Chapter 1

Vox

 

     “What the fuck are you doing down there?” The sentence was spoken twice, each word assaulting my skull like a demented woodpecker.
     “Vox. Hey, shithead. Why are you spooning naked with the toilet?”
     peck, peck, peck.
     “It’s almost noon, and you’re gonna miss your appointment.”
     peck, peck, peck.
     With great effort, I opened my eyes a sliver to identify the annoyance so I could rise up and kill it. In hellish happenstance, my head lay positioned precisely where the tiny bathroom window intercepted the Tampa Bay sun, amplifying it into a death star. I bellowed like a crocodile-ambushed wildebeest as photon torpedoes incinerated my eyes.
     There would be no rising up to kill anything. At least not anytime soon. My mind meekly flitted to a memory from long ago, to when as a teenager I had gotten shit-faced on tequila for the first time, resulting in a declaration as earnest as it was ludicrous that I would never get drunk again. A vow I promptly violated the next day… and uncountable times since then.
     And what was this babbling about an appoint— Aphrodite’s Tits! My frayed mind vaguely recalled a noon meeting with Lester.
     The intruding voice rang familiar now, and I fully opened my eyes to confirm its identity. Yep, sure enough, it wasn’t a woodpecker at all. The Goat was peering down at me, shaking his head in pity. The Goat is the answer to the riddle of what abomination would be spawned if Tom Petty knocked up an actual goat.
     At least, that’s exactly what he looks like. His real name is Robbie, but I can’t remember ever calling him that.
     “You look like holy hell, Vox. Did you get into the red wine last night?”
     “Three bottles got into me.”
     “Well, unless you’re gonna have wake-up sex with that toilet, I’d suggest you call Lester and reschedule. You mentioned yesterday you were going over to his house today.”
     I pressed my aching forehead against the cool surface of the bowl. Sometimes it’s the simple pleasures that get us through the day. “No can do, Goat,” I groggily mumbled. “This appointment is no doubt the highlight of Lester’s week. The joy of yelling at me is the only thing keeping the fossil alive.”
     “Any idea why you don’t have any clothes on?”
     I attempted to think. “No clue. Maybe I didn’t quite make it to the shower, or I looked at this naked toilet and got horny. Either scenario is a possibility.”
     “That toilet obviously ain’t Valentina, but, hey, if you can’t be with the one you love, then love the one you’re with. I ain’t judging, Vox. There ain’t no shame. But you two please finish up fast ’cause I got to take a shit.”
     “Go over to your own damn house, then. If you’ll recall, I installed a brand-new toilet for you last week.”
     “This is my house, Vox, and that cuddle buddy of yours is my toilet.”
     What the hell? I probed back into the dense fog of last night’s memories, trying to remember how I’d ended up at the Goat’s. Nothing came. “Then why am I on the floor in your bathroom with no clothes on?”
     “The reason for this horrifying sight is exactly what I’m trying to figure out.”
     Christ Almighty. This was beyond pathetic, even for me. A new low had been reached. I tilted my ass up in the Goat’s direction and jettisoned a volcanic fart, redolent of garlic and cumin, causing him to shout in disgust and jump back into the hallway. “Give us five more minutes, bro,” I said, closing my eyes and flirting with the temptation of falling back asleep. Standing up wouldn’t be pleasant, and I needed every spare second of delay. “Call Lester and tell him I’ll be there in an hour,” I muttered. “Phone was eaten by a possum. Pink pterodactyl crash-landed on the highway. Whatever sounds best.”
     “Let’s start by getting a vat of coffee in you.” His voice trailed off as he walked into the kitchen. “And don’t throw up on my bathroom rug and make me beat your ass.”

 

—————————————–

 

     The grizzled, old bastard stood before me, quivering with rage. Everything was clenched tight—jaw, fists, brow, butt cheeks—every sinew and muscle taut and ready to snap. The former Marine was locked and loaded, ready for combat.
     “You dirty, sumbitchin’ Hurricane! They shoulda shut down your corrupt program when they had the chance. Bunch of convicts, clowns, and closet-shitters.”
     Each word was shouted with venom. Drool soaked his beard. When Lester works himself into a frenzy, the saliva and mucus flow freely.
     I wagged my finger at him while literally digging my boot heels into the ground. “Listen, you inbred Gator. That closet-shitting was alleged. And stop living in the Dark Ages. Nobody can compete with the University of Florida when it comes to arrests. They had to expand the jail in that shit-hole called Gainesville just to accommodate the football team.”
     A PVC fitting whistled toward me. I ducked just in time.
     “The only pitiful fools livin’ in the Dark Ages are University of Miami fans. Y’all love to bring up those five national championships you won when Abraham Lincoln was in office. Welcome to modern football, yearlin’. You know you can’t spell scum without U and M.”
     “You would remember the Civil War years, you petrified log of mule shit,” I countered. “I guess you’re too stupid to remember our championship years since there are so many of them.” I counted them off, enunciating each number slowly. “1983, 1987, 1989, 1991, 2001. Plus 2002, which we obviously won but were ripped off by the refs. It’s all about the U!”
     I ‘threw up the U,’ the signature Hurricanes gesture formed by vertical outward-facing palms enjoined by horizontal thumbs.
     “Aww, shut your dicksucker. You pussies are still whining about that Fiesta Bowl. The only U that U have to be worried about is that U can suck my hairy balls if U think I’m gonna pay $3,025. Plus, last week your imbecile helper rat-fucked my plumbing, tracked mud on my carpet, and raided my fridge. Vox, what kind of monster steals another man’s milk?!”
     “Damn, Lester, I thought the two of you would get along. He’s a lizard, too.”
     He shook his head violently. “You think you’re smart, don’t ya? Oh, I saw the italic F on his hat and started quizzin’ him. The hillbilly had never even heard of Two Bits. I suspect he’s a Florida State fan if the crossed eyes and rotten teeth are any indication. You gave him that hat to wear, Vox. I wasn’t born yesterday.”
     “Clearly. Judging by all the wrinkles, you were probably crib mates with Jesus.” I steepled my hands in supplication. “So, how can I make your world right? Ernie no-called, no-showed yesterday, so he’s fired. Granted, he wasn’t much to look at and had that blinking issue, but I’d been getting good reports from his customers.”
     Lester let fly a river of tobacco juice off to the side and slid a gnarled, cupped hand down his mustache and scraggly, gray beard, wringing out the accumulated gobs of snot and spit before wiping it across the front of his royal blue overalls. The triangle of a pristine, unblemished orange hankie, purely for show, peeked out of his chest pocket—its emblazoned Gator logo staring at me malevolently.
     Since the spit wasn’t aimed at my face, I counted this as a sign he’d vented enough anger and insolence to get down to the price negotiation stage.
     “I’m aware of the fact I need a repipe. However, this price is insane. I don’t mind helpin’ to send any orphaned runts you may have to college. I just don’t want to be the sole, poor motherfucker footin’ the bill.
     “I already charge you rock-bottom rates since you’re a longtime customer. How low can I possibly go before it doesn’t make sense to do the job? Also, these vans aren’t pulled by horses like in your day. They require gas, and gas ain’t cheap. How much did he quote you again?”
     A wrinkled claw reached in his back pocket, producing a furled-up copy of the quote. He thrust it forward for me to take.
     I hesitated… with good reason. The relic had taken swings at me in the past. Though Lester owns the hand speed of a sloth, one jab had somehow snuck through the year before, catching me on the chin when we were battling over the price to replace his water heater. It took every ounce of my willpower to keep from pushing him into the open tank, replacing the concrete lid, and driving off to Harpo’s Bar to properly commemorate the day with a frosty mug of Cigar City Lager. Sadly, killing surly customers is still frowned upon by the state plumbing licensing board.
     I guardedly reached for the paper, aware that Lester sports other weapons in his arsenal. He is gifted with deadlier aim than a spitting cobra. I grabbed it, retreating immediately. Thankfully, it was relatively free of slime.
     Sure, Lester’s bodily fluids are nauseating, but Lord knows I’ve dealt with a lot worse in my years of plumbing. Raw sewage is a way of life. Plumbers are constantly on their hands and knees in the vilest substances the human body excretes. Pus, ooze, snot, vomit, bile, sweat, piss—and, of course, the emperor who reigns supreme on his vitreous china throne—Almighty Shit in all his wondrous manifestations.
     The list doesn’t end there. Welcome to the world of the restaurant grease trap, the reek of which has no competition. Coagulated animal blood, fish guts, grease, sludge, and the stray decomposed rodent. When that toxic stew permeates your skin, infusing and marinating you with its wretched stench, a single shower, no matter how hot and soapy, is nowhere near enough. You’re even stinkier than if you’d hotboxed dog farts.
     And people have the audacity to bitch that plumbing prices are too high. Let ’em do it themselves, then. Hot on the left, cold on the right, shit runs downhill. Easy enough, right? One customer even commented that we charge more than some doctors. “We should,” I countered. “We still make house calls.”
     The invoice showed Ernie had quoted him $3,025, a very reasonable price for a three-bed, two-bath repipe with block exterior walls and tight attic space. If anything, it was slightly underbid.
     Where Ernie foolishly went wrong, and what I would have lambasted him for if he wasn’t already fired, was breaking the price point in the wrong direction. $2,975 sounds much better to the buyer and is more likely to sell the job. Psychological claptrap, to be sure—but nonetheless a fundamental factor in closing the sale.
     However, in this case, it wouldn’t have mattered anyway because Lester is too crafty to succumb to pricing gamesmanship. He just needs to hear himself bitch and moan. He simply wants to feel alive, to prove he’s still in the Game of Life, to convince himself a reason exists to wake up yet another day.
     His wife kicked the bucket long ago, and his children and grandchildren send their love via random Christmas cards. His only real pleasure comes from watching the Gators. Hundreds of Gator figurines, statues, banners, pillows, posters, pictures, and other paraphernalia infest his house. It wouldn’t surprise me if he owns a Gator butt plug autographed by Tim Tebow. I gag every time I’m forced to go inside, which is a few times each month.
     Nobody knows loneliness like the man who breaks his plumbing on purpose, then calls in for service. We both know his dirty little secret: that statistically there is no chance in hell all of his plumbing problems are purely bad luck. It’s a ‘don’t ask/don’t tell’ policy neither of us dares violate.
     Along with a few fellow, cantankerous geezers he plays shuffleboard with on Thursday mornings in Zephyrhills, I’m sure Lester counts me as sort of a friend. Truth be told, I feel the same way. I even once choked down two quarts of Mickey’s Malt Liquor, his preferred swill of choice, while we shot the shit on his back porch one day after I fixed a hose bibb that had mysteriously broken.
     “Lester, this bid is not too high. I maybe could wiggle around $50 or so, but it isn’t a crazy price. You could always call around for other quotes if you don’t think this is fair.”
     Pouring a bucket of diarrhea over his head would not have elicited a more shocked reaction. I’ve never seen anybody more aghast. Trying to form a sentence, his mouth instead gasped for air like a suffocating salmon.
     “You f-f-filthy ch-ch-chode yodeler,” he finally stammered. “You’ve sunk to new l-lows, even for a Cane. I’ve been loyal to your sorry ass for years now, even followed you when you started your own company. This… This is how you repay my loyalty, by tellin’ me to take my business elsewhere?” Rather than livid with rage like earlier, he looked hurt and betrayed, stabbed deep in his core. He reached down as if to pick up a stone and sling it at me, but instead sunk to his knees and bowed his head, thoroughly defeated.
     Hell, I felt like a dickhead now, but how could I have predicted these ridiculous theatrics? We’d exchanged the most insulting barbs imaginable for years, hurled lightning bolts of cruel sarcasm and heinous vitriol, told the other to fuck off innumerable times in brilliantly innovative ways. In this case, all I did was innocently mention he could compare quotes if he wasn’t satisfied with the price, and he crumples like a wide receiver who goes over the middle and gets flattened by Sean Taylor.
     “Easy, Lester. C’mon, man. I just meant that if you questioned the fairness of the price, you could verify it through alternative channels.” I gingerly walked closer until I was only two feet away, aware I was risking life and limb. Who knew how he would react in this state of mind? “Don’t take it personally. It was just a misunderstanding. I’m sorry, dude. Listen, I’ll knock off $100 to show good faith.”
     This close to him, the surrounding air was pregnant with the funk of those insidious overalls. I prayed I wouldn’t be forced to pat him on the shoulder or, God forbid, grasp him under his arms to help him stand. As much as I value a repeat customer, and as accustomed as I am to foul smells, physically touching Lester is probably beyond even what I can endure.
     He remained with his head bowed low, still as a rock, for another five full minutes as I tried to coax him back from the edge. After an eternity, he warily peered up, gauging the sincerity of my lengthy plea for forgiveness. “You sure you ain’t tryin’ to get rid of me, Vox?”
     “Only if you were a Semen-hole,” I casually offered. It was the perfect quip, exquisitely delivered. He chuckled at our pet term for an FSU Seminole fan. You see, that is the beauty and wonder of college football—I can despise your unholy fan allegiance to an evil rival with every fiber of my being, while at the same time respecting it. Yes, I want to bash your face in, yet I would be offended if you didn’t want to bash mine in, also.
     The best and most passionate fans demand hatred and respect and give it back in equal measure. Such a thin line, such a delicious paradox, such a tenuous balance—the Tao of college football. The clashing yet soothing duality of yin and yang played out on crisp, autumn afternoons atop lush, grassy fields with scantily clad cheerleaders jumping up and down.
     When two combatants can form a temporary alliance, a tandem despising of their common enemy, a special brotherhood forms, no less genuine for its impermanence. At that moment, though you hate him and he hates you, you both hate the other guy, and all is right with the world for a time.
     Lester and I, for all our vast differences, both detest Florida State with extreme malice. The synergy and camaraderie of our shared hatred is much richer and more fulfilling than any individual hatred can ever be. Knowing our kinship doesn’t last long doesn’t matter in the least. With a nod of reverence to Lao Tzu, we live squarely in the moment every time our mutual ire is directed at FSU, drinking lustily of the sublime, heady brew. Thoroughly enjoying every drop.
     “Thank the heavens for that,” Lester said with a serene grin, arthritic legs struggling to bring him upright. “I’d sooner eat a skunk’s asshole than cheer for those Trailer-hassee hoodlums.” That matter-of-factly, he was back from the abyss, acting as if his meltdown had never occurred. He’s resilient, if nothing else.
     “Amen, brother. So, you okay with $2,925?”
     He pondered this for a short time, pursing his lips. “It’s still pricey.” Another long moment passed. Pride prevented him from giving in right away. “I guess I’ll go for it. On one condition. Do the Gator Chomp out by the road where everybody can see you, and we’ll call it a deal.” He amused himself with this, punctuating the absurd demand with a loud cackle.
     The fucker can be funny on occasion, and I permitted a half-smile to escape. “Don’t push your luck, Mr. Watts. Your house backs up to a swamp, and I might dump you out there to crawl around with your own kind.” I threw up the U again and walked back to my van.
     “We’ll see about that. You better bring your Hurricane Army with you. And don’t send any more of your worthless helpers around here unless you want ‘em back castrated. Fuck you, Miami scumbag!” he yelled, waving merrily goodbye. “Tell that pretty Puerto Rican of yours ol’ Lester sends his regards. Let her know I have a medicine cabinet full of Viagra when she decides to kick you to the curb.”
     “Fuck you, too, Florida Goiter!” I shouted out the window as I drove out his dirt driveway. “Take care of yourself!” Turning right, I eased into the afternoon traffic on Gunn Highway, heading to Lola’s Goodtime Emporium for some much-needed hair of the dog.

