Covet Chapter 1

"She wants you."

Jim Heron lifted his eyes from his Budweiser. Across the crowded, dim club, past bodies that were clad in black and hung with chains, through the thick air of sex and desperation, he saw the "she" in question.

A woman in a blue dress stood beneath one of the few ceiling lights in the Iron Mask, the golden glow floating down over her Brooke Shields brown hair and her ivory skin and her banging body. She was a revelation, a standout slice of color among all the gloomy, neo-Victorian Prozac candidates, as beautiful as a model, as resplendent as a saint.

And she was staring at him, though he questioned the wanting part: Her eyes were set deep, which meant as she looked over, the yearning that stalled out his lungs could just be a product of the way her skull was built.

Hell, maybe she was simply wondering what he was doing in the club. Which made two of them. "I'm telling you, that woman wants you, buddy."

Jim glanced over at Mr. Matchmaker. Adrian Vogel was the reason he'd ended up here, and the Iron Mask was definitely the guy's scene: Ad was dressed in black from head to toe and had piercings in places most people didn't want needles anywhere around.

"Nah." Jim took another swig of his Bud. "Not her type."

"You sure about that."

"Yup."

"You're a fool." Adrian dragged a hand through the black waves on his head and the stuff eased back into place like it had been trained well. Christ, if it weren't for the fact that he worked construction and had a mouth like a sailor, you'd wonder whether he trolled the women's mousse and spray aisles.

Eddie Blackhawk, the other guy with them, shook his head. "If he's not interested, that doesn't make him foolish."

"Says you."

"Live and let live, Adrian. It's better for everyone."

As the guy eased back on the velvet couch, Eddie was more Biker than Goth in his jeans and shitkickers, so he looked as out of place as Jim did - although given the hulking size of the guy and those weird-ass red-brown eyes of his. it was hard to imagine him fitting in with anyone but a bunch of pro wrestlers: even with his hair in that long braid, nobody razzed him at the construction site - not even the meathead roofers who gave the biggest lip.

"So, Jim, you don't talk much." Adrian scanned the crowd, no doubt looking for a Blue Dress of his own. After focusing on the dancers who writhed in iron cages, he flagged their waitress. "And after working with you for a month, I know it's not because you're stupid."

"Don't have a lot to say."

"Nothing wrong with that," Eddie murmured.

This was probably why Jim liked Eddie better. The SOB was another member of the Spare Club for Men, a guy who never used a word when a nod or a shake of the head could get his point across. How he'd gotten so tight with Adrian, whose mouth had no neutral on its stick shift, was a mystery.

How he roomed with the fucker was inexplicable.

Whatever. Jim had no intention of going into all their hows, whys and wheres. It was nothing personal. They were actually the kind of hardheaded smart-asses he would have been friends with in another time, on another planet, but here and now, their shit was none of his business - and he'd only gone out with them because Adrian had threatened to keep asking until he did.

Bottom line, Jim lived life by the code of the disconnected and expected other people to leave him to his I-am-an-island routine. Since getting out of the military, he'd been vagabonding it, ending up in Caldwell only because it was where he'd stopped driving - and he was going to hit the road after the project they were all working on was finished.

The thing was, given his old boss, it was better to stay a moving target. No telling how long it was going to be before a "special assignment" popped up and Jim got tagged again.

Finishing off his beer, he figured it was a good thing he owned only his clothes, his truck, and that broken-down Harley. Sure, he didn't have much to show for being thirty-nine -

Oh, man...the date.

He was forty. Tonight was his birthday.

"So I gotta know," Adrian said, leaning in. "You have a woman, Jim? That why you're not picking up Blue Dress? I mean, come on, she's smokin' hot."

"Looks aren't everything."

"Yeah, well, they sure as hell don't hurt."

The waitress came over, and while the others ordered another round, Jim shot a glance at the woman they were jawing about.

She didn't look away. Didn't flinch. Just slowly licked her red lips like she'd been waiting for him to make eye contact again.

Jim refocused on his empty Bud and shifted in the booth, feeling like someone had slipped lit coals into his shorts. It had been a long, long time for him. Not a dry spell, not even a drought. Sahara Desert was more like it.

And what do you know, his body was ready to end that stretch of nuthin' but left-handers.

"You should go over there," Adrian said. "Introduce yourself."

"I'm cool where I am."

"Which means I may have to reassess your intelligence." Adrian drummed his fingers on the table, the heavy silver ring he wore flashing. "Or at least your sex drive."

"Be my guest."

Adrian rolled his eyes, clearly getting the picture that there was no negotiating when it came to Blue Dress. "Fine, I'll lay off."

The guy sat back into the sofa so that he and Eddie were striking similar sprawls. Predictably, he couldn't stay silent for long. "So did you two hear about the shooting?"

Jim frowned. "There another one?"

"Yup. Body was found down by the river."

"They tend to turn up there."

"What is this world coming to," Adrian said, throwing back the last of his beer. "It's always been this way."

"You think?"

Jim leaned back as the waitress planted freshies in front of the boys. "Nope, I know."

