Chapter 1


     “What the hell are you doing down there?” The sentence was spoken twice, each word assaulting my skull like a demented woodpecker.
     “Vox. Hey, shithead. Why are you spooning naked with the toilet?”
     Peck, peck, peck.
     “It’s almost noon, and you’re gonna be late for your appointment.”
     Peck, peck, peck.
     With great effort, I opened my eyelids a sliver to identify the annoyance so I could rise and kill it. In hellish happenstance, my head lay positioned precisely where the bathroom window intercepted the Tampa Bay sun, amplifying it into a death star. I bellowed like a crocodile-ambushed wildebeest as photon torpedoes incinerated my corneas.
     There would be no rising to kill anything. At least not anytime soon. My mind meekly flitted to a memory from long ago, to when I’d gotten shit-faced on tequila for the first time as a teenager, resulting in a declaration as earnest as it was ludicrous that I’d never get drunk again. A vow I promptly violated the next day… and uncountable times since.
     And what was this babbling about an appoi—Aphrodite’s Tits! My frayed mind vaguely recalled a noon meeting with Lester.
     The intruding voice rang familiar now, and I fully opened my eyes to confirm its identity. Yep, sure enough, it wasn’t a woodpecker at all. The Goat peered down at me, shaking his head in pity.
     The Goat is the answer to the riddle of what abomination would be spawned if Tom Petty knocked up an actual goat. At least that’s exactly what he looks like. His real name is Robbie, but I can’t remember ever calling him that.
     “You look like holy hell, Vox. Did you get into the red wine last night?”
     “Several bottles got into me.”
     “Well, unless you’re gonna have wake-up sex with that toilet, I’d suggest you call Lester and reschedule. You’d mentioned you were going over to his house today.”
     I pressed my aching forehead against the cool surface of the bowl. Sometimes it’s the simple pleasures that get us through the day. “No can do, Goat,” I groggily mumbled. “This appointment is no doubt the highlight of Lester’s week. The joy of yelling at me is the only thing keeping that fossil alive.”
     “Any idea why you don’t have any clothes on?”
     I attempted to think. “No clue. Maybe I didn’t quite make it to the shower, or I looked at this naked toilet and got horny. Either scenario is a possibility.”
     “That toilet obviously ain’t Valentina. But, hey, if you can’t bone the one you love, then bone the one you’re with. I ain’t judging. There’s no shame. You two need to finish up fast, though, ’cause I gotta take a shit.”
     “Go over to your own damn house, then. If you recall, I installed a brand-new toilet for you last week.”
     “This is my house, Vox, and that cuddle buddy of yours is my toilet.”
     What the fuck? I probed back into the dense fog of last night’s memories, trying to remember how I’d ended up at the Goat’s. Nothing came. “So why am I here?”
     “The reason for this horrifying sight is exactly what I’m trying to figure out. Didn’t anybody ever tell you that getting wasted drunk yesterday is stealing happiness from today?”
     This was beyond pathetic, even for me. I’d reached a new low. Tilting my ass up in the Goat’s direction, I jettisoned a volcanic fart, redolent of garlic and cumin, causing him to yell in disgust and jump back into the hallway.
     “Give us five more minutes, bro,” I muttered, closing my eyes and flirting with the temptation of falling back asleep. Standing wouldn’t be pleasant, and I needed every spare second of delay. “Call Lester and tell him I’ll be there in an hour. Possum ate my phone. Pink pterodactyl crash-landed and backed up traffic. Whatever sounds best.”
     “Let’s start by getting a keg of coffee in you.” His voice trailed off as he walked into the kitchen. “And don’t throw up on my rug and make me beat your ass.”


     The grizzled, old bastard stood before me, quivering with rage. Everything was clenched tight—jaw, fists, brow, and butt cheeks—every sinew and muscle taut and ready to snap. The former Marine was locked and loaded, ready for combat.
     “You dirty, dadgum Hurricane! They shoulda shut down yer corrupt program when they had the chance. Bunch of convicts, clowns, and closet-shitters.”
     Each word dripped with venom. Drool and mucus soaked his beard, and a vein bulged in the middle of his forehead. The rabid werewolf I’d scuffled with on Halloween had been less surly.
     I forgot about my hangover and wagged a finger at him while literally digging my boot heels into the ground. “Listen, you inbred Gator. That closet-shitting was alleged. And stop living in the Dark Ages. Nobody can compete with the University of Florida when it comes to arrests. They had to expand the jail in that shithole called Gainesville just to accommodate the football team.”
     A PVC fitting whistled towards me. I ducked just in time.
     “The only pitiful fools livin’ in the Dark Ages are University of Miami fans. Y’all love to bring up those national championships ya won when Abraham Lincoln was in office. Welcome to modern football, yearlin’. You can’t spell scum without U-M.”
     “You would remember the Civil War years, you petrified log of mule shit. I guess you’re too stupid to remember our championship years since there are so many.” I counted them off, slowly enunciating so the cumulative effect would seem like more. “1983, 1987, 1989, 1991, 2001… and 2002, which we clearly won but were ripped off by the refs. It’s all about the U.”
     I “threw up the U,” the signature Hurricanes gesture formed by vertical, outward-facing palms joined by horizontal thumbs.
     “Aww, shut yer dicksucker. You pussies are still whinin’ about that Fiesta Bowl? The only U that U have to be worried about is that U can suck my hairy balls if U think I’m gonna pay $3,025. On top of tryin’ to rip me off, yer imbecile employee ratfucked my plumbin’. The little outlaw tracked mud on my carpet and raided my fridge. Vox, what kind of monster steals another man’s milk?!”
     “Damn, Lester, I thought the two of you would get along. He’s a lizard too.”
     He violently shook his head. “You think ye’re smart, don’t ya? Oh, I saw the italic F on his hat and started quizzin’ him. The hillbilly had never even heard of Two Bits. If the rotten teeth are any indication, I suspect he’s a Florida State fan. You gave him that hat to wear, Vox. I wasn’t born yesterday.”
     “Clearly. Judging by all the wrinkles, you were probably cribmates with Jesus.” I steepled my hands in supplication. “How can I make your world right? You won’t be seeing Ernie again. He no-called/no-showed for the second time, so I had to fire him.” I exhaled my disappointment. “Granted, he wasn’t much to look at and had that blinking issue, but I’d been getting decent reports from his customers.”
     “Not much to look at is an understatement. He was so buck-toothed that he coulda ate corn on the cob through a chainlink fence.”
     Lester let fly a river of tobacco juice off to the side and slid a gnarled, cupped hand down his grey mustache and beard, wringing out the accumulated gobs of snot and spit before wiping it across the front of his royal blue overalls. The triangle of a pristine, unblemished orange hankie—purely for show—peeked out of his chest pocket, its emblazoned Gator logo staring at me malevolently.
     Since the spit wasn’t aimed at my face, I counted it as a sign he’d vented enough anger and insolence to get down to the price negotiation stage.
     “I’m keenly aware of the fact I need a durn repipe. However, this price is insane. I don’t mind helpin’ to send any orphaned runts ya may have sired to college. I just don’t wanna be the sole, poor motherfucker footin’ the bill.”
     “I already charge you rock-bottom rates since you’re a longtime customer. How low can I possibly go before it doesn’t make sense to do the job? Also, vans aren’t pulled by horses like in your day. They require gas and gas ain’t cheap. How much did he quote you again?”
     With a withered claw, he reached into his back pocket, produced a furled copy of the estimate, and thrust it forward for me to take. I hesitated… for good reason. The relic had taken swings at me in the past. Though Lester owns the hand speed of a sloth, one jab had somehow snuck through the year before, catching me on the chin during a price battle to pump his septic tank. It had required every ounce of my willpower to keep from pushing him into the open tank, replacing the concrete lid, and driving off to Harpo’s Bar to properly commemorate the day with a frosty mug of Cigar City Lager. Sadly, killing cantankerous customers is still frowned upon by the state plumbing licensing board.
     I guardedly reached for the paper, aware that Lester sports other weapons in his arsenal. He’s gifted with deadlier aim than a spitting cobra, and the stream is so powerful it’ll knock off your sunglasses. Grabbing the quote, I immediately retreated. Thankfully, it was relatively free of slime.
     Sure, Lester’s bodily fluids are nauseating, but Lord knows I’ve dealt with a lot worse in my years of plumbing. For me, raw sewage is a part of life. Plumbers are constantly on their hands and knees in the vilest substances the human body excretes. Pus, ooze, snot, vomit, bile, sweat, piss, and, of course, the emperor who reigns supreme on his vitreous china throne—Almighty Shit in all his wondrous manifestations.
     The list doesn’t end there. Welcome to the world of the restaurant grease trap, the reek of which has no competition. Coagulated animal blood, fish guts, grease, sludge, and the stray decomposed rodent. When that toxic stew permeates your skin, infusing and marinating you with its wretched stench, a single showerno matter how hot and soapy—is nowhere near enough. You’re even stinkier than if you’d hotboxed dog farts.
     And people have the audacity to bitch that plumbing prices are too high. Let ’em do it themselves, then. Hot on the left, cold on the right, shit runs downhill. Easy enough, right? One customer even commented that we charge more than some doctors. “We should,” I countered. “We still make house calls.”
     Ernie’s estimate was $3,025, a very reasonable price for a three-bed, two-bath repipe with block exterior walls and tight attic space. If anything, it was slightly underbid. Where he’d foolishly gone wrong, and what I would’ve lambasted him for if I hadn’t canned him already, was breaking the price point in the wrong direction. $2,975 sounds much better to the buyer and is more likely to sell the job. Psychological claptrap, to be sure, but nonetheless a fundamental factor in closing the sale.
     It wouldn’t have mattered in this case, though, because Lester is too crafty to succumb to pricing gamesmanship. He just needs to hear himself bitch and moan. He simply wants to feel alive, to prove he’s still in the Game of Life, to convince himself a reason exists to wake up yet another day.
     His wife kicked the bucket long ago, and his children and grandchildren send their love via random Christmas cards. His only real pleasure comes from watching the Gators. Hundreds of University of Florida figurines, statues, banners, pillows, posters, pictures, and other paraphernalia infest his house. It wouldn’t surprise me if he owns a Gator butt plug autographed by Tim Tebow. I gag every time I’m forced to go inside, which is at least once a month.
     Nobody knows loneliness like a man who breaks his plumbing on purpose, then calls in for service. We both know his dirty little secret: that statistically there’s no chance in hell all of his plumbing problems are purely bad luck. It’s a “don’t ask/don’t tell” policy neither of us dares violate.
     Along with a few crusty geezers he plays shuffleboard with over in Zephyrhills, I’m sure Lester counts me as a friend. Truth be told, I feel the same way and drink a beer with him from time to time. Just the week before, we’d shared a six-pack of Mookie’s Malt Liquor, his preferred swill of choice, after I’d fixed a hose bibb that had mysteriously broken.
     “Lester, this bid is not too high. I maybe could wiggle around fifty dollars or so, but it isn’t a crazy price. You could always call around for other quotes if you don’t think it’s fair.”
     Pouring a pail of diarrhea over his head wouldn’t have elicited a more shocked reaction. I’ve never seen anyone more aghast. Trying to form a sentence, his mouth instead gasped for air like a suffocating salmon.
     “You f-f-filthy ch-ch-chode yodeler,” he finally stammered. “You’ve sunk to new l-lows, even fer a Cane. I’ve been loyal to yer sorry ass fer years, even followed ya when ya started yer own company. This… this is how ya repay my loyalty, by tellin’ me to take my bidness elsewhere?”
     Rather than livid with rage like earlier, he looked hurt and betrayed, stabbed deep in his core. He reached down as if to pick up a stone and sling it at me but instead dropped to his knees and bowed his head, thoroughly defeated.
     Dammit, I felt like a dickhead now, but how could I have predicted these ridiculous theatrics? For years, we’d exchanged the most insulting barbs imaginable, hurled lightning bolts of cruel sarcasm and heinous vitriol, told the other to fuck off countless times in brilliantly innovative ways.
     “Easy, Lester. C’mon, man. I just meant that if you questioned the fairness of the price, you could verify it through alternate channels.” I gingerly walked closer until I was only two feet away, aware I was risking life and limb. Who knew how he would react in this state of mind? “Don’t take it personally. It was just a misunderstanding. I’m sorry, dude. Listen, I’ll knock off a hundred dollars to show good faith.”
     This close to him, the surrounding air was pregnant with the funk of those insidious overalls. I prayed I wouldn’t be forced to pat him on the shoulder. Or, God forbid, grasp him under his arms to help him stand. As much as I value a repeat customer and as accustomed as I am to foul smells, physically touching clothes that had never been washed would’ve been too much to endure.
     Lester remained with his head bowed low for another five full minutes, wringing out every last ounce of his sulk as I tried to coax him back from the edge. Finally, he peered up, gauging the sincerity of my plea for forgiveness. “You sure ya ain’t tryin’ to git rid of me, Vox?”
     “Only if you were a Semen-hole,” I casually replied. It was the perfect quip, exquisitely delivered. He chuckled at our pet term for an FSU Seminole fan.
     You see, that is the beauty and wonder of college football. While I despise your unholy fan allegiance to my team’s evil rival with every fiber of my being, I can’t help but respect it. Yes, I want to bash your face in, yet I’d be offended if you didn’t want to bash mine in as well.
     Lester and I, for all our vast differences, both detest Florida State with extreme malice. The synergy and camaraderie of our shared hatred is much richer and more fulfilling than any individual hatred could ever be. Knowing that our kinship is fleeting doesn’t matter in the least. With a nod of reverence to Lao Tzu, we live squarely in the moment every time our mutual ire is directed at the Noles, drinking lustily of the sublime, heady brew.
     “Thank the heavens fer that,” Lester said with a serene grin, arthritic legs struggling to bring him upright. “I’d sooner eat a skunk’s asshole than cheer fer those Trailer-hassee hoodlums.”
     That matter-of-factly, he was back from the abyss, acting as if his meltdown had never occurred. If nothing else, the old coot was still resilient.
     “Amen, brother. So, you’re okay with $2,925?”
     He mulled it over for a short time, pursing his lips. “It’s still pricey.” Another long moment passed. Pride prevented him from giving in right away. “I reckon that’ll do. On one condition. I’ve got a hankerin’ to see ya do the Gator Chomp out by the road where everyone can see. Do that and we’ll call her a deal.” He punctuated the absurd demand with a loud cackle.
     The fucker can be funny on occasion, and I permitted a half-smile to escape. “Don’t push your luck, Mr. Watts. Your house backs up to a swamp, and I might dump you out there to crawl around with your own kind.” I threw up the U again and walked back to my van.
     “We’ll see about that. U better bring yer Hurricane Army along. And don’t send any more of yer worthless helpers around here unless ya want ‘em back castrated. Fuck U, Miami scumbag!” he yelled, waving merrily goodbye. “Tell that purdy Puerto Rican of yers ol’ Lester sends his regards. Let that gal know I have a medicine cabinet full of Viagra when she decides to kick ya to the curb.”
     “Fuck you too, Florida Goiter!” I called out the window as I drove down his dirt driveway. “Take care of yourself.” Turning right, I eased into the afternoon traffic on Gunn Highway, heading to Lola’s Goodtime Emporium for some much needed hair of the dog.

Chapter 2


     Most people don’t realize the parallels between plumbers and strippers. I admit it might not be apparent, but think about it. Both are on the front lines battling the most abominable forces in the universe. You think bodily waste is odious? Strippers have to contend with something even more hazardous: the male sex drive.
     Take away the seven-inch heels and sparkly costumes, and strippers are really just working folks punching the clock, hoping the bouncers don’t have to punch any patrons who get too handsy. And, just like plumbers, society desperately needs their services. The nation’s homicide rate would at least double if those talented ladies didn’t graciously shed their garments and provide an outlet to help quell the urges of heterosexual men. After all, plumbers lay pipe, and strippers create the fantasy of laying pipe by twirling on a pole. I could go on and on.
     By the time I reached Lola’s Goodtime Emporium—some people call it the Emporium, while others prefer Lola’s—it was still shy of three o’clock in the afternoon, and the beers would be two-for-one for over two more hours. Plenty of time to get a sizable buzz going without throat punching my precariously low bank account. I still needed to collect the $4,937 Mrs. McGillicuddy owed from the previous week when I’d installed a tankless water heater and replaced a shower pan. In retrospect, a price too low since I had to contend with the lunatic parrot she gives free rein of the house to—a devil bird that, besides plumbers, also delights in terrorizing the lady’s PTSD-addled Yorkshire terriers.
     The Emporium is like a second home to me. I’ve been going there since I moved to Tampa. The beers are cold, and the daytime girls’ hearts are warm. At night it’s a meat market, and the chicks are all about making maximum bank. You certainly can’t blame them; they’re businesswomen after all.
     However, during the day you can have a relaxed conversation, just sitting around the bar talking about life. A place where everybody knows your name. Kind of like the old TV show Cheers, except that Diane and Carla are tattooed and wearing thongs with glitter sprinkled on their tits.
     As is my custom, I nodded to the twin gargoyle statues guarding the front door before entering. Like always, I was struck by the transition between the world out there—a nonsensical place of honking horns and bill collectors—and the comforting darkness in here, a fantasy realm of protocols I could understand and shadows I could temporarily hide in.
     “Everybody Dance Now” by C+C Music Factory pumped from hidden speakers, smoke swirled among the ceiling beams, and the rotating can lights and disco mirror balls pierced the darkness with a bombardment of rainbow rays—each exposing a strip of naked flesh for a tantalizing moment before winking out.
     “Did you bring the ransom money?” a voice demanded from an elevated disc jockey platform several feet off to the left. My eyes hadn’t yet adjusted, but it could only belong to one person: Tony Keyes, Tampa’s finest strip club DJ. I usually divide my time between drinking Guinness with him up in his perch and over at the bar chatting with my favorite girls. Tony has a syrupy baritone that wraps you up in a teddy bear hug. If you’re not careful, it’ll also hypnotically convince you to spend every buck in your pocket. I’ve seen dudes on payday empty their entire wallets into garter belts in less than an hour when he’s on the mic. Unsurprisingly, all the girls love him.
     We’re good friends, and I’ve been coming in so long that I remember the dinosaur days when Tony had to lug in his entire collection of songs each shift, stacked cases of CDs he’d wheeled around with a hand truck. Back before computers totally took over the world. So long ago that one of the girls from back then is not only a taut, late-thirties mom still climbing the pole, but her daughter—a precocious, long-legged vixen with buttery smooth skin—is stripping to pay her own way through college.
     Kandi is the daughter’s dance handle, and she’d just stepped onto the small, circular stage fronting the bar for the first of a three-song set. She’d only been at it a few weeks and was still working on her routine. You can always identify the rookies because they all dance too fast, like they’re out clubbing. That’s what’s so comical about Demi Moore’s character in Striptease. Way too aggressive. She was stomping and gyrating around the stage like a triceratops on crack. Awful technique. A true professional—a stripping craftswoman—knows that a sinuous, slow grind is far more captivating and, thus, far more profitable.
     “Tony, my main man. What’s the word of the day?”
     He reached down and we fist bumped.
     “Goldschläger,” he said, setting a bottle on the ledge.
     His sly smile told me he’d already had several shots of the gold-flecked cinnamon liqueur. He usually drinks beer when he’s working, but when Queen Goldy whispers in his ear that it’s time to play, Tony succumbs to her siren song. When that happens, no matter what subject you’re on, he’ll find a way to turn the conversation back to an ex-girlfriend of his we all call Fire Crotch—a red-headed dancer who two years ago broke his heart by running off with a bouncer and getting married in Vegas.
     I laughed. “She’s a beauty. Remember, though, all that glitters is not gold. I might catch up with you later, but I have an interview with a potential new trainee.”
     He shook his head in sympathy. “Damn, man. Seems like you’re interviewing every week.”
     “Nearly so. The hiring pool for plumbers’ helpers is a dumpster fire of pain and despair.”
     Which was true. It’d been a revolving door of one slacker after another looking to get paid but with little interest in putting in an honest day’s labor. And the few guys not scared of work had displayed life management skills even weaker than my own.
     “Welp, good luck, amigo. I’m working a double.” He held Goldy up high in a salute. “The Queen and I will be fucking each other’s brains out the rest of the night, and she’s got friends if you’re in the mood for an orgy.”
     Jesus, the poor guy was so bad off today he wasn’t even using a shot glass. Fortunately, Tony has the highest alcohol tolerance in the known universe.
     “I might take you up on that, T,” I said and headed over to the stage to tip Kandi.
     “Hey, Kandi Cane. I do believe you’re a prodigy.” I took out my money clip and slipped a five-dollar bill in her garter, letting the back of my fingers linger for an extra second on her astonishingly soft skin.
     Kandi flipped her platinum blonde hair and launched her megawatt smile at my defenseless eyes, making my dick do a jig in my pants. “Thanks, Vox. A girl tries.”
     Feloni and CashMoney were sitting over on the right side of the bar. I snuck up behind like a great white stalking unsuspecting seals and attacked, popping my head between them.
     They both squealed and jumped a fathom.
     Feloni: “Shitsicle!”
     CashMoney: “Knob Gobbler!”
     I kissed each of them on the cheek. “Ahh, I love it when you classy broads talk dirty. Anybody tipping today?”
     “CashMoney had a twenty-one-year-old kid fall head over heels in love with her,” Feloni laughed. “Girly got him to buy two bottles of Dom and eight dances in the back.”
     “Ouch,” I said. “That’s gonna sting when he sobers up tomorrow. You two forgot more about hustling than the rest of the dancers out there will ever know.” They agreed with a “hell yeah” and a dainty high-five of matching bright orange, squared-off fingernails.
     “Hey, Kim,” Feloni said to the daytime bartender, who was just finishing up at the other side of the bar. “Can you please get Voxy Man a Guinness?”
     I placed a hand at the nape of her neck and started massaging as I countered the request. “Hold up on that for now, Kim. I’ve got an interview to do in the back first.”
     Feloni relaxed back into her seat like a contented cat. CashMoney looked at me admiringly through dark lashes. “No wonder Valentina keeps you around with those talented hands.”
     I gave her my finest wink. “You can tell your third musketeer personally. She’s swinging by soon.” Glancing at my watch confirmed I had to get my ass moving. Time to see if the interviewee had shown up.
     “Duty calls, ladies. I shall return.” I gave Feloni one last squeeze and turned to leave, prompting a mock pout from her.
     “Hurry back,” CashMoney said. “Feloni and I are gonna get nasty together on stage in less than half an hour. We’d hate for you to miss out.”
     “Missing those shenanigans ain’t gonna happen,” I assured them, breaking into a brisk walk towards the back of the club with fingers crossed.