 

Chapter 2

 

     Most people don’t realize the parallels between plumbers and strippers. I admit it might not be readily apparent, but think about it. Both are on the front lines battling the most abominable forces in the universe. You think bodily waste is odious? Strippers have to contend with something even more hazardous: the male sex drive.
     Take away the seven-inch heels and the sparkly costumes and strippers are really just working folks punching the clock, hoping the bouncers don’t have to punch any patrons who get too handsy. And just like plumbers, their services are desperately needed by society. The nation’s homicide rate would at least double if those talented ladies didn’t graciously shed their garments and provide an outlet to help quell the urges of heterosexual men. After all, plumbers lay pipe, and strippers create the fantasy of laying pipe by twirling on a pole. I could go on and on.
     By the time I reached the Emporium, it was still shy of 3 o’clock in the afternoon and the beers would still be 2-for-1 for a while. Plenty of time to get a sizable buzz going without throat-punching my already precariously low bank account. I still needed to collect the $4,937 that Mrs. McGillicuddy owed from the previous week when I installed a tankless water heater and replaced a shower pan. In retrospect, a price too low since I nearly got ripped to shreds by the lunatic parrot she gives free rein of the house to—a devil bird that, besides plumbers, also delights in terrorizing the lady’s PTSD-addled chihuahuas.
     Lola’s is like a second home to me. I’ve been going there since I moved to Tampa. The beers are cold, and the daytime girls’ hearts are warm. At night, it’s a meat market, and the chicks are all about making maximum bank. You certainly can’t blame them—after all, they’re businesswomen. But during the day you can have a relaxed conversation, just sitting around the bar, talking about life. A place where everybody knows your name. Kind of like the old TV show Cheers, except that Diane and Carla are tattooed and wearing thongs with glitter sprinkled on their tits.
     As is my habit, I nodded to the twin gargoyle statues guarding the front door before entering. Instantly, like always, I was struck by the transition between the world out there, full of honking cars and bill collectors, a place which often makes no sense to me, and in here, a fantasy realm of protocols I could understand and shadows I could (at least temporarily) hide in.
     “Everybody Dance Now” by C+C Music Factory pumped from hidden speakers, smoke swirled among the ceiling beams, and the rotating can lights and disco mirror balls pierced the darkness with a bombardment of orange, yellow, blue, and green rays—each exposing a strip of naked flesh for a tantalizing moment before winking out.
     “Hey, Vox!” came a call from the elevated DJ stand several feet off to the left. My eyes hadn’t yet adjusted, but the voice could only belong to one person: Tony Keyes, Tampa’s finest strip club DJ. I usually divided my time between drinking Guinness with Tony up in his perch and over at the bar chatting with my favorite girls. Tony has a syrupy baritone that wraps you up in a teddy bear hug. If you’re not careful, it’ll also hypnotically convince you to spend every buck in your pocket. I’ve seen dudes on payday empty their entire wallets into garter belts in less than an hour. Not surprisingly, all the girls loved him.
     We’re good friends, and I’ve been coming in so long that I remember the dinosaur days when Tony had to lug in his entire collection of songs each shift—stacked cases of CDs he wheeled around with a hand truck. Back before computers totally took over the world. So long ago that one of the girls from back then is not only a still taut, late-30s mom still climbing the pole at Lola’s, but her daughter—a precocious, long-legged vixen with buttery smooth skinis picking up shifts to pay her way through college.
     Kandi is the daughter’s dance handle, and she had just stepped onto the small circular stage fronting the bar for her first of a three-song set. She’s new to the game and still working on her routine. You can always identify the rookies because they all dance too fast, like they’re out clubbing. That’s what’s so comical about Demi Moore’s performance in Striptease. Way too aggressive. Moore was stomping and gyrating around the stage like a triceratops on crack. Awful technique. A true professional, a stripping craftswoman, knows that a sinuous, slow grind is far more captivating, and thus, far more profitable.
     “Tony! My man. What’s the word of the day?” He reached down and we fist-bumped.
     “Uh, Goldschläger, apparently.”
     His sly smile told me he’d already had several shots of the gold-flecked cinnamon liqueur. He usually drank beer during his shift, but every once in a while Queen Goldy would whisper in his ear that it was time to play, and Tony would succumb to her siren song. When that happened, no matter what subject you were on, he’d find a way to turn the conversation back to an ex-girlfriend of his we all called Fire Crotch, a red-headed dancer who two years ago had broken his heart by running off with one of the bouncers and getting married in Vegas.
     “Whoa! Remember, all that glitters is not gold,” I Iaughed. “I might catch up with you later, but I have an interview with a potential new trainee.”
     He shook his head in empathy. “Dammit, man. Seems like you’re interviewing every week.”
     “Nearly so. The labor pool for plumber’s helpers is a dumpster fire of pain and despair.”
     Which was true. It had been a revolving door of one shitbag after another looking to get paid, but without much interest in working. The few who did have a work ethic turned out to be even worse at managing their lives than I was at managing mine.
     “Welp, good luck, amigo. I’m working a double.” He held Goldy up high. “The Queen and I will be fucking each other’s brains out the rest of the night, and she’s got friends if you’re in the mood for an orgy.”
     Jesus, the poor guy was so bad off today that he wasn’t even using a shot glass. Thankfully, Tony has the highest alcohol tolerance in the known universe.
     “I might take you up on that, T,” I said and headed over to the stage to tip Kandi.
     “Hey, Kandi Cane. Those moves are hella smooth. I do believe you’re a prodigy.” I took out my money clip of dollar bills and slipped one in her garter, letting the back of my fingers linger for an extra second on her astonishingly soft skin.
     Kandi flipped her platinum blonde hair and launched her megawatt smile at my defenseless eyes, making my dick do an involuntary jig in my pants. “Thanks, Vox. A girl tries.”
     Feloni and CashMoney were sitting over on the right side of the bar. I snuck up behind them like a great white shark stalking unsuspecting seals, simultaneously grabbing each of their shoulders while popping my head between them.
     “GRRR!”
     They both jumped a mile.
     Feloni: “Shitsicle!”
     CashMoney: “Knob Gobbler!”
     I kissed each on the cheek. “Ahhh, I love it when you classy broads talk dirty. Anybody tipping today?”
     “CashMoney had a 21-year-old kid fall head over heels in love with her,” Feloni laughed. “Girlie got him to buy two bottles of Dom and eight dances in the back.”
     “Ouch!” I said. “That’s gonna sting when he sobers up tomorrow. You two forgot more about hustling than the rest of the dancers out there will ever know.” They agreed with a “hell yeah” and a dainty high-five of matching squared-off, bright orange fingernails.
     “Hey, Kim,” Feloni called to the daytime bartender, who was just finishing up at the other side of the bar. “Can you please get Voxy Man a Guinness?”
     I put my hands on her bare shoulders and started massaging them as I countered the request, “Hold up on that for now, Kim. I’ve got an interview to do in the back first.”
     Feloni sighed like a contented cat, relaxing back into her seat at my ministrations. CashMoney looked up at me through emerald green contacts framed by long, dark lashes. “No wonder Valentina keeps you around with those talented hands.”
     I gave her my finest wink. “You can tell her that personally. The third bestie in your triad will be swinging by soon.” Glancing at my watch confirmed I had to get my ass moving. Time to see if the interviewee had shown up.
     “Alright, ladies. Duty calls. I shall return.” I gave Feloni’s shoulders one last squeeze and turned to leave, prompting a mock pout from her. “Hurry back, Vox. CashMoney and I are gonna get nasty together on stage in less than half an hour. We’d hate for you to miss it.”
     “Missing those shenanigans ain’t gonna happen,” I assured them and broke into a brisk walk toward the back of the club with fingers crossed. 

