Rachel stared at me. “Dancers. That explains it.”
“I was being threatened.” Alexa put a hand on my shoulder. “My boss hired him. And then we were attacked.”
“Attacked.” Rachel stared at Alexa. And me. And then at the dancers.
“It was big and ugly and—” Her hand dropped away. “Tom, who is this?”
“Rachel, this is Alexa.” I expected. “Rachel’s my friend.”
I tried to explain before one or the other slapped me. Or both. “She helps me sometimes—”
“Shut up.” Rachel reached out and planted a hand on Alexa’s arm.
“W-what?” Alexa tried to back away, but Rachel’s hands are strong.
Her eyes flickered, and Alexa flinched. But after a moment Rachel let her go and patted my hand. “Okay, I get it.” She shrugged. “Can I have a beer?”
“I think I’ve got one left.” I fled to the kitchen.
Like I said, Rachel’s at least a little bit psychic. Her powers aren’t all that consistent or dependable, but she can usually see things other people can’t. It comes in handy for me. Sometimes.
The dancers all let her touch their hands to read their recent memories. Nikki groaned, skeptical and suspicious, but Dawne giggled and Marta sat still, chanting the rosary.
The pizza came by the time I’d sorted everyone out. The carrier looked at me, looked at the women, and looked like he wanted to stay, so I tipped him extravagantly and hustled him out as fast as I could.
“Huh.” Rachel sat down at my dining room table with a frown as the dancers attacked the pizza. “Their memories are sort of shrouded, but what I could get was all pretty consistent.” She sipped her beer. “I could call Carrie. She knows a lot about creatures from other dimensions.”
“Other dimensions?” Nikki laughed. “What’s that all about?”
Rachel’s friend Carrie had helped us on other cases. She was smart and tough—and she didn’t like me at all. “Call her,” I said. “When the sun comes up.” I leaned close. “Does this mean you believe me?”
“More than I believe you could entice four women back to your apartment at the same time for any other reason.” She punched my shoulder.
“Ouch.” I looked at my watch. Pushing 6:00 a.m. “If anyone wants to go to bed . . .” Oops. I had only one bedroom. The couch supposedly pulled out, but I’ve never actually done it, and I eat a lot of chips there, so anything could be waiting. The bathroom was through the bedroom.
I sighed. “Or we could just watch TV until you’re all ready to go home.”
After a quick discussion Rachel agreed to take Nikki and Dawne upstairs to her place. Alexa and Marta could share my bed, and I’d sleep on the couch.
Rachel kissed me before she left. She likes to pretend that she barely tolerates me, but she gets territorial where other women are involved.
“Are you and her . . .?” Alexa nodded at the door when the others left.
I sighed. “It’s complicated.”
“I know how that goes.” She kissed me—on the cheek. “Thanks for doing all this, Tom. I’ll tell Kyra to make sure you get paid extra.”
“No problem.” I smiled. “Trouble is my business, right?”
I drove them all home starting at noon. Nikki thanked me. Dawne kissed me. Marta waved as she ran from the car. Alexa gave my arm a squeeze in front of her building. “Thank you, Tom.”
I watched her walk up the steps to her door. Yeah, I’m a guy. But I was waiting to make sure she got inside. Really.
Then I drove back to the nightclub. It didn’t open until 6:00 p.m., but Kyra would be there. And I had to talk to her.
Kyra was the Tiger Club’s manager: a short, squat woman with clipped black hair. I had the feeling she could have run a five-star restaurant or an infantry battalion with the same no-nonsense attitude.
We sat at the empty bar. “Yeah, Alexa called me after you dropped her off.” She lit a cigarette. “I got nothing. As far as I know, nobody’s ever seen a monster in our back alley. Rats, panhandlers, drug deals, yeah. Even people screwing behind the dumpsters—yuck. No monsters.”
“Alexa said she’s been getting threats?”
“Some weird texts.” Kyra showed me her cell phone. “Take a look.”
@slutalexa: Get away. The beast is waiting. #runrunrun
@slutalexa: That place isn’t safe. I’m watching. #watching
@slutalexa: You don’t want to stay there. #I saw you last night
@slutalexa: Beware the beast. #I’m coming.
The texts had all showed up within the last four days. “Beware the beast” was from yesterday—two hours before Kyra had called me. “Okay.” I handed the phone back to her. “I get why you couldn’t call the cops.”