     Back in the bowels of the Emporium, past the bathrooms and offices and storage rooms, a narrow hallway doglegs to the right. It ends at a door that reads “KEEP OUT – EXTREME DANGER” in wicked, red letters. I placed my hand in the center of the door, closed my eyes, and mentally searched for the chimes which would signal something had messed with my guard-spell.
     Pissed off customers, psychotic parrots, and disgruntled ex-employees are bad enough, but for kahunas—the self-appointed peacekeepers of the supernatural world—there’s always the chance something with magical powers is gunning for us. Good, no chimes. “Vuna vima quai mox,” I whisper-chanted, disabling my security system.
     I unlocked the door, entered, and flipped on the lights, checking my eyes in the mirror to make sure they weren’t overly bloodshot from last night’s drunken escapade. My hangover still nagged at me but wasn’t as bad as I’d feared. After crossing to the other door in the room, I turned the deadbolt and pushed out. Sunlight streamed inside. Amazingly, there the applicant stood, right on time. A skinny, hipster-looking guy in his twenties, sporting a handlebar mustache, a navy blue Peaky Blinders flat cap, and a surprised expression.
     “Is this Kahuna Plumbing?” he warily asked.
     I stepped out onto the blacktop, giving the exterior letters a quick glance. “Yep, still there. Thank God. You had me worried flying raccoons might’ve nibbled off the letters in the night. Congratulations, Bart. You’ve successfully arrived at Kahuna Plumbing. After you.” I pointed at a rickety folding chair.
     His chair was dwarfed by an enormous Gothic desk—hand-carved from a single block of redwood—that I purchased years ago and have been lugging around ever since. The sides are swooping wings. It perches upon monstrous talons, and thrusting out of the front at crotch level is a screaming, demonic eagle’s head. The nightmare weighs over eight hundred pounds and takes up half the room. He uneasily sat.
     I squeezed behind the desk into an equally bombastic, hand-stitched and brass-riveted leather chair, the backrest of which had been designed extra tall to accommodate the stuffed lion’s head roaring down from the top. Setting out my tatted, muscled forearms on display, I stoically looked him in the eyes and went as still as a barnacle.
     His eyes darting around the room, Bart looked afraid of being devoured. Which was exactly my intention. It’s best to establish your tone right from the outset. Frame control is key.
     “Are you nervous, Bart?”
     “No, it’s just that, um, I thought this building was a strip club,” he said, twisting a tip of his mustache.
     “An interesting observation. Do you often spend your time in strip clubs?”
     He sat bolt upright. “Um, no, sir. I’m not interested in strip clubs. I’ve never been in one.”
     “Do you not like looking at naked women, Bart?”
     “No, sir… I mean yessir. I, uh, very much do like looking at them. I just don’t have much money either.”
     I sat back and smiled, letting him off the hook. “To each his own, young man. But staying out of strip clubs is indeed a wise decision. They’ll rot your brain. You showed up on time, which is a helluva positive start, so we’ve got that going for us. Did you bring your resumé?”
     From the manilla folder in his hand, he produced a single sheet of paper and stretched it out to me, careful not to get any closer to the hungry beak inches from his cock.
     I quickly skimmed over it. “Hmm. Your only plumbing experience is that you worked with your dad one summer who, at the time, was a plumber’s helper? I guess that made you a plumber’s helper’s helper?”
     “Interesting. I’ve never heard of such a thing, but I guess conceptually it’s not out of the realm of possibility. Time for a short rapid-fire. Name two materials sewer pipes are made of.”
     He pondered for a mere second. “Cast iron and Orangeburg.”
     “Ah, Orangeburg,” I said with appreciation. “Bonus points for that. Do you know what a ballcock is?”
     “Yes, sir. It brings water into the toilet.”
     “Which way do you turn a handle to shut off incoming water?”
     “Righty-tighty, lefty-loosey,” he answered without missing a beat.
     “Name two materials other than PVC that water lines are made of.”
     Bart searched his brain. “Copper and, uh, CVP… I mean, CPVC.”
     “Cinnamon Toast Crunch or Golden Grahams?”
     “Cinnamon Toast Crunch,” he said with a grin.
     I nodded and folded my arms approvingly. “All correct, Bart. Except for the last question, of course. Overall, a great job. Especially for the helper of a helper. You might have some potential.”
     Although I wasn’t sure I could stomach being subjected to his mustache on a consistent basis, I was desperate and he knew some plumbing basics. I absently looked up to the left at a spider’s web in the far corner of the ceiling. In all honesty, my gut told me he was the best candidate to walk through the door in a long time.
     “Alright, man. Here’s the thing. I’ve run your background and it’s straight. I need a helper I can depend on. How does twenty dollars an hour sound to start? If you show up when and where you should, steadily learn, and become more and more of an asset to me, your pay goes up. If you fail to do any of those, I’ll allow my eagle unfettered access to your ballsack.”
     I stood and extended my hand. “Sound reasonable?”
     Bart visibly relaxed and gave a relieved chuckle. “Deal, sir,” he said, getting up and completing the shake. “Uh, I was wondering if there was any way you’d allow me to wear my hats. I’ve got several colors. They bring me luck.”
     “Only if you add a pinstriped suit so customers think a 1920s gangster came to rob them.” It took a second for me to realize he was serious. “Oh… sure. Why not? I’m not one to turn down an added measure of luck.”
     I reached into a desk drawer and plopped a handful of shirts on the desk. “Hawaiian shirts are kinda our trademark here at Kahuna Plumbing. I even had company patches sewn on.”
     Frowning, he held one up. “What size is this?”
     “Not sure. I got ’em on sale at TJ Maxx.”
     He inspected the tags. “All of them are XXLs. I’m a medium.”
     “Hmm. Yeah, I see what you mean. But better to have roomy freedom of movement instead of being too tight.”
     “Maybe they’ll shrink after a few hours in the dryer on high heat,” he said with a shrug. “Also, that might get the wrinkles out.”
     “That’s the spirit. I love the can-do attitude. If that doesn’t work, you could try putting them in the oven. We’ll do your new-hire paperwork on the jobsite tomorrow. And call me Vox. I’ll text you the address. Be there at 10:00 a.m. sharp.”
     “Will do, Vox.” He flashed a peace sign and turned for the door.
     “One more thing, Bart.”
     He stopped, his hand on the handle, and looked back.
     “For real, though. Stay out of strip clubs. Plumbers plus strippers equals combustion.”

Chapter 3


     After he left, I went back out the door leading to the club proper and reactivated the guard-spell. For the foolish soul who trips it—whether they come through a door, down through the ceiling, tunnel in from underground, or materialize into the room—their time on Earth will soon be at an end. Any illicit intrusion morphs the gargoyles out front from stony statues into killing machines.
     On my way back, I saw that Slim, the men’s bathroom attendant, was now on duty. He’s an old, black guy who’s been at the club forever. He keeps the urinals full of ice (to minimize the odor), gives you a fresh towel after you wash your hands, and has an assortment of colognes and other toiletries to prepare you for re-entry into the erotic jungle. Slim’s always ready with a kind word and is so happy all the time that I wouldn’t be surprised if he smiles when he sleeps. His services are definitely worthy of a buck tip.
     “Slimmaculate, what’s the word of the day?”
     “Puuussyyy,” he slowly drawled, then belly laughed, his body shaking like a paint mixer.
     As his laughter subsided, Tony’s unmistakable voice growled from the speakers. “And nowww, direct your attention to the main stage where two of the most prestigious members of the Big Titty Committee are going to enjoy each other for your viewing delight and their carnal pleasure. They’re gorgeous, they’re talented, and they’re hotter than Hades: I give you… Feloni and CashMoneyyy! Gentlemen, get your asses up to the stage, have your stacks ready, and… Make. It. Rain.”
     Only Tony could’ve delivered such a compelling introduction. Although we were at opposite ends of the dimly lit club, I could see him tilt Goldy up and swig like she was a quart of beer. If he wasn’t careful, even with his legendary tolerance, Tony would be falling down drunk before the night was over. Fire Crotch’s betrayal must’ve been feeding on him like a moray eel.
     Feloni and CashMoney sashayed onto the raised stage in their platform heels to an intro of Motley Crue’s “Girls, Girls, Girls.” Valentina, already seated at a table, spotted me coming and waved. I couldn’t help gasping. Ay Dios mío. What a prototypical example of prime femininity in the Latina form—jet black hair, café con leche skin, hoop earrings the size of Saturn’s rings. Looking into her brown doe eyes for too long is as dangerous as challenging the sun to a staring contest.
     “Hey, señorita loca,” I said, stretching out in the chair beside her. “Qué pasa, mi amor?”
     She leaned over to give me a peck on the cheek. “Hola, Papi Vox.”
     Valentina can be a feisty thing, and I’m no stranger to doing stupid shit, so perhaps it was a foregone conclusion our relationship has been occasionally rocky. But tonight the forecast was puppies and petunias. She looked to be in a particularly affectionate mood, and I was ready to celebrate since it appeared I might have a new helper who didn’t suck.
     I flagged down the cocktail girl, GiGi, a tiny wisp with thick glasses and adorable pigtails. She was still learning how to walk in heels and had already gone down twice during her brief employment. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who held his breath when she tottered around with a full tray of drinks.
     “GiGi, darling girl. Could we please have a bottle of Rumple Minz and five shot glasses?”
     She chewed her bottom lip while meticulously writing the order on her notepad. “You got it, Vox. Be back soon. Wish me luck.”
     “One step at a time,” I called after her.
     “Five?” Valentina asked with raised, neatly manicured eyebrows.
     “Yep. The splendiferous Johnny Domingo should be walking in any minute.”
     She clapped her hands together in delight. “I forgot he was flying in today. Feloni is hella thrilled. I’ve seldom seen new love burn for so long. Six months in and each can still do no wrong in the other’s eyes.”
     Tony shut down the primary lighting, plunging the entire club into darkness for a moment before dramatically switching on a spotlight zeroed in on the girls. They now faced each other and held hands at the center of the stage. “Locked Out of Heaven” by Bruno Mars started up.
     Females learn early on that almost all heterosexual men enjoy watching them together. Even if a chick isn’t bisexual, she’s rewarded by acting as if she is. For dancers, monetarily speaking, there’s a distinct advantage in performing with other women. Nothing opens up billfolds faster.
     When both dancers are as beautiful as Feloni and CashMoney, it’s a mandatory must-see spectacle. I guarantee everyone huddled around the stage at that moment would’ve chosen to be there rather than anywhere else in the world. Two divinely talented artists, at the height of their powers, crafting a masterpiece.
     CashMoney played the aggressor and reached around to cup the back of Feloni’s head, bringing their mouths ever closer. The entire club held its breath in anticipation. Finally, CashMoney’s tongue slipped out and joined her friend’s in a long, luxurious kiss, causing Feloni to emit a small moan in the back of her throat.
     At one point, Feloni tenderly sucked on CashMoney’s tongue as if trying to seductively siphon gas. Every movement was slow and smooth yet seething with barely restrained power. Each woman’s hands squeezed the other’s ass as they leaned deeper into the kiss. The air pulsed with raw estrogen. Tops were removed, and they caressed each other’s heavy breasts.
     Down to the floor they descended. Inch by inch. Each lost in the other. Feloni laid on her back, her dirty blonde hair fanned out. CashMoney, her signature dollar-sign tramp stamp ablaze in neon green, gracefully spun around on top until they were in a classic sixty-nine position.
     Normally, they wouldn’t have gone much further. Hillsborough County ordinances are very clear that overt sex acts in strip clubs are illegal. The club would be fined upon a confirmed violation. But that day there was no doubt in anyone’s mind what would happen next. The women were too far gone. Even the daytime manager, Conway, was leaning over the stage railing—his eyes as big as Feloni’s areolas—mentally urging them on.
     Once Feloni felt CashMoney slip her thong aside and go down on her, she returned the favor in kind. The crowd, already surging with the fury of caged rhinos, exploded in cheers, creating a transcendent energy which fueled each woman to explore the other even more intensely. Their hips rhythmically pumped to the music, allowing probing tongues to spear molten loins.
     Valentina reached under the table and grabbed my dick, which was as hard as an Applied Quantum Mechanics course at MIT. Utterly spellbound, she stared at her two friends while kneading me through my pants and taking shallow breaths.
     By this time, around two dozen guys leaned over the railing, each with a thick payload. Their hands blurred as they blazed through the stacks, rocketing greenbacks into orbit one by one. In another dimension, the ghost of George Washington smiled. You could barely see the chicks anymore because the air was so choked with bills floating down atop them. In all my years of going to strip clubs, I’ve never seen such a torrential rainstorm.
     The song neared its end. Feloni was the first to cum, shouting her pleasure loud enough for half of Tampa Bay to hear. A couple of seconds later, CashMoney followed suit, arching her back like a shuddering she-beast and repeatedly moaning Feloni’s name.
     As Valentina desperately tried to get my dick out of my pants, GiGi showed back up with the bottle of liqueur and shot glasses miraculously intact on her tray. Against all odds, despite the commotion and with virtually no lighting by which to see, she’d somehow made it back unscathed… and in remarkably prompt time.
     I was a reamed-out husk, barely able to talk. Valentina, her eyes glazed over, visibly panted. GiGi set everything on the table and smiled sweetly, patiently waiting for me to settle up.
     “Just put it on my tab, GiGi, and give yourself five dollars,” I croaked. “And please put another bottle on ice for us.”
     “Thanks, Vox.” She beamed and carefully shuffled away.
     Feloni and CashMoney began collecting all the bills carpeting the floor, which were so plentiful the women were stuffing them into Home Depot five-gallon buckets.
     I felt a hand squeeze my shoulder and looked up to see Johnny Domingo shaking his mocha-complected, bald head back and forth at Valentina and me, his amusement at our condition evidenced by his knowing grin. “Aloha, Johnny,” I managed breathlessly. “What’s the word of the day?”
     “Downpour,” he laughed in his precisely enunciated, contraction-free, Barbadian accent. “Obviously one of biblical proportions, my kahuna brother.” He glanced over at the women gathering their money. “I am not sure what I missed, but I know a dawdling Uber driver who will find himself at the bottom of the bay if I ever see him again.”



     Not long after the deluge, the major record company exec who Valentina was scheduled to meet with the next day called and said he had to unexpectedly jet out to L.A. on a red-eye. Her only chance to talk with him before he left town would be at an airport lounge before his flight boarded. With the fickleness of the music business, she might never get an opportunity like that again.
     We all understood and were excited for her. Reluctantly, she left. But not before reminding me to exercise some maturity: “Don’t go hog-wild on the Rumple Minz, bae.” Her comment wasn’t without merit. In the past, I’d made questionable decisions when drinking too much of the peppermint-flavored hundred-proof howitzer.
     I nodded agreeably at her indisputable words of wisdom and then immediately forgot about them after she left. By the time the first bottle had been vanquished, the remaining four of us—Johnny, Feloni, CashMoney, and I—were on the path to getting plastered.
     GiGi stopped by to inquire if we were ready for the second bottle, which turned out to be Johnny’s cue. “Mr. Montague, it is time for my lady love and I to enjoy some alone time. Then tomorrow I am off to visit my sister in Crystal River for a couple of days. I will let you know when I resurface.”
     Even though Johnny and I had important matters to attend to during his visit to Tampa, his first order of business, quite understandably, was to take Feloni on a trip between the sheets to Pound Town.
     They got up to leave. Feloni smiled and wagged a finger at us. “Be careful now. You two are too much alike for your own good. Both of you get home safely.”
     “Don’t worry about us,” I scoffed. “You just make sure your sex jaguar doesn’t accidentally break you in half.”
     The women hugged goodbye while Johnny and I opted for a forearm thwack. Now only two soldiers remained in the battle against the enemy of sobriety.
     “What do you think?” I asked. “Do we succumb to cowardice and give up the fight, or do we move on to bottle number two?”
     CashMoney looked directly into my eyes, the corners of her mouth curling into a Grinch smile. “Número dos,” she purred.



     I remember only two episodes between opening the second bottle of Rumple Minz and waking up the next morning. Each lasted barely more than a minute.
In the first, I became aware of lying on soft sheets. My head was slumped to the side, and a thin rivulet of drool pooled on my shoulder. The lights were on. What time was it? Hoping I’d made it back to my house, I groggily tried to spot my Sebastian the Ibis alarm clock on the nightstand. Ah, there it was. 943943943 o’clock. What the hell? I was so drunk that I was seeing triple. Feeling motion above, I looked up to witness three CashMoneys straddling me, wrestling with the clasps of their bras.
     Hmm, how did this interesting development transpire? Finally, they succeeded and six magnificent breasts spilled out. Of course, I’d always fantasized about fucking her. I mean, who hadn’t? Even though I couldn’t remember how we’d gotten back to my house or why she was in my bed, it seemed a shame not to find out what those orbs of perfection felt like. I reached up and took the middle ones in my hands, giving them a squeeze. Apollonia’s Udders! They were even more divine than I’d anticipated.
     What Valentina tried earlier, CashMoney accomplished: my dick was firmly in her grasp. Against all odds, my stalwart soldier saluted, ready for duty. The fragment of my brain still able to think rationally knew this wasn’t a wise decision, but it was too overmatched to put a halt to the festivities.
     She lifted up to impale herself on Lil Vox but looked more and more unsteady by the second. Right then, the Rumple Minz battering ram circled around again, head-butting me back into the void. My last memory before going under the waves was CashMoney falling forward and a titty plugging my open mouth like a cork.


     My second memory was a mass of jangling keys bringing me back from the depths of unconsciousness so quickly that I was momentarily overtaken by the bends. Keys can be a signal which smacks your primitive brain in the mouth. Mayday! Mayday! Wake up, moron! A mental database query to check who I’d given a key to returned zero results.
     Unfortunately, CashMoney was still passed out on top of me. Though probably only weighing a hundred and twenty pounds at most, in my feeble state she felt like a hundred and twenty tons. Spitting out my breast pacifier, I strained to rise but could get nowhere. Sooo heaaavy.
     Without warning, time down-shifted into slow motion. Turning as if in cold honey, I eventually found the clock and could see clearly. 11:08. It took even longer to move my eyes to the window. No light came from between the blind slats, so it was still nighttime.
     The keys fell to the ground. A feminine voice expressed mild annoyance. “Coño carajo.” Its accent was Puerto Rican. I nearly died from panic. With the speed of a lobotomized snail, I again tried to extricate myself but was backhanded with fatigue for my effort. “CashMoney, SOS,” I tried to say, though what came out is anybody’s guess. She didn’t respond.
     Long ago, I strategically set up a multiple mirror system so I could enjoy the aquarium in the living room while lounging in bed. Since I hadn’t closed my bedroom door, CashMoney and I would be on full display. I had just enough remaining oomph to cast my eyes in the direction of the full-length mirror positioned outside my room.
     Slow motion further down-shifted into park. Now I couldn’t move a muscle. Once more I tried to rouse CashMoney but found I couldn’t utter so much as a peep. I was completely immobilized, trapped with no possibility of escape. Like a torture victim with toothpicks holding open his eyelids, all I could do was helplessly stare.
     The keys jangled again, and I heard the door open. After a few steps of heels on tile, Valentina came into view. Her chocolate brown eyes scanned as her full lips parted. “Vo-ox,” she called, turning my name into two playful syllables. “It’s time to celebrate. Mamacita’s gonna ride you like Secretariat. We’re gonna win the Triple Cr—”
     Our eyes met in the mirror. Mi princesa’s expression was quizzical. She couldn’t comprehend what she saw. The poor thing was in shock. And I wasn’t the only one looking at her. The succulent ass and neon green tat of CashMoney, one of her best friends since elementary school, had their gazes locked on Valentina as well.
     Realization set in. Fury overwhelmed mi corazón. Her eyes flared with hatred. “You fucking cunts,” she hissed. “Burn in hell.”
     With a heave that would’ve made Ryan Crouser envious, Valentina picked up and shot-putted a bulky brass seahorse clear across the room at the mirror outside my bedroom. Her aim was dead on. The glass shattered with such force that shards nearly reached the bed. The heavy frame crashed to the floor.
     After a promise to cut my dick off in the near future, she slammed the front door behind her. With my frozen eyes still glued to the now-bare wall, I heard her BMW’s door receive her wrath. Followed by its tires as she left most of their rubber on the driveway as a parting gift. Through it all, CashMoney never stirred. I returned to oblivion within seconds, serenaded by my bed buddy’s soft snoring.

Chapter 4


     The bizarre thing about Rumple Minz is, even though I have blackouts and it hammers the piss out of me when I don’t imbibe responsibly, I’m not hungover in the slightest the next morning. My theory is that by not walloping me with physical pain, it hopes I’ll return to its fiendish embrace that much sooner.
     So as I turned north on Dale Mabry Highway to meet up with Bart at the first plumbing call of the day near the Bucs stadium, my head was fine. It was the rest of me in tatters.
     What a back-alley abortion of events. Valentina was convinced I’d fucked CashMoney, and yet I’d barely even indulged in a titty squeeze. While we’d never come close to doing anything in the past, I’d always suspected she’d fit me as tight as an O.J. glove. Not only was I still as clueless as ever about that, now we’d both get blamed as if we’d banged all night.
     Damn you to hell, Fräulein Minz, you traitorous scoundrel.
     When I awoke that morning, CashMoney had already left; most likely she’d called an Uber. Although I’d texted her a message about what had happened, she’d probably already figured it out. The trail of destruction left by Tropical Storm Valentina wasn’t hard to decipher.
     Valentina and I have a unique relationship in that our problems aren’t about me occasionally straying. She tolerates it and knows I love only her. Her rules are:

     (1) I won’t go looking, but I better never hear about it.
     (2) Don’t get another woman pregnant.
     (3) If you give me a disease, I will literally kill you.
     (4) Never mess around with one of my friends.

