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Little Girl Lost (Hard Case Crime)by Richard Aleas
Visiting a strip club in the middle of the day is like visiting a well-lit haunted house. The magic, such as it is, is gone. At night, the Sin Factory was probably decked out like a casino, with a flashing marquee and a tuxedoed bouncer checking IDs at the door. Maybe even a velvet rope to make the patrons feel special when they were let in. But at three in the afternoon there was no one at the door, the neon was turned off, and even the beat of the music leaking out into the street sounded sluggish and half-hearted.
Under glass in a frame on the door were photos of this week?s featured performers, Mandy Mountains and Rachel Firestone. In her photo, Mandy was cradling breasts some mad doctor had built for her out of equal measures of silicone and cruelty. Rachel?s photo showed a thin brunette straddling a chair backwards, her bare breasts peeking out between the slats. Judging by their shape, hers had gone under the knife as well, but next to Mandy?s, Rachel?s breasts looked almost modest. Either to keep the cops from complaining or to keep passers-by from getting too much of the show for free, management had stuck tiny silver stars over each woman?s nipples. Along the top of the frame, a printed card announced the dates on which each woman would be appearing. Rachel had more than a week left, but tonight was Mandy?s last night.
I pulled the door open. The place was smaller than most strip clubs I?d seen, just a single, narrow room with a bar against one wall and a tiny wooden stage at the far end. Mirrors on all the walls struggled to make the place and the crowd it held seem larger, but the attempt was a failure. The stools at the bar were all empty, the crowd consisted of two men on opposite sides of the stage, and the mirrors weren?t fooling anyone.
Behind the bar, a woman was wiping glasses and racking them overhead. She was wearing an open black jacket over a lace-trimmed black bustier that gave her deep cleavage. Her chest couldn?t have been on display more if she?d been holding her breasts out to me on the palms of her hands. Her blonde hair was pulled back with an elastic band and her nails were painted the color of a cosmopolitan.
I sat on a stool and asked for club soda when she came over. She thumbed one of the buttons on her dispenser and tossed in a plastic stirrer and a piece of lime while the glass filled. "Just so you know," she said, "it?s a two-drink minimum to watch the show. Doesn?t matter if you order club soda, I?ve got to charge you for wine."
"And how much is wine?"
"Ten dollars a glass."
I took a handful of bills out of my pocket, picked out a twenty and a five and put the rest back. "Must be pretty good wine."
She tapped a few spots on the screen of her cash register and then the tray shot out and my twenty disappeared inside. The five went in the pocket of her jacket.
"You can take the glass with you. Just wave when you want another."
"That?s okay," I said. "I?ll stay here."
"Suit yourself." She resumed her work with the glasses, drying them and tucking them away in the overhead rack.
From the far end of the room came the sound of light applause from one of the patrons. The song had ended, and in the interval before the next one began the girl onstage padded around softly, swinging her hips awkwardly in time to the silence. She was neither Mountains nor Firestone, but like the headliners she was topless and looked surgically enhanced. She also looked exhausted, but apparently there wasn?t another girl to relieve her, so she kept on dancing, or anyway making enough of an effort to keep the air moving onstage.
The man seated to her left looked like a Wall Streeter on his lunch break, except that it was three in the afternoon and we were on west Twenty-fourth Street. He had an empty beer glass in front of him and a small pile of dollar bills soaking in a spill next to it. His tie was flung back over his shoulder and he kept taking his glasses off to wipe them with a paper napkin.
On the other side of the stage was the guy who had clapped at the end of the last song, and now he clapped again as the next song began. But between the beginning and end of each song, he showed his appreciation in a different way: as I watched, his hand stole into his pants through his open zipper.
I caught the bartender?s attention. "Doesn?t bother you that our friend there is jerking off?"
"Why? Does it bother you?"
"It?s not my club."
"It?s not mine either," she said.
"Yeah, but you?re going to have to wash his glass."
"You want to call him on it, be my guest," she said. "Far as I?m concerned, as long as he keeps it in his pants, it?s between him and whoever does his laundry." I held my hands up. "Fair enough."
She topped off my drink, even though I had only taken a sip. "It?s disgusting," she said softly, leaning forward to say it into my ear. "But, you know, this isn?t exactly Scores here."
That was putting it mildly. There was top drawer and there was second rate in New York the same as anywhere else, but this wasn?t even second rate, it was tenth rate. Scores was a "gentleman?s club" where, between dances, you could get rare prime rib and watch hockey games on flat-screen TVs. A notch or two down, strip clubs like Flashdancers and Private Eyes dispensed with the steak but still had large dance floors and pretty girls in nice costumes, and gave the impression that they cared about the impression they gave. The Sin Factory was another animal altogether. It hurt to picture Miranda working here.
"Let me ask you something."
"I don?t date customers."
"That?s not it. I think you knew a friend of mine. She used to work here as a dancer."
"Yeah? Who?s that?"
I drank some of my club soda. "Miranda Sugarman."
I watched as the muscles under the skin of her face tightened. "What are you, a cop or a reporter?"
"Neither," I said. "Just a friend of Miranda?s."
She was trying to make up her mind whether to talk to me or throw me out of the place.
"We went to high school together," I said. "Ten years ago. She was my girlfriend."
The bartender shook her head. "I?m sorry, but I didn?t know her."
"The paper said she was dancing here."
"A lot of girls dance here." She shot a glance at the dancer on the stage. "That one up there now, she?s been here at least as long as your girlfriend was. But I don?t know her. All I know is she calls herself ?Star,? and every day she complains about how cold it is in the dressing room."
"Is it cold?"
"Like fucking Alaska."
