I explained that I'd seen the blondes in the bar, and they weren't Ronnie and asked whether they'd seen her earlier. No one had. One of the women was using the commode in the middle of the floor as I left. Oh, well. I opened the door, and either the music had actually been turned down a notch, or I was getting used to it or going deaf.
Micah and Nathaniel were where I'd left them, but they'd been joined by a man I didn't know. He was taller than either of them, but so thin all over that he looked smaller somehow. He had short, curly brown hair and was wearing a T-shirt, shorts, and socks. No shoes. Interesting.
Nathaniel took my hand as soon as I got close enough to be touched. The stranger touched Micah's shoulder and let his hand linger there, just a second too long. He was smiling and asked, "Do the two of you like dick?"
I kept Nathaniel's hand and moved up in front of them both, so that it forced the man to step back from us. He actually reached around me and touched Micah's shoulder again. I had to let go of Nathaniel's hand, but I moved up two more steps. For a moment the man was almost pressed up against me. He started to smile at me, then saw my eyes, and the smile faltered, and he stepped back.
I don't know what look was on my face, but he stumbled a little over his words, "They said they liked dick."
"I said, I liked my own," Micah said.
"If anyone else asks," Nathaniel said, "just say no."
I said, "We've had a misunderstanding here."
The man nodded. "Sorry." He started to move away.
I said, "We're trying to find our friend. She called drunk, needs a ride home." I described her.
He gave me nervous eyes. He knew something, and I'd been scary, so he didn't want to tell me. I should really learn to tone down the whole silent threat thing, but damn, I've just gotten so good at it.
Nathaniel's hand snaked around my shoulder. The hand had a twenty dollar bill in it. He said, "Ask again."
I took the twenty and creased it down the middle. The man watched me do it. He seemed less nervous, but I could tell he still didn't like me or what was happening. Things hadn't gone the way they were supposed to go, and it had thrown him.
"Do you know where our friend is?" I held the twenty up.
"Maybe," he said, and his voice sounded rough.
Nathaniel leaned over my shoulder. His voice was low and calm. "We want to find her before she does something she'll regret. She had a fight with her boyfriend, they'll make up, but not if she crosses too many lines, do you understand me?"
"This will get you a lap dance, a good one. I have to do something for the money, or he'll know I told on him. He wouldn't like that, and he'd make sure I didn't like it."
"Who?" I asked.
Nathaniel was standing so close to me I felt him sigh. "Ronnie is already in the back, Anita."
"The back?" I asked.
"Wherever they go, she's already back there."
Shit. "Take us to her," I said.
"Dallas would kill me. We don't get that many beautiful women in here."
"We could just start asking where Dallas is," I said.
Something close to real fear went through his eyes. "Don't do that, please."
I hate when I start feeling sorry for them. "What's your name?"
"Owen," Nathaniel said, "he said his name was Owen."
"Alright, Owen, we don't want to get you hurt, but if you keep us talking and something bad happens..."
Micah said, "Give him another twenty, then he can take us to the back."
I looked at him.
"We can find her on our own, and he can pretend that he took us to the back for business."
My look said it all.
He shrugged. "He won't get hurt, and we'll all get what we need."
I wanted to argue, but Nathaniel's hand had already appeared with another twenty in it. "I had a good night," he said. What did that mean? A good night? Good tips? Or did Nathaniel do lap dances when he wasn't on stage? I'd never asked. I hadn't wanted to know, hell, I still didn't want to know. I took the twenty and folded it together with the first one.
"Take us to the back, Owen."
Another dancer appeared in what I finally realized was the outfit; loose shorts, T-shirt, and socks. This one had more meat on him and was cute in a boyish, unfinished sort of way. "Need another hand?"
It was Nathaniel who moved up, hugging me from behind, smiling, suddenly. "We've got all the men we need, don't we, Owen?"
Owen nodded, and I watched his face remold itself, so that when he turned to his coworker, he was smiling and at ease. He took the forty dollars from my hand and tucked it into the top of his white socks. He made the movement strangely graceful and more feminine than it should have been, as if in his mind he was tucking a hundred dollars into the tops of silk stockings. It was a good moment and made me think better of him in the job he'd chosen. Before that one movement, I'd wondered what the hell he was doing here. Of course, with Guilty Pleasures as my measuring rod, everyone here looked too thin, too fragile, not muscular enough, not anything enough.
I didn't manage a smile, but I kept my face pleasant and unreadable. "Yeah, we have enough men."
"We don't have women here," the other dancer said. There was something in his eyes, something about the way he glanced at Owen, as if he didn't believe us.
"We brought our own," Nathaniel said, and moved up between Owen and me, so he could drape an arm around us both. He was smiling. His lavender eyes shown with eagerness. It was an Oscar-worthy performance, and the other dancer seemed to buy it.
He did glance back at Micah. "What's he going to be doing?"
"Watching, silly," Owen said, and began to guide us around the other man. We threaded our way through the tables, with Micah trailing behind. I swear, I could feel the other dancer's eyes on us, as if he still didn't buy it. Or maybe he was jealous, God alone knew, because I didn't want to. Ronnie was so going to owe me for this one.
A dancer stepped out onto the bar as we passed it. He was so not in shape, not fragile, sort of like a computer geek, or accountant. He had glasses and short hair that didn't flatter his face. He was ordinary and so didn't look like anyone that should be stripping. I wondered what he was doing here, like this, then he grabbed a set of bright chrome bars that were suspended above the bar and proceeded to roll his entire body up and through his own arms, proving that he was every bit as double-jointed as Nathaniel. Okay.
The audience screamed behind us, and I couldn't help it, I glanced in that direction. The dancer was tall, thin, and a brunette and wearing only the white socks. He grabbed the bar in the center of the stage and began to writhe around it. I turned away, fast, and found that the dancer at the bar was nude now, too. I came almost face-to-face with the other reason he was stripping here; he was well-endowed. I nearly tripped us all trying to get some room between us and the bar. Owen laughed, a high girlish laugh, and Nathaniel joined it with a masculine chuckle. Micah followed silent, and I waited to stop blushing. They did total nudity across the river, how could I have forgotten? What I wanted to do was run screaming, but instead I let Owen maneuver us toward the black-draped area across from the bar. Nathaniel was plastered between us, still smiling, still laughing. If Nathaniel could keep playing nice, so could I. I glanced back to check on Micah and saw the dancer at the bar proving that it wasn't just his shoulders that could bend in amazing ways. A woman was holding up money. Micah was staring straight ahead, as if, if he didn't look, it would all just go away. It wasn't just me that Ronnie was going to owe.
Owen parted the black drapes, and in we went.
There was a small open area just inside the drapes. A man was leaning against the far wall. He straightened up as we came through the curtain. He was wearing a muscle shirt, exercise pants, and white socks. The clothes were slightly different, but the socks gave it away. He was another dancer. There was more muscle under the shirt, and he had a body closer to the kind I expected from a stripper. "Need a hand?" he asked. It was exactly what the other dancer had asked. Coincidence, or code for something? Didn't know, wasn't sure I cared.
"No, thanks, we got it covered," Owen trilled. He clung to Nathaniel's arm, and Nathaniel let him.
I tried to help. I said, "Sorry, but I think I'm at my limit for men for the night. After three, don't they make you throw one back?"