Chapter 1

Vox

     “What 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 miss your appointment.”
     Peck, peck, peck.
     With great effort, I opened my eyelids a sliver to identify the annoyance so I could rise up 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 up to kill anything. At least not anytime soon. My mind meekly flitted to a memory from long ago, to when as a teenager I had gotten shit-faced on tequila for the first time, 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 appoint— 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 was peering 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 mentioned yesterday 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 be with the one you love, then love the one you’re with. I ain’t judging, Vox. There ain’t no shame. But you two please finish up fast ’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. “Then why am I on the floor in your bathroom with no clothes on?”
     “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. A new low had been reached. I tilted my ass up in the Goat’s direction and jettisoned a volcanic fart, redolent of garlic and cumin, causing him to shout 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 up wouldn’t be pleasant, and I needed every spare second of delay. “Call Lester and tell him I’ll be there in an hour. Phone was eaten by a possum. 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 bathroom rug and make me beat your ass.”

_________________________
   

     The grizzled, old bastard stood before me, quivering with rage. Everything was clenched tight—jaw, fists, brow, 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 your corrupt program when they had the chance. Bunch of convicts, clowns, and closet-shitters.”
     Each word was shouted with venom. Drool soaked his beard. When Lester works himself into a frenzy, the saliva and mucus flow freely.
     I forgot about my hangover and wagged my 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 shit-hole called Gainesville just to accommodate the football team.”
     A PVC fitting whistled toward me. I ducked just in time.
     “The only pitiful fools living in the Dark Ages are University of Miami fans. Y’all love to bring up those five national championships you won when Abraham Lincoln was in office. Welcome to modern football, yearling. You know you can’t spell scum without U-M.”
     “You would remember the Civil War years, you petrified log of mule shit,” I countered. “I guess you’re too stupid to remember our championship years since there are so many of them.” I counted them off, enunciating each number slowly. “1983, 1987, 1989, 1991, 2001. And 2002, which we obviously 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 your dicksucker. You pussies are still whining 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. Plus, last week your imbecile helper rat-fucked my plumbing, 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 shook his head violently. “You think you’re smart, don’t ya? Oh, I saw the italic F on his hat and started quizzing him. The hillbilly had never even heard of Two Bits. I suspect he’s a Florida State fan if the crossed eyes and rotten teeth are any indication. You gave him that hat to wear, Vox. I wasn’t born yesterday.”
     “Clearly. Judging by all the wrinkles, you were probably crib-mates with Jesus.” I steepled my hands in supplication. “So, how can I make your world right? Ernie no-called, no-showed, so he’s fired. Granted, he wasn’t much to look at and had that blinking issue, but I’d been getting good reports from his customers.”
     Lester let fly a river of tobacco juice off to the side and slid a gnarled, cupped hand down his mustache and grey 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 that I need a repipe. However, this price is insane. I don’t mind helping to send any orphaned runts you may have to college. I just don’t want to be the sole, poor motherfucker footing 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?”
     He reached in his back pocket with a withered claw, produced a furled-up copy of the quote, and thrust it forward for me to take.
     I hesitated… with 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 when we were battling over the price to pump his septic tank. It took 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 surly 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 that it’ll knock your sunglasses off. I grabbed the quote, retreating immediately. 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 shower—no 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.”
     The quote showed 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 have lambasted him for if he wasn’t already fired, 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.
     However, in this case, it wouldn’t have mattered anyway 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 Gator 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 the man who breaks his plumbing on purpose, then calls in for service. We both know his dirty little secret: that statistically there is 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 fellow, cantankerous geezers he plays shuffleboard with over in Zephyrhills, I’m sure Lester counts me as sort of a friend. Truth be told, I feel the same way and have been known to drink a beer with him from time to time. Two weeks before, we’d shared a six-pack of Mickey’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 $50 or so, but it isn’t a crazy price. You could always call around for other quotes if you don’t think this is fair.”
     Pouring a bucket of diarrhea over his head wouldn’t have elicited a more shocked reaction. I’ve never seen anybody 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 for a Cane. I’ve been loyal to your sorry ass for years now, even followed you when you started your own company. This… This is how you repay my loyalty, by telling me to take my business 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? We’d exchanged the most insulting barbs imaginable for years, hurled lightning bolts of cruel sarcasm and heinous vitriol, told the other to fuck off innumerable times in brilliantly innovative ways. In this case, all I did was innocently mention he could compare quotes if he wasn’t satisfied with the price, and he crumples like a wide receiver who goes over the middle and gets flattened by Sean Taylor.
     “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 Lester was probably beyond even what I could endure.
     He remained with his head bowed low—wringing every last ounce out of his sulk—for another five full minutes as I tried to coax him back from the edge. Finally, he warily peered up, gauging the sincerity of my lengthy plea for forgiveness. “You sure you ain’t trying to get rid of me, Vox?”
     “Only if you were a Semen-hole,” I casually offered. 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. I can despise your unholy fan allegiance to an evil rival with every fiber of my being, while at the same time respecting it. Yes, I want to bash your face in, yet I’d be offended if you didn’t want to also bash mine in.
     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 our kinship doesn’t last long 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. Thoroughly enjoying every drop.
     “Thank the heavens for that,” Lester said with a serene grin, arthritic legs struggling to bring him upright. “I’d sooner eat a skunk’s asshole than cheer for those Trailer-hassee hoodlums.”
     That matter-of-factly, he was back from the abyss, acting as if his meltdown had never occurred. The old coot was resilient, if nothing else.
     “Amen, brother. So are you okay with $2,925?”
     He pondered this for a short time, pursing his lips. “It’s still pricey.” Another long moment passed. Pride prevented him from giving in right away. “I guess I’ll go for it. On one condition. I’ve got a craving to see you do the Gator Chomp out by the road where everybody can see. Do that, and we’ll call it 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 your Hurricane Army along. And don’t send any more of your worthless helpers around here unless ya want ‘em back castrated. Fuck U, Miami scumbag!” he yelled, waving merrily goodbye. “Tell that pretty Puerto Rican of yours ol’ Lester sends his regards. Let that gal know I have a medicine cabinet full of Viagra when she decides to kick you to the curb.”
     “Fuck you too, Florida Goiter!” I shouted out the window as I drove out 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 readily 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 the 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, their services are desperately needed by society. 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 3 o’clock in the afternoon and the beers would be 2-for-1 for over two more hours. Plenty of time to get a sizable buzz going without throat-punching my already precariously low bank account. I still needed to collect the $4,937 that 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 nearly got ripped to shreds by 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 chihuahuas.
     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—after all, they’re businesswomen. 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 habit, I nodded to the twin gargoyle statues guarding the front door before entering. Instantly, like always, I was struck by the transition between the world out there, full of honking cars and bill collectors—a place which often makes no sense to me—and in here, a fantasy realm of protocols I could understand and shadows I could (at least 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.
     “Hey, Vox!” came a call from the elevated disc jockey stand several feet off to the left. My eyes hadn’t yet adjusted, but the voice could only belong to one person: Tony Keyes, Tampa’s finest strip club DJ. I usually divide my time between drinking Guinness with Tony 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 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 still taut, late-30s mom still climbing the pole, but her daughter—a precocious, long-legged vixen with buttery smooth skin—is picking up shifts 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 her first of a three-song set. She had only been dancing 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 man. What’s the word of the day?” He reached down and we fist-bumped.
     “Uh, Goldschläger, apparently,” 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 every once in a while Queen Goldy whispers in his ear that it’s time to play, and 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 one of the bouncers and getting married in Vegas.
     I laughed. “Whoa! Remember, 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 labor pool for plumbers’ helpers is a dumpster fire of pain and despair.”
     Which was true. It had been a revolving door of one shitbag after another looking to get paid but without much interest in working. The few who did have a work ethic turned out to be even worse at managing their lives than I am at managing mine.
     “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 that he wasn’t even using a shot glass. Thankfully, 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. Those moves are hella smooth. I do believe you’re a prodigy.” I took out my money clip of dollar bills and slipped one 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 an involuntary 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—simultaneously grabbing a shoulder while popping my head between them.
     “GRRR!”
     They both jumped a fathom.
     Feloni: “Shitsicle!”
     CashMoney: “Knob Gobbler!”
     I kissed each on the cheek. “Ahhh, I love it when you classy broads talk dirty. Anybody tipping today?”
     “CashMoney had a 21-year-old kid fall head over heels in love with her,” Feloni laughed. “Girlie 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 squared-off, bright orange fingernails.
     “Hey, Kim,” Feloni called 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 sighed like a contented cat, relaxing back into her seat at my ministrations. CashMoney looked up at me through emerald green contacts framed by long, 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, Vox. CashMoney and I are gonna get nasty together on stage in less than half an hour. We’d hate for you to miss it.”
     “Missing those shenanigans ain’t gonna happen,” I assured them, breaking into a brisk walk toward 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 indicate 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 debacle. My hangover still nagged at me but wasn’t as bad as I’d anticipated. After crossing to the other door in the room, I turned the deadbolt and pushed outwards. Sunlight streamed inside. Amazingly, there the applicant stood, right on time. A skinny, hipster-looking guy in his 20s sporting a handlebar mustache, a teal fedora (with a yellow feather), 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 that flying raccoons might’ve nibbled off the letters in the night. Congratulations, Bart. You’ve successfully arrived at Kahuna Plumbing. After you,” I said with an extended hand pointing at a rickety folding chair.
     The 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 800 lbs and takes up most of the room. He uneasily sat.
     I squeezed behind the desk into an equally bombastic, hand-stitched & brass-riveted leather chair—the back of which is extra tall to make room for the stuffed lion’s head roaring down from the top. Setting out my tatted, muscled forearms on display, I grimly looked him in the eyes and went as still as a barnacle.
     His eyes darting around the room, Bart looked like he was 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 really 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 skimmed over it quickly. “Hmm. So, 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?”
     “Exactly.”
     “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 Reese’s Puffs?”
     “Cinnamon Toast Crunch,” he said with a grin.
     “All correct, Bart,” I said, nodding and folding my arms approvingly. “Except for the last question, of course. Great job overall. Especially for the helper of a helper. You might have some potential after all.”
     I wasn’t sure I could stomach being subjected to his mustache on a consistent basis, but I was desperate, and he knew some plumbing basics. More importantly, he didn’t have any stink of shitbag about him, which in itself was an improvement over the usual miscreants who bothered to show up. 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 already run your background, and it all looks good. 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 will allow my eagle unfettered access to your ball sack.”
     I stood up and extended my hand. “Sound fair?”
     He visibly sighed, his shoulders relaxed, and he gave a relieved chuckle. “Deal, sir,” he said, standing 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 silk, pinstriped suit so that 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. You’ll need to pick up some Hawaiʻian shirts since they’re kind of our trademark here at Kahuna Plumbing. Another splash of color won’t hurt anything. We’ll do your new-hire paperwork on the job site tomorrow. And call me Vox. I’ll text you the address. Be there at 10 AM sharp.”
     “Will do, Vox. I’ll head to the mall and pick up some shirts right now.” He flashed a peace sign and turned for the door.
     “One more thing, Bart.”
     He stopped—his hand on the door 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 Emporium 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 this earth will soon be at an end. Any illicit intrusions morph the gargoyles from stony statues into wrecking machines.
     On my way back, I saw that Slim, the men’s bathroom attendant, was now on duty. He’s an old black dude 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 to go back out 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.
     “What’s the word of the day, Slimfast?”
     “Puuussssyyy,” he slowly drawled out, then belly laughed, his body shaking like a paint mixer.
     Just then, 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 thoroughly 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 now, have your stacks ready, and… MAKE! IT! RAIN!”
     Only Tony could’ve delivered such a compelling introduction. Though he was at the other end of the club, I saw him tilt Goldy up and swig like he was drinking a quart of beer. The bottle looked to be over half empty already. 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 have been feeding upon 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. Dios mio! What a prototypical example of prime femininity in the Latina form—jet black hair, café con leche skin, big hoop earrings. 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?”
     “Hola, Papi Vox,” she said, leaning over to give me a peck on the cheek.
     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. We all held our breath each time 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 on her bottom lip while meticulously writing down 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 flew in today and should be walking in any minute.”
     She clapped her hands together in delight. “Oh, yeah! I forgot he was coming this week. I’m sure Feloni is thrilled. I’ve seldom seen new love burn 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 were now facing each other and holding hands at center 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 wallets faster.
     Feloni and CashMoney didn’t have to pretend to be attracted to each other, plus they’re gorgeous and highly experienced in the art of stripping. I guarantee everyone huddled around the stage would have chosen to be right 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 the latter 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 even 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. Once there, Feloni laid on her back, her dirty blonde hair fanned out, and CashMoney, her signature dollar-sign tramp stamp ablaze in neon green, gracefully spun around on top until they were in a classic 69 position.
     Normally, they wouldn’t have gone much further because Hillsborough County ordinances are very clear that overt sex acts in strip clubs are illegal, and the club would be fined upon a confirmed violation. But that day there was no doubt in anyone’s minds what was going to 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 pink thong aside and go down on her, she returned the favor in kind. The crowd, already surging with the fury of caged baboons, 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, bringing probing tongues ever deeper into molten loins.
     Valentina reached under the table and grabbed my dick, which was as hard as an Applied Quantum Mechanics course at MIT. I glanced over, and she was staring straight ahead at her two friends, utterly spellbound—just kneading me through my pants and taking shallow chest breaths.
     By this time, around a dozen guys were leaning over the railing, each with a thick payload. Their hands were blurs 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 was nearing its end, and 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 moaning Feloni’s name over and over again.
     Valentina was now desperately trying to get my dick out of my pants, but right then GiGi showed back up with the bottle of liqueur and shot glasses all miraculously intact on her tray. Against all odds, despite the commotion and with virtually no lighting with which to see, she had somehow made it back unscathed. And in remarkably fast time.
     I was a reamed-out husk, barely able to talk, and Valentina was visibly panting, her eyes glazed over. GiGi set everything on the table and smiled sweetly, patiently waiting for me to settle the bill.
     “Just put it on my tab, GiGi, and give yourself $5,” I croaked. “And please put another bottle on ice for us.”
     “Thanks, Vox,” she beamed and carefully shuffled away.
     Feloni and CashMoney were now collecting all the bills carpeting the floor, which were so plentiful they were stuffing them into Home Depot five-gallon buckets.
     I felt a big 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 still gathering 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 run into him again.”

