Nothing got her spirit soaring like perfect choreography, a thumping beat felt deep in the pit of the stomach and, of course, good tips. But for Angel Khoury, ready to dance her next set at the Cheeky Monkey Gentleman’s Club, the only thing soaring was her temper. Even though tips were in short supply on a slow Tuesday night and the loser DJ had cued up the wrong music, things had gone bad long before that. Like really bad. Like finding your girlfriend in the throes of passion with one of the waitresses bad. Still, the show had to go on.
“Here she comes: Bountiful Nebibi, Queen of the Nile. Give her a hand and let’s watch that booty burn down the house.” Reg, the club owner at the Cheeky Monkey, was filling in as Angel approached the stage. Wearily she sucked in her stomach and turned to face the music, literally, a smile firmly in place. A short, middle-aged man with steely eyes and a complexion like moldy cheese, Reg with a microphone was like a kindergartner in a classroom using his outside voice. The motley assortment of regulars gathered around the bar laughed and cheered Angel’s entrance, their fingers in their ears.
Nebibi, shortened to Bibi, was an Egyptian name meaning panther, thought up by Reg who liked all the girls to have stripper names and props in keeping with the club’s exotic theme and his own warped fantasies. Angel parodied a sexy, albeit rather tacky Cleopatra, complete with masses of gold jewelry that caught the lights in dazzling bursts. She was actually Lebanese on her father’s side, but as far as Reg was concerned, it was all the same. With her olive skin and black hair, Angel knew she certainly looked the part. She also knew if she played the exotic maiden and rewarded the customers with a belly dance or two, Reg would be happy. When Reg was happy, everyone was happy.
As Angel sashayed toward the stage in sync with the thudding beat and neon beams that bounced off the walls in arcs of light, something caught her eye. That something was the shining round globe of a perfect ass attached to long brown legs bouncing up the steps. Yvonne. At the sight of her girlfriend—well ex-girlfriend really—Angel’s heart skipped a beat. Even as she tried to push aside the sorrow of this latest affair with the waitress, Angel couldn’t help wondering, as she had so many times over the past few weeks, if the pain came from Yvonne’s betrayal or from knowing the last three years together had been a lie. How could I have been so stupid? Not seen the writing on the wall? She had already forgiven her twice before, but this time Yvonne had struck out.
“Come on Bibi, give us a treat,” hooted a patron, wobbling on his bar stool and raising a beer glass in mock salute.
Angel pantomimed a curtsey and tried to pull herself together. Damn Yvonne . But the betrayal was raw and the humiliation cut deep. This latest liaison had been going on for some time and with a woman, just a girl really, over a decade younger than either of them. Those nights when she was ‘hanging out with the waitresses’ was Yvonne doing just what Yvonne did best, charming the pants off everyone in her life. Screwing the waitress in the dancers’ lounge right there under Angel’s nose, most likely. But anger was good. Way better than eating a whole package of cookies and feeling sorry for yourself, like last night.
As she climbed the steps to the stage, Angel slowed to tease a patron who had tipped generously during the first set. A forty-something, smartly-dressed man with the beginnings of a comb-over, he settled back in his chair, skinny legs spread and crotch pointed at her, before digging into his pocket and placing a damp bill in her cleavage. Maybe anger and good tips would get her through.
The light show pulsed, beams darting across the room and climaxing into strands of blazing brilliance. She strutted provocatively from one end of the small stage to the other, her hair a halo in the stage lights, and slowly wound herself into a back walkover, releasing the straps on her top. A roar went up from the assortment of regulars dotted around the club, culminating in a group moan as she fondled her breasts with one hand and inserted the other through the waistband of her shorts, all the time gyrating her hips, low and slow. The regulars cheered their delight and the glass containing her tips started to fill.
As the last strains of the song died away, Angel grabbed the glass, and headed for the dancers’ lounge. The bartender gave her a wave and pushed a drink in her direction, gesturing with a nod to the guy who’d tipped her earlier. The drink was a coke and she knew the money for the real drink was on a tab at the bar. As she came alongside him, the man beckoned her to join him. “Thanks hon,” said Angel, ignoring the request and giving a quick wave over her shoulder. She tottered off to the lounge and shot through the door.
