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Fiction

The Underground Economy

That’s not what I want to talk about. If you’re interested in hearing about the day to day of a stripper, there are plenty of books you can read. Some of them are pretty good. Or you could watch Showgirls. No, it’s not accurate, but it’s the kind of movie most of the girls I danced with would have made about themselves. So there’s that.

It’s a person—Nicole AuCoeur, the girl who told me I should try out at The Cusp, they were hiring and I could make some serious cash. I want to talk about her, about this thing that happened to her.

We weren’t friends. We’d been in a couple of classes together at SUNY Huguenot. Both of us wanted to be writers. Nikki said she was going to be a travel writer. I was planning on writing screenplays. We took the same fiction-writing workshops, and were in the same peer-critique group. I read two or three of her stories. They were pretty good. The teacher was into fantasy, The Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, so Nikki turned in that kind of story. She was that type of student. Figure out what the professor likes and play to it.

I didn’t know she was working at The Cusp. She was always late for class, and she always showed up stoned. She drenched herself in some kind of ginger-citrus perfume, to hide the smell, but it clung to her hair. She had long, brown hair that she wore in long bangs, like drapes. If anything, I thought she was some kind of dealer. I remember this one time, in the middle of class, she opened her purse and started to root through it—I mean, frantically, taking stuff out of it and piling it on her desk. The professor asked her if everything was okay. She said, “No, I can’t find my stash.” The guy didn’t know how to respond to that. The rest of us tittered.

Anyway. I ran into her the summer after that class. I was sitting in Dunkin’ Donuts, making lunch out of a small coffee and a Boston cream donut. Nikki sat down across from me. I hadn’t realized she was still in town. I assumed she’d gone home for the summer. She said she’d stayed in Huguenot to work. I asked her what she was doing. She said dancing at The Cusp.

I blushed. Everyone knew about the club. It was on 299, on the way into town, a flat-roofed cinderblock building. We used to call it The Cusp juice bar, because they couldn’t serve alcohol there, on account of the girls dancing fully nude. I hadn’t known anyone who worked there—well, not that I was aware of—but I knew people who’d known people. Although what I’d heard from them had concerned the professors who were regulars at the place. There was a story about this one old guy who’d paid for a girl to come to his place and pee on him, so I guess I had an idea of the place as one step up from a brothel.

Nikki ignored my blush. She said the money was fantastic, and the club was hiring. If I was interested, there were auditions the following Wednesday. We made conversation for a couple of minutes, then she left.

To make a short story shorter, I tried out, was offered the job, and took it. Money—yeah, the money was better than I could make anyplace else in town without a college degree, and in a lot of cases with one. I had been working part-time as a cashier at Shop Rite, but I couldn’t get enough hours to cover the rent, my car—which was a piece of shit that spent as much time at the mechanic’s as it did on the road—and groceries. Not to mention utilities. And going out. My dad had wanted me to come home for the summer, and when I didn’t, he got pissed and said if I wanted to stay in Huguenot so bad, I could find a way to pay for it.

So I did. I had to shave my crotch, which was no fun, and keep it shaved, to give the customers a clear view of what I was waving in their faces. The dancing wasn’t, not really. It was wriggling around on stage, teasing I was going to undo my top, wriggling some more, removing my top with one hand but keeping my boobs covered with the other, wriggling some more, et cetera, until I was down to my shoes. Oh, and the garter the guys stuffed their dollar bills into. The air stunk of cigarette smoke, mostly from the dancers. All the same, I smiled at everyone. Not because I was enjoying myself, but because it made me more money if the customers thought I was enjoying myself. It intimidated some of them, too, which did please me. I wasn’t especially nervous working at The Cusp. Probably, I should have been. But I was sure I could handle any creeps who tried anything with me. My dad had been a marine, and a martial arts nut, and I had grown up knowing how to punch an attacker in the throat, tear off his ears, and gouge out his eyes. Plus, there were always at least two bouncers in close proximity, in case things in the private rooms got seriously out of hand.