_________________________


    Not long after the deluge, Valentina had to leave after getting a call that her mom had tripped and fallen, possibly breaking her arm. But not before she reminded me to exercise some maturity and refrain from going hog wild on the Rumple Minz. There was direct causality between me drinking too much of the peppermint-flavored 100-proof howitzer and trouble ensuing.
    I nodded agreeably at her indisputable words of wisdom, then immediately forgot about them when she was out of sight. 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 smashed.GiGi stopped by to inquire if we were ready for the second bottle, which turned out to be Johnny’s cue. “Mr. Montague, I think it’s time for my love and I to get some alone time. I’ll let you know when I resurface.” Even though Johnny and I had business to attend to during his visit to Tampa, understandably his first priority was to take Feloni on a trip between the sheets to Pound Town.
     They got up to leave and Feloni smiled, wagging a finger at us. “Be careful now. You two are too much alike for your own good. Get home safely.”
     “No problem,” I scoffed at her. “You just make sure your sex jaguar doesn’t accidentally break you in half.”
     The women hugged goodbye, and Johnny and I fist-bumped. 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 the span of opening the second bottle of Rumple Minz and waking up the next morning. Each lasted barely more than a minute.
    In the first, I was suddenly aware of lying on soft sheets, my head slumped to the side. A thin rivulet of drool pooled on my shoulder. The lights were on. It seemed important to know the time. Hoping I’d made it back to my house, I groggily tried to spot my Sebastian the Ibis (the mascot of the Hurricanes) alarm clock on the nightstand. Aha! There it was. 943943943 o’clock. What the hell? I was so drunk that I was seeing triple. I felt motion above and 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 little 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 was saluting and ready for duty. This definitely wasn’t a wise decision, though it wasn’t like I was going to put a halt to the festivities.
     She lifted up a bit in an attempt to impale herself on me but was looking more and more unsteady by the second. Just then, the Rumple Minz battering ram circled around again, head-butting me back into the void. The last thing I recall before going under the waves was CashMoney falling forward and a titty plugging my open mouth like a cork.

_________________________


     My second memory was the sound 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!
     Unfortunately, CashMoney was still passed out on top of me and—though probably only 120 pounds at the most—in my feeble state, she felt like 120 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 looked over at the clock and this time could see clearly enough. 11:08. It took an eternity to move my eyes to the window. There was no light coming from between the blind slats, so it must have been 11:08 PM. Who else had keys other than me?
     Oh, fuck! Did Valentina have a set? With the speed of a lobotomized snail, I again tried to extricate myself but was backhanded with fatigue for my effort. “CashMoney,” I tried to say, though what came out is anybody’s guess. She didn’t respond.
     When I first moved in, I strategically set up a multiple mirror system so I could enjoy the aquarium in the living room while in bed. Since the house’s front door is located within several feet of the aquarium, and I hadn’t closed my bedroom door last night, CashMoney and I would be on full display for whoever possessed those keys. I had just enough oomph left to cast my eyes in the direction of the full-length mirror positioned outside my room.
     Without warning, slow-motion further down-shifted into park. Now I couldn’t move a muscle. I tried again 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 stare helplessly at the front door.
     The knob turned. The door opened. My Puerto Rican princesa stepped into view. Her chocolate brown eyes scanned the vicinity as her flawless lips parted. “Vo-ox,” she called, turning my name into two playful syllables. “Mamacita is gonna ride you like Secretariat. We’re gonna win the Triple Cr—”
     Our eyes met in the mirror. Her expression was quizzical. She couldn’t comprehend what she was seeing. 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.
     Finally, realization set in. Fury overwhelmed mi Boricua. 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 bits of glass 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 next receive her wrath—followed by its tires as she left most of their rubber on my driveway as a parting gift. Through it all, CashMoney never stirred. Within seconds, I returned to oblivion, 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. Damn you to hell, Fräulein Minz, you traitorous scoundrel!
     Valentina was clearly convinced I’d fucked CashMoney, though I’d barely even enjoyed 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.
     When I awoke that morning, she was already gone and probably didn’t even know Valentina had walked in on us. Valentina and I have a unique relationship in that our problems aren’t about me running around. She knows I sometimes stray and tolerates it. Her rules are:

(1) Keep it out of my face. I won’t look for other women, but I damn well 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, projectile-shitting all over an ideal situation. It could be argued that it wasn’t my intention to get CashMoney in the sack. And I’m positive it wasn’t. But she’d ended up there, nevertheless.
     Undeniably true. All of it. But, of course, my romantic dilemmas had nothing whatsoever to do with being able to pay bills, while selling jobs this week and getting paid 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 reverence to rival 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, in a burgundy fedora and matching Hawaiʻian shirt, eating a donut and twirling on his mustache.
     I pulled my van in behind him, jumped out, and with genuine joy hugged the confused lad. Maybe the day wouldn’t be an absolute disaster after all.

