“Drink up,” Marco said, shoving a Burger King cup into my hands before I’d even buckled my seatbelt. “Tonight’s gonna be epic, big Eddie…”
“Gaaah!” I said after a small sip, swallowing bitterly. Marco’s pre-game cocktail tasted like six parts vodka to one part Red Bull. “Where we starting the night? Black Star? The Velvet Curtain?”
Marco gave me the same mischievous, half-mouthed smirk the girls loved. “Someplace new,” he said and promptly cranked the stereo before I could reply or ask for details. EDM came in shockwaves through the interior of Marco’s Jetta, the subwoofers he’d added to the trunk vibrating my eyeballs.
I swirled my cup, sipped again, grimaced. Then I popped the lid and added some more Red Bull from a can I snatched from Marco. He was clearly amped enough. Marco was always the life of the party. He was the kind of guy who could walk into any party, nightclub, or bar alone, and within fifteen minutes, you’d think he was the guest of honor. I envied his charisma––that never-met-a-stranger infectious energy of his that made women want him and men want to be him. I didn’t want to BE him, but I sure did wish to siphon off some of his extroversion.
What amazed me most was how Marco was unfazed by his injury from the construction site; it didn’t water down his personality in the slightest. Most guys would be at least slightly depressed after losing an ear and gaining a mangled scar down one cheek like some medieval swordsman, but not Marco. The lawyers did him well, and I suppose the money helped, but Marco took his wound in stride. He wore his disfigurement like a badge of honor.
Marco dialed back the music, and we slowed; the flashing neon sign reading GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS came into view. I didn’t recognize the area of town: clearly, I’d been lost in thought on the drive over. Everything looked brand new as if it had popped up overnight. Marco must’ve heard my scowl. He spoke before I could object.
“I know titty bars aren’t your thing, but hear me out…” Marco said, sliding the vehicle through the dark parking lot. “Bro, I saw some pictures of the girls here, and they are out of this world! First dance is on me. If you feel your moral compass is still in jeopardy after that, we can gladly make our way to talk to the hipster chicks in Old Town. Deal?”
I gave Marco an incredulous look, knowing that if we didn’t go in for at least one drink, I would never hear the end of it. “Fine, just let me check my exposed skin for open wounds; I don’t want to catch a disease if one of the performers accidentally brushes up against me.” Marco seemed entertained by my sarcastic drawl. I pounded the rest of my drink, and we exited the car.
Marco and I entered the club past a typical bouncer composed of fat-covered muscles and deprecatory looks. The bouncer wore a peculiar earpiece and ushered us past the cashier taking door fees after Marco showed him something on his phone. The bouncer spoke into the ear of a swarthy brunette with big anime eyes, and then she gave us a sparkling smile and stamped our hands with some kind of invisible ink. Some unknown but enticing music blared––thick basslines and catchy synth rhythms––and I smelled coconut and lime as the doe-eyed girl leaned into me to be heard over the music. Her lips grazed my earlobe as she said, “I’m Mara, follow me to your table…” The slight touch gave me chills, reverberating with the force of sweet air from her lilting voice.
I’d only been into one other strip club in my life, but the interior of this place was a sight: mirrors, neon lights, and expansive metallic surfaces gave it the feel of an alien ship’s interior illuminated with distilled rainbow light. There were three stages topped with incredibly fit and shapely women dancing sensually, a palpable eroticism exuding from their glistening skin. Surprisingly, all were clad, scantily, but covered nonetheless. I saw Marco smiling from ear to mangled ear. He gave me a nod that said, “See? I told you!”
Mara left us at our seats, plush leather around a small table adorned with coasters, glasses, and a carafe filled with a prismatic liquid. Even tap water looked enticing in this place. Marco leaned toward me. “Good God, man! Do you see these girls? Look at that one!” He pointed toward a top-heavy redhead on the center stage, writhing suggestively.
“How come they all have tops on?” I said, realizing I didn’t know if the place was actually topless, full-nude, or just a bikini bar.
“Either they’re just getting started, or maybe they only take it off if you go into the back rooms…” Marco gestured toward a wall of curtains labeled VIP. The man-mountains at either end of the curtains were formidable, intimidating.