 

—————————————–

 

     Back in the bowels of the club, past the bathrooms and offices and storage rooms, is a narrow hallway that doglegs to the right. It ends at a door that reads KEEP OUT – EXTREME DANGER in wicked, red letters. I placed my hand in the center of the door, closed my eyes, and mentally searched for the chimes which would indicate something had messed with my guard-spell. Pissed-off customers, psychotic parrots, and disgruntled ex-employees are bad enough, but for Kahunasthe self-appointed peacekeepers of the supernatural world—there’s always the chance something with magical powers is gunning for us. Good, no chimes. “Vuna vima quai mox,” I whisper-chanted, disabling my security system.
     I unlocked the door, entered, and flipped on the lights, checking my eyes in the mirror to make sure they weren’t overly bloodshot from last night’s drunken debacle. I crossed to the other door of the room, turned the deadbolt, and pushed outward. Sunlight streamed inside. Amazingly, there the applicant stood, right on time. A skinny, hipster-looking guy in his 20s with a handlebar mustache, a teal fedora, and a surprised expression.
     “Is this Kahuna Plumbing?” he warily asked.
     I stepped out onto the blacktop, giving the exterior letters a quick glance. “Yep, still there. Thank God. You had me worried that flying raccoons might have nibbled off the letters in the night. Congratulations, Bart. You’ve successfully arrived at Kahuna Plumbing. After you,” I said with an extended hand pointing at a rickety folding chair.
     The chair was dwarfed by an enormous Gothic desk—hand-carved from a single block of redwood—that I purchased years ago and have been lugging around ever since. The sides are swooping wings. It perches upon monstrous talons, and thrusting out of the front at crotch level is a screaming, demonic eagle’s head. The nightmare weighs over 800 lbs and takes up most of the room. He uneasily sat.
     I squeezed behind the desk into an equally bombastic, hand-stitched & brass-riveted leather chair—the back of which is extra tall to make room for the stuffed lion’s head roaring down from the top. Setting out my tatted, muscled forearms on display, I grimly looked him in the eyes and went as still as a barnacle.
     Poor Bart, his eyes darting around the room, looked like he was afraid of being devoured. Which was exactly my intention. It’s best to establish your tone right from the outset. Frame control is key.
     “Are you nervous, Bart?”
     “No, it’s just that, uh, I thought this building was a strip club,” he said, looking around the room, twisting a tip of his mustache.
     “An interesting observation. Do you often spend your time in strip clubs, Bart?”
     He sat bolt upright. “Um, no sir. I’m not interested in strip clubs. I’ve never been in one.”
     “Do you not like looking at naked women, Bart?”
     “No sir… I mean yessir. I, uh, very much do like looking at them. I just really don’t have much money, either.”
     I sat back and smiled, letting him off the hook. “To each his own, young man. But staying out of strip clubs is a wise decision, indeed. They’ll rot your brain. Now, you showed up on time, which is a helluva positive start, so we got that going for us. Did you bring your resumé?”
     From the manilla folder in his hand, he produced a single sheet of paper and stretched it out to me, careful not to get any closer to the hungry beak inches from his cock.
     I skimmed over it quickly. “Hmm. So, your only plumbing experience is that you worked with your dad one summer who, at the time, was a plumber’s helper? I guess that made you a  plumber’s helper’s helper?”
     “Exactly.”
     “Interesting. I’ve never heard of such a thing, but I guess conceptually it’s not out of the realm of possibility. Time for a short rapid-fire. Name two materials sewer pipes are made of.”
     He pondered for merely a second. “Cast iron and Orangeburg.”
     “Ah, Orangeburg,” I said with appreciation. “Bonus points for that. Do you know what a ballcock is?”
     “Yes sir. It brings water into the toilet.”
     “Which way do you turn a handle to shut off incoming water?”
     “Righty-tighty, lefty-loosey,” he answered without missing a beat.
     “Name two materials, other than PVC, that water lines are made of.”
     He looked up, searching his brain. “Copper and, uh, CVP… I mean, CPVC.”
     “All correct, Bart,” I said, nodding and folding my arms approvingly. “Great job. Especially for the helper of a helper. You might have some potential after all.”
     I wasn’t sure I could stomach being subjected to his mustache on a consistent basis, but I was desperate, and he knew some plumbing basics. More importantly, he didn’t have any stink of shitbag about him, which in itself was an improvement over the usual miscreants who bothered to show up. I absently looked up to the left at a spider’s web in the far corner of the ceiling. In all honesty, my gut told me he was the best candidate to walk through the door in a long time.
     “Alright, man. Here’s the thing. I’ve already ran your background, and it all looks good. I need a helper I can depend on. How does $18 an hour sound? If you show up when and where you should, steadily learn, and become more and more of an asset to me, your pay goes up. If you fail to do any of those, I will allow my eagle unfettered access to your ball sack.”
     I stood up and extended my hand. “Sound fair?”
     He visibly sighed, his shoulders relaxed, and he gave a relieved chuckle. “Deal, sir,” he said, standing and completing the shake.
     “Lovely. We’ll do your new-hire paperwork on the job site tomorrow. Bring your social security card and driver’s license. And call me Vox. I’ll text you the address. Be there at 10 AM sharp.”
     “Will do, Vox.” He flashed a peace sign and turned for the door.
     “One more thing, Bart.”
     He stopped, his hand on the door handle, and looked back.
     “For real, though. Stay out of strip clubs. Plumbers plus strippers equals combustion.”

 

Chapter 3

 

     After he left, I went back out the door leading to the strip club and reactivated the guard-spell. As for the exterior door, the gargoyles make sure every entrance on the perimeter of the entire building is protected from supernatural breaches. If you’re a magical being who tries to enter the building when and where you shouldn’t, you’ll soon find yourself obliterated.
     On my way back to the club proper, I saw that Slim, the men’s bathroom attendant, was now on duty. He’s an old black dude who’s been at the Emporium forever. He keeps the urinals full of ice (to minimize the odor), gives you a fresh towel after you wash your hands, and has an assortment of colognes and other toiletries at the ready to prepare you to go back out into the erotic jungle. His services are definitely worthy of a buck tip. Slim is so happy all the time that I wouldn’t be surprised if he smiles when he sleeps.
     “What’s the word of the day, Slim?”
     “Puuussssyyy,” he drawled out slowly, then belly laughed, his body shaking like a paint mixer.
     Just then, Tony’s unmistakable voice growled from the speakers. “And nowww, direct your attention to the main stage where two of our most prestigious members of the Big Titty Committee are going to thoroughly enjoy each other for your viewing delight and their carnal pleasure. They’re gorgeous, they’re talented, and they’re hotter than Hades: I give you… Feloni and CashMoneyyy! Gentlemen, get your asses up to the stage now, have your stacks ready, and… MAKE! IT! RAIN!”
     Only Tony can deliver such a compelling introduction. Though he was at the other end of the club, I saw him tilt Goldy up and take a swig. The bottle looked to be over half empty already. If he wasn’t careful, even with his legendary tolerance, Tony would be falling down drunk before the night was over. Fire Crotch’s betrayal must have been feeding upon him like a moray eel.
     Feloni and CashMoney sashayed onto the raised stage in their platform heels to an intro of Motley Crue’s “Girls, Girls, Girls.” Valentina, already seated at a table, spotted me coming and waved. I couldn’t help gasping. Dios mio! What a prototypical example of prime femininity in the Latina form— jet black hair, café con leche skin, big hoop earrings. Looking into her brown doe eyes for too long is as dangerous as challenging the sun to a staring contest.
     “Hey, señorita loca,” I said, stretching out in the chair beside her. “Qué pasa, mi amor?”
     “Hola, Papi Vox,” she said, leaning over to give me a peck on the cheek.
     In our on-again/off-again relationship, our current status, which could change at any moment, was on. She is a feisty thing, and I’m no stranger to doing stupid shit, so perhaps it was a foregone conclusion our path has been occasionally rocky. Tonight, she looked to be in a particularly affectionate mood, and I was ready to celebrate since it appeared I might have a new helper who didn’t suck.
     I flagged down the cocktail girl, GiGi, a tiny wisp with thick glasses and adorable pigtails. She’s still learning how to walk in heels and has already gone down twice during her brief employment. We all hold our breath each time she totters around with a full tray of drinks.
     “GiGi, darling girl. Could we please have a bottle of Rumple Minz and five shot glasses?”
     She chewed on her bottom lip while meticulously writing down the order on her notepad. “You got it, Vox. Be back soon. Wish me luck.”
     “One step at a time,” I called after her.
     “Five?” Valentina asked with raised, neatly manicured eyebrows.
     “Yep. The splendiferous Johnny Domingo flew in today and should be walking in any minute.”
     She clapped her hands together in delight. “Oh, yeah! I forgot he was coming this week. I’m sure Feloni is thrilled.”
     Johnny and Feloni were a relatively new item, passionately in love, and each could still do no wrong in the other’s eyes.
     Tony shut down the primary lighting, plunging the entire club into darkness for a moment before dramatically switching on a trio of spotlights zeroed in on the girls. They were now facing each other and holding hands at center stage. “Locked Out of Heaven” by Bruno Mars started up.
     Females learn early on that almost all heterosexual men like watching them together. Even if a chick isn’t bisexual, she’s rewarded by acting as if she is. For dancers, monetarily speaking, there’s a distinct advantage in performing with other women. Nothing opens up wallets faster. Both Feloni and CashMoney didn’t have to pretend to be attracted to each other, plus they were gorgeous and highly experienced in the art of stripping. I guarantee everyone huddled around the stage would have chosen to be there rather than anywhere else in the world. Two divinely talented artists, at the height of their powers, crafting a masterpiece.
     CashMoney played the aggressor and reached around to cup the back of Feloni’s head, bringing their mouths ever closer together. The entire club held its breath in anticipation. Finally, CashMoney’s tongue slipped out and joined with her friend’s in a long, luxurious kiss, causing the latter to emit a small moan in the back of her throat.
     At one point, Feloni sucked on CashMoney’s tongue in a languid pull, as if trying to seductively siphon gas. Every movement was slow and smooth, yet seething with barely restrained power. Each woman’s hands squeezed the other’s ass as they leaned even deeper into the kiss. The air pulsed with raw estrogen. Tops were removed, and they caressed each other’s heavy breasts.
     Down to the floor they descended. Inch by inch. Each lost in the other. Once there, Feloni laid on her back, her dirty blonde hair fanned out, and CashMoney, her signature dollar-sign tramp stamp ablaze in neon green, gracefully spun around on top until they were in a classic 69 position.
     Normally, they wouldn’t have gone much further because Hillsborough County ordinances were very clear that overt sex acts in strip clubs were illegal, and the club would be fined upon a confirmed violation. But that day there was no doubt in anyone’s minds what was going to happen next. The women were too far gone. Even the daytime manager, Conway, was leaning over the stage railing—his eyes as big as Feloni’s areolas—mentally urging them on.
     Once Feloni felt CashMoney slip her pink thong aside and go down on her, she returned the favor in kind. The crowd, already surging with the fury of caged baboons, exploded in cheers, creating a transcendent energy which fueled each woman to explore the other even more intensely. Their hips rhythmically pumped to the music, bringing probing tongues ever deeper into molten loins.
     Valentina reached under the table and grabbed my dick, which was as hard as an Applied Quantum Mechanics course at M.I.T. I glanced over, and she was staring straight ahead at her two friends, utterly spellbound— just kneading me through my pants and taking shallow chest breaths.
     By this time, around a dozen guys leaned over the railing, each with a thick payload. Their hands were a blur as they blazed through the stacks, rocketing greenbacks into orbit one by one. In another dimension, the ghost of George Washington smiled. On and on they went until you could barely see the chicks anymore because the air was so choked with bills floating down atop them. In all my years of going to strip clubs, I’ve never seen such a torrential rainstorm.
     The song was nearing its end, and Feloni was the first to cum, shouting her pleasure loud enough for half of Tampa Bay to hear. A couple of seconds later, CashMoney followed suit, arching her back like a shuddering she-beast and moaning Feloni’s name over and over again.
     Valentina was now desperately trying to get my dick out of my pants, but right then GiGi showed back up with the bottle of liqueur and shot glasses all miraculously intact on her tray. Against all odds, despite the commotion and with virtually no lighting by which to see, she had somehow made it back unscathed and in remarkably fast time.
     I was a reamed-out husk, barely able to talk, and Valentina was visibly panting, her eyes glazed over. GiGi set everything on the table and smiled down sweetly, patiently waiting for me to settle the bill.
     “Just put it on my tab, GiGi, and give yourself $10,” I croaked. “And please put another bottle on ice for us.”
     “Thanks, Vox,” she beamed and carefully shuffled away.
     Feloni and CashMoney were now collecting all the bills carpeting the floor, which were so plentiful they were stuffing them into a Home Depot five-gallon bucket.
     I felt a big hand squeeze my shoulder and looked up to see Johnny Domingo shaking his mocha-complected, bald head back and forth at Valentina and me, his amusement at our condition evidenced by his knowing grin. “Aloha, Johnny,” I managed breathlessly. “What’s the word of the day?”
     “Downpour,” he laughed in his Barbadian accent. “Obviously one of biblical proportions, my Kahuna brother.” He glanced over at the women still gathering money. “I am not sure what I missed, but I know a dawdling Uber driver who will find himself at the bottom of Tampa Bay if I ever run into him again.”