_________________________

     That 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 open—like a basking shark skimming for plankton.
     Thankfully, 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.
     With new trainees, at some point on their first day, I’ll ask them, “You know what a pipe stretcher is, right?” For those foolish enough to shake their head 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. Yes! More and more, Bart was proving himself not to be an idiot.
     After we finished that job, he followed me to a Raising Cane’s, which was on the way to our next call. We ate a delicious early lunch of chicken tenders, Cane’s sauce, crinkle-cut fries, and coleslaw. After gorging ourselves, the plan was to leave his car at the restaurant and he’d ride with me for the rest of the day.
     Though I’d given the cab a once-over in an attempt to hide my degenerate ways, an empty can of Dos Equis had somehow 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 profitably completed job followed, Bart continued to shine, and a day that had started like a sinking Titanic had somehow righted itself. The wind was now at our backs, and we were sailing along smoothly on calm waters, under blue 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 $350. 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, bam, boom. Yesterday his handlebar mustache annoyed me, but today I realized it was actually endearing.
     Bart said he’d replaced a toilet before, so I just sat on the edge of the tub watching. My mind ostensibly supervised, but every couple of minutes it decided to revisit last night—alternating between still shots of CashMoney’s extraordinary tits and Valentina’s stunned expression of disbelief—before returning to the present task of monitoring my helper.
     As often happens, the bolts securing the toilet bowl to the floor were rusted on. Unfortunately, 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 & bolts instead of the existing ones. I looked on in admiration at 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 was barely dripping from the end of the tubing onto the floor. Nothing major, but enough to form a little puddle that was slowly getting bigger. The Dremel was a plug-in. As we all know, water and electricity don’t make compatible bedfellows.
     I had 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. Smart guy that he is, 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, he allowed himself a barely discernible fist clench of approval, and then a micro-moment later, 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. Very quickly, the rest of the houseincluding the hardwood floors just a few feet away in the hallwaywould be flooded, too.
     Bart, who was on his hands and knees, yelped and instinctively tried to scramble to his feet. He almost got vertical but slipped and fell to the tile.
     Despite my shin, the rapidly worsening water situation was undoubtedly 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 toward the pipe and in a kind of Karate Kid “wax on, wax off” manner, rotated them inward in small circular motions. “Veena tom bok kwai,” I whisper-chanted. The water spewing out of the pipe instantly stopped. Not a drop more ventured past the lip. Next, I brought my hands to waist level, palms facing up, rapidly fluttering them for several seconds.
     “Zeely con zub kwai.” Still vibrating, I slowly raised them up to shoulder height. At that, all the water on the floor floated up in individual droplets, merging into a single body, awaiting my instructions. I thrust my hands toward the bathtub. The water instantly obeyed, funneling into a liquid rope and obediently pouring over the edge. The floor was now bone-dry.
     I looked over at Bart. He’d managed to struggle 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 started singing the chorus to “Let It Go.”
     His right eye and cheek began to twitch.
     “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, shortly thereafter the sounds of her slippers shuffled our way.
     The door opened and she stuck her head in, her White Shoulders perfume leading the charge. “Would you boys like an egg salad sandwich? I don’t put relish in mine. Nothing I hate worse than egg salad that tastes like you’re eating dessert.”
     Bart just twitched and stared at her.
     “Thank you so much, Mrs. Hankerson. We’re fine. Just taking a little break.”
     “How ’bout a glass of water, then?” she asked.
     “No ma’am. We’ve had all the water we can handle. You’re too kind. Don’t worry about us.”
     “Okie-dokie,” she said, closed the door, and shuffled 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 making sure Mrs. Hankerson was out of sight, I carried him 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 power. It was possible he was in complete denial and had already locked the memory away in a vault, pitching it over the side into the Mariana Trench of his subconscious. Better that than a blown mind.
     All he said over and over was, “I’m so sorry, dude. I’m so sorry.” His fedora was askew, his eyes vacant, and both hands now twirled his mustache in overdrive. I wondered how much more his handlebars could take.
     “No problemo, jefe. I’ll finish up and be right back. You sit tight. And make sure to keep your foot elevated.”
     Within twenty minutes, we were on State Road 54, returning to Tampa from Wesley Chapel. Bart had regained some of his composure. His twirling was reduced back down to one hand, his hat was righted, the twitch was mostly gone, and he wasn’t constantly apologizing anymore. All positive signs. He tightly held 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.
     “What?”
     “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 after all.
     “First of all, Bart, what happened back there wasn’t your fault. In fact, your performance all day has been top-notch.” I had decided coming clean was the best option. He’d seen everything up close and personal. I mean, there was no real way to explain this away, and given enough distance and perspective, he’d realize that. The kid wasn’t stupid, 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 that some strange, outlandish shit is actually real. That valve breaking off was a freak occurrence. However, it 100% happened. What I did after also 100% happened. No tricks. No TV series. No tests. You’ve seen The Matrix, right?” He nodded again. “You’re plunging down the rabbit hole as we speak, Neo.”
     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 an organization possessing certain magical powers. We call ourselves kahunas. One of our abilities is the manipulation of water. We can make it do what we want. Generally speaking. You bore witness to that today. Does that make any sense to you?”
     He shook his head slowly in wonderment. “You’re serious, aren’t you? Wow! I’m in, bruh. 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 octopus 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, and I couldn’t help laughing. “Sadly, my friend, it doesn’t work quite like that. It’s not a club you can join. You have to 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 was coming up, and I got in the turning lane.
     He just kept shaking his head. “Amazing. 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 17th green of Plantation Palms,” I said, pulling into the restaurant and finding 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? The hospital is right down the road. Do you think we need to stop by?”
     “Honestly, I can’t even feel the pain anymore, man. You’ve obviously got some mega healing powers. I feel better than new.”
     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 my vantage point in the driver’s seat, I couldn’t see much of the resulting mayhem—other than his initial facial contortion of painbut sounds told the story. A hideous pop kicked off the show. Followed by a scream that would’ve woken any nearby dead. At that point, 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 big 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 scattered in between. Three bridges cross over the bay, efficiently connecting the counties, but in many ways 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 northern bridge, had only just begun, and I was making semi-reasonable time returning to Tampa from Clearwater after handing over the beleaguered Bart to his sister, Brandi, with whom he lived. “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot played in the background.
     The sun—its shortened winter workday nearing the end—was headed home as well, but there was still plenty of light to enjoy 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 24 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 currently-reasonable company insurance rates—I helped him back into the van 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 tenders and sauce “…to help ease your pain. We’ll deal with insurance tomorrow.” Unbelievably nice. It’s only a matter of time before a restaurant needs plumbing service, and his next one was going to be on the house.
     We left the Subaru with a promise from Chuck that it wouldn’t be towed. Bart was even worse off than before, back in “I’m sooo sorry, dude” form, and begging me to end his pain with a water bazooka. He was droning on so much that—if I could have conjured up one right then—I might have been tempted to use it to put both of us out of our misery. I gave him the to-go box, telling him eating would help the pain. 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 quite 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, especially considering that finding non-shitbag help was so damn difficult. 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, I could hopefully wrangle some help from the Goat—who’s a mobile auto mechanic with a semi-flexible schedule. Ever since I’ve known him, we’ve traded all manner of favors back and forth. Maybe he could finagle his schedule around to help out here and there while Bart healed.
     In a teaspoon of serendipity, before I dropped him off, Bart told me his sister was nearing the end of med school at Nova Southeastern University, doing her residency in orthopedics. At least 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; flowing clusters of grey Spanish moss hang from each oak 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 under my tires as I slowly rolled through the park (8 MPH please). The air was redolent with orange blossoms. I’m a junkie for their scent and took deep, vaping 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 was rocking in the shadows of his covered porch: the red tip of a gargantuan blunt smoldered, and the shockingly white teeth of his Cheshire Cat smile flashed.
     “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 swung it, but in addition to a medical marijuana waiver allowing him unrestricted usage, Jimmy actually has a state license to grow the stuff. A massive, state-of-the-art hydroponic unit takes up all of one bedroom. He refers to his prized, custom strain he created as Half-Hit-Shit, meaning most people only have to take a partial puff to get stoned. Unless you’re a toking pro, a full hit will make you feel like 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 one time we burned, I was convinced you were a prehistoric saber-toothed capybara. After I got home, I ate three packages of Oreos, two rotisserie chickens, and a jar of pickles. Then, I slept for two days.”
     His deep, bass laughter rumbled like a Robbie Shakespeare bass line.
     The park has only the 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 most 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 old ladies in her age group. She was walking back from the bay in her pink training swimsuit with matching cap. She had probably just butterflied to Texas and back for a light workout and was headed inside for a spirulina & 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 in 1991 when we blew them out 46-3, so they’re fine by me.
     After her place, the road wiggles a final time through a 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. As such, 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 3.25 acre island, connected to the mainland by a 55′ bridge, which is guarded by a ten-foot wide, double-swinging gate. The gate is 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, 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 broken, 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, is a sea turtle with a shallow depression embedded in its shell. I placed my hand there and whisper-chanted “vani kai bon lima.” Similar to my office, chimes would be activated if any supernatties—creatures of magic— had been sniffing around. Instead, an energy field, which domes over and protects the island, 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 a code (80085) into a keypad below. Even though Johnny is also a kahuna, the biometric handprint and whisper-chant vocals are attuned only to me.
     The field is useless against uninvited natties. Provided they’re able to scale the fence or traverse the water, I have other ways to deal with them. Especially process servers and bill collectors.
     I turned to get back into my van.
     Meow.
     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.
     Meow.
     This time I looked up. A cat sat atop the totem. An exceedingly big cat. Way too big for that tiny meow. I chided myself for sensing nothing of the beast upon my approach. Sure, my shin was stealing some attention, but that kind of sloppiness could easily be the death of me.
     The totems are twelve feet high—genuine Takanga totems—with sides so burnished and wood so hard that I didn’t see how anything other than a gecko could climb them. Maybe not even that. But unless it had wings, the cat must have somehow scaled up. Impressive. With those pole-climbing skills, it might have a future as a stripper.
     Meow.
     It definitely had house cat features but was about twice as big. How the hell did it get up there, and more importantly at the moment, how was it going to get down? This pain-in-the-ass turn of events further delayed my urgent meeting with a cold beer.
     “Jackass,” I grumbled at him. A classic case of immediate gratification gone awry. This clown had decided that ascending the totem was a splendid idea yet didn’t have the foresight to think about the inevitable step of descending, leaving someone else the responsibility of rescuing it.
     The extension ladder on my van wasn’t ideal for the task—I didn’t want to chance it leaning against the slippery surface of the totem. I’d have to use the eight-foot stepladder from the house. Hopefully, I could reach up and save the fool without breaking my neck in the process. But who could predict how it would react? Anything stupid enough to intentionally get up there might also decide clawing its rescuer made sense.
     Meow.
     “Yeah, yeah. The courtesy of a little patience would be appreciated while I fix this mess you made.”
     Meow.
     I drove up to the house, retrieved the ladder from the shed attached to the carport, and returned.
     As I spread the ladder out and locked its braces, I was still bitching. This could go very badly, trying to save an overgrown cat who made poor life choices, but what else could I do? I couldn’t just leave the damn thing up there. 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!” I called out. “Appreciate it, buddy!”
     I’ve been working on letting go of the past, and 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 the refreshing alcohol flowing jovially down my throat.
     Meow.
     I screeched like a barn owl, reflexively jumped back, stumbled off the edge of the elevated teak walkway, and tumbled to the ground with the grace of a sack of elephant seal shit. Right into a rose bush. Even though I was wearing a long-sleeve shirt, several thorns penetrated my arms and right shoulder. I pathetically groaned, awash in agony. What in the name of Moby Dick’s Cock? I gingerly pushed myself to a sitting position, receiving an additional puncture and blaze of pain in my left palm. Sitting by the front door was the cat. It looked at me blankly for a split second and then started intently cleaning itself with its polydactyl paws.

