NO TOMORROW - MATTHEW STERN
There are some days that you know are just going to suck.
You know how sometimes you can tell it’s going to rain? There’s that smellin’ the air. An almost electric smell where you know God is minutes from unzipping and letting go.
Days that are going to suck have their own smell, too. I’ve never been able to place it but I knew it when I smelled it.
I was working the door with Donny and pointed out the smell to him. He took some sniffs while checking an ID. “Dude,” he said, “that’s shit you smell.”
Donny and I tag teamed the door. He checked IDs while I collected the cover charges. Friday night and Thumper’s, Seattle’s hottest strip club, was bangin’.
When the club was sufficiently full, Donny left me at the door and worked the inside with the rest of the guys making sure that hands stayed where they should and pants stayed up. I was confined to the door, having pissed off the boss a few days earlier by sleeping with one of the strippers he wanted for himself.
Next in the line was a thin guy with cheeks so hollow I could almost see through him. His hair was unkempt and his clothes, nice but rumpled, hung off his thin frame. This fella was not going to be popular with the ladies tonight unless he was packing a wad of cash.
No need for ID as this guy looked sixty. He looked familiar and I thought he must be a regular. “Ten dollar cover,” I said, though he probably already knew it.
“Cleo working tonight?” he said. He made no move to hand over money.
“I believe so. You can go see her for ten bucks.”
“Can you ask her to come out for a moment?”
I shook my head. “Sorry, m’man. If you want to see Cleo, you gotta pay ten bucks and go find her inside. No messages from fans.”
Agitation started in his eyes and spread like a rash. “Look, just tell her Teddy’s here and needs to see her.”
I stepped closer to him, using my bulk. “As I just said, friend, you want to see Cleo, you fork over the cash. Other than that, back yourself out, you’re holding up the line.”
He took a step back and brought his hand up. In it was a silver revolver, the barrel pointed right at me.
“I don’t have ten bucks, thanks to that bitch Cleo. Now you get her out here right now or I put a hole in you the size of a fucking dinner plate.”
I knew I smelled something.
I put my hands up. The line that had formed behind him had disappeared. Through the swinging door, I could see at least one person on the phone. Please be calling the cops and not the press. The music in the club was loud and no one inside could know what was going on as the main floor was around the corner and out of sight.
“Why don’t we take is easy...Teddy, right?”
“Don’t fuckin’ stroke me,” he said. “You get Cleo out here now before I empty this thing.”
I kept my hands up. “Sure thing, man, sure thing. I gotta go back and get her.”
The gun jumped and shook. “You think I’m fucking stupid, asshole?” He motioned with the gun. “You’re taking me to her.”
“You got it,” I said. “Let’s just take it nice and easy.” I turned and slowly walked back into the club, the thumping music growing louder as we reached the main room. We were in the middle of the room by the time people noticed the gun. Many slipped out like they were smoke. A good amount stayed glued to their seats in shock. Hart, the DJ, was smart enough to stop the music and in the space of a second the club went from deafening to silent.
Into the quiet, Teddy yelled, “Cleo! Where the hell is Cleo? Get that bitch out here!”
Nobody made a move. I scanned the faces I could see and didn’t see Cleo’s streaked blonde hair. She was probably holed up in the back. I wouldn’t come out, either.
“Cleo!” Teddy yelled again.
Sirens wailed and grew in the distance. Teddy started losing it. Still holding the gun on me, he yelled for Cleo over and over again.
The sirens stopped outside. Teddy seemed to have reached critical mass and I was getting ready to make a grab for the gun when he must have realized it was over. There was the bang of the front door. Running footsteps.
He looked at me. He was crying. Tears and snot ran down his face. “She ruined me,” he said softly.
Then he put the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
A shower of red and grey rained up from his head and painted the wall behind him. His body slumped down like a pile of laundry hitting the floor.
I stood there looking at the body. The cops were there then, keeping people, who were now out of their seats and moving, from crowding around the body.
In the crowd, I saw the streaked hair and nose ring. Cleo. I pushed over to her as she stared with everybody else at the dead body.
“You know him?” I asked.
“I’ve danced for him.”
“What the hell was that about?”
She looked at the wall covered with bits of bone and blood and then down at the body on the floor. She looked at it like it was a dead spider she came across in the kitchen. A little gross maybe, but no big whup.
