The Last Dance
Moe thought it was shaping up to be a good night. The tips were good, and everybody was drinking, and the dancers were getting a lot of trade in lap and table dances.
And Aphrodite’s second set was starting. Aphrodite had changed her act without telling anybody, which was pretty standard fare for working with druggies, but at least her new act didn’t suck the way it usually did with druggies, and she’d worked out the music with the band somehow.
He came up with a tray of beers and whiskey shots and made his way down the bar passing them out and collecting money. He cast his eyes around the place, caught sight of a nun, and did a double-take.
A burly nun, six and a half feet tall, whose beard protruded six inches from his wimple. Right. The Sisters of Forgiven Debauchery were part of San Francisco’s scene, although he’d never seen them inside his club before. A quick eyeball check around the back spotted three more nuns. They must have had some charity event nearby that just got out. Last week’s had been “butt plug bingo for AIDS research.” Anyway, it looked like they weren’t here en masse.
He got three more drinks for various people, and checked out the music Aphrodite had gotten the band to do for her new act. They’d been doing eighties hits, but now they were doing something unidentifiable, wild and polyrhythmic, that Moe had never heard them practicing and would have sworn they didn’t have the talent to play. It sounded good, but Moe didn’t like it. He was starting to get the feeling that something weird was happening.
He noticed a couple of guys groping each other in the corner, then a couple more in a different corner, then recognized a grinning looney who asked him for a mai tai with an umbrella. That would be the laughing-octopus stealth-queer-bar contingent. Moe cringed inwardly. These guys thought it was fun to get a few dozen of their most outrageously queer friends together and invade a place where straight people went, making it into a queer bar for the night. Moe had seen them before other in places, but he’d never heard of them actually going to a strip club. But he knew exactly what kind of scene they’d make if he shut down their groping without also shutting down the … other groping that was going on, and that was someplace he didn’t want to go.
Okay, nuns and stealth queers. Were they going to fight? He doubted it; The sisters didn’t rumble, and the laughing-octopus crew were mostly just in it for fun. They weren’t going to do anything that put them on the wrong side of the law. Still, Moe was starting to sweat.
On the stage, Aphrodite danced to the wild music, her taut corded body beating out some kind of primitive trace across the place’s mood as she leapt and whirled, playing with scarves and veils but not using them to conceal a damn thing for more than a second or two at a time. The crowd pulsed, in rhythm with her and the wild music, at the edge of the stage.
As his eyes flicked across them, Moe spotted a couple of large guys wearing kilts cut from day-glo Hawaiian floral fabrics. Moe blinked. What the hell? It wasn’t the season for highland games, and anyway Clan Surfie didn’t usually do clubs as such. A thrill of alarm scraped across the back of Moe’s brain. The sisters and the stealth-queers showing up at the same place and the same time … wasn’t likely. But Clan Surfie, at the same club, at the same time as both of the other two? What were the odds? It was getting wild, but how wild was too wild? This was a strip club in San Francisco’s tenderloin, after all; certain things you had to make judgment calls about.
Vince, the other bartender, was giving Moe a look that said what the hell do I do, as a gaggle of giggling queers asked him for “foofoo drinks with umbrellas”. Moe shrugged and made a pouring motion, trying to assess the situation. There were half-a-dozen more Hawaiian floral fabric kilts standing next to the door where they’d just come in. Two of them were apparently there with nuns as dates. His regular clients were mostly still here, but they looked like they hadn’t noticed anything weird going on yet.
But standing next to the most recent influx of flowered kilts and habits, a couple of butch dykes in motorcycle leathers had just come in, and they were followed quickly by six more. Moe’s brain went into overdrive. The Bitches on Wheels had shown up. There was no way this could possibly be a coincidence, all at one club, all in one night. Would there be a fight? Who hated whom? who got along? The combinations that could add up to trouble were starting to be too much for him to keep track of. Above all, there was the distinct fact that most of these groups shouldn’t be in a strip club at all on any given night. Something was happening. Moe’s club was being set up. And Moe didn’t know what he was being set up for.
Moe opened the cash register and nervously began stuffing bundles of twenties through the slot and into the safe under the floor. He let Vince take the Bitch on Wheels’ orders and they spread out through the club. Moe experienced a moment of relief as some of the leather-dykes and some of the stealth queers greeted each other like friends; at least that was a fight he didn’t need to worry about if they got along. But the phone next to the register was blinking, and the light was the green light that was reserved for the intercom from the parking lot.
