They call Ozark City the City That Sings, and with scores of upscale theater venues, country bars, jazz clubs, hillbilly hangouts and a regular summer tourist schedule of rock and pop festivals, it’s easy to see why.
But in Ozark City the real music is the people.
Even inside the city’s newest and most controversial venue—a garish, over-hyped burlesque theater called Les Enfants Terribles—the citizenry was a wonderfully diverse symphony of life and comradery. Despite being stacked like singles in a neon-lit Wurlitzer jukebox, the audience laughed and drank and smoked, slotted as they were into fake wood and blue suede seating, four to a polished table awash in overpriced drinks. They both ogled and ignored a martial parade of inked and painted women in various stages of undress, marching around a hardwood stage of rainbow-hued lights and flashing strobes.
The rambunctious drumming of the frat boys up front mixed with the more measured percussion of sexually adventurous thirty-somethings and the soft conversational harmony of the middle-aged folks who sat in the back, where dim lights and cigar smoke kept them incognito.
Standing room only.
I recognized several minor celebrities in the crowd: a couple sports figures, a regional writer, and a nationally-known late-night talk show host named Reese Hogan.
These were my people. And they played my song.
Yeah. Even here in a strip joint.
Because, upscale as the place tried to be, the smell of flesh and booze at the edge of the high-tech stage was strip-joint thick. I shared a chair with the scantily clad Apple May, as her friends on stage shook their pasties and shimmied out of feathered corsets and glistening sequined garters.
Then, after the proper build up, even that slight nod to modesty dropped and the girls swaggered around the stage wearing nothing at all.
Nobody seemed overly concerned with the violation of several state laws.
Not so long as the good times flowed.
On the edge of the theater district, and just outside the city limits of Ozark City, Missouri, Adrian Mitchell’s newest business venture was the talk of the country, thanks to a recent Fox News story that turned the OC’s family-friendly brand on its ear.
Mitchell was heir to this particular crime territory outside St. Louis, and he supervised all sorts of rackets and bad goings on. Tonight he held court at a corner booth under a soft emerald light.
His very presence was a bass chord running through the soul of the crowd.
Like a funeral dirge.
“Buy me another drink, Dan?”
Apple May wore a G-string, a blue striped men’s cotton business shirt, unbuttoned in front, and a loose tie between her naked breasts. What she lacked in clothing she made up in greasepaint. Her face was a Mexican sugar skull, with black patches around her eyes and needle & thread marks at her lips. Her shoulders and sternum were covered in Art Nouveau-style ink.
Her puffy red ring finger was encircled with an inky black braid, a wedding ring tattoo, not more than a few days old.
The needle marks on her arms were older, and not from a tattoo artist.
Apple’s right leg bounced up and down as we watched one of the girls on stage peel away from the chorus of strippers to stand in a solo spotlight.
A twelve-foot-tall chrome pole descended from somewhere above, and Beverly Syn, six feet of glittering orange and black tiger-stripe body paint, wrapped herself around it like a silky jungle cat. She spun like an Olympic gymnast in time to the ever-increasing electronic tempo, flicking her tongue at an eager trio of frat boys who couldn’t help but toss dollar bills at her feet, even if the clientele of Les Enfants Terribles was expected to be more sophisticated than that.
A passing waiter whipped out an arm and snatched up the money.
Apple May pressed her butt snug against my lap and vibrated in time to the music.
I was a little jittery myself.
“When are we leaving, Dan? When are you going to get me out of here?”
I pressed my hand against the small of her back.
“Be patient,” I said.
“Are you really friends with Uncle Howard?” said Apple. “I’ve never seen you before. Why haven’t I ever seen you before. Like, in here, I mean?”
“Clean living,” I said.
Which was more or less the truth.
I like pretty girls as much as the next guy, but I didn’t feel overly comfortable. A titty-bar is still a titty-bar, no matter how much window dressing or varnish gets slapped around. Maybe the costumes and lights and synchronized dancers made some of the theater’s audience feel enlightened. To me it was tiresome, and I felt weary with age.
During my years as a patrolman and subsequent investigator for the Missouri State Patrol, I got more enlightenment on the subject of erotic dance than I’d ever wanted. I knew generally what went on behind the scenes at places like this and worse, where some of the performers came from.
And where they ended up.
“Beverly is such a good dancer,” said Apple, her blue eyes glued to her friend. “I wish I was half as good as her. Isn’t she talented?”
“She’s incredible,” I said, because she righteously was. “I didn’t know Bev worked here.”
Apple’s ghoulish face was full of curiosity.
Before she could ask, I said, “She’s a customer at my record store. She comes in every few days.”
“She your girlfriend?”
“A customer at my store,” I said again.
“When we get out of here, I could be your girlfriend.”
“Maybe you’ve got a girlfriend, already?” said Apple, licking the glitter from her lips.
“I did. Or I thought I did.”
“So do you or don’t you have a girlfriend?”
“I guess I don’t anymore,” I said.
“What’s her name?”
“Marti,” I said.
Apple ran her fingers up and down the back of my neck.
“What happened? You can tell me.”
“We’re taking some time off,” I said.
“It’s not good to be alone.”
“No,” I agreed. “No, it’s not.”
“It’s not healthy.”
She pressed her lips to my ear. “You know what they say.”
“No,” I said. “What do they say?”
“Eating an Apple a day keeps the doctor away.”
“I should’ve guessed.”
I turned my eyes away, focused on the room’s side entrance—soon to be our exit.
A Mack truck wearing a black sleeveless T-shirt and grey Levi’s rocked back and forth against the door jamb. The muscles in his arms seemed to pulse and grow larger in the flickering green lights. He had a Celtic knot tat on the side of his shaved head.