That was where the real money was. Private dances. Lap dances, mostly, which were forty dollars for five minutes plus whatever you could convince the guy to tip you. Some girls could keep a customer in there for two or three dances in a row. I didn’t, not usually. There was also a room at the back of the club, the Champagne Parlor. Two-fifty for half an hour with the girl of your choice. And a complimentary bottle of non-alcoholic champagne. That was mainly for the guys whose buddies had brought them to The Cusp for their bachelor parties.

Nikki was the queen of the private dances. She had this routine. The DJ would announce her as “Isis,” which was the stage name she used. (Mine was Eve. I know: subtle, right?) She would walk out onto the stage in a long, transparent gown that trailed along the floor behind her. She danced to Led Zeppelin, “The Battle of Evermore.” I think she’d studied ballet at some point. There were a lot of ballet moves in her routine. She stood on one leg and held the other leg out in front of her, or behind her, or to the side. She skipped across the stage on the tips of her toes. She half-crouched, leapt, and came down in another half-crouch. She twirled, sometimes on her toes, her arms stretched above, sometimes with one leg bent behind, her head thrown back, her arms curved in front. The gown floated after, whipped around her. She let it drift away. Underneath, she was wrapped in scarves, each of which she undid and sent fluttering to the floor. Throughout, she went from customer to customer, bending towards them, giving them a closer look at what lay beneath the remaining scarves.

By the end of the song, all she had left on was a pair of fairy wings. I guess that’s what you’d call them. They were like something from a Halloween costume, one for adults. Sexy Tinkerbell or whatever. A pair of clear straps looped them around her shoulders. They weren’t that big, and they were made of thick plastic. When the lights played over them, they filled with a rainbow of colors that slid about inside them like oil. Something to do with the plastic. They weren’t butterfly wings, which is what most fairy costumes come with. They were long, narrow, shaped like blades. Hornet wings, or an insect from that branch of the family. If I thought about them that way, they almost freaked me out. Nikki danced stoned—she did everything stoned, from what I could tell—and the glaze the pot gave her eyes made them resemble the hard eyes of an insect. Together with the wings, they lent her the appearance of an extra from a grade-z sci-fi flick, Attack of the Wasp Women or something.

None of the customers noticed this. Or, if any of them did, he had a kink I don’t want to think about. Nikki never danced more than one song. As Zeppelin faded away, she was off the dance floor, followed by one and sometimes two guys. Most of them went for lap dances, which took place in one of a row of booths set up opposite the club’s bar. Yeah, the juice bar. The booths were basically large closets with small couches in them. The customer reclined on the couch, and the dancer did her thing. Each booth had a camera mounted high in one of its corners. For the safety of the dancers, supposedly, and to ensure no one went from lap dance to out-and-out hooking. Part of the bouncers’ jobs was to keep an eye on the video feed; although I never saw any of them cast more than a glance in the monitors’ direction. I don’t think Nikki ever unzipped anyone’s jeans, but there’s a lot you can do before you reach that point. To be sure, as far as tips went, none of the rest of us could keep up with her.

Not that she was stingy with her money. If it was a night the club closed early, a bunch of us would head into one of the bars in town, and Nikki would cover our drinks. If we were working a late night, once the last customer was out and the front door locked, she’d produce a bottle of Stoli for us to mix with the juice bar’s juices. Those times—sitting around the club, shooting the shit—were better than being at an actual bar, more relaxed. Most of us changed into our regular clothes, jeans, T-shirts, wiped the makeup off our faces. Not Nikki. She stayed naked as long as she could. Except for her wings. She wandered around the club, a drink in her hand, the wings bouncing up and down with each step, clicking together. She would lean against the bar, where I was sitting with a cup of coffee because I had an 8 a.m. class I’d decided to stay awake for. We didn’t say a lot to one another. Mostly, we traded complaints about the amount of reading we had to do for school. But having her beside me gave me an opportunity to study the tattoo that decorated her back, so I did what I could to keep to keep the conversation going, such as it was.

