The Biloxi Strip hadn’t cleaned up its act at all in ten years. I’d been here in chilly early spring that time too, which meant the other strip—the white-sand one between shimmering Gulf of Mexico blue and four-lane blacktop—was mostly tourist free now, barely a bikini in sight. But on the north side of Highway 90, titty bars, cheap motels, tattoo salons, and massage parlors proliferated like mushrooms, the kind you can’t trust.
The neon letters were switched on 24/7, but what you saw by day were the painted white letters behind buzzing pink electric ones. Two glass-brick windows in a facade of alternating vertical stripes of pink and black had on their either side angled announcements in red on a field of white:
Backing into a place, almost up to a wire-mesh fence, I parked the chocolate-brown 1973 LeSabre, which I’d bought for a grand-and-a-half cash at a low-end used car lot near the airport. I strolled from lazy sunshine shy of warmth into a cold smoky artificial night where "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" was booming. A bouncer at the door—a big black guy in a black shirt and a gold dollar-sign necklace, his eyes hooded but not sleepy—told me there was no cover. That meant the drinks would be steep.
Nothing had changed much—the small round tables still were black, the padded faux-leather chairs red, a main stage erupted from the facing wall, a secondary stage (just a pole and a little platform) lurked at left. At right was the expected full bar with a female bartender in tuxedo shirt and string tie and tons of red permed hair; a few waitresses in the same uniform but with black minis and mesh stockings circulated flirtatiously. The late afternoon crowd had begun to pick up, the place half full, if you were an optimist, which you were if you thought the girl giving you a table dance was having fun, too.
The clientele divided itself in thirds—enlisted men, junior execs, and college boys, always in groups of at least three. A decade back, I’d have fit into either the first or third categories. Now—in my sportcoat and pastel shirt and skinny (but not too skinny) tie—I probably looked more like I belonged to the middle bunch.
The place seemed vaguely spruced up but not remodeled in any significant way. I hadn’t changed radically either. I was 31, five ten, 170 pounds, my brown hair longer than the GIs and middle managers, yet shorter than the frat boys. Handsome enough to get laid occasionally but no stranger to a strip joint.
I drifted through the fog of smoke like a tramp steamer and docked at the underpopulated bar. The Coke with lime I ordered cost five bucks, which was no surprise; the Annie-afro bartender had a fetching smile and really seemed to dig me. Or maybe it was my keep-the-change ten-spot.
The girls on stage had worked bottomless ten years ago. Whether their g-strings meant the city was cracking down, so to speak, or rather reflected the current management’s sense of decorum, I couldn’t say. If I had to bet, it would be on the latter, as the owner was a former pole dancer who might have come to consider gynecological exhibitions demeaning. The latter may seem unlikely, but not as unlikely as the city of Biloxi growing a conscience.
The dancer on stage—a very pretty Asian girl with pert, real boobs and cascading brown hair—was strutting around to "Slow Ride," a garden of green growing out of her g-string; she would harvest it when her set was up. College boys sat ringside with their mouths open, baby birds wanting to be fed. The girl on the secondary stage was voluptuous if rather plain, though her overdone makeup strove mightily to overcome that. She had admirers, too. Boob men are a dedicated lot.
I’d been in town two days and inside this club four times. I had spotted the manager—the Lolita of the marquee—only one time per visit. Petite and looking younger than her twenty-eight years or so, she’d been a blonde and was now brunette; she wore pantsuits here, which played down her curves. Even so, it remained obvious the proprietress could have, had she felt like it, still worked the main stage.
She’d emerge from the door marked private to talk to whatever bartender was on duty briefly before disappearing behind that door again. Another black harem-style guard was posted there, arms folded with beer-keg biceps.
Even after four visits, she hadn’t noticed me. Each time, I’d seated myself in back, at a small table, in sunglasses, which cut the glare of the red and blue revolving lights in the ceiling. I’d spent a good deal of time outside, as well—in the LeSabre in the parking lot, working surveillance.