He picked up the phone. “Yah, Marcel, I know about the motorcycle gang,” he said.
“Uh, I wasn’t calling about the motorcycles, Boss,” said Marcel. “Did you know we’ve got some Department of Public Works vehicles up here? Um, one dump-truck and two toolbox trucks with electrical gear in the back.”
“Wait,” said Moe. “That ain’t right. This is San Francisco, we’d have PG&E trucks. Electricity isn’t public works here.”
“Huh,” said Marcel. “I’ll go get a closer look at ’em.” Moe waited there, feeling impending doom as bundle after bundle of twenties went thwack, under the counter and into the safe. Finally Marcel got back. “Boss?” he said. “They’re not San Francisco DPW trucks. They say Black Rock City Nevada.”
“Oh … Shit. Marcel, don’t touch those trucks, and take the rest of the night off,” Moe said. “Get out, now.” Moe’s eyes went around the bar in near panic. There were Burners in here. What the hell did Burners look like? Oh crap, oh crap, oh crap. He couldn’t tell who they were. Who would they get along with? He didn’t know. He quit counting the bundles. Instead, he just grabbed handfuls of twenties out of the register, wrapped them around the plunger, and thunk, through the counter they went. When he had the drawer down to less than a hundred bucks, he reached under the register and flipped a switch. In the rafters, where it would shine in the band’s eyes, a red light came on.
The bouncers got the signal, coming to full alert and positioning themselves next to the bar and bandstand. Vince got the signal, threw him a worried look and started locking down the steel doors on the liquor cabinets. The dancers clearly saw it; Moe even saw a couple of them pointing it out to each other. But they didn’t head for the safety of the dressing rooms, which is what they were supposed to do.
And the band kept playing. Once the signal went up, the band was supposed to play for two minutes only, to give the rest of them time to lock things down and the dancers time get to safety, and then stop. But the two minutes passed, and the dancers didn’t head for safety, and the band didn’t stop. They played on, the same wild, complex, music that they’d been playing, the syncopation and back-beats and the unbelievable time signature skirling madly across the sea of patrons. As far as Moe could tell, they were in some kind of zone with the music. The band was totally focused on Aphrodite, and the playing had them so occupied they weren’t noticing a damn thing else. Some of the regulars had finally noticed something was wrong and headed for the door. But it still looked like a disaster starting to happen.
And Aphrodite danced. With wild shrieks like animal cries, she whirled and leapt and spun. Her handsprings took her across the stage and then beyond it, feet and then hands thumping solidly in the middle of the tables of patrons who raised a glass as she went by. High into the air, with a spin and a twist, towards a landing at a spot on the floor that magically cleared the instant before she got there. She took two steps running, and one of the Clan Surfie members made a stirrup of his hands for her and tossed her into the air like a caber pole. She laughed as her feet passed within inches of the rafters overhead and her outstretched arms trailed two scarves across the heads of two patrons, then she completed her flip and landed without even looking, solidly with her feet in the middle of another table.
It wasn’t possible, Moe thought. It wasn’t, fucking, possible. He’d believe she could be this high, this stoned, this wild. But dancing this dance? But to be able to do this while stoned? To be able to do this at all? It wasn’t, fucking, possible.
Aphrodite dived off the table, doing cartwheels and handsprings across the crowded floor while somehow not hitting anyone, wild music increasing to a frenzy as she moved. With a final leap and a final midair twist, she landed on the far end of the bar. She stood framed against the stage lights for the barest moment, then sprang again. With a thump and a thump, her hands landed on the middle of the bar and then her feet landed right in front of Moe’s dumbfounded face.
She stood there, naked and regal and tall, and looked down at him with an expression he’d never even imagined before; her beatific smile turned on him with a kind of supreme confidence and grace, and also with gratitude and, perhaps, a tiny amount of pity. He saw the skinned knee and the splinters in her foot and the sweat on her now that she was up close. He smelled her, the sweaty reality of her sex right next to his face, and heard her ragged breathing. And she smiled at him, but it wasn’t the smile of a woman who wanted him. It was instead the smile of a Goddess who knew exactly how much he wanted her.
