The lights were low and the music was loud in the drag club; I'd chosen a seat near the back, ordered a drink from one of the splendidly dressed waitresses. They were attentive: I'd been tipping well since I’d arrived, early enough in the evening to let the crowd fill in around me. It was one of the more popular drag revues in Boystown, and I didn't want to have to fight for space.
I'd saved a seat for the man I was meeting-- a business associate, or possible business associate. Time would tell. He, however, was late, and I was unimpressed. At least his choice of venue-- which he'd rightly assumed would be the last place on earth prying eyes would look for either of us-- had provided entertainment while I waited. I’d seen more tricks with a baton than I’d ever imagined were possible, and now a very convincing queen on stage was lip synching and dancing through a Donna Summers song.
There was a commotion at the door-- I looked over. And groaned, inwardly. The man coming in was large, scaled like a mid-sized football player gone to seed, and his hair had too obviously been touched to hide the gray. His suit had the impressive distinction of being both obviously expensive and equally obviously badly tailored-- then again, the ill fit might have been due to the lines of the Kevlar vest he was visibly wearing beneath it. The men that trooped in after him were wearing less expensive suits, all identical, and more Kevlar. Some had the telltale bulges of shoulder holsters.
"Marcone," he greeted me loudly.
"Mister Russo," I said, more politely, rising to shake his hand and offer him the other chair at my little table. "Welcome. I see the waitress coming: can I get you a drink?"
"Sure. Vodka. Top shelf."
He leaned away from the waitress as I ordered, I noticed, a sneer of disgust writ large on his face. I waited until she was gone to ask: "You've come as quite a presence. Didn't you choose this venue so that we could meet in public without attracting attention?"
"I don't like to be jostled," he said, with a smirk that I'm sure he thought was intimidating.
"I'm sure that won't be a problem."
"You've got balls, showing up without bodyguards."
I looked around us: the crowd was thick, in good humor. The table nearest us in the next row forward sported a couple out on a date-- a big man in a ballcap and his handsome blond girlfriend-- they were clapping happily for the queen on stage; at the next table down from us, there was a man who'd obviously been dragged here as a gag birthday gift by his male friends. He was wearing a party hat and blushing at the broad flirtation of a drag queen who had wider shoulders than he did. His friends were laughing at him.
"I don't see much of a threat. Should I?" I smiled at him and his hired muscle.
"No," he said slowly. Good: the memo had gotten back about how well I reacted to overt threats.
The waitress brought his vodka, plunking it down in front of him just short of dismissively. I gave her an apologetic look and folded an extra bill discretely into the payment for our most recent round.
"I fucking hate queers."
"Mm." I glanced up at stage, where the singing queen had finished and the curtains had been closed to prepare for another act-- an elaborate one, going by the rustle of activity. People were chatting amiably. The man in the ballcap in front of us was texting someone, while his girlfriend talked with the woman next to her.
My phone went off in my pocket, and I pulled it out-- I’d pre-dimmed it so that the screen wouldn't light me like a spotlight-- and quickly read the text I'd received.
(a+ meeting place, then, einstein. not sure this one’s a keeper.)
My lips twitched. It wasn't the most professional opinion to hear from one's bodyguard, but it had the virtue of being honest. And probably correct, sadly.
(got 2 give chance) I texted back, sacrificing dignity for speed. (gains cld make up 4 bad manners). And I tucked the phone back into my pocket and got down to conversation with Russo: traffic, the weather, the nitty gritty of narcotics trafficking across state lines.
We were interrupted by a fanfare. The MC came on over the house speakers: "And now, tonight’s feature performer! Back from entertaining the elves at the North Pole, for one night only, The Mistress of Magic, The Queen of Crystal Blue Balls, our very own Devine!"
The new show started with a bang. Pyrotechnics, a strobe light, a mighty drumroll as the curtains pulled back to reveal magicians’ paraphernalia arranged around a large, ornate box. A flamenco-themed queen hurried out to swing open the door and reveal...
"Boo!" someone catcalled from the front row. "Terrible magic act!"
"Oh, and you can do better?" retorted the flamenco dancer, a dramatic hand coming to one well-padded hip.
"Of course I can! Why, just this evening, I made an impressively large package disappear!" And a new drag queen in full-- if artfully redesigned-- magician regalia ascended the stage to the strains of a female cover of 'I Put A Spell On You.'
Russo looked puzzled, I saw in the moment I could spare to tear my eyes away from the magician. He was staring, too, for what it was worth.