“Just a lonely guy, I guess,” she said and turned on tall heels and walked away.
Two weeks later, the club was packed to the gills. Nothing like violent media attention to help bring in customers. The wall that had been painted with Teddy’s brains now sported a new coat of brown that was a slight mismatch to the surrounding walls.
In the dark, no one noticed.
I was still on the door. The boss, happy with finding new ways to stay pissed at me, got it into his head that it was my fault that Teddy’s brains were now under a layer of paint. He seemed to think that, besides a bouncer, I was a bulletproof Batman clone. According to him, I should have been able to disarm Teddy before he downed his bullet shooter.
I thought about Teddy a lot. I had seen many guys become obsessed with strippers. Guys coming in almost every day and dropping their whole paycheck to pretend that some woman with big tits rubbing herself all over him was anything other than a business transaction. Reality always catches up with them, but I had never seen reality hit with a bullet before.
My eyes kept finding Cleo. Maybe it was her casual dismissal of Teddy’s suicide, or just the simple fact that I couldn’t see what was worth killing oneself over. Sure, she was hot. Long blonde hair streaked with black, silver nose stud and belly button ring and the best rack money could buy.
Hot. But there were prettier girls there.
I was taking a break out front where the girls took their smoke breaks. The quiet was nice but conversation was hit or miss, depending on who was out there. Some girls gave good conversation. With others, it was like talking to a bookcase.
I was doing my best to ignore Goldie, who was berating me for not calling her after I made the mistake of sleeping with her last month. The door opened and Cleo walked past me wrapped in a long dark coat. Her high-heeled legs peeked from beneath the coat and clicked on the ground as she walked out into the parking lot.
I knew she wasn’t leaving as I had seen her come on shift not more than an hour ago. I don’t know why I followed her. I told myself I just wanted an excuse to ditch Goldie. I wandered out into the parking lot, Goldie cursing at my back.
I waded through the cars, a mix of high-end luxury vehicle and piece of shit boxes. I caught sight of Cleo stepping up into the back of a silver van. The door closed behind her with a loud clunk. I walked to the edge of the parking lot, which was surrounded by a large wall of bushes. In the overhang of the green, I was lost in shadow.
I waited for it and a minute later, that van was rocking slightly from side to side.
Cleo was screwing guys in the van for extra cash. Nothing earth-shattering. Some girls gave hand jobs in the VIP booths, others set up private dances on the side.
Cleo could dive bomb every guy in the city for all I cared. Sooner or later, she would get arrested or fired. It wasn’t my problem.
I went to leave when the red glow of a cigarette in a red Audi a few cars away caught my eye. I stopped. The red light travelled regularly to mouth and back.
Men sitting in their cars were not unusual, either. Maybe they were working up the nerve to walk into the club for the first time or maybe they were on the phone with their wives, telling them they had to work late.
But the guy, his hard face all planes and angles in the glint of streetlight, was focused a little too intently on the slowly rocking van. He could be a stalker. Strippers have those, too, and I supposed it was my responsibility to make sure this guy didn’t fuck with Cleo when she was finished cleaning some guy’s pipes.
Ten minutes later, I saw Cleo climb out of the back of the van, fluff her hair and walk back toward the entrance to the club. I stepped farther back into the shadows and let her pass me by. A minute later, a balding, pear-shaped man got out and walked to a black Mercedes.
He started the car and wound his way through the parking lot. The red Audi started up a second later and followed the Mercedes out.
A soft rain, more drizzle than anything else, rolled in, but I stayed out in the parking lot. I thought about the red Audi. Not a stalker, unless he was stalking the pear-shaped guy. Maybe he was a PI. Maybe Pear-Shaped Guy was married and the wife had hired someone to get some evidence. I didn’t see a camera but that didn’t mean much.
I didn’t plan on giving it anymore thought and, when Donny found me standing in the rain and told me that the boss was pissed again, I pushed it from my mind completely.
A week later, I was working the door when Pear Guy came in. He looked pissed; his jowly face hard and set. He paid the cover with barely a grunt and continued into the club. Visions of Teddy danced in my head. I called Donny over to watch the door, thinking what the boss would do if someone else vented their head while I was working.
Sure enough, Pear Guy was talking to Cleo over by the DJ booth where Hart was spinning and spooling in his usual meth-filled haze. Pear Guy was mad but doing his best not to show it.