     Coolest chick ever, right?
     And I’d turned belly-up to my demons like the coward I am, shitting all over an ideal situation. In the end, I had no one to blame except myself. While I hadn’t set out to get CashMoney in the sack, she’d ended up there nevertheless.
     Of course, my romantic dilemmas had nothing to do with paying my bills, while doing jobs this week most certainly did. In addition, if I fiscally collapsed, I could neither eat nor fulfill my obligations as the Kahuna of Florida West. Financial survival is what I needed to focus on at the moment. That and getting at least some control over my drunkardly ways.
     Turning onto MLK Blvd, I prayed with a reverence rivaling that of the most pious monk, “Please, Holy Creator, let Bart be waiting at the house.”
     A few streets down, I hung a left, and—lo and behold, thank the heavens, hallelujah, and praise the Lord—there he was, leaning against a beat-up Subaru Outback, eating a donut, and twirling on his mustache. His company shirt looked like a dress.
     I pulled my van in behind him, jumped out, and joyfully hugged the confused lad. Maybe the day wouldn’t be a disaster after all.



     The first call went swimmingly well. I was a little leery at first because when I asked the customer what his issues were, he just mumbled incoherently, pointed, and then shuffled behind us with his head slightly upturned and his mouth agape—like a basking shark skimming for plankton.
     However, he turned out to be reasonably sane, which often isn’t the case with customers. Bart and I ended up installing a shower valve, relieving a laundry line blockage, and replacing two shut-off valves for $1,299. Cha-ching. On top of that, Bart passed his first test.
     On a trainee’s first day, I always ask the same question: “You know what a pipe stretcher is, correct?” For those foolish enough to say yes, I send them out to my van to retrieve one. There’s no such tool. Think about it. How the hell are you gonna stretch a pipe? I’ve had dudes rooting around out there for the better part of an hour, tearing their hair out with frustration.
     Bart cool-headedly thought about it for a scant few seconds before proclaiming that he was sure pipe stretchers didn’t exist. That made me feel warm all over. More and more, my new employee was proving himself to be capable.
     After we finished that job, it was time to refuel our bellies. If we’d been on the other side of town, I would’ve chosen Mott & Hester for lunch. True, the owner is a Gator, but he’s a nice guy and has some of the best deli eats in Tampa. Since we were up north, Bart followed me to a Raising Cane’s on the way to our next call. We enjoyed a delicious, early lunch of chicken fingers, Cane’s sauce, crinkle-cut fries, and coleslaw—all washed down with Arnold Palmers. After gorging ourselves, the plan was to leave his car at the restaurant. He’d ride with me for the rest of the day.
     Though I’d given the cab a once-over to hide my degenerate ways, an empty can of Dos Equis had materialized from God-knows-where and was waiting patiently on the recessed step for Bart. When he opened up the passenger door, it fell at his feet in greeting. Ouch. It’s not an auspicious start to your employment when evidence of your boss’s drinking and driving says hello. He just placed it on the floorboard as if nothing had happened, and neither of us spoke further of the incident.
     Another small but profitable job followed, Bart continued to shine, and a day that started like a sinking Titanic had somehow righted itself. The wind now blew from our backs, and we sailed along smoothly on calm waters, under clear skies, with no icebergs in sight.
     The last scheduled call of the day was an especially easy one. I had already pre-sold it over the phone for three hundred and fifty dollars. We just had to replace a customer-provided toilet. Barely any parts cost meant another nice chunk of change in my bank account. Beep, beep, beep. Back up the money truck.
     I even let Bart take command of the job. Knock on the door, establish rapport, fill out the invoice. Bing, bang, boom. Yesterday his handlebar mustache annoyed me; today I realized it was actually endearing.
     Since he claimed to have replaced a toilet before, I just sat on the edge of the tub watching. While my mind ostensibly supervised, every few minutes it revisited last night—alternating between still shots of Valentina’s stunned expression and CashMoney’s extraordinary tits.
     As often happens, the bolts securing the toilet bowl to the floor were rusted on. Bart couldn’t just unscrew them. Which is why he had a Dremel tool plugged in to cut off the frozen nuts. He would just use brand-new nuts and bolts instead of the existing ones. I admired the steadiness of his hands.
     The shut-off valve, though it appeared to be structurally sound, had started leaking a tad. Happens a lot. It wasn’t completely shutting off, and water barely dripped from the end of the supply line onto the floor. Nothing major but enough to form a little puddle that was slowly growing. The Dremel’s cord was slightly frayed. As we all know, water and electricity don’t make compatible bedfellows.
     I’d just returned from another replay-loop and immediately grasped the situation. I was about to instruct Bart to tweak the valve a hair more to stop the drip and towel up the water. He’d also noticed the potential issue and was proceeding to do that very thing.
     He lightly grasped the football-shaped handle of the valve and nudged it clockwise. The leak stopped. After he gave himself a fist clench of approval, the shut-off valve flew across the room, slamming into my shinbone. I howled like a werewolf caught in a bear trap.
     Hell hath no fury like an open pipe at full pressure. Like a firehose, water blasted from the pipe, instantly beginning to flood the bathroom. It was a jailbreak, and every water molecule sprinted towards freedom. The rest of the house, including the hardwood floors just a few feet away in the hallway, would be rapidly flooded too.
     Bart, who was on his hands and knees, yelped and tried to scramble to his feet. He almost succeeded but slipped and fell to the tile.
     Despite my shin, the rapidly worsening water situation was unequivocally the top priority. Floods can be a company-killer. Besides a fire, nothing can fuck up a house quicker or more destructively than rampaging water with menace on its mind.
     I extended my hands towards the pipe and—in a sort of Karate Kid “wax on/wax off” manner—rotated them in small, circular motions. “Veena tom bok kwai,” I whisper-chanted. The water spewing out of the pipe instantly stopped. Not a drip more ventured past the lip.
     Next, I brought my hands to waist level, palms facing up, rapidly fluttering them. “Zeely con zub kwai.” The water on the floor beaded and awaited further instructions. Raising my still vibrating hands to my shoulders, the droplets humbly floated into the air. The water merged into a liquid rope as I brought my palms together. I thrust my hands towards the tub and the rope instantly obeyed, funneling over the edge and into the drain. The floor was now bone-dry.
     I looked over at Bart. He’d struggled to a sitting position with his back against the wall and couldn’t have been more baffled than if I’d shape-shifted into a walrus and begun singing the chorus of “Let It Go.” His right eye and cheek twitched.
     “Listen carefully,” I said in a voice of confident authority. “The homeowner is probably coming through that door at any moment. Don’t say a word. There’s no telling where she was in the house and how much she heard.”
     Sure enough, the sounds of her slippers shuffled our way shortly thereafter. The door opened and she stuck her head in. White Shoulders perfume filled the air. “Would you boys like an egg salad sandwich? I don’t put relish in mine. Nothing’s worse than egg salad that tastes like you’re eating dessert.”
     Staring at the tub, Bart just kept twitching.
     “No thanks, Mrs. Hankerson. We’re fine. Just taking a little break.”
     “How about a glass of water, then?” she asked.
     “We’ve had all the water we can handle. You’re too kind. Don’t worry about us.”
     “Okie-dokie,” she said, closing the door and shuffling back from whence she came.



     My shin throbbed like a bitch, but Bart was worse off. His ankle was already swelling, and he couldn’t put any weight on it. After finding Mrs. Hankerson crocheting in the Florida room, I carried my helper out to the van and propped his foot on the dashboard. I grabbed some ice out of the cooler, stuffed it into a trash bag, and wrapped it around his ankle with duct tape. All the while, not a single word was spoken about my demonstration of water powers. It was possible he was in complete denial and had already locked the memory away in a vault. Then pitched it over the side into the Mariana Trench of his subconscious. Better that than a blown mind.
     “I’m so sorry, dude. I’m so sorry,” he said over and over. With his burgundy cap askew and eyes vacant, both hands twirled his mustache in overdrive. I wondered how much more his handlebars could take.
     “No hay problema, jefe. You sit tight. And keep your foot elevated.” I turned on the radio to what I usually listen to while driving between calls: the Bubba the Love Sponge Show. “I’ll finish up inside and be back soon. Guaranteed Bubba’s up to something amusing. It’ll take your mind off the pain.”
     Within twenty minutes, we were driving west on State Road 54, returning to Tampa from Wesley Chapel. Bart had regained some of his composure. His twirling was down to one hand, his hat was righted, the twitch was mostly gone, and he wasn’t constantly apologizing anymore. All positive signs. He clutched his bucket of tools in his lap as if they were a favorite stuffed animal.
     “I think we need to run by the hospital,” I said. “That might be a break instead of a sprain.”
     “All I want to know is how you did it, Vox,” he said with the profound curiosity of someone trying to figure out a Shin Lim card trick.
     “I know it was another test for me. I just can’t figure out how you pulled it off. That was super dope. We were on a TV prank show, weren’t we? Unbelievable. You’re a certified genius. Seriously, quit plumbing and take that show to Vegas, man. You’ll make millions.”
     Lamentably, it didn’t look like he’d thrown the memory overboard.
     “First of all, Bart, what happened back there wasn’t your fault. In fact, your performance all day has been top-notch.” I’d decided coming clean was the best option. He’d seen everything up close and personal. I mean, there was no logical way to explain this away, and—given enough distance and perspective—he’d figure that out. The kid wasn’t an idiot, he was just in shock. And it wasn’t like I had to kill him and drop him down a well or anything. As supernatural peacekeepers, it’s impossible to keep all kahuna-related activities entirely under wraps. We just want them on the down-low as much as possible.
     “You remember how disappointed you were growing up when you discovered Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny were imaginary?” He nodded. “Well, today you got some payback on the world. You discovered some outlandish shit actually exists. That valve breaking off was a freak occurrence. However, it one hundred percent happened. What I did also one hundred percent happened. No tricks. No TV series. No tests. Have you seen The Matrix?” He nodded again. “You’re plunging down the hare hole as we speak.”
     I paused for a second to let it all sink in. We turned back south onto Dale Mabry. So far, so good. He hadn’t jumped out of the van in terror and splattered himself all over the road, which I counted as a win.
     “I’m part of a race of beings possessing certain magical powers. We call ourselves kahunas. One of our abilities is the manipulation of water. Generally speaking, we can make it do what we want. You bore witness to that today. Does that make any sense?”
     He slowly shook his head in wonderment. “You’re serious, aren’t you? Wow! I’m in, brah. Sign me up. How much would you charge to teach me that awesomeness? Can you swim as fast as a dolphin? Can you breathe underwater? Who would win if you and a giant squid got into a fight? Is the Loch Ness monster real? How about mermaids?” His eyes had gone from lifeless to Nicholas-Cage-guzzling-a-case-of-Red-Bull-manic-mode.
     It was impossible not to get caught up in his enthusiasm. “Sadly, my friend, it doesn’t work quite like that,” I said with a laugh. “It’s not a club you can join. You must be born into it. We get this thing called the Compulsion as a young adult and travel to a far-off land to be trained.” Raising Cane’s came into view, and I got in the turning lane.
     He just kept shaking his head. “Stupid cool. Can I at least be like an assistant or something? You know, maybe a liaison between us mere mortals and your world?”
     “I assure you we’re mortal. Last week I almost got eaten by an alligator on the seventeenth green of Plantation Palms.” I pulled into the restaurant and found an available space to the right of his Subaru. “However, that’s a conversation for another time. Right now, we need to get you healed up as soon as possible. How does that ankle feel? There’s a hospital not too far down the road. Do you think we need to swing by?”
     “Honestly, I can’t even feel the pain anymore, man. You’ve obviously got some mega healing powers. I feel better than ever.”
     I held up a finger to correct him, but he’d already opened his door and was on his way out. Like a man ready to conquer the world, Bart hopped down from the elevated seat with his tool bucket in hand, unafraid and with his full weight behind him.
     From the driver’s seat, I couldn’t see much of the resulting mayhem, but sounds told the story. A hideous pop kicked off the show. Followed by a scream that would’ve woken any nearby dead. He disappeared completely out of sight, thudded to the pavement, and his tools—and possibly his head—banged into the Mercedes G-Wagon parked in the next space.

Chapter 5


     The Tampa Bay area is primarily made up of two major population areas separated by a sizable body of water bearing the same name. To the east is Hillsborough County and the county seat of Tampa. To the west lies Pinellas County—composed of St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Largo, and a bunch of little municipalities sprinkled in between. Even though three different bridges serve to efficiently connect the counties, the demarcation of the bay makes them seem farther apart, and more distinct, than they really are.
     Rush hour traffic on the Courtney Campbell Causeway, the northernmost bridge, crawled a tad faster than usual, and I was making semi-reasonable time returning to Tampa from Clearwater after handing over the beleaguered Bart to his sister, Brandi. “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot played in the background.
     The sun, its shortened winter workday nearing the end, headed home as well. Still, plenty of light remained to watch the hunting pelicans. They floated on bay breezes, scanning the surface below. Upon spotting dinner, they folded their wings tightly to their sides and dove like bombs upon unsuspecting prey swimming below, scooping up the unlucky bastards in their basket beaks. With the last twenty-four hours I’d endured, I knew exactly how those fish felt.
     After Bart plummeted out of the van—demolishing himself, the G-Wagon’s door, and my insurance rates—I helped him back into the passenger’s seat and then went into the restaurant. It turned out the general manager, Chuck, was the owner of the injured Mercedes. Up to that point, he’d been a friend of mine and a customer. Not only did he take the news much better than expected, he gave me a to-go box of fingers and sauce to “help ease your pain, brother.” Unbelievably nice. It’s only a matter of time before a restaurant needs plumbing service, and his next call was going to be on the house.
     We left the Subaru with a promise from Chuck that it wouldn’t be towed. Bart was in even worse “I’m so sorry, dude” form than before, begging me to end his pain with a water bazooka. He droned on so much that, if I could’ve conjured one up right then, I might’ve been tempted to put us both out of our miseries. I gave him the to-go box, telling him eating would help speed his healing. If nothing else, I figured a full mouth would reduce his complaining.
     I guess it’s hard to blame the guy, though. I mean, what would you do if you saw a kahuna weaving his hands together like Mr. Miyagi, chanting some arcane incantations, and defying the laws of fluid mechanics? Mind-bending stuff. Where he went wrong is erroneously assuming my magical powers include the ability to heal. Lesson learned and one I’m sure his ankle would never forget.
     Now I was without a helper again. However, I did like the kid. And, until the calamity, his performance had been exemplary. Long term, I decided to hold the spot open for him. Furthermore, he was adamant that plumbing was the career he wanted. With a lot of work on both our parts, I sensed he could be a valuable employee.
     In the meantime, there was a chance I could wrangle some help from the Goat, a mobile auto mechanic who makes his own hours. Ever since I’ve known him, we’ve traded favors. Maybe he could finagle his schedule around to assist here and there while Bart healed.
     In a teaspoon of serendipity, Bart’s sister was nearing the end of med school at Nova Southeastern University and would soon begin her residency in orthopedics. She could supervise his rehab, and he’d give her somebody to practice on.
     Around a mile from land, traffic smoothed out. Less than ten minutes later, I turned into Bearded Oaks Mobile Home Park, built on a secluded, twenty-acre plot of paradise snuggled up against the bay. Grand oaks stud the property throughout, and flowing clusters of grey Spanish moss hang from each tree like Gandalf’s beard. The park is a perfect example of what Sunshine State residents like to call “Old Florida.”
     The meticulously maintained gravel road crunched as I slowly rolled through the park (8 MPH, please). The air was redolent with orange blossoms from a small grove near the entrance. I’m a junkie for their scent and inhaled lungfuls through the open window to get my fix. As I passed the first mobile on the right, I saw two identifiers that Jimmy the Jamaican rocked back and forth in the shadows of his covered porch: the smoldering tip of a gargantuan blunt and the shockingly white teeth of his Cheshire Cat smile.
     “Hello, Voxy Mon,” he crooned in his singsong accent. “I got plenty of this sweet smelly if you’re of a mind to partake.” I’m not sure how he’d pulled it off, but besides a medical marijuana waiver allowing him unrestricted usage, Jimmy actually has a state license to grow and sell the stuff. A massive, state-of-the-art hydroponic unit takes up all of one bedroom. He refers to his prized custom strain as Half-Hit-Shit, meaning most people only need a partial puff to get stoned. Unless you’re a toking pro, a full hit will turn you into a baked potato. Jimmy smokes all throughout the day and most of the night. I get a contact buzz every time I drive by.
     I braked to a stop. “JJ, my good friend,” I called out through the passenger side. “Your ganja scares the hell out of me, mon. If you recall, the last time we burned, I was convinced you were a prehistoric sabre-toothed capybara. After I got home, I ate a family-size package of Double Stuf Oreos, two rotisserie chickens, and a jar of pickles. Then I slept for three days.”
     His deep laughter rumbled like a Robbie Shakespeare bass line.
     The park has only one road, and it takes its time meandering around the namesake oaks, as well as dense clusters of palmetto bushes, pines, and cypresses. The tree canopy is so thick that much of the park is hidden from aerial view.
     Everybody else looked to be already tucked in, except for Samantha, a senior citizen triathlete who crushes all the other ladies in her age group. In her burnt orange training swimsuit with matching cap, she looked to be returning from the bay. Probably had just butterflied to Texas and back for a light workout and was headed inside for a spirulina and reishi IV. In fact, she hails from Austin and attended the University of Texas as a lass. I flashed her a Hook ’em Horns sign, and she acknowledged by throwing up the U for me. I have no beef with the Longhorns. Last time we played was the 1991 Cotton Bowl when we blew them out 46-3, so they’re fine by me.
     After her place, the road wiggles a final time through a short stretch of undeveloped land before ending at a roundabout. Most of the bay frontage of the park is a recreation area—with picnic tables, charcoal grills, a sand volleyball court, and a basketball hoop. Only a few plots are directly on the water. Mine’s one of them. But it’s not like the others. My property is actually a four-acre island, connected to the mainland by a fifty-five-foot bridge.
     On the mainland side of the bridge, a ten-foot wide, double-swinging gate stands guard. It’s book-ended by a pair of tall, fearsome tiki totems. Free-standing tiki torches both light the gate and are evenly spaced along the length of the bridge. Centered in the middle of the gate is an ornately carved medallion eighteen inches in diameter. It’s vertically split, the two sides made whole when the gate’s closed. It’s called a juskara—the ancient talisman of the kahunas.
     My shinbone wasn’t fractured but still ached and had stiffened up, so I delicately got out and limped a few steps over to the totem pole bordering the left side of the gate. On the totem, about chest high, I placed my hand on a sea turtle with a shallow depression embedded in its shell.
     Similar to my office, the lack of chimes meant there hadn’t been any supernatties—creatures of magic—sniffing around the joint. “Vuna vima quai mox.” An energy field, which domes over and protects the island from intrusion, hummed for an instant, went silent, and the gate began to open.
     I’d re-engage the energy field once I got to the house. The field is attuned to all the known frequencies emitted by magic. For my supernattie “inner circle” of Valentina, Johnny, Feloni, and Maria—Valentina’s maternal grandmother—I had a sensor installed which automatically detects their unique magical signatures and disables the field once they punch “80085” into a keypad below.
     The field is useless against uninvited natties. Provided they’re able to scale the gate or traverse the water, I have other ways to deal with them. Especially process servers and bill collectors.
     I turned to get back into the van.
     It was so soft and high-pitched that the kitten couldn’t be much older than a newborn. I searched left, then right. Nothing at all. Behind me? Nope. Under the van? Nada. I was running out of places to search.
     This time I looked up. A house cat sat atop the totem. An exceedingly large cat, about twice the size of a normal one. Way too big for that tiny meow. I chided myself for sensing nothing of the beast upon my approach. Sure, my shin stole some attention, but that kind of sloppiness could easily be the death of me.
     The totems are twelve-foot high—genuine Takanga totems—with sides so burnished and wood so hard that I didn’t see how anything other than a gecko could scale them. Maybe not even that. But, unless it had wings, the cat must’ve somehow climbed up. Impressive. With those pole skills, it might have a future as a stripper.
     This pain-in-the-ass turn of events further delayed my urgent meeting with a cold beer. “Jackass,” I grumbled. A classic case of immediate gratification gone awry. This clown had given zero fucks about how to get back down, leaving someone else with the responsibility of rescuing it.
     The extension ladder on my van wasn’t suitable for the task. Leaning it against the slippery surface of the totem was the kind of idea that would land me on an episode of Ridiculousness. I’d have to use the stepladder from the house. Hopefully, I could reach up and save the fool without breaking my neck. But who could predict how it would react? Anything stupid enough to intentionally get up there might also decide clawing its rescuer made sense.
     “Yeah, yeah. I’d appreciate the courtesy of a little patience while I fix this mess you made.”
     I drove up to the house and retrieved the ladder from the shed attached to the carport. As I spread the legs and locked its braces, I was still bitching. This could go very badly, trying to save an overgrown cat who made poor life choices. I put my foot on the first step, looked up, and… the cat was gone.
     WTF? I did a 360 look-around. No cat anywhere. I felt like Bart from earlier in the day when he thought he was part of a reality TV show. “Unbelievable,” I groused, shaking my head. It was either a remarkable athlete or truly did have wings. “Thanks for wasting my time. Appreciate it, buddy.”
     I’ve been working on letting go of the past. By the time I drove back across the bridge, put the ladder away, and turned the corner to the front door, my mind had restored order and swatted the cat to the recesses of my memories, replacing it with the imagery of refreshing alcohol glugging jovially down my throat.
     I screeched like a barn owl, reflexively jumped back, tripped off the edge of the elevated teak walkway, and toppled into a rosebush. Several thorns penetrated my arms and shoulders. Pathetically groaning, I gingerly pushed myself to a sitting position, receiving an additional puncture and a blaze of pain in my left palm. The cat enjoyed the show from a front-row seat by the van. With piercing blue eyes, the animal briefly gazed into my soul, then focused on a more important task—grooming its mohawk with a polydactyl paw.