In her stiletto heeled Oxfords she easily topped seven feet, but she couldn't have weighed more than one sixty-- minus what must have been the twenty pounds of sequins that made up her tailcoat and top hat. And her bow tie. And her tuxedo shirt leotard. Her sky high legs were covered in fishnet with glittery spades, clubs, diamonds and hearts worked into the pattern. She had cheekbones you could see from space, large dark eyes, a bright red pout, and a huge mane of chestnut curls.
She was also, impossibly, familiar.
My phone went off. I reached for it, yanking my eyes away from her sashay across the stage.
(is that who it looks like???)
Hendricks despises text speak and excessive punctuation. He must have been even more startled than I was.
(didnt know he could actlly lose 5clck shdw), I responded.
"What the fuck is that?" Russo demanded, jerking a hand at the stage.
"The perfect distraction to allow us to talk in peace." I put my phone down on the table, tugging it close, and turned my attention back to Russo, drawing his away from the show. “You were saying, about Ohio?”
I watched the stage out of the corner of my eye: the magician wrapped up her lipsynch with a shower of fake snow, and spread her arms wide for the crowd. "Hello, darlings! My name is Devine Copafeel--" of course it was. "I know you all forgot me, because I was gone for SO long--"
Protests from some of the regulars in the front. I tried to keep the surprise off of my face: Russo didn't notice, harassing the waitress for another drink. A particularly colorful slur caught my ear, and I smiled blandly at him.
"Don't make a scene," I advised. "These people are used to dealing with abuse. They aren't afraid of you. They will not hesitate call the police. I will then have to clean up your mess, and be obligated to tell your superiors how you handled yourself." It wasn't one of my clubs, by lease and legality-- but I had a set of Accords that said that this city and its souls were under my protection, however poisonous that protection may be. I do try to take that seriously.
Russo subsided, and I steered him gently back to the business at hand. My phone buzzed, and I flicked my eyes down to read: (looked up devine's appearances. first one almost fifteen years ago. one or two times a year since, skipped last year.)
I had been entirely unaware of this. It was... a revelation. I couldn't look directly at the stage, lest I draw Russo's attention back and lose him again to his masculine insecurity, but I caught glances of the gleaming woman as she performed-- her huge hands looking all the more massive in their dainty fingerless black gloves, her nails dotted with glittery red. The Adam's apple was obscured by an ornate choker-- yes, there, the battered pentagram, a flicker of a red gem at the centre, nestled between her astonishing fake tits.
She waltzed through her act with ease, all the more impressive for her long absence, talking about the North Pole, and oh so many a joke about Santa's lap there was.
"I brought back some little helper elves," she was saying, and snapped her fingers to make two slender, attractive young men (in green speedos and green hats and smiles) appear in the burst of a flashpot. "And I asked Santa VERY nicely,” her generous, flirtatious pout was heavily glossed, obscuring the scar I could only see because I knew it was there, “and he gave me a trained polar bear!" Her elven assistants opened the ornate box, no longer empty, and a burly older man in a parka and boxers padded out onto the stage.
"Is he tame, Devine?" recited one of the elves, hovering behind her in mock terror.
"What tricks does he do, Devine?"
"He can fetch!" Devine said with a flourish, waving offstage. "Harvey Wallbanger, Bruno!"
"Yes ma'am," rumbled the bear, and winked at her.
"Now. Drinks. Boys. What am I missing?" Devine rubbed her hands. "I know! My wand! I'm sorry, lovers, but I can't do magic without my wand! Help me find it, boys!"
I watched the routine that ensued-- her elves (and the bear, once he'd delivered her cocktail safely)-- scoured the stage for the missing wand, wandering through a magician's repertoire of standard small tricks; Devine searched in her top hat, producing two doves, twelve feet of handkerchief, and a massive black dildo. With every other incidental magic trick she apologized for the audience because, of course, she couldn't start her show without her wand.
Another text tore my attention in three directions: (he knows what irony is. i may have a heart attack).
(stage/real split?) I texted back.
(gard says all stage) was the response, and I looked up at the figure on stage with a grudging new respect. It was really a fantastic show.
"Where could it BE?" Devine wailed, which was the audience's cue to finally shout 'THE SCARF', dozens of eager fingers pointing at the suspiciously wand-shaped bump under a scarf on the stage, heretofore conspicuously ignored. "Is that it?” Devine turned to peer at the scarf, suddenly noticing its presence. “Could it be? It IS!"
She lifted the scarf off the floor-- it turned out to have been folded under, much larger than it seemed at first. It was nearly the size of a sheet when she'd finished lifting it, holding it by thumb and forefinger at head level. Then she whisked it away, and revealed a slim blond man, holding a magician's wand.