No, I’m not a cop.
When she’d come out for a chat with the bartender on my previous four visits, no time pattern had revealed itself. Early afternoon once, late afternoon twice, mid-evening once. Tucking away my sunglasses, I was just figuring I’d have to ask the bartender to send my name back to the manager—who, a decade ago, had known me as John Quarry—when the private door opened and Luann came out, wearing a purple pantsuit.
She saw me at once.
For a moment, her lovely baby-doll features were as blank as a honeydew, if a honeydew had big blue eyes that could widen twice their size. Then she smiled, before going blank again. Apparently her latest trip for a word with the bartender could wait, because she immediately nodded at me—despite all the time that had passed since our last meeting—and curled her finger, summoning me like a child to a spanking.
She pushed open the private door and paused, her back to me, waiting while I caught up. The harem guard eyed me suspiciously as I followed her through, but Luann didn’t even glance back as I tagged after her down the cream-color cement-block hall. Behind us, somewhat muffled, "I Love Rock and Roll" began just as the next pair of strippers passed pleasantly by in a cloud of perfume that didn’t quite disguise a secondary aroma of weed. At the end of the hall was a door marked MANAGER, where Luann went in and I followed.
The office hadn’t changed much either, which was a surprise. Framed posters of famous strippers who’d appeared here in the Mr. Woody’s era (Carol Doda, Candy Barr, Fanne Foxe) still crowded the modest space, looming over a metal desk, a few file cabinets, black-leather visitor chairs, and a matching couch, as well as a small fridge. No liquor cart now—she’d never been a drinker, something we had in common.
The last time Luann and I had been in this office, I had killed the previous manager as well as his wife. That is another story, but they were monsters so don’t shed a tear. That information is pertinent only because it explains why my normally unflappable self was pretty fucking flapped. It’s also noteworthy that the only change Luann seemed to have made since we were both in this office last was to clean the blood off the furniture and walls.
The little doll of a woman, her complexion pale as milk, her pantsuit purple as grape juice, pointed to the couch and I obediently sat. She shut the door, locked it, came over, and sat on my lap.She put her arms around me and kissed me, as if I were a serviceman returning from Vietnam to a loving wife’s warm welcome. This was ironic in my case, since when I’d returned from Vietnam, my warm welcome had been to find my wife in bed with a guy, which led to my killing him a day later, but never mind. Anyway, I held up my end of the kiss, though it didn’t go anywhere because we both had too many questions.
Her first one, after sliding off my lap into a sideways position on the couch, was: "What are you doing here, Johnny? I didn’t expect ever to see you again!"
"You don’t seem to mind," I said, smiling as I wiped lipstick off my mouth with a wrist.
"You don’t either," she said, with a nod toward my tented trousers.
I said, mildly reproving, "I thought I told you to keep a low profile for a few months, then book it the hell out of Biloxi."
She nodded. "That was the plan. But I got the opportunity to buy this place cheap. And with all that money I had, why not? Anyway, Johnny, back then strip clubs was the only business I knew."
Which implied she knew more than that now.
I said, "You do seem to be doing all right."
Another nod. "None of my girls hook. No drugs allowed, not using or selling or anything. Well, grass, backstage, but that’s all. On stage, my girls keep their pants on. Bet you noticed that."
"I don’t know that I’d call those ‘pants.’ "
"They’re called g-strings."
Luann had never had much of a sense of humor.
I fluffed some of the dark brown hair riding her shoulders. "And here I thought you were a natural blonde."
"No. I just use to dye it. Pussy hair, too."
"Guess I never noticed the roots of your evil."
She frowned. "I did my roots all the time."
See what I mean? Not that I’d managed much of a joke.
"Well," I said, "I have to say you do make a mean brunette."
"I know," I said, lifting a palm, "you’re not mean. It’s an expression indicating you make a good-looking brunette."
"I never heard that expression."
