Rachel turned. The man wore a white suit, azure shadows cast against its fabric from the reflection of the disco ball against her too-blue evening gown. She’d been on her way to the front to cash out with the night manager, the strap around her thigh bulging with singles. She regarded him with “stripper’s interest”— half lidded eyes and a forced, fixed smile that kept her from laughing.
The mark wasn’t terrible to look at— far from it. Jet black hair covering a rugged Marlboro face, surveying her from his chair with casual confidence. His suit clashed with red shoes that looked Italian and suggested excess and his fingers, thin and tapered, lightly stroked the rim of his glass, almost as if their tips had been fixed to it with a rime of glue. Rachel cocked her hips to the left, the mark cocked his head to the right and the two of them faced off, there on the main floor, inches from the south stage.
She widened her smile, breathing through her nose as Tony called Charity to dance and the reedy strains of a forgotten Bowie tune emerged with sibilance from the wheezy speakers.
“What was that, hon?” she asked, adding sparkle to her voice that would never reach her eyes.
The mark grinned. “I said, I’d love to take you away from all this.”
“Most men would.”
“Well, who could blame them? You fill out that dress rather nicely.”
Rachel dropped her fingers against her thigh, drumming them slowly as she teased the edge of her dress and the stack of bills tucked between skin and strap. “Twenty bucks and you can see how it looks the rest of the time.”
He waved her towards his table, gesturing to the chair beside his own, and Rachel flounced over and dropped into it, letting her fingers brush his leg on the way down. Tease and heighten.
“Want a dance, hon? I’ll let you take me in the back if you buy me a drink. I’m sure we’ll both enjoy it.” She wanted to get this over with but couldn’t help herself—she needed the cash and his money bled green, same as every other Joe Jerkoff in the place. She lightly touched his arm, giving him some contact to move things along because the sooner she finished his dance, the sooner she could cash out.
The mark chuckled and patted her hand. “No, thanks. I’m not in the market for a cocktease. I really just want to talk.”
The lonely hearts routine. Unlucky at love, too dull to get a girl, monopolizing her time without having to pay. Dropping the forced charm, Rachel rose from her chair, smoothing her dress on the ascent. “Sorry, hon…”
The mark held out a hand to stop her from leaving. “Don’t worry, I’ll make it worth your time. How much is a dance?”
“Twenty a table. One twenty for champagne.”
He removed a money clip from his jacket, peeled several bills away, and tucked them into Rachel’s strap.
“Will that do?”
She glanced down to see he’d stuck over 500 dollars between the leather and her thigh. “For a start. A drink would clinch it.”
The mark motioned for the barmaid and, after ordering their drinks, settled into his chair to watch girls hustle down the aisle.
Rachel smiled, quick and perfunctory, eyes slipping away to any point but here. “So, what do you want to talk about, sweetie?”
“What’s your name?” he asked, leering at her and rubbing his chin.
“Diamond, hon. And yours?”
“No, no. Your real name.”
Rachel’s smile faltered, letting her mask slip. “What makes you think Diamond isn’t my real name?”
This time the mark’s smile widened. “You don’t strike me as a Diamond and I don’t strike you as a fool. Fine, Diamond it is. I’m McCall.”
Instinctively, Rachel shook his hand and McCall let his fingers linger against her palm. Reflexively, she jerked away. “Nice to meet you, McCall. What do you want to talk about?”
“I already told you what I want.”
“Right. You want to take me away from all this… look, Mr. McCall—”
“That’s my first name.”
She wiped her eyes and let out a sigh. “Okay, look.”
Rachel leaned in, finally letting the night’s work settle upon her shoulders and allowing the mask to fade away. “You just said I’m no fool. Well, all right. I’ll talk straight.
“I get at least forty men in here on any given day and most think they can buy and sell me. All of them fall in love with me, and it’s cute. I take their money and they go home to wives, girlfriends or empty apartments. So, seriously…”
Rachel gestured, taking in the mark’s suit and demeanor, watching the barmaid navigate the floor with their drinks. “…don’t you think I’ve heard your little come on before? Don’t you think we all have?”