“You’re on fire tonight,” said Sylvie, a tiny dynamo of a woman with wide-set blue eyes, a turned-up nose and voluminous masses of blond curls, who was sitting at a dressing table squinting into the mirror.
“Not really,” said Angel, forcing a smile, “I feel like crap.” She staggered over to Sylvie, put her drink on the table and flopped down into a chair. “Maybe I should switch teams. Men are so much less complicated.”
“Oh, right, in your dreams,” murmured Sylvie sarcastically. Having survived her share of bad relationships with men, Sylvie’s take on this was somewhat warped. “Look love, I’m sorry,” she added after a pause. “I know it’s hard the way that bitch treated you. You of all people: the sweetest love I know who wouldn’t hurt a fly. Want anything?”
“Thanks. I’ll be okay,” said Angel wearily. She headed for the lockers and pulled an outfit off its hanger.
“Nice,” said Sylvie. “That new?”
“Nah,” sighed Angel, maneuvering her breasts into a tiny, heavily-sequined black bikini top with a plunging neckline. She sat down heavily and then flipped her hair over, spraying it wildly, head between her knees. She finger-teased stray locks into place and blasted some cologne at her thighs. “God, I just wish I could lose some weight,” she said with disgust, kneading the skin at her waistline and trying not to think about last night’s cookies.
Sylvie started to cough and waved away the lingering scent. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she said. “You look great. Everyone thinks so,” she added.
“Exactly. Since when did a bunch of sad old guys set the standard?”
As Sylvie raised her eyebrows, shaking her head resignedly, the lounge door opened and a statuesque golden body blocked the glare from the club lights. “Here we go,” murmured Sylvie, turning her back on Yvonne and making a point of rummaging for something in the drawer.
“Hey, what’s up?” Tall and lean with skin like burnished copper, Yvonne strode into the room and threw herself on the sofa. She was mostly naked except for a sliver of a G-string and an elaborate silver necklace wound around her neck. Her beautiful head was shaved and her eyes, darkly lined, were shaded by impressive eyelashes that always reminded Angel of humming birds when Yvonne blinked. Angel averted her eyes and tried to keep her focus on Sylvie, now applying makeup.
“Hi,” repeated Yvonne, glancing first at Sylvie, but letting her gaze rest on Angel.
No one answered. Angel concentrated on Sylvie lining the contours of her mouth with dark crimson. She tried not to think about that woman’s wide, generous mouth and full lips on her own.
“Come on, is no one talking to me?” cooed Yvonne. “We can get through this.”
Angel concentrated on Sylvie applying a coat of mascara and watched her do a final clamp with the eyelash curler. Interesting how her eyes now leapt into prominence.
“I was hoping we could talk. All be friends again like old times,” Yvonne pleaded.
“Oh, please, don’t pretend there’s anything left between us. You made that very clear when you fucked that waitress—”
“Good Lord, Yvonne, you’ll catch your death,” interrupted Sylvie, stopping the avalanche about to break loose. She threw Yvonne a towel that narrowly missed a shelf piled high with cosmetics. Grudgingly Yvonne wrapped the towel around her lean body as Angel marched out of the lounge, slamming the door behind her.
It was Angel’s last set and she was working the pole. Music thudded a steady rhythm timed with the lights, green, red and purple, flashing across the dingy walls of the club. She strutted to the pole, grabbed it with both hands and pressed her crotch against it. Then she spun round, hoisting her leg up around the pole to support her body as she stretched taut. Her hair flew as she felt the rush of cool air on her back. Someone had opened the side door and it felt good. All her insecurities slipped away and for a moment she felt beautiful, alive and free. She remembered for an instant why she’d once liked this work.
The energy in the club shifted as the crowd increased. Tables were starting to fill and a noisy group hanging out by the bar hooted their approval as Angel executed a perfect split. She teased with a sexy wave and then turned away, swinging around in a circle with the pole jutting upward between her widely spread thighs. The crowd applauded and stomped with the beat, pleading for Angel to go all the way. One firm leg straddling the pole for balance, she tantalized by lifting the tiny triangle of fabric and moaning a parody of pleasure that ended on cue as the music climaxed. After the finale, as Angel draped a glittery shawl around her body, she noticed the smartly-dressed guy with the comb-over trying to book a private booth. The Monkey was known for its booths where patrons got their own private dances.