Cheers and applause. I squinted at the elf's fake ears.
"FIX! Did you steal my wand?"
"Just polishing it for you, Miss Copafeel!" the elf said contritely, with a few extremely obscene strokes up the length of it.
In front of me, the ballcapped man's girlfriend snatched his phone, texting desperately.
My phone buzzed discretely on the table. I was beginning to think I might as well just keep it in hand.
(WTF SUMMR NITE WTF).
Gard really had gotten the hang of English language netspeak with impressive speed.
I waited until Russo was distracted to tap back (court action?)
(no. smmr & wntr wld not move 2gether).
Well. Even the mortal enforcers of the faerie courts must have hobbies. The night was looking to be a very educational one.
Russo twisted in his seat across from me, scowling as he looked around the bar. One of his goons shifted against the back wall, about a foot away, where they were lurking with all the subtly and grace of a herd of armoured buffalo-- and leaned back again at Russo’s angrily muttered: “Where the fuck is my drink?”
“Begging your pardon, honey,” our waitress said, coming over by my shoulder. Russo sneered at her and she sent one back with considerably more panache, enough to make it pass as a smile in certain lights. She plonked his drink down and dismissed him as thoroughly as if she’d closed a door in his face. I offered her another apologetic grimace; how much would I have to tip to make up for Russo’s behavior tonight? Not a promising sign: his business was already costing me.
“Anything for you?” she asked me, and I gave a small wave at my still-full scotch, shaking my head.
“Thank you,” I said, “no,” and Russo curled his lip after her.
“Mister Russo,” I started, voice bland, “need I remind you that this establishment was your--” and we were interrupted by a commotion onstage. There was hooting and some wolf whistles, and we both turned as Fix gave a cheeky hip wiggle and bounced out of the spotlight to stand with the other elves, the hook of an impressively thick candy cane sticking out of the grin he couldn’t quite hide, even with his lips pursed into an O. I couldn’t help but wonder what we’d missed.
Devine dusted off her hands, skinny hips swinging as she strutted around on stage, brandishing her wand. “With THAT taken care of,” she said, “it’s time for my first-- oh no! My drink is empty!” She held up the empty cocktail glass and pouted. “It’s a good thing I have my polar bear. Bruno! Bruno, fetch!”
She looked around wildly, and the audience followed suit-- finding Bruno in an easy second, draped with waitresses at the bar. He gave a big shrug, and one of the waitresses fed him an olive off a toothpick. “Bruno!” Devine gasped. “NOW what will I do?”
She tipped her glass a few times, waving her wand over it and reciting “Bibbidi! Bobbidi! Boobs!”, and suddenly had two glasses in her hands-- both empty. She sighed theatrically. “Well that just proves it. I can’t do magic when I’m thirsty!”
The regulars apparently knew this one-- they chorused ‘No!’ while she handed her empty cups off to her elves.
"You think I should do just one trick?" she said with a little pout. "Well all right, but I need a volunteer. "
A few arms went up, there was a general cheer of good will and the goading on of others by their companions, and in typical showman style, Devine looked right over the eager volunteers to search the rest of the audience. She got off the stage, freeing a microphone from its stand to take with her, and wove her way through the crowd, flirting outrageously as she went. I lost track of her when she plopped herself onto a big man’s lap, cooing, and my phone buzzed again.
(think she’s spotted us)
I turned my phone off without thought-- just in time, it turned out, as a glittery red fingernail landed on my shoulder a moment later, meandered down the length of my arm and strolled casually over my biceps. “You, sir!” Devine said. "My mystical senses tell me that you are a volunteer! And my mystical senses are never wrong."
"I must be, then," I acquiesced with grace.
"And your name is?" she leveled the microphone at me. I met her familiar brown eyes and saw her challenge. She was going to try to make life difficult for me tonight.
"Darling, I'm Devine," she said, presenting her hand.
I kissed her knuckles. "I'd be a cad to argue."
“My goodness, ladies,” she told the crowd with an air of gossipy confidence. “I think we have a real gentleman here! John,” she turned back to me, “I need to perform at least one trick tonight, or they’ll never let me come back! May I have your drink?” She fluttered thick fake lashes at me, and I bowed my head, gesturing to my glass.
“Be my guest.”
She held it up high so the audience could see-- and at nine feet in the air, it would be pretty hard to miss. “Ladies and lovers! For my first trick!” She let the suspense grow, just a fraction of a second.” I will make this drink...” She tossed her head back and threw my scotch down her throat in one easy swallow. “Disappeaaaar!”
