When the lights dimmed and the crowd began whispering to each other in excitement, I was fully in my element. It was always in a new town, in front of a new audience but the reaction was always the same. Tonight I was in a sleazy pub in Dallas under the name China Doll. Last night I was in Fort Worth going by Tooty Arnold. Only two days before that I was slinking through El Paso letting people call me Ella May Thistle.
Texas had been my flavor of the month, but this was my last night in the lone star state. It had to be. If I stuck around any longer then Abe would catch my scent. Once I was on the lam I was plain old Nixie Stark, and Nixie could be caught. But not tonight – tonight I was still China and China was invincible.
The lights dimmed, the catcalls started, and a solitary spotlight struck me. With a wink and a flirtatious smile I threw my hand out to one side and my hip out to the other.
“Hit it, boys,” I cooed to the band behind me, peeking out from behind voluminous side swept bangs.
They banged out a smooth, sultry jazz number and I let my voice do the dirty work for tonight. Singing wasn’t the only thing I had to do in order to keep money in my pockets and food on my table, but it was definitely the most tasteful. My standards took off running about the same time I did.
By the end of the performance every man in the joint was on their feet for a standing ovation. Much to the chagrin of their still-seated wives and girlfriends, of course. Being labeled a home wrecker was a necessary, albeit unfortunate, evil for me. The more attracted to me these men were, the fatter my purse was when I left for the night.
In lieu of a bow I gave a quick pop of a stiletto clad foot and blew a kiss before dipping off of the stage and making for my impromptu dressing room. My reflection in the vanity absolutely terrified me. My eyes were lined in thick kohl eyeliner and my lips in China’s signature ruby gloss. Hers was a harlot’s face and I would have given anything to say goodbye to her forever. But I needed her; I needed all of my aliases to keep me alive.
I settled for scraping the makeup off my face with a damp washcloth. When I had gotten the last of the goop from the corners of my eyes, the club owner popped in unannounced.
“How is my little starlet?” Paolo was a decent looking Italian man in his mid-40s whose only losing quality was his roaming hand. “Are you sure I can’t convince you to stay another night? The crowd practically ate up your performance?”
His roaming hand slipped through the silky black hair at my shoulder and I brushed it away before he discovered I was wearing a wig. Every owner and bouncer I connected with knew I was lying when I said I was 21, and they knew China wasn’t my real name, but the only thing really saving me was the fact that no one knew what I really looked like.
“Sorry, sugar, I’m a rolling stone,” I said sweetly, flashing my brightest smile. “But who knows, I just might roll back through here someday.”
“Sooner rather than later I hope, mi bella. In the meantime, here is your cut for the evening.”
He placed a wad of bills into my hand with a wink and popped back out before I even had a chance to count it. It wasn’t unusual for an owner to jip me out of my fair share, but Paolo had actually given me a lot more than what I had earned.
I was holding a grand in my hand when just this afternoon I was warming my hands with the bums behind the club because I had been chucked from my scumbag motel for nonpayment. Who said there was no such thing as the kindness of strangers?
As much as I wanted to, though, I couldn’t accept such a hefty amount so I set out in search of Paolo so I could return at least half of it. Only two feet into the crowd I caught sight of what I had been running from for a good two years now.
Leaning against the rail to the upstairs balcony wearing a wild animal on the hunt grin was Abraham Wolffe. He was the picture of sophisticated cool in a perfectly pressed Brooks Brothers suit, but his shock of blue hair, pierced ears, and full arm of tattoos meant he was appealing to pretty much every woman alive.
He earned it with his looks. He was gorgeous and worth millions, and even if you weren’t into that sort of thing he still got you with his ability to play almost any instrument and paint freakishly well. But I had known Abe since I was a child, and I personally knew the monster that slept underneath that skin.
I slid in between a man at the bar and his drink and put my arms around his neck. My stomach bubbled in disgust when I caught a whiff of the cigarettes and whiskey that rolled off of his breath, but I brushed it aside and faked my most winning smile.
“You looked awfully lonely at this bar and I thought to myself, this gentleman needs an escort home. What do you say, Tex?”
The man was at least 60 pounds overweight, with graying hair and a walrus mustache that probably had some leftover food hiding out in it. He laughed and reached for his drink. “You can have whatever you want, little lady, just as soon as I finish my RoughStock.”
I grabbed hold of his wrist and squeezed gently but firmly. “I’m sorry, sweetheart, but I don’t think I can wait,” I added with a wink.
“Luckily for you, I like my women hungry,” he said, hiking up the drooping seat of his pants. I held my breath to avoid the smell and linked arms with him as he led me out the front door. I made sure to duck my head until we made it through the exit.
The stranger unlocked a bright red pickup and I reached for the handle but he put a meaty hand on the door, impeding my entrance.
“How about you give papa bear a little preview?” He licked his lips and slid his free hand down my shoulder and scarily close to my chest.
Before he could blink I pulled a switchblade from my bra and pressed the point to his throat. “Mama Bear thinks you should keep your hands to yourself,” I growled, pushing just hard enough to nick his skin.
Without waiting for him to start yelling and draw attention to us, I took off running towards a cab I noticed idling near the entrance to the bar. I pounded on the window before jumping into the backseat. “Can you please put your foot down; I’ve got to get out of here.”
“You don’t look like Mike Davis to me, and I’m pretty sure he’s the one that called me for a pickup.”
I tossed a few bills into his lap. “There’s more where that came from if you just do what I ask and don’t ask me any questions.”
“You got it. So where to, Mike Davis?” He asked in a bored tone.
“I don’t care as long as it’s far away from here.”
I heaved a sigh of relief as we rolled past Abe’s silver Rolls Royce. This had been a close call – too close. Abe was getting better at tracking me down, and I was wondering how long I’d be able to stay one step ahead of him when I dozed off.