“They wouldn’t do anything.” She tapped her cigarette into a plastic cup. “Take a report, tell us to be careful, all that. They think we’re all just whores who like to get raped. Assholes.”
I knew a few cops who didn’t think like that, but she was right. Too many probably did.
“I’m glad you got them all home okay.” Kyra rubbed her face, looking as tired as I felt. “Can you do it again tonight? I’ll double your fee.”
“S-sure.” The prospect of another attack terrified me, of course. But the double fee helped. Mostly, though, I wanted to find out what was going on. Before some young, beautiful dancer got hurt.
Okay, I know what that sounds like. But I have a problem. I can’t stop asking questions.
“Maybe you should hang around inside.” Kyra stood up and walked around behind the bar. “Keep an eye on everybody. Watch for the—the beast. That sound good?”
I tried to think of how I’d explain this to Rachel. Spend an evening in a strip club watching hot young women take off their clothes—for work? But Kyra was right. It could be my best chance to spot whoever was threatening Alexa. And the rest of the dancers. Half-naked, writhing, moaning . . .
I stood up. “Of course. What time?”
So here’s the thing: Kyra’s nightclub, the Tiger Club, wasn’t actually a “strip joint” in the full frontal nudity sense. In Chicago, a club can either have booze or naked dancers. It’s a choice. A few clubs within city limits do actually feature all-out nudity, but they sell soda and juice drinks and non-alcoholic beers.
Kyra’s nightclub was the other kind. It offered a full bar to make money off of drunk customers who wanted to gaze at hot young women as close to naked they could get away with: tiny bikini tops, tight g-strings, and six-inch stripper heels that no one can realistically walk in, let alone dance with.
Of course, what goes on in the VIP rooms in back is supposed to be secret. But I wasn’t planning to go in there. Unless my work called for it. Really.
At 8:30 the music in the Tiger Club was booming. Tables around the main stage were crowded with men—and a few women—watching Dawne climb a brass pole in the world’s skimpiest bikini. I took a stool at the bar, unbuttoned my jacket, and ordered a beer.
I spotted Kyra standing in a door behind the bar. She nodded to me, but we’d agreed not to talk while I was working. Two bartenders kept an eye on the patrons as they served drinks. One was a big guy with a shaved head and a friendly smile. The other one was shorter and skinny, with thick black hair and long arms. He joked and laughed as he served beers to the customers, but he watched everyone with sharp, narrow eyes, just like his partner.
Two other beefy men stood near the front door, and guy who looked like an NFL linebacker crossed his arms next to the dancers’ dressing room door.
I sipped my beer. Rachel’s friend Carrie hadn’t come up with anything on the monster. That was probably good news—it suggested that a creature from some other dimension hadn’t crashed through the walls of reality to invade our world. It didn’t solve the problem of who—or what—had attacked my car. Which left all other possibilities open.
Shapeshifters? Mad scientists? A deranged costume shop owner? My head hurt thinking about it.
Dawne dropped from the pole and bowed to scattered applause while waitresses in corsets and panties took drink orders. Then Alexa came through a door next to the stage in a black silk robe. A slow rock song came on.
As the music got faster, Alexa dropped her robe and spun around on the stage with her arms and legs wide, smiling as if she was having more fun than anyone else in the nightclub. She wore the kind of lingerie you see in a Victoria’s Secret catalog before hiding it in your bottom drawer—red and clingy, designed to entice.
Alexa danced like a ballerina, jumping high, sliding across the stage, arching back, then leaping up to do it all again. Sweat dripped from her skin as she twirled around, stretched, bent back, and kicked her legs high. She kept a dazzling smile plastered on her face as dropped down to the stage and rolled over, letting everyone get a good look at her butt.
Her third song was slow again, and she knelt at the edge of the stage, swaying back and forth on her knees as she gazed up at the ceiling lights. Men crowded around her, eager to fondle her legs as they slipped dollar bills into her velvet band around her thigh.
My throat felt dry. I waved for another beer.
Nikki mounted the stage as Alexa finished. She wore flat sandals and a peach-colored robe. She waited a moment, tapping a heel as the music came back up, and then flung her robe open, revealing a tiger-striped bikini and a fierce smile. The music roared around her, and her long yellow hair flew free to the cheers of the audience as she took a swing around the pole.
Alexa sauntered across the floor, taking more tips and exchanging kisses with men and some of their girlfriends as she made her way to the bar. “Franco! Give me a drink!”