     I lounged back in my clammy on the screened-in back porch—the bubbling water remedying tired, aching muscles and also healing the shin hematoma, thorn damage, and various other bumps and bruises I’d recently accumulated. In contrast to the vast majority of supernatties, kahunas are no more impervious to harm than regular natties. True, our innate rejuvenation capabilities are better than non-magical folks but only modestly so. Which is a problem thanks to both the hazardous nature of a kahuna’s work and my unique ability to fuck myself up.
     To aid our healing, we have hot tubs made from the half shells of Colossaclams, cousins of Gigas clams but even deeper-bellied and with edges less dramatically fluted. Mine is a whopping seven feet in diameter and perfect for all occasions, whether you need some alone time or have an orgy coming up. For us, to hell with milk. Nothing compares with a clammy in doing a body good.
     A clammy works because of its effect on makana, which is the life force of kahunas. Meaning “gift” in Hawaiian, makana is our go-juice—our version of chi, ki, or prana—and permeates all our cells. If a kahuna’s makana is lower than normal, which can happen due to injury or sickness, his or her natural healing powers will suffer. Clammies help to quickly restore our default levels.
     However, a clammy’s most significant benefit is its capacity to amplify the actual healing nature of makana. As it was explained to me, “makana still effectuates the actual restoration, but in the healing submatrix of the space-time continuum, healing time is folded upon itself.” When you figure out what that means, let me know.
     While the shells alone work wonders, adding concentrated Colassaclam meat to a soak kicks up your rehab even more. Refined and extracted into a powder called meatboost, you just dissolve a handful in the clammy and your healing time gets folded more times than an Akira Yoshizawa origami peacock.
     My healing aside, the feline had now reasserted dominance over my thoughts. Up close at ground level, I could see just how enormous the fucker was compared to other house cats. And it wasn’t fat. This creature had impressive muscle bulges under its fur.
     The trespasser wore an ornately crafted collar of leather and silver. It definitely wasn’t something you could buy at the local pet store. Three strange, interlocking circular symbols dominated the front, with “Achilles” etched into the center one. Though you never know with names these days, I’d assume the cat was male until proven otherwise. I’d never tried to determine the sex of a cat before and wasn’t about to start with this enigma. Unlike dogs, who are as shameless as creepy trench coat flashers, it’s not obvious what felines are packing.
     Occasionally, strays show up around the park, so I keep a bag of food on hand to make life a smidge easier for them. After all, everybody appreciates a snack and a kind word. Almost everybody. Thus far, only the water had been touched. While it’s not easy to read a cat’s expression, when he looked at the bowl of bargain-quality kibble and then back at me, I’m sure his mouth curled in disdain.
     Notwithstanding the mystery of how the cat came to be sitting on the totem, a more perplexing question was how he’d gotten down and over to my house without me noticing. His unusually long tail and stealth made me think he might be a legendary ninja cat from Japan. However, all the stories agreed they only came in black.
     This one’s coat was golden. And the more I watched it, when viewed from various angles and under different lighting, its shadings subtly changed as well—making him gleam, almost as if his coat was created from actual gold.
     Coloring aside, another reason for my fascination was his striking beauty. Absolutely gorgeous. I’m talking supermodel looks. I’m sure all the ladies loved his mohawk, which was longer and more stylish than punk. Rate the most handsome cat you’ve ever seen and then move the decimal point over a couple of places to the right.
     Besides the puzzle of what he was, why was he here? Just passing through? He didn’t look like any stray I’d ever seen. All signs indicated this cat had been exquisitely cared for.
     I thought about it for another few minutes while the cat, well, just acted like a typical cat. At present, he was on the adjoining outdoor patio violating the laws of physics by somehow stuffing himself into an empty cardboard case of Moosehead Lager.
     Soon, hunger got the best of me—those chicken fingers had gone as far as they could—and I clambered out of the clammy and headed inside to the living room. After locking the double sliding glass doors behind me, I trailed my fingers along the immense, thirty-foot long aquarium tank that takes up most of the interior wall of that side of the house. The aquarium is almost entirely self-sustaining, requiring very little upkeep. It’s a miniature Great Barrier Reef of corals, seagrasses, anemones, sponges, urchins, starfish, lobsters, conch, eels, clownfish, leafy seadragons, and a small catshark.
     All of which serve as a playground for fifty of the rarest fish in the world: kahunafish. They are a riot of stunningly vivid colors that force-feed your soul, pumping pure joy down your throat like you’re a foie gras goose. That is, if you happen to be a kahuna.
     Everybody I know who’s fortunate enough to lay eyes on k-fish is captivated. Even the catshark, who wouldn’t dare eat them. But kahunafish and kahunas have a special symbiotic relationship—based on the fact they’re the only other life forms besides us that have concentrated makana.
     When a kahuna and at least one of our fishy cousins are near each other, we stimulate a gland in the other called a makanacrine, which is located near the base of the brain. Besides our two species, no other creatures have them. As the name suggests, a makanacrine secretes makana. The presence of the gland is the primary, and most important, separator between a kahuna—who technically is a supernattie humanoid—and a human.
     While this mutual stimulation between kahunas and k-fish results in our own respective makanacrines squirting out more makana, it feels like we’re actually exchanging it with each other, like it’s ping-ponging back and forth between us. Which is why we refer to the experience as “makana swaps,” even though that isn’t what’s really happening. The phenomenon doesn’t occur between kahunafish alone, nor between multiple kahunas. It’s only possible when kahunas and k-fish are together.
     Regardless of the science, there’s no denying it feels glorious while you’re swapping… and for a short time afterwards. As far as I know, swaps are the only way to increase makana in a kahuna’s body above its regular levels. The kahunafish enjoy it too. Talk about a win-win situation.
     Even when we’re not swapping, other fun is to be had. Each fish is an underwater light show, constantly changing its color. I can sit for hours basking in their presence and enjoying the flashes, pulses, and pops of pinks, purples, blues, greens, yellows, and oranges. Nearly every color combination but pure red. Kahunafish never phase in pure red.
     On the opposite wall of the living room towers a set of megalodon jaws that nearly scrape the ceiling. You might have seen the classic picture of fossilized jaws with a man standing inside for size comparison. Mine are of similar dimensions, but the jaws and teeth are gleaming white. It’s not a fossil.
     As for the dwelling itself, the custom house is constructed of a subspecies of ironwood known as wampiloa, an extremely rare tree only found on an archipelago somewhere in the Pacific. Rot-proof, fire-proof, water-proof, incredibly strong, and resistant to almost all magic, laser saws are the only feasible way to work with wampiloa—unless you’re a kahuna shaman-engineer with vectorized magic. Otherwise, it takes a regular diamond-tipped saw blade at least five minutes to cut through a two-by-four, leaving the blade all but destroyed. Besides the house, the bridge, gate, totems, and tiki torches are all made of wampiloa too.
     The windows, sliding glass door, and aquarium are manufactured of a special composite called telaʻikoa, which is as close to unbreakable as you can get and made of a particular black sand rumored to be from an island beach near Fiji. The locations of neither wampiloa nor the sand are known to anybody except the holier-than-thou elite who sit on the Kahuna Council.
     Of course, a house like that is of incalculable value, especially when sitting on an island. Definitely way above my pay grade. I’m just a tenant. For many years, the only neighbors were the trees. Then the powers that be sold the mainland acreage to a developer. Soon, Bearded Oaks had sprouted up. But all that was before my time, back when Willard Hucklebee, the house’s former occupant, was still alive.
     Willard was the first kahuna stationed in Florida. He’d been born shortly before the Civil War and had kahuna’d in various postings throughout the Northeast for decades. In the Roaring ’20s, the Council decided Florida had grown enough to warrant representation and gave him the job. A chief can live anywhere in their assigned territory, and he chose Tampa Bay as his home base. As the state’s population increased over the years, it was subdivided into two zones—Florida West and Florida East—and the western half of the state became his. Willard passed on fifteen years ago. Up until that point, I’d been apprenticing in Toronto for almost ten years. I got promoted, packed up my shit, and headed south.
     I went into the kitchen, crossing my fingers that Yesterday Vox had shown the decency to leave Today Vox a decent-size piece of standing rib roast. The Rumple Minz blackout made my recollection a little fuzzy on whether I’d even eaten yesterday, and this morning I’d been running behind and left without breakfast.
     With a grateful sigh, I saw that a fat slice awaited me. I’m an unapologetic foodie and would watch the Food Channel all day long if I could get away with it. Unfortunately, my tastes exceed my budget. I’d eat gourmet every meal if I had the money. But, not only do I spend too much on drinking and tipping strippers, being a kahuna isn’t cheap. As for the roast, it’d been on sale last week at Publix and I’d splurged.
     I prepared a blackened prime rib sandwich and paired it with a big scoop of homemade dill potato salad. My herb garden on the back porch contributed the dill. The roll also came from Publix. I know Philly folks go apeshit over their beloved Amoroso rolls—and to be fair, they’re good eats—but Publix Bakeries are the Kings of Carbs in this state. Though the six-pack of Reef Donkey Pale Ale still waited impatiently in my beer fridge, I’d changed my mind and decided there’d be no alcohol tonight. The cat situation had put me on semi-alert. Instead, I opted for a couple of Stewart’s orange cream sodas.
     After a shower, I realized how tired I was. It’d been an exhausting day and a half. But, before turning in, I wanted to see if my furry new acquaintance was still around. Upon entering the living room, I picked up on sounds of ravenous gluttony coming from outside. Something aggressively feasted, ripping flesh from bone. And punctuated with what sounded like… moans?
     Besides the door off the back porch, there’s another on the other side of the aquarium that also leads to the patio. I tiptoed over to it. Like all exterior doors, I keep a mini keg-size barrel of water beside it in case I have to use my water powers against one of the aforementioned nattie intruders. While it won’t kill them, a gusher of water to the face or gonads isn’t pleasant.
     With one hand swirling above the barrel, readying it for action, I slowly turned the doorknob, nudging it open as silent as a jellyfish. I slipped my head out and peered around the corner. The overhead light illuminated a distinct circle on the concrete floor, reminding me of CashMoney and Feloni from the afternoon before.
     In the center of it was the cat, oblivious to everything but the matter at hand. Tearing into what looked to be a yellowmouth grouper weighing at least thirty pounds. The barbarian was in a full-on frenzy and made such rapturous noises that I couldn’t be sure he wasn’t fucking his dinner at the same time he ate it. And I thought I enjoyed food.
     Yet another cat mystery, even more stupefying than the other ones he presented. Although huge for his species, it wasn’t like he could just reach over the side of the seawall and casually land a grouper of that size. It was far too much to contemplate, and I quietly eased the door shut. At present, I needed sleep more than feline answers.
     I climbed into my waterbed and promptly nodded off. My last thought was the relief of today being financially successful enough that I could at least take tomorrow morning off.

Chapter 6


     I led the trailing donkey by his tie into the club’s private dance area. My other hand held a bottle of Cristal and two plastic champagne cups. Through a thick, black velvet curtain, we entered a dimly lit, square room with a small L-shaped couch and round cocktail table in each corner. Though partitions sectioned off four individual areas and provided some concealment for the sinning, a platinum blonde ponytail caught my attention through an opening. It bobbed up and down like an oil well. You didn’t have to be a genius to figure out what was going on. Despite being suspended the month before for whoring herself out, Vacuum Vicki was back sucking more dick. Over the music, I could hear her customer grunting like a fornicating panda. I love nature documentaries and imagined David Attenborough narrating the action.
     “While you were on your mandatory vacation, they put cameras in here, Vicki. The police are probably minutes away.” It wasn’t true and I shouldn’t have said it, but the skank is a nasty ho who’s infamous for trying to steal the regulars of other dancers. Also, she has a weird sauerkraut stank to her that makes me gag. Probably crotch rot.
     She gasped in alarm and he yowled in pain. Vicki must have nicked some foreskin during her hasty tuck and zip. At the same time we slipped into our section, Vicki and her panda hurried out of theirs.
     Biting my lower lip like a naughty schoolgirl, I looked off to the side while facing him. “You ready, stud?” I cooed. People tell me I look like the girl from that ’80s group, the Bangles, and I’ll admit to stealing her “Walk Like An Egyptian” side-eye and adding it to my bag of tricks. Borrowing from the greats of the past makes perfect sense as long as you bring your own style and make it yours.
     To me, not only are all customers simps, they’re donkeys too. Usually not in the physical sense, though. This long-faced, big-eared guy was so barnyard that I literally wouldn’t have been shocked if he started “EE-AWing.” He answered my question with a goofy smile, revealing two shockingly large front teeth. I wasn’t expecting that and could feel a giggle trying to slip out. Thankfully, I was able to slam the lid down on it and keep myself together. Nothing kills the mood—and your tip—like laughing at a customer.
     The tip is why I continued working him now. He’d already paid upfront for the dances, and I would receive fifty percent of that. In addition, I’d get a commission from the champagne I’d convinced him we needed. A lot of dancers would’ve been content there. Not me. I wanted a fat tip on top. I crawled out of the womb a born hustler. We’re all adults here. If you think you’re man enough to come into my neighborhood looking for a fantasy, then don’t be surprised when you leave with your pockets a lot lighter than you intended.
     Tonight, Antoine was on the mic. Whenever he sees me leading my pack animal to its doom, he knows to fire up “Black Velvet” by Allanah Myles as long as another girl isn’t on the main stage. The song preferences of whoever is up there always take precedence. However, it was already 2:30 in the morning and the stage was empty. Only three or four dancers still hung around.
     The hypnotic beat started. I slid the light cocktail table out of the way to give myself plenty of room, pushed Donkey Boy against the back of the couch, then spread his legs apart so he knew who the boss bitch was.
     Over time, every dancer develops her own unique routine. Not only do you practice endlessly and learn from other girls, but there are certain ways your body just naturally likes to move. Your muscle memory gets grooved, and your routine eventually gets so established that it’d be almost impossible to change, even if you wanted to. Once you perfect your craft, you can pretty much put the whole thing on autopilot. You just have to program yourself to smile now and then, and the donkey will have no idea your mind is a thousand miles away.
     I always start a private dance with my back to guys, both because men like to see ass and because the more I’m facing away, the less time I have to spend looking at their faces. I felt his hands go to my hips, which is in my allowable range of actions. No boob touching or within six inches of my coochie. Most everything else I’ll put up with. Within reason. I switched on the machine. A small part of me monitored my body, but the rest relived yesterday.
     Vox had filled me in on Valentina walking in on us. But, with the smashed mirror and burn-out on his driveway, I knew. How could I be so stupid? What’s wrong with me? Yeah, Vox is cute, but he’s even more fucked up than I am. And I’ve been making a strong effort in the past few months to date more mature guys.
     Most importantly, he belongs to Valentina! One of my two BFFs. I’d blocked it out most of the day since I didn’t have the courage to face it, but now it nibbled on me like a rat.
     I hadn’t yet mustered the guts to call her to apologize and wouldn’t even know what to say if I did. On her end, she’d been freezing me out all day. Complete silence. Probably was convinced I was the worst friend in the world, which is exactly what I’d proven myself to be. Valentina had probably gotten Maria to make her a voodoo doll so she could fill me with pins. Who could blame her?
     It was no excuse that Vox wanted to fuck me. Though he’d never tried, he secretly lusted, of course. When you’re a hot chick, all heterosexual males want to have sex with you. Every female knows that.
     I checked in on things. The second song of the set was playing, and my boobs were inches from his face. At Lola’s, we wear a thong but strip down topless. Glancing down, I saw a tent pitched in his pants. Which was to be expected. We’re all just animals. I don’t mind guys having fun as long as they’re respectful.
     I hadn’t talked to Feloni either. She was taking time off during Johnny’s visit. If anything, she’d probably be even madder at me than Valentina. It was going to be painful, no matter what. Maybe I’m secretly jealous of both their romances. I just don’t understand why I can’t find a guy who isn’t a piece of garbage or boring as hell. As volatile as Valentina and Vox are sometimes, their relationship is still better than ninety-nine percent of mine.
     A warning signal went off in my head, and I returned to the present. I’d been facing away from the donkey and turned to see what had triggered my alarm. Unbelievably, this fool had his dick out and was tenderizing it like a two-dollar steak. His eyes pulsated out of their sockets as he stared at my crotch. I’d given a thousand dances to one idiot after another, and no donkey had ever had the audacity and disrespect to whack off in front of me.
     By the way he was huffing and the engorgement level of his mushroom head, I knew I’d better put a stop to this shit fast or he was going to shoot his disgustingness everywhere. There was no time to run out and shout for the bouncer, so I took control of the situation. When you’re a petite girl without any self-defense training and are dressed in almost nothing, it might appear you don’t have any weapons. Ordinarily, that might be true. Not so for dancers.
     I took a small step forward to gauge the distance, reared back, and fired my foot like a missile. That in itself would have been painful. But attached to my foot was stripper footwear. A seven-inch stiletto heel and three inches of heavy plastic sole zeroing in on what looked like around, oh, five-and-a-half inches of dick. There was no doubt who the victor would be.
     My shoe met his crotch and something crunched. Probably his shaft got pulverized… or maybe his balls popped. Whichever, it wasn’t pleasant for him. He screamed louder and higher than girl scouts who get surprised by a tarantula. It was more horrific than a movie scream queen’s best effort. I had no idea a man could make that sound.
     I don’t know how he kept from keeling over, but he somehow got to his feet with both hands over his junk and ran towards the curtain. Unluckily for him, the curtain was the same color as the wall, and he misjudged and ran smack into it. Amazingly, he didn’t fall that time either. Just bounced back a couple feet like he’d been stunned with a cattle prod.
     He sprinted through the curtain without opening it, somehow catching a piece and tearing the whole assembly off the frame. Through the club he squealed, running without using his arms, the curtain and rod trailing after him. Another dancer leaped out of the maniac donkey’s path as he rampaged out the front door.
     Once the hubbub died down and everyone made sure I was okay, I put the table back in place and gathered the champagne and cups. I half expected to see a piece of the donkey laying around, but he’d managed to get all of himself out of the club. You never know what you’re gonna run into in this line of work. Though I’d encountered even more outrageous things before, this misadventure would surely become part of club lore and be retold over and over. I sat down and laughed, which then turned into a long sob.
     Since I’d been working at the club for several years, Lola decided to occasionally have me close, which basically means I’m the last one to leave and have to set the alarm and lock the doors. I don’t mind since, unlike a lot of girls, I never go home before the end of a shift. Always hustling.
     She pays me fifty dollars cash each time, and that’s not a bad little bonus for hardly any extra work. In the morning, a cleanup crew would scour the club from top to bottom, and the daytime manager would deal with tonight’s paperwork and money. I just had to slip the receipts and cash into the safe’s slot.
     My plan was to write a note to my girls about how sorry I was and how I was going to go to therapy to straighten out my shit. I’d put it in Feloni’s locker with instructions to read it and pass it on to Valentina. In this situation, a text just felt so cold, so inadequate. Hopefully Feloni’s vacay wouldn’t be a long one.
     I scrounged up some paper, tracked down a pen, and poured my heart out to my former besties. After four crumpled sheets, I was as close as I was going to get to the apology I wanted. By the time I finished, it was almost 3:15, everybody else was long gone, and I was dragging ass tired. The past twenty-four hours had been exhausting. I kissed the note and squeezed it through the door opening into Feloni’s locker. I’ve got OCD, so I checked a couple times to make sure the paper was fully inserted and a little piece didn’t still hang out.
     As I entered the office to set the alarm, the sound of my Feloni ringtone pierced the silence, scaring the shit out of me. I took my phone out of my pocket and looked down. Fuck… I wasn’t expecting this now. The conversation I’d practiced in my head all day was nowhere to be found. The phone continued to ring. Dammit. Should I answer now? I almost let it go to voicemail but at the last second picked up.
     Before she had a chance to say a word, I started blurting. “I’m so sorry, Feloni. I’m so stupid. We were so drunk, but nothing really happened. I’m going to therapy. Please forgive me. I’m such a bitch.” I almost paused to let her talk but couldn’t bear to hear what she had to say. “Um, I’m just about to lock up. I’ll call when I get in my car. Okay, girl?” That would at least give me a little time to regroup and get my head straight.
     “Okay. Talk soon,” she said and hung up.
     Was I imagining it, or did she sound less irate than I thought she’d be? I let it sink in for a moment… You know what? Thank God for her call. Let’s get this out in the open right now. Feloni first. And hopefully Valentina tomorrow. One step at a time. I said a prayer. Maybe there was a glimmer of hope. I slung my purse over my shoulder and grabbed my duffel bag—which was heavier than usual because the unopened Cristal was coming home with me. After activating the alarm, I was out the back door.
     Unlike a lot of strip clubs, Lola’s is in a nice area of town. And I always park as close as I can get. My car wasn’t far. After removing my key from the door, I started walking fast with a can of this special stuff Vox said is like fifty times more powerful than bear mace.
     A strange wind appeared from nowhere, blowing with such force that I almost lost my balance. That was weir—Something was next to me, so close it was a part of me. Hot breath caressed my neck and a seductive voice whispered, “So fucking hot.”
     My head was tilted to the side. There was nothing I could do. I didn’t know what was happening, only that I was powerless to get away. I didn’t even know if I wanted to. The stars looked down on me with sympathy, but the moon was huge and judging. My neck felt wet. I heard the whisper again. This time it liquified and was injected into me. It didn’t burn. There was no pain. It just took over. I let go completely. Whatever strength I had left seeped out of me. The stars watched helplessly while the moon smirked. I wondered how long it was going to be until Feloni found my n—



     “It’s okay. I blame CashMoney, not you. She’s always had a thing for you and took advantage of the situation.”
     Mi Latina’s ponytail swayed side-to-side as the rest of her bounced up and down. Her flawless skin was flushed with equal parts forgiveness and desire. A tiny bead of sweat glistened on her upper lip. “I worship you, my love cobra. Just lay back and relax so mami can finish milking your throbbing fang.”
     As I gazed into her eyes, drunk with joy, Valentina’s neck swallowed her face. Like a balloon, another face blew back up to replace it. Gilligan from the old TV show Gilligan’s Island, wearing a nose ring and red lipstick, flicked his forked tongue at me and launched into song about the fateful trip of the tiny ship. His tongue morphed into an eel’s head, its jaws snapping at the air. “Papi Vox!” it roared, slithering towards me.
     The feeling of an icy spike being driven down my spine caused me to awaken in terror. My bowels turned to water and I shit myself. On the nightstand, my phone glowed and vibrated. The show’s theme song launched into its second verse.
     I sat up and leaned over, dumbly staring at the screen. After my ringtone continued for another line or two, the fog began to clear. It was just a dream. A fucking nightmare, to be precise. And someone was calling me at… 3:56 in the morning? Picking up the phone, I squinted at the blurry name. My mind still hadn’t completely roused itself. After another second, it came into focus. Feloni? What the hell did she want at this ungodly hour?
     I robotically answered. “Hello,” I heard myself say.
     She garbled so fast that I couldn’t comprehend a thing.
     Instantly, I forgot my nightmare. Lucidity returned.
     “Feloni,” I soothed. “Slow down and breathe for a second. And then slowly tell me what’s wrong.”
     She let out a wail before partially getting hold of herself.
     “C-c-come to the Emporium as fast as you can,” she managed to say coherently enough for me to understand. “CashMoney has been attacked by a vampyre. And it looks really bad, Vox.”
     Her last two sentences hit me like a club to the face. “Call Maria and get CashMoney over to her house as fast as you can,” I directed. I’m sure Feloni knew what to do but was so frazzled by what she’d seen that she needed guidance.
     “Don’t be reckless, though. Hands-free talking, please. You getting into a wreck won’t help the situation. I’ll meet you there. Call Valentina too. She’s probably got my number blocked. Phone me back after you’ve talked to them. I need details.”
     I hung up, allowed myself a brief fit of enraged cussing, then flipped on the bedroom light. My Albert Pujols-autographed baseball bat beckoned to me from a corner. It knew I wanted to break shit. I started that way, but sanity whistled me to a stop. Time was of the essence; people needed me. While Florida is well known for hurricanes, I had a seriously bad feeling a different kind of Category 5 trouble was barreling towards Tampa Bay.

