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Under the Lights
Release Date: January 8, 2018
Heroes don’t last long around here…
Fall in love with the sexiest girl in New Orleans?
Prepare to die for her?
Larissa Hale is the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.
She’s the rising star of the Pussycat Angels, the hottest burlesque show in the French Quarter.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw her.
The curve of her breasts outlined by sparkling rhinestones.
Slim hips wrapped in black fishnets.
Long, dark hair…
She’s the Dark Angel who stole my heart.
Her body is intoxicating, our love overwhelming.
Cat eyes and blood red lips.
Sizzling lips on white-hot skin.
I couldn’t keep my hands off her…
But her fame had a dark side,
A sinister shadow lurking under the lights.
I would do anything to save her…
He would do anything to see me dead.
© TLM Productions LLC, 2020
Chapter 1: “Survival is an inside job.” -Anonymous
The first thing I see is the gun on the floor.
Fear tightens my neck, and I’m frozen in the doorway. My backpack slides from my shoulder down my arm as ice trickles into my veins. The room smells like the fourth of July, firecrackers mixed with the musty odor of smoke and damp.
The air barely moves in New Orleans at this time of year.
The dog days.
“Uncle Rick?” My voice is low and even.
My closest living relative, a man I barely know, is hunched in the fetal position on the couch. Eyes closed, both his hands are between his knees, and his lips have disappeared in his teeth.
He could be sleeping, napping while watching a television show. Only the screen is black, and he’s not responding.
Fuck. The ice in my veins melts into panic. My eyes dart around the room assessing the scene. Drawers open. Papers spread across the hardwood floor. The corner of the rug is curled under… Signs of a struggle?
I should slowly leave the room, go downstairs, and call 911 to report a crime.
I swallow the fear and pick my way forward, across the small apartment to where my few possessions are stashed. I’ve been here less than a week, long enough to grow suspicious of his late-night errands, the jerk of surprise when the phone rings after hours, the presence of a .44 Magnum at the dinner table.
Uncle Rick was annoyed when I showed up on his doorstep last week, looking for a place to crash. My plan was to come here, study hard, and get into the police academy.
“You can crash until you’ve found a place to live,” he growled. “By the end of the week.”
He was my father’s only sibling, and I’d taken a gamble coming here. Then, when he found out my plans, he was even more pissed.
“Why the fuck you wanna be a pig?”
He said I was “part of the problem.”
Naturally, I disagreed.
“I want to fight crime, find men like the ones who ruined my dad and bring them to justice,” I’d say.
The ones who run the off-track betting rings. The ones who own the prostitutes. The ones who take everything men have and ruin them.
I wanted to be a hero.
He said I was a fool.
Now who’s the fool…
My eyes fix on the handgun on the floor. Don’t touch anything.
Covering my hand with my sleeve, I open the closet door and scoop my few hanging clothes off the rack. A fatigue-green army-surplus bag is in the corner. I shove my extra pair of boots, shirts, underwear… everything I brought with me in it, then I do my best to retrace my steps to the door.
Out on the street, I don’t pause before heading up the damp sidewalk. Light mist fills the heavy air, and it’s after nine on a Wednesday. Nobody’s walking the dark streets. Nobody sees me walking away from a crime scene.
My gut twists, and I feel sick thinking about him dead on the couch. Even if I didn’t really know him, he’s kin. I have to let the cops know… Leave an anonymous tip or something.
For now, I’ve got to find a place to go. It helps that I’ve been searching for my own place since I arrived. Crossing the street, I head toward the river. I remember reading about a few hostels and rooms for rent closer to the shipyards. At worst, I could get a room at the YMCA.
Six more blocks, and I start to encounter the stragglers coming off Bourbon Street. It’s the street that never sleeps in the city of excess.
A block away, I stand and watch the bodies slowly passing like a drunk parade in the middle of the night, always moving. Making my way around the perimeter, I read the street signs, looking for the place from memory.
The Marigny is a single door squeezed between a daiquiri shop and a wig and souvenir store. If you’re not looking for it, you’ll walk right past and never even see it. A skinny guy who looks about ten years older than me sits on the front stoop smoking a cigarette, watching the herd of tourists slowly pass.
“Any rooms available?” I pull my cap lower on my brow. I’m tall, and if I play my cards right, I can look older.
As the guy glances at me, a tendril of smoke curls into his eye and makes him squint. He’s dark, Italian or Acadian, and when he pushes off his knees to stand, his head only reaches the top of my shoulder. I dwarf him with my pack on my back.
Black eyes assess my frame. “Where that accent from?”