The bartender with the shaved scalp squeezed her butt with a grin and squirted some water into a plastic cup. Alexa leaned back, gulping it down, letting some of the water drip down her neck and shoulders. Then she threw the cup toward a garbage can and kissed the bartender’s ear. “You’re the best, Franco!” she shouted as Nikki’s music pounded everyone’s ears.
She winked at me. Then she winked at the guy next to me. I tried not to feel jealous. She was working, after all.
Alexa spun around and made her back through the crowded tables until she reached the door next to the stage. She waved an arm, and a few people cheered in drunken response, and then she disappeared into the back as Nikki finished her second song.
I turned my stool and tried to concentrate on business.
I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Dawne. Her lips brushed my ear. “Buy me a drink. Hey, Tony?”
The bartenders were apparently trained to respond immediately to the dancers. Tony swung around with a smile, brushing his thick black hair back across his face. “Hi! Buying the lady a drink?”
“Uh, sure.” I wondered how much it would cost, and if I could put it on my expense account.
Dawne leaned close, holding my shoulder. “I heard them talking.”
What? I tried to remember why I was really there. “Who?”
“Sigmund! He’s one of the owners. He said . . . Sorry. I have to make this look good.” She ran a hand over my leg.
Tony brought over something that looked like a Mai Tai without the pink umbrella. Dawne leaned forward, rubbing her body against me as she gulped it down, ice and all. “Ohh, that’s good. I get so thirsty up there.”
I was pretty thirsty myself. “What about Sigmund?”
Dawne set the glass down. “He was talking to someone. He was saying, ‘You’ve got to do it again, tonight.’” She rubbed a hand over my shoulders.
I tried to remember what why I was here. “So who was he talking to?”
Tony slid her glass away. “Another drink for the lady?” He winked at me.
“Oh, I’m giving him a dance.” Dawne laughed and nudged my knee. “Hey, meet me up in the VIP room. I’ll be right there. Tell Pablo it’s okay.” She kissed my ear. “Hurry,” she whispered.
Never argue with a hot, almost-naked woman. I left my beer and headed over to the steps leading up into the VIP room.
The bouncer—Pablo?—stopped me at the top step. “Not without a dancer.” He had the build of a boxer.
I grabbed the short metal handrail and looked around. “That girl—Dawne? She said she’s coming.”
At the bar Dawne was chatting with another customer. Tony handed Franco a bottle that looked like an energy drink, with green and yellow stripes, and they laughed as Franco chugged it down. Then he poured another drink for Dawne and grabbed cans of beer from the cooler.
Dawne saw the bouncer staring at her and waved a hand.
“Okay.” Pablo stepped aside. “Three minutes until she comes up.” Then he grinned. “Maybe five.”
I won’t claim that I’ve never had a lap dance in a strip club. Or even that it’s always been for professional reasons. I will say that this room was better than most, with couches along the walls that weren’t held together by duct tape and chairs in the center that didn’t look as if they’d break if a customer leaned back too far. And the bouncers stayed in the shadows, not obviously intimidating the clientele or the dancers with their big muscles but ready to strike.
I saw Marta on her knees between the legs of a big man who held his arms behind his neck, staring down at her. On the other side of the room a busty redhead bent down and pushed her butt against a young guy with dazed eyes who was breathing hard. He reached out for her hips, then let his hands drop as if he’d already been warned against fondling a dancer.
I found an empty chair. Pablo kept an eye on me, arms crossed, and I figured if Dawne didn’t show up in two or three minutes he’d kick me out. I looked at the floor, wondering how much I’d be expected to pay Dawne, and whether I’d get reimbursed. I didn’t think I’d be able to get a receipt.
Nikki came up with a young guy in jeans and a black T-shirt. He looked drunk and nervous, a college kid trying to stay on his feet, overwhelmed by the music and the sight of so many hot half-naked women around him. Nikki led him to a chair and began swaying to the music, her arms above her head as the kid gazed up at her, his eyes dazed.
Pablo waited a good five minutes, but then he turned to shake his head at me. I nodded and stood up. Maybe Dawne had been waylaid by a fan, or just forgotten about me. I’m used to being forgotten by beautiful women. Sometimes Rachel goes days without calling me.
Then a scream rang from downstairs.
I lurched to my feet as the dancers and customers around me stared up and down, puzzled but not scared. Not yet. But Marta stood up her knees, her face flushed with sudden terror, and Nikki whirled around at me. “What?”
