Thea Colby knocked on the heavy, granite-grey door of the Dusky Kitten strip club, rapping a spot next to the black and silver “Sorry We’re Clothed” placard, and waited to see if anyone would let her in. Despite the morning being almost over, she wasn’t hopeful anyone would be inside. All the same, she was hoping that Annelle Beaumont, the House Mama, would already have arrived to ensure everything was in place for their early afternoon opening.
She heard muffled steps on the other side of the weighty door, and stood in front of the peephole so whoever was there could get a clear view of her. She heard the clicks and thunks as various locks were disengaged, and when the door cracked open it was Annelle standing on the other side.
“Thea? What you doin’ here, hon?”
“Hi, Nell. Can I come in? I need to chat.”
“Sure, hon.” Annelle opened the door wider and motioned Thea inside. Thea stepped into the murky hallway that was the unprepossessing entrance to the club and waited for Annelle to lock the door behind her.
“Not in trouble are you, hon?” Annelle asked as she led Thea down the hallway and through the next set of double doors into the main room of the club.
As dark and dim as the hallway was, the main room was bright and light, even with only half the house lights on. In a couple of hours the room would be bathed in a neon pink glow from the strip lighting under the edge of the bar and around the podiums and from the pink-shaded pendant lights that hung from the ceiling. Thea didn’t have to worry about slipping, her Converse had no quarrel with the polished tile floor, but she did have to weave between the chairs and tables, which were all in a state of disarray. The hum of a vacuum cleaner clued Thea in as to why everything wasn’t in its usual pristine state, but she couldn’t see the cleaner.
Annelle led Thea through the room, through another door and down another short corridor to her office. By Thea’s best guess, Annelle was somewhere around the sixty mark, but she had never seen the older woman without a pair of outrageously high stilettos or a sharp suit, both of which highlighted her curvy, but tight, figure. Even at the Friday night parties at the Rabid Dogs MC’s clubhouse, the most casual Thea had seen Annelle get was discarding her suit jacket. Only her shoulder-length, copper-colored hair, carefully colored to disguise the grey, seemed to defy her efforts at control, remaining stubbornly wavy.
Annelle waved Thea towards the high-backed chair she kept opposite her desk for visitors. Thea sat down and dropped her fringed satchel bag by her feet. She automatically ran a hand through her long, dark hair and fluffed her bangs. She wasn’t one to normally feel self-conscious, but something about Annelle always made her feel scruffy in a way that few people did. She didn’t resent the older woman for it; it was simply part of Annelle’s aura of authority.
“So? Trouble?” Annelle asked as she took her own seat in the luxurious office chair behind the polished walnut-colored desk, the same color of wood that was used throughout the club.
“No. No trouble.” Thea leaned forward in her seat and dropped her voice even though they were the only two people in the room and the door was closed. “Nell, what happened to everyone? It’s been two weeks. I ain’t heard shit from Elvis, and when I took a trip up to the clubhouse it was shut up tight. Didn’t look like anyone was around. Last I heard from him, Elvis told me they were headin’ over for some club shit in Louisiana. He ain’t answerin’ his phone, and I ain’t heard from him since he texted to let me know he’d got there okay.”
Annelle cocked her head to one side. “I didn’t realize you two were so serious.”
“Fuck, Nell. You know we weren’t exactly Jack and Rose, I hadn’t even introduced him to Josh, but we were a bit more than fuck buddies and now he’s disappeared off the face of the earth. I’d be insulted if it didn’t look like the rest of the club disappeared right along with him.”
Annelle sighed and Thea got the impression she was making her mind up about something. Then she slid open one of the desk’s drawers and pulled out a printed sheet of paper. She put it on the desk and pushed it in Thea’s direction. Thea picked it up. It was a newspaper article that looked to have been printed from the paper’s online site. She scanned the headline and the contents; there was no picture accompanying the text.
When she’d finished reading she looked up at Annelle in shock. “Nell, this says that half the club is fuckin’ dead! Murdered in a shootout at a Louisiana motel.”
“Yes, that’s what it says. So there’s your answer about the whereabouts of the club.”
“But this don’t say shit about Elvis.” Thea tapped the sheet of paper with one finger.
