2. Stranger

Eric felt abducted.

Of all the hellish places in all fifty fucking states, Pam chose Shreveport, Louisiana. Shreveport.

He wanted to vent his rage on the pilot and the two flight attendants as soon as their plane landed in Caddo airport, but he managed to rein his anger in. It wasn’t their fault. It was his absolute, and apparently misplaced, trust on Pam that brought him in this god-forsaken place.

He was surprised, he’d give her that. But fuck, Shreveport? When Pam said ‘pack light’, he was thinking more like South Beach, not South bitch.

“Louisiana?” Eric whisper-yelled at his cell as he sat in the back of a taxi in the middle of the night on his way to his hotel – at least he hoped it was a hotel and not just some kitschy Southern B&B.

“What? You said I could choose?” Pam sing-songed in the other line. “I know you like I know my Chanel, Eric. If you’re going to blow off some steam I expect fireworks. And I cannot have you making a fool of yourself where people can recognize you. ‘Sides, according to TripAdvisor, Shreveport is the Manhattan of Louisiana. It’s like you never left home.”

“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?”

“Thoroughly.” He could hear the giddiness in her voice. “Maybe after spending a few days there you’d finally figure your ass from your elbow.”

Shit.

Pinching the bridge of his nose, Eric took a deep calming breath.

“Oh Pamela. Pamela, Pamela, Pamela,” he crooned, injecting a healthy dose of flippancy in his tone. “If you have any idea what fresh hell I have in store for you when I get back…”

“Eric, I’m losing you. Bad reception,” Pam cut him off. He could hear her perfectly. The only thing bad was her acting. “Got to go, chief, see you in a few!” Then the line went silent.

“Goddamit!” he gritted out as he shoved his phone in his knapsack – the only piece of luggage he brought.

The taxi driver peered at him through the rear view mirror and Eric skewered him with a glare. The driver, a balding man in his late forties with a bad case of B.O., shrugged and trained his gaze back on the road as he drove in silence. A few minutes later he pulled over.

“We’re here. Majestueuse Maison,” the driver said in his eye-cringing French.

Eric’s stomach plummeted to his feet as he stared at the derelict housing. He would give both his balls to the devil to have Pam in front him right now just so he could pull her nails one by one.

“This is Majestueuse Maison?” Please say no, he prayed. Please say you made a mistake and heard me wrong.

“The one and only,” the driver grumbled with another offhanded shrug.

When Pam texted him the name of the hotel she booked him in he thought it was a bit on the nose with the French thing, now he knew it wasn’t just on the nose, it was a fucking carbuncle.

“I changed my mind,” Eric said while shaking his head. No way in hell he’d stay there tonight. “Take me to the nearest hotel instead. Somewhere clean, where I won’t have to share a bed with varmints.”

The lines on the driver’s forehead creased and deepened as his mouth formed into a scowl. “Y’all Yankees c’mere and think your shit don’t stink, eh? We’ll…” His middle finger finished the rest of his sentence.

Eric was gobsmacked. Normally, he would come up with a better retort but he remembered this wasn’t his turf. He might have gone too far with ‘varmint’ and he was man enough to admit his mistake. So without another word he fished out a few bills from his wallet and climbed out of the cab.

Majestueuse Maison literally meant Majestic House in French. There was nothing remotely majestic about this house. It was a red brick-clad abomination with its moldy walls, cracked windows and the misspelled graffiti on the wall by the side entrance. It was Bates Motel’s hideous cousin. And with his luck he’d be the blonde who would get stabbed in the shower.


E/S

Trying to get a cab in the middle of nowhere was like watching paint dry – futile and exasperating. He never should have insulted his cabbie. It seemed what the taxi driver lacked in hair and personal hygiene he made up for pride. Eric, of all people, should know how to respect the almighty ego.

An hour later – which seemed like decades in Louisiana time – Eric threw in the towel. Dragging his feet, he started navigating the lonely – not to mention creepy—path to hell. He passed by a couple of motels, both were no better than Bates Motel one-point-oh. He contemplated calling Pam to ask for help but his ego wouldn’t let him. He was a grown-ass man, for fuck’s sake, sending an SOS to Pam would only give her satisfaction.

Puffing up his chest, he soldiered on. A little adventure wouldn’t hurt.

He spotted a 24-hour diner, Big Al’s Caf (the ‘e’ at the end had been busted). He could use some hot coffee. He was about to go in when something from across the street caught his attention.