 

—————————————–

 

     Not long after the deluge, Valentina had to leave after getting a call that her mom had tripped and fallen, possibly breaking her arm. But not before she reminded me to exercise some maturity and refrain from going hog wild on the Rumple Minz. There was direct causality between me drinking too much of the peppermint-flavored 100-proof howitzer and trouble ensuing.
     I nodded agreeably at her indisputable words of wisdom, then immediately forgot about them when she was out of sight. By the time the first bottle had been vanquished, the remaining four of us—Johnny, Feloni, CashMoney, and I—were on the path to getting smashed.
     GiGi stopped by to inquire if we were ready for the second bottle, which turned out to be Johnny’s cue. He turned to me. “Mr. Montague, I think it’s time my love and I get some alone time. I’ll let you know when I resurface.” Even though Johnny and I had business to attend to during his visit to Tampa, understandably his first priority was to take Feloni on a trip between the sheets to Pound Town.
     They got up to leave and Feloni smiled, wagging a finger at us. “Be careful now. You two are too much alike for your own good. Get home safely.”
     “No problem,” I scoffed at her. “You just make sure your sex jaguar doesn’t accidentally break you in half.”
     The women hugged goodbye, and Johnny and I fist-bumped. Now only two soldiers remained in the battle against the enemy of sobriety. “What do you think?” I asked. “Do we take the coward’s way out and give up the fight, or do we move on to bottle number two?”
     CashMoney looked directly into my eyes, and the corners of her mouth curled into a Grinch smile. “Número dos,” she purred.

 

—————————————–

 

     I remember only two episodes between the span of opening the second bottle of Rumple Minz and waking up the next morning—each lasting barely more than a minute.
     In the first, I was suddenly aware of lying on soft sheets, my head slumped to the side. A thin rivulet of drool pooled on my shoulder. The lights were on. It seemed important to know the time. Hoping I had made it back to my house, I groggily tried to spot my Sebastian the Ibis (the mascot of the Hurricanes) alarm clock on the nightstand. Aha! There it was. 943943943 o’clock. What the hell? I was so wrecked that I was seeing triple. I felt motion above and looked up to witness three CashMoneys straddling me, wrestling with the clasps of their bras.
     Hmm, how did this interesting development transpire? Finally, they succeeded, and six magnificent breasts spilled out. Of course, I’d always fantasized about fucking CashMoney. I mean, who hadn’t? Even though I couldn’t remember how we’d gotten back to my house or why she was in my bed, it seemed a shame not to find out what those udders of perfection felt like. I reached up and took the middle ones in my hand, giving them a little squeeze. Apollonia’s Udders! They were even more divine than I’d anticipated.
     What Valentina tried earlier, CashMoney accomplished: my dick was firmly in her grasp. Against all odds, my stalwart soldier was saluting and ready for duty. This definitely wasn’t a wise decision, though it wasn’t like I was going to put a halt to the festivities.
     She lifted up a bit in an attempt to impale herself on me but was looking more and more unsteady by the second. Just then, the Rumple Minz battering ram circled around again, head-butting me back into the void. The last thing I recall before going back under the waves was CashMoney falling forward and a titty plugging my open mouth like a cork.

 

—————————————–

 

My second memory was the sound of jangling keys bringing me back from the depths of unconsciousness so quickly that I was momentarily overtaken by the bends. Keys can be a signal which smacks your primitive brain in the mouth. Wake up, moron! Mayday! Mayday!
     Unfortunately, CashMoney was still passed out cold on top of me and—though probably only 120 pounds at the most—in my feeble state, she felt like 120 tons. I spit out my breast pacifier and strained to rise, but could get nowhere. Sooo heaaavy.
     Without warning, time down-shifted into slow motion. Turning as if in cold honey, I looked over at the clock and this time could see clearly enough. 11:08. It took an eternity to move my eyes to the window. There was no light coming from between the blind slats, so it must have been 11:08 PM. Who else had keys other than me?
     Oh, fuck! Did Valentina have a set? With the speed of a lobotomized snail, I again tried to extricate myself but was backhanded with fatigue for my effort. “CashMoney!” I tried to say, though what came out is anybody’s guess. She didn’t respond.
     Because security is such a concern to me, when I first moved in, I strategically hung a full-length mirror outside the room so I can see the front door when I’m in bed. Since I always keep my bedroom door open, CashMoney and I would be on full display for whoever possessed those keys.
     Without warning, slow motion further down-shifted into park. Now I couldn’t move a muscle. I tried again to rouse CashMoney, but found I couldn’t even speak. I was completely immobilized, trapped with no possibility of escape. Like a torture victim with toothpicks holding open his eyelids, all I could do was stare helplessly at the front door.
     The knob turned. The front door opened. My Puerto Rican princesa stepped into view. Her chocolate brown eyes scanned the living room/kitchen area as her flawless lips parted. “Vo-ox,” she called, turning my name into two playful syllables. “Mamacita is gonna ride you like Secretariat. We’re gonna win the Triple Cr—”
     Right then, our eyes met in the mirror. Her expression was quizzical. She couldn’t comprehend what she was seeing. The poor thing was in shock. And I wasn’t the only one looking at her. The succulent ass and neon-green tat of CashMoney—one of her best friends since elementary school—had their gazes locked on Valentina as well.
     Finally, realization set in. Fury overwhelmed mi Boricua. Her eyes flared with hatred. “You fucking cunts,” she hissed. “Burn in hell!”
     She slammed the door behind her so hard that the mirror fell to the floor and shattered. Still frozen, my eyes glued to the now-bare wall, I heard her BMW tear off down the road. Within seconds, I returned to oblivion, serenaded by CashMoney’s soft snoring.

 

Chapter 4

 

     The bizarre thing about Rumple Minz is even though I have blackouts and it hammers the piss out of me—particularly when I don’t drink responsibly—I’m not hungover in the slightest the next morning. My theory is that by not walloping me with physical pain, it hopes I’ll return to its fiendish embrace that much sooner.
     So, as I turned north on Dale Mabry Hwy to meet up with Bart at the first plumbing call of the day near the Bucs stadium, my head was fine. It was the rest of me in tatters.
     What a back-alley abortion of events. Damn you to hell, Herr Minz, you traitorous scoundrel! Understandably, Valentina was convinced I’d fucked CashMoney, though I’d barely even enjoyed a titty squeeze. I always suspected she’d fit me as tight as an O.J. glove. Not only was I still as clueless as ever about that, but now we’d both get blamed as if we’d banged all night.
     When I awoke that morning, she was already gone and probably didn’t even know Valentina had walked in on us. Valentina and I have a unique relationship in that our problems aren’t about me running around. She knows I sometimes stray and tolerates it. Her rules are:

     (1) Keep it out of my face. I won’t look for other women, but I damn well better never hear about it.
     (2) Don’t get another woman pregnant.
     (3) If you give me a disease, I will literally kill you.
     (4) Never mess around with one of my friends.

     Coolest chick ever, right?
     And I had turned belly-up to my demons like the coward I am, projectile-shitting all over an ideal situation. It could be argued that it wasn’t my intention to get CashMoney in the sack. And I’m positive it wasn’t. But she’d ended up there, nevertheless.
     What’s the verdict, Your Honor?
     Guilty as charged! Off to the guillotine to have your dick chopped off. And may God have mercy on your soul.
     Undeniably true. All of it. But, of course, my romantic dilemmas had nothing whatsoever to do with being able to pay bills, while selling this job and getting paid most certainly did. In addition, if I was tossed out on my ass, I couldn’t eat or fulfill my obligations as the Kahuna of Central Florida. Financial survival is what I needed to focus on at the moment. That and getting at least some control over my drunkardly ways.
     I whispered a prayer as I turned right onto MLK Blvd. “Please let Bart be waiting at the house.”
     A few streets down, I hung a left, and, lo and behold, thank the heavens, hallelujah, there he was, leaning against a beat-up Subaru Outback, eating a donut and twirling on his mustache.
     I pulled my van in behind him, walked over, and with genuine joy hugged the confused lad. Maybe the day wouldn’t be an absolute disaster after all.