I pointed him out and Apple said his name was Toad. “It sounds funny at first,” she said. “But some toads are poisonous.”
“Did he tell you that?”
“Yeah. He sorta says it all the time.”
“Good to have a catchphrase,” I said.
“Eating an Apple a day…” said Apple.
“Yeah, I got it the first time,” I said with a friendly smile.
Apple giggled with impish glee and took a blue drink from a passing waiter.
Sitting alone at a table near the door, my friend Howard nursed a glass of orange juice.
Howard had been putting in extra time at the gym and looked like a stack of fresh-cut lumber packed into a tight gray T-shirt with jeans, wearing a brown ball cap, his arms like oak boughs and his fists like iron.
His eyes were fixed on Toad.
Against Howard, the bouncer wouldn’t stand a chance.
Not that I needed any help if push came to pounding.
At six two, tipping the scale at just over 200 pounds, I could be pretty forceful if need be. I kept my dark hair cut short and, though I ran a razor over them daily, my cheeks and chin were an iron stubble field.
Who knows? Maybe I’d scare Toad into cardiac arrest with a steely-eyed glare.
Howard saw me looking at him. He nodded. I nodded back.
Toad followed our interaction with interest, looked straight at me. If he felt the slightest bit woozy, he wasn’t letting on.
“Aren’t you gonna drink your beer?” said Apple.
I lifted a bottle of pale ale to my lips.
“I’m ready to go, now,” she pressed her lips to my ear.
“Real soon,” I said. “Soon as Bev is done with her dance.”
“What about when we get outside?”
“Once we get outside, Howard will have our back,” I said. “All you need to do is find the blue convertible and jump in. I’ll be right beside you.”
“What about the parking lot?” she said. “They’ve always got security guys watching the parking lot. Toad’s brother works out there. He’ll see me, for sure.”
“Not your worry,” I said.
“You’ll know him when you see him. He looks just like Toad.”
I’d dealt with Adrian Mitchell’s hired help before.
Or guys like them.
Tattooed tacti-cool warriors who packed their oversized handguns in their pants right next to their brains.
I’d be stupid not to be a little scared. Goes with the territory.
But I wasn’t overly concerned.
Even if it had been a while since I’d retired from active duty on the Patrol.
Now I stick close to Spalding’s Groove, the record shop I run in the tourist district of Ozark City.
Except when I’m helping a friend.
Mob boss Mitchell had launched Les Enfants Terriblesthat summer, with little warning but a lot of fanfare when the doors opened—a surprise appearance as welcome to the OC Chamber of Commerce as a loud-mouthed cousin dropping in unannounced for Christmas.
Earlier in the day, my friend Howard Steven Thyme alerted me to both – the club, and a troubled relative of his own.
I’d locked up my shop early to cross the street to Howard’s business, the Thyme Out Lounge.
Once comfortable in an air-conditioned booth, refreshing drink in hand, Howard told me about his niece, Denise May (stage name, Apple).
Missing for more than a year after leaving her St. Louis home on her 19th birthday, Apple sent him a brief text that morning, telling him she was working at the new club outside Ozark City.
And the management wouldn’t let her leave.
In fact, she kinda got the idea they were holding her captive. In fact, she was maybe sorta scared.
And could he please come get her?
Howard didn’t think twice before telling her yes.
“I thought gentleman’s clubs at the Lake were gone with the nineties,” said Howard after asking me to help.
“Easier said than done. Strip joints are always good for a variety of illicit trades, from drugs to prostitution, pornography to gambling,” I said.
“Hard to keep a good thing down.”
“And the reverse is true,” I said, memorizing the pictures he showed me of his niece.
“Good to keep a hard thing down? You planning to take an army along and shut down Adrian Mitchell?”
“It wouldn’t be the worst thing that could happen,” I said. “But no.”
I smiled at the thought.
“Let’s get Denise out first,” I said.
“You got a plan?”
I shrugged. “Figured we’d just walk in and get her. You drive.”
Howard had been the drummer for at least two world-famous hair-metal bands back in the day, his face plastered on every magazine stand and TV music video show.
He covets center stage like a fat kid craves funnel cake. I knew it was the kind of plan he could get behind.
“Easy-peazy,” he said. “I like it.”
“But, Howard—no guns.”
“Yeah, right. I mean—what?”
“Adrian Mitchell and I have an uneasy truce,” I said. “Same with me and the local authorities.” In my mind, State Patrol investigator Tammy Ross gave me a thumb’s up.
Stay frosty, Danny-O.
“Mitchell was friends with your brother,” said Howard.
“More or less.”
“Yeah, but…no guns?”
“I’m not worried,” I said.
“You’re a smug bastard, aren’t you?” said Howard.
Later that evening, he picked a powder blue Ford Falcon convertible out of his garage collection, and we arrived just in time to catch the end of Apple’s act.
After the set, I waved a few dollars in her direction, bought her a drink while she climbed onto my lap, and told her who I was.
Bev spun around the pole like a tornado, her long black hair glistening like a tapestry of raven feathers.
“She’s wearing feathers in her hair, isn’t she?” I said.
Apple giggled. “Beats me.”
The screeching speakers thudded to an abrupt stop and Bev collapsed at the base of the pole to a smattering of applause.
“Are we going?” said Apple, sliding forward.
“Get ready,” I said.
As the stage lights dimmed, and just before everything went black, I saw Howard stand and casually saunter toward Toad.
“Let’s roll,” I said, springing forward, the girl in my arms.