I walked over and stood nearby, trying to sink into myself as much as I could so I could eavesdrop. Hard to do with the thumping bass. Ruby walked by and I asked about her day. Great thing about Ruby, tall, red-headed, and curvy, wearing a flame red getup that was all lace and legs, you ask her a simple question and she can go on for days without a breath. All I needed to do was regularly place an ‘Hmm hm’ or an ‘I know,’ and I could listen in camouflaged.
“I’m not going to pay,” Pear Guy said. His voice strung tight as a clothesline.
“That’s your choice, baby. But I’m going to have to pay a visit to your wife with a little picture show.”
“You do that and I’ll kill you, you fucking slut bitch.”
“You touch one hair and I’ll send Trey over and he’ll fuck you up so bad you’ll be useless to a woman.” Her voice dripped with disgust. “Not that you aren’t already.”
“You fucking -”
“Nah-unh, baby. Not unless you want the bouncers to toss you out of here on your ass with a side trip to the hospital.”
“Maybe I’ll tell them about your little sideline.”
I heard her snort. “Tell them. I don’t care. They won’t care, either. They all have brains the size of a peanut. All they care about is pumping iron and pumping strippers.”
They continued arguing but my attention was brought back to Ruby when she pressed her mammoth enhanced breasts up against me and brought one hand down to my crotch letting me know that she had decided on her plans for later that night and that Cleo was at least partly right.
Later that night, I lay in my bed studying the stained popcorn ceiling. Ruby lay next to me wrapped in the sheet, one long tattooed leg peeking out and dangling off of the bed. I had been thinking of Cleo all night, even when Ruby had been making like a jockey at Emerald Downs.
I wondered how many men Cleo had taken to that van. The plan was obviously simple. Cleo took guys to the van for a quick sucky fuckee. It was probably wired six ways from Sunday for pictures and video. Once she was done, the mysterious Trey of the red Audi followed the guy home and looked to see if he was married. If he wasn’t, no big thing, he still paid up for the throw with Cleo. If he was married, someone showed up with a little video or picture show and asked for money to keep quiet. Nice little scam. They probably were getting greedy and bleeding guys dry. Now Teddy had killed himself and Pear Guy looked like he was about to crack like a day old egg.
I’d like to say that it was for Teddy, or Pear Guy, or any of the other guys that Cleo probably screwed and then screwed again, that I decided to stop them. But if I was honest with myself, it was because of the brain the size of a peanut remark.
The next day at work, once I was sure Cleo was there and doing her thing, I told the boss I wasn’t feeling well.
“You can puss out for the night if you want but you’ll be on the front door all next week to make up for it,” he said.
I gritted my teeth. Trying to remember why I was making this my business in the first place.
I passed the next few hours sitting in my piece of shit Toyota in the parking lot. I had a bottle of Jack that I lifted from the boss’s not-so-secret stash in the supply closet and I watched the girls smoking out front, revolving in and out the door in waves. I kept my eyes also on Trey in the red Audi, who was a few cars ahead of me. The van was there as well, currently rocking away as Cleo tried to fuck some guy in half. She had been out twice so far but the guys must have been regulars or single since Trey never followed them when they left.
I passed the time by ranking the girls I had slept with and decided Ruby ranked pretty high. Right between Katy the gymnast and Natalie the yoga buff.
The van stopped rocking and Cleo soon stepped from the van doing a little shake and shiver like she had just downed bad tequila. She clicked back towards the club. The van door opened again and a middle-aged guy with skin so flabby he looked like he was melting stepped out. He walked quickly to a dark blue Ford Explorer and set off. Trey followed in the red Audi and I followed a second later. We wound through the city, caught the freeway and were soon headed north, one long train of patheticness.
We drove for about twenty minutes and eventually found ourselves in Edmonds, driving down dark streets in a nice suburban neighborhood I had no business in. Trey had dropped far back of the Explorer and, since there was no traffic, I was far behind Trey, doing my best to keep him in sight without losing him in the winding suburban maze.
Red brake lights flared and the Audi slowed. I hit the brakes but realized that stopping behind the Audi would be like rolling down the window and yelling, “I’m following you!”