She was tired and it cracked through. The guy in front of her started to look less appealing, bald spot glaring through a wreath of hair, grin wavering and looking more like a mark than ever before.
“You haven’t heard my offer,” he countered.
She sighed. ” Let me guess: lots of money?”
“An apartment? Clothes, jewels, shit like that?”
The mark’s face brightened. “Like that and more.”
“Anything your heart desires.” He stated it expansively, confidently, and it might have worked if she hadn’t spotted the thin trail of sweat coursing down his cheek.
Rachel ruffled her fingers through the wad of bills against her leg. She pulled several out and waved them in McCall’s face.
“See that? That’s what these girls are after. The Almighty Dollar. They come from Oklahoma or Michigan thinking they’re gonna make it big and the rent comes in and food, and they need to pay so they look for work.”
She pointed to the barmaid returning with their drinks. “That’s Sunset. Sunset came from Seattle to go to school. Dropped out when her loans did, but she still needs to pay them back. She can’t find work without a degree and she can’t dance without the right body so Sunset waits tables in a strip club. Sometimes they let her dance, only sometimes, so she can pick up a dollar and keep her place.
“See that girl? Cammy? She came from L.A. to act and when no parts welcomed her at the door she started doing porn. Two years later and Cammy’s been through the wrecker: films, websites, and now she dances here three nights a week to make rent and she hates herself. She hates the money and she hates the marks.”
Rachel stood, towering over McCall. Sunset placed the drinks and took his credit card as Rachel placed the bills back against her leg.
“You say you can give me anything I want. How about love? Dignity? Self respect? You walk in here from whatever sad life you lead— failed marriage, rotten kids, lonely nights—I don’t know. You think waving your dick and your dollars around will entice some girl to walk away from her troubles, assuming you’ve got all the answers.”
She leaned down, hissing in his face, drinking in the smell of embarrassed sweat.
“Fuck you. I don’t want to be taken away from this. You CAN’T take me away from what I am, who I am and truth be told YOU need ME to take you away. To release you from the strip clubs, the alcohol, the lonely, solitary nights when no one will talk to you, no one loves you and your only friends are the glare of the lights and the fake, plastered-on smiles of girls too tired and hateful to truly care.”
Rachel regained her full posture, glaring down at McCall with a smug, disgusted look. She was exhausted, it was late, and all she wanted to do was cash the hell out.
“So don’t try and fool me. You’re the one who needs me to take you away from all this.”
McCall found his voice… quiet and wheezing, barely above a whisper. “C… can you?”
Rachel’s eyes trapped his, angry, piercing emerald staring deep into tear stained rheumy blues. He stammered again. “Please… can you?”
She clicked her tongue and tapped her thigh. “Of course I can, sweetie. Twenty a table. One twenty for champagne.”
Rachel turned on her heel, leaving McCall to watch her as she strode away toward the night manager…but the feeling of contentment that filled every fiber of her body derailed her, directing Rachel to the stage with the presence of a queen.
She stepped up, grasped the pole, and with a fire burning through her she began her dance, high set green orbs surveying a monarchy of marks that could never break her no matter how hard they tried. She began her performance, reveling in her grace.
And the music, the sounds, the dance took her away.
Xeric-Award winning cartoonist Neil Kleid authored Ninety Candles, a graphic novella about life, death, legacy and comics; Brownsville, a graphic novel about the Jewish mafia, and The Big Kahn, a drama about a family secret so well-hidden even the family didn’t discover it until it was too late. He’s written for Marvel, DC, Dark Horse and Image Comics, DC Comics/Zuda, Shadowline, NBM Publishing, Slave Labor Graphics, Random House and Archaia Studios. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and boys, working on three graphic novels, several comic books, a big boy novel and no sleep. Pray for him at www.rantcomics.com.