Chapter 7


     After quickly cleaning up with wet wipes and throwing on some clothes, I hauled ass through the park, sending gravel flying.
     Feloni rang back. Although she was still semi-hysterical, I got the general gist. According to her, CashMoney had closing duties and was the last one out of the Emporium. Earlier that day, Valentina had told Feloni about CashMoney and me. At Valentina’s insistence, Feloni had stayed mum all day. However, she’d reached her limit and phoned as CashMoney was about to lock up.
     CashMoney said she was going to call back as soon as she got in her car. Two minutes went by. Then five. Then ten. Feloni called and texted, but there was no response. Her anger having turned to worry, she drove to the club. As she turned into the back parking lot, her headlights had revealed CashMoney lying on the ground.  
     Feloni is a vampyre herself, which is why she was able to recognize the source and the severity of the attack. Not only was a vampyre unquestionably responsible, but the neon pink rings encircling the puncture marks meant the assailant was a vöspyrnatu, a particularly insidious type of bloodsucker. Common vamps leave maroon rings. In either case, the telltale colorings don’t last long. CashMoney’s had faded soon after Feloni found her.
     A hospital would’ve been worthless because, unsurprisingly, nattie doctors are powerless to diagnose or treat those with supernatural injuries. The only supernattie who could possibly save CashMoney would be a powerful witch. And the only one of sufficient caliber close enough to render aid was Maria del Dolor—”Maria of the Pain.”
     Since the city wouldn’t begin stirring for almost two hours, traffic going to Maria’s home in South Tampa would be almost nonexistent. By my calculations, it’d take Feloni only around five to seven minutes to get there. For Valentina, about the same. I wouldn’t be far behind them. Feloni said Johnny was still in Crystal River at his sister’s. We decided the best course of action for now was to just let him sleep. Not only would it take him over an hour to arrive, there wasn’t much he could do anyway.
     Maria’s street ends in a cul-de-sac carved out of the middle of several acres of pine trees. Near MacDill Ave, it might be the last remaining undeveloped, wooded stretch in that area of the city. Hers is one of only two houses on the circle. As I skidded to a stop in front of her place, I could tell by the cars that everybody else had already arrived. I dashed to the door, quietly slipping inside. Nobody paid me any mind. Everyone’s attention was squarely on CashMoney, who lay on her back on a massage table.
     Maria is nearly two hundred years old but doesn’t look much over sixty. Her hair is Coolio meets Dennis Rodman. Braids stuck up everywhere like a spider in rigor mortis. You never know what color they’ll be; today was rainbow day. She knows both CashMoney and Feloni well but only ever calls them by their real names—Cassandra and Felicity.
     Donning her witch’s cloak, she stood at the head of the table with eyes closed and fingertips lightly pressed against CashMoney’s forehead. She chanted softly in rapid, unintelligible whispers. Valentina, sightless eyes staring at the ceiling, stood at Maria’s left side in a supporting role, grasping her grandmother’s forearm. Instead of chanting, her voice bubbled up in lilting, layered melodies. Pedestals ringed the table. Each bore a translucent candle in the shape of a forearm topped by a fist. Some fists grasped a crescent moon, while others clenched a star. Their flames rippled in rhythm to Valentina’s wiccan song. Feloni sat in a corner, consumed with worry, chewing on her manicured fingernails. I didn’t offer my two cents; healing is a witch’s domain. Trying not to get in the way, I stood in a corner.
     The minutes ticked by. I suppose I was partially hypnotized by the proceedings. Without warning, Maria’s head swiftly whirled around. Her eyes, the color of a lioness’s, burned with intensity as they locked on mine. I hadn’t even been sure she knew I was there. I’m not gonna lie—for an instant, I trembled like a baby gazelle.
     She pointed to a table several feet to my left. “Vox, grab that vase, throw out the tulips, and get over here. Rápido. We’re losing her.” Her attention shifted to Feloni. “Felicity, grab a pitcher of water from the kitchen.”
     My biological father was nowhere to be found during my childhood. A shitty stepfather was on the scene for a number of years but had no power in the family structure. In fact, our extended families on both sides could be described as matriarchies. Females mostly ruled the roost, and we were better off for it.
     As a result, I’m no stranger to strong women—mom, grandmothers, sisters, and aunts—telling me what to do. I had the utmost respect for Maria to begin with, but the whip of her voice peeled back the years. I was an adolescent again, springing into action even before I knew what I was doing. Quick as a barracuda, the vase and I were there, awaiting further instructions.
     “Filter the makana out of the water and pump it into Valentina. Look at my aquamarine gemstone bracelet. Become that color. Blank your mind of everything else. Now. Do it now.”
     I did as ordered. Standing close to Valentina and with a hand hovering over the vase, I immersed myself so deeply that a heatwave of the color escaped my skin. Though I feared for mi amor’s safety as a conduit, I trusted Maria. Once the makana rose out of the water in crystallized wisps, I coalesced it, sending the tendril surging into Valentina’s mouth. Turning to me, she screamed as if in the throes of a thunderous orgasm. The candle flames turned blue-green, shooting nearly to the ceiling, causing the room to glow.
     The shadows on the walls and ceiling crashed like waves in a violent sea. Valentina’s eyes flew open. They’d transmuted into solid, aquamarine spheres.
     Maria herself started shaking, arms vibrating like she held on to a jackhammer. Her chants shifted to a humming, then gradually to a buzzing. Louder and louder until the din of a hundred colonies of bees swarmed our ears.
     I sensed that nearly all the inherent makana of the water had been filtered out. “Feloni,” I gasped, “switch out the vase for the pitcher, then refill the vase.”
     She was a one-woman NASCAR pit crew, refueling me and returning in a snap with a fresh back-up. As the seconds ticked by, my energy steadily drained. I didn’t know how much more I could take. The room dimmed as my eyesight began to conk out.
     “Felicity!” Maria shouted over the cacophony. “We need more horsepower. Drop Vox’s pants and fang up. On my mark, sink them into his inner thigh, halfway up.”
     What? Did I hear her correctly, or were my ears going as well? I’m far from an expert regarding witchy matters, but was this standard operating procedure? Was this a certified best practice? Apparently, my pit crew was going to gas me up too.
     Zip. Feloni tugged my pants to my ankles. I could sense her down there, poised like a viper ready to strike. I tried to mentally prepare myself for getting skewered. Long seconds of excruciating anticipation crawled by. Then the buzzing abruptly ceased. The only sound in the room was our labored breathing. My vision cleared, but I felt drunk. I pleadingly looked at Maria, desperate for good news, though part of me could already sense the outcome. She just sadly shook her head.
     “Felicity,” Maria said in a voice choked with sorrow. “Never mind. It’s over. We couldn’t save her.”
     I helped Feloni to her feet. Fearing she’d fall, I steadied her with a hand. Valentina’s eyes had returned from wherever they’d been. Both their faces were haunted with despair and incredulity. The women rushed to each other, embracing and sobbing, their shoulders shaking in racking heaves.
     “Vox,” Maria said. I turned to her, blinking to reset my head and hold back my own tears. She raised her eyebrows and pointed below my waist. Not fully understanding, I looked down and… there was my dick. In my haste to leave, I’d forgotten to put on underwear. Sure, I’d left my fly open before, but this was a first. I sheepishly pulled my pants up.
     She gestured to the opposite side of the room, mouthing “kitchen.”


     Maria directed me to sit at a small kitchen table as she poured us two glasses of what appeared to be a pungent-smelling iced tea. She removed her cloak. Its amber brooch denoted her status as a Madam Domina, one of the most esteemed ranks in the witchy world. As a comparison—though it’s a far different organization—in the Catholic Church hierarchy, a Cardinal would be roughly her equivalent.
     “You really pack a punch,” Maria said, wearily sinking down in the other chair. She looked at me with eyes the same color as the brooch. Valentina’s eyes would someday change from brown to that exact shade of amber.
     Pack a punch? At first, I was confused as to her meaning. Surely she couldn’t be talking about my peek-a-boo penis show, right?
     “Your external water powers,” she clarified, noticing I was still a little loopy from the ordeal. “I’ve never linked up with you before. I did with Willard a few times over the years. Your predecessor couldn’t filter the makana out of water nearly as well as you can.
     “He had mastery of his internals, quite naturally, but a kahuna’s raw makana is too concentrated, too difficult to modulate to use for healing purposes. You’re still unrefined, still not entirely efficient, but you’ve definitely got potential, muchacho.”
     I could tell she was using small talk to regroup, to add a little distance so the tragedy was a trifle less fresh in our minds.
     “Gracias,” I said, pleased at the compliment but still kind of embarrassed she’d noticed I wasn’t a finished product—a fact I knew all too well. “I tried my best. Even though I only recently got my Surge, I don’t have any control over my internal powers yet. So I couldn’t have added my own makana even if you’d needed it. But I’m not too bad at external extraction. Valentina is really progressing. And her ability to alchemize makana into wiccana never ceases to amaze me.”
     No being I’ve ever heard of, kahuna or otherwise, can ingest makana. A kahuna can only produce it internally, via their makanacrine. We can’t absorb it from any outside source, whether that’s the makana from water, from another kahuna, or even our own makana if it was possible to store it outside our body—like, say, in the same way blood can be stocked and transfused.
     Mi Boricua can, though. True, she can’t get the makana out of water by herself or make it, but she can somehow receive my pure makana into her body and turn it into her native witch energy.
     We’d discovered that while banging. When a kahuna is fucking, whether they’re male or female, some makana is emitted in their sex juice and through their skin. But their partner can’t do anything with it. It just fades away.
     After much, uh, study and experimentation on the matter, it had become apparent Valentina could somehow absorb my makana… and transform it for her own purposes. We’ve been reaping the rewards ever since. Not only is having sex with Valentina indescribably pleasurable, the makana in my semen is like a superfood for her.
     “Absolutamente. Val will be my successor one day. A witch to be reckoned with if she keeps her head on straight.” From the way Maria looked at me, it felt like she might be referring to Valentina’s romantic choices.
     While I was grateful for the time-out, it only postponed the inevitable. Every thought led back to CashMoney. Not only was she one of Valentina’s best friends, I was also pretty close to her. In my life, I’ve found few people to be truly interesting. CashMoney had been squarely on the list. She had her own style, did things her own way, and that’s a rare thing in a world where the average person is little more than a sheep doing their shepherd’s bidding.
     A fresh wave of grief crashed over me when I realized I was thinking about her in the past tense. Extreme anger and loss roiled underneath, and I would face that later. On the surface, I just felt numb. Still, while I had the chance, I needed the answers to a few questions.
     “So what happened back there, Maria? Why couldn’t we save her?”
     She sighed heavily, looking off into the distance. Exhaustion was evident in her eyes. As much as I’d expended, I’m sure it paled in comparison to her efforts.
     “The amount of vöspyrnatu venom injected into Cassandra was enough to kill an elephant four times over. It’s preposterous how much she had in her system. We got a lot closer to saving her than I thought we would. Adding you was a shot in the dark to see if we could pull off a miracle and burn off the venom through sheer force. We pumped so much energy into her that she almost certainly wouldn’t have survived, even if we’d managed to neutralize all of it. Like I say, it was a last-ditch effort.” She took a drink of her tea and absently rubbed an earlobe.
     “Feloni told you it was a vöspy attack?”
     “Si, but it was obvious. Some people think all witches do is heal, but we have to be experts at anything to do with auras. Even though the neon pink rings from a vöspyrnatu attack disappear quickly, the bodily aura of the victim also turns pink and stays that way until they’ve been healed. Or, uh…” She closed her eyes. “… until they pass away because we couldn’t save them.”
     I shook my head. It didn’t make sense. Why would a vöspyrnatu deplete its venom sacs like that? Vöspies are known to hoard their venom like gold. Generating the stuff is a slow process. It’d probably require close to half a decade to replace the amount Maria said was injected into CashMoney. A vöspy would have to be brain-dead to waste its most powerful weapon on eliminating an ordinary nattie. Another question came to mind. “Why did you tell Feloni to get ready to bite my inner thigh?”
     “Oh,” she said, sounding surprised. “That’s the most effective way for a vampyre to inject. Or extract, as the case may be. It’s about twenty-five percent more efficient than via the neck. I thought you’d know that. Are you aware vampyres can temporarily elevate the life forces of all supernatural creatures?”
     “Yeah, I know about their version of a nitrous boost. They inject you with their own blood through their hollow fangs. But the cranked-up thigh delivery system is a new one on me.” The longer the conversation continued, the more inadequate I felt. “I assume you were completely sure Feloni wouldn’t start feeding on me?” I asked the question in a joke-that-wasn’t-totally-a-joke way.
     “Ciertamente. Val told me that Felicity, when she’s forced to drink blood, only does so on rats. And even then only drains a little out of them to ensure their survival. She wouldn’t have hurt you for the world.” She winked at me. “Valentina on the other hand…”
     “Oh, I know. Feloni’s a total sweetheart and has great control over her bloodlust. I just didn’t know how well you knew that.” I added a dismissive wave and ignored her last few words. “Also, I’ve never been bitten by a vamp… especially down there. I wasn’t exactly looking forward to it.”
     “Trust me, it’s never bueno being fanged.” She looked me in the eye with an expression nearly as serious as when she’d summoned me from the corner. “I hope you never experience the bite of a vormog.” She moved her dreads out of the way. Two black circles marked her neck. “I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. Their rings don’t fade.”
     We finished our drinks and went back to the living room. The women huddled on the couch, still immersed in their terrible grief. Maria gently led her granddaughter off to the side and hugged her, stroking her hair and speaking quietly.
     After a brief conversation, Valentina went into the kitchen. I sat beside Feloni, taking her hand in mine. She looked up, her eyes red and puffy. “Why, Vox?” she asked in a barely audible whisper. “Why would anyone want to hurt CashMoney?” It was a question I had no answer to. I tried to comfort her as best I could, although I doubt I was of much help. For now, she needed rest. We all did. Everyone was thoroughly shot.
     Maria returned to the couch and placed her hand on Feloni’s back. “Go to the guest room, niña. Get what sleep you can. There’s nothing we can do right now. Val’s making you both a special brew that’ll help you relax.” Feloni just nodded in compliance and ambled off towards the bedrooms.
     I walked over to say goodbye to CashMoney, knowing that meant I’d be accepting her death whether I wanted to or not. My legs fought me every step of the way. With a blanket pulled up to her shoulders, she looked to be peacefully sleeping… except for the puncture wounds on her neck. I covered them with her hair.
     I tried to mentally will her eyelids open, then tried to bring the corners of her mouth up into a smile, then tried to force her chest to rise. Conjuring up a time machine, I went back to just before CashMoney exited the club. Like always, the past refused to change.
     Bending down, I kissed her on the forehead. “You rest easy,” I whispered, fighting to keep it together. “We’ll all see you again in another life, my friend. As for this one, don’t you worry. I’ll destroy whoever and whatever it takes to avenge you. I promise.”
     When I turned back, Maria’s eyes were filled with profound sympathy. “Vox, you’re welcome to stay. There’s a Murphy bed in the workout room.”
     “Thanks, but I need to go by the club right away and see what clues are to be had.”
     “As you wish. After we’ve all recovered some of our strength, the girls and I will figure out what to do next regarding Cassandra. Felicity will most likely need to go over and talk to her kin. You be safe driving, por favor.”
     We hugged and I motioned to the kitchen. “I’m just gonna say goodbye to Valentina before I head out.” The look she gave me seemed to acknowledge both my courage and foolishness.
     We hadn’t talked since the Mirror Fiasco, which, though only slightly more than a day ago, felt like a month. Valentina stirred a simmering pot of herbs. Upon noticing my entrance, she selected a lemon from a basket. This wouldn’t go well; I only hoped it didn’t turn out to be a catastrophe. A lot of emotions were at play, and she’d be as unpredictable as a black mamba. I stood over by the table. Best to keep my distance.
     “I’m, uh, gonna go by the Emporium to see what I can find out. I’m so extremely sorry about CashMoney.”
     “I bet you are.” She smiled humorlessly and reached into the nearest drawer, grabbing a chef’s knife. “I’m sure you’re devastated you won’t have your new fuck friend anymore.”
     “Nothing happened, Valentina,” I meekly offered.
     “Naked in bed but nothing happened. Yes, I see.” She threw her hands up in the air like a preacher. “It’s a miracle!”
     “Seriously. The Rumple Minz was—”
     Slamming the lemon on the counter, she turned to me with the knife.
     It was a coin flip as to whether I was about to get carved up. She stormed over and got in my face like a drill sergeant. Her cheeks were tear-streaked.
     “You and Rumple Minz. Two fucking idiots, both with an emotional intelligence score of zero!”
     Her hand started forward in a stabbing motion. I closed my eyes, certain I was going to be the next one on the table in need of saving. At the last instant, she turned the knife. The handle butt thumped against my clavicle. The pain was excruciating, radiating out like a mushroom cloud. Somehow I kept my reaction to a small grunt, though my eyes watered up so much I could barely see.
     “I blame you more than I do her. But I don’t want to talk about that right now, you dumb motherfucker.”
     “Neither do I,” I said as demurely as I could, my eyes averted at the floor. “I’m just saying that nothing happened between us.”
     “Whatever. Oh, and don’t think I didn’t notice you don’t have underwear on,” she said, punctuated by a thud on the other clavicle. My knees buckled. “Were you just interrupted with another girl in your bed?”
     It was crystal clear that directly addressing CashMoney’s murder was too painful for Valentina, and my alleged bedroom escapades were instead being used as a substitute. While I knew she was royally pissed off about what she thought we’d done, in the grand scheme of her anger, it was nothing compared to her rage at what had befallen one of her soul sisters. She needed to vent to keep from losing her mind. I just hoped I survived the proceedings.
     “Of course not, V,” I tried to explain, one hand raised and the other rubbing my aching collarbone—which now felt like twin Clydesdales had kicked it. “I wore pajamas to bed as usual since, as you know, my waterbed sucks out body heat. In the commotion, I forgot to put on underwear. Maria telling Feloni to impale my leg was the last thing I expected to happen. I’m so devastated and sorry, baby. For everything.”
     She sneered. “More sorries. And yet, within a handful of hours, both of my best friends have had your balls in their faces.”
     I put up a hand to correct her that my balls hadn’t gotten anywhere near CashMoney’s face, but she cut me off before I could utter a word.
     “All of which, while obviously unforgivable, is totally unimportant right now. I don’t want to hear any more of your bullshit apologies. I’m sure you want to know the word of the day. Today you get three, Vox: Broken. Up. Forever.”
     She was so irate that a few spit-bombs struck me. They were most likely inadvertent, although I couldn’t be sure.
     “If you want to ‘make it up to me,'” she said, air-quoting with her fingers, “then catch whoever did this and kill them. Inflict as much pain as you can.” She rapped me on the forehead like she was tasering a moose. “It’s your responsibility!”