“Hon’, they would all have been staying at the same motel. If he ain’t mentioned, it just means they haven’t found the body yet.”
“But his bike…?”
“Could be fuckin’ anywhere.” Annelle interrupted.
“And Sloth and Cross and Travis? Fuck. What about Cross’s little girl?”
“I don’t know about her. I’m not runnin’ a mindin’ service here. I’m assumin’ he made arrangements for her that were a little more than some bags of candy and dishes of water left round the house, so she’s probably still wherever he packed her off to.”
Thea slumped back in the chair. She scanned the article again and then tossed it back onto the desk. Annelle slid it closer with the tips of her fingers and then returned it to the drawer it had come out of.
“So? What do we do now? Just pretend they never existed or some shit?”
Annelle leant forward, bracing her forearms on the desk. “Yes, that’s exactly what we do. Someone wiped out an entire MC, hon. You don’t fuck with that. You don’t want them lookin’ in your direction, or in the direction of your boy. You carry on like nothin’ ever happened. Go buy yourself another vibrator if you’re lonely. Don’t go lookin’ for trouble.”
“Shit.” Thea muttered. “It just don’t seem right, Nell. He’s lyin’ dead in a ditch somewhere, and I just carry on like I never even knew him.”
“’Less you want you or your boy in that ditch next to him, that is exactly what you’ll do. You’re not stupid, hon, and it’s not like we’re talkin’ a lost soul mate here.”
“How can you be so calm about this?” Thea asked with a hint of exasperation.
“No choice, hon. Someone somewhere was sendin’ a message leavin’ that many bodies lyin’ around. I simply don’t want to be next on their list of targets.”
Thea slumped further into the seat in defeat. It still didn’t sit right with her, but Annelle’s logic regarding the safety of her son was undeniable. She shifted so that she could tug her mobile phone out of her jeans pocket to check the time. “Shit. I better run. I’m coverin’ an earlier shift today.”
Annelle’s stern expression softened. “You know you can earn better money here, hon. Better hours, too.”
“We’ve been over this.” Thea replied with a small smile. “I’ve fucked Josh’s life enough already. I don’t need him gettin’ teased at school ‘cause his mama’s a stripper.”
Annelle shrugged. “It’s a perfectly valid vocational choice.”
Thea laughed. “Yes it is, but it’s not for me. ‘Sides, I don’t think your customers’d be interested in this amount of ink jigglin’ around in front of them.”
Annelle arched an eyebrow and said dryly, “Hon, you would be amazed at what my customers are interested in.”
Thea laughed. “Yes, I’m sure I would. I gotta book.” She stood, slung her bag onto her shoulder and paused with her hand on the door handle. “M’I gonna see you now, seein’ as how we won’t both be at the clubhouse on Friday nights?”
Annelle pushed her chair back as she stood and rounded the desk. “Tell you what, hon. You an’ me, we’ll have a standin’ appointment for coffee. How’s that sound?”
Thea smiled. “My house? Friday mornin’s? Josh’ll be at school.”
Annelle smiled and nodded. “Fridays it is.”
Annelle followed Thea out through the club and let her out of the door. Thea heard the locks re-engaging once the large entrance door shut behind her. She hurried over to her old, beaten-up Ford and turned the ignition in that certain way that was the only one that the temperamental car would accept as the instruction to start. She’d had the car since before she’d arrived in Ravensbridge, the home of the Rabid Dogs MC, and it was now comprised of more parts from the junkyard than it was of its original pieces. That was how she’d met Elvis. Something had blown under the hood, and he’d rescued her from the smoking mess by the side of the road.
Her knight on a shining Harley had managed to tweak whatever was wrong just enough for her to roll slowly to the nearest garage and had asked for her phone number by way of thanks. Annelle had been right; it wasn’t the love affair of the century, but it had been fun. Elvis had been a bit of levity in her life, a respite from the routine of being a single mama.