I kept going and passed the Audi, doing my best to pretend I was an average work-a-day schmuck on his way home to two and a half kids. I caught a flash of Trey’s face but resisted the urge to look at him. I drove down and went around the block. I passed the Audi again. This time, Trey was out and walking along the street headed to the house where the Explorer had pulled into a short paved driveway in front of a two-story white and blue house.
Trey looked at me for a moment as I went past. Just a lost work-a-day schmuck, I hoped. He went back to trying to stalk his new prey and I drove home wondering what I had accomplished.
The next day, I decided to give up. I decided I didn’t care if Cleo screwed every guy in the city or if they blew their brains out because of it. If they were stupid enough to kill themselves over a piece of fluff like Cleo, they were no loss to the world.
When I arrived at work, I took up station at the door, ready for the monotonous parade of IDs and money, accepting it as punishment for my misguided effort to try and do something worthwhile.
An hour later, Cleo walked in. She didn’t bat an eyelash at me, walking right by and headed for the back. A half hour after that, the traffic growing steadily heavier, Trey came in. I waited for a flicker of recognition, but didn’t see anything. He handed me the cover and I let him through. He disappeared into the throng behind me.
I watched him go, wondering what was up. I sniffed. Did I smell something? Maybe he was just coming in to get a free rub from his girl. Or maybe he had seen me last night.
I was interrupted by a tap on my shoulder. Donny was there, a big shit-eating grin on his face.
“I don’t know what you keep doing to piss off the boss but keep doing it. Watching him about to pop is almost as good as a hummer from Gloria.”
I sighed. “What’s his problem now?”
His shoulders lifted then fell. “I don’t know, but he’s pissed and wants you in his office. I’ll take the door.”
“Fun for you,” I said and started away.
Just then, the door opened and a group of eight women, young, sexy, underdressed and drunk as sailors came in. They were whooing and holding bills that they started waving at Donny. His grin grew even wider. “Fun for me!” he called as the girls pawed him.
I shook my head and looked for a puppy to kick. Finding none, I settled for shoving two guys out my way on my way to the boss’s office.
I knocked on the boss’s door and, as the music was so loud I wouldn't hear him call me in, opened the door. The fist caught me in the stomach, taking my breath away and driving me to my knees. Through watering eyes, I saw the kick coming and tried to get my arm up. I was only partially successful and still took a large portion of Doc Marten in the face.
I flopped on the floor, my head and stomach fighting over who hurt worse. The door shut behind me with a click. The Doc Martens came close again and I pulled myself together enough to make it to my knees but the unmistakable sound of a safety clicking off stopped me.
I took in the room. Cleo sat on a split leather couch, still in her street clothes and pointing a large black automatic pistol at me. My first thought was that she would have to hit the decontamination shower later considering how many strippers the boss had fucked on that thing. My second thought was that I better get my shit together if I wanted to see midnight.
Trey was the owner of the Doc Martens. He walked over and joined Cleo on the couch, draping his arm around her. He sneered at me. “She’s a crack shot so stay the fuck still, asswipe.”
He took his arm back and leaned forward. “You want more? I got plenty more. Paint the fucking room red.”
“You’re hot shit when you’re sucker punching, pussy.”
He was half out of the couch. Cleo was watching us. She licked her lips like this was turning her on.
“Enough,” said a voice. “Trey, sit the fuck down.” The boss was sitting in his chair behind a scarred metal desk that belonged in an elementary school.
He was old, with graying curly hair on the top of his round pumpkin shaped face. His silk shirt had too many buttons open and a few gold chains lived in the forest of grey curls there. He looked like an aging Vegas lounge singer and seemed to ooze even though he was sitting still. The desk was a mess of paper, old fast food wrappers and a large ceramic ashtray filled with used butts and a mountain of ash.
He held his hands wide. “Stu, nice of you to join us.”
“Can we do this tomorrow? I have a stomachache.”
The boss smiled a sickly yellow smile and chuckled. “You ain’t got no tomorrow, dickhead.”
“I assume you know you’re fired.”
“I quit, jackoff.”
“I don’t really care. But that’s not the end of our business, is it?”
I got up. Cleo’s gun followed me. I took the chair across from the boss. I faced him, leaving Cleo and Trey to my right. I did my best to ignore the gun. I leaned back as much as the chair would let me. “I guess not. You’re fronting these assholes?”
Anger crossed Cleo’s face and Trey said, “Fuck you, you -”
“Quiet, Junior, adults are talking,” I said.