 

—————————————–

 

     That first call went swimmingly well. I was a little leery at first because when I asked the customer what his issues were, he just mumbled incoherently, pointed, and then shuffled behind us with his head slightly upturned and his mouth open, like a basking shark skimming for plankton.
     Thankfully, he turned out to be reasonably sane—which often isn’t the case with customers. Bart and I ended up installing a shower valve, relieving a laundry line blockage, and replacing two shut-off valves for $1,299. Cha-ching. On top of that, Bart passed his first test. With new trainees, at some point on their first day, I’ll ask them, “You know what a pipe stretcher is, right?” For those foolish enough to shake their head yes, I send them out to my van to retrieve one. There’s no such tool. Think about it. How the hell are you gonna stretch a pipe? I’ve had dudes rooting around out there for the better part of an hour, tearing their hair out with frustration. Bart cool-headedly thought about it for a scant few seconds before proclaiming that he was sure pipe stretchers didn’t exist. Yes! More and more, Bart was proving himself not to be an idiot.
     After we finished that job, he followed me to a Chick-fil-A, which was on the way to our next call. We ate a delicious lunch of chicken sandwiches, waffle fries, and strawberry lemonade (a secret menu item). After gorging ourselves, the plan was to leave his car at the restaurant and he’d ride with me for the rest of the day. Though I’d given the cab a once-over in an attempt to hide my degenerate ways, an empty can of Dos Equis had somehow materialized from God-knows-where and was waiting patiently on the recessed step. When Bart opened up the passenger door, it fell at his feet in greeting. He just placed it on the floorboard as if nothing had happened, and neither of us spoke of the incident further.
     Two more profitably completed jobs followed, Bart continued to shine, and a day which had started like a sinking Titanic had somehow righted itself. The wind was now at our backs, and we were sailing along smoothly on calm waters, under blue skies, with no icebergs in sight.
     The last call of the day was an especially easy one. I had already pre-sold it over the phone for $275. We just had to replace a customer-provided toilet. Barely any parts cost meant another nice chunk of change in my bank account.
     Beep, beep, beep. Back up the money truck.
     I even let Bart take command of the job. Knock on the door, establish rapport, fill out the invoice. Bing, bam, boom. Yesterday his handlebar mustache annoyed me, but today I realized it was actually endearing.
     Bart said he’d replaced a toilet before, so I just sat on the edge of the tub watching. My mind ostensibly supervised, but every couple of minutes it decided to revisit last night—alternating between still shots of CashMoney’s extraordinary tits and Valentina’s stunned expression of disbelief—before returning to the present task of monitoring Bart.
     To replace a toilet, you first have to turn off the shut-off valve, then disconnect the hose fastening it to the tank. He’d completed that step. His attention now was on removing the toilet. As often happens, the bolts securing the toilet bowl to the floor were rusted on. Unfortunately, he couldn’t just unscrew them. Which is why Bart had a Dremel tool plugged in to cut off the frozen nuts. He would just use brand-new nuts & bolts instead of the existing ones. I looked on in admiration at the steadiness of his hands.
     The shut-off valve, though it appeared to be structurally sound, had started leaking a tad. Happens a lot. It wasn’t completely shutting off, and water was barely dripping from the end of the tubing onto the floor. Nothing major, but enough to form a little puddle that was slowly getting bigger. The Dremel was plugged-in an electrical tool. As we all know, water and electricity don’t make compatible bedfellows.
     I had just returned from another replay-loop and immediately grasped the situation. I was about to instruct Bart to tweak the valve a hair more to stop the drip and towel up the water. Smart guy that he is, he’d also noticed the potential issue and was proceeding to do that very thing.
     He lightly grasped the football-shaped handle of the valve and nudged it clockwise. The leak stopped, he allowed himself a barely discernible fist clench of approval, and then a micro-moment later, the shut-off valve flew across the room, slamming into my shinbone. I howled like a werewolf caught in a bear trap. Hell hath no fury like an open pipe at full pressure. Like a firehose, water blasted from the pipe, instantly beginning to flood the bathroom. It was a jailbreak, and every water molecule sprinted toward freedom. Very quickly, the rest of the houseincluding the hardwood floors just a few feet away in the hallwaywould be flooded, too.
     Bart, who was on his hands and knees, yelped and instinctively tried to scramble to his feet. He almost got vertical but slipped and crashed to the tile.
     Despite my shin, the rapidly worsening water situation was obviously the top priority. Floods can be a company-killer. Besides a fire, nothing can fuck up a house quicker or more destructively than rampaging water with menace on its mind.
     I extended my hands toward the pipe and in a kind of Karate Kid ‘wax on, wax off’ manner, rotated them inward in small circular motions. “Veena tom bok kwai,” I whisper-chanted. The water spewing out of the pipe instantly stopped. Not a drop more ventured past the lip. Next, I brought my hands to waist level, palms facing up, rapidly fluttering them for several seconds.
     “Zeely con zub kwai.” Still vibrating, I slowly raised them up to shoulder height. At that, all the water on the floor floated up in individual droplets, merging into a single body, awaiting my instructions. I thrust my hands toward the bathtub. The water instantly obeyed, funneling into a liquid rope and obediently pouring over the edge. The floor was now bone-dry.
     I looked over at Bart. He’d managed to struggle to a sitting position with his back against the wall and couldn’t have been more baffled than if I had shape-shifted into a walrus and started singing the chorus to “Let It Go.”
     His right eyelid and cheek began to twitch.
     “Listen carefully,” I said with a voice of confident authority. “The homeowner is probably coming through that door at any moment. Don’t say a word. There’s no telling how much she heard.”
     Sure enough, shortly thereafter we heard the sounds of her shuffling our way.
     The door opened and she stuck her head in, her White Shoulders perfume leading the charge. “Would you boys like an egg salad sandwich? I don’t put relish in mine. Nothing I hate worse than egg salad that tastes like you’re eating dessert.”
     Bart just twitched and stared at her.
     “Thank you so much, Mrs. Hankerson. We’re fine. Just taking a little break.”
     “How ’bout a glass of water, then?” she asked.
     “No ma’am. We’ve had all the water we can handle. You’re too kind. Don’t worry about us.”
     “Okie-dokie,” she said, closed the door, and shuffled back from whence she came.  

 

—————————————–

 

     My shin throbbed like a bitch, but Bart was worse off. His ankle was already swelling, and he couldn’t put any weight on it. After making sure Mrs. Hankerson was out of sight, I carried him out to the van and propped his foot on the dashboard. I grabbed some ice out of the cooler, stuffed it into a trash bag, and wrapped it around his ankle with duct tape. All the while, not a single word was spoken about my demonstration of water power. It was possible he was in complete denial and had already locked that memory away in a vault, pitching it over the side into the Mariana Trench of his subconscious. Better that than a blown mind.
     All he said over and over was, “I’m so sorry, dude. I’m so sorry.” His eyes were vacant, and both hands now twirled his mustache in overdrive. I didn’t know how much more his poor handlebars could take.
     “No problemo, jefe. I’ll finish up and be right back. You sit tight. And make sure to keep your foot elevated.”
     Within twenty minutes, we were on State Road 54, returning to Tampa from Wesley Chapel. Bart had regained some of his composure. His twirling was reduced back down to one hand, the twitch was mostly gone, and he wasn’t constantly apologizing anymore. All positive signs. He tightly held his bucket of tools in his lap as if they were a favorite stuffed animal.
     “I think we need to run by the hospital,” I said. “That might be a break instead of a sprain.”
     “All I want to know is how you did it, Vox,” he said, looking over.
     “What?”
     “I know it was another test for me. I just can’t figure out how you pulled it off. That was super dope. We were on a TV prank show, weren’t we? Unbelievable. You’re a certified genius. Seriously, quit plumbing and take that show to Vegas, man. You’ll make millions.”
     Lamentably, it didn’t look like he’d thrown the memory overboard after all.
     “First of all, Bart, what happened back there wasn’t your fault. In fact, your performance all day has been top-notch.” I had decided coming clean was the best option. He’d seen everything up close and personal. I mean, there was no real way to explain this away, and given enough distance and perspective, he’d realize that. The kid wasn’t a moron, he was just still in shock. And it wasn’t like I had to kill him and drop him down a well or anything. As supernatural peacekeepers, it’s impossible to keep all Kahuna-related activities entirely under wraps. We just want them on the down low as much as possible.
     “You remember how disappointed you were growing up when you discovered Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny were imaginary?” He nodded. “Well, today you got some payback on the world. You discovered that some strange, outlandish shit is actually real. That valve breaking off was a freak occurrence. However, it 100% happened. What I did afterward also 100% happened. No tricks. No TV series. No tests. You’ve seen The Matrix, right?” He nodded again. “You’re plunging down the rabbit hole as we speak, Neo.”
     I paused for a second to let it all sink in. We turned back south on Dale Mabry. So far, so good. He hadn’t jumped out of the van in terror and splattered himself all over the road, which I counted as a win.
     “I’m part of an organization possessing certain magical powers. We call ourselves Kahunas. One of our abilities is the manipulation of water. We can direct it. Generally speaking. Let’s just say it obeys me the majority of the time. You bore witness to that today. Does that make any sense to you?”
     He shook his head slowly in wonderment. “You’re serious, aren’t you? Wow! I’m in, bruh. Sign me up! How much would you charge to teach me that awesomeness? Can you swim as fast as a dolphin? Can you breathe underwater? Who would win if you and a giant octopus got into a fight? Is the Loch Ness monster real? How about mermaids?” His eyes had gone from lifeless to Nicholas-Cage-guzzling-a-case-of-Red-Bull-manic-mode.
     It was impossible not to get caught up in his enthusiasm, and I couldn’t help laughing. “Sadly, my friend, it doesn’t work quite like that. It’s not a club you can join. You have to be born into it. We get these visions at a young age and have to travel overseas to be trained.”
     He just kept shaking his head. Can I at least be like an assistant or something? You know, maybe a liaison between us mere mortals and your world?”
     We’d reached the Chick-fil-A where he was parked. “I assure you we’re mortal. Last week I almost got eaten by an alligator on the 17th green of Plantation Palms,” I said, pulling into an available space to the right of his Subaru. “However, that’s a conversation for another time. Right now, we need to get you healed up as soon as possible. How’s that ankle feel? The hospital is right down the road. Do you think we need to stop by?”
     “Honestly, I can’t even feel the pain anymore, man. You’ve obviously got some turbo healing powers, too. I feel even better than new.” I held up a finger to correct him, but he already had his door open and was on his way out. Like a man ready to conquer the world, he hopped down from the elevated seat with his tool bucket in hand, unafraid and with his full weight behind him.
     Still sitting in my seat, I couldn’t fully see the resulting mayhem, but sounds told the complete story. The first thing I heard was a hideous pop. Followed by a scream that would wake the dead. He disappeared out of sight, thudded to the pavement and his tools (and possibly his head) banged into the Mercedes G-Wagon parked in the next space. “Oh fuck!” he shrieked. “It’s broken this time! Kill me with a water bazooka to stop the pain!”