The audience roared, cheering and clapping, and she curtsied coyly, left then right, holding my empty glass aloft.
“Ah! Much better. I’ll take care of the glass.” She disappeared the glass neatly under a cocktail napkin-- I was close enough to catch her slipping it to a busboy, but it was the barest glimpse, and I knew what to look for at that. She leaned a hip on our table, looking between the two of us. “So. Out on a hot date?”
“What? NO!” Russo snapped, shoving back from the table.
“Oh, sweetie, it’s okay. I wouldn’t claim him in public either,” Devine said in a stage whisper.
Russo saw my warning look and subsided-- it had been a near thing. The man had a completely disproportionate response to minor challenges. I had to wonder what he’d thought would happen when he arranged our meeting here-- that the queens would cower, scared? What, because they had guns? Had he never heard of the Stonewall Riots? ...Well, no, he probably hadn’t.
“I kid,” Devine said, ignoring him, hands held up toward me, placating. “I kid because I adore. Aren’t you the sweetest little thing?” She pinched my cheeks. “Ladies and gentlemen! My volunteer!” The clapped for me -- the couple in front of us and the birthday crew the next table over as enthusiastically as everyone else -- and she waited until they were done. “And I feel so much better, I might just go on with the show-- but I’ll need another volunteer! You!” She pointed dead at one of Russo’s thugs.
“Let him go,” I interrupted Russo as Devine lead his goon away. “She can’t hurt him,” I lied easily. She wouldn’t hurt him, and that was close enough for our purposes. Frankly, I was curious. She’d obviously decided to screw with Russo and I-- and if he was going to do business in Chicago, the least he’d have to do was deal with this particular intrusion.
“You let these people get away with a fuck of a lot,” Russo growled.
“I can go out in public without making a spectacle of myself,” I corrected him. I could see ballcap from the corner of my eye, watching the show, his blond date whispering in his ear. “I’d be fascinated to see if you can do the same.”
“I don’t know how many more hoops I feel like jumping through, Gentleman John,” he said menacingly. “Maybe Chicago isn’t worth my time.”
“The door’s right there,” I told him helpfully, and he grumbled and turned away to check on his man-- who was floating on his back in the air, light as a feather, stiff as a board, as Devine passed a hoop around him.
“They do it with wires,” Russo said dismissively.
“So I’m told,” I said, shooting a glance past ballcap to his date. She nodded sharply, once. ...Russo’s thug was getting a genuinely unique experience, then. As he was let down and staggered off the stage, I watched Bruno slip in from the sidelines to hand Devine a new microphone and disappear the now dead one into his parka. I made a note to contribute something discretely to the club-- I knew how destructive Devine could be to technology. ‘From an anonymous fan’ would do it. Once I’d rebooted my phone, I made a note in my calendar.
The goon was shivering when he came back. “Don’t know how she did it,” he said shortly when his friends asked. “It was creepy.” They looked at him. Then at her, launching into a performance of a female cover of ‘Abracadabra’, doing a locked rings and scarves routine along with the choreography. I saw them write her off.
Yes. Russo and his organization were... wrong for Chicago. At best, nuisances. At worst, pawns in the hands of those they wrote off so immediately. A distractingly attractive woman, a friendly old man with a fatal necktie, any number of people they’d consider hippies, losers in robes, re-enactors. The dead pool might be entertaining, I let myself imagine-- but only for a second.
Even Russo sensed that our meeting was coming to a close, and I didn’t even have to spell it out for him with small words. It made him sullen, although I could tell that he wasn’t entirely sure which conclusion I’d reached-- I’d have to make that clear before I let him contact his people.
We waited out the lipsynch in silence; I clapped at the end, along with the crowd. Russo didn’t.
Devine curtsied again, the two floaty scarves she’d finished with waving in the air, and as she rose she spun them into a quick knot-- and pulled away a bottle of oil. “Goodness me,” she said, holding it up to catch the light. “What’s this here? Oh dear, I think I might need another volunteer!”
She took pity on us this time, or perhaps on the Summer Knight, because she beckoned him over with a sly finger then presented the audience in one wide, sweeping movement. “Fix, sweetie. Who do you think?”
It ended up being a young woman, a regular, or at least someone who knew the show, going by the giggling and little waves to her friends, and she took the bottle of oil eagerly. “I need you to work your official volunteer magic and make him shine, darling!” Devine told her. “You know we need him all greased up and wet!”
