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New Job? My life was about to change, irrevocable. I didn’t have a clue, unless you count the dude, his cryptic suggestion and the card with Poseidon written on the back, the phone number begging to be called. It haunted me from the moment I slipped it into my pocket. Okay, that was a clue, but I didn’t see it at the time …
‘Heads up!’ A warning came through my earpiece as the door flew open. Two men, one average build, one overweight, tumbled past and hit the sidewalk, fists flying. The smell of sour beer and club music blasted out with them, the bass vibrating my bones. A few girls in short-shorts and sparkling tops squealed. The rest of the crowd cheered.
Typical midnight in Newton, Los Angeles.
‘I’m on this,’ I said to Jeff, the other security working the door.
‘All yours, Sykes.’ He had my back, if I needed it, but I wasn’t planning on this taking long.
The big chump pounding the other guy into the kerb was my target. As his fist came up for another blow, I jumped on his back, grabbed his wrist with my left hand, crooked his arm and shoved my right through it like a lever. A little lift and his face slammed forward into the ground. When he tried to move, I amped up the torque. He groaned, but not as hard as the poor bastard trapped underneath him.
‘Alright, big guy. Up you come.’ I lightened the pressure just enough for him to move to his knees. The man underneath blinked his one good eye at me; the other was already swollen shut. I recognised him from an hour ago, when he swaggered his skinny ass up to me and flashed ID, saying he knew the governor, or some crap, and I could smell the chemicals oozing off his skin. The crusts of coke residue on the inside of his nose weren’t hard to spot either, now that he was sprawled on his back. ‘Stay put!’
He didn’t argue.
I pulled the heavyweight up, and he tried to turn on me.
‘Really?’ I cranked his arm. ‘You want to do that?’
He froze, submitting to the restraint then, unbelievably, tried to break away again.
‘Dumbass. How high are you tonight?’ Jeff had caught him doing lines with a couple of girls in the ladies room, but he’d flashed a wad of cash, meaning he had the boss’s blessings, and went back to it. Nothing we could do about it. Money talked at Lucky Lounge, but he was mine now. I kicked the back of his knee and we were on the ground, my elbow clipping the kerb. I repressed a groan; he didn’t.
His collarbone crunched, or maybe his shoulder. It sounded painful, whatever it was. The bozo gasped for air. Suddenly, he was compliant. ‘Let’s try this again.’ The new takedown worked better than I’d hoped, my training paying off in spades. ‘Get your ass up, and behave.’
As he stood, I drove him straight across the sidewalk and into the wall. His cheek flattened against the stucco, nose gushing blood.
‘You’re dead, bitch.’ The effectiveness of his words were lost in the nasal tone.
‘Sure I am.’
Sirens whirled in the background. I lowered my voice, speaking into my mic. ‘Hey, Dean. Cops are here.’
A string of curses came through the headset. I sympathised. The LAPD were as likely to arrest our manager as they were to haul these douches away. With so many cops on the take, it was hard to know what to expect. ‘You alright in there, Dean?’
‘Yeah, we’re sweet, Sykes.’ He didn’t sound like he meant it, but then he thanked me for the heads up. That was sincere.
When I started bouncing for Lucky Lounge, the guys thought it was a joke. A chick handling the door? They pissed themselves laughing. Then they got to know me — cool under pressure and surprisingly strong, for a ‘chick.’ They’d asked a lot of questions, which I ignored. They’d guessed right, though. I’d lived through the Big One. Not everyone in LA had.
That quake was still a source of controversy. Yeah, the San Andreas Fault tended to rumble — I took geology as an undergrad, so I knew that much — but part of California dropping into the ocean … um, no. That was beyond even the most way-out conspiracy theories, until fifteen years ago when a series of quakes went literally off the Richter scale. A section of the coastline split like someone cracked a peanut shell, leaving pieces scattered along the seafloor.
Some blamed it on fracking. Others said it was God’s punishment. Not that I attributed anything biblical to it. If it had been Righteous Intervention, the ‘higher powers’ had neglected to eradicate the bad guys. Gangs, drug dealers and thugs were still aplenty. If anything, more of them emerged and took control in the anarchy of the Aftermath, flooding in from other cities to pick over the spoils.
‘What happened?’ A lanky, uniformed officer stepped in with his partner, pulling me from my thoughts.
‘A coked-up asshole happened.’ It didn’t take long for them to cuff both men and haul them into a squad car. Small favours. Perhaps we had ‘good’ cops tonight; as long as they didn’t let the men out around the corner and pocket their cash.
‘Sykes! Who started it?’ Dean, the manager of Lucky Lounge, was suddenly in my face.
I pushed back the strands of dark hair that had escaped my French braid. Joe Blow had managed to pull out a section and, while it might be better to keep my hair short, I hadn’t had time to cut it recently, not since my last birthday, nine months ago. Plus, it grew insanely fast. ‘Didn’t see a thing until they flew out the door.’