Chapter 8


     It wasn’t until after 10:30 a.m. that I succeeded in dragging my sleep-deprived carcass out of bed. I enjoyed a fortifying breakfast of sage sausage gravy over buttermilk biscuits with crispy fried eggs—the latter provided by Henrietta, one of my chickens I’d built a special enclosure for over by the bamboo forest on the north side of the property.
     The meal helped kick-start me, but I could also feel some of the bottled-up anger at CashMoney’s murder demanding to be recognized. While that was understandable, I had to keep a cool head and not let emotion cloud my thinking. Which is never easy for me.
     My natural inclination in the coming hours and days would be to prematurely plunge into action without the benefit of a well-thought-out strategy and all the facts. Despite that, I had to put my analytical detective hat on. You don’t see Columbo or Jethro Gibbs go off all half-cocked, do you? Careening off the rails into rage was the last thing anyone needed right now. The only way I know to stay sane when my fury monster is begging to be let loose is to find what humor, dark or otherwise, I can in a situation. It helps me mostly abstain from giving into my godforsaken temper. For me, the only antidote to caring too much is to act like I don’t care enough.
     I made phone calls to Chuck and my insurance company to get the ball rolling on that front. Another one to Bart found him down in the dumps, but he assured me his sister was taking good care of him. After taking care of a few other odds and ends, I was on the back porch in my swing chair with a frozen piña colada in hand by noon. The coconut cream was canned, but the pineapple juice was fresh-squeezed. The hypnotic beats of Buju Banton, reggae man extraordinaire, played in the background.
     The other carcass laying around was the grouper. Its bones were picked clean. Even the cheeks and eyeballs had been eaten. The desecrator himself was nowhere to be seen. Which was a good thing because, as mysteries went, I had bigger fish to fry than those presented by a cat.
     After leaving Maria’s, I’d stopped by the Emporium, but there were no clues of note to be discovered. Just CashMoney’s Maxima in an otherwise deserted parking lot. I checked all the building’s exterior doors and talked with the gargoyles. They weren’t aware of what had transpired, which meant the culprit hadn’t tried to enter my office.
     While there, I dialed Lola to fill her in. High-strung to begin with, she took the news as hysterically as I suspected she would. She agreed with my suggestion to close the club until further notice. The surveillance tapes she accessed and forwarded to me were inconclusive. All I could tell was, almost as soon as CashMoney started walking to her car, a figure appeared seemingly out of nowhere and attacked. Neither the camera nor the lot lighting was bad, but the murderer had been wearing a hood. His face, assuming it was a he, had been well-cloaked. There’d be no identifying a suspect from the footage.
     During my shower, Starr Gaffney had called and left a message saying she urgently needed to meet. Truth be told, contacting her was already on my list of things to do; I needed to inform her about CashMoney. When I tried her back, the call went to voicemail. I let her know I’d hook up with her at Bay Prime, our usual spot, in the afternoon.
     I also spoke to Johnny, telling him he might as well stay in Crystal River for now. With any luck, I could gather some decent intel so we could get a plan together when he came over late morning the next day.
     Slowly sipping the colada, I let my mind wander. The only thing I knew for sure was that the assailant was a vöspyrnatu, and those are exceedingly rare vampyres. Every once in a while, you hear rumors of one lurking around. However, I wasn’t aware of any currently in the Bay area.
     I’ve had my run-ins with vamps before, but they’re usually pretty good at policing themselves. For the most part, they do their best to keep off the radar. Despite what many people think, vampyres aren’t required to drink blood daily and can easily sustain themselves solely on animals. Unlike vöspies, regular vampyres don’t have venom. I’m not saying there aren’t any assholes among the bunch, but attacks on others are uncommon… and murders rarer still.
     While all vamps have better-than-average strength, speed, sight, and hearing at night and can roam around freely during the day, some also have enhanced physical abilities during light hours. You may have heard vampyres are “dead.” Not true. They have a life-force; it’s just on a different frequency. Another common myth is they can turn natties into fellow vamps. Don’t believe everything you hear. They’re simply a separate race of beings who had a genesis event and forked from humans long ago. Vamps beget little vamps. Which they accomplish by doing the nasty, just like everybody else.
     As for Feloni, other than having daytime powers, she’s physically nothing special for a vampyre. But she does possess a special skill that’s immensely valuable. She’s a Persuader too. She can look you in your eyes and convince you what you thought had happened was bullshit, instead planting her own narrative. Think about that. You could really fuck some shit up if you wanted to. No telling what kind of tomfoolery, hijinks, and horseplay I would get into with an ability like that. Feloni had called while I was eating to let me know she was on her way to see CashMoney’s parents—to inform them that their daughter had joined the Red Cross and was touring around the world, helping to feed the hungry.
     Because Feloni was the one to discover CashMoney, the police hadn’t been involved at all. However, unless Starr’s call was merely a coincidence, maybe she somehow had some knowledge of the murder. Regardless, with no physical clues at the scene to go on, my most promising course of action would be to track down Duncan Panther, a local gangster with his ears close to the ground. If anybody knew of some shady shit going down, it’d be Duncan, though he wouldn’t be available until early evening.
     With no opportunity to make any progress until later in the day, what my broke-bitch self needed to concentrate on right now was collecting the money Mrs. McGillicuddy owed me. Yesterday’s jobs had definitely helped, but it was already January and taxes would soon be due. In the game of life, there’s always a piper knocking on your door, demanding to be paid.
     You may be wondering why kahunas have to worry about money so much. Unlike the movies, where superheroes kick ass without the onus of financial responsibilities, a kahuna has to foot the bill for almost everything. We’re expected to protect our assigned territory on our own dime. While I get free rent—and some cool kahuna toys to use when needed—all other expenses I have to pay for out of pocket.
     What about the lost time working when I’m on kahuna business? Can I just turn in an invoice and get reimbursed? Hell no. Travel costs? Fuck off, Vox. Not only do I have to protect the western half of Florida from supernattie baddies, I have to do it while working my ass off. Could you imagine getting home from your job as a baker or construction worker and, instead of kicking your feet up in your Lazy-Boy, you had to run around trying to vanquish a vöspy? Hmmm, should I protect Eddie Everyman from this pack of demons, or should I go fix an ice maker line because I need to eat and keep the lights on? Do you see the dilemma? The shit’s ridiculous. The Kahuna Council can lick my hairy asshole. Cheap SOBs. All of us kahunas without fat bank accounts bitch about it… and rightfully so. But there isn’t a damn thing we can do.
     The postman had come and gone half an hour earlier and the check was not in the mail as Mrs. McGillicuddy had promised. A phone call to her went unanswered. Which further riled me up since I knew that, as an accounts payable clerk, she mainly just sits on her giant, lumpy butt all day. I gagged in memory of the several days I’d worked at her house. When she walks, her ass looks like a school of feeding trout boiling at the surface. All that bulging cellulite brought into 8K resolution by her omnipresent, skin-tight Lycra workout leggings, which clearly have never seen a drop of sweat.
     She’d probably looked at her Caller ID and enjoyed a lengthy guffaw. Push had come to shove. She was dodging me and I needed that $4937. I finished up the last of my drink and headed to the van with my game face on.



     Mrs. McGillicuddy lives in Safety Harbor over on the Pinellas County side of the bay. Pinellas is made up of a peninsula and an adjacent strip of beaches running along its west side. Everybody’s packed in like kippered herring, and it has the highest population density of any county in Florida. The undeniably gorgeous beaches front the Gulf of Mexico and are some of the most coveted land anywhere in the state. Unlike Hillsborough, where Tampa is the head honcho, Pinellas has two dozen different municipalities, and most people are fiercely proud of their little kingdoms. This despite the fact there are no appreciable differences between most of them.
You can drive from where the county starts at the Skyway Bridge, motor north all the way into Pasco County, and supposedly pass through a number of different towns. I’m not buying it. Pinellas is really just one vast fish bowl. Of course, there are almost always exceptions to a rule, and Safety Harbor is one of them.
     Right off bustling McMullen Booth Rd but seemingly a world away, Safety Harbor is a waterfront town in the extreme northwestern corner of the Bay. It moves at a relaxed rhythm, with quaint shops, locally owned restaurants, nature parks, and frequent community events in the little downtown section. When I’m in the area and my stomach’s growling, I usually stop by Gigglewaters and get a burger called The Commissioner. Wagyu beef, gouda, thick bacon, onion tanglers, and a pearl sugar waffle, drizzled with cookie butter. It’s as deliciously decadent as it sounds.
     During my Safety Harbor visit, while I would’ve loved to ravage one under a shady oak at nearby Tocobaga Indian Mound in Philippe Park—surely one of the most picturesque spots in all of Florida—leisure wasn’t on the menu today. I was embarking on a commando raid and anonymity and stealth were of paramount importance.
     I took the magnetic company sign off my van, climbed aboard, and pushed in the cigarette lighter. Though the modified lighter does a piss-poor job at its originally intended function, it more importantly serves to rotate my license plate out of the way, replacing it with a fake one. Now I was even less identifiable than all the other ham-and-eggers on the road.
     I drove west on Tampa Road, past Oldsmar, and turned left on State Road 580. Within a few miles, I swung onto Philippe Pkwy, which snakes around the perimeter of the five-square-mile burg.
     My plan was simple: if she wasn’t gonna pay me, then her new plumbing was going bye-bye. Two minutes and a couple of turns later, I pulled into the narrow, hidden alleyway behind her house.
     Technically speaking, once you install plumbing, you can’t take it back because the customer hasn’t settled up with you. You’re supposed to fight it out in the courts, file a morass of paperwork, and somehow deal with all the legal headaches without completely losing your mind. Yeah, good luck with that.
     She’d put me in a bad spot. What was I supposed to do? “Sorry, electric company, I’m short this month since Mrs. McGillicuddy owes me money. My apologies, Ford. Life’s a bitch and shit rolls downhill, which means I can’t send you my van payment.”
     Plan B sounded like a better option to me. Illegal but certainly more righteous in the eyes of God. I wasn’t even breaking in if you thought about it. At the beginning of the job, the lady told me she keeps a key under a gnome for the side garage door, instructing me to use it if I returned from a parts run to find she’d briefly stepped out. She’s got an army of the little fuckers, all facing the walkway, their beady eyes glaring at you with disapproval.
     I could tell that Archibald Gnomenstag, a raised sword in his ceramic hand, ached to gut me, but that didn’t stop me from effortlessly stealing his treasure. Only one obstacle remained: Mrs. McGillicuddy’s tyrannical parrot. “It ain’t nothing but a thang,” I boasted to Archibald, holding up my secret weapon for him to see. He just scowled in silence.
     Part of the job had entailed mounting a tankless water heater on the garage’s opposite wall, next to the entryway leading into the house. She’d removed that door to give the parrot more airspace. Instead of using the area for parking, she’d added a portable A/C unit and transformed it into a workout room—with a treadmill, exercise bike, rowing machine, home gym, and various other equipment. Nice setup, if she’d ever actually used it.
     During my work, I’d gone in and out of that same side garage door when I’d needed something from the van. In every instance, the parrot had immediately launched into the air from the far end of the house. He’d fly across the living room and through the kitchen at breakneck speed before making a hard left past the refrigerator and swooping into the garage. As if to see what pitiful creature was foolish enough to enter his lair. Today I was going to use that last blind stretch of his to my advantage.
     The bird had never directly attacked me. Instead, he’d flapped around each time in a show of machismo before returning. I attributed his lack of physical confrontation to Mrs. McGillicuddy’s presence. Since I hadn’t needed to use the key, the psycho and I had never been alone together. There’d been some jawing, though. We’d exchanged more than a few taunts. I had a strong feeling this time he’d be taking off the gloves.
     Sneaking in quietly was out of the question thanks to the damn door squeaking. By my estimation, I had no more than five seconds to enter, run over to the opening leading into the house, and situate my secret weapon—a deep-sea fishing hand net.
     Most hand nets are twelve to eighteen inches in diameter, but this one was built for the leviathans who cruise miles out in deeper water. After the battle, the fish is at the surface, tired as hell, and you reach over the side and scoop him up. Almost three feet wide with a titanium-reinforced handle, I was confident it could handle a piranha, much less a parrot—no matter how vicious the latter. Though we despised each other, my goal was to contain the bird without injuring either of us.
     Even with the jumbo diameter of the net, it still wouldn’t cover to the top of the door. But every time I’d seen the fiend fly into the room, he’d come in high, at face level. Hopefully, he wouldn’t deviate too much from his preferred flight altitude and enter low.
     Lighting wouldn’t be a problem, even if the op had been at night. The lady keeps every light in the house burning twenty-four seven “because he likes it that way.” The way he struts around, the parrot is fully aware he’s the man of the house. Actually, it wouldn’t shock me to find out he also mounts that lumpy butt of hers on the regular. She’d ceded that much control to him.
     As I went over my mental checklist and visualized each step, it dawned on me that the bastard might not even be on his perch. What if he was somewhere closer to the garage… or actually in it, God forbid? My carefully laid out plan could very well end in disaster before it began. In that case, I’d have to try to net him out of the air with the element of surprise gone. Unfortunately, there was no way to know.
     In went the key, as quiet as midnight. Deep breath and… action. In one fluid movement, I turned the handle and pushed the door open and clear.
     Squeak went the door. Squawk! came a cry from inside the house.
     I started across the concrete floor. Two steps in, my foot slipped on a chew toy belonging to her Yorkies. I almost went down before windmilling to regain my balance. Critical time was wasted; it was going to come down to the wire.
     I could hear his wings pumping as I reached the entryway into the house. With both hands, I frantically thrust the net into position. Sweeping around the refrigerator came a blur of blue, red, and green. The parrot screamed in dismay when he saw what awaited him. To no avail, he frantically tried to put on his air brakes and adjust altitude. I braced for impact. He flew into the net, thoroughly entangling himself in a flurry of feathers and shrieks.
     There’d been two cinder blocks in the garage during the job. One of them I’d used as a makeshift step stool when installing the water heater. Mercifully, neither had been removed. I whirled around in a 180, flipping the net over and placing it flat on the ground. Stepping on the handle, I reached over, picked up the closest block, and replaced my foot with it. Then I darted over to the other side of the garage, retrieved the other one, and set it alongside its brother, further securing the net.
     The sonofabitch was incensed, fruitlessly struggling against his prison, shouting “Fuck you, monsieur plumber!” and other vulgarities at me in Terranean, the language spoken by all land animals. Like our banter before, not only did he speak with a Caribbean French accent, but the damn thing actually threw in some actual French too: “Je vais vous tuer.” I didn’t know what that meant, but it didn’t sound friendly.
     “Sacré bleu!” I whooped. “How does my ass taste, parrot?” I taunted him with twin middle fingers. “Shooting the bird” never felt so good. Now that he was neutralized, it was time to call Mrs. McGillicuddy. What would happen next depended upon if she answered and what her reaction was.
     If she picked up, I’d tell her to wire the money to my account while we were on the line. If she refused to comply, I would hastily cut out the water heater… and, for good measure, rip out the shower pan liner I’d installed. The removal would only take a few minutes. I’d be gone before the cops arrived, and nothing could be proven against me.
     If she didn’t answer, I’d simply remove her plumbing at a less frenetic pace, and she’d come home to find out that being a thieving bitch has consequences.
     Upon arriving in Safety Harbor, the biscuits and gravy had started lightly tapping on my back door. Within the past couple of minutes, however, they’d escalated their urgency to banging. Before calling her, I’d have to drop a deuce. After destroying her master bath toilet with the stinkiest spray-shit of my life, I added insult to injury by not flushing.
     On my way back through the living room, the sound of shaking got my attention. Her dogs huddled together in a corner, cowering in a puddle of piss. Usually, Yorkies are constantly yapping and feigning like they’re tough due to “little guy” complexes. There was no telling what atrocities these POWs had suffered through. “I’m hoping that I broke the monster’s spirit for you,” I told them. “Better yet, the next time she takes you outside, run and don’t look back.”
     Entering the garage, I saw the parrot had his back to me and seemed resigned to his fate. I sat on one of the workout benches, stretched out my legs, and dialed Mrs. McGillicuddy’s cell. At the start of the second ring, a rustling noise made me reflexively glance back over my shoulder. A horror show unfolded before my eyes.
     It turned out the parrot had been busy while I was in the bathroom and had somehow bit through the supposedly unbreakable netting. He pulled himself out like a phoenix reborn. I gasped, wide-eyed and dumbstruck. An instant later, he was free and gave his wings a mighty double-flap, priming himself for revenge. On the third ring, Mrs. McGillicuddy answered. “Please hold on, Vox. Give me just a second.”
     Just after the click of her putting me on hold, the parrot launched himself, talons leading the charge. I threw up my hands in defense and fell off the bench. The phone skidded several feet away. His devil claws sank into my arm and I screamed. I was able to uncork a Roger Federer forehand, which knocked him into the home gym. Instinctively, I looked around for any semblance of aid and grabbed a plush workout towel within arm’s reach.
     The parrot collected himself, preparing for his counter-attack. “Come get some,” I challenged, holding up the towel and flapping it like a matador. Fast as a Florida cow whip, he streaked towards me. Miraculously, I somehow caught the psycho and pinned him to the ground. With my other hand, I stretched out for the phone and corralled it with fumbling fingertips.
     “Vox, do you hear me? I think we have a bad reception.”
     I’m not sure why but I shouted, “I got your bird! I got your bird!” Though the parrot violently squirmed, I was able to keep him immobilized.
     “I’m not sure if you can hear me, but I realized this morning I forgot to send your check. I’m so sorry. Before work, I went to the bank and got cash. I can bring it to you after I get off, or you can stop by and pick it up now if you want. Vox? Can you hear me? Okay, I’ll be here until five o’clock. Bye.”
     I was not expecting that and couldn’t contain a short bark of laughter. It looked like I was going to get my money today, after all. And in cash, to boot. It was such an unexpected turn of events that I must’ve slightly relaxed the hand holding down the parrot. He twisted and wriggled. I looked down at the towel just as his green mohawk emerged.
     The fiend swung his head completely around like Linda Blair in The Exorcist, latching on to the tip of my left lambskin-gloved pinky with his powerful beak. He neatly severed it below the fingernail, flipped the morsel in the air, and swallowed it, leather and all. I screamed like I’d been shot but had enough remaining sense to quickly wrap the towel around my pinky while he licked the remnants of my blood off his beak with undisguised satisfaction.
     Before he had time to bite off anything else, a Ken Rosewall backhand sent him tumbling towards the water heater. I was on my feet in a flash, sprinting towards the door.
     SQUAAWWK! This time it was more of a blood-curdling death-caw. I heard the parrot take flight as I reached for the handle. If I would’ve fumbled getting out, even for a second, at least one of us wouldn’t have survived. But I exited and shut the door behind me a scant moment before he slammed into it, shaking the hinges.
     Trembling with the shock of having a part of myself eaten, I leaned Archibald to the side with my toweled hand and replaced the key. I could’ve sworn he snickered at me.

