“It’s dead and you killed it.” Charlotte sank to her knees. The back of the bar’s P.A. system was a dusty mess, a jungle of colorful wires and patchwork electrical tape, all of it coated in a sticky residue that was best left uncontemplated. “You fried the receiver. Too much power. Of course, it would help if you upgraded to something built this century.”
“Then what would I pay you for?” The bar’s owner, Caleb Breaux, grinned down at her. He didn’t mean to loom, but even in his late fifties he was still a hulking figure, a good-natured giant with full sleeve tattoos and a bushy beard that stretched down to his belly. “Keep it chugging a while longer and I may even forgive some of your tab.”
Charlotte laughed at that, accepting his proffered hand and letting him hoist her to her feet. They actually left the ground for a moment and he set her back down with a wink.
“Besides, ain’t like anyone’s gonna be paying attention to the sound quality.” He nodded to the back of the bar.
The space wasn’t large, but a small stage had been erected at the back of the room. In the front, the shutters were thrown open to entice any afternoon tourists who might wander off the beaten path. A pitted wooden bar dominated the space, but most of its stools were empty. Ernie, one of Caleb’s regulars and a dedicated day drinker, was propping up the far end.
The stage, though, was a flurry of activity. Sheets had been hung on either side, creating a makeshift backstage area where the performers could change. Charlotte spotted a few that she knew – Kim, the organizer who had asked her to run sound, and a short curvy dancer who she knew only by her stage name, Maeve. As they watched, Maeve mounted a chair to hang a strand of lights above the stage, balancing in her perilous heels with an ease that Charlotte envied.
“Gotta love burlesque night.”
Charlotte gave Caleb a sidelong glare.
“What? It’s empowering. I’m in full support.” He chuckled. “Besides, the bar brings in more money than any other night of the month.”
“You’re a true ally.” She shook her head. “But unless you plan on singing backup, I’ve gotta hit the store.”
He nodded to the P.A. “You can fix it?”
“Bring back the dead? No guarantees. But I’ll try. Ten minutes.”
With a nod for Kim, Charlotte shielded her eyes and stepped out into the sun. Even on a Thursday afternoon, the narrow sidewalks of Lower Decatur attracted a steady flow of traffic. Bourbon Street was three blocks east, Jackson Square and the high-end shops of Canal Place well around the riverbend. Caleb’s place and the other small bars and restaurants of the Marigny tended to attract those in search of a more “authentic” New Orleans experience, though most nights it was crowded enough that no one could tell the difference.
She paused outside a corner store and pulled her vape from her pocket. In truth, what she wanted was a cigarette. It had been Kim that encouraged her to give vaping a try, a “healthier alternative” she called it. Charlotte thought she was missing the point. You didn’t smoke for an unobtrusive burst of flavor. Sometimes you wanted to taste ash and flame. Besides, she was fairly certain she looked like an asshole.
As she walked, she pulled her phone from her pocket. No missed calls, nothing in days. But the voicemails had been piling up, almost thirty of them in the past two weeks. She’d listened to the first one, confirming her suspicions about the unfamiliar number. She hadn’t been able to bring herself to listen to the rest. But she hadn’t had the heart to delete them either.
She didn’t want to talk to him. Ever. But he knew that.
Charlotte had reached the little hardware store. Slipping her phone back into her pocket, she stepped inside. The owner, Miss Mona, gave her a wave. “Hey there, Charlie-girl.”
Charlotte hid a wince as she scanned the shelves. “Hey, Miss Mo’.”
The woman couldn’t know, but Charlotte hated that nickname. Charlie had been her father’s name. Her parents’ relationship hadn’t lasted long and she supposed that “Charlotte” had been her mother’s way of honoring the man who would abandon them.
After a moment’s thought, she swapped out her selection and tossed it on the counter.
Mona grinned. “You girls down at the club again tonight?”
She leaned close, her voice dropping to a conspiratorial whisper. “You know you can’t use tape like that on your bits, right? Not gonna be pretty when you try to take it off.”
Charlotte couldn’t help but laugh. “We’re good on that front. Just fixing the sound system.”
“You girls have fun, then.” She gave Charlotte an approving nod as she waved her out the door. “And say ‘hi’ to your Momma!”
That would be difficult, but Charlotte didn’t have the heart to tell her. No one really wanted to hear the truth. Hell, Charlotte hadn’t made the drive up to Baton Rouge to see her in weeks. The hospital sent regular updates, but the guilt hounded her all the way back to the bar. The vape, for it’s part, did absolutely nothing to help.
More performers had started arriving, gathering around the stage. A mad scientist was helping a scantily clad cartoon character setup the opening backdrop, while a presidential impersonator in an oversized, tear-away suit wriggled into her boots. There was still a good hour until showtime, but Kim was already working through her steps, to the tinny music playing from the speakers of her phone. That wouldn’t do at all.
Catching Caleb’s eye, Charlotte held out the spoils for inspection.
“About right, don’t you think? Given how much you’ve invested in the upkeep of this place.”
He arched a brow. “Hello Kitty duct tape?”