_________________________

     I lounged back in my clammy on my screened-in back porch, the bubbling water not only remedying tired and aching muscles but also healing the shin hematoma, thorn damage, and various other bumps and bruises I’d recently accumulated. While it’s true almost all supernatties can heal faster than natties, the rejuvenation capabilities of kahunas is only modestly better. Which is a problem due to both the hazardous nature of a kahuna’s work and my unique ability to injure myself.
     To help us heal faster, we have special hot tubs made from the half shells of Colossaclams—a cousin 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’re in need of some alone time or have an orgy coming up.
     A clammy works in two ways:
     The first has to do with makana, which is the life force of kahunas. Meaning “gift” in Hawaiʻian, it’s our go-juice—our version of chi, ki, or prana—and it permeates every cell of our beings. In a nutshell, it gives us our magical powers. If a kahuna’s makana level is lower than normal, which can happen due to injury or sickness, his or her natural healing powers will suffer. A clammy stimulates our bodies to restore the default amount of makana quicker than it normally would. Sufficient makana doesn’t directly heal, but you can’t heal (or function effectively) if your makana is depleted. Incidentally, regular water— regardless of source—also contains makana, but nowhere close to a kahuna’s levels.
     Secondly, for us, to hell with milk: nothing compares with Colossaclams in doing a body good. As it was explained to me, our bodies still effectuate the actual restoration, but “in the healing sub-matrix 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, the clam meat has similar regenerative properties. Refined into an ultra-concentrated powder, you just sprinkle a handful of meatboost in the clammy during your soak, and you’re zooming back down the road to wellness—as long as you didn’t fuck yourself up too badly to begin with.
     Healing aside, the cat had now reasserted dominance over my thoughts. Up close at ground level, you could see just how enormous the fucker was compared to other house cats. He had a shiny name tag that read “Achilles.” Though you never know with names these days, I’d assume he 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, I couldn’t recall ever seeing cat nads.
     Occasionally, strays show up around the park, so I keep a bag of cat food on hand to make life a tad easier for them. Everybody appreciates a snack and a kind word, right? Almost everybody. Thus far only the water had been touched. It’s impossible to read a cat’s expression, but when he looked at the bowl of kibble and then back at me, I swear his mouth curled in disdain.
     How did a house cat get so monstrously big? It wasn’t fat like I’d first thought. This creature had impressive muscle bulges under its fur. And even more so than the mystery of how it came to be sitting on the totem, a more perplexing question was how it’d gotten down and to my front door so quickly and stealthily. Was this a legendary ninja cat? I’d heard stories of such animals existing in Japan, but all of those had been black or white. This one’s coat was solid gold. And the more I watched it, when viewed from different angles and under different lighting, its shadings subtly changed as well—making him gleam, almost as if he was made from actual gold.
     Coloring aside, another reason for my fascination was just how strikingly beautiful he was. Absolutely gorgeous. I’m talking supermodel looks. Take the most handsome cat you’ve ever seen and multiply by at least ten. Besides the mystery 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 just, well, acted like a regular cat. At present, I could see him out on the porch violating the laws of physics by somehow stuffing himself into an empty cardboard case of Moosehead Lager, with no apparent agendas or worries on his mind. Soon, hunger got the best of me—those chicken tenders had gone as far as they could—and I clambered out of the clammy and headed inside to the living room.
     As I came through the double sliding-glass doors, I locked them behind me and trailed my fingers along the immense, 30′ 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. Pure joy, that is, if you happen to be a kahuna.
     Everybody I know who’s fortunate enough to lay eyes on them are captivated—even the catshark, who wouldn’t dare eat them. But kahunafish (k-fish) and kahunas have a special symbiotic relationship—based on the fact they’re the only other life forms that have makana.
     When at least one kahuna and at least one of our fishy cousins are near each other, we stimulate an organ 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, the makanacrine secretes makana into our systems. The presence of a makanacrine is the primary, and most important, separator between a kahuna—who technically is a supernattie humanoid—and a human.
     Though this mutual stimulation between kahunas and k-fish just 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 I personally refer to the experience as “makana swaps,” even though that isn’t what’s really happening. The phenomenon doesn’t happen between kahunafish alone, nor between multiple kahunas. It only occurs when kahunas and k-fish are together.
     Regardless of the science, there’s no denying it feels goood while you’re swapping… and for about fifteen minutes after. As far as I know, swaps are the only way to increase makana in a kahuna’s body above its default levels.
     The kahunafish really seem to enjoy it, too. Talk about a real win-win situation. It’s the only relationship so far I haven’t managed to fuck up. Even when we’re not enjoying swaps, 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 watching 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 nearly scraping 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 of this megalodon are gleaming white. It’s not a fossil.
     As for the dwelling itself, it’s a custom house constructed of a subspecies of ironwood called wampiloa—an extremely rare tree only found on a small 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 happen to be a kahuna shaman-engineer with vectorized magic. Otherwise, it takes a regular diamond-tipped saw blade at least five minutes to cut through a 2×4, leaving the blade all but destroyed in the process. In addition to the house, the bridge, gate, totems, and tiki torches are all made of wampiloa.
     The windows and sliding-glass doors are a special composite called tela’koa, 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 color of the sand gives the windows a natural tinting. The locations of neither wampiloa nor the sand are known to anybody except the holier-than-thou elite who sit on the Kahuna Council.
     As you doubtlessly surmised, a house like that is of incalculable value, especially when it sits on an island. Definitely way above my pay grade. I’m just a tenant. For many years, no other dwelling was within shouting distance of the place—nothing except the trees and a small orange grove. Then, the powers that be decided to sell the rest of the surrounding 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 of Florida. He’d been born shortly before the Civil War and—for around fifty years—had kahuna’d in various territories throughout the Northeast. In the Roaring ’20s, the Council decided Florida had grown big enough to warrant representation and gave him the job. A chief can live anywhere in their assigned area, 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. Since he was already ensconced in Tampa, the western half of the state became his. Willard passed on fifteen years ago, not long after I finished up my apprenticeship training in Louisiana. I got my orders, packed up my shit, and headed southeast.
     I went into the kitchen, crossing my fingers that Yesterday Vox had shown the decency to leave Today Vox a respectable-sized piece of standing rib roast. The Rumple Minz blackout was making my memory a little fuzzy on whether I had even bothered to eat 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 had 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. The dill was from my herb garden on the back porch. 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. A couple of Stewart’s orange cream sodas washed it all down. Though the 6-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.
     After a shower, I realized how tired I was. It’d been an exhausting day and a half. Before turning in, I decided to see if the feline was still around. As I came into the living room, the sounds of ravenous gluttony—the magnitude of which even exceeded what I’d done to the sandwich and potato salad—stole my attention. They seemed to be coming from the patio. Something was aggressively feasting, ripping flesh from bone. And punctuated with what sounded like… moans?
     On the other side of the aquarium is another door leading to the patio. I keep a mini keg-sized barrel of water by all exterior doors, in case I have to weaponize them against one of the aforementioned unwanted guests. It won’t kill them, but a jet of water to the face or balls 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 coned, overhead light I keep on illuminated a distinct circle on the concrete floor, reminding me of CashMoney and Feloni from the night 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 30 lbs. 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 eating.
     Yet another cat mystery, even more stupefying than the other ones he presented. Though huge for a house cat, 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 for now, and I quietly eased the door back shut, deciding that sleep was currently needed more than feline answers.
     I climbed into my waterbed and almost immediately fell asleep. My last sensation before drifting off was the relief of today being financially successful enough that I could at least take tomorrow morning off.

Chapter 6

CashMoney

     I led the trailing donkey by his tie into the club’s private dance area to the left of the main stage. In my other hand was a bottle of Dom 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. Partitions marked off the four individual sections, providing some concealment for the sinning, but through an opening, a platinum blonde ponytail caught my attention. It was bobbing 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 half-expected Sir David Attenborough to cut in and give the play-by-play.
     “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 probably shouldn’t have said it, but the bitch is a nasty ho who’s infamous for trying to steal the regulars of other dancers. Also, she has a weird Funyuns stank to her that makes me gag. Probably crotch rot.
     She gasped in alarm, and a second later, he yowled in pain. Vicki must have nicked some foreskin in her quick tuck-and-zip. At the same time we slipped into our section, Vicki and her panda hurried out of theirs.
     We sat on the couch, and I went into full CashMoney character. Biting my lower lip like a bad schoolgirl, I looked off to the side while facing him. “You ready, stud?” I cooed. I’ve been told I look like that girl from the 80’s 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, all customers are donkeys, but this long-faced, big-eared guy was the spitting image of one. 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 force its way 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 50% of that. I’d also get a commission from the champagne I’d convinced him we needed. A lot of dancers would have been content there. Not me. I needed a fat tip on top. I crawled out of the womb a born hustler. We’re all adults here. If 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 takes precedence. However, it was late—already 2:30 AM—and the stage was empty. Only three or four of us dancers were still hanging around. This would probably be the last set of songs before we closed.
     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 next to impossible to change it even if you wanted to. Once you perfect your craft, you can pretty much put the whole thing on auto-pilot. You just have to program yourself to smile every 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 the allowable range of actions. Don’t touch my boobs or within six inches of my coochie. Most everything else, I will 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. 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. It’s not like I have a thing for him, either.
     Most importantly, he belongs to Valentina! One of my two BFFs. I’d been able to block it out most of the day because I didn’t have the courage to face it. Now, it was nibbling 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. He’d never tried, but of course he secretly lusted. When you’re a hot chick, all heterosexual males want to fuck you. Every female knows that.
     I checked in on things. The second song of the set was playing, and I was facing the donkey with my boobs inches from his face. At Lola’s, we wear a thong but strip down topless. I glanced down and, sure enough, there was a tent pitched in his white pants. Which was to be expected. We’re all just animals, after all. I don’t mind guys having fun as long as they’re respectful.
     I hadn’t talked to Feloni, either. She was off shacked up with Johnny having fun, and the lucky bitch probably wouldn’t be able to walk for a week afterwards. 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 either a piece of garbage or boring as hell. As volatile as Valentina and Vox are sometimes, theirs is still better than 99% of my relationships.
     A warning signal went off in my head, and I zipped back to the present. I was facing away from the donkey and turned to see what had triggered my alarm. Unbelievably, this fool had his dick out and was beating it like it had broken into his house. 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, Donovan, so I took the only option I had. 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 real 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 that 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 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 because he screamed louder, and in a higher pitch, than girl scouts who stumble on a tarantula. It was more horrific than any movie scream queen could have mustered. I had no idea a man could make that sound.
     I don’t know how he kept from keeling over, but somehow he got to his feet with both hands over his junk and ran towards the curtain. Unfortunately for him, the curtain was the same color as the wall, and he misjudged and ran smack into it. Amazingly, again he didn’t fall down, just bounced back a couple feet like he’d been stunned with a cattle prod. His screaming—which had paused for an instant—started up even higher and louder, if that was possible.
     He sprinted through the curtain without opening it, somehow catching a piece and tearing the assembly off the frame. Through the club he squealed, running without using his arms, the curtain and rod trailing after him. A confused Donovan leapt out of the maniac donkey’s path as he rampaged out the front door.
     Once the hubbub died down and Donovan and the house mom, Brenda, made sure I was alright, I put the table back in place and gathered the Dom and the cups. I half-expected to see a piece of the donkey laying around, but apparently 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. I’d encountered even more outrageous things before, however, this one guaranteed would 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 make me a shift manager, which basically means that sometimes I’m the last one to leave and have to set the alarm and lock the doors. I don’t mind because—unlike the other girls—I never go home before a shift is over. Always hustling.
     She pays me $50 cash each time, and that’s not a bad little bonus for hardly any extra work. A cleanup crew would come in the morning to 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 slot in the safe.
     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 my shit out. I’d slip it into Feloni’s locker with instructions to read it and pass it on to Valentina. I had no idea how many days Feloni was going to be out with Johnny, but hopefully she’d be back soon. A text just felt so cold, so inadequate, in this situation.
     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 24 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 of times to make sure the paper was inserted all the way into the crease and a little piece wasn’t still hanging 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 or not? I almost let it go to voicemail, but at the last second picked up.
     Before she even 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 right then I 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. Click.
     Was I imagining it or did she sound a smidgen 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 shit out in the open right now. Feloni first. Valentina hopefully tomorrow. One step at a time. I said a prayer. Maybe there was a glimmer of hope. I grabbed my duffel bag (which was a little heavier than usual because the still-unopened Dom was coming home with me) and my purse, activated the alarm, and in no time I was out the back door.
     Unlike a lot of strip clubs, Lola’s is in a nice area of town, right on Westshore Ave. The parking lot is pretty well lit, and I’d parked as close as I could—less than ten seconds from the door. After I removed my key from the door, I started walking fast with a can of this special stuff Vox gave me that’s supposed to be 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 really weir— Something was next to me, so close it was a part of me. Hot breath caressed my neck, and a teasing whisper dripped with seduction“So fucking hot.”
     My head was tilted to the side. There was nothing I could do. I didn’t know what was happening, but I knew I was powerless to get away. I didn’t even know if I wanted to. The stars looked upon me with sympathy, but the moon was huge and judging. My neck felt wet. I heard the whisper again, but 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—