"You can make it through life without it. But to me, you’ll always be a blonde."
She waggled a finger. "If you come back to hang around, Johnny, don’t look for me to get a dye job for you. That caused too much trouble when I took this place over!"
"Why’s that, Luann?"
She smirked in disgust. "Customers would hit on me all the time. Particularly if they knew me from before. They would ask me when was I gonna get up on that fuckin’ stage and do my thing. But that’s not my thing anymore."
"Well," I said with a shrug, "you’re as beautiful as ever. And, hey, the club is named ‘Lolita‘s,’ and that is the name you danced under."
She made a face. "That’s just a name. It’s an old movie about an old guy who screws a teenager. I thought you knew movies. Anyway, just because a place is called McDonald’s doesn’t mean Old McDonald is flipping burgers in back."
I just looked at her. She had a gift for merging smart and dumb in a fashion second to none. And, Christ—that last had been damn near a joke! I felt a warmth about her. She had turned up in my memories more often than most. She was the kind of girl you remember in the shower.
The muffled sound of "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" filtered in.
I asked, "Anyone helping you run this place? Any partners?"
"No. It’s all me."
Those light blue eyes looked fantastic with the dark eyeshadow and all; when she turned those orbs loose on me, I felt like she was seeing through me, not in the figurative sense, but the literal. She folded her arms. "I got my GED, Johnny. I took night classes and got an Associate Degree in business. I’m not stupid anymore."
Really she never had been. But her drug addict mother had sold her to the man whose office this had once been. Luann had been twelve.
"There’s a difference between ignorant and stupid," I said, "and you were always smart, honey. And now you aren’t even ignorant."
She smiled. It was a lovely thing. Perfect little teeth white as a toothpaste ad. I could damn near fuck her on this couch right here in this office where she witnessed me killing two people. But even after ten years, I couldn’t quite get past the surroundings—on the wall, Carol Doda was looking at me with a sexy smirk. And this visit was, at the root of its evil, business.
Luann sensed that.
"Johnny, what are you doing here?" She was frowning, but in thought, nothing negative. "Are you still a hitman?"
The girl had always watched a lot of TV. That phony world was where she’d escaped when she was first pressed into whoring.
"No, I quit after about five years," I told her. I gave it to her matter-of-fact and she took it the same way. "I was kind of fucked in the head after Vietnam."
She nodded sagely. "Things you did there. Sniper, you said. And your wife screwing that guy. I remember. So you aren’t doing that anymore? Killing people? For money?"
I winced. "Not exactly."
Frowning in thought again, she asked innocently, "How does somebody not exactly kill people?"
She was not stupid, as I hope you now can see, and she had acquired some education. But I still needed to keep it simple. Too much detail would just overwhelm her. And me.
From the club came a muffled "Thriller."
"There was a man called the Broker," I said, skipping Once upon a time, "who gave me assignments."
The frown was confused now. "School assignments?"
"No. Like—jobs for me to do."
She nodded slowly, the once-blonde hair bouncing on her purple shoulders. "Oooh. What people to kill. Got you."
I gestured casually. "He betrayed me and I had to handle it."
"You killed him." She was still nodding.
I gulped in air and let it out slow. She was buying what I told her, but somehow I wasn’t—and, shit, I’d lived it!
I said, "I got hold of this sort of list the Broker had of other people like me...other ‘hitmen.’ I thought of a way I could help the people who these hitmen were hired to kill. I had the addresses..."
"Of the victims?"
"No. Of the contract killers. For a while now, I’ve been using the list to select hitmen to follow to their assigned targets...the persons they’re hired to kill...and then I quietly approach those targets and offer my services."
She closed one eye and stared at me with the other; closing the eye pulled her mouth up on the same side. It was like she’d stopped mid-wink. "You tell them somebody’s been hired to kill them, and then offer to stop it?"
She was skeptical, but had grasped the concept right away.