That tattoo. All of the girls had ink. In most cases, it was in a couple of places, the lower back and the shoulder, say. That’s where mine were. I had a pair of coiling snakes on my back, and the Chinese character for “air” on my right arm. There’s a story behind each of them, but they’re not part of this story. One girl, Sheri, had ink on most of her body, brightly-colored figures that were enacting an enormous drama on her skin. Nikki had a single tattoo, a square panel that covered most of her back. It was difficult to see clearly, warped by the plastic wings lying over it. The artist had executed the image in black and dark blue, with here and there highlights of pale yellow and orange. There was a car in the middle of it, an older model with a narrow grill like the cowcatcher on a train. The headlights perched high on either side of the grill. The car stretched along a foreshortened road, its rear wheels and end dropping behind the horizon. I wasn’t sure if the distortion was supposed to represent speed, or just an extra-long car. To the right of the car, a cluster of tall figures filled the scene. There were five or six of them. They were dressed in black suits, and black fedoras. Their faces were the same pale oval, eyes and mouths empty circles. To the left of the car, a steep hill led to a slender house whose wall was set with a half-dozen mismatched windows. Within each frame, there seemed to be a tiny figure, but I couldn’t make out what any of them were. A rim of orange moon hung over the scene in a sickly smile. The picture had been done in a style that reminded me of something from Mad magazine, exaggerated in a way that was more sinister than comic. It fascinated me. I asked Nikki what it was supposed to be. She said, “Oh, you know, just a picture.” Which could have been true, for all I knew. At the same time, that was a lot of investment in a random image.

The customers didn’t mind it. Not that I heard, anyway. Most of them were too timid to say anything. They acted as if they were cool, confident, but it was obvious they weren’t. It was as if they were tuning forks, and our bare skin was what they’d struck themselves on. They vibrated, made the air surrounding them quiver. There were exceptions, sure. One guy who was a long-haul trucker. Not too big. Kept his hair short, his beard long. Had on a red flannel shirt every time he entered the club, which was about once a month. He was quiet, polite, said, “Yes ma’am,” “No ma’am.” But there was a stillness to him. It was what you’d expect from a wolf, or one of the big cats, a tiger. The utter focus of a predator. That I know, he hadn’t tried anything with any of the girls before I started at The Cusp. He behaved himself while I was there, too. If I’d heard he owned a cabin in the woods, though, whose walls were papered in human skin, I would not have doubted it. I gave him a lap dance, once, and spent the five minutes planning the elbow I’d throw at his temple or throat when he grabbed me. He didn’t, and he tipped pretty well. That said, I wouldn’t have done it a second time.

The other exception was a group of guys who squeezed into the club one Thursday night. There were five of them, plus a man who said he was their driver. The bouncer who was working the front door said he saw them pull up in a white van. The five guys were huge, the biggest men I’d ever seen in person. I’m going to say seven feet tall, each, three feet and change wide. Three fifty, four hundred pounds. All dressed in the same khaki safari shirts, khaki shorts, and sandals. They had the same style crewcuts that squared the tops of the heads. Their faces were blank, unresponsive. They stared straight ahead, and didn’t so much as glance at any of the girls. In the club’s mix of white and blue lighting, their skin looked dull, gray. They could have been in their early twenties. They could have been twice that. They stood beyond the front door in a group and did not move. They reminded me of the stone heads on Easter Island. They weren’t still—they were inert.

Not their driver, though. He was smaller—average-sized, really. It was standing in front of his passengers that made him appear diminutive. He was wearing a beige, zip-up jacket over a white dress shirt with a huge collar and brown bell-bottom slacks. His hair was black, freshly-cut and gelled, but his skin had the yellow tinge of someone with jaundice. He was younger pretending to be older. I figured he was in charge of the five guys. Actually, what I thought was, the five passengers were residents of one of the local group homes, and the driver had decided to treat them to a night out. I know how it sounds, but things like it happened often enough for it not to seem strange, anymore.

The driver didn’t waste any time. He spoke to the front door guy, who pointed him to the bartender. She leaned across the bar to hear what he had to say, then motioned to one of the girls who was killing time with a cranberry spritzer to fetch someone from the dressing room. I read her lips: Isis. Nikki. The driver nodded at the bartender, and passed her a folded bill. I’m pretty sure it was a hundred.