Moe felt like he’d been kicked in the gut as the music stopped and she turned and took a bow – well, more like a nod – to the crowd. Recovering his wits amidst the thunderous applause, he fumbled for the switch-box under the cash register and brought up the house lights, signaling that the club was closing.
And then the weirdest thing to happen all evening happened. Aphrodite left – not through the back way like the dancers were supposed to, but through the front. Not wearing clothes, but out into the cool streets stark naked and without so much as a trace of shame. And the entire crowd, including the band, the other dancers and two of the three bouncers, filed out behind her. Every last one of them.
Vince and Moe and the last bouncer looked at each other in the sudden silence. Finally Moe said what they were all thinking. “What … the Hell … just happened here?”
“Philo, check this out,” said J.D, Tossing a copy of the Bay Weekly on the worktable next to him. “Says here a new cult of Aphrodite formed last night. A whole bunch of hookers and strippers and assorted weirdies marched out of O’Farrell street last night and over to South Park where some sort of … the story’s not straight. It’s either a High Priestess or an incarnation of the old Slut Goddess herself … talked to them about love and stuff until the paper went to press.”
“So?” Philo said, putting down his cheese and crackers next to the vise, “This is San Francisco, that kind of shit happens all the time.”
“Well, the regular Temple of Aphrodite is all upset about it,” said J.D. They say this whoever-she-is is an imposter and a heretic and she’s not from their temple and she’s too slutty and not feminist enough for them.”
“Figures,” said Philo. ” I guess church politics cuts through all denominations, you know? My folks back home are Catholics, but they don’t like this new pope. So?”
“So, she looks like Indra.” J.D. said. “Except she’s not all tattooed and stuff.” She pointed out a grainy picture of a naked woman haranguing a crowd, over the four-inch article.
“Holy shit,” Philo said. “That’s her, J.D. I mean, that’s what she looked like when we signed the lease on this place, I mean, except that she was wearing clothes then. It took about a gallon of cover cream but she pretended not to have all the tats. She’s washed the dye out of her hair, too.”
“Indra doesn’t do religion though, weird or not,” said J.D. “So when did she take orders and become a Priestess? Or a Goddess, or whatever?”
“Oh, hell no,” Philo said. “She don’t take orders worth a crap. Not from me, not from anybody. She’s gotta be Lost. We’re gonna have to go get her.”
“Philo…” J.D. said doubtfully. “Look how many people are looking at her and needing her to be something. If she’s Lost and you’re going to try to get her back, you’re going to have to fight all of them for her head.”
“We’re gonna need Axel and Alex, at least,” said Philo. “Call Tom, too!” He was already up and running toward the old security office, his silk bathrobe flying behind him. “Yo, Axel! Alex! Come on, we got a lead on Indra!” He made the spiral stairs rattle as he climbed them, then banged on the twins’ door until Axel poked his head out, still groggy.
“Damph gespatchen?” he asked, running a hand through an alarming mop of uncombed hair.
“We know where Indra was last night,” Philo replied. “Get some clothes on and get down to the Carstle.”
“Kreff bonsh Indra, ker Philo,” Alex said, handing a bundle of clothes to Axel and leaning into the doorway.
“Maybe I do, so what?” Philo said. “She’s in trouble and we have to go get her.”
The door closed, but two minutes later the twins were on the stairs headed down. Axel had a tea-cozy on his head, a richly embroidered trench coat, and a pair of matched katanas on his back. Alex was wearing a three-piece suit made out of hundreds of multicolored teddy-bear pelts and several dozen pieces of intricately carved jade jewelry. Just for a moment, as they passed the stained glass image of some Catholic saint while coming down the intricate wrought iron spiral staircase Indra had made, they seemed somehow regal and perfect and handsome, like a pair of heroes, knights in shining armor from some far stranger dimension. But then they reached the floor and it was just Axel and Alex again.
Philo and J.D. were already in the Carstle waiting for them. Axel grabbed the chain next to the steel door and pulled, and the door came up. As the Carstle rumbled out of the loading dock and into the parking lot, he let the chain go. The door rolled shut while the Carstle came to a stop, and then the twins jumped into the back.
Philo considered for a moment, then stuck a Judy Garland disc into the CD player and turned on the PA. “We’re off to see the Wizard” echoed across the parking lot as he gunned the motor and took a hard right turn.
This is one chapter of The Hook, a novel which is being published serially on this site. This page links to all chapters so far serialized.
The complete novel is available from Amazon.