That was where she’d met Annelle, at the clubhouse Friday night parties. Thea couldn’t make it every week, she was working more often than not on Fridays, but one week that she’d attended Annelle had struck up a conversation with her. Annelle’s opener had been trying to persuade Thea to come and work for her at the Dusky Kitten. While Thea was quite happy with the way she looked, she had no intention of waving her tits around for an audience, half of whom probably had kids that attended her son’s school. Those sorts of sly looks when she dropped Josh off were not what she needed. Although, considering that she was obviously younger than most of them and sported a serious amount of ink even when wearing jeans and a beater, she got the Lite version of those looks anyway.
Thea had never seen Annelle pair off with any of the guys from the club, but she figured if she was fucking any of them, that it would likely be Jimmy, the President. She doubted that the woman in charge of one of the clubs that was effectively owned by the MC would warrant anything less than the attentions of the boss, but who knew?
Elvis had clued her in on the club structure before he’d taken her anywhere near the clubhouse. He’d been reluctant at first; she wasn’t his old lady and he was worried about the other patches pushing up on her. But then had come a week when the only night she was free was the Friday and he hadn’t wanted to miss the regular party, so he’d relented and brought her along, albeit with strict instructions to stick to him like glue for the night.
Thea wasn’t shy, but once she got inside and sensed the vibe of the place, she was more than happy to comply. Some of the guys, like Sloth, Rabbit and Cross, she’d really gotten along with. Others, like Giles and Garfield, had given her the fucking creeps. She’d quickly deduced Elvis’ place in the pecking order of the club as well. It was obvious from the way the guys made fun of him. She’d barely made it all the way through the door before the remarks about him punching above his weight had started. When she’d shed her jacket and they’d seen the roses that covered her left arm from her shoulder to her elbow, and the bits and pieces showing around her the straps of her simple camisole top of the detailed black and grey piece that swept across her back, their ribbing had increased tenfold.
She’d known she was cradle-robbing a little, he was a couple of years younger than her twenty-nine years, but it had been a shock to find that he was one of the youngest members. That had made her feel a lot older than her age, even though the rest weren’t much older than she. Everyone had assumed that she was young and innocent. To some extent, she was. She had never come across a biker club before, and apart from what Elvis had told her, her only terms of reference were from TV shows which were very much a glossy version of what she encountered. There was a degree of chivalry that she hadn’t been expecting. Rabbit had recognized her discomfort and had sort of taken her under his wing. Every time Elvis dropped the ball and one of his brothers made moves that were a little too close to the line, Rabbit was the one to defend her honor and diffuse the situation. She had no standing of her own in the clubhouse, which bugged the shit out of her. She’d been taking care of herself for a long time, and she wasn’t used to playing the damsel in distress card. She apparently wasn’t allowed to slap some fucker who thought it was okay to grab her ass, but with Rabbit, and later Annelle, in her corner, she’d learned to negotiate her way around the club.
Thea pulled into the parking lot of the convenience store where she worked and cut the engine carefully, so as not to offend the delicate sensibilities of the vehicle. She waited for the automatic doors to whoosh open, the left one always stuck a little, and made her way straight to the employees’ lounge which doubled as a manager’s office, waving a greeting to her colleague behind the counter on her way. She dumped her bag and changed into the logo’d green polo shirt that was the extent of her uniform.
Ready to start her shift, she rounded the shelves and headed straight for the counter.
“Hey, Val. How’s it been?” Her co-worker, Val Rooker, was ten years older than Thea and had worked at the store since she had been legally able to. Val was rail thin and always, whatever the weather, had her brassy, blonde curls piled on top of her head in the same style every day. She firmly believed that no outfit was complete without inches of sunburnt cleavage on view and had a cigarette clamped between her lips every minute that she wasn’t at work.
“Hey, Thea. Quiet today. It’s not the same without the boys around. No eye candy at all.”
Thea had no clue what to say, knowing what she did now about the demise of the MC. She aimed for neutrality.
“Yeah. Guess we’re back to ogling drunks and stoners.” Val slipped out from behind the counter and Thea took her place.
Val lingered a moment at the end of the counter. “What about your guy? He was one of ‘em wasn’t he?”
Thea tapped a few keys on the cash register to check the total before the next transaction and answered without looking up from the LED display. “Yeah. Not heard from him in a while. Guess he found someone else.” Thea shrugged, in what she hoped was a nonchalant manner. “Guess I better get back to my BOB.”