 

Chapter 5

 

     The Tampa Bay area is made up of two major land masses separated by a big body of water. To the east is Hillsborough County and the county seat of Tampa. To the west lies Pinellas County—composed of St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Largo, and a bunch of little municipalities scattered in between. The water is called Tampa Bay, and three long bridges cross over it, connecting the counties at various points.
     I was currently crawling along in rush hour traffic on the northernmost bridge, known as the Courtney Campbell Causeway, returning to Tampa from Clearwater after handing over the beleaguered Bart to his sister, Brandi, with whom he lived. “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot played in the background. Pelicans, scanning the surface below, floated on bay breezes. Upon spotting dinner, they folded their wings tightly to their sides and dove like bombs upon their unsuspecting prey swimming below, scooping up the unlucky bastards in their basket beaks. After my last 24 hours, I knew exactly how those fish felt.
     After Bart plummeted out of the van, demolishing himself, the G-Wagon’s door, and my financial future, I got him back into the van and then went into the Chick-fil-A. Turns out the general manager, Chuck, was the owner of the injured Mercedes. Up to that point, he’d been a friend of mine and a customer. Not only did he take the news much better than expected, he gave me a couple of free 12-piece nuggets with Polynesian sauce “to help ease your pain. We’ll deal with insurance tomorrow.” Unbelievably nice. Next time he needed plumbing service, it was going to be on the house.
     We left the Subaru with a promise from Chuck that it wouldn’t be towed. Bart was back in “I’m sooo sorry, dude” mode and still muttering about water bazookas between bites of chicken. He was droning on so much that, if I could have conjured a water bazooka, I might have been tempted to use one to put both of us out of our miseries.
     I guess it’s hard to blame the guy, though. I mean, what would you do if you saw a Kahuna weaving his hands together like Mr. Miyagi, chanting some arcane incantations, and defying the laws of fluid dynamics? Mind-bending stuff. Where he went wrong is erroneously assuming my magical powers included the ability to heal. Lesson learned and one I’m quite sure his ankle would never forget.
     Now I was without a helper again. However, I did like the kid and, until the calamity, his performance had been exemplary. Long term, I decided to hold the spot open for him, especially considering that finding non-shitbag help was so damn difficult. Furthermore, he was adamant that plumbing was the career he wanted. With a lot of work on both our parts, I sensed he could be a valuable employee. In the meantime, I could hopefully wrangle some help from the Goat—who’s a mobile auto mechanic with a semi-flexible schedule. We trade favors back and forth, and he’s helped me out in a plumbing pinch before.
     In a tiny serving of serendipity, before I dropped him off, Bart told me Brandi was nearing the end of med school at Nova Southeastern University, doing her residency in orthopedics. At least she could supervise his rehab, and he’d give her somebody to practice on.
     Around a mile from land, traffic smoothed out. In less than ten minutes, I turned into Million Oaks Mobile Home Park, built on a secluded, twenty-acre plot of paradise snuggled up against the bay. Grand oaks stud the property throughout, with hanging Spanish moss adorning each like silver tinsel. A perfect example of what locals call ‘Old Florida.’
     The meticulously maintained gravel road crunched under my tires as I slowly rolled through the park (8 MPH please). The air was redolent with orange blossoms; I’m a junkie for their scent and took deep, vaping lungfuls through the open window to get my fix. As I passed the first mobile on the right, I saw Jimmy the Jamaican on his covered porch. Judging by the smell, he was smoking a blunt the size of a corona cigar. It was dark now, and the only way I spotted him was by the shockingly white teeth of his gargantuan smile, which is not unlike the Cheshire Cat of Alice in Wonderland.
     “Hello, Voxy Mon!” he crooned in his singsong accent. “I got plenty of this sweet smelly if you’re of a mind to partake.” I’m not sure how he swung it, but in addition to a medical marijuana waiver allowing him unrestricted usage, Jimmy actually has a state license to grow the stuff. A massive, state-of-the-art hydroponic unit takes up all of one bedroom. He refers to the prized custom strain he created as Half-Hit-Shit, meaning you only have to take a partial puff to get stoned. A full hit and you feel like a baked potato. Jimmy smokes all throughout the day and most of the night. I get a contact buzz every time I drive by.
     I braked to a stop. “JJ, my good friend!” I called out through the passenger side. “Your ganja scares the hell out of me, mon. If you recall, the one time we burned, I was convinced you were a prehistoric saber-toothed capybara. After I got home, I ate three packages of Oreos, a rotisserie chicken, and a jar of pickles. Then, I slept for two days.”
     His deep laughter rumbled through the night.
     The park only has the one road, and it takes its time meandering around the namesake oaks, as well as dense clusters of palmetto bushes and cypress and pine trees. The tree canopy is so thick that most of the park is barely visible from the sky.
     Everybody else appeared to be tucked in for the night except for Samantha, a senior citizen triathlete who crushes all the other old ladies in her age group. She was walking back from the bay in her pink training swimsuit with matching cap. She had probably just butterflied to Texas and back for a light workout and was headed inside for a spirulina & reishi I.V. In fact, she hailed from Austin and had attended the University of Texas. I flashed her a Hook ’em Horns sign, and she acknowledged by throwing up the U for me. I have no beef with the Longhorns. Last time we played was in 1991 when we blew them out 46-3, so they’re fine by me.
     After her place, the road wiggles a final time through a stretch of undeveloped land before ending at a roundabout. Most of the bay frontage of the park is a recreation area—with picnic tables, charcoal grills, a sand volleyball court, and a basketball hoop. As such, only a few plots are directly on the water. Mine’s one of them. But it’s not like the others. My property is actually a 3.25 acre island, connected to the mainland by a 55′ bridge, which is guarded by a ten-foot wide, double-swinging hardwood gate. The gate is book-ended by a pair of tall tiki totems and free-standing tiki torches. Evenly spaced torches also light the length of the bridge. Centered in the middle of the gate is an ornately carved medallion eighteen inches in diameter, vertically split in two, the two sides made whole when the gate is closed. It’s called a juskara—the ancient talisman of the Kahunas.
     My shinbone hadn’t been broken, but still ached and had stiffened up, so I delicately got out and limped a few steps over to the totem pole bordering the right side of the gate. On the totem, about chest high up, is a sea turtle with a depression embedded in its shell. I placed my hand there and whisper-chanted “vani kai bon lima.” Similar to my office, chimes would be activated if any creatures with magical powers had been sniffing around. Instead, an energy field, which domes over and protects the island, hummed for an instant and went silent. I’d re-engage it once I went through the gate. The field is tuned to all the known frequencies emitted by magic. It’s useless against non-magical beings, provided they scale the gate or swim over. However, I have other ways to deal with them, especially process servers.
     I turned to get back in my van.
     Meow.
     I glanced both left and right. Nothing at all. Behind me? Nope. Under the van? Nada. I was running out of places to look.
     Meow.
     This time I looked up and saw that sitting on top of the totem was a cat. An exceedingly big cat. I chided myself for not noticing it upon my approach. I pride myself on being aware of my surroundings, noticing things out of the ordinary, and yet I’d sensed nothing of the beast. Sure, my shin was stealing a bit of attention, but that kind of sloppiness could easily be the death of me.
     The totems are twelve feet high—genuine Imperial totems—with sides so burnished and wood so hard that I didn’t see how anything other than a gecko could climb them. Maybe not even that. But unless it had wings, the cat must have somehow scaled up. Impressive. With those pole-climbing skills, it might have a future as a stripper.
     Meow.
     It definitely looked like a house cat but was about twice as big. How the hell did it get up there, and more importantly at the moment, how was it going to get down? This pain-in-the-ass turn of events further delayed my urgent meeting with a cold beer.
     “Jackass,” I grumbled at him. This fool had decided that climbing a tiki totem was a splendid idea and left me to rescue it. The extension ladder on my van wasn’t going to be up to the task—no chance it would be stable leaning against the slippery surface of the totem. I supposed I’d have to use the stepladder I kept up at the trailer. It was an eight-footer, so hopefully I could reach up and save the fool without breaking my neck in the process. But who could predict how it would react? Anything stupid enough to intentionally get up there might also decide clawing its rescuer made sense.
     Meow.
     “Yeah, yeah. The courtesy of a little patience would be appreciated while I fix this mess you made.”
     Meow.
     After opening the gate, I drove up to the house, retrieved the ladder from a shed attached to the carport, and returned.
     I was still bitching as I spread the ladder out and locked its braces. This could go very badly, trying to save an overgrown cat who made poor life choices, but what else could I do? I couldn’t just leave the damn thing up there. I put my foot on the first step, looked up, and… the cat wasn’t there anymore.
     WTF? I did a 360 look-around. No cat. I felt like Bart from earlier in the day when he thought he was part of a reality TV show. “Unbelievable,” I groused, shaking my head. It was either a remarkable athlete or truly had wings. “Thanks for wasting my time!” I called out. “Appreciate it, buddy!”
     By the time I put the ladder away and turned the corner to the front door, I had forgotten about the cat and was instead refocused on the beer.
     Meow.
     I screeched like a pre-teen girl, reflexively jumped back, stumbled off the edge of the elevated teak walkway, lost my balance totally, and tumbled like a sack of elephant seal shit. Right into a rose bush. Even though I was wearing a long-sleeve shirt, several thorns penetrated my arms and right shoulder. I pathetically groaned, awash in agony. What in the name of Moby Dick’s cock?! I gingerly pushed myself to a sitting position, receiving an additional puncture and blaze of pain in my left palm. Sitting by the front door was the cat. It looked at me blankly for a split second and then started intently cleaning itself with its polydactyl paws.

 

—————————————–

 