Nikki emerged from the dressing room wearing her assortment of scarves, but without the long gown. She looked across the club to where the driver was standing with his hands in his trouser pockets. Her head jerked, as if she recognized him. When she walked up to him, she kept her expression neutral, which only seemed to confirm that she knew the driver. He tilted forward to speak into her ear. Whatever he had to say didn’t take long, but she took a while to respond to it. She stared at the driver, as if trying to bring him into focus, then nodded and said, “Sure.”

Apparently, what the driver wanted was a lap dance for each of his five passengers, all of them provided by Nikki. He gestured for the nearest of the huge guys to come forward. Nikki took hold of one enormous hand and led the guy to the middle lap dance booth. He had to stoop to enter it; I wondered if he’d fit inside. He did. His four buddies didn’t register his departure in the slightest. The driver stationed himself midway between the rest of his passengers and the booth. He gazed into space, and waited.

I didn’t see Nikki emerge from the booth with the first giant in tow, because I’d been called to the dance floor. It took me two songs into my three-song routine to sell a customer a private dance. He was a college student. I almost thought I recognized him from one of the big lecture classes. He was free with his money, and it wasn’t difficult to keep him in the booth for two dances. We were to the right of Nikki and whichever of the enormous guys she had with her. The walls of the booths weren’t thick. All kinds of sounds leaked through from the adjoining spaces. That center booth, though, was silent. I noticed this, but I don’t know if it seemed strange to me or not. I’m not sure. I was busy with the college student. I want to say that there was something off about that lack of sound. It was as if it was a gap in sound, a blank spot in the middle of a song, rather than the end of it.

Nikki and I finished our dances at the same time. I didn’t notice anything wrong with her, then, standing naked outside the booths. She was flushed, but she’d been working hard for almost thirty straight minutes. She was sweaty, too, which was odd. The club was air-conditioned, in order to keep the dancers’ sweat to a minimum. I wondered if the driver was going to ask for his turn, next. He didn’t. He passed Nikki the biggest roll of bills I had and have ever seen, collected his giant cargo, and exited The Cusp without another word. Nikki gathered her scarves from inside the booth and retreated to the dressing room.

She didn’t stay there long. She dropped the scarves on the floor, stuffed the roll of money into her purse, and returned to the club. The first customer she approached was a middle-aged guy wearing gray slacks and a white button-down shirt. He was sitting back from the stage, so he could watch the show and not have to pay out too much cash. Nikki straddled him in his chair and ground her pelvis against him. Whatever prudence he’d imagined he possessed flew out the window. He trailed behind her to the lap dance booths.

A minute later, he was screaming. The booth’s door flew open, and Nikki stumbled out of it. There was blood all over her legs, her ass. She stopped, found her balance, and walked toward the dressing room. As she did, her customer emerged, still screaming. The front of his slacks was dark with blood. Of course I assumed he’d done something to her. His face, though. He was wide-eyed, horrified. One of the bouncers was already next to him. I went to check on Nikki.

She was bent over one of the makeup tables, attempting to roll a joint. The backs of her legs, the cheeks of her ass, were scarlet. Closer to her, I saw that her skin had been scraped raw. It reminded me of when I’d been a kid and wiped out on my bike, dragging my palms or shins across the blacktop. The air smelled coppery. Blood ran down Nikki’s legs and pooled on the floor. Blood flecked the bottoms of the plastic wings, the tattoo. She wasn’t having any luck with the joint. Her hands wouldn’t do what she wanted them to. I pushed in beside her and rolled the spliff as best I could. I passed it to her with fingers that weren’t trembling too much, then held her lighter for her.

I didn’t know what to say. Everything that came to mind sounded inane, ridiculous. Are you hurt? Her legs and ass looked like hamburger. Do you need a doctor? Obviously. What happened to you? Something bad. Who were those guys? See the answer to the previous question. I couldn’t look away from the ruin of her flesh. When I’d started working at The Cusp, I’d thought that I was entering the world as it really was, a place of lust and money. Now I saw that there was a world underneath that one, a realm of blood and pain. For all I knew, there was somewhere below that, a space whose principles I didn’t want to imagine. I mumbled something about taking her to a doctor. Nikki ignored me.