He swore he almost cried when he saw the big red flashing sign: Fantasia. He jogged across the street to get a better look. There was no one by the door – no line of customers, not even a bouncer to greet him. In retrospect, that should have been his first clue that this joint was no good.

Taking a closer inspection, he found a door at the side. It was almost missable because it had the same color as the walls: black. Hanging beside the door was a small poster of a woman in black leather tights and bustier, under the photo – right across her navel were the words: Fantasia, where your wildest dreams come to life.

Classy.

Even if this was the worst strip club he had ever seen it would still be way better than Big Al’s Cafe. For one, he was certain there would be libation, among other things that ended with –tion.

He was right, though. It was the worst joint club he had ever set foot in.

As soon as he pushed the door in, the loud music from the speaker screwed against the walls battered his ear drums. He had to blink rapidly to be able to adjust to the darkness that greeted him. The entire room was muggy from cigarette smoke. He could feel his lungs shrinking with every breath he took.

Fuck. He didn’t realize people were still allowed to smoke indoors.

A few heads whipped in his direction. Trying hard not to draw too much attention, he kept his head low as he searched for the bar. It didn’t take much to spot the bar opposite the entrance as it was the only corner that had lights on. Like a moth towards the flame he hurried to the liquor stand. As he made his way across the room he almost tripped over the pole in the middle of what he assumed was dance floor. Then just as he reached the bar, a red beam flashed like a spotlight from the ceiling illuminating the tiny dais, where a barely-clad woman started grinding and gyrating to the tune of ‘Lips of an Angel’.

Kill me now.

Ignoring the whistling and hooting from the customers at the back, he dashed toward an empty high stool by the counter. With as much subtlety he as could muster he grazed his elbow against one of the red cushioned stools to test for any sticky or wet substance. Mercifully, it was dry, uncomfortably warm, but nevertheless dry. There was only one other customer at the bar and because he wanted to put as much distance from him he put his backpack in the middle seat.

Settling in, he was greeted by a woman with bleached blonde hair who wore way too much make-up.

“Hiya!” she chirped in her shrilly voice. She looked way too energetic for her age. Judging from the deep lines around her neck, she was well past her prime but was still in denial. “What can I do you for gorgeous?”

Eric ignored the cheeky barmaid and went on to study the selection of liquors on the top shelf. Nothing impressive as expected.

“Beer or bourbon are your best bets here, bud,” offered the man sitting two seats from his left.

Eric cast a sideway glance and to his surprise the guy didn’t look half as bad as the bar’s usual clientele – for one, he wasn’t wearing flannel and Timberlands. His opinionated companion, in a gray v-neck and denim jeans, raised his Bud Light to him and grinned. Eric couldn’t help but return the gesture with a tip of his head. There was something affable about Bud Light and his messy, dark blonde hair and warm brown eyes.

For a fleeting second, Eric felt a nervous chill at the idea that he had somehow went into a different kind of stripjoint. Looking over his shoulder, Eric did a quick recon. It seemed business wasn’t booming for Fantasia as Eric counted eight heads, five of them belonged to the ladies in tight leather spandex.

Whew!

“So what’s it gonna be sugar?” the bartender asked, flashing him her cleavage on top of her tight bustier. The sight didn’t even give him a tiny stir in his pants.

“Two shots of bourbon and a glass of Merlot,” Eric placed his order.

Bud Light and Bleach Blonde exchanged a look before the latter started pouring his bourbon.

She reached for a stemmed glass on top of the shelf. The glass was so dusty that she to run it over the tap under the counter and wipe it dry. “You expectin’ company, hon?”

Eric shook his head. It was a force of habit – something he had been doing for the past five years.

“Mind if I make a suggestion?”

Yes. I do mind. He wasn’t really in the mood to take unsolicited advice.

“Start with this,” said the barmaid as she slid the glass of bourbon in front of him before she leaned forward – giving him another peek in case he missed the first show. Trying to avoid the peepshow, he caught her name tag instead: Ginger.

Ginger pushed the glass of red next to the liquor and husked, “Then finish off with the red.” Her voice had been altered from shrilly to raspy, which was quite a talent but not at all titillating.

“Uh-oh watch out, Geenj is using her Kathleen Turner-impression. She must really like you man,” teased Bud Light.

“Shut up, Jase!” Ginger shrieked and threw a handful of mixed nuts at Bud Light, making the customer snigger.

Eric had to restrain himself from rolling his eyes. The scene was too ‘Cheers’ for his taste and the banter between the two were getting in the way of his supposed bender.