I’ve only just gotten used to people swapping d for th in the Quarter. Where dat accent from?
He takes another long drag before he nods. “Are you strong?”
“Who wants to know?” My response is sharp. The shock of the night is wearing off, and unless this guy is the manager, I don’t feel like small talk.
“Terrence Price.” Cigarette in mouth, he sticks out a hand.
I pause before giving it a shake. “Mark Fitzhugh.” His eyebrows rise and my brow lowers. “Family name. You got a problem?”
“No. Fitz. I like it.” Cigarette out. “Got a burlesque show at the corner of Royal and Orleans looking for a crew. Go with me tomorrow, and you can have a job.”
“What makes you think I need a job?”
“Why you here?”
“I don’t know.” I don’t know if I want to stay in this city. The bad luck of my family feels like it’s already found me. At the same time, I have nowhere else to go.
“Come on, you kidding? Pretty ladies showing their tits.” He leans closer. “Play your cards right, and you get a private show.”
He grins and drives an elbow into my arm. The memory of Rick dead on the couch creeps at the corners of my thoughts, and I shake my head, shake them away.
“Not into girls?” Terrence draws back. “I could see if they need anybody at Oz—”
“No.” Clearing my throat, I wave my hand. “I like girls. I’m just… Rough day.”
“In that case.” He opens the front door. “Get some rest. Take Room 12. I leave in the morning at nine. Meet me here, and you can see what you think.”
I leave him on the stoop and enter the narrow building. Two yellow lamps spaced evenly down the length of the passage light the dim hall, and a staircase leading up is at the very back. The hall is lined with doors, and each has a small brass plaque engraved with a number. Number 12 is the first on the left.
Inside, it can’t be more than ninety square feet, shallow and wide with no windows. A bed is against the back wall, and a small table and lamp are centered to the left. On the opposite wall is a narrow armoire. I catch the faint whiff of hospital grade ammonia under the stale smell of dust. At least it’s clean.
Setting my duffel and backpack in the middle of the floor, I pull the skinny mattress back and check the corners for signs of bed bugs. Going to the head, I pull it back. Not seeing anything, I reach over and kill the lamp before dropping fully clothed onto the blue-striped mattress.
If I decide to stay, I’ll have to buy sheets… and food, which means I need money. The muffled roar of street noise filters through the walls, and I consider Terrence’s offer. It would tide me over until I make a decision.
Reaching into my pocket, I pull out the small burner phone I picked up last week. It’s untraceable, which is probably perfect for this. My thumb wavers as I hold it over the numbers. I take a deep breath and slowly dial, 9… 1… 1…
Dread tightens in my chest as I wait for the answer.
“911, what is your emergency?” The voice is robotic, bored.
“Uh, I need to report a noise.” Shit! I didn’t plan this before I dialed.
“Sorry.” Scrubbing my fingers against my eyelids, I try to think of words that don’t sound incriminating. “I thought I heard a car backfire, but—”
“Modern cars don’t backfire. You heard a gunshot.” Again, bored robot. “Give me your address. Are you in a safe location?”
“Yes… I’m fine. I—it’s 216 Evangeline, second floor. Maybe my neighbor?”
“Don’t go in or out of your apartment until police arrive. Keep your door locked. Police are on their way. I—”
“Thanks.” I press the pad of my thumb against the red end call button and drop the small phone onto the bed.
A chill skates over my skin, and I curl my knees into my chest, covering my ears with my palms. The sight of Rick that way unearthed memories of my dad, and that old pain radiates through my spine. I don’t cry, but the fist of grief tightens my shoulders. It’s oppressive and relentless, demanding action.
Sliding my hands to the back of my neck, I hold on, waiting for sleep to come. Waiting for answers I’ll never have.
Terrence is on the stoop holding a paper cup of coffee in his hand when I emerge the next morning. A cigarette is in his mouth, and he smiles when he sees me.
“Good call,” he says.
I pause in the entryway and consider my stuff. I don’t have much worth stealing, still, it’s all I have. “No lock?”
He pulls a key out of his pocket and motions me outside, locking the front door behind me. “Reopens after six.”
Key in his pocket, he takes off, headed northeast on Bourbon. I jog after him up the littered sidewalk. It’s far less crowded than at midnight, but even at this hour, people still roam, drinks in hand and beads around their necks.
“So you own the place?”
“My aunt does.” He takes a drink of coffee. “She lives in Chalmette. I run it for her.”
We cut across the street when we reach Orleans in the direction of Royal. Rounding the corner, we’re on a narrow lane of wrought iron balconies over narrow doors. Archways blocked off by wooden barriers. It’s Pirate Alley.
