I cracked the inhaler open. Pulling out the long papery strip from inside. I put the very top of the strip on the tip of my tongue, holding it in place with my lips as I rolled it ever so
carefully with the very tips of my forefingers. When the strip had become a powdery paper tube, I unstuck it from my tongue and put it down on the table. My dinner was ready. I swallowed a mouthful
of coffee, then flicked the paper into my mouth and swallowed it with another mouthful of coffee. I sat back in my chair and closed my eyes, waiting for the lightshow. I was dragged out of my
Bennie daydream by a sharp wrapping on the tabletop. “Hey! Hey, Ryan.”
“Alan. Can’t you see I’m a little bit busy here?” I swept my hand over the table, indicating the empty coffee mug and cracked inhaler case. He picked up the empty mug and shook his head. “You’re going dancing tonight then, buddy?”
“Dancing, drinking. Do a bit more Bennie. The usual.”
“Care to set a guy up?” Alan laughed “It’s lonely in this house. You’re either at work or tripping, sometimes I’m not even sure you live here anymore.”
“What are you, my wife?” I scoffed “Why don’t you come out with the guys tonight? We’ll set you up with a nice girl.” I knew for a fact that our boy Alan wouldn’t come within ten feet of me on a night out. I wouldn‘t have invited him if I thought he would. “No thanks, Ryan. The only girls you know are druggies or hookers, all the ‘nice’ ones included. And call me vanilla but I ain’t down for none of those.” Alan shrugged. “Go back to your acid trip, filthy lay-about.” Alan took the empty mug and dumped it beside the sink, before stopping to straighten his hat and suit jacket in the mirror beside the door.
“Just go already, give a guy some privacy.” I scolded, but the colours and bright lights had already started popping before my eyes, and pretty soon, where Alan happened to be standing was the last thing on my mind.
I stopped a few yards the club. Pulling the black eye-mask out of my pocket. I slipped it on and approached the doorman. He took one look at me and moved out of my way. I nodded my thanks and stepped inside. It was dingy and smoky inside, but places like this you don’t come to for the atmosphere. I was a few paces in when a girl wearing nothing but a few appropriately placed feathers danced her way up to me. “Cigar, Mister B.?” holding open a box of fancy-looking cigars and cigarillos. One thing I could say for this place, they didn’t skimp on nothing. I took one and put it in my mouth, she held out a lighter and I leaned forwards, letting the cigar fall into it. I puffed a few times, She smiled at me and walked away. I patted her feather-covered backside appreciatively and pushed back the curtain to the other room. I was greeted with the usual chorus of “Mister Benzedrine!” and “What’s up, Mister B.?” I grinned around the room, Sitting down on a couch at the side. I was joined in no time by two or three girls, all wearing as little as the greeting girl. Two of which jumped on the table in front of me and started dancing. The third, wearing a complicated feather mask slid directly onto my lap. “Want a drink, Mister Benzedrine?” she smiled. I patted her thighs and slipped a dollar-bill into the lacy strip that was supposed to be acting as underwear. “Sure, Shelley.”
“Awh! Mister B! How’d you know it was me? I wore this mask just for you, you like it?” “I’d recognise these legs anywhere, beautiful. Haven’t we known each other long enough that you can drop the Mister?” I joked. I’d known most of the girls here since I’d first come here six years ago, at the delicate age of eighteen. But nobody ever, even my closest clients, had ever dropped the Mister. It was like a personal joke. In the same way that not one of them knew what my real name was either. And that I always wore a mask. Shelley snapped her fingers at one of the girls on the table and pointed at me. The girl hopped down immediately and shimmied out of the curtained room. Shelley carried on dancing on my lap. When the song ended, and the girl returned with a Jack Daniels on a tray, she slid off. I slipped another bill into her underwear. “Thanks Mister B., I’ll come back later, if you’re still here.” she leant down and kissed me on the cheek. I slapped her legs lightly when she turned around “I’ll remember those thighs.”
Watching the girls on the table and sipping my whisky, I barely noticed the boy walk up in front of me. “Are you Mister Benzedrine, sir?”
“First of all, you can forget the sir. And yeah, that’s me.” I looked him up and down doubtfully, how did this boy get in? He couldn’t have been older than sixteen. “What can I do for you, kid?”
“I… I want to try it…” He stuttered. I rolled my eyes and turned back to my drink.
“Sorry, kid. Don’t sell to minors.”