"Deinde, ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis in nomine Patrls, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti..." Marie-Terese Boudreau lifted her eyes to the confessional booth's lattice window. On the other side of the screen, the priest's face was in profile and heavily shadowed, but she knew who he was. And he knew her.

So he was very aware of what she did and why she had to go to confession at least once a week. "Go, my child. Be well."

As he closed the panel between them, panic nailed her in the chest. In these quiet moments when she laid out her sins, the degrading place where she'd ended up was exposed, the words she spoke shining a brilliant spotlight on the horrible way she spent her nights.

The ugly images always took a while to fade. But the choking feeling that came from knowing where she was headed next was just going to get worse.

Gathering her rosary together, she put the beads and links in her coat pocket and picked her purse up off the floor. Footsteps right outside the confessional stopped her from leaving.

She had reasons for keeping a low profile, some of which having nothing to do with her "job."

When the sound of heavy heels dimmed, she pulled open the red velvet curtain and stepped out.

Caldwell's St. Patrick's Cathedral was maybe half the size of the one down in Manhattan, but it was big enough to inspire awe in even the casually faithful. With gothic arches like the wings of angels and a lofty ceiling that seemed only inches away from Heaven, she felt both unworthy and grateful to be under its roof.

And she loved the smell inside. Beeswax and lemon and incense. Lovely.

Walking down by the chapels of the saints, she weaved in and out of the scaffolding that had been erected so that the clerestory's mosaics could be cleaned. As always, the racks of flickering votive candles and the dim spotlights on the still statues calmed her, reminding her that there was an eternity of peace waiting at the far end of life.

Assuming you were allowed past the pearly gates.

The cathedral's side doors were closed after six p.m., and as usual, she had to go out the main entrance - which seemed like a waste of the thing's effort. The carved panels were much better suited to welcoming the hundreds who came for services each Sunday...or the guests of important marriage ceremonies...or the virtuous faithful.

No, she was more of a side-door kind of person.

At least, she was now.

Just as she leaned all her weight on the thick wood, she heard her name and looked over her shoulder.

No one was there, as far as she could see. The cathedral was empty even of people praying in the pews.

"Hello?" she called out, voice echoing. "Father?" When there was no reply, a chill licked up her spine.

On a quick surge, she heaved herself against the left side of the door and burst out into the cold April night. Holding the lapels of her wool coat together, she moved fast, her flats making a clip, clip, clip sound down the stone steps and over the sidewalk as she hustled to her car. The first thing she did as she got in was lock all the doors.

As she panted, she looked around. Shadows curled on the ground beneath leafless trees, and the moon was revealed as thin clouds drifted. People moved around in the windows of the houses across from the church. A station wagon went by slowly.

There was no stalker, no man in a black ski mask, no attacker lurking. Nothing.

Reining in her tailspin, she coaxed her Toyota into starting and gripped the steering wheel hard.

After checking her mirrors, she eased out into the street and headed deeper into downtown. As she went along, lights from streetlamps and other cars flared in her face and flooded the inside of the Camry, illuminating the black duffel bag on the passenger seat. Her god-awful uniform was in there, and as soon as she got out of this nightmare, she was burning it along with what she'd had to put on her body every night for the last year.

The Iron Mask was the second place she'd "worked." The first had blown up about four months ago. Literally.

She could not believe she was still in the business. Every time she packed that duffel, she felt as if she were getting sucked back into a bad dream, and she wasn't sure whether the confessions at St. Patrick's were making things better or worse.

Sometimes she felt like all they did was stir up crap that was better left buried, but the need for forgiveness was too strong to fight.

As she made a turn onto Trade Street, she started past the concentration of clubs, bars, and tattoo parlors that made up the Caldie Strip. The Iron Mask was toward the far end, and like the others, it was hopping every night with its perpetual wait line of wannabe zombies. Ducking into an alley, she bumped over the potholes by all the Dumpsters, and came out into the parking lot.

The Camry fit nicely in a spot along the brick wall that was marked staff only.

Trez Latimer, the owner of the club, insisted that all the women who worked for him use the designated spaces that were closest to the back door. He was as good as the Reverend had been about taking care of his employees, and they all appreciated it. Caldwell had a seedy side, and the Iron Mask was right in the thick of it.

Marie-Terese got out with her duffel and looked up. The bright lights of the city dulled the few stars that twinkled around the patchy clouds, and the heavens seemed even farther away than they were.

Closing her eyes, she took long, deep breaths and drew the collar of her coat in tight. When she went into the club, she would be in the body and mind of someone else. Someone she didn't know and wouldn't care to remember in the future. Someone who disgusted her. Someone she despised.

Last breath.

Just before she cracked her lids, that panic flared again, sweat breaking out under her clothes and over her brow in spite of the cold. As her heart beat like she was running from a mugger, she wondered how many more nights of this she had left in her. The anxiety seemed to be getting worse with every week, an avalanche picking up speed, sweeping over her, covering her in icy weight.

Except she couldn't stop. She was still paying off debts...some financial, some that felt existential. Until she was back where she started, she needed to stay where she didn't want to be.