The vodka was surging through me, so I ordered bottled water and a Heineken when our waitress came, not letting the sweet-lipped blonde entice me into ordering the house special, a twenty-five-dollar mystery drink. As he often did, Marco said yes, always eager to please, entertain the suggestions of beautiful waitresses, and try new things. When the waitress returned, both Marco and I were surprised at the sight of his drink. It came in a tall glass, half full of a light blue liquid, with a shot of something that looked like liquid gold on the side. The blonde’s long wavy hair tickled my arm as she leaned over to place our order on the table.
“Are you sure you don’t want one too?” she asked me. “Usually, our patrons take them together to start off the night, like a sake bomb or boilermaker, you know?”
I lost myself in her perfect lips and bright blue eyes for a moment. Close up, both the waitress and the hostess were tens. I wondered what the dancers looked like close up, very much doubting it was a “good from far, but far from good” situation.
“I’m good for now, thank you,” I replied and cracked the seal on my bottled water.
The waitress turned to Marco. “Ok, sugar. Bottoms up. You ready?”
Marco nodded, and she quickly dumped the shot into his tall glass. I could’ve sworn it made a flash of light when she did so, but there was so much light swinging around the room, it was hard to tell. Marco grabbed his drink and downed it impossibly fast, slapping the empty on the table. “Woooo!” he yelled, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “Damn! That was incredible.” Then, Marco gave our waitress a “come hither” gesture and whispered something into her ear. She giggled, replied with something I couldn’t hear, and ran her hand from his shoulder down his arm, pinching his fingertips as she pulled away and spun from the table, sliding off into the shadows.
“I’m going to get a dance from the redhead when she gets off stage,” Marco said, beaming. “Pick your girl for when I get back.”
I set down my half-empty water bottle and began sipping at my Heiny, appraising the room awash in kaleidoscopic light. A girl with thin black braids who looked like a Nigerian princess glided through the room, then fell with a stage performer-like faint into the lap of a rotund man with a thick beard and windowpane sports coat. Four Hispanics leaned over the railing of the furthest stage, robotically throwing bills toward a platinum blonde dancer wearing tall sequined boots and the thinnest strap bikini I’d ever seen, her serpentine rhythm casting a spell amongst the men appearing in wisps of subtle, gray smoke. As swirling disco-ball lights cycled around the room, a variety of attractive waitresses laughed winsome laughs as they dumped shots of liquid gold into glasses of pale blue elixirs, the men slamming down the empties with gusto. I seemed to be the only one abstaining from the mysterious party drink.
Marco was unusually silent, his rapt attention on the redhead center stage finishing her set. I found myself contemplating my friend’s enigmatic behavior; why would Marco want to come to a place like this, pay for hollow affections when he could glean all the attention he wanted purely on the currency of his charm and wit? My thoughts were silenced as the redhead approached our table, her eyes locked on Marco, glowing green like bioluminescent fungi in a deep swamp.
“Hi!” she said. “I’m Phoenix. Need some company?”
“God yes!” Marco replied. “Here, let me clear you a spot.” He quickly leaned his head over the back of his chair and wiped at his face, his broad, cheesy smile never waning.
I scoffed. Only Marco could pull off such a crass, lowbrow move, even in a place like this where such things were swept under the rug. Phoenix laughed affably, like a starlet in a rom-com during her first interaction with the charming man soon to sweep her off her feet. She leaned down to Marco’s upturned face and whispered into his mangled ear, her glinting eyes locked onto mine. I caught something about “VIP,” and as she stood upright, the gyrating lights fell across her smooth skin, and for the briefest of seconds, she appeared scaled, her flesh wrapped in a reptilian shroud. Gooseflesh rippled down my arms in response, quickly dissipating as Marco rose from his seat.
“Alright, I’m going back to get better acquainted with Phoenix, buddy,” Marco said.
He faced Phoenix. “Can you recommend someone to keep Eddie company while we’re gone?”
“Absolutely,” Phoenix replied. Then, leaning close to make sure I heard, she added: “I may keep your friend back there a while… discover his secrets…” Her eyebrows raised, then she gave me a wink. She took Marco’s hand and led him toward the dark wall of curtains.