“Cris!” Ginger yelled, summoning the woman with yet another bleach blonde hair, sitting with two other spandex ladies from the table closest to the bar. Cris, also known as Spandex One, stood up, smoothed out her leather pants and pushed up her bustier before she strutted toward the bar in her red fuck-me heels and gave Bud Light an open-mouthed kiss.

“Can you please tell your boyfriend not to make fun of me in front of my customers?” Ginger whined as she ditched her scratchy voice.

“I am your customer,” Bud Light tried to reason as he pulled Spandex One onto his lap. She leaned farther in and mumbled something inaudible to Eric which earned her a booming guffaw from Bud Light.

Eric could barely hear their blathering amid the grating sound system and honestly, he’d like to keep it that way. He sipped his bourbon and tried to drown the humorless sitcom in the background. He didn’t come here for Fantasia’s tacky décor, questionable ambience and cheap show. He came here for the booze.

“Oy Crystal!” growled someone from the back. Eric checked out the newcomer from his reflection in the shelf mirror. Even with the dim-lighting he could see the man’s potbelly and black, greasy hair. Eric could spot a douche bag from a mile away, and this man with his brown bowling shirt was like a bad Charlie Sheen wannabe.

The man closed in on the couple and from Eric’s periphery he could detect the man’s trimmed moustache twitching as he towered over Bud Light and Spandex One. “What time is it?”

It seemed like a rhetorical question because Eric was almost blinded by the glimmer of the gold ‘Rolex’ around the man’s meaty wrist.

Don’t answer it, Bud.

Bud Light kept his mouth shut and Eric sent him a mental high-five.

“Nine thirty,” Spandex One replied.

Ugh, so close. Eric almost felt bad for them.

“Which means you’re still on the clock, aren’t ya? Then what in shit’s name are you doin’ dry humpin’ this limpdick?”

Eric couldn’t help but sneak a glance at Bud Light. No self-respecting man should take that kind of smack without at least hurling something back. To Eric’s bewilderment, not to mention dismay, Bud Light just kept his head down with one hand on the small of his girlfriend’s back and the other clutching his right thigh.

“Sorry Al,” grumbled Spandex One.

Al? As in Big Al? Eric didn’t know what to do with that new information so he chucked it in his Big Vault of Useless Facts.

Spandex One straightened up and turned to Bud Light, “No need to wait up for me babe; Geenj’ll give me a ride home, ‘kay?” She gave him a quick peck on the cheek which earned them another loud grunt from Big Al.

The fat fuck threw one more glare at Bud Light before he spun his huge belly and marched to the hallway at the side of the bar.

The awkwardness that followed was palpable. Even the aggravating music wasn’t loud enough to fill the proverbial silence.

Eric raised his hand and asked Ginger for a refill. Bud Light, whose warm schoolboy grin was long gone, was quietly engaged in a staring contest with the beer bottle in his hand.

“Ginger,” Eric motioned to the unusually silent bartender, “One more bourbon please.”

Ginger furrowed her thin manicured eyebrows and Eric answered her soundless query with a nudge of his head to the left. The barmaid understood quickly as she flashed him a smile and placed another glass in front of Bud light.

“What’s this?” asked Bud Light as he stared at the dark amber liquid trickling in the glass.

“Courtesy of my soon-to-be lover,” Ginger tried to keep her voice down but Eric managed to read her lips.

Man, Bleach Blonde sure had a sense of humor – and fighting spirit. But just to be on the safe side maybe he should keep an eye for any signs of roofie.

Bud Light chuckled and turned to Eric. “Thanks, bro,” he said, raising his glass to him. Alcohol, it seemed, was still a potent social lubricant.

Eric replied with a one-shoulder shrug. “He’s an asshole.”

Bud Light took a sip of his free drink, winced and then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “He’s not an asshole. He’s the thing that comes out of assholes.”

Eric laughed at that. Nothing bonds two grown men better than mutual disgust.

Bud Light slid out of his stool and pointed to Eric’s knapsack. “D’you mind?”

Eric actually wanted to keep Bud Light at arm’s length but after what the man had been through Eric couldn’t bear to say no. He picked up his bag and transferred it to the empty seat on his right. Bud Light hopped onto the stool next to his. Eric noticed a slight hitch in Bud Light’s step. He chalked it up to booze.

“Jason,” Bud Light mumbled, offering his hand.

For a brief moment, he contemplated making up a name but decided against it. The hell with it, the probability of seeing Jason again was slim to none.