_________________________

Vox

     “It’s okay. I blame CashMoney, not you. She’s always had a thing for you and took advantage of the situation.”
     Valentina’s ponytail swayed side-to-side as the rest of her bounced up and down. Her angelic face 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, her face melted into her neck and, 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 lipstickflicked his forked tongue at me and launched into song about the fateful trip of the tiny ship.
     I screamed in terror, but he wouldn’t stop.
     His tongue morphed into an eel’s head, its little jaws snapping at the air. “Papi Vox!” it roared, slithering toward me.
     “AAAHHHHH!”
     I woke up in a sheer panic, horror driving an icy pick down my spine. My bowels turned to water, and I shit myself.
     On my nightstand, my phone glowed and vibrated. My ringtone, “The Ballad of Gilligan’s Island,” launched into its second verse.
     I stared at it dumbly for a moment. Finally, 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 my phone, I squinted at the blurry name. My mind still hadn’t completely roused itself. After another second, it came into focus. Feloni? Why the hell was she calling me at this ungodly hour?
     I robotically answered. “Hello,” I heard myself say.
     Feloni tried to talk, but I couldn’t understand anything. She was jabbering so fast that everything was garbled.
     Instantly, my nightmare was forgotten. Lucidity returned.
     “Feloni,” I said soothingly. “What’s wrong? Slow down and take a breath. Just breathe for a second. And then slowly tell me what happened.”
     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!”
     Those last two sentences were a sledgehammer to the face. “Call Maria and get CashMoney over to her house as fast as you can,” I directed. Feloni knew that was the best course of action, but was obviously—and quite understandably—badly shaken.
     “But don’t be reckless. Hands-free talking, please. You getting into a wreck isn’t going to help the situation. I’ll meet you there. Call Valentina, too. She’s probably got my phone number blocked. Then phone me back after you’ve made those calls. I need details.”
     I hung up, allowed myself a face-palm and a brief fit of enraged cussing, then flipped on the bedroom light. My Roberto Clemente-autographed baseball bat beckoned to me from beside my nightstand. It knew I wanted to break shit. I took a step that way, but then sanity whistled me to a stop. Time was of the essence; people needed me. Florida’s well-known for hurricanes, but I had a seriously bad feeling that a different kind of Category 5 trouble was barreling towards Tampa Bay.

Chapter 7

     I quickly cleaned up with wet wipes and threw on some clothes. Within two minutes, I was in my van speeding through the park, sending gravel flying.
     Feloni rang back. She was still semi-hysterical, but 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 her insistence, Feloni had stayed mum all day. However, she’d reached her limit and called CashMoney’s cell just as the latter was about ready 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. Feloni’s anger turned to worry, and she drove to the club. As she turned into the back parking lot, her headlights revealed CashMoney lying on the ground.  
     Feloni is a vampyre herself, which is why she was able to quickly 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 indicated that the assailant was a vöspyrnatu—a particularly insidious type of vamp. A regular vamp leaves maroon rings. In either case, the rings don’t last long, but Feloni had arrived just before they’d faded.
     A hospital would have been worthless because, unsurprisingly, nattie doctors are powerless to diagnose or treat those with supernatural injuries. The only supernattie who could possibly save CashMoney at this point would be a powerful witch. And the only witch of sufficient caliber who was close enough to render aid was Maria del Dolor—”Maria of the Pain”—the Madam Domina witch of Florida.
     To Feloni’s credit, she knew she was too frazzled by the attack to think 100% clearly, so she’d called me first. Maria lives in South Tampa. Since it would still be well over an hour before Tampa stirring, traffic would be almost nonexistent and, by my calculations, it’d take Feloni only around ten minutes to get there. For Valentina, about the same. I’d be approximately five to seven minutes behind them.
     Feloni said Johnny had made a quick sojourn to his sister’s house up in Crystal River yesterday afternoon and would be returning to Tampa around lunchtime later today. He wouldn’t have been able to drive back in time to be of much use, nor, like all kahunas, does he have the ability to heal others. So, we decided the best course of action for now was to let him sleep.
     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. Their attention was squarely on CashMoney, who was lying on her back on a massage table. She didn’t appear to be in any pain; it just looked like she was sleeping peacefully.
     Maria is nearly two hundred years old, but doesn’t look much over sixty. Her hair is Coolio meets Dennis Rodman—braids sticking up everywhere like a spider in rigor mortis, their colors always changing. Today was rainbow day. She knows both CashMoney and Feloni but only ever calls them by their real names—Cassandra and Felicity, respectively.
     She stood at the head of the table, eyes closed, fingertips lightly pressed against CashMoney’s forehead, and chanted softly in rapid, unintelligible whispers. Valentina, sightless eyes staring at the ceiling, stood at her left side in a supporting role, grasping her grandmother’s bicep with both hands. 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 up my two cents; healing is a witch’s domain. So, I just stood out of the way in a corner next to a tall floor vase of tulips.
     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 onto mine. I hadn’t even been sure she knew I was there. I’m not going to lie—for an instant, I trembled like a baby gazelle.
     “Vox, grab that vase and get over here. Now! We’re losing her!” She also shouted at Feloni to get a pitcher of water ready to refill the vase as needed.
     My biological father was nowhere to be found when I was growing up. A shitty step-father was on the scene for a number of years but had no real 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. Suddenly, 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.
     “Vox, filter the makana out of the water and pump it into Valentina. Think of the color aquamarine.” She held up her wrist, which was encircled by a gemstone bracelet. “Exactly the color of these gems. Blank your mind of everything else. Don’t add your own makana because that’ll be too much power. 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 I could see a heatwave of the color escape my skin. Though I feared for mi amor’s safety as a conduit, I trusted Maria. Once the makana started to rise 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 crashing on the walls and ceiling were waves in a violent sea. Valentina’s eyes flew open. They had no whites showing; her eyeballs had transmuted into solid aquamarine spheres.
     Maria herself started shaking, arms vibrating like she was operating a jackhammer. Her chants shifted to a thrumming, then gradually to a buzzing—louder and louder until our ears were swarmed by the din of a hundred colonies of bees.
     I could feel that nearly all of the inherent makana of the water had been filtered out.
     “Feloni,” I gasped. “Pour that water out and refill with new. Fast.”
     She was like a one-woman NASCAR pit crew—refueling the vase, filling it to the brim in a snap. The main issue was that I was running out of energy and didn’t know how much more I could take. The room started dimming 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 his leg.”
     What?! Did I hear her right, or were my ears going, also? I’m far from an expert at witchy things, but was this standard operating procedure? Was this a certified best practice?
     Zip. Down went my pants. I could sense Feloni down there, poised like a viper ready to strike.
     I tried to mentally prepare myself for getting skewered, but a moment later the buzzing abruptly ceased, and the only sound in the room was our labored breathing. My vision cleared, but I felt drunk. I looked at Maria, desperately hoping for good news. But part of me already could sense the outcome. She just sadly shook her head.
     “Felicity,” Maria softly said in a voice choked with sorrow. “Never mind. It’s over. We couldn’t save her.”
     Using my arm as a crutch, Feloni unsteadily stood and looked at Valentina—whose eyes had returned from wherever they’d been. Both their faces were haunted with despair and disbelief. The women rushed to each other, embracing and sobbing, their shoulders shaking in racking heaves.
     “Vox,” Maria said. I turned to her, blinking a couple of times to try and reset my head. She raised her eyebrows and pointed at the floor. 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 pulled my pants up and sheepishly looked back.
     She pointed to the opposite side of the room, mouthing “kitchen.”