I sat for a few minutes alone, fighting a strange queasy feeling that suddenly came over me, and began regretting hammering the vodka before we came inside. Moments later, a Persian goddess emerged from the shadows clad in tiny gold swatches of diaphanous fabric, slinky bangles, and dangling jewelry. “Phoenix said you need some company while she entertains your friend,” she said in a melodious voice, her dark almond eyes piercing, hypnotic. “I am Ziba. May I join you?” Her smile shone like a sliver of the brightest moon.
For a moment, I just stared, taken aback by her beauty. In this place, every woman was without blemish, flawless, impossibly beautiful, but Ziba was beyond even my wildest fantasies. I simply nodded, slid a chair out next to me.
Ziba slipped between the chair and table and drifted down into my lap like a bronzed autumn leaf gently settling with the wind. She smelled of sweet Jasmine and honey, and as she wrapped a silken arm around my shoulder and I felt her breath on my face, I immediately began to swell with arousal. “It is loud here; we must be close to hear each other…” she said as her fingers drifted up to my neck and nestled into the back of my hair; her other hand found a spot high on my chest, resting like a sleepy kitten. “So, what do you want most from life, Eddie?” Ziba said, still twirling my short locks of hair in her fingers.
For a moment, I thought I misheard. I was having trouble focusing; Ziba’s hand in my hair was causing me to drift away, her skin looked dusted in gold, shimmering in the shifting lights, and the way she kept moving in my lap certainly wasn’t helping matters either. “What’s that?” I said, my eyes locked on her glistening lips.
“Life, Eddie? What do you want from it?”
Had I told her my name? I didn’t recall. Didn’t care.
“I don’t know. Fun. New experiences. Travel. Maybe a family one day. What about you? Where are you from? What does your name mean?”
Ziba laughed, causing more friction in my lap. I knew she could feel me now.
“Many ambitions. Many questions. Like all of us visiting this plane, I want to fulfill my desires, satiate my hunger… I have many appetites.”
I nodded in reply. Looked from Ziba’s lips into her dark eyes. They shone, beckoned, called… I fell into them, her conversation a distant thing, like muffled words behind a closed door.
“My home is very far, within your Ursa Major, inside a place your people call Mayall’s Object. I was forced from home very long ago––a cataclysm between our neighbors. As you may have guessed, Ziba is not my true name, only the one I have adopted here––for this place. Ziba is a Persian name, meaning ‘gorgeous.’ My true name would be impossible for you to pronounce.”
“You are gorgeous…” My reply drifted out from deep within, a dream’s echo, faint and hidden.
“You are very handsome, Eddie. Would you come to the back with me? We can share more secrets…”
“Yes. Anything… Anywhere…”
“Come…” Ziba lifted herself from my lap, her hand sliding from around my neck to take my hand and pull me from my chair.
I suddenly remembered Marco. How long had he been gone? I wanted to be here when he returned. “Wait,” I said. “My friend.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll make sure he knows where you are…”
I followed. Dazed. My eyes took in Ziba’s perfect backside as it moved under the thin, glittering fabric. We wound through the club, past crowds of patrons hypnotically locked onto the lithe performers swaying on stage in tune with the music. Ziba whispered something to one of the men standing sentry-like before the VIP curtains, and I saw him grin, flash a strange look in my direction. I dropped Ziba’s hand, suddenly wracked with awareness, my consciousness fighting to escape a thick fog.
Ziba faced me, eyes wide, quickly stepped forward, her intoxicating aroma embracing me tightly. “You ok, handsome?”
“I… umm…” the words stuck, Ziba’s eyes again gripping me in their enchantment.
A curtain rippled at my side, and the red-haired Phoenix emerged, her skin glistening, a soft, pulsing glow radiating off of her. She was past me and into the thronging club in a second. I caught a quick glimpse in the small room behind the curtain and saw a man running a mop over a floor of intricate obsidian tiles; another man grabbed items off an overstuffed black couch, jamming them into a trash bag. I caught a flash of red cloth, a flicker of metal––a belt buckle. Marco’s clothes? A vacuous space of unease opened inside me.
“One sec…” I said to Ziba, shoving away and rushing into the raucous crowd, frantically searching for Phoenix.
I caught her drifting between stages, grabbed her wrist. “Hey! Where’s my friend Marco?”
She jumped, yanked her arm away, looked at me like I was a rabid dog, a complete stranger. “Marco? Who is that?”
“My friend! The one you just took to the VIP.” My chest was pounding, and I felt a panic attack coming on. I hadn’t had one in over a year.