      I lounged back in my clam hot tub on the back porch, healing my shin hematoma, thorn damage, and the various other bumps and bruises I’d recently accumulated. While it’s true almost all supernatties—creatures of magic—can heal faster than normal natties, the rejuvenation capabilities of Kahunas is only modestly better. Which is a problem due to both the hazardous nature of a Kahuna’s work and my unique ability to injury myself.
     Kahuna shamans to the rescue. We have two types of shamans—engineers and priests. To help us heal faster, the former group created special hot tubs made from the half shells of the largest Gigas clams under the sea.
The life force of Kahunas is called makana. It’s our juice, permeating every cell of our beings. Makana’s also present—though in a lesser concentrationin water. The clam hot tubs amplify the healing properties of water’s inherent makana. Sprinkle in a handful of volcanic makana salts and you’re zooming back down the road to wellness—as long as you didn’t fuck yourself up too badly to begin with.
     Healing aside, the cat was the primary subject on my mind. Up close at ground level, you could see just how enormous the fucker was compared to other house cats. He had a shiny name tag that read “Achilles.” Though you never know with names these days, I’d assume he was male until proven otherwise. I’d never tried to determine the sex of a cat before and wasn’t about to start with this enigma. Occasionally, strays show up around the park, so I keep a bag of cat food on hand to make life a tad easier for them. Everybody appreciates a snack and a kind word, right?
     Almost everybody. Thus far only the water had been touched. It’s impossible to read a cat’s expression, but when he looked at the bowl of kibble and then back at me, I swear his mouth curled in disdain.
     How did a house cat get so monstrously big? It wasn’t fat like I first thought. This creature had muscle bulges you could discern under its fur. And even more so than the mystery of how it came to be sitting on the totem, a more perplexing question was how it had gotten down and to my front door so quickly and stealthily. Was this a legendary ninja cat? I’d heard stories of such cats existing in Japan, but all of those had been described as striped. This one was golden-colored—with no stripes. And didn’t it seem like, when viewed from different angles and under different lighting, the shading of gold subtly changed as well?
     Coloring aside, another reason for my fascination was just how strikingly beautiful his features were. Absolutely gorgeous. I’m talking supermodel looks. Take the most handsome cat you’ve ever seen and multiply by at least ten. Besides the mystery of what he was, why was he here? Just passing through? He didn’t look like any stray I’d ever seen. All signs indicated this cat had been exquisitely cared for.
     I thought about it for another few minutes, while the cat just, well, acted like a regular cat. At present, he was laying down and napping, with no apparent agenda or worries on his mind. Soon, hunger got the best of me—those chicken nuggets had gone as far as they could—and I headed inside.
     As they always do when coming through the back door, my eyes automatically turned to the left. An immense aquarium tank runs along the length of the 25′ wall. It’s a miniature Great Barrier Reef of corals, seagrasses, anemones, sponges, urchins, starfish, lobsters, conch, eels, clownfish, seadragons, and a small catshark— all of which serve as a playground for fifty of the rarest fish in the world: Kahunafish. They are a riot of stunningly vivid colors that force-feed your soul, pumping pure joy down your throat like you are a foie gras goose. Pure joy, that is, if you happen to be a Kahuna.
     Everybody else fortunate enough to lay eyes on the fish are captivated by them, also. But Kahunafish and Kahunas have a special symbiotic relationship. They draw makana from us, and we provide the same to them in return. Water naturally has makana, but the most potent source in the universe lies within Kahunas and Kahunafish. As the makana ping-pongs back and forth between us, it amplifies. Talk about a real win-win situation. It’s the only relationship so far I haven’t managed to fuck up. Each fish is like an underwater light show, constantly changing its color. I can sit for hours just watching the flashes, pulses, and pops of pinks, purples, blues, greens, yellows, and oranges. Nearly every color combination but pure red. Kahunafish never phase in pure red.
     On the opposite wall, in the southeast corner of the room, towers a set of megalodon jaws nearly scraping the ceiling. You might have seen the classic picture of fossilized jaws with a man standing inside for size comparison. Mine are of similar dimensions, but the jaws and teeth of this megalodon are gleaming white. It’s not a fossil.
     As for the dwelling itself, it’s a custom house constructed of a subspecies of iron wood called wampiloa. It’s an extremely rare tree only found on certain islands in the Pacific. Rot-proof, fire-proof, water-proof, incredibly strong, and resistant to almost all magic. Hydrolasers are the only feasible way to work with wampiloa, unless you happen to be a Kahuna shaman with vectorized magic. It takes a regular diamond-tipped saw blade at least five minutes to cut through a 2×4 board of it, and the blade is all but destroyed in the process. In addition to the house, the bridge, totems, and tiki torches are all made of wampiloa, too.
     The windows, you ask? As close to unbreakable as you can get and made from a black volcanic sand from an undisclosed Hawaiian island. The color of the sand gives the windows a natural tinting. The locations of neither the wampiloa nor the sand are known to anybody accept the holier-than-thou elite who sit on the Kahuna Council.       
     As you probably guessed, a house like that is of incalculable value, especially when it sits on an island. Definitely way above my pay grade. I’m just a tenant. For many years, no other dwelling was within shouting distance of the place—nothing except woods and a small orange grove. Then, the powers that be decided to sell the rest of the surrounding acreage to a developer. Soon, Million Oaks had sprouted up. But all that was before my time, back when Willard Hucklebee, the house’s former occupant, was still alive.
     Willard was the first Kahuna of all of Florida. He’d been born shortly after the Revolutionary War and—for over a hundred years—had Kahuna’d in various territories throughout the Northeast. Soon after the Civil War ended, the Council decided Florida had grown big enough to need representation and gave him the job. You can live anywhere in your assigned area, and he chose Tampa Bay as his home base. As the state’s population increased over the years, it was subdivided into three areas—North, Central, and South. Since he was already ensconced in Tampa, Central Florida became his. Willard passed on fifteen years ago, just as I was finishing up my apprenticeship training in Louisiana. I got my orders, packed up my shit, and headed south.
     I went into the kitchen, crossing my fingers that drunk YesterdayVox had shown the decency to leave TodayVox a respectable-sized piece of standing rib roast. With a grateful sigh, I saw that a fat slice awaited me. I’m an unapologetic foodie and would watch The Food Channel all day long if I could get away with it. Unfortunately, my tastes exceed my budget. I’d eat gourmet every meal if I had the money, but not only do I spend too much on drinking and tipping strippers, being a Kahuna ain’t cheap. As for the roast, it had been on sale last week at Publix, and I’d splurged.
     I prepared a blackened prime rib sandwich and paired it with the remaining homemade dill potato salad. The dill came from my herb garden on the back porch. The roll came from Publix, too. I know Philly folks go apeshit over their beloved Amoroso rolls—and to be fair, they’re good—but the Publix Bakery ain’t to be trifled with. A couple of Stewart’s orange cream sodas washed it all down. Though a 6-pack of Reef Donkey Pale Ale waited impatiently in my beer fridge, I’d changed my mind and decided there’d be no alcohol tonight. The cat situation had put me on semi-alert.
     After a shower, I realized how tired I was. It had been an exhausting day and a half. Before turning in though, I decided to see if the cat was still around. Just as I reached the door leading out to the back porch where I’d left him snoozing, I heard sounds of ravenous gluttony that even far exceeded what I had done to the sandwich and potato salad. Something was aggressively feasting, ripping flesh from bone. And punctuated with what sounded like… moans?
     I have a keg-sized barrel of water by all doors, in case I have to weaponize it against baddies. With one hand swirling above the barrel, readying it for action, I slowly turned the doorknob, nudging it open, as silent as a jellyfish. I peered out. The coned, overhead light I’d left on illuminated a distinct circle on the floor, reminding me of CashMoney and Feloni from the night before.
     In the center of it was the cat, oblivious to everything but the matter at hand. Tearing into what looked to be a strawberry grouper weighing at least thirty pounds. It was in a frenzy and made such rapturous noises that I had to look twice to make sure he wasn’t fucking his dinner at the same time he ate it. And I thought I enjoyed eating.
     Yet another cat mystery, even more stupefying than the other ones he presented. Though the cat was huge for his species, it wasn’t like he could just reach over the side of the seawall and casually land a grouper of that size. Not to mention that strawberry grouper don’t just lollygag around in the bay. It was far too much to contemplate for now, and I quietly eased the door back shut, deciding that sleep was currently needed more than answers.
     I climbed into my waterbed and almost immediately fell asleep. My last thought before drifting off was how glad I was that tomorrow was my day off. 

 

Chapter 6

CashMoney

 