By the time one of the bouncers and the bartender came to check on her, Nikki had located her long gown and tugged it on. She checked her pocketbook to be sure the roll of cash was there, took it in the hand that wasn’t holding the joint, and crossed to the fire exit at the opposite end of the dressing room. Without breaking stride, she shoved it open, triggering the fire alarm. She turned left towards the parking lot as the door clunked shut behind her.

The bouncer, the bartender, and I traded looks that asked which of us was going to pursue her. I did. I hurried along the outside of the club and across the parking lot to where Nikki parked her Accord. The car was gone. I ran back towards the building, which everyone was pouring out of. I could hear a distant siren. Most of the customers were scrambling for their cars, hoping to escape the parking lot before the fire engines arrived and boxed them in. I considered making a dash inside for my keys and was brought up short by the realization that I didn’t know where Nikki lived. I had an approximate idea—the apartments down by the Svartkill—but nothing more. I could drive around the parking lots, but what if she’d gone to the emergency room, or one of the walk-in care facilities? I didn’t even have her cell number, another fact which suddenly struck me as bizarre. Why couldn’t I get in touch with her? Why didn’t I know her address? The strangest sensation swept over me there in the parking lot, as if Nikki, and everything connected to her, had been unreal. That couldn’t have been the case, though, could it? Or how would I have found out about the job at The Cusp?

I didn’t see Nikki for the rest of the time I worked at the club. I stayed through the end of the fall semester, when I graduated early and moved, first back in with my dad, then down to Florida. The five enormous guys, their jaundiced driver, didn’t return during those months. The customer whose pants had been soaked with Nikki’s blood did. Less than a week later, he appeared at the front door, insisting he had to talk to her. His face was red, sweaty, his eyes glazed. He looked as if he had the flu. The bouncer at the door told him that the girl he was looking for no longer danced here, and no, he didn’t know where she’d gone. The guy became agitated, said he had to see her, it was important she know about the cards, the hearts. The bouncer placed his hands gently but firmly on the guy’s chest and told him the girl wasn’t here and he needed to leave. The guy broke the bouncer’s nose, his right cheek, and three of his ribs. It took the other two bouncers on duty to subdue him, and they barely managed to do that. The cop who answered the bartender’s 911 call took one look at the guy and requested backup. The cop said they would transport the guy across the Hudson, to Penrose Hospital, where there was a secure psych ward. As far as I know, that’s what happened. I don’t know what became of Nikki’s last customer, only that I didn’t see him again.

Years went by. I left Florida for Wyoming, big sky and a job managing a bank. I bought a house, a nice car. The district manager was pleased with my performance, and recommended me for a corporate event in Idaho. I took 80 west to Utah, where I picked up 84 and headed north and west into Idaho. Somewhere on the other side of Rock Springs, a white van roared up behind me and barely avoided crashing into the back of my rental. I swore, steered right. The van swung wide to the left, so sharply it rose up on its right wheels. I thought it was going to tip over, roll onto the median. It didn’t. It swerved towards me. I should have braked. Instead, I stomped the gas. The rental surged past the van. As it did, I glanced at the vehicle’s passengers. Its rear and middle seats were filled by a group of enormous men whose crewcut heads did not turn from the road ahead. In the front seat, a driver with black hair and yellowed skin laughed uproariously along with a woman with long brown hair. Nikki. Together, she and the driver laughed and laughed, as if caught by an emotion too powerful to resist. He wiped tears from his eyes. She pounded on the dashboard.

I pulled onto the shoulder and threw the car into park. My pulse was hammering in my throat. I watched the van speed west down the highway until it was out of sight. I waited another half hour before I shifted into drive and resumed my journey. The remainder of the drive to Idaho, and all of the way home, I didn’t see the van. But I was watching for it.

I still am.

— For Fiona, and in memory of Joel Lane.

John Langan

John Langan is the author of two novels, The Fisherman and House of Windows, and two collections, The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies and Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters. With Paul Tremblay, he co-edited Creatures: Thirty Years of Monsters. Currently, he reviews horror and dark fantasy for Locus magazine. His third collection, Sefira and Other Betrayals, is forthcoming in 2018. He lives in New York’s Hudson Valley with his wife and younger son.