He was again half off the couch when the boss said. “Shut it, Trey.” He turned to me. “Yes. It’s been quite lucrative.”
I turned to Trey. “That means money making, dipshit.”
His face turned as red as Cleo’s lips, but a look from the boss kept him quiet. Cleo looked at all three of us with the same detachment with which she had looked at Teddy.
The boss went on like I hadn’t spoken. “How do you think the van stayed out there? Cleo makes some extra money, some married guys who can’t keep it in their pants get what’s coming to them, and I get a hefty cut of the action. Everybody wins.”
“Who gives a shit about Teddy?” he said. Not waiting for an answer, he continued, “You obviously caught on to what been going on and made some half-assed attempt at following Trey here.”
“James Bond you’re not,” Trey said. “I made you the first few miles.”
I didn’t say anything.
The boss held his hands open, showing me the palms. “So here we are. You’re fired. You suck as a bouncer and you sleep with too many of the dancers. Cramping my style.”
“You have to have a style to cramp, Disco Steve.”
He ignored me. “So I’m thinking that I’ll probably have Cleo here shoot you and then the rest of us can all hit the IHOP.”
Cleo smiled like IHOP pancakes sounded really good. The barrel of the gun never moved.
“Good idea to have Cleo shoot me. You probably wanted Trey to beat me to death but realized he couldn’t fight his way out of a paper bag.”
“What?” Trey said.
“You heard me.”
“Calm down, Trey,” the boss said. “He’s trying to rile you.”
Damn right that’s what I was trying to do.
“You want to see how I roll?” Trey said.
“You roll like a tricycle, pussy,” I said.
“Trey!” the boss said.
Come on. Come on.
“Hell, Teddy probably could've handled you. Cleo probably liked screwing him better, too.”
Trey bit. He was off the couch and lunging at me with a meaty hook. I launched myself from the chair and slid under the punch. At the same time, I tried to slap him in the groin but only grazed him. He grunted, but more in anger than pain.
I headbutted him hard enough for both of us to see stars. I saw the boss start to stand and reach under his desk for something. Quickly, I grabbed the ashtray on the desk and clocked him in the head. Butts and ash flew.
I had enough time to see his eyes glaze before I had to deal with Trey again. He got his hands around my neck and started to squeeze. Fuck, he was strong. Dimly, I could see Cleo behind him, still sitting on the couch, still watching us, the gun pointed in our direction. Even if I beat Trey, there was still the gun to deal with.
I had only a few more seconds before I passed out. I drove both thumbs into the space between Trey’s ribs as hard as I could. He cried out and the grip around my neck went lax. I broke his hands away fully and with all my strength pushed him back towards Cleo.
Trey and I both fell on Cleo, she cried out in pain. There was a gunshot and blood sprayed from Trey’s mouth. Cleo had pulled the trigger by accident when we fell on her.
Lucky. I needed to buy a lottery ticket if I lived through the night.
Trey was dead weight on her now but she was struggling to get the gun out, screaming the whole time. She got the gun out but I caught her wrist. She pulled the trigger and a bullet went into the ceiling. I punched her in the face and she slumped sideways, half across Trey.
There was noise behind me and the boss was struggling to his feet, a gun half-raised.
I fired at the wall and he froze.
“Sit,” I said.
He did. “What now, Stu?”
“Well, I’m thinking that I’m heading to IHOP.” I pulled the trigger. The gun made a hollow popping sound and a small hole appeared in his chest. His face registered only mild surprise for a moment then went slack.
“That’s for keeping me on the door,” I said.
Cleo moaned on the couch, still slumped across Trey’s body. I walked over and aimed the gun at her. I tightened on the trigger but couldn’t go that last ounce. She was a bitch and was responsible for Teddy and who knows what else but something kept me from shooting her.
I wiped the gun on my shirt and dropped it on the floor and walked out the office. Let her explain to the cops the two dead guys and gun. She’d probably talk or fuck her way out of it. If she did that, maybe I could find Pear Guy and he could pay her a visit.
I left the club to find pancakes. The air was sweet smelling and clear.
BIO: Matthew Stern lives in Seattle, Washington. His previous short fiction has appeared in Thuglit, Mysterical-E, Futures Mystery Anthology Magazine and Eclectic Flash.