     I led the donkey by his tie into the Emporium’s private dance area to the left of the main stage. In my other hand was a bottle of Dom and two plastic champagne cups. Through a thick, black velvet curtain, we entered a dimly lit, square room with a small L-shaped couch and round cocktail table in each corner. Partitions marked off the four individual sections, providing some concealment for the sinning, but through an opening a platinum blonde ponytail caught my attention. It was bobbing up and down like an oil well. You didn’t have to be a genius to figure out what was going on. Despite being suspended the month before for literally whoring herself out, Vacuum Vicki was back sucking more dick. Over the music, I could hear her customer grunting like a fornicating elk. I half-expected Sir David Attenborough to cut in and give the play-by-play.
     “While you were on your mandatory vacation, they put cameras in here, Vicki. The police are probably minutes away.” It wasn’t true, and I probably shouldn’t have said it, but the bitch is a nasty ho who’s famous for trying to steal regulars. Also, she has a weird Funyuns stank to her—probably crotch rot—that makes me gag.
     She gasped in alarm, and a second later he shouted in pain. Vicki must have nicked some foreskin in her quick tuck-and-zip. At the same time we slipped into our section, Vicki and her elk were hurrying out of theirs.
     We sat on the couch, and I went into full CashMoney mode. Biting my lower lip like a bad school girl, I looked off to the side while facing him. “You ready, stud?” I cooed. I’ve been told I look like that girl from the 80’s group the Bangles, and will admit to stealing her “Walk Like An Egyptian” side-eye look and adding it to my bag of tricks. Borrowing from the greats of the past makes good sense as long as you add your own style and make it yours.
     To me, all customers are donkeys, but this long-faced, big-eared guy was the spitting image of one. He answered my question with a goofy smile, revealing two shockingly large front teeth. I wasn’t expecting that and could feel a giggle trying to force its way up. Thankfully, I was able to slam the lid down on it and keep myself together. Nothing kills the mood (and your tip) quite like laughing at a customer.
     The tip is why I continued working him now. He’d already paid up front for the dances, and I would receive 50% of that. I’d also get a commission from the champagne I convinced him we needed. A lot of girls would have been content there. Not me. I needed a fat tip on top. I crawled out of the womb a born hustler. We’re all adults here. If you’re man enough to come into my neighborhood looking for a fantasy, then don’t be surprised when you leave with your pockets a lot lighter than you intended.
     Tony sometimes work nights, but tonight Antoine was on the mic. Whenever he saw me leading my pack animal to its doom, he knew to fire up “Black Velvet” by Allanah Myles as long as another girl wasn’t on the main stage. The song preferences of whoever is up there always takes precedence. However, it was late, already 2:30 AM, and the stage was empty. Only three or four of us dancers were still hanging around. This would probably be the last set of songs before we closed.
     The hypnotic beat started. I slid the light cocktail table out of the way to give myself plenty of room, pushed Donkey Boy against the back of the couch, then spread his legs apart so he knew who the boss bitch was.
     Over time, every dancer ends up with her own unique routine. Not only do you practice endlessly and pick and choose what other girls are doing, but there are certain ways your body just naturally likes to move. Your muscle memory gets grooved, and your routine eventually gets so established that it’d be nearly impossible to change it even if you wanted to. Once you perfect your craft, you can pretty much put the whole thing on auto-pilot. You just have to program yourself to deliver a smile every now and again, and the donkeys will have no idea your mind is a thousand miles away.
     I always start a private dance with my back to guys, both because men like to see ass and because the more I’m facing away, the less time I have to spend looking at their faces. I felt his hands go to my hips, which is in the allowable range of actions. Don’t touch my boobs or within six inches of my coochie. Most everything else, I will put up with. Within reason. I switched on the machine. A small part of me was monitoring my body, but really was reliving yesterday.
     How could I be so fucking stupid?! Vox had filled me in on Valentina walking in on us. What was wrong with me? Yeah, Vox is cute, but he’s even more fucked up than I am, and I’ve been making a strong effort in the past few months to only date guys with more emotional intelligence than I have. It’s not like I have a thing for him, either. Most importantly, he belongs to Valentina! One of my two lifelong BFFs. What the hell was my goddamn problem? I’d been able to block it out most of the day because I didn’t have the courage to face it. Now, it was nibbling on me like a rat. Good. I deserved it. Stupid bitch. To be honest, though I hate to admit it, I’ve always been a little jealous of her. Am I such a basket case that my insecure side felt it had to one up her to feel good enough? Or was it just because we got blacked-out drunk? Whatever it was, I’ve got major fucking issues.
     I hadn’t yet mustered the guts to call her to apologize and wouldn’t even know what to say if I did. On her end, she’d been freezing me out all day. Complete silence. Probably was convinced I was the worst friend in the world, which is exactly what I’d proved myself to be.
     Of course, I knew that Vox wanted to fuck me. He’d never tried, but obviously he secretly lusted after me. When you’re a hot chick, all heterosexual males want to fuck you. Every female knows that. It’s no secret. Seriously, I needed considerable therapy and vowed the next day to make an appointment with a psychiatrist. Maybe they’d be able to come up with a reason for my inexcusable actions.
     I checked in on things. The second song of the set was playing, and I was facing the donkey with my boobs inches from his face. At the Emporium, we wear a thong, but our boobs are swinging free. I glanced down and, sure enough, there was a tent pitched in his white pants. Which was to be expected, of course. We’re just animals, after all. I don’t mind guys having fun as long as they’re respectful.
     I hadn’t talked to Feloni either. She was off shacked up with Johnny having fun, and the lucky bitch probably wouldn’t be able to walk for a week afterward. If anything, she’d probably be even madder at me than Valentina. It was going to be painful, no matter what. I love Feloni to death, but maybe deep down I’m jealous of her new romance, too. I just don’t understand why I can’t find a guy who isn’t either a piece of garbage or boring as hell. As volatile as Valentina and Vox are sometimes, it’s still better than 99% of my loser relationships. Is it all because of my shitty father? The shrink is going to have her work cut out for her. Is it because Valentina and Feloni are—to use Vox’s words—supernatties, and I’m just a regular old nattie with no magical ability?
     I don’t know, maybe I was just born under the wrong sign. A victim of circumstance. I might have to get an astrologist involved, to be on the safe side. No stone would be unturned in my quest to find out why I do the things I do. Valentina probably got Maria to make her a voodoo doll, and she’s going to gut me wide open. Who could blame her?
     A warning signal went off in my head, and I came back to reality. I was facing away from the donkey and turned to see what had triggered my alarm. Unbelievably, this fool had his dick out and was beating it like it owed him money. His eyes pulsated out of their sockets as he stared at my crotch. What the fuck? I’d given a thousand dances to one idiot after another and no donkey had ever had the audacity and disrespect to whack off in front of me.
     By the way he was huffing and the engorgement level of his dickhead, I knew I’d better put a stop to this shit fast or he was going to shoot his disgustingness everywhere. There was no time to run out and shout for the bouncer, Donovan, so I took the only option I had. When you are a 110-pound girl without any self-defense training and are dressed in nothing but a thong, it might appear you don’t have any powerful weapons. Ordinarily that might be true. Not so for dancers.
     I took a small step forward to gauge the distance, reared back, and drove my right foot toward his dick. That in itself would have been painful. But attached to that foot was stripper footwear. A seven-inch stiletto heel and three inches of heavy plastic sole zeroing in on what looked like around, oh, five and half inches of dick. There was no doubt who the victor would be.
     My shoe met his crotch and something crunched. Probably his shaft got pulverized or maybe his balls popped like grapes. Whichever, it wasn’t pleasant for him because he screamed louder, and in a higher pitch, than a troop of girl scouts who stumble upon a tarantula. It was more horrific than any horror movie scream queen could have mustered. I had no idea a man could make that sound.
     I don’t know how he kept from keeling over, but somehow he got to his feet with both hands over his junk and ran toward the curtain. Unfortunately for him, the curtain is the same color as the walls and he misjudged and ran smack into the wall. Amazingly, he didn’t fall down, just bounced back a couple feet like he’d been stunned with a cattle prod. His screaming—which had momentarily ceased for an instant—started up even higher and louder if that was possible. He sprinted into the curtain without opening it, somehow catching a part of it and tearing it and the rod off the frame. Through the club he squealed, running without using his arms, the curtain and rod trailing after him. A confused Donovan leaped out of the maniac donkey’s rampage out the front door.
     Once the hubbub died down and Donovan and the house mom, Brenda, made sure I was alright, I put the table back in place and gathered the Dom and cups. I half-expected to see a piece of the donkey laying around, but apparently he’d managed to get all of himself out of the club. You never know what you’re gonna run into in this line of work. I’d encountered even more bizarre things before, however, this one guaranteed would become part of club lore and be retold over and over. I sat down and laughed, which then turned into a long sob.
     Since I’d been working at the club several years, Lola had decided to make me a shift manager sometimes, which basically means I’m the last one to leave and have to set the guard-spell and lock the doors. She pays me $50 cash each time I close, and that’s A-OK with me.  A cleanup crew would come in the morning to scour the club from top to bottom, and the daytime manager, Conway, would deal with the paperwork and money in morning. I just had to slip the receipts and money into the slot in the safe. I have no magic abilities, but since I’m part of the inner circle, so to speak, and because you don’t have to be a supernattie to activate the spell system Vox created, sometimes I close up since—unlike the other girls—I never go home before a shift is over. Always hustling.
     I decided to write a note to my girls about how sorry I was and how I was going to go to counseling to straighten my shit out. I’d slip it into Feloni’s locker with instructions to read it and pass it on to Valentina. I had no idea how many days Feloni was going to be out with Johnny, but hopefully she’d be back soon. A text just felt so inadequate, so cold, in this situation.
     I scrounged up some paper, tracked down a pen, and poured my heart out to my hopefully-some-day-again besties. After four crumpled sheets, I was as close as I was going to get to the apology I wanted. By the time I was finished, it was almost 3:15 AM, everybody else was long gone, and I was dragging ass tired. The past 24 hours had been exhausting. I kissed the note and squeezed it through the door opening into Feloni’s locker. I’ve got OCD, so I went back a couple of times to make sure the paper was inserted all the way into the crease and a little piece wasn’t still hanging out.
     As I entered the office to set the guard-spell, the sound of my Feloni ringtone pierced the silence and scared the shit out of me. I took my phone out of my pocket and looked down. Fuck… I wasn’t expecting this now. The conversation I’d practiced in my head all day was nowhere to be found. The phone continued to ring. Dammit. Should I answer now or not? I almost let it go to voicemail, but at the last second picked up.
     Before she even had a chance to say a word, I stared blurting. “I’m so sorry, Feloni. I’m so stupid. We were so drunk, but nothing really happened. I’m going to therapy. Please forgive me. I’m such a bitch.” I almost paused to let her talk, but right then I couldn’t bear to hear what she had to say. “Um, I’m just about to lock up. I’ll call you as soon as I get in my car. OK, girl?” That would at least give me a second to regroup and get my head straight.
     “OK. I’ll talk to you in a couple of minutes,” she said. Click. Was I imagining it or did she sound a smidgen less irate than I thought she’d be? I let it sink in for a moment… You know what? Thank God for her call. Let’s get this shit out in the open right now. Feloni first. Valentina hopefully tomorrow. One step at a time. I said a prayer. Maybe there was a glimmer of hope.
     To set the guard-spell, I just had to speak into this tiny wooden box with a microphone that sat on a cluttered shelf above the safe. Once set, you have two minutes to get out the back door and lock it before—according to Vox—“four hells will descend down on you.” The whole process only takes around thirty seconds at most, so he built in plenty of safety just in case. I checked to make sure I had my duffel bag (which was a little heavier than usual because the still-unopened Dom was coming home with me) and my purse, pressed the little button on the box, said the spell, felt a deep humming, and a half a minute later I was out the door.
     Unlike a lot of strip clubs, Lola’s is in a nice area of town, directly on Westshore Ave. The parking lot is well lit, and where I park is only about twenty feet or so from the door. There’s also nowhere for anybody to hide. After I removed my key from the door, I started walking fast with a can of this special stuff Vox gave me that’s supposed to be like fifty times more powerful than mace.
     I took two steps toward my car, and a strange wind appeared from nowhere, blowing with such force that I almost lost my balance. That was really weir— Something was next to me, so close it was a part of me. Hot breath caressed my neck, and a teasing whisper dripped with seduction. “So fucking hot.” My head was tilted to the side. There was nothing I could do. I didn’t know what was happening, but I knew I was powerless to get away. I didn’t even know if I wanted to. I just felt resigned to it being over. The stars looked upon me with sympathy, but the moon was huge and judging. My neck felt wet. I heard the whisper again, but this time it liquified and was injected into me. It didn’t burn. There was no pain. It just took over. I let go completely. Whatever strength I had left seeped out of me. The stars watched helplessly, while the moon smirked. I wondered how long it was going to be until Feloni found my n—    

 

—————————————–

Vox

 

     “It’s okay. I blame CashMoney, not you. She’s always had a thing for you and took advantage of the situation.”
     Valentina’s ponytail swayed side-to-side as the rest of her bounced up and down. Her angelic face was flushed with equal parts forgiveness and desire. A tiny bead of sweat glistened on her upper lip.
     “I worship you, my love cobra. Just lay back and relax so mami can finish milking your throbbing fang.”
     As I gazed into her eyes, drunk with joy, her face melted into her neck and, like a balloon, another face blew back up to replace it. Gilligan from the old TV show Gilligan’s Island—wearing a nose ring and red lipstickflicked his forked tongue at me and launched into song about the fateful trip of the tiny ship.
     I screamed in terror, but he wouldn’t stop.
     His tongue morphed into an eel’s head, its little jaws snapping at the air. “Papi Vox!” it roared, slithering toward me.
     “AAAHHHHH!”
     I woke up in a sheer panic, horror driving an icy pick down my spine. My bowels turned to water, and I shit myself.
     On my nightstand, my phone glowed and vibrated. My ringtone, “The Ballad of Gilligan’s Island,” launched into its second verse.
     I stared at it dumbly for a moment. Finally, the fog began to clear. It was just a dream. A fucking nightmare, to be precise, and someone was calling me at… I picked up the phone… 3:56 in the morning?
     I squinted at the smaller, blurry name. My mind still hadn’t completely roused itself. After another second, it came into focus. Feloni? Why the hell was Feloni calling me at this ungodly hour?
     I robotically answered. “Hello,” I heard myself say.
     Feloni tried to talk, but I couldn’t understand anything. She was jabbering ten thousand words a minute, and everything was garbled.
     Instantly, my nightmare was forgotten. Lucidity returned.
     “Feloni,” I said soothingly. “What’s wrong? Slow down and take a breath. Just breathe for a second. And then slowly tell me what happened.”
     She let out a long wail before partially getting hold of herself.
     “C-c-come to the Emporium as fast as you can!” she managed to say coherently enough for me to understand. “CashMoney has been attacked by a vampyre! And it looks really bad, Vox!”
     Those last two sentences were a sledgehammer to the face. “Call Maria and get CashMoney over to her house as fast as you can,” I directed. Feloni knew that was the best course of action, but was obviously—and quite understandably—badly shaken.
     “But don’t be reckless. Hands-free talking, please. You getting into a wreck isn’t gonna help the situation. I’ll meet you at Maria’s. Call Valentina, too. She’s probably got my phone number blocked. Then phone me back after you’ve made those calls. I need details.”
     I hung up, allowed myself a face-palm and a brief fit of cussing, then flipped on the light. My Roberto Clemente-autographed baseball bat beckoned to me from a corner. It knew I wanted to break shit. I took a step that way, but then sanity whistled me to a stop. Time was of the essence; people needed me. Florida’s well-known for hurricanes, and I had a seriously bad feeling that a Category 5 of supernatural trouble was barreling toward Tampa Bay.

Author: Brent A. Phillips

Thanks for reading. Things are just revving up; you ain't seen nothing yet. Kahuna: Vol 1 - Tampa Bay will be published on December 12th. All the various purchase links will be available on this website. See you then!