The red and white EXIT sign over the door in back told me to run. But the shouts and the crashing from downstairs reminded me that I was getting paid to be here for a reason.
I’ve never claimed to be very brave. But I had to see what was going on.
Nikki was right behind my shoulder as I leaned out of the VIP room. I gripped the metal handrail as she gasped. “No. No!”
The beast from last night was inside the club.
It swung its claws wide, slicing flesh and bone as it kicked over tables and chairs and people with its huge hairy legs. Its fur was already stained with blood and dripping with sweat as it lurched around the floor.
A bouncer tried to herd people toward the nearest exit. Another one panicked and joined the bottleneck, pulling a dancer out of his path and slamming into short a Hispanic guy in front of him as another dancer yelled and pounded on his back.
I looked for Alexa, but the nightclub was dark and chaotic. Maybe she was outside. Or hiding behind the bar.
Then I saw Dawne.
She stood near the stage, her legs trembling as if she was trying to run but petrified with fear. She tilted her head back, looking for help or somewhere to hide.
The beast lunged forward, swiping its claws through the air. Dawne whirled around, heading for the door next to the stage, but her foot caught the edge of the bottom step and she tumbled flat on the hard floor.
The beast roared and dove forward,
Dawne kicked a heel backward, crawling in desperation. But the beast was too fast. Too big. And too angry.
Dawne screamed again. I closed my eyes.
“Oh god.” Nikki moaned behind me. “We’ve got to get out of here!”
Yeah. “Let’s go.”
The creature reared up from Dawne’s body and jumped away from the stage, prowling the club like an angry grizzly in search of new prey.
A guy in a red necktie crawled backward across the floor, his girlfriend yanking on his wrist. The beast lurched toward them.
“Come on, Ron, come on . . .” The girlfriend froze, and then let go in panic as the creature trudged toward them, its claws dripping with Dawne’s blood.
The girlfriend scampered away in panic. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry—”
The beast rammed a heel down on Ron’s chest. Then it yanked him up, shook him like up and down like a broken toy, and flung him to the floor. Ron groaned, blood leaking from his skull. The girlfriend didn’t look back as she fled. I couldn’t blame her.
I had to get out. I looked for Nikki, but she was already heading for the exit in the back of the VIP room. I followed, my heart pounding louder than the music that was still beating the walls.
The exit took us down a short hallway past the dancers’ dressing room, and then another door that opened on the opposite side of the building that I’d waited in last night. Several dancers and bouncers were already outside on their cell phones.
I grabbed Nikki’s shaking arm. “Where would Kyra’s office come out?”
She blinked as if I’d spoken in Klingon, then shook her head. “I don’t know. There’s a window . . .”
Damn it. I turned around, trying to figure the building’s layout. Two stories. Kyra’s office was in back, behind the bar. I remembered steps going up. Would she and Alexa be able to get out? Or at least barricade the door?
I tried to talk myself into going back inside. I had my Taser in my jacket, but I wasn’t sure an assault rifle could stop that thing. I told myself Alexa would be safe. The cops would be here soon. They’d take care of everything—
Then the door opened and another dancer slipped out. So I grabbed the knob and darted back inside. Nikki shouted at me, but the closing door shut her off before she could change my mind.
I made my way back up the hallway, telling myself I was crazy. I didn’t have to worry about being quiet—the music still blared from the speakers behind the stage, but that meant I might not hear the beast before it was on top of me. So I went slowly and cautiously, half-hoping I’d lose my nerve and run before we came face to claw with each other.
The VIP room’s chairs and tables were knocked over, drinks on the floor, but it looked more like ordinary panic than the monster’s destruction. I crept along the wall to the edge of the wide doorway, leaned over, and took a cautious peek.
A beer bottle rolling across the floor was the only movement I could see. A guy in jeans and a sweatshirt lay groaning under a table. I counted two others, unconscious or . . . dead, aside from the man on the stage next to the pole.
And in front of the bar lay one of the bartenders. Franco, the guy Alexa had kissed. No shirt. Pants ripped. Barefoot. Like the Hulk after a major tantrum.
Alexa stood at the end of the bar, her eyes wide. Kyra stood behind her, one hand on her arm. We looked at Franco, motionless next to a crashed-over bar stool, the three of us thinking the same thing.
Then the SWAT team burst through the front door.