Chapter 9


     I’m sure it’ll come as no surprise that when I have a windfall of fresh Benjamins in my pocket, I normally make a beeline to the strip club for a mini-celebration. Not that I blow the whole wad or make it rain. But I’m going to give my addiction a snack, let it run around a little, and stretch its legs. Usually. But not today. I had the murder of a friend to solve and justice to dispense. Revenge too. I never understood why revenge is considered morally wrong. “It won’t bring you satisfaction or right the wrong.” Bullshit. I find revenge to be cathartic and restorative.
     Apparently, my hat, sunglasses, gloves, and long-sleeved shirt didn’t hide all the damage her assassin had inflicted upon me because Mrs. McGillicuddy asked if I’d gotten into a fight with a garbage disposal. Hilarious. Everyone’s a comedian.
     I wondered what her reaction would be like when she saw the aftermath of the melee. I’d been wearing gloves, so there’d be no incriminating fingerprints. But I’d watched enough CSI: Miami to know that real-life equivalents of Horatio Caine and his crew might be able to DNA-trace those shit splatters back to me.
     I’d also abandoned the net, though there was nothing linking me to it. Nothing had been stolen, and the only actual damage done was to my finger and my ego. So hopefully she wouldn’t pursue the matter. What damnable luck. Who could have predicted her parrot’s beak would have the bite force of a Nile crocodile and could cut through indestructible netting?
     After collecting the cash at her job in Largo, I drove back to my house to tend to my finger. I wasn’t sure but thought I might be starting to experience Phantom Fingertip Syndrome, assuming such a thing exists. I’m not comparing my situation to people who lose limbs, but not seeing a piece of yourself anymore takes some getting used to. Instead of using the clammy, I max-accelerated the process by pouring some meatboost into a plastic bag and leaving my hand in there to directly soak up the healing goodness, like pork ribs do a dry rub.
     I tried to look on the bright side. A nice manicure now and again is one of my dirty little secrets. By all rights, since I only had nine nails remaining, shouldn’t I receive a ten percent off discount? My mom always said there’s a silver lining somewhere if you think hard enough.
     An hour later, I was back in business, albeit with fractionally less total mass. Instead of viewing my pinky as mutilated, I tried to think of him as a fashionista wearing a shiny leather skull cap.
     Duncan never surfaces before 6:00 p.m., and my meeting with Starr was still an hour and a half away. With time still to kill, I did something I hate but which the van cried out for: a thorough cleaning and organizing. Trying to work out of a disorganized van causes even more pain than hangovers do.
     Every so often, I’ll make a vow—usually after a night of chilled Russian vodka, for some reason—to get my shit together once and for all and become a new and improved being. I’ll spend uncountable hours online and in bookstores doing research, checking reviews, and getting a glorious strategy together. Only the best will do: books by authors with doctorates, organizational software, productivity templates, project management tools, spreadsheets, habit trackers, journals, a shitload of phone apps, you name it. I even bought a dozen egg timers one time. After reading no more than two chapters of each book, I’ll start running out of steam in three or four days. By the end of the week, this attempt at reinventing my life will have joined all the others in the graveyard of buried resolutions. One thing can’t be denied, though: I have assembled seriously impressive self-improvement libraries, both physical and digital.
     Recently I’ve been trying to institute #42 of 99 Awesome Life Hacks and pay more attention to the van so it doesn’t get too jacked up. I’ll admit #42 isn’t exactly a novel concept. My mother’s been unsuccessfully trying to instill consistency in me since I was knee high to a puffin. However, I’m convinced I’m doing better than I used to. A few years ago, the van got so choked with accumulated garbage that a rodent couple moved in and started a family.
     It’d been an unusually cold winter, and Ralph and Lucinda Rattanski had chewed their way in from a rust spot down below. I found them—the whole family, including the newborns—all snuggled up under a hand towel and some newspapers on a rare Florida day when the temperature had dipped below freezing. So cute. Everybody was sleeping with contented smiles. I gently put everything back in place and left that part of the van undisturbed so they could live in peace.
     Over the winter, I would check in on the fam from time to time to say hi. I think they welcomed my visits. Once spring came and the babies were fully grown, they all packed up in search of greener pastures. Hoping they’d return, and in no hurry to clean the van, I left it untouched for another month, but they never came back. Maybe the van had been too chaotic even for them. To this day, when fond memories won’t be denied, I’ll often say a toast to my friends and play “Round and Round.”
     After a better-than-average tidying up, I headed to Bay Prime to hook up with Starr. On the fringes of International Plaza, the restaurant is over a mile from the bay but looks out over a retention pond so huge that gulls and terns like to hang out. After several drinks, you can fool yourself into believing you’re eating at the beach.
     Starr was seated at a table on the deck, engaged in conversation with the chef, Rául. As the mayor of Tampa, she’s a celebrity in town. Even if she wasn’t so well-known, Starr, short for Starling, isn’t a person you can forget. At six feet tall—she insists that she’s five feet twelve—Starr’s only a fraction shorter than I am. And that’s before slipping on heels. She was the first female black mayor elected in a major city in Florida, and Tampa’s damn lucky to have her.
     I walked up and slapped Rául on the back. “Hola, jefe. Cuál es la palabra del día?” Rául is Peruvian, and I practice my Spanish every time I see him. Off the clock, he spends most of his time playing jai alai over at the fronton on Gandy Blvd. In the kitchen, he can do it all but started as a pastry chef and is a genius with sweets. I call him Dessert Daddy. I’m still trying to get him to divulge his recipe for Key Lime pie. It’s comically delicious. But with great taste comes great responsibility. If you’re not careful, you might very well eat the whole pie and slip into a diabetic coma.
     Rául turned. The towering chef’s toque atop his head brought his adjusted height equal to mine. Twinkling eyes sat atop fat cheeks and a mustache so bushy that I couldn’t see his lips. “The word of the day, Señor Vox? How about cuatro words? Seared day boat scallops.”
     Nefertiti’s Vulva! My taste buds reacted with such lust that they took control of my autonomic nervous system and caused me to pump my hips.
     “Tucked into spring rolls, to be exact. With a Vietnamese dipping sauce. Shall I put in an order for you to share?”
     “Hell no, Rául,” Starr interjected. “Don’t three come in an order? We’d be fighting over the last one, and I’d have to kick his ass. You’d better make it two orders.”
     The chef burst out laughing. “I’m sure you could do it too, Madam Mayor,” he said before regretfully leaving. Rául unsuccessfully tries to hide the fact he’s in love with Starr. I couldn’t see him ever having a chance. Especially since he looks like a meerkat standing next to her. But he prepares all her meals personally, hoping that by winning her stomach, someday he might win her heart.
     “Hey, baby boy,” she said. Resplendent in her robin’s egg blue designer suit, when she stood up to hug me, everybody turned. It’s not something you can help. She’s an eye magnet with an Amazonian warrior body. As well as a fashion trendsetter who’s always dressed to kill. The fragrance of her omnipresent Creed Aventus perfume intermingling with her pheromones is a heady mix.
     I hadn’t seen her in over a month. “Damn, girl,” I said, giving her shoulders a squeeze, “are you mainlining wolverine testosterone?”
     “Au naturel,” she said. “On the pole five times a week.” Starr is a tremendous athlete who played three varsity sports at the University of Toronto. While she was born and raised in Buffalo, her dual citizenship allowed her to go to college in Canada. I met her up there when I was doing my kahuna apprenticeship. In her late thirties, she’s still a force of nature in tip-top shape.
     “You ain’t messing around. Might be time for you to enter some bodybuilding contests,” I said admiringly. “Good to see you haven’t forgotten your roots.” I’d met Starr when she was stripping in a topless bar to pay her way through college. She’s the ultimate example of a woman using gentlemen’s clubs instead of them using her.
     I have the utmost respect for strippers. If I was a chick who could twerk like a hummingbird’s wings, I’d have probably danced at some point too. The tragedy is that many girls get sucked up and spit out by the machine, succumbing to all manner of depravities. Starr had done it right, formulating an ideal game plan and executing it to perfection. Make major bucks in a short amount of time. In and out of the business like a snake in the grass.
     “I told you I had a pole put in my workout room, right? Ninety minutes a day of that shit,” she laughed. “Navy Seal Hell Week would be a picnic in the park in comparison.”
     Most people are ignorant of the dexterity and strength needed to pole dance. The most elite women make it look effortless, but it’s shockingly hard. One summer, when I’d been running around the tennis courts as ferociously as Rafael Nadal and pumping weights all the time, I jumped on stage before Tony opened up to disprove all the talk from the women about how difficult it was. I kissed my guns and taunted the pole. Uh-uh. Brutality ensued. After thirty seconds, I knew I was in way over my head. The pole had bitch-slapped me and sent me away muttering to myself.
     Although we both had important news, unless the situation is dire enough where literally every second matters, we always first make time for ourselves, just catching up and reveling in each other’s presence. I had time I needed to kill anyway.
     I signaled our server and ordered a Stone IPA. Starr finished her Bay Breeze and waggled a finger that she’d have another. We fell into the comfortable banter which has been a hallmark of our relationship from the beginning. As usual, I was so engrossed in our conversation that I barely noticed the arrival of our drinks and appetizers.
     We’ve always been attracted to each other but have never turned it into a romance. In the beginning, it was a timing issue more than anything. One of us was always in a relationship when the other was in between. After a while, our friendship was so special to us both that we didn’t want to complicate it with sex. We were so close that when I relocated to Tampa Bay, she also moved south. Not that I was the only reason; her older sister lives over in Dunedin.
     Shortly after arriving in the Bay area, Starr had started dipping her toes into politics. Over the years, she won election after election, eventually culminating in her victory over the then-incumbent mayor four years ago. She was now vying for re-election; the mayoral race was in full swing. As local commercials incessantly reminded us, her opponents were Madeleine Hayes and Gene Kidd. “I can’t say a bad word about either of ’em. It’s a shame there can only be one winner,” she’d mentioned to me the last time we’d talked.
     After our last bites of the delectable spring rolls, she took my hands in hers, flipped the switch, and got serious. I’ve always envied her ability to compartmentalize and prioritize.
     “Vox, do you know what county commissioners do? What their roles are in local government?”
     She’d once told me that democracy only works when its citizenry is informed. By my vacant stare, she realized my knowledge of local government was egregiously low. A sea cucumber probably would have come up with a more coherent response.
     After about ten seconds, she mercifully put a halt to my babbling attempt. “I’ll keep it as short as I can. Commissioners oversee the county and create policy. They’re responsible for overseeing our tax dollars, managing growth, land use, and infrastructure, as well as everyday issues—things like garbage collection, street lights, and filling potholes. Think of them as a company’s board of directors. As part of their duties, they sit on various boards and advisory committees, such as the Hospital Authority, Tampa Sports Authority, Arts Council of Hillsborough County, Environmental Protection Commission, and others. Stay with me here. I can see your eyes glazing over.”
     She knew me too well.
     “In Hillsborough County, there are seven commissioners. Collectively, they’re known as the board of county commissioners—the BOCC, for short. The County Administrator, called the CA, sets the framework for carrying out the BOCC’s decisions, including preparing an annual budget, monitoring the effectiveness of county services, and overseeing the management of over four thousand county employees.”
     “When you moved to Tampa, didn’t you work for Hillsborough County at the Comptroller’s Office?” I asked as the server brought me another beer.
     “Very good,” she said, finger-drawing a star on the back of my hand like she was rewarding a student. “You do pay attention sometimes. Okay, time for the meat. Have you heard that, over the past month or so, a few strip clubs in the area have been shut down?”
     That piqued my interest. “Yeah, I heard about one. A girl at the Emporium mentioned in passing that Satin Sheets had closed.”
     “Have we ever met up when I had my friend Giselle in tow?”
     “You mean that smoking hot South African chick with a juicy badonkadonk and pouty lips? Nope, never heard of her.”
     She laughed and punched my arm. “I should’ve known you’d remember Giselle. Anyway, I used to work with her at the county. She knows I used to dance back in the day. We had drinks last week and the subject of club closures came up. She’s a secretary for one of the commissioners and said the BOCC is behind them.
     “Her boss, who never gave a shit about strip clubs before, is now gung-ho about the subject. All the commissioners are, including the CA. Giselle has heard several of them talking.” She leaned forward. “They’ve been using all their power and persuasion to force the closings. For some reason, they’ve suddenly developed a hard-on for strip clubs. And not the good kind of hard-on either.”
     I reached down and adjusted my crotch. The way she said “hard-on” was giving me one.
     “Were these closings justified?” I asked. “What were the reasons?”
     “Prostitution and drug-dealing allegations. There’s no telling if they’re legit. And it doesn’t matter because the BOCC has substantial clout. Especially if the individual members band together in a common cause… and particularly when the CA is in on it. Giselle says there are several other clubs on their hit list too.”
     Combined with my news, this was extremely disturbing. “Satin Sheets is off of Highway 60 on the way to Brandon. I repiped their plumbing a while back and got to know the owner a little. Good guy, and he didn’t strike me as a fool. I highly doubt anything as illegal as that was going on over there.”
     I let it all sink in for a moment. “Let me ask you this,” I said, a fist under my chin. “Could they do the same thing against clubs within the city limits of Tampa?”
     “Not a chance. That’s my jurisdiction, along with the City Council’s. We’re safe over here.”
     “Maybe not,” I said, shaking my head slowly. “Late last night, actually early this morning, there was a murder at the Emporium.”
     “What?!” Her eyes nearly jumped out of their sockets. Heads at nearby tables looked over.
     The way she covered it was as smooth as a porpoise’s ass. “Married? I thought those two would never tie the knot.” Heads turned back around.
     “Murder?” she hissed under her breath. “Is there a reason I don’t know about a murder in my city?”
     “Because it didn’t happen. At least as far as the police department is concerned. The girl who was killed worked there and was a close friend. Another friend discovered her body a short time later. The perp was a rare type of vampyre. We tried to save her but couldn’t. Of course, since it was magic-related, we took care of it internally.”
     “That’s some awfully fucked up news,” she said, her face distraught. “I’m so sorry to hear that about your friend, Vox.”
     “Thank you, Starr,” I said, touched by her genuine concern.
     “Do I need to know any more details?”
     “I’m not sure… and I don’t know much right now. I’m gonna meet with Duncan Panther later to see if he’s heard anything.”
     She rolled her eyes. “You know I don’t like him, and I don’t trust him. At the very least, he’s shady and as slick as ferret shit. More probable is he’s a gangster or worse. Problem is that he seems untouchable. Nothing ever sticks.”
     “He also knows what’s happening on the streets.”
     Starr nodded grudgingly. “Of that I have no doubt.” She flagged down a server and ordered another Bay Breeze. “I’m gonna need one more after all. Do you have any theories on what all this means?”
     “Well, I’d totally forgotten about Satin Sheets closing and didn’t know about the other clubs. With that taken into consideration, and your friend reporting even more are on the chopping block, it doesn’t take an orca to figure out that Hillsborough County strip clubs are an endangered species. The murder could be a one-off event. Then again, maybe—since they can’t shut down Tampa clubs—they’re attacking them in another way.”
     “You think so?” she asked skeptically. “I’ve had run-ins with the BOCC before, but I’d be truly surprised if they have a vampyre on their payroll.”
     “Would it be unusual that the entire board is in lock-step unity in their campaign against strip clubs?”
     “Nearly as unusual as the fact you only have half a finger,” she said, staring in consternation. “Do you owe a snapping turtle money?”
     “Two-thirds of a finger,” I corrected. “Lucifer himself ate it. I’ll tell you about it another day.”
     She shook her head to clear it. “Knowing you, I’m sure it’s not a boring story. And, yes, to answer your question. You’re right on the money. Normally, that bunch can’t agree on much of anything.”
     We talked for another fifteen minutes, but there were too many unknowns for any of it to make sense. Like trying to solve a five-word Wheel of Fortune puzzle with two letters showing.
     When Starr was in college, I was the one settling up our tabs because all of her money went towards school. But, ever since, she’s insisted on paying no matter how much I put up a fuss. It’s a tradition for me to try, though.
     As the server approached and I reached for my wallet, she slapped my hand away—before noticing it was the parrot-mutilated one. “Oh, I’m sorry, Vox. Your poor pinky.” She gave my nub a little kiss.
     A to-go box accompanied the check. “Basque Burnt Cheesecake,” the woman gushed, “with macerated cherries and grated sun-dried lime. Chef Rául said he created it especially for you, Mayor Gaffney. We all tasted it before the shift. It’s the best thing I’ve ever eaten.”
     “It’s good to be the queen,” I observed with a laugh.
     She smiled. “It doesn’t suck.”
     Starr paid and we walked out to her Tesla, a white on white Model S Plaid.
     “Keep me up to date, and let me know if there’s anything I can do to help. I have a feeling you’ve got your hands full with this one.”
     “I’ll be in touch soon,” I promised as we hugged goodbye. She got in and rolled the window down.
     “And be careful, baby boy. I know what kind of trouble you can get yourself into and how much you like the ladies. Make sure nothing else gets cut off.” She smiled mischievously, gave my crotch a light tap with her yellow fingernails, and—quicker than a thought—her Tesla sprinted into the dusk.