“I’m nineteen.” He said, pulling out his wallet and slipping me his driver’s licence. I took it. “That was pretty stupid of you.” I said bluntly. I held his driver’s licence an inch above the flame of a candle on the back of the sofa His face dropped and his jaw went slack. I pulled my hat down lower over my eyes. “You might be nineteen, kiddo, but don’t give your life to a stranger in a strip club.” I handed it back to him, he slid it into his wallet again, “You won’t sell to me?”
“I don’t think you know what you’re getting into, kid. So no.”
“Please, Mister Benzedrine, sir. I’ll pay you double… Triple! Please?”
I sat back a little. What could this kid possibly need the stuff so badly for? He wasn’t police. Police didn’t bother with the drugs that happen in strip clubs. Which was good news for most of the girls here, and especially good news for me. “You really want this that bad, eh?”
I took a deep breath. Whatever it was, I didn’t think he was going to share with me anyway. “sit down. Kid. I’ll show you how it’s done.” I snapped my fingers at the girl with the tray, who was handing a drink to another client. She looked up at me, I beckoned her over with my finger. “Can I get you something, Mister B.?”
“Another two whiskies please, Amy.” I said. She smiled at me and nodded “You want me to call girls over?”
“No thanks. I’m about to do a little business.”
The kid, by the name of Marshall according to his licence drained the glass and swallowed the paper. “Now, just put your head back and relax.” I laughed as he spluttered against the bitter whisky. He did as I told him, muttering soft “wows” and “ohhs” occasionally. I did a few more scores. Cracking open the inhalers and rolling them up, selling them on for thirty dollars apiece. People would pay anything to get their hands on Benzedrine since it went prescription this year. 1959 was a hard year for druggies across America. I always managed to get some, kiss a few cheeks and shake a few hands and you’ll get anything you want. After maybe an hour or two, another two drinks and a lap dance from a new girl- to whom I gave the biggest tip of the evening, a whole five dollar bill tucked into the front of her bra- I waited patiently for Marshall to come back to reality. For a first time, he came around surprisingly fast. “How do you feel?” I asked, tucking the cracked inhaler cases back into my bag.
“I feel amazing, Mister B.”
“Yeah. You would. Why don’t you go dance? You’ll feel even better.” I smiled at him. Mister Benzedrine strikes again.
“Yeah! Yeah! I wanna dance!” he leapt up onto his feet. I nodded at one of the girls who was still dancing on the table, she gave me a grin and jumped down to dance with Marshall, who looked both thrilled and surprised to find a woman suddenly grinding up against him. I counted out tonight’s profit. Three hundred dollars. Not counting the two hundred and forty that Mack owed me. I started to doubt whether Mack would actually show up tonight or not. Shelley re-appeared later on, looking flustered. I smiled at her when she slid onto my lap. “Alright beautiful? You look beat. Long shift?”
“Not too bad, just guys in the other room.” she sighed heavily. I frowned, but she shook her head “Don’t worry about me, precious. They just get a little bit enthusiastic, then of course Billy-” the no-nonsense doorman, fiercely protective of the dancers but with a heart of gold. I’d dealt him a few times, always for free, after all he did for the girls and the dealers, it was difficult to charge him for anything, “Billy got mad, threw the guy out. Making a scene’s bad for business. Especially now he’s got this ‘no hands’ policy going on.” She sighed again and shrugged a little. I lifted my hands off her legs and held them up. She shook her head. “It’s different in here… We all know you guys are just here for the same reason as us, to make money. So you guys get to touch.” She put my hands back down on her legs “But the other guys are here for one reason, and well, do I need to go into details?”
I shook my head, pulling three of the tens I’d made today out of my pocket and tucking them into the back of her bra. “I’m sorry, Shelley.”
“Don’t be sorry, Mister B. It’s decent guys like you that make my night.” She smiled. A puffed-out Marshall re-appeared from the centre of the smoky room and flopped down beside me. “How much do I owe you, Mister Benzedrine?”
“It’s thirty for the hit, another thirty for me helping you out.” I shrugged. He went into his wallet and hesitantly pulled out three twenties. Shelley’s dancing never faltered, though I was sure I saw her face drop when she saw the contents of the young man’s wallet. I’d cleaned him out, that meant he wouldn’t be tipping the girls. I immediately felt guilty. “Pleasure doing business, Marshall. Be warier about who you give your licence to, next time.” I said dismissively. Marshal nodded and stood up, disappearing again into the crowded room. I pulled handed two of the twenties to Shelley. “Share that between the girls who helped me out tonight, okay? Especially the new girl. There‘s thirty dollars tucked in your bra, too.” I coughed, almost blushing. Shelley looked at me like she didn’t know how to react. I could see through the eye-holes in her mask that her eyes were wet. “Why can’t all the guys be like you, Mister B.?” she glanced around, then threw her arms around my neck for the briefest of seconds. She let go and sniffed. “I have to go… my shift’s finished.”