_________________________

     Maria directed me to sit at a little table as she poured us two glasses of what appeared to be a pungent-smelling iced tea.
     “You really pack a punch,” she said, sinking down wearily in the other chair. 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, seeing that 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, and he couldn’t filter the makana out of water nearly as well as you can. You’re raw, still unrefined, still not entirely focused, but you’ve got real potential, kid.” I could tell she was using small talk to try and regroup, to add a little distance so the tragedy was a smidgen less fresh in our minds.
     “Oh, right. Thanks,” I said, pleased at the compliment, but still kind of embarrassed she noticed I wasn’t yet a finished product—a fact I knew all too well. “I tried my best. I don’t have internal powers, so I couldn’t have added my own makana if you’d needed that, but I’m not too bad at exterior 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. For a kahuna, the only way we can produce it is inside our own body, via our manacrine. 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. Yeah, she can’t get the makana out of water, or make it herself, or anything like that. But she can somehow receive pure makana into her body and turn it into native witch energy, wiccana.
     We found this out when we first started banging. When a kahuna is fucking, either male or female, they naturally discharge some makana in their sex juice and through their skin. Their makanacrine, of course, kicks into gear to restore their default level. But that emitted makana is wasted on their partner, who can’t do anything with it. It just fades away.
     After much more, uh, study and experimentation on the matter, it became apparent that Valentina was somehow able to absorb my makana. And transform it for her own purposes. Not only was having sex with Valentina indescribably pleasurable, but the makana in my cum was like a superfood for her.
     “Indeed. She 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 relationship choices.
     Though I was grateful for the temporary delay in discussing the subject at hand, all I could really think about was CashMoney. Not only was she one of Valentina’s best friends, I was also close to her. In my life, I haven’t found an overabundance of people to be truly interesting. CashMoney was squarely on the list. She had her own style, did things her own way, and that’s a rare thing in a world where most people are little more than sheep doing their shepherd’s bidding. I could feel extreme anger and loss roiling beneath the surface and would face that later. For now, I just felt numb. Still, while I had the chance, I needed the answers to a couple of questions.
     “So what happened back there, Maria? Why couldn’t we save her?”
     She sighed heavily, looking off into the distance. She was fighting it, but 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 a hippo four times over. It’s crazy the amount 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?”
     “Yeah, but it was evident. 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 orange and black 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—who make up a small percentage of vampyres—are known to hoard their venom like gold. It takes years for them to generate the stuff and would probably require close to 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 someone who was just an ordinary nattie. Another thought came to mind. “Why did you tell Feloni to bite me in the 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 25% more efficient than via the neck. I thought you’d know that. You’re aware that vampyres can temporarily elevate the life forces of all supernatural creatures, right? ”
     “Yeah, I knew about their version of a nitrous boost. They bite their tongue and inject you with their own blood through their hollow fangs. But I had no idea about this cranked-up thigh delivery system.” I was feeling more and more inadequate as the conversation continued. “I assume you were completely sure that Feloni wasn’t going to start feeding on me?” I said in a joke-that-wasn’t-completely-a-joke sort of way.
     “Of course,” she said, frowning. “Val told me that Felicity, when she’s forced to drink blood, only does so on rats. And even then, only drains a little bit out of each one to ensure their survival. She wouldn’t have hurt you for the world.” She winked at me. “If she would have instead been my granddaughter, things might’ve turned out differently for you.”
     “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 said, adding a dismissive wave and thoroughly ignoring her last sentence. “Also, I’ve never been bitten by a vamp…especially down there… and 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 had initially summoned me from the corner. “I hope you never experience the bite of one trying to kill you while inflicting maximum pain.” She moved her dreads out of the way. There were two black circles on her neck. “I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.”
     We finished our drinks and went back to the living room. The girls were huddled on the couch, still immersed in their terrible grief. After a bit, Maria gently led her granddaughter off to the side and hugged her, stroking her hair and speaking softly.
     After their short conversation, Valentina went into the kitchen, and 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 couldn’t answer. For a few minutes, I tried to comfort her as best I could, though I doubt I was of much help. For now, she needed rest. We all did. Everyone was mentally bled out.
     Maria returned to the couch and placed her hand on Feloni’s shoulder. “You go on up to the guest room with Val and get what sleep you can. There’s nothing we can do right now. She’s making you both a special brew that’ll help you relax.” Feloni just nodded in compliance and ambled off toward the bedrooms.
     “Vox, you’re welcome to stay, also. There’s a Murphy bed in my office.”
     “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 got some of our strength back, the girls and I will figure out what to do next regarding Cassandra. I’m sure it’ll make sense for Felicity to go over and talk to her kin. You be safe driving.”
     We hugged, and I motioned to the kitchen. “I’m just going to say goodbye to Valentina before I head out.”
     Her look seemed to acknowledge both my courage and my impending death.
     We hadn’t talked since the Mirror Fiasco, which though only slightly more than a day ago, felt like a month. Valentina was by the stove, holding a lemon. A pot of herbs simmered on the burner. This wouldn’t go well; I only hoped it didn’t turn out to be a catastrophe. There were a lot of emotions at play. I stood over by the table. Right now, she’d be as unpredictable as a bull shark. 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, reaching into the nearest drawer and 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— ”
     She slammed the lemon on the counter and turned to me with the knife.
     It was a coin flip as to whether I was about to be carved up, but I just stood there, watching her storm over and get in my face like a drill sergeant. Her cheeks were still tear-streaked.
     “You and Rumple Minz!” she yelled. “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. But she turned the knife at the last instant, the handle butt thumping against my clavicle. The pain was excruciating, radiating out like a mushroom cloud. Somehow, I managed to keep 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,” she continued loudly. “But I don’t want to talk about that right now, you stupid 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. Ouuuch! “Were you just interrupted with another girl in your bed?”
     It was crystal clear that it was too painful for Valentina to directly address CashMoney’s murder, and my alleged bedroom escapades were instead being used as a substitution. I had no doubt she was still royally pissed off about what she thought we’d done, but in the grand scheme of her anger, it didn’t come anywhere close in comparison to the tragedy that had just befallen one of her soul sisters. I knew she needed to get some of her rage out. I just hoped I survived the proceedings.
     “No. Of course not, V,” I tried to explain, one hand raised and the other rubbing my aching collarbone—which now felt as if it’d been kicked by twin Clydesdales. “I wore pajamas to bed as usual, because, as you know, my waterbed sucks out body heat, and there was just so much commotion that in the rush I forgot to put any underwear on. Obviously, Maria telling Feloni to impale my leg was the last thing I thought would 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 actually 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, dicksnot. I don’t want to hear any more of your fucking apologies. I’m sure you want to know the word of the day, right? Today, you get three, Vox: Broken. Up. Forever.”
     She was so irate that a few spit-bombs—most likely inadvertent, although I couldn’t be sure—struck my cheeks.
     “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 o’clock in the morning that I was able to drag 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 that 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. That was understandable, but 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. While, yes, I knew that additional danger could be close by and would be ready for it, I had to put my analytical detective hat on. You don’t see Columbo or Jethro Gibbs go off all half-cocked, do you? Me 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 to (mostly) abstain from giving into my godforsaken temper. For me, the only antidote to caring too much is to almost 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. With that out of the way, by noon, I was on the back porch in my swing chair with a frozen piña colada in hand. 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 were 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 had 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 of the building’s exterior doors, as well as the gargoyles. The culprit clearly didn’t try to enter my office because they hadn’t woken from their slumber and attacked in response.
     While there, I called Lola to fill her in. High-strung to begin with, she took the news as hysterically as I thought 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 you could tell was that 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 ID’ing a suspect from the footage.
     When I was showering, Starr Gaffney called and left me a message saying she urgently needed to meet with me. Truth be told, contacting her was already on my list of things to do; I needed to inform her of CashMoney’s murder. When I tried her back, the call went to voicemail, so I let her know I’d hook up with her at Bay Prime (our usual spot) in the afternoon.
     Slowly sipping the colada, I let my mind wander. The only thing we knew for sure was that the assailant was a vöspyrnatu, and those were exceedingly rare vampyres. Every once in a while you’d hear rumors of one lurking around, but 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. Generally speaking, they do their best to keep off the radar. Unlike what many people think, vampyres aren’t required to drink blood on a daily basis and can easily sustain themselves solely on animals. Unlike vospies, regular vampyres don’t have venom. I’m not saying there aren’t any assholes among the bunch, but attacks on others are few and far between… and murders rarer still.
     While all vampyres have better-than-average strength, speed, sight, and hearing at night and can roam around freely during the day, only a few sects have enhanced physical abilities during light hours. You may have heard that 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. That’s complete bullshit. Don’t believe everything you hear. They’re simply a separate race of beings that 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, she’s physically nothing special—probably below average for a vampyre—but she does possess a special skill that’s particularly valuable. Besides being a vamp, she’s also a Persuader.
     She can look you in your eyes and convince you that what you thought 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 CashMoney’s parents’ house to tell them 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, of course, 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, without any physical clues at the scene to go on, my most promising course of action was likely 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, but 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 be coming up soon. In the game of life, there’s always a piper knocking on your door, demanding to be paid.
     You may be asking 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 largely on our own dime. Sure, I get free rent—and some cool kahuna toys to use when needed—but everything else 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 expenses? Fuck off, Vox. Not only do I have to protect the western half of Florida from supernattie baddies, but 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 a half-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 because I knew that, as an accounts payable clerk, she mainly just sits on her huge, 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 skintight 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, not surprisingly, some of the most coveted land anywhere in the state. Unlike Hillsborough—where Tampa is the big daddy—Pinellas has two dozen different municipalities and most people are fiercely proud of their little kingdoms. This despite the fact that there are no appreciable differences between most of them.
     The Pinellas beach hamlets are all different from the peninsula, but essentially indistinguishable from one another. And on the peninsula itself, 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 big 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. If you’re in the area and your stomach’s growling, do yourself a favor and get a burger called The Girthy Boy at Jewfish Jerry’s. Wagyu beef, gouda, thick bacon, onion tanglers, and a pearl sugar waffle, drizzled with cookie butter. It’s as decadent as it sounds. There’s also a dog-friendly bar, so bring Barkosaurus Rex with you.
     During my Safety Harbor visit, while I would have loved to spend the afternoon under a shady oak at nearby Tocabaga Indian Mound in Philippe Park—which is surely one of the most picturesque spots in all of Florida—leisure wasn’t on the menu for me 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 intended function, it more importantly serves to rotate my real license plate out of the way, replacing it with a fake one. Now I was as unidentifiable as any other ham-and-egger.
     I drove west on Tampa Road, past Oldsmar, and turned left on 580. Within a few miles, I was swinging 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 hot water 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 remove it because you haven’t been paid by the customer. 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 can’t pay you this month because 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 as hell, but certainly more righteous in the eyes of God. I wasn’t even breaking in if you thought about it. On a previous visit when she wasn’t home—at her instructions—I’d already used the key she keeps under a gnome. She’s got an army of the little ceramic fuckers, all facing the walkway leading to the back door of the garage, their beady eyes glaring at you with disapproval.
     I could tell that Archibald Gnomenstag—a raised sword in his stony hand—was aching to gut me, but that didn’t stop me from effortlessly tilting him up and retrieving the key he was guarding. Only one obstacle remained: Mrs. McGillicuddy’s tyrannical parrot. “It ain’t nothing but a thang,” I said to Archibald, holding up my secret weapon for him to see. He just scowled in silence.
     The tankless water heater I’d installed was mounted on the opposite wall, only a few feet from the garage entryway into the house. She’d had that door removed and added a portable AC unit. Instead of using the area for parking, she’d 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.
     The parrot’s perch is located at the far end of the long living room. I knew from experience that every time he heard the exterior garage door open, he’d immediately launch into the air—flying across the living room and through the kitchen at breakneck speed—before making a hard left past the refrigerator and swooping into the garage to see what pitiful creature was foolish enough to enter his lair. I was going to use that last blind stretch of his to my advantage.
     The damn door squeaks, so sneaking in quietly was out of the question. 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. It’s almost three feet across with a titanium-reinforced handle, an industrial-grade net that I was confident could handle a piranha—much less a parrot—no matter how vicious the latter. Though we hated each other, my goal was to contain the bird without injuring either of us. Then, I could comfortably remove the water heater.