And besides, she told herself that she didn't want to not go through this shocking anxiety. It meant she hadn't surrendered to the circumstances completely and that at least some part of her true self still survived.

Not for much longer, a small voice pointed out.

The back door to the club swung open and an accented voice said her name in the most beautiful way. "You okay, Marie-Terese?"

She flipped open her eyes, put her mask on, and strode with calm purpose over to her boss. Trez had no doubt seen her on one of the security cameras; God knew they were everywhere.

"I'm fine, Trez, thanks."

He held the door open for her, and as she walked by him, his dark eyes scanned her. With coffee-colored skin and a face that seemed Ethiopian in its smooth bones and perfectly balanced lips, Trez Latimer was a looker - although his manners were the most attractive thing about him, as far as she was concerned. The guy had gallantry down to a science.

Although you didn't want to cross him.

"You do that every night," he said as he shut the door behind them and cranked the bar bolt in place. "You stand by your car and look at the sky. Every night."

"Do I?"

"Anybody bothering you?"

"No, but if someone was, I would tell you."

"Any thing bothering you?"

"Nope. I'm good."

Trez didn't look convinced as he escorted her down to the ladies' locker room and left her at the door. "Remember, I'm available twenty-four/seven, and you can talk to me anytime."

"I know. And thank you."

He put his hand to his heart and gave her a little bow. "My pleasure. You take care of yourself."

The locker room was walled with long metal compartments and broken up by benches that were screwed down into the floor. Against the far wall, the lighted showgirl mirror had a six-foot-long counter that was littered with makeup, and there were hairpieces and skimpy clothes and stilettos everywhere. The air smelled like girl sweat and shampoo.

As usual, she had the place to herself. She was always the first to come in and the first to leave, and now that she was in work mode, there were no hesitations, no hiccups in the routine.

Coat went into her locker. Street shoes were kicked off. Scrunchie was pulled free of her ponytail. Duffel bag was yanked open.

Her blue jeans and her white turtleneck and her navy blue fleece were traded for a set of clothes she wouldn't be caught dead wearing on Halloween: microscopic Lycra skirt, halter top that came down to the bottom of her ribs, thigh-highs with lace tops, and pimpish pumps that pinched her toes.

Everything was black. Black was the Iron Mask's signature color, and it had been the other club's as well.

She never wore black when she was away from work. About a month into this nightmare, she'd thrown away every thread of clothing she had with any black in it - to the point where she'd had to go out and buy something to wear to the last funeral she'd gone to.

Over at the lighted mirror, she hit her five tons of brunette hair with some spray and then weeded through the palettes of eye shadows and blushers, picking out dark, sparkly colors that were about as girl-next-door as a Penthouse centerfold. Moving quickly, she went Ozzy Osbourne on the eyeliner and glued on some fake eyelashes.

The last thing she did was go to her bag and take out a tube of lipstick. She never shared lipsticks with the other girls. Everyone was properly screened each month, but she wasn't taking chances: She could control what she did and how scrupulous she was when it came to safety. The other girls might have different standards.

The red gloss tasted like plastic strawberry, but the lipstick was critical. No kissing. Ever. And most of the men knew that, but with a coating of the grease, she cut short any debate: None of them wanted their wives or girlfriends to know what they were doing on "guys' night out."

Refusing to look at her reflection, Marie-Terese turned away from the mirror and headed out to face the noise and the people and the business. As she went down the long, dim hall to the club proper, the bass of the music grew louder and so did the sound of her heart pounding in her ears.

Maybe it was one and the same.

At the end of the corridor, the club sprawled out before her, its deep purple walls and black floor and bloodred ceiling lit so sparsely it was like walking into a cave. The vibe was all about kinked-out sex, with women dancing in wrought-iron cages and bodies moving in pairs or threesomes and trippy, erotic music filling the thick air.

After her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she sifted through the men, applying a data screen she wished she'd never acquired.

You couldn't tell whether they were prospects by the clothes they wore or who they were with or whether they had a wedding ring on. It wasn't even a case of where they looked at you, because all men did the breast-to-hip sweep. The difference with the prospects was that they stared at you with something more than greed: As they ran their eyes over your body, the deed had already been done as far as they were concerned.

It didn't bother her, though. There was nothing that any man could do to her that was worse than what had already happened.

And there were two things she knew for sure: Three a.m. was going to come eventually. And like the end of her shift, this phase of her life wasn't going to last forever.

In her saner, less depressive moments, she told herself that this rough patch was something she was going to get through and come out of, kind of like her life had the flu: Even though it was hard to have faith in the future, she had to believe that one day she would wake up, turn her face to the sun, and revel in the fact that the sickness was gone and wellness had returned.

Although that was assuming it was just the flu. If what she was putting herself through was more like a cancer...maybe a part of her would always be gone, lost to the disease forever.

Marie-Terese shut off her brain and walked forward, into the crowd. Nobody ever said life was fun or easy or even fair, and sometimes you did things to survive that would seem utterly and completely incomprehensible to the home-and-hearth part of your brain.

But there were no shortcuts in life and you had to pay for your mistakes.

Always.

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