“Goodnight, legs.” I murmured, somehow feeling even more guilty now that I’d given her all that money. She kissed my cheek then stood up off me. “Shelley?”
“Yes, Mister B?”
“I’d like to see you with clothes on, sometime.” I knew she would say no as soon as I asked. There was an unwritten rule that they couldn’t see clients after work. She smiled at me sadly. “If I weren’t me, and you weren’t you, then I would. But unfortunately I am me, and you are you.” She sighed. “Goodnight, Mister B. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I nodded and smiled. At least she still had her decency. I admired her for that. I watched her dance past the people of the club and slip through the curtain.
Eventually, Mack made his long-awaited appearance. “Where’s my Mister Benzedrine at?” He called from the curtain. I stood up, straightening my shirt.
“Over here, Mack.” I raised my hat to signal him down.
“Mister B.” He cooed, grabbing my hand for a rough shake before sitting down beside me. “How’s things, man? It’s been a while.” He angled his hat a little too far to the left for my liking. Snapping his fingers at one of the girls, who came over and sat on his lap immediately. My heart sank when I saw it was the new girl. Mack never tipped. She sat down on his lap, he turned to me. I shrugged. “I can’t even get a stripper to go on a date with me.” I smiled. He laughed
“I wouldn’t go there with one of these girls, no knowing what they do in their spare time. Know what I mean?” He drawled, the girl was facing away from him. I saw her jaw tense, for a fleeting second, I wished she would stand up and punch him. I would sure as hell claim he fell and broke his nose. Instead she carried on dancing. Although she looked at me with a small smile, Shelley must have given her my money already. “Mack.” I scolded. He rolled his eyes.
“About the money… I can’t give it all to you now-”
“I’m not surprised.” I snapped. Mack. Notorious for never paying for his drugs. He looked at me helplessly. “Give me one more week… How much do I owe ya’?”
“Three hundred.” admittedly, I was rounding up a lot, but this creep deserved to be ripped off. Leering disgustingly over the girl, barely restraining his hands. I knew what Shelley meant about the guys in the other room. “there’s a ‘No-hands’ policy now, Mack.”
The girl smiled a little at my words, Mack laughed “Nobody’s going to stop me having a little bit of fun.”
“Take your hands off her, Mack, or your supply stops here.” I said, calmly. He laughed nervously. I carried on when his hands were safely back in his pockets. “how much can you give me tonight?”
“One hundred. That’s if I don’t have a hit tonight.”
“I’m not going to keep supplying you if you can’t pay me back, Mack. It doesn’t work that way.” The song finished and the girl jumped off his lap with more enthusiasm than necessary, not even waiting for tips. I made a mental note to congratulate her next time she danced for me. I took Mack’s money and sent him away with stern warnings. I checked my watch and hissed at the time. Standing up and straightening my waistcoat, I bid farewell to the girls and paid up at the bar. Before walking past the curtain and back into the entranceway. I was handed my coat by the same girl who had ushered me in. I pulled it on and thanked her. “I haven’t seen Billy today, give him my regards?”
“Of course Mister B.” She smiled and blew him a kiss. He “caught” it and left the building into the bracing night air.
“I think one of your friends is in the newspaper.” Alan shouted through to the bedroom, where I was standing tightening my tie. “Which one?”
“I was kidding. Just a stripper from downtown.” Alan smirked, I rolled my eyes and grabbed the newspaper from his hands. Praying it wouldn’t be anyone from my club. “Page nine. A little box at the bottom.” He said, pulling the sports page out of my hands. I flicked to the page, repressing my disgust that, on the front page was some famous dog that had died, yet a girl who’d been almost killed only got a book-mark sized mention on the ninth page. I found the box.
Queen Of The Red-Light District Found Critically Wounded In Alleyway.
A stripper, reportedly working at a reputable bar in downtown New York was found in critical condition at around 3am. Reports suggest that she was shot twice in the abdomen. Colleagues have informed police of a dispute between the victim and a client earlier that evening. The dispute resulted in the client being ejected from the bar, where he was seen almost two hours after his supposed departure time. Police are looking for the man in question, however, due to lack of definitive witness statements, they claim that they may be forced to chase other leads.
My stomach dropped. Surely it couldn’t be… I continued reading down the page.
The girl is being treated at Mercy Hospital, and her condition is apparently stable. Shelley Weaver (25), is apparently a well-known member of the red-light district, with recent rumours concerning herself and local-
I couldn’t read any more. Letting the paper slide out of my hands. Alan raised an eyebrow at me “She really was a friend of yours?”