“Oh! Him!” Phoenix chuckled as an array of lights washed over her, again shadowing the once-flawless skin in wrinkles. “He may need some time to regather himself,” she said. Leaning close, she added: “He may have gotten a little over-excited if you know what I mean…”
“Here, go with Ziba; she’ll keep you entertained while your friend puts himself together…”
I turned, and Ziba was at my side, looking as sensual and inviting as ever. I ignored them both, walked away, withdrawing my cell from my pocket and dialing Marco. A shrill series of beeps followed, “the number you have dialed is no longer in service…” Real panic began to set in. I rushed back through the crowd and launched myself toward the VIP curtains. I managed to yank back the curtain I’d seen Phoenix emerge from; it was utterly empty, pristine. Massive hands clenched on my shoulders like vice-grips and pulled me from the room.
“Let’s go, buddy…” The bouncer’s voice was a deep growl.
I managed to wrangle myself free and bolted toward the next curtain, flipped it open a few inches before the arms got me again. I wasn’t sure what I saw, but instead of the two separate bodies of a dancer and an ogling man trying to get handsy, it appeared to be one jittering form––something insectile––emitting deep sucking, slurping sounds. I would have screamed if I could have kept the air in my lungs. Instead, I collapsed, falling out of the bouncer’s grip and bouncing hard to the floor. Quickly I rolled away, scrambled to my feet, and bolted for the door, the VIP bouncers at my heels, the eyes of all the performers and waitresses suddenly on me, tracking my movement with menacing eyes.
Dodging and ducking through the crowd, I barrelled past the anime-eyed hostess, toppling her stand over behind me. Luckily, the door bouncer was chatting with the cashier at my flank, the front door unguarded for the moment; I slammed through and went blind as the sunlight flooded into my dilated pupils.
I staggered, pushing forward as my eyes fought to adjust, tripped over the curb. Regaining my feet, I fled, not daring to look back.
I didn’t know how far I’d been running before I came to my senses enough to stop and catch my breath, look for street signs, but it couldn’t have been more than a few blocks. I snapped a picture at the intersection of Rose Avenue and Forty-First Street, not trusting the street names to memory. Called Marco again. How could his number be out of service? And how was it morning? It couldn’t have been much later than ten pm when we had arrived. I began wondering if I was drugged, maybe they’d slipped something in my drink, maybe Ziba had put something on my skin while she was in my lap.
Eventually, I regained enough sense to call the police, give them my location and tell them what happened. When the dispatcher said that there wasn’t a gentlemen’s club within fifteen miles of my intersection, I unraveled. I hung up and called an Uber to take me home, passing out the second I flung myself upon my mattress. I dreamt of a topless beauty with insect eyes sucking away my lifeforce with her long, pink proboscis. I awoke in a cold sweat to sunlight streaming at sharp angles through my bedroom window.
Shaking off the feeling of awakening from a terrible nightmare, I gathered the courage to get in my car, travel to the intersection of Rose and Forty-First, and explore, find the club. Marco’s car should still be in the lot; the police had to have been mistaken. I wound through unfamiliar streets for hours, meticulously exploring the grid, leaving no road unchecked. The club was nowhere to be found.
Eventually, I pulled to a stop behind a temporary chain link fence marked with an orange sign that read MASON CONSTRUCTION. Beyond the fence laid a massive crater-like hole. Staring at it, I couldn’t help but draw the comparison; it reminded me of a divot left after pulling a large stone out of the mud.
I tried to reach Marco once more, but his number still said it was out of service. After the fourth attempt, I gave up, deciding I needed to call the police again, file an official missing person report. I dragged my clammy hands down my face, groaning as I looked skyward, the past events feeling like a terrible dream. My phone chimed with an incoming text, causing me to jump.
The text was from a private number, and when I opened it, I gasped at the sight of Ziba’s stunning visage. The stylishly designed digital flyer contained an address and a QR code offering “Free VIP admission.” In crisp block letters across the top, eight words succeeded in growing a dark pit in my roiling stomach.
ONE NIGHT ONLY!
EXOTIC BEAUTIES – HUNGRY FOR YOU!
Ominous from the start with a strong finish! A superbly written short story that leaves me certain I’ll be looking to read more from Herrington