I shrugged, threw open my hands. "Yeah. That’s pretty much exactly it."
"How do you do it?" she asked. Both eyes were open now, but the skepticism hadn’t faded completely.
"Well, there’s usually two people assigned to each job. One does surveillance." She would know that word from TV. "The other, working from information the surveillance guy provides, comes in and does the job."
"Yeah. It’s called passive and active—one gathers intel..." She would know that, too. A lot of TV, this girl. "...the other executes the, uh, execution."
She studied me. I wasn’t sure whether she thought maybe I was lying to her, or possibly putting her on. Or that I’d gone insane. But, interestingly enough, the one thing I didn’t sense in her was any fear.
And the skepticism seemed gone.
Finally she said, very quietly, hands folded in her purple lap, "You’re doing this to make up for what you did before. To settle up. Redeem yourself, like they say in church."
I touched her folded hands, gently. "No, honey. I do it for money. The intended victims pay me to get rid of the hitmen and then find out who hired it. Try to find out, anyway. That last is the tricky part."
The blue eyes peered at me out of slits and this nod was barely perceptible. "You have to be a kind of detective."
"That’s right." I shrugged a shoulder. "I haven’t always succeeded. But usually? I do."
"When you find who hired the killing, you kill them?"
Luann just nodded, accepting all of it at face value.
"So," she said, as she sat sideways on the couch, "why are you here? Not to look at the girls shake their booty or get a great big kiss from me."
"No. I was glad to get that kiss, Luann...but no. I’m here because I followed somebody here."
Not fear exactly, not even alarm, but the eyes got very big. In surprise. This she hadn’t seen coming.
She said softly, "A hitman."
"Followed a hitman here. To me."
"Yes. To you. To this place. And to that nice house of yours. The passive guy has been on stakeout, watching you." She’d know "stakeout" from TV, too.
Luann was nodding again. It was as if she’d been told her business needed fumigating or her roof needed re-tiling.
"Well," she said, "I need your help, don’t I?"
She looked up at me with those big light-blue eyes, though they weren’t alarmed or frightened. They trusted me. What next, Daddy?
I held my hand out to her and said, "I need to show you something. In the parking lot."
She took it, nodded dutifully, and rose.
She led me out into the corridor and back into the club, where "You Shook Me All Night Long" was echoing. Outside, the song became distant. Dusk’s gentle blue had settled itself onto the world. Four college guys went in, laughing, jostling.
I guided her to the LeSabre, backed up against a fence, no car parked on either side. About a dozen vehicles were in the lot but no other Lolita’s patrons were out here, not at the moment anyway.
I walked her around behind the Buick, with only a foot or so between the fence and the trunk. I used the key and the lid rose to reveal two bodies, stuffed in there like clothes in a laundry bag. They didn’t seem like people, just askew limbs and split-open heads, and the edges of the clear plastic tarp under them rose around them like the petals of a ghastly blossoming flower. They smelled bad, coppery blood and piss and excrement.
She regarded them unflinchingly; she did not even say "Ooow" or "yuck."
What she said was, "How did you get them both in there?"
I shrugged. "Took some doing. I had to put the spare in the back seat. That was the easy part."
"Putting the spare in the back?"
I shook my head as I shut the trunk lid. "Killing those two pricks."
I elaborated as we stood there in the darkening blue, the smell floating mercifully away on an ocean breeze. "I had to do it one at a time, at different places, over several days...but it’s done. And I’ll dump this car tonight on some back road."
"That’s a good idea."
"But like I said...that’s the easy part. Figuring out who sent them is where it gets difficult."
She shrugged, shook her head, the breeze taking the brown locks gently. "Not really."
"I know who sent them."
We went back inside where the strippers who’d passed us in the hall were working the two stages to "What I Like About You." In her office, we discussed the details, including that I didn’t expect her to pay me for my services but would appreciate having my expenses covered.
"I can do better than that," she said.
Copyright © 2022 by Max Allan Collins