“One of my best.” I murmured. “I’m going to go up and see her. Could you call my boss for me?”
Alan nodded, still a little dumbfounded. “You know she’s a stripper, right? Oh… Wait… She’s one of those friends.”
I scowled at him. “Technically she’s an exotic dancer. And so what if I spend time in The Deuce? That’s my business.”
“Literally.” Alan nodded to the stack of cracked cases sitting by the sink. I lifted them up and threw them into the incinerator hatch in the corridor outside. “That’s my business. As long as you get your rent, right?” I was closing the door, when I shouted “Call my boss!”
“Mister…?” The nurse raised an eyebrow. I sighed heavily
“I know that isn’t my real name, but that’s the name she’ll know me by. She wont recognise anything else.”
“Fine. Mister Benzedrine…” She shook her head “She’s in room 3007.”
“Thank you.” I left the nurses station and walked along the corridor. Counting off the numbers. I stopped outside her door. I could see her faintly behind the textured glass. I pulled on my eye-mask and opened the door, praying it wouldn’t creak. Thankfully, it opened smoothly and I slipped inside, pulling a chair closer to the edge of her bed. She was laying on her back, I barely recognised her without make-up. I didn’t know if she was asleep or unconscious. Deciding to risk it anyway, I took her hand. Her eyelids fluttered, I took my hand away. She looked over at me, she looked like she had no idea who I was. “Mister B?” Her eyes widened. “What’re you doing here?”
“I…” Now that I thought about it, I realised that I really hadn’t thought about my reason for coming at all. “I just felt like you could do with some company. I didn’t know if there was anyone else…”
“How did you know?” She started to struggle to sit up, but I held up my hands to stop her. Wincing with pain she leaned back on the pillows. “That I was in here, how did you know?”
I blinked. “You don’t know?” I looked around the room, spotting the object of my desire, I grabbed it and handed it to her. “Page nine.”
She flicked the newspaper open, her eyes falling to the article at the bottom of the page. She smirked a little at the headline. “Queen of The Red-Light District…” She shook her head, reading the article. She closed it when she finished, looking at the front page “Rover The Faithful passes away during the night.” She read, her voice clipped with laughter. “Nice to know they have their priorities straight.” she smiled a little and set the newspaper down, she looked back at my confused expression and broke into a grin “Dogs before strippers, always”
I shook my head, smiling a little. “You’re terrible.”
“I’ve heard worse. it’s no wonder, really.” She shrugged, then winced from the pain. “It’s like, if we can’t make fun of ourselves, it’s just going to hurt more when someone else calls us stupid things.” She picked up the newspaper in demonstration. “Queen. Queen of the red-light district.” she scoffed. “I’ve only ever worked in one strip club. Proud to say I’ve never gone further than a lap dance with a customer. That’s a pretty small reputation for a ‘Queen’.”
I noticed the edge of bitterness against the humour in her voice. I took her hand again. “Why does it hurt so much? That phrase.” I asked. She looked away from me, tears welling up in here eyes.
“Last night, when you gave me all that money…” She swallowed. “Nobody’s ever cared before. So what if the girl giving you a lap-dance has had a rough night? Just as long as she dances, Right?
“When you call me that phrase, you’re grouping me together with all the prostitutes and the pimps and all the filth of that industry.” Shelley was crying now, looking down at the front page of the newspaper. She tried to say something else, but her sobs were stopping her. I tried to hush her, but she shook her head, taking deep breaths, she tried again. “I’ve never had sex for money.”
“Nobody said you had.” I tried to speak soothingly, but I had no idea what to say. She was right. By printing that headline they had suggested something about her that wasn’t true. Purely because I had no idea what else to say, I muttered “What are you going to do now?”
She laughed sadly, “Go back to the club, and try and make a living with two pearly white scars.”
“Are you sure you want to go back? After what happened?” I frowned, she looked down and smiled.
“The girls need me there. Billy’s alright with the rough stuff, but he isn’t very good with drying the tears afterwards… They need me there. Plus, I need the money.” she smiled at me, her hand squeezed mine gently. “Thank you for coming, Mister Benzedrine.”
I nodded at her. “Anytime.” I stood up “Try and get some rest now. I’ll come back and see you tomorrow. If that’s alright?”
“I’d love it.” She let go of my hand and I walked to the door. I stopped with my hand on the handle.
“Oh, and Legs?”
“Yes?” she smiled, shaking her head slowly at the nickname.
“I’m counting up the dances you owe me.”
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