“Eric,” he replied as he shook Jason’s clammy hand.

“Tourist?”

“Just passing through.”

“Does he always talk that way to customers?” Eric asked. He didn’t need to drop the fat fuck’s name, Jason knew who he meant.

“Nah. It’s just me. He thinks I’m distracting Crystal from her job.”

“Big Al’s all bark and no bite.” Ginger chimed in. “‘Sides he can’t throw you out of ‘ere, can he Jase?”

“Damn straight.” Jason winked at Ginger then chugged his drink.

“Why’s that?”

“Because Big Al has the hots for Jase’s sister.”

Jason groaned, as if the idea was too disgusting to be spoken out loud.

Eric let the last comment hang in the air as he filed that tidbit into the Big Vault of Useless Facts.

“Are you gonna drink that?” Jason asked pointing his chin to the warm glass of red.

“It’s for my brother.”

“Oh yeah? He’s comin’ here too?”

“He’s dead,” Eric replied with a tone that most people found casually cruel as he raised his glass to his lips to hide the sudden tremor of his hand.

Jason, who was sipping his drink, coughed out loud and spat most of his drink at Ginger.

“Shit, Geenj, sorry!” Jason blurted at the barmaid who spat out a slew of curses. “Your brother’s dead?” he turned to Eric.

“Five years and counting.” Thanks to me.

“Sorry man.”

Eric shrugged, regretting his decision to bring Godric up. Fortunately Jason let go of the conversational tangent as the two of them fell into comfortable silence while they downed the rest of their drinks.

“One more round?” Eric asked.

“Nah, I’m way over my quota. If I go home stinkin’ my sister’s gonna kill me.”

Again with the mysterious sister.

“You live with your sister?”

Jason nodded meekly. “We live in our Gran’s house. She left it to us when she passed on last year. I’m savin’ up for my own place and she’s savin’ up for college.”

Eric nodded as if he understood but to be honest, he really didn’t give a shit.

“Where’re you headin’ by the way?”

“New Orleans,” Eric lied.

“Nola, now that’s a party.”

“Speaking of party, Ginger, how about another round?” Eric asked the conspicuously quiet bartender. “What do you say Jason, one more for the road?”

Jason looked torn but like any other guys Eric knew, he wasn’t strong enough to resist the allure of free booze. “Ah, hell. Hit me Geenj.”

Ginger gave Jason a disapproving glare as she topped up their glasses. “She’s not gonna like this Jase,” she tsked. Eric wasn’t sure who Ginger meant: the girlfriend or the sister?

Three ‘for the road’ later. Jason finally found his missing pair of balls.

“Y’know one day,” Jason started, slurring as he waved his fingers in the air. “I’m gonna beat the crap out of that fucktard, grab my girl, walk outta this dump and never look back.”

Eric looked at Jason with honest curiosity. There was something Dickensian about the man and although he couldn’t particularly relate to his problems, he could surely empathize.

“Sounds like a plan.”

“No, man.” Jason wiggled his finger at him. “That’s the dream.”

Eric’s lips tugged into a rare smile. “To the dream then,” he said lifting his drink. He, too, was a more than just tipsy.

Jason mimicked the gesture and they both downed their liquor. Jason hissed as he slammed his glass down a little louder than he should have.

“How ’bout you, man?” He elbowed Eric. “What’s the dream?”

Fuck no, he thought, shaking his head. He hadn’t imbibed enough alcohol yet to get that sentimental.

Jason kept staring at him, waiting for his response. Ginger, who had been eye-fucking him since the moment he sat down, was also hanging on to his every word.

What the hell. When in Rome, right?

“My dream…” he began, leaning forward so that Ginger wouldn’t have to crane her neck to eavesdrop. “Is to find the girl of my fucking dreams.”

“Attaboy!” Jason slapped his back while grinning at Ginger. “You came to the right place my friend. Welcome to Fantasia, where your wildest dreams come to life.”

He seriously doubted that. The only thing this shithole had to offer was STD.

Jason flung his arm around his shoulder and forced him to turn around. “Look around, bubba. Who knows the girl of your fuckin’ dreams might just walk right through that door.”

Then, as though Jason had magically willed it, the front door burst open as a petite blonde in a white shirt and black pair of shorts stepped in.

Jason quickly retracted his arm as he hopped off his stool. “Not her, though. Definitely not her.”

“Why?” Eric was positively intrigued. “Who is she?”

“That’s my fuckin’ sister.”


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