Dean grumbled. It was the third drunk and disorderly on record this week. He had to be getting edgy, clocking those fines. A few more and the club might have to close down for a while, or pay someone off, big-time. He looked over his shoulder as Detective Rourke’s unmarked Ford sedan pulled in behind the cop car. We both sighed. Rourke was a good one. At least tonight they’d charge the assholes, not Dean, or me.
Rourke looked stressed, his square face drawn, iron-grey hair in a fresh buzz cut. He was fighting fit, though. No doubt there. We had a silent ‘this again’ exchange before he shook his head and made his way toward us. I repressed a smile. The detective and I went way back, but not in a cosy family friendship way, hell no. He’d set me straight when I went a little wayward. Surviving the Aftermath, who didn’t have issues? Okay, a lot wayward. Rourke kept me out of juvie, for the most part, and though there’d been no luck finding decent foster care, he started me in the LA-MMA junior circuit, and that saved my life. ‘You want to fight, you might as well learn how not to be killed.’ When I showed up for my first martial arts class, he was leading. Yeah, we went way back.
‘What am I going to do now?’ Dean was a short, thin man who wore his anxiety inside-out.
‘Not my problem, boss.’ I adjusted my left earphone and went back to the door. They paid me to bounce the rowdies, not liaise with the cops. ‘You could stop selling booze, and be a little less lenient with the drug abuse,’ I said over my shoulder, but Dean had already gone to intercept Rourke. It was back to guard dog duty for me, which was a relief. Talking to beat cops, even when I was in the right, wasn’t one of my favourite things. It had something to do with the ‘flying under the radar’ thing. I never knew if they were going to help me, or put me in cuffs.
I took my place at the front of the line, standing military-style at-ease: legs shoulder-width apart, arms behind my back, eyes forward. I caught a few comments from a couple of guys down the line, but my stare shut them up. Stupid drunk-ass clowns. It was enough to put a girl off men entirely. Almost. Of course, without them, Lucky Lounge wouldn’t need a bouncer. I dropped the random thoughts and nodded to Jeff. He was busy stepping in on an argument halfway along the line. Work was not the place to chew on the future. It was definitely not the time to think about the thesis presentation I had to deliver at 10.00 a.m. tomorrow morning. The senior lecturer-audited one. Not going there now.
I squared my shoulders a bit more, and lifted my face, fixing on the crowd. A classic beauty, Betty Smathers used to say. Right. What did a foster mother from South Bay know? The only thing classic she ever saw were the Buicks her son jacked. I quickly dumped those thoughts as well, going deeper into ‘impenetrable’ mode. I wanted the crowd to see five foot seven, one hundred thirty pounds of intimidation packed into tight black jeans and a black tee, marked only with the Lucky Lounge logo — two martini glasses clinking together with a four-leaf clover above — stitched on the small front pocket. Most people thought bouncers had to be heavyweight muscle-bound meatheads on ’roids — male, naturally — but they didn’t, if they knew how to fight. I relaxed inwardly, letting peripheral vision take over. On the outside, I remained as hard as my steel-toed, Timberland boots. The night was young. Anything could happen.
After Jeff handled the altercation, the crowd stayed contained. Their ringside seats to fight night, and the LAPD’s unusually quick response time, kept them subdued. When a man walked purposely toward me, I didn’t break stance. He was dressed much like me in black jeans, black shirt and boots. Interesting.
‘Quite a performance,’ he said as he stood a little to the side. He was medium height, with a ruddy complexion. Not handsome, but sexy vibe, in a street-hardened sort of way. Weird with the shades, though. It was the middle of the night. He took a superman pose. I could practically see the cape flapping in the wind behind him.
‘Just doing my job,’ I said. Who the hell was this guy? As he moved closer, beneath a hint of cheap cologne, I caught a whiff of blood. What the hell? I waited for him to explain himself. He didn’t.
‘Sir, you’re going to need to step back, unless you want to give me a name.’ I didn’t keep a clipboard. All the names on the door list were in my head, compliments of a nearly perfect photographic memory.
He didn’t say anything, just pulled a card out of his jeans pocket and handed it over.
I glanced at it before handing it back. ‘Poseidon?’
‘It’s a new club.’
Like I didn’t know. Ever since the Big One changed the topography of LA, clubs were popping up everywhere. Who knew certain business owners were going to become billionaires when California cracked? Even a crap-ass housing project becomes prime real estate if it suddenly sports an ocean view. But Poseidon was something else entirely. Everyone on campus talked about it. Cate, who claimed me as her BFF, had landed a job there, as a ‘siren.’ Not my gig, what with the coconut-covered breasts and glittery fish-like tail, but if they were looking for a bouncer, that was another thing.
Cate had mentioned that. ‘Thanks.’ Money was money, and my job could dry up if the lounge closed. This might just be my lucky night.
He must have sensed the interest. ‘I’m Billy,’ he said and offered the card again.
‘Ava Sykes.’ I took it, and he left me to my job. Three hours later, I was on the bus, heading down South Broadway for the fifteen minute ride home.
* * *