“The regular stuff is so boring. They make all kinds of colors now. Figured it’d give things a touch of class.”
“You’re a real pro.”
Charlotte grinned. “That’s me.”
The fix was easy enough – a bypass, a change of surge protectors, and a little Hello Kitty to reinforce some of the frayed wires. Sitting back on her heels, Charlotte inspected her work. It might be a fire hazard, but with the flick of a switch and an ear-piercing squeal, the P.A. system hummed to life. At a thumbs-up from Caleb, she pushed to her feet and dusted her hands on her jeans.
Kim came rushing over and threw her arms around her. “Thank you!”
With some difficulty, Charlotte extricated herself. They were friends, but she’d always felt somewhat awkward in Kim’s presence. She was a force of nature, aggressively friendly and one of the most naturally optimistic people that she’d ever met. It could be overwhelming. Especially since Charlotte suspected she was only bringing her down. But Kim, as ever, was relentless.
“You’re sure we can’t get you on the stage?”
Charlotte flushed. It’s not that she hadn’t thought about it. Once, when they were drunk, Kim had actually tried to teach her a routine, but she’d been hopelessly stiff. “Nah.”
The other woman pursed her lips, feigning offense. One quick hand shot past Charlotte’s ear, pulling the clip from her hair and sending her hair tumbling around her shoulders. It was dark, more frizz than curls, but Kim swept it back from her face with a thoughtful expression. “You’re lucky, you know. Your mom’s what – Mexican?”
“Whatever, you’re gorgeous.” She traced her hands down Charlotte’s bare arms, to the heavy pendant that weighed down her sleeveless shift. “That, too. Etsy?”
“Nice.” Stepping back, Kim gave her a final appraising grin. “You still look like you crawled out from beneath the bar—”
“But I doubt he’ll mind. Better hurry, though. He’s already talking to Maeve.”
Kim leaned close, her eyes straying to the front of the bar. “You have an admirer. Asked for you by name.”
Charlotte followed her gaze. Ernie was no longer propping up his end of the counter. Instead, Maeve leaned her elbows on the pitted wood, smiling prettily at the man beside her. For his part, he looked uncomfortable with the attention, a dour figure in a dark suit limned by the light of the street.
“He’s cute.” Kim was still at her ear.
“He’s not supposed to be here.”
She strode to the front of the bar. Maeve saw her coming and, to her credit, turned a suspicious glare on the newcomer.
“Charlotte. You know this guy?”
“Unfortunately.” She glowered down at him.
“I’ve gotta go get ready.” Maeve vacated her stool, but lingered protectively, searching Charlotte’s face. “You good here?”
“Yeah. Yeah, it’s fine.”
With a nod, she left them. They were practically the same age, but the man looked older than she remembered. In the three years since she’d last seen him in person, his eyes had grown sunken, his skin pale. But his suit was expensive and finely tailored, his dark hair slicked neatly back from his face. His thin-lipped smile wasn’t quite as insipid as she remembered.
“Miss Rai. You look… well.”
He winced at that, staring down at his hands.
“You know, when you call someone and they don’t answer, it generally means they don’t want to talk.”
He blinked up at her. “I didn’t call.”
“He did. And now I’m guessing he sent you to check up on me again.”
“Charlotte.” Again, that tired expression. He gestured to the empty stool. “Sit, please.”
She folded her arms. “I’ll stand, thanks.”
“The checks are still clearing?” An edge of malice slipped into his tone. “Mom’s still at that expensive home up in Baton Rouge?”
He would know. He had arranged the whole thing, taking care of the details that were beneath his master’s notice. It was the work that was important, after all. Why not leave the little things like family in the care of an assistant?
“Fuck you, too, Augustus. If Charlie wants to talk to me, he can come himself.”
He stood abruptly, reaching for her arm. Charlotte jerked away.
“If we could just step outside...”
“You can.” She glanced toward the bar. “In fact, let me grab my friend Caleb and he can help you out.”
The big man must have overheard. He was standing in the back with Kim, watching them with a properly threatening expression.
Augustus withered, his expression growing hard. Reaching into his pocket, he tossed a folded sheet of paper onto the bar. “Fine. But just so you know, I didn’t want to do it this way.”
He raised his eyes to hers, meeting her glare with a long level stare. “It’s a plane ticket. For tonight. Prepaid.”
Charlotte laughed. “You really think I’m going anywhere with you?”
“No. I’m on an earlier flight. Need to finish making the arrangements. All you need to do is show up.”
“Did Charlie tell you to say that? That’s real funny, coming from him.”
“It’s not coming from him. It’s coming from me. Do yourself a favor and shut up for once.” The words caught in his throat. He seemed honestly upset. A dark foreboding settled in her stomach.
Sliding the paper across the bar, she unfolded it. It was a printed e-ticket, the red eye from New Orleans to Las Vegas. Last she had heard, Charlie had been working in somewhere in Nevada. “What arrangements?”
Augustus sighed, staring down at her with a pained expression. She should have seen it earlier, the dark-rimmed eyes, the uncharacteristically civil demeanor.
“I’m sorry. Charlie— your father, he’s dead.”