“Jesus, honey. If he went lookin’ elsewhere, then he was seven kinds of stupid.” Val was visibly mortally offended on Thea’s behalf.
Thea sighed and shrugged again. “He wouldn’t be the first one, Val. He wouldn’t be the first.”
Val gave Thea a sympathetic smile. Thea’s shifts often followed on from Val’s. The hours that they worked suited them both, and when they needed time off they often swapped shifts or arranged to double up to cover for each other. They usually had the opportunity to chat as they swapped over, so Val was well versed in Thea’s love life, or generally the lack thereof, and Thea was equally well versed in Val’s trials and tribulations with her alcoholic husband, Norm.
“One day, honey. One day you’ll find Prince Charming.”
“He don’t exist, Val. He never fuckin’ did.” Even to her own ears Thea sounded jaded and tired.
“You’re too young to be this cynical, honey.”
“No, Val. I’m too old to be that dumb.”
Val snorted her amusement. “Touché, honey. I best get home or Norm’s gonna be wondering where the hell I am. You take care, y’hear?”
“Sure thing, Val. You too.”
“See you tomorrow, Thea.” Val flung over her shoulder as she headed to the lounge.
Thea smiled after Val and then settled into waiting for the next customer. She had a couple of hours until Dwight, the boss, arrived, and then she’d find out whether he was doing the stock take or she was.
She’d never had any clear idea of what she wanted to do with her life; certainly a career as a convenience store clerk hadn’t been high up on her list. But it was a way to pay the bills. Thea smiled a wry grin to herself as she remembered her mother’s declaration that she would end up in a dead end job.
Thea had gotten along just fine with her parents until her adolescence clashed with her mother’s menopause, resulting in some truly epic fights. Her dad had gone into hiding from the hormones and had never re-emerged from his world of fishing and gardening. An association with an unsuitable boyfriend had all but destroyed any hint of a relationship that Thea and her mother had left. She’d finished high school out of sheer stubbornness, just to prove her mother wrong, and made sure that she’d maintained decent grades for the same reason.
The day after graduation she’d moved in with the unsuitable boyfriend and had gotten a job in the local 7 Eleven while she figured out what to do with her life. She didn’t have the funds to go to college. About the same time that she’d found out that she was pregnant, she discovered that the unsuitable boyfriend’s drug habit was quite a bit more than the recreational dabbling that he’d let her think it was. By the time their little boy was born, dealers had started knocking at their door looking for money. She was the sole earner since the boyfriend had gotten himself fired for turning up to work stoned. The second time that she’d found the apartment trashed, with a fucking huge turd in her baby’s crib as a finishing touch, she tried to convince her boyfriend to sort out his issues, and he’d beaten her for even suggesting it.
By that point she was too embarrassed and too stubborn to go back to her parents, who would have been too horrified about a child born out of wedlock to even answer the door if she knocked, but the dealers had started threatening her personally and were making hints about the baby. She decided pretty quickly that she wasn’t going to stick around and find out what they had in mind for the sake of someone who couldn’t even keep his fists away from her face, so she packed her and Josh up and moved across the state. It had been just the two of them ever since.
Working in a convenience store suited her. When Josh had been a lot younger she’d opted to work nights; it was easier to find a babysitter for a sleeping child. Once he was attending school regularly, she’d been able to supplement her income with occasional afternoon shifts. Once or twice it had been suggested that she might want to think about training up to take the store manager role, but Thea had decided against it. She couldn’t afford formal childcare for Josh before and after school, even on the increased salary, and quite frankly, she didn’t need the stress of a managerial position.
The whoosh of the doors alerted her to a prospective customer. When she looked up, she saw two high school kids, a boy and a girl, practically glued to each other and obviously ditching. Mentally she made herself a bet that the girl would be knocked up in three months.
Thea still felt bad about just carrying on with her life, about pretending that she knew nothing about Elvis’ disappearance, about not doing anything about the fact he was probably dead. It hadn’t been love, probably never would have been, but it might have been the start of something more serious than a fling. But Annelle was right. When it came down to the safety of her son, Thea would do anything. So she would just go ahead and forget that she’d ever known Elvis of the Rabid Dogs MC.