Chapter 10


     Before leaving the restaurant, I called the Goat and gave him a briefing on the city commissioners, asking him to check their backgrounds for any possible motives on why they’d gone on an anti-strip club crusade. My budget for kahuna business is nanoscopic, but I push a few shekels his way from time to time for research.
     He’s good at it and also has a valuable contact inside the police department with access to their computers—Becca, who has an appetite for him as large as the rest of her. More big-boned and tall than blubbery fat, she’s got a melon so massive it makes Shaq’s head look like the size of Ariana Grande’s. She’s also ugly enough to peel paint. The mental image of their unholy mating makes me retch, but it’s an equitable trade. He gets me sensitive information other methods of investigation can’t unearth, and she gets the Goat dick she craves. While the Goat will fornicate with anything remotely female, Becca earns him taking-one-for-the-team bonus points.
     “Any questions?” I asked.
     “Yes. A highly important one. I haven’t seen Starr in almost a year. Does she still have a rocking body?”
     “I’m sad to say I didn’t have her gyrating butt cheeks slapping me in the face for confirmation, but she might be even hotter.”
     Starr drives the Goat as looney-bin loco as she does Rául. He bugled like a rutting bull elk and hung up. Hopefully, privacy was available nearby and he wouldn’t get arrested for tugging on his gherkin in public. With the decibel level of that groan, I doubted he’d be able to hold off engaging in hand-to-gland combat for long.
     Five minutes later, I approached downtown on I-275. I exited onto the Ashley St ramp, passed the Straz Performing Arts Center and Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park—both of which overlook the Hillsborough River—swung right after the Beer Can Building onto Kennedy Ave, and made my way over to the Davis Island Bridge.
     Because it’s actually composed of two islands separated by a canal, the proper name is Davis Islands, but nobody pronounces the trailing “s” or thinks of it in the plural. Over one hundred million cubic feet of sand and shells were dredged from Tampa Bay to create nine hundred acres of land. It had to be compressed to a ludicrous degree to physically support development. Granted, if you’ve never been on the business end of a shovel, you don’t give two shakes of a snook’s tail about that. But plumbers and other folks with occasion to dig wish bodily harm on those developers every time they go to war with a sub-surface that’s only slightly softer than hardened concrete. Otherwise, it’s your prototypical Florida island, idyllic and with phenomenal views.
     Shortly after crossing the bridge, I pulled off East Davis Blvd into the Petrus, parking in the far lot. The first time I’d visited the hotel, my plumbing van had been in the shop, so I’d driven up to valet parking in Willard’s prized 1987 Buick Grand National that had been long enjoying its retirement under a tarp.
     I honestly thought I was riding in style. Back in the ’80s and ’90s, the Grand National was a well-respected pussy magnet I would’ve killed to drive. I figured its rep still held true, maybe even more so now that it was a classic. The scornful laugh of the security guard standing by the front door had dashed that notion. He’d told me to leave, or he’d call the cops. Thank God I hadn’t pulled up in the van, or he would’ve probably eschewed all talk and gunned me down.
     For years, Valentina has tried to instill some fashion sense in me, but I’ve never quite gotten the hang of it. Sartorially, Hawaiian shirts are my jam, composing most of my wardrobe. It’s so bad that it wouldn’t be incorrect to say that, okay, yes, technically speaking, a case could be made that I hoard them. Last time I tried to get a count of how many I own, including the boxes in storage, I stopped at two hundred and eighty-fifty. Every time I visit the Petrus, I wear the gaudiest one I can find. This shirt was bright purple with orange palm trees and teal sea turtles. As I passed the valet stand near the front doors, I bore holes into the guard, daring him to say something. He acted like he didn’t see me.
     Whatever else you want to say about Duncan, you have to admit he didn’t skimp on building his masterpiece. Imported Calacatta marble columns soar eighty feet up to a painted domed ceiling; the Renaissance frescoes are so skillfully crafted and auténtico that surely Russel Helix or a descendent of Michelangelo himself must have painted them. Lavish fountains, exotic plants, rare polished woods, a cascading waterfall, staircases that defy physics… every detail was carefully deliberated upon. Wherever you look, style, class, and sophistication brazenly flex.
     In that, the Petrus mirrors its owner. Duncan always holds court on a tropical luxe mezzanine with commanding views of downtown Tampa and neighboring Harbour Island. I ascended a flight of stairs and headed in that direction. The place was busy. People criss-crossed my path, blocking my view of his table. As I finished navigating through them and my sight-line opened up, I wasn’t surprised to find him looking directly at me as if he’d been tracking me on internal radar the moment I’d stepped foot on the property. His hyper-awareness both intrigues and scares the shit out of me. With a pirouette of his hand and an unreadable expression, he offered the nearest seat.
     I sank back into the embrace of the antique leather chair. It looked too formal to be comfortable, but the supple leather caressed and soothed like an attentive lover.
     Duncan snapped his fingers, and one of the seemingly endless parade of beautiful servers in his personal stable hustled over.
     “Gretchen, mah love,” he drawled in his Scottish brogue. “Be a good lass and bring us a bottle o’ The Macallan Rare Cask Single Malt.” She curtsied low and hurried off.
     Rare Cask? After disgracing myself with the vulgar German smack whore, Fräulein Minz, an invitation to Miss Scotland’s bedchambers was a dream come true. “I’m honored, Duncan. By the way, how is it you can always tell when I show up?”
     Penetrating green eyes stared from a face lean and chiseled. His long Roman nose, slightly hollowed cheeks, and a jaw capable of snapping femurs made me feel he was sizing up his dinner.
     “Your shirt is so obnoxious I can hear it coming. How come ye never wear anything else, eh? I thought ye were only half Hawaiian.”
     “A quarter Hawaiian, a quarter Japanese, and half gringo,” I corrected.
     “Well then, I guess I should thank mah lucky stars ye didna show up dressed as a geisha.”
     Gretchen returned with the scotch and tulip glasses.
     “One, two, or three drams?” Duncan questioned with raised fingers. On his index finger, a diamond-encrusted panther’s head studied me with emerald eyes.
     “You know the answer to that,” I replied, rubbing my palms together.
     “Ye heard him, love,” Duncan directed, running the back of his hand against her cheek.
     Gretchen came around to my side and poured for three long seconds, then did the same for Duncan. Before leaving, she put a hand on one of his bulging biceps and took an earlobe in her mouth, sucking for no less than a full minute. His back stiffened, and he purred and trilled without a hint of embarrassment. After recovering, he said, “Monica and ye be ready for mah call tonight. All o’ ye are to wear babydoll blue, ye ken?”
     “Just thongs? Or garter belts and stockings too?” she demurely asked.
     “Lassies’ choice,” he said, giving her a swat on the ass. She blew him a kiss and left.
     I took a sip of the scotch, and my eyes quivered. It was like biting into a cloud. I couldn’t remotely afford the stuff, but the few times I’d had it convinced me there must be no finer example of Highland whisky.
     “Duncan, your hospitality never fails to amaze. But I’m here on business.”
     “I figured ye might be,” he said. “Is it aboot that donnybrook at the Emporium last night?”
     There was no hiding my surprise. “How could you already know about that?” Suspicion laced my question. “I was only going to see if you could make a few inquiries.”
     He flicked a hand out towards downtown. “There have bin whispers. Nae awfy much in this city escapes meh.”
     “What do you know, Duncan? It’s important. It’s personal.”
     “Aye, everything’s important and personal. What’s in it for meh?” he asked. “I’m a businessman as ye ken.”
     Aw, fuck. He was gonna start this shit again. Nearly everything is a business transaction to Duncan Panther.
     “Have ye dined, laddie?”
     “Depends what’s on the menu,” I replied.
     “I just hired a three-star Michelin chef from Tokyo. Tripled his salary.”
     “Lead the way,” I beamed. We clinked our glasses together and drained them.
     He grabbed the bottle, and I followed him towards a bank of elevators. From the back, in stride, the full measure of Duncan’s astounding physicality was revealed. His Savile Row suit was a Desmond Merrion costing nearly as much as I made in a year and was so splendidly tailored it looked like it’d been painted on. His muscles rippled and flowed. Though easy and relaxed, his gait hinted of dangerous power lurking beneath. If he’d suddenly leapt up to the encircling second-story walkway in a single bound, it wouldn’t have seemed out of place.
     Passing all the elevators, we took a left around a corner into a short hallway ending in a single lift. Its golden door sparkled with multi-colored gems. Duncan peered into an eye scanner, and in a jiffy we were inside and rocketing to the penthouse so fast that I got vertigo and nearly threw up on his suit.
     The elevator eased to a stop, and the door swooshed open. I’d been up here before but still marveled like it was my first time. It was as if Luxury fucked Opulence and birthed Duncan’s penthouse. As amazing as the hotel itself is, it’s a Motel 6 compared to his private residence.
     An apt comparison would be enjoying a well-marbled prime ribeye steak and smacking your lips in wonder, convinced nothing else could compete. But then an A5 grade Kobe steak from a Tajima Japanese Black cow is set before you, with its impossibly dense marbling and unparalleled beefiness. Lord, I have seen the light! You thought you’d experienced nirvana but now realize you’d known nothing.
     After a tour of his recent renovations, Duncan opened a door marked by a Rising Sun symbol. I’d never been here before. For a long moment, all I could do was stare. I now knew what the word “gobsmacked” meant. What lay beyond was so massive that it would’ve been inaccurate to call it a room. In truth, I didn’t know what it was.
     Clouds floated high above. I thought I could see a ceiling peaking through but couldn’t be sure. A slate path wound through a Shinto shrine of manicured gardens, samurai statues, and sakura trees in full blossom. Peacocks fanned their tails. Ambient birdsong accented a gentle breeze.
     I reached down and grabbed a handful of the black soil, rubbing it between my fingers. The far walls seemed miles away and were startlingly realistic live-action murals of a forest and rushing river… with what looked like silver-haired elves capering about. Far off in the distance, Mount Fuji serenely watched us. Part of me was convinced Duncan had somehow created a forty-eighth Japanese prefecture in his penthouse.
     As the path continued into another set of trees, he acted as the tour guide. “This is mah fruit forest,” he said with arms spread wide. “Japanese winterberries, pomegranates, persimmons, Kiyomi and Setoka citrus, Shinano apples…”
     “Mah favorite are the Asian pears,” he said, pointing at a cluster separate from the rest. “I have three varieties.” He walked up to a tree sagging under the weight of fat pears the colors of a Honeymoon Island sunset, plucked one, and tossed it to me. “Ye’ll nae have a finer Nansui.”
     When I bit through the taut skin, so much sweet juice burst into my mouth that some dribbled down my chin. Ho. Lee. Fook. I’m no noob when it comes to fruit, but this pear’s game played at a level I wasn’t familiar with. I instantly envied the Vox in some parallel universe who gets to gorge himself in here all day long.
     The path emerged into a spectacular water garden with elevations above and below us. Three-story high waterfalls splashed into ponds, churning brooks turned waterwheels, and rocky streams tumbled down hills tiered with bonsai trees.
     “Have yourself a look see,” Duncan said quietly, eyes closed and flared nostrils slowly inhaling the negative ion-rich air.
     I wandered through a trail of steps cut into the hills. There were too many bonsai trees to count. Although all were exquisite, each had its own personality. An old man in a sage-colored robe meandered about. He wore the straw cape and conical hat of an Asian country farmer. One hand balanced a hoe over his shoulder while the other snipped a leaf here and pruned a branch there. A long, grey beard ended in a monkeyfist knot.
     Stopping in front of a bonsai resembling a freeze-framed, hip-thrusting Elvis, I marveled at the craftsmanship required to create such a divine work of art. A descriptive bronze plaque identified it as a “1206Y Juniper.”
     As I reached towards it, the monkeyfist smacked my hand away like a toddler’s. “Fuck me!” A welt immediately formed. The damn knot was weighted. Shaking it, I looked up, shocked to find the old man at least ten yards away. How the hell had his beard chameleon-tongued all the way over here?
     “No touch, gaijin,” he reprimanded.
     If I was being honest, I would’ve told him I thought I was being sneaky enough to get away with it, but I accepted my rebuke with a docile nod. However, the meaning behind the plaque’s engraving niggled at me enough to broach a question. Hopefully it wouldn’t further incite his wrath. “Venerable Sensei, what does “1206Y” mean?” I asked in a tone dripping with placation.
     “Tree born in 1206. It living. Like you. But smarter.” He pointed to an obsidian Buddha statue a short distance away. Siddhartha Gautama held a bristlecone pine in his lap. “That first bonsai ever. Ichiban. Number one. Still alive. You touch, you no more alive.” His monkeyfist ominously swayed back and forth.
     I don’t know if I was more taken aback at the old man’s claim that Duncan owned the world’s genesis bonsai or that he’d threatened in no uncertain terms to end me. Regardless, discretion won out. That damn monkeyfist was not to be trifled with and effectively quelled further curiosity. Hell, maybe this dude was the reincarnation of the original Buddha and possessed powers I couldn’t even comprehend.
     Rejoining Duncan at the foot of a steeply arched wooden bridge, we crossed over what was more accurately a koi lake rather than a pond. A trio of ducks flew by as if on an important errand. “I see ye made the acquaintance o’ the Gardener,” he chuckled. “He despises unruliness and disorder in all forms.”
     “So I noticed,” I said, rubbing the welt. “What is that monkeyfist knot weighted with?”
     “I dunna ken, but he nearly broke mah jaw with it one day. There’s something fannywomble aboot that beard, like it has a mind o’ its own.”
     “There’s a lot more fannywomble about that old codger than just his beard—like everything. How did you end up hiring him?”
     “He just showed up out o’ the yonder years ago. Acted like he owned the joint from the start.”
     “How much does he charge you?”
     “I nae pay him, nor does he seek recompense. Besides eating his fill o’ the fruit, that is. He just appears and disappears whenever he fancies and tends to all the trees. His agenda’s his own. Not sure I could rid mahself o’ him even if I was o’ a mind to.”
     At the apex of the bridge, I stopped to take in the view. Peeking from a valley, the red roof of a pagoda caught my eye. Calling the panorama breathtaking would’ve been wholly insufficient. I’ve been to Japan numerous times, and—though I objectively knew I was in Tampaall of this not only looked but also felt as authentically Japanese as the real thing.
     I leaned over the railing. Giant koi, each over six feet long and as riotously colored as Takashi Murakami paintings, patrolled like nuclear attack submarines.
     “Dunna fall in,” Duncan warned as he started down the other side. “Ye’ll be eating sashimi soon. But, if ye’re nae careful, that sashimi down there will be eating ye.”
     A blue-and-orange one poked its head out of the water. His piscine words rose from the surface. “Come down here. I have candy for you.”
     At the bottom of the bridge, the slate path made a cameo reappearance for a short ways, leading us to the base of a rocky hill. The path disappeared into what reminded me of a mouth. A strange, white smoke-curtain shimmered, obscuring what lay beyond. Duncan strode through without reservation. After a brief hesitation, I followed suit… into a room predominantly of stainless steel but with a curving, lustrous burlwood bar top running through the center. Behind the bar, an open-air kitchen stood at the ready, looking like it’d been teleported in from one of the Ginza district’s ritziest sushi restaurants.
     “I dunna ken aboot ye, but I’m a wee bit hungry,” he said, slapping me on the back with such force I nearly fell to the ground.
     “I had the whole kit and caboodle flown in directly from Nagoya. This is Masahiro’s first meal cooking for meh. We will see if’n he is worthy o’ those three stars.” A nervous-looking chef with sweat beading his forehead bowed to me.
     “Let’s get this hootenanny started,” Duncan declared. We bellied up to the bar in sturdy chairs of black metal and brown leather, separated by several feet. Their distance apart seemed curious, but maybe that’s how they rolled in the Scottish version of Japan.
     “Have ye ever had fugu, Vox-san?” Duncan asked, filling two shot glasses from the bottle of The Macallan and sliding one over to me.
     “Blowfish? You mean the dish with a toxin over a thousand times stronger than cyanide? With no known antidote? That, if not cleaned and prepared properly, is guaranteed to result in a brutally painful death? No, I’ve never been that stupid.”
     “I assure ye that Masahiro here is a certified master. If’n ye join meh in a gourmet, multi-course kaiseki, culminating in fugu sashimi, then I’ll tell ye what I ken aboot the Emporium dustup.”
     This was unconventional, even for him. “Why?” I asked. “Couldn’t I just pay you for the information? Or give you, like, something else of value?”
     “At this moment and place in time, I thirst for adventure, Vox-san,” he said, a far-off look in his eyes. “Not only will I tell ye what I ken, but, when the night bids us adieu, ye can choose the most bonny lass of mah harem for pleasure and sleep. Take several if’n ye’re man enough. All have bin specially trained in the art o’ love by one o’ the most talented courtesans in Paris. And ye can take three bottles o’ that Rare Cask when ye leave on the morrow. All that and another surprise awaiting outside right now.” He gestured at the smoky entrance.
     Saluting with the shot, he threw it back in a gulp, pounded the empty glass on the table, and stared at me with those mesmerizing green eyes.
     Really? The consequences of choosing wrong were worse than dire and could leave me flipping like a flounder on the floor, dying of asphyxiation.
     I absently fingered the shot glass while pondering. If Masahiro was indeed a certified fugu master, the likelihood of my demise was extremely remote. And, even though Duncan was a warped bastard, he’d never struck me as suicidal. He’d be riding the razor’s edge right along beside me. What about the undeniable allure of a night bruising the beef curtains of a dime piece with a PhD in Sexual Rapture? A world-class meal—and probably breakfast—by a Michelin-starred chef? And three bottles of that extraordinary scotch? Most importantly, I had no leads whatsoever on the murder, and Duncan’s knowledge of the Tampa underground scene was unrivaled. Hell, he already had intel.
     All true, but a rational person does his due diligence first. “What’s Masahiro’s first name?”
     I looked him up on my phone. Yep, there he was, grinning back at me with a yanagi knife in his hand.
     After several seconds, I decided. What the fuck. I’d roll the dice. Chances were abundantly favorable I’d survive this, revel in a night of hedonism I’d never forget, and get the information I needed. Plus, I reasoned, my decision-making track record wasn’t all bad; it was just inconsistent. Statistically speaking, I was due for a good one.
     I drank the shot. “Throw in a two-hour gift certificate at Grady’s Goat Yoga, and you got yourself a deal, laddie.”
     “Done! Aye, I was positive ye had it in ye. I bin looking for a partner for this braw adventure, but nobody had the balls until ye.”
     Then, like you always have to do when sealing a deal with Duncan, we spit in our palms and shook on it.
     “Masahiro,” he said. “Proceed.”
     The chef walked over to a massive brass gong and picked up the mallet. Roaring “Yatte mimashou!” he reared back and slammed it as hard as he could.
     The sound reverberated so loudly that I checked to see if the stainless steel walls had warped.
     “Ah, very appropriate. Let’s do it,” I agreed, acknowledging Masahiro with a nod and trying to rub the pain out of my ears. “It seems I’m in for a penny, in for a yen.”
     Traditional koto music filled the air. Through the smoke-entrance dashed the elf-looking creatures I thought I’d seen before. I scrutinized them for a moment, and my mouth flew open in surprise. They weren’t just pretending to be elves. Judging by their silver hair, gold-tipped ears, and Asian features, they were jaffies—Japanese Forest Elves. Naked ones, to be precise. And, as Lil Vox immediately informed me, they were insanely hot. My cock and I marveled that jaffie nipples were also golden, a fact neither of us had known.
     “Walk over to yon ink print, Vox-san,” Duncan said, pointing at the wall behind us.
     I was still stunned and turned to see what he was talking about. On it hung an impressive rendition of The Great Wave off Kanagawa by the ukiyo-e artist Katsushika Hokusai. You’ve undoubtedly seen it—the skiffs with monster waves looming overhead, poised to crush them.
     “At the peak o’ Mount Fuji, ye’ll find a wee button. Push it.”
     I did as instructed. A section of the wall to the right of the painting opened up, making the same cool sound as the doors on the Starship Enterprise. A vision suddenly overtook my mind. I was Captain Kirk. Duncan was Scotty, of course. And, with their ears, the elves certainly could’ve passed for Mr. Spock… if Spock had a juicy ass, tits like honeydew melons, and a silver landing strip.
     “Azumi,” Duncan said to a jaffie, “go with him. No poking and pumping yet, though. I’m starving.” I snapped out of my daydream, and a spacious room with a stunning array of rare and precious liquors floated into view.
     “Pick a bottle ye favour.”
     Entering the room, I glanced at the print again. “That’s an amazing likeness. Did a Japanese artist create it?”
     “Aye. Katsushika Hokusai. That’s the ink print. All the others in the world are merely woodblock copies.”
     I almost fainted. My jaw was getting sore from dropping so much. “You mean that is THE Great Wave off Kanagawa? The original?”
     Duncan just winked and went back to chatting up the other elf, who he called Midori.
     The Japanese are master Scotch whisky makers, revering the liquor almost as much as the countrymen where it was invented. I chose a Hakushu 18 Year Old Single Malt. I’d only had it one other time. Notes of apricot, chocolate, and malt, along with just a hint of smoke and dried cherry. My plan was to alternate shots of the whisky with icy cold glasses of the Hitachino White Ale I’d spied on tap. I returned to my seat, and we shifted into total cultural immersion.
     Masahiro’s nervousness was immediately replaced with in-the-moment expertise. The next couple of hours were gastronomic euphoria. It was like watching Magnus Carlsen play chess or hearing Whitney Houston sing.
     The chef began with a sublimely delicate dashi with purple shiso flowers. Then sakura ebi fried rice with sweet Okinawan prawns. Next up was grilled, spicy black pork with matsutake mushrooms and junsai. I’m a passionate fan of ramen. Not that packaged garbage you find in supermarkets but the genuine stuff. His handmade noodles, with a rich and milky Tonkotsu broth that he’d cooked for twenty hours to extract maximum umami flavor, were easily the best I’d ever had. Each of the impossibly delicious sushi rolls was even better than the previous one.
     Azumi and Midori pranced about—refilling beverages, clearing away plates, and massaging shoulders. If memory serves, I think we even got pedicures.
     Throughout the meal, Duncan and I talked at length about his childhood. It had included Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster, though he claimed she despises that moniker, preferring her proper Gaelic name, Niseag. While Loch Ness is a freshwater lake, it ultimately connects to the North Sea. The River Ness flows out of the northern end of the loch, winding its way through the Highlands before emptying into the sea at Inverness, the city where Duncan grew up.
     We’d just finished up a sumptuous cold-water lobster roll. Instead of wrapping it in seaweed, Masahiro had used edible twenty-four-karat gold leaf, another first for me in a day full of them.
     “Aye, I first met her when I was a bairn. Ol’ Niseag used to let meh ride her from time to time. She’d buck like a water bronco, she would.”
     “I knew she wasn’t merely a myth,” I said as the jaffies performed ceremonial kabuki dances off to the side. “A kahuna from Scotland told me about her at our last Kahuna-Con in Hawaiʻi. Said he even talked to her in English. It’s incredibly rare for sea creatures to be able to converse in anything other than Oceanese.”
     “Well, I can confirm tis so. And she didna have a Scottish accent either. Niseag speaks the Queen’s English, if’n ye can believe it. She’ll yap your ear off, that one. Loves to quote Shakesp—”
     GONG-ONG-ONG-ONG! The echoing, metallic peals produced by another Masahiro mallet-whack hammered into us like Lennox Lewis haymakers. In the midst of a cartwheel, poor Midori was so shaken that she lost her balance and crashed into the cigar case at the end of the bar. She popped back up in admirable style like nothing had happened.
     “Now, we come to our main event, Vox-san. Everything we’ve experienced thus far has bin but a prelude to the adventure o’ a lifetime. Lassies, get prepared. Masahiro, are ye ready?”
     The elves scampered through a doorway into the rear prep area.
     “Two minutes,” Masahiro pleaded in heavily accented English before snapping his eyes closed and appearing to go into a trance. The beads of sweat had returned to his forehead.
     There was a restrained ferocity in Duncan’s eyes as he looked at me. “Are ye ready?”
     I was still apprehensive about eating the fugu, which was obviously next up on the agenda, but Masahiro had shown me he was worthy of every one of those Michelin stars. I gave a hearty thumbs up.
     Azumi and Midori returned with a large tray. There was no capering about this time. Each step was deliberate. After carefully placing the tray on Masahiro’s work table, the elves backed away from the blowfish with visible relief.
     “Please place your arms on the rests o’ the chair.”
     I complied without hesitation. “Mission complete,” I announced. A part of me noted my chair had slid back some during his instructions, but I paid it no heed.
     An instant later, thick steel bands encircled my wrists like lightning-quick anacondas, locking into place. It took a while for my brain to comprehend what had happened. My legs involuntarily tried to flee, but they’d also been shackled. I was trussed up more securely than a Thanksgiving turkey.
     I looked over at Duncan in disbelief. He was imprisoned just as thoroughly as I was. And the fool was grinning from ear to ear.
     “Duncan, what the fuck? I already told you I’ll eat the fugu willingly.” I was more in shock than angry.
     “Sorry, Vox-san. But I couldna be assured o’ that. There’s one part o’ the adventure I failed to mention.”
     “Midori, the floor is yours, love,” he said, nodding towards the chef, who was now facing us and standing a few feet behind the blowfish. Like a sleight-of-hand magician, the elf produced a blindfold from god-knows-where. I looked into Masahiro’s eyes, praying for some sign of confidence. His frantic deer eyes just stared at “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” as if he was in one of the doomed skiffs.
     After blindfolding him, she guided the shuffling chef over to the blowfish.
     My disbelief turned to panic. “You’re out of your fucking mind, you crazy Scottish idiot!” I furiously shouted. “If you’re so intent on killing us, just get two tantos, and we can commit ritual seppuku and fall on our blades. Better that than blowfish poisoning.”
     “Nae to fear. For the last week, Masahiro has bin training in a virtual reality simulator. He’s bin doing awfy well preparing the blowfish unsighted.”
     “How well?” The venom in my voice was as deadly as the fugu’s poison.
     He grinned. “Over the last two days, he’s bin successful thirty-eight percent o’ the time. We’ve nearly a coin flip’s chance o’ coming through this alive, laddie. Ye canna say this is unexciting, eh?”
     “You and your death wish can go fuck themselves,” I said as Midori approached Duncan. “I’ll just refuse to eat it.”
     “Look to your right,” Duncan directed. Azumi stood beside me, an angelic smile on her face.
     Without a word, the jaffie unzipped my fly and tracked down Lil Vox. From out of nowhere, she produced a dagger. The edge looked sharp enough to split atoms. With my cock in one hand, she stood ready with the knife in the other.
     “Wha- wha- wha-…” I couldn’t get a word out. My mind flashed back in horror to Starr playfully telling me to be careful and not get my dick cut off. Damn these David Copperfield elves pulling shit out of thin air.
     “Same for meh, Vox-san,” he said with a shrug. “If I chicken out, mah cawk gets sliced off too. Dunna try any magic. These elves move as fast as adders with a blade. We must be steadfast. One canna achieve magnificent victory without magnificent risk.” He bowed his head in a calming gesture. “Shush now, please. We must let Masahiro concentrate. One errant slip o’ the blade and we’re both goners.”
     Sure enough, Midori also had Duncan by the dick and seemed fully committed to making a eunuch of him, if necessary.
     I prayed to every god I’d ever heard of to bestow Masahiro with X-ray vision. No matter what, he couldn’t nick the liver or ovaries with the knife. If he did, the poison would instantly spill out and contaminate the flesh. He had to filet the blowfish only by feel. And his fingers needed a touch as light as a spider’s, or the organs would rupture.
     Despite the circumstances, Lil Vox started enjoying the feel of Azumi’s soft, warm hand. He’s more of a grow-er than a show-er, and the rascal wanted a better look at what was going on. I tried to will him back down, but he was having none of it. I looked into the elf’s turquoise eyes. Her angelic smile never wavered. She started to, ever so slowly, slide her hand up and down. Her palms felt as if they were woven from silk.
     After what seemed like an eternity, Masahiro laid the knife on the table and undid his blindfold, his eyes blinking in adjustment to the light. The fugu slices were ready, artfully presented on two plates. He reached over and set a plate on the bar top before each of us, then stepped back with his hands stiffly by his side.
     “In full disclosure, Masahiro is vested in the outcome as well. If’n we die, Azumi and Midori will leap upon him and bloody their blades.”
     “Masahiro, how do you think you did?” I asked in a shaky voice. “Any hiccups along the way, big guy?” He just stared straight ahead at the painting, the beads on his brow having turned into rivers.
     “Moment o’ truth, Vox-san,” I heard Duncan say as I stared at the plate. “Lassies, feed us.”
     Azumi put down the knife and produced a large fork from her invisible tool belt that I was now convinced contained every implement ever created. I side-eyed Duncan. Midori mirrored her elf-sister’s actions.
     The jaffie twirled and stabbed with the fork until she’d corralled all the fugu, then brought it to my mouth accompanied by a Japanese children’s song. She wanted me to open like a hangar so the airplane full of poisonous cargo could land. Just as the fugu entered, I couldn’t help one last peek at Masahiro. He visibly trembled. There wasn’t a dry spot anywhere on his chef’s coat.
     With all the fight having gone out of me, I meekly chewed and swallowed. What else could I do? I was powerless. Fate held me in its villainous jaws. Azumi carefully wiped my mouth. After putting the napkin back on the bar, a chaser-shot of scotch materialized in her hand. She put it to my lips, and I obediently drank.
     During all that, she’d needed both hands and had removed the one from my cock. She now replaced it. Only two things in the world existed: whether we’d live or die and the elf’s exquisite stroking. The seconds ticked by. Then… my mouth started to tingle.
     Alarmed, I turned to see how Duncan was faring. He maniacally stared at me.
     My restraints vanished, and both armrests clanked to the floor. Azumi nimbly mounted me like she was swinging up onto a horse. The tips of her ears turned burgundy. Her eyes swirled like hurricanes. I absently wondered if mine were as well. The jaffie moved with a fluidity I’d never before encountered. So precise, so in control.
     A roar and a splitting sound broke our connection. Duncan had shape-shifted into his animal-form: an obscenely muscled, russet-colored Scottish Highland panther. Though ripped to shreds, his suit still clung to his body in tatters. Midori ground on top of him.
     Most shifters try to hide their identity. The last thing they’d do is legally change their surname to their animal-form. But that’s not how Duncan rolls. MacDougal just didn’t have the panache he craved.
     The panther was too enraptured with Midori to bother looking at me, but its jaws opened and out came the familiar Scottish brogue, albeit now deeper and escalated with fevered urgency: “Enjoy the ride, Vox-san. Mah cub spies tell meh Sugar Pete and his crew are likely the culprits. One o’ ’em has bin blathering.”
     I felt Azumi’s hand on my cheek, gently recapturing my attention. Her hurricane eyes drew me in again, and my head revolved in synchronicity with the churning winds of ecstasy.