We’re half a block away when Terrence hits my chest with the back of his hand. “Let me do the talking.”
A man who looks like the classic dockworker stands in front of a group of similar men giving orders. He’s my height, but he outweighs me by at least fifty pounds, with thick hands and cords of muscle.
“Shipment arrives at ten,” he growls. “New set design requires a catwalk and series of cranes and pulleys. They’ll be mechanically operated, but I need extra men to work late as safety backup during the shows.” A trickle of laughter filters through the crowd. “Now get busy. First show rehearses at three o’clock.”
He turns, and he’s facing Terrence and me. “Who is this, Price?”
“New tenant looking for work. I’ll vouch for him.” Stepping back, he gestures between us. “Mark, this is Darby Stamp. Darby, Mark Fitzhugh.”
“Fitzhugh…” Darby’s eyes narrow, and I stand straighter. “You do drugs?”
“No,” I answer fast.
“Good. Half these guys do, which means half won’t be back, and if they are, they’re late.” He starts walking and Terrence nods for me to follow. “If I catch you with any of the dancers, you’re fired.”
“Got it.” After all that’s happened, romance is not on my mind, and I’ve never been into drugs. Not that I could afford them.
“Those two rules mean I have to find a new crew about once a week.”
He stops at a table holding a coffee dispenser and a large platter of assorted bagels, and dispenses what looks like liquid tar into a paper cup. Then he picks up a bagel and takes a bite, frowns, and tosses it in the trash.
“Pay’s seventeen-fifty an hour. Stop by the office to fill out the paperwork before the end of the day.”
“Thanks.” I hesitate by the table as he heads to the auditorium.
“Help yourself to the food.”
I reach over and quickly take a bagel. As soon as I pick it up, I realize it’s hard as a rock, but beggars can’t be choosers.
Darby keeps talking. “No breaks. You eat while you work. Follow me, and I’ll show you the safety backup.”
He pulls a metal door open, and we enter the side of a large backstage area. Ropes and boxes are scattered among long strips of red velvet curtain. Metal ladders lead up into the rafters, and squinting overhead, I see a narrow catwalk.
“We’ll install two more of them for the performance tonight. The girls wear these belts that are attached to these mechanical pulleys.” He motions to an ancient-looking switchboard. “You’ll be up there holding the safety rope. It’s attached to one dancer, so I need you and a few other guys I can trust to agree to take turns…”
While he speaks, movement catches my eye from the backstage area. Two women dressed in tight black pants and cutoff shirts approach. They’re both blonde and stacked. One looks up at me and smiles. Her dark brow arches, and her pink tongue slips out to touch her upper lip. My skin heats at the invitation, and I cut my eyes back to Darby.
He nods in their direction. “Some of the girls live here. Don’t go in their rooms unless Gavin or me tells you to. I’d hate to fire you so soon.”
“Now get back outside and help unload the truck.”
I step back as he continues forward and turn on my heel to exit through the metal side door opposite the way the two dancers went. I’m not looking for trouble.
Out of nowhere a small, dark form collides with my chest. She starts to fall, and instinctively, I grab her by the upper arms, pulling her to me.
“Oh!” It’s a breathless cry.
“I’m sorry. I—” My voice trails off as bright blue eyes framed by thick lashes capture mine.
I quickly take in full, pink lips and long, glossy waves swishing down her back. She smells fresh like flowers after rain, and as I hold her, I can feel she’s slim but strong. She’s fucking beautiful.
“I’m okay.” Her voice is confident, and… annoyed? Amused?
I let her go. “I’m sorry,” I repeat. “I didn’t see you in the dark.”
She glances down. “I am wearing all black.”
I quickly scan the tight halter-top and workout pants she’s wearing. It’s the same as the other two girls’ outfits, but her exposed torso is lined with muscle, not soft like theirs. Her expression is playful as well. I can tell she’s younger, more innocent.
“No worries.” She starts to go, but I can’t help myself.
“Hey… What’s your name?”
Her head tilts, and blue eyes meet mine. “Larissa. But everyone calls me Lara. You?”
“Mark.” I put a hand in my pocket. “I’m just Mark.”
She nods and a smile curls her lips. “Nice to meet you, just Mark.”
At that, she takes off toward the food table, and I try to go. Everything in me says don’t let my thoughts wander about this girl, follow the rules, turn around and get out of here… but my eyes linger on her slender back, slipping down to her cute little ass. Larissa.
“Hey!” The sharp, male growl grabs my attention. “New guy. Get out here and help unload these trucks.”
Snapping out of it, I hustle to the door feeling lighter than I have in weeks.