     The three feet diameter of the net wouldn’t cover all the way up to the top of the door, of course, but every time I’d seen the maniac 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.
     Shit, now that I thought about it, I also had to hope he was on his perch and not somewhere closer to the garage… or actually in it, God forbid. If either was the case, my plan would end in disaster before it began.
     Lighting wouldn’t be a problem since she keeps every light in the house on, “even at night, because he likes it that way.” The way he struts around, the parrot is fully aware he’s the man of the house and has complete control over it. Actually, it wouldn’t shock me to find out he also mounts that lumpy butt of hers on the regular. She’d ceded all control to him.
     Okay, everything on my mental list had now been checked, and I’d carefully visualized each step. It was now just about execution and a smattering of good fortune. In went the key, as quiet as midnight. Deep breath… and ACTION! In one fluid movement, my hand 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, but two steps in my foot slipped on a chew toy belonging to her chihuahuas. I almost went down, but windmilled for a split second 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 doorway into the house. With both hands, I frantically thrust the net into position. Sweeping around the refrigerator came a blur of green and blue. Then a bird-scream of dismay as he saw the netting. The parrot helplessly tried to put on his air brakes and adjust altitude, but to no avail. I braced for impact. With a flurry of feathers and shrieks, he tumbled into the net, thoroughly entangling himself.
     Each time I’d been there before, two cinder blocks had been in the garage. One of them I’d used as a makeshift stepping stool when I was installing the water heater. Mercifully, they were still there. I whirled around in a 180, flipped the net over and placed it flat on the ground, trapping the bird. 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 truly pissed off, fruitlessly struggling against his prison, shouting the equivalent of “Fuck you, plumber!” and countless other vulgarities at me in Terranean, the language spoken by all land animals.
     “Yes!” I whooped. “How does my ass taste, parrot?!” I taunted him with twin middle fingers. “Shooting the bird,” pun intended, 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, if so, her reaction.
     If she picked up, I’d tell her to immediately 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 still untiled-over 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 pick up, 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.
     As I was arriving in Safety Harbor, my colon let me know that the biscuits and gravy were lightly tapping on my sphincter’s door. Nothing major at that time, but something to be aware of. Within the past couple of minutes, however, those taps had turned to loud raps. Before I called her, I’d have to drop a deuce. I went into the master bathroom and destroyed her toilet with quite possibly the stinkiest shit of my life. And no, I didn’t flush.
     Walking back into the garage, I checked on the parrot. He had his back to me and seemed resigned to his fate. I sat on one of the workout benches, stretching 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 was unfolding before my eyes. The parrot had apparently been very busy while I was taking a shit and had somehow managed to bite through the supposedly unbreakable netting. He was now pulling himself out like a phoenix reborn. I gasped, wide-eyed and dumbstruck. In another instance, he was totally free and gave his wings a mighty double-flap, priming himself for revenge. On the third ring, Mrs. McGillicuddy answered. “Hold on, please, Vox. Give me just a second.”
     Just after the click of her putting me on hold, the parrot launched himself at me, talons leading the charge. I threw up my hands in defense and fell off the bench. The phone skidded several feet away. His talons sank into my arms, and I screamed. I was able to uncork a Ken Rosewall backhand, which knocked him into the home gym. Instinctively, I looked around for any semblance of aid. A plush workout towel lay within arm’s reach, and I hastily grabbed it.
     The parrot collected himself, preparing for his counter-attack. “Come get some!” I yelled, holding up the towel and flapping it like a matador. Fast as a Florida cow whip, he flew at me. Miraculously, I somehow managed to catch him up and pin him to the ground with one hand. With the other, I stretched out for the phone and—with my fingertips—barely was able to reach it. I put the phone to my ear.
     “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!” The parrot violently squirmed, but I managed to keep him immobilized.
     “Vox, I’m not sure if you can hear me, but I realized this morning that I forgot to send your check. I’m so sorry. I went to the bank before work and got cash. I was going to bring it to you after work, but you can stop by and pick it up now if you want. Vox? Can you hear me? Okay, I’ll be here until 5 o’clock. Bye.” Click.
     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 have slightly relaxed the hand holding down the parrot. He twisted and wriggled. I looked down at the towel just as his green mohawk emerged. Oh, shit! Control was slipping away. I needed to get out of there now, but first I’d have to re-secure the towel so I could carry the bundle to the door and throw it into the center of the garage while I quickly exited.
     As I reached down with my right hand, the devil bird swung his head completely around like Linda Blair in The Exorcist, latching onto the tip of my 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 Roger Federer forehand sent him tumbling toward 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 monster take flight behind me as I reached for the handle. If I would’ve fumbled getting out—even for a second—it might’ve all been over for me. But I was able to shut the door behind me a scant moment before he slammed into it, shaking the hinges.
     Trembling with adrenaline and disbelief, I tilted 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 seen as morally bad. “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 quite hide all the damage her assassin bird had inflicted upon me because Mrs. McGillicuddy asked if I’d gotten into a fight with a garbage disposal. Hilarious. Everybody’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 fear that, technically, the 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 real damage done was to my finger and my ego, so hopefully she wouldn’t pursue the matter. Damn the 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 you anymore takes some getting used to. Instead of immersing it in the clammy, I poured some of the clam meatboost into a plastic bag and left my stump in there to directly soak up the healing goodness like pork ribs do a dry rub.
     My mind went for a stroll, and a thought arose. A nice manicure now and again is one of my dirty little secrets, and—by all rights—since I only had nine nails remaining, shouldn’t I automatically receive a 10% off discount? There’s always a silver lining somewhere if you think hard enough.
     Thirty minutes later, I was back in business, albeit with slightly 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 7 o’clock at night, and my meeting with Starr was still over two hours away. With time still to kill, I decided to do something I hate, but which the van was desperately pleading for: a thorough cleaning, organizing, and restocking. Trying to work out of a disorganized van and constantly running for parts 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 more efficient, productive being. I’ll spend uncountable hours online and in bookstores doing research, checking reviews, and getting a glorious strategy together. I’ll buy a bunch of books and formulate a comprehensive game plan—complete with spreadsheets, phone apps, journals, you name it. I even bought an egg timer one time. Then, I’ll read no more than two chapters of each book, start running out of steam in 3-4 days, and by the end of the week, this attempt at reinventing my life will have joined all the others in the forgotten pile. One thing cannot 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 frequent attention to the van so it doesn’t have a chance to get too jacked up. I’ll admit that #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. But 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 decided to start a family.
     It was an unusually cold winter, and Ralph and Lucinda Rattanski 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 on a rare Florida day when the temperature had dipped below freezing. So cute. Everybody was sleeping with contented smiles. I gently put the newspapers hiding them back in place, leaving 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, the babies were full-grown, and they all decided to pack 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 was too chaotic even for them. To this day, when the mists of memories rise up, I’ll often say a toast to my friends and play “Round and Round.”
     After I’d finished putting the last of the parts away in their bins, I headed to Bay Prime to hook up with Starr. The restaurant is located near International Plaza at the corner of Westshore Ave and Boy Scout Rd. Though nowhere near the ocean, the deck does look out over a giant retention pond, so big that even 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 isn’t so well-known, Starr—short for Starling—isn’t a person you can forget. At six feet tall (she insists that she’s 5′ 12″), 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 is 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’s nearly as much of a drunk as I am. Over the years, we’ve polished off many beers together at the Emporium. Even so, his imbibing doesn’t prevent him from being a first-rate chef. He can do it all in the kitchen 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. You have to be careful. If you don’t watch yourself, 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 you 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. “Three come in an order, right? We’d be fighting over the last one, and I’d have to kick his ass,” she said, gesturing at me. “Give us two.”
     Rául busted out laughing. “I’m sure you could do it too, Madam Mayor.” We fist-bumped, and he regretfully left. He tries unsuccessfully 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 in the hopes that by winning her stomach, someday he might win her heart.
     “Hey, baby boy,” she cooed, her voice velvety-smooth and laced with the hint of a Southern accent. When she stood up to hug me, resplendent in her robin’s egg blue designer suit, 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 Centenary College in Shreveport. Born and raised in New Orleans, that’s where I’d met her, when I was doing my kahuna apprenticeship. She’s in her late 30s but is 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 the gentlemen’s club industry instead of it using her.
     I have the utmost respect for strippers, and if I was a chick who could twerk like a hummingbird’s wings, I’d have probably danced at some point, also. 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 big 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 have no idea 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 was 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 of 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 bitch-slapped me and sent me away muttering and shaking my head.
     Starr’s message indicated she had urgent news, and it was important I fill her in on the murder. As a rule, however—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 signaled a server and ordered a Stone IPA. She was just finishing up her Bay Breeze and waggled a finger at him to indicate she’d have one more. The spring rolls came and we fell into the easy, comfortable banter which had marked our relationship from the beginning. 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 both of us that we didn’t want to complicate it with sex. We were so close, in truth, that when I relocated to Tampa Bay to take over the kahuna post, she moved south also. Not that I was the only reason; she also has a sister who lives in Dunedin.
     Shortly after arriving in the Bay area, Starr started dipping her toes into politics. Unsurprisingly to me, 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 were incessantly reminding us, her opponents were Madeleine Hayes and Gene Kidd. “I can’t say a bad word about either of ’em. It’s a shame we couldn’t all win,” 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, it was clear to her 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. “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, and collectively they are 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 4,000 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 over another beer.
     “Very good,” she said, finger-drawing a star on the back of my hand like she was rewarding a good 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?”
     Now my interest was piqued. “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 the big ol’ 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 directly 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 all of a sudden developed a hard-on for strip clubs. And not the good kind of hard-on either.”
     I reached down to adjust my crotch. The way she said “hard-on” was starting to give me one.
     “Were these closings justified?” I asked. “What were the reasons?”
     “Prostitution and drug-dealing allegations. Who knows if they’re legit? It doesn’t really matter because the BOCC has substantial clout. Especially if the individual members band together in a common cause. Particularly when the CA is along for the ride. Giselle says there are a number of other clubs on their hit list, too.”
     This was extremely disturbing, especially combined with my news. “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 bit. Good guy, and he didn’t strike me as a fool. I highly doubt anything as illegal as that was going on over there.
     “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?!” she yelled, her eyes nearly jumping 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 why I don’t know about a murder in my city?” she demanded.
     “Because it didn’t happen. At least as far as the police department is concerned. The girl who was murdered worked there and was a dear friend. Her body was discovered a short time later by another dancer. The perp was an extra bad-ass type of vampyre. I was called and we tried to save her, but couldn’t. Of course, because it was magic-related, we took care of it internally.”
     “That’s some awfully fucked up news,” she said, the distraught evident in her voice. “Do I need to know any more details?”
     “I’m not sure,” I sighed. “I don’t know shit at this point. 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, “I’ll give you that much.” She flagged down a server and ordered another Bay Breeze. “I’m gonna need one more after all. So, 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, it could be that, because they can’t shut down Tampa clubs, they’re attacking them in another way.”
     “You think so?” she asked skeptically. “I’ve had a run-in or two 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 in a WTF voice, studying it with wide eyes. “Did you get it caught in a garbage disposal?”
     “2/3rds of a finger,” I corrected. “And the Devil himself snipped it off. 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 one. 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 toward 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 started to reach 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.
     Along with the check was a to-go box. “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 Bay Prime, I called the Goat and gave him a briefing on the city commissioners, asking him to check their backgrounds to see if he could turn up 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 she is. More big-boned and tall than blubbery fat, she’s got a melon so massive that it makes Shaq’s head look like the size of Ariana Grande’s. She’s ugly enough to peel paint, too. The thought of their unholy mating makes me retch, but it’s an equitable trade. He gets me sensitive information other methods of investigation couldn’t have unearthed, and she gets the Goat dick she craves. While the Goat will fornicate with anything that’s remotely female, Becca nonetheless earns him taking-one-for-the-team bonus points.
     “Any questions?” I asked.
     “Yes. A very important one. I haven’t seen Starr in almost a year. Does she still have a great ass?”
     “I’m sad to say I didn’t have her gyrating butt cheeks slapping me in the face for confirmation, but even with clothes on there’s no denying that body. If anything, 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, he wouldn’t be able to hold off engaging in hand-to-gland combat for long.