The hostess hesitated and caught Angel’s eye, simultaneously glancing at the clock hanging above the bar. “Sorry love, her shift’s over,” said the hostess to Angel’s admirer. Fran was a hefty woman who also doubled as manager and had worked at the Monkey forever. “She’s on this weekend if you’re still around, though.” Fran smiled politely up at him, her body impassive and her look resolute.
“No, I need to talk to her…” Sylvie’s music had just begun, drowning out the rest of his plea. As Angel watched, a bouncer appeared out of nowhere and steered the guy back toward the bar. He had seemed harmless enough but was starting to give her the creeps. She thought about the stalker last year who had scared some of the dancers, herself included. After that Yvonne was always telling her to toughen up, put on a mask and never look into customers’ eyes. You Americans, Yvonne would say affectionately, are so naive and way too friendly. These weirdoes like it when you tempt and don’t give a damn, she’d insist. But Angel did give a damn and usually found herself hoping they had some nice little woman at home waiting for them. It probably made her ill-suited for what she did night after night, but there you had it. A marshmallow at heart. This job was really beginning to lose its appeal.
As Angel approached the bar, the man looked at her imploringly. “Just talk to me,” he said. “I’d like to make an appointment. It’s a business proposition.” He held out his card.
“Of course it is, love,” replied Fran patiently, stepping in beside the bouncer to block access to Angel. “It’s always a business proposition.”
“But you don’t understand; I’m an agent—”
“And I’m Mickey Mouse,” said the bouncer, moving the irate guy out of earshot just as Yvonne appeared in thigh-high boots, a tight tiger-print bikini top and a pair of matching short shorts, stripes gleaming fluorescent white in the strobe.
“See, look who’s here now,” said Fran reassuringly.
“You want to play?” Yvonne turned and coyly wagged a finger at him over her shoulder.
“Thanks,” said Angel grudgingly, glad to be off the hook. She glanced away quickly to avoid those eyes she knew so well.
The guy gazed at Yvonne’s bottom for several seconds and then mumbled something to Fran, throwing a handful of bills on the bar to cover his tab. As he turned to leave, he tripped over a server, scattering her tray in an impressive sequence caught up in the slow motion of the strobe. Hoots from the assortment of regulars drinking at the counter pierced the air as fries flew and red ketchup spread slowly on the dingy carpet. The man spun around and gave Angel a startled look before he was gone.
* * *
An hour later, Angel was barreling home in her old Volkswagen, blasting the radio to keep herself awake. As she pulled into her street in the north London suburb, darkened now at this late hour, she started the tedious search for a parking space. Hallelujah ! There was an almost-too-small spot along the curb across the street from the laundromat by her building. She eased into the space, pleased with herself for accomplishing the left-side parallel-parking job that used to confuse and frustrate her to no end when she first moved to London. Angel then saw a small Mini Cooper parked with its lights on. It didn’t register until she walked by and caught a flash of movement out of the corner of her eye that there was someone in the car and he was looking straight at her. Her heart flew into her throat as she realized it was the skinny guy from the bar.
Angel’s first thought was not to panic, but memories of last-year’s stalker flooded back. Trying to quell rising anxiety, she walked briskly toward her building.
A car door slammed. “Hey, wait,” he shouted. “I want to…” The rest of his words were lost as Angel started to run.
“Leave me alone! You know the rules. No touch. No talk.” Almost at the door now. Hands shaking, she fumbled with the keys, looking over her shoulder to see him gaining on her, arms gesturing and shouting something she couldn’t hear. Where did these guys get the nerve? She slid through and heard the heavy door close behind her. Phew.
Once inside with the flat bathed in light, Angel turned on the television and felt her pulse return to normal. What a sad perv. She was really sick of this job.
Sleep came easily after a soak in the tub, what she liked to think of as her ritual “club cleanse” that washed away the grime and tension of the job.
Woken in the pink blush of dawn as garbage trucks thumped outside emptying dumpsters on the corner, she snuggled back down into her cozy nest, pulling the quilt over her ears. When her phone buzzed sometime later, Angel was hunkered down in the same position, trying to ignore the thin grey light seeping through the tiny gap in the curtains. She was just drifting back to sleep when her phone started up again. Reaching over, she saw it was Kate. Her sister. Best get it over with.
“Did I wake you?” said Kate, an edge to her voice. “Late night?” Accusation hung in the question.
