Few beasts can match the ferocity of a mother protecting her young.
As Karla Buchelli wiped down the bar on a slow night at The Side Saddle, she counted six patrons sitting at low tops near the stage. Four of her girls chatted near the end of the bar, one danced on stage, and one had taken a customer upstairs. Karla checked her watch, saw it was a few minutes to eleven, and decided to wait until one to cut her staff. Home was the last place any of these girls would go after the fourth slow night in a row. Rent didn’t care that February was a slow month for mixing liquor and sex in the Midwest, and hookers didn’t stash cash during the holidays.
Between the mirror and the bar, Karla, a buxom brunette in a skintight yellow dress, smiled. She turned to exchange pleasantries with the male bartender, a giant of a man, giving Bayonne a clear view of the angel’s wings tattooed over her shoulder blades.Central City, 199
Karla gestured toward the room, and the four girls near the end of the bar spread out to descend on The Side Saddle’s patrons. The gesture, Karla knew, was futile. Two of the six were regulars who lived near The Saddle, came alone, drank alone, watched and tipped the dancers, and left alone. They lacked the courage or fortitude to seek more intimate companionship. The other four arrived by announcing it was their fifth bar. Loud and lewd, the men sported silk shirts, designer jeans, and carefully coifed pompadours. They wreaked of the impotence of entitlement. Karla would never allow them upstairs as a group, and separating any one of them would deflate the measure of his manhood.
Rather than worry about the state of the economy or the sexual constipation of modern man, Karla squeezed a slice of lime into a tumbler of seltzer. She wished Kane or Seth or both were working instead of her. There’d been a few too many secret meetings and a bit too much cloak and dagger silliness lately and not enough minding the store. Karla had been a working girl for more than two decades, and she knew that love made the world go ‘round, love of money, love of prestige, and love of perpetual desire. That said, she loved working for Kane. As shocking as it seemed, he was a decent human being. He cared about people. Karla assumed that would eventually get him killed, but she had no problem making a few dollars while she waited for his other shoe, the feet inside it, and the rest of his beautiful corpse, to drop. She’d made more in a year working as Kane’s madame than she’d made in any five working for someone else or any three working on her own.
Somebody needed to take advantage of Kane’s weakness, might as well be her.
The shattering glass raised her thoughts from the gin and tonic she held, and Karla’s eyes settled on the group of four men, three of whom were laughing while the fourth pulled one of Karla’s girls into his lap. One of the loners tossed some bills on his table and headed toward the door. The other watched with a blank look on his face. He’d probably seen worse in The Saddle over the years.
Karla’s other three girls looked to her for guidance. They’d crowded around the group, the only opportunity to make any money, and tried to strike up some conversation. Their attention had given the men a spark of ego to light their liquid courage. The daughter of a housewife who spoke no English and died of cancer six years after a bar fight gone wrong ended the life of her Italian-American dockworker husband, Karla knew how to dowse flames.
“If you break it, you buy it.”
The men turned to look at the full-bodied woman standing near their table.
“You don’t look too fragile.”
“You’d be surprised.” Karla set her seltzer on the nearest table. “Anybody have a cigarette?”
One of the men, the least talkative of the bunch, raised a pack of Captains off the table. Karla smiled and nodded, and the man tossed her the pack.
“Did she tell you her story?” Before the men could respond, Karla continued. “She grew up in a foster home, one of eight kids. Her foster father saw her as a paycheck with a pulse until she hit puberty. Then he saw a paycheck and a healthy bonus.”
The men sat in silence, and the one who’d pulled the hooker onto his lap against her wll released his grip and let his hands fall alongside his chair. The girl stood. Karla put a cigarette between her lips.
The man who’d tossed her the pack stood, walked around the table, struck his lighter, and held the flame for Karla. With a glance, Karla sent her girls back to the bar.
Karla exhaled a cloud of smoke, smiled, and said, “Let me know if you need anything. I’ll add the glass to your tab.”
Back at the bar, the hooker leaned toward Karla. “I didn’t grow up in the system. You’ve met my parents.”
“They don’t know that.”