     Five minutes later, I was on U.S. 275 approaching downtown. I got off on the Ashley St exit, 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 headed out 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 100 million cubic feet of sand and shells were dredged from Tampa Bay to create 900 acres of land. It had to be compressed to a ludicrous degree to physically support development. Of course, 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 I assure you plumbers—and other folks with occasion to dig—wish bodily harm on those developers every time they have to go to war with a sub-surface that’s only slightly softer than hardened concrete. Other than that, it’s your prototypical Florida island—idyllic and with phenomenal views.
     Shortly after crossing the bridge, I pulled off the main road of the island into the Petrus, parking in the far lot where employees and the rest of the riff-raff are relegated. The first time I visited the hotel, my plumbing van was in the shop, so I drove up to valet parking in Willard’s prized 1987 Buick Grand National that had been long enjoying its retirement under a tarp on the other side of the carport. 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 valet’s scornful laugh dashed that notion. He told me to leave, or he’d call the cops. Thank God I hadn’t pulled up in the van, or he would have 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, Hawaiʻian 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 the basement, I stopped at three hundred and fifty. Every time I come to 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 attendant, 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 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. No matter where you look, style, class, and sophistication brazenly flex.
     In that, the Petrus mirrors its owner. Duncan nearly 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-crossing my path and blocking my view of his table—but as I finished navigating through them and my sight-line opened up, I wasn’t surprised in the least to find him looking directly at me as if he’d been tracking me on internal radar the moment I 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 in the embrace of the antique leather chair. It looked too formal to be comfortable, but the soft 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 invite 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 at me 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.
     “Yer shirt is so obnoxious I can hear it comin’.” He glanced at it with a curled lip. “How come ye ne’er wear anythin’ else, eh? I thought ye were only half Hawaiʻian.”
     “A quarter Hawaiʻian, a quarter Japanese, and half gringo,” I corrected.
     “Weel then, I guess I should thank mah lucky stars ye dinna show up dressed as a geisha.”
     Gretchen returned with the scotch. She set an empty tumbler before each of us.
     “One, two, or three drams, Vox?” 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 smidgen of embarrassment. After recovering, he said, “Monica and ye be ready for mah call tonight. All o’ ye are ta wear pink, ye ken?”
     “Just thongs? Or garter belts and stockings in addition?” she asked demurely.
     “Lassies’ choice,” he said, giving her a swat on the ass. She blew him a kiss and left.
     I took a swallow 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 surely be no finer example of Highland whisky.
     “Duncan, your hospitality never fails to amaze. But I’m here on business.”
     “I thought ye might be,” he said. “Is it aboot that donnybrook at the Emporium last night?”
     There was no hiding my surprise. “How could you know about that already?” 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 been whispers. Nae awfy much in this city escapes meh.”
     “What do you know, Duncan? It’s important. It’s personal.”
     “Aye, everythin’s important and personal. What’s in it for meh?” he asked. “I’m a businessman as ye ken. Everythin’ has a cost.”
     Aw, fuck. He was gonna start this shit again. Everything is a business transaction to Duncan Panther.
     “Have ye dined, laddie?”
     “Depends what’s on the menu.” I said.
     “I just hired a 3-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 toward a bank of elevators. From the back, in full stride, the full measure of his 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. His gait, though easy and relaxed, 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.
     We passed all the guest elevators as well as those for the employees. Taking a right around the corner, a short hallway ended in a single lift with a golden door laden with multi-colored gems. He 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.
     It’s like when you enjoy a well-marbled prime ribeye steak and smack your lips in wonder, convinced nothing else could ever compare. But then somebody sets before you an A-5 grade Kobe steak from a Tajima Japanese Black cow—with its impossibly dense marbling and unparalleled beefiness. Lord, I have seen the light! You thought you knew nirvana before but realize you hadn’t known shit.
     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 lengthy moment, I just stood there gobsmacked. What lay beyond was so massive that it’d be inaccurate to call it a room. In truth, I don’t know what it was.
     Clouds floated high above. I thought I could see a ceiling peaking through light-years away, 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 sacred forests and rushing rivers… with what looked like silver-haired elves capering about. Mount Fuji serenely watched us. Part of me was convinced Duncan had somehow created a 48th 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 Sarasota 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 down into ponds, churning brooks turned waterwheels, and rocky streams tumbled down hills tiered with bonsai trees.
     “Have yerself a look see,” Duncan said softly, 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. While all were exquisite, each had a personality all its own. An old man in a sage-colored robe meandered about, snipping a leaf here, pruning a branch there. He had a long, grey beard ending in a monkeyfist knot.
     I stopped in front of a bonsai resembling a freeze-framed, hip-thrusting Elvis, in awe of the craftsmanship required to create such a divine work of art. Its descriptive bronze plaque identified it as a “1206Y Juniper.”
     I reached toward it, but my hand was smacked away like a toddler’s by the monkeyfist—which I unceremoniously discovered was weighted. “Fuck me!” A welt immediately formed. At this rate, there soon wouldn’t be anything left of my hand. Shaking it, I looked up in shock 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.”
     If I was being honest, I would’ve told him I thought I was being sneaky enough to get away with it, but instead 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 sitting a short ways 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 my 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 walked 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 of 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 dinna ken, but he nearly broke mah hand with it one day. There’s somethin’ fannywomble about that beard, like it has a mind of 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?”
     “I dinna. 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 of him even if I had a mind to.”
     By this time, we were nearing the apex of the bridge. My legs, used to Florida flatness, were starting to complain after all the recent climbing. I stopped to take in the full view (and steal a mini-rest). My eyes were drawn to the red roof of a pagoda peeking up from a valley. 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 riotously colored like they’d been painted by Takashi Murakami—patrolled like nuclear attack submarines.
     “Dunna fall in,” Duncan called back as he started down the other side. “Ye’ll be eating sashimi soon, but if ye aren’t 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 bartop 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 dinna know 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 everythin’ flown in directly from Japan. This is Masahiro-san’s first meal cookin’ for meh. We will see if’n he is worthy o’ those 3 stars.” A nervous-looking chef with sweat beading his forehead bowed to me.
     “Let’s get this party 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.
     I looked at him quizzically. “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 ye join meh in a gourmet, multi-course kaiseki, culminating in fugu sashimi, then I’ll tell ye what I know about 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 know, 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 been specially trained in the art o’ love by one o’ the most talented courtesans in Paris. And ye can take three bottles of that bonny Rare Cask when ye leave on the morrow. All that and another surprise awaitin’ 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? Another choice to make? All of these momentous decisions were mentally exhausting the fuck out of me. The consequences of choosing wrong on this one were particularly 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 slim. And even though Duncan was a warped bastard, he didn’t strike 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 last name?”
     “Shima.”
     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, Vox-san, I knew ye had it in ye! I been lookin’ 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, reached over, and shook on it.
     “Masahiro!” he shouted. “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. Yes, indeed. Let’s do it,” I said, 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 both marveled that Jaffie areolas were also golden—a fact neither of us had known.
     “Walk over to yon painting, 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 no doubt 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 like the doors on the Starship Enterprise. A vision suddenly overtook my mind. I was Captain Kirk. Duncan was obviously Scotty. And, with their ears, the elves certainly could have passed for Mr. Spock… if Spock had sported a juicy ass, tits like honeydew melons, and a silver landing strip.
     “Azumi,” Duncan directed one of the elves, “go with him. No pokin’ and pumpin’ yet, though. I’m starvin’.” I snapped out of my daydream, and a spacious room with a stunning array of rare and precious liquors floated into view.
     “Vox-san, pick a bottle.”
     As I started to walk into the room, I glanced at the painting again. “That’s an amazing likeness. Did a Japanese artist paint it?”
     “Aye. Katsushika Hokusai.”
     I almost fainted. My jaw was beginning to get 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.
     Many people don’t know the Japanese are master Scotch whisky makers. I chose a Hakushu 18 Year Old. 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 real stuff. His hand-made noodles, with a rich and milky Tonkotsu broth that he’d cooked for twenty hours to extract maximum umami flavor, was 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 chiefly about his childhood. It had included Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster—though he said she despises that moniker, preferring her proper Gaelic name, Niseag. Though 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 had just finished up a sumptuous cold-water lobster roll. Instead of wrapping it in seaweed, Masahiro had used edible 24-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 ta let meh ride her from time ta time. She’d buck like a water bronco, she would.”
     “I knew she wasn’t merely a myth,” I said as the women 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. It’s incredibly rare for sea creatures to be able to converse in English. Or any other human language, for that matter.”
     “How do they communicate?”
     “Usually only in Oceanese.
     “Weel, I can confirm it’s so. And she dunna have a Scottish accent, either. Niseag speaks the Queen’s English, if’n ye can believe it. She’ll yap yer ear off, that one. Loves ta quote Shakesp—”
     GONG-ONG-ONG-ONG! The echoing, metallic peals produced by another Masahiro mallet-whack hammered into us like George Foreman 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 ta our main event, Vox-san. Everythin’ we’ve experienced thus far has been but a prelude ta 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, please,” 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.
     Duncan turned his head to look at me. “Vox-san, 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 holding a large tray, in the center of which was the blowfish. There was no capering about this time. They took each step with great care. After carefully placing the tray on Masahiro’s work table, the elves backed away in visible relief.
     “Vox-san, please place yer arms on the arms o’ the chair and yer feet on the rests down below.”
     I complied without hesitation. “Mission complete,” I merrily 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 get us the hell out of there, 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 yelled. “I already told you. I’ll eat the fugu willingly!”
     “Sorry, Vox-san. But I couldna be assured o’ that. There’s one part o’ the adventure I failed to mention.”
     “Midori, if ye please, love,” he said, nodding toward the chef, who was now facing us and standing a few feet behind the blowfish. Like a sleight-of-hand magician, she produced a blindfold from god-knows-where. I looked into Masahiro’s eyes, praying for some sign of confidence. Frantic deer eyes just stared at “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” as if he was in one of the skiffs.
     After blindfolding him, she guided the shuffling chef over to the blowfish.
     “Are you out of your fucking mind?!” I furiously shouted. “You crazy Scottish idiot! If you’re so intent on killing us, just get two tantōs, and we can commit ritual seppuku and fall on our blades. Better that than blowfish poisoning, you stupid fuck!”
     “Not to fear, Vox-san. For the last week, Masahiro has been trainin’ in a virtual reality simulator. He’s been doin’ awfy well preparin’ 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 been successful 38% 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 sneered as Midori approached Duncan. “I’ll just refuse to eat it.”
     “Look to your right, Vox-san,” Duncan directed. Azumi stood beside me, an angelic smile on her face.
     Without a word, the elf unzipped my fly, tracked down Lil Vox, and pulled him out. From out of nowhere, she produced a dagger. Damn these David Copperfield elves pulling shit out of thin air! 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.
     “Same for meh, Vox-san,” he said with a shrug. “If I chicken out, my cawk also gets sliced off. Dunna try any magic, either. These elves move as fast as adders with a blade. We must be steadfast, laddie. One cannot achieve magnificent victory without magnificent risk.” He bowed his head in a calming gesture. “Shush for 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, moreover, his fingers needed a touch as light as a spider’s, or the organs would rupture.
     Despite the circumstances, Lil Vox started really 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 her 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, the fugu slices were artfully presented on two plates. Masahiro laid the knife on the table and undid his blindfold, his eyes blinking in adjustment to the light. He reached over and set a plate on the bartop before each of us, then stepped back with his hands stiffly by his side.
     “In full disclosure, Vox-san, 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 having turned into rivers running off his brow.
     “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.
     Azumi 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.
     I chewed and swallowed as meekly as a newborn. What else could I do? I was powerless. Fate had me in its villainous jaws. Azumi carefully wiped my mouth. She put the napkin back on the bar and in her hand had materialized a chaser-shot of scotch. 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. Which she now replaced. The seconds ticked by. Nothing else in the world existed except anticipation of the verdict and her exquisite stroking. Then… my mouth started to tingle.
     Alarmed, I turned to see how Duncan was faring. He stared at me maniacally.
     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. Azumi moved with a fluidity I’d never before encountered. So precise, so in control.
     A roar and a splitting sound made me turn my head. 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. That’s not how Duncan operates, though. 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 escalated with fevered urgency: “Enjoy the ride, Vox-san. Mah cub spies tell me Sugar Pete’s crew is likely the culprit. One o’ them’s been blatherin’.”
     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.