I stirred the ice in my glass. "What did Miranda call herself when she worked here?"
"Randy," she said. "I didn?t even know her real name was Miranda. If you?d have asked me, I?d have guessed it was anything but Miranda, because why pick a stripper name that?s short for your real name? I didn?t know her any better than I know you."
"You never spoke to her?"
"Sure?hello, how are you, how was your Thanksgiving. Sometimes she?d be at the Derby when some of us got a bite after closing. But that was it."
"How long had she been working here?"
"I don?t know, a few months? Look, I?m not going to be able to help you, I?m sorry."
"That?s okay," I said. I got up to leave. "The thing is, the last time I saw her, she was heading off to college to become a doctor. I?m just trying to understand how she got from there to here."
"A doctor," the bartender said. "Jesus. All I ever gave up was being a model."
"Yeah. Well." I drank the rest of my soda. "Thanks for the wine."
The sunlight blinded me when I walked outside?I?d almost forgotten it was still day. This time of year, it wouldn?t be for much longer, and once the night came, the crowds would come with it. Business would normally be light the day after New Year?s, but tonight I imagined the Sin Factory would get an extra boost from rubberneckers drawn by the story in the paper.
The murder had taken place on the roof, and unless I?d missed something there was no way for patrons to get up there, but that didn?t mean people wouldn?t show up and try. Maybe Mandy Mountains would make a little extra on her last night in town, and if her shift hadn?t ended yet, maybe that bartender would as well. But none of it would do Miranda any good.
Was that what I was trying to accomplish? I thought about this as I made my way to the subway station at Twenty-third Street. If it was, I was in for a disappointment, because nothing would do Miranda any good any more.
The 1 train carried me up to Eighty-sixth Street and from there I walked back two blocks. The red brick apartment building Miranda had lived in when we were in high school was still there, though the synagogue next to it was now a youth center with construction paper Christmas trees taped to the inside of the windows. If anyone could explain what had happened to Miranda, I figured it would be her mother?and even if she couldn?t, she deserved a visit.
But when I asked in the lobby to be buzzed up, the doorman didn?t know who I was talking about. Mrs. Sugarman? There was no Mrs. Sugarman in this building. 8-C? That was the Bakers. Look? And sure enough, on the intercom panel, a label said "Baker" where it had once said "Sugarman."
"You used to have a tenant named Sugarman," I said. "Is there anyone still on staff here who was working here ten years ago?"
He thought about it. "The super, maybe. You want to talk to him?"
I told him I did.
The super was a short man with a potbelly the size of a soccer ball and untrimmed grey hair around his ears. When I?d seen him last he?d had more hair, but it had already been grey. He?d just been a porter then, but seniority had apparently pushed him up the ladder. He jabbed a finger at me when he saw me and his face lit up. "Look at you! All grown up! How are you?"
I shook his hand and he dragged me into a hug. "I heard about the girl. It?s terrible. Terrible. The only good thing is her mother didn?t live to see it."
He stepped back. "You don?t know? New Year?s Eve, somebody shot her."
"To her mother," I said. "What happened to Mrs. Sugarman?"
"Oh, that?that was terrible, too," he said, shaking his head. "Poor woman, six, seven years ago. Heart attack. She was young?fifty-six, I think. But one minute to the next, just like that." He snapped his fingers. "She was trying on clothing at a store and?" He snapped his fingers again. "They found her on the floor, nothing they could do."
Six, seven years. I did the math. Miranda would just have been finishing her bachelor?s degree, or maybe not even. I tried to imagine what it must have been like for her, alone, half a continent away, her only living relative suddenly gone.
"Did Miranda come back when it happened?"
"I didn?t see her. All I know is when it?s the end of the month, there?s no rent check, and the building tells us clean it out. We threw out a lot of stuff?a sofa, table, shelves. Books, lots of books. Records. We put it all on the sidewalk, maybe someone sees something he likes, he takes it before the garbage truck comes. We paint, put in a new stove, new refrigerator. The Bakers moved in two, three weeks later."
"And you never saw Miranda again?"
"Never. Never. Except now, in the paper."
A dead end. But maybe it was also the beginning of an explanation, since whatever money Mrs. Sugarman had left Miranda, it couldn?t have been a lot. And when you think about young women who start stripping, there?s usually money at the root of it. Here was Miranda with maybe a year left on her undergraduate degree and a dream of going to medical school, and suddenly the single-income parent supporting her vanishes, taking the support with her. Maybe the school offered Miranda financial aid, or maybe it didn?t, but either way there were living expenses to be paid, and what does an attractive twenty-year-old girl taking classes all day have to make money with other than her body at night? Oh, there were other answers, of course. She could have taken night-hour temp work filing and faxing for a law firm, or she could have flipped burgers for McDonald?s. But where else could you pull down a few hundred dollars in a night, all cash? Stripping might have been the sensible, conservative alternative to turning tricks.
But this was all speculation. There had to be someone who knew what had really happened. Someone she?d known in college, someone she?d stayed in touch with from high school, someone she?d confided in when she?d returned to New York. Someone I could find if I looked hard enough.
The super reached up to put his arm across my shoulders. "So, what are you doing now? Still in school?"
"No," I said, "not for years now. I?m working."
"You work for a big company? Bank? Computers?"
I shook my head. "Small company. Investigations."
"I?m a private investigator." His expression said the penny hadn?t dropped yet. "A detective," I said.
"No!" He looked like he was waiting for me to laugh, tell him I was pulling his leg. I didn?t. "Yes? Like in the movies?"
"Sure," I said. "Just like in the movies."
Copyright © 2004 by Winterfall LLC
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