“It’s called work, Kate. It’s what I do for a living.” Angel staggered to the kitchen and made coffee with one hand, the other holding the phone at arm’s length from her left ear. Anyone would think she spent hours in dingy old bars entertaining perverts for fun. She let Kate rattle on about her new yoga class and the conference she was attending at the weekend. Kate was a lecturer and taught English literature. Drinking and getting laid was at the top of her students’ to-do lists, but Kate liked to think it was Shakespeare and Chaucer. Married to an Englishman and an attorney, Kate lived in Chelsea, a nicer part of the city than Angel’s suburb of Edmonton Green.
Angel made the right noises at the right times to keep up her end of the conversation and managed to procure a half-decent cup of coffee. She looked at the pile of dishes in the sink and debated whether she could get them done before Kate finished her saga, but memories of the night and that look, a mixture of cocky arrogance and remorse, on Yvonne’s face crowded in. Yvonne’s departure had left a gaping hole. She grabbed the coffee and plodded back to bed, trying to ignore the faint beginnings of a headache throbbing at her temple.
“And so,” Kate was saying, “I thought it might be something you’d be interested in.”
“What?” Angel had tuned out the last ten minutes.
“Never mind,” said Kate reproachfully. “Gotta go.”
“No tell me again. Please,” Angel added, back in the kitchen and smearing a piece of toast with butter. Maybe some food would help. As she munched on the toast, Kate proceeded to repeat her story about a colleague who moonlighted as a journalist for a travel magazine, which was looking for someone to work out in the field and help prepare articles about some of England’s public gardens. It was short term: a couple of months max.
“And the thing is,” said Kate, “and the reason why I thought of you, is they want someone with a background in horticulture.” Kate was always hoping Angel might use that degree she’d almost got from the University of California before moving over to the dark side.
“What’s it called?” asked Angel.
“What’s what called?”
“The magazine,” insisted Angel, picking up crumbs with her fingers and trying to ignore a sudden craving for a cigarette. She’d been doing so well and hadn’t had one in weeks. Until now and this new drama with Yvonne.
“ Country Escapes I think,” replied Kate.
“Great name,” said Angel. “I’ll think about it.”
“You will?” Angel could hear the surprise and excitement in Kate’s voice.
“Maybe.” No use getting her hopes up.
“And I was thinking I could talk with Lucas Therot. You remember him? He could help you find a place to stay if this thing works out. She said the first gig’s in Cornwall.”
“What?” said Kate, exasperation edging her voice. “The woman at the magazine. Jeez, Angel, what’s wrong with you?” Kate paused and started again, her voice low and deliberate. “The first assignment’s in Cornwall. I was saying Lucas lives there. He’s divorced now, you know. Owns a property management firm near Truro.”
Angel tuned back in. Remember him? She remembered Luscious Lucas very well. Mr. Seventeen-year-old Teenage Heartthrob who’d stayed with their family as a French exchange student all those years ago? About twenty years to be exact, that given she was thirty-three now. She knew little about his whereabouts these days except a few snippets of news gleaned over the years. But Kate kept in touch and Angel recalled her mentioning he’d studied business at university and then married at some point. Now might be the time to switch teams after all.
“Of course you remember him,” laughed Kate. It wasn’t that she disapproved of having a lesbian for a sister, only that she hoped it was just a phase. “What were you, fourteen at the time? Angel, you still there?”
“Thirteen,” said Angel thoughtfully.
“Well, anyway, think about it and let me know, but soon. These freelance jobs go super quick.”
Angel smiled to herself, inspired by memories of Lucas and the opportunity to take charge of her life again. She had been feeling uncomfortably out of control the last few months. It was making her anxious, a new development for someone who usually liked to go with the flow. She’d never used to worry about something working out or not because it usually did, and if it didn’t she’d just go on to the next thing. But this problem—‘problem’ didn’t exactly describe how she felt about Yvonne—had put her over the edge. And then there was the guy following her home last night, reminding her of their old stalker.
“It might be the best news I’ve heard in a while,” Angel declared, downing the last of her coffee and padding over to make another piece of toast. Hell, she’d eat the whole loaf if she wanted. She was sick to death of having to eat like a bird to fit into a stupid costume. Yes, maybe a change was in the air.
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