The young woman did as she was bid with considerable enthusiasm, smearing the oil over Fix until he gleamed. “Tsk, tsk,” Devine said, hip cocked, one long finger tapping against her pout. “Fix, would you look at this? You’re such a MESS.”
He grinned back at her, as happy as the young lady a waitress was helping off the stage, politely handing her a towel before taking her hand. “Sorry, Miss Copafeel,” Fix said through his grin. “I just can’t help it.”
“Well,” Devine huffed, and spun him in a circle to give the crowd the whole view, pinning a large fake flower behind one of his pointed ears. A red poinsettia, to stand out against his green hat and white blond hair, and not, I’m sure, due to any good-natured jostling between the enforcers of the sidhe courts. “What do we say to that, girls?”
The cheers and catcalls probably wouldn’t have sufficed as an answer in any other circumstance, but it seemed to do, and Fix’s smile grew that much wider. Devine gave him a loud smack on the ass. “There you have it. Off you go! ...Oh, oh no, dolls,” she told the crowd as he hurried over to the other elves and Bruno and a waiting towel to wipe his hands clean. “That wasn’t for a trick. ...But it sure was fun, wasn’t it?”
The crowd agreed, and she lead the round of applause, Fix’s cheeks going red. He ducked his head bashfully, grin still visible, and Bruno thumped him cheerfully on the back.
Russo grumbled something, draining a fresh drink, and while it was quiet enough that I didn’t catch his words, the intent was clear. He was having a sulk.
My phone buzzed. (still a badly educated self-centered chauvinistic impulsive reactionary tool. but at least he's a little transformative). I hid my smile before Hendricks could see it; that was practically praise. Perhaps Nicodemus was finding things suddenly a bit chilly. Then I hid my grimace; and that had been my self-flagellation for the day.
“Well, ladies and gentlemen, twinks and bears, dykes and dolls-- I’m all out of tricks for today,” Devine said with a sigh. There was a general murmur of disappointment. “Fix, sweetie, bring me my purse?”
The young man obliged, coming out with a little sequined handbag, held delicately between two fingers.
Devine frowned, taking it from him. “Fix, sweetie, where’s Duchess?” She squinted into the bag, then gave us a wide-eyed look. “My little purse dog, Duchess!” Murmurs of anticipation swelled up from the audience: whatever this was, it was going to be good.
“She’s in there, Miss Copafeel,” Fix promised. “She’s just taking a nap.”
“Oh, dear. Duchess! Duchess, wake up! It’s time to go home!” she cooed, and frowned. “She’s such a sound sleeper. I need everybody’s help! Call her name for me, okay?” She set the little handbag down. “On the count of three. One, two, THREE--”
“Duchess!” I yelled, along with the rest of the crowd.
And then the handbag’s mouth opened wide, wider, impossibly wide, and a huge form surged out.
I stared. It looked like the union of a pekingese and an elephant: all fur and muscle and a broad, powerful jaw. That had to be more than three hundred pounds of dog. It was wearing a big pink bow.
The audience exploded. I jumped to my feet, clapping along with them, joining in the ovation.
“How the fuck did he do that?” Russo bellowed above the noise.
“Magic,” I yelled back-- a baldfaced lie, because Devine’s microphone was still working. That had been far more impressive than everyday magic; it had been stage illusion. I genuinely had no idea how she’d done that. ...I was far too intrigued by this new skill set I was seeing; Hendricks was going to disapprove.
Onstage, Devine bowed-- along with her elves, Fix, Bruno, and Duchess. The dog executed a suspiciously good curtsy. And then, in a puff of fake snow, they were all gone.
“Damn,” said one of Russo’s goons, once the applause had died down and the audience was chattering through the afterglow of a good magic act. Russo scowled at him.
“You picked the place,” I reminded him, and leaned back in my seat. No wonder people remembered Devine, year to year. I’d come back myself, if it wouldn’t be political. It wasn’t like I’d never found the man intriguing-- enraging, inexplicable, idiotic, inconvenient, but intriguing-- but....
However she’d come to this place, Devine had that certain ballsy anti-social streak that allowed a grown man to get on stage dressed as a grown woman, knowing that he would be judged. Watched. Possibly laughed at, and if there’s a more powerful audial abrasive, I don’t know it. I’d never realized that Dresden had it in him, buried under his scars and sarcasm and fire.
I really wanted to know more. Damn.
“Oh goddmamit, there he is again,” Russo grunted, and I blinked out of my reverie and flicked my phone into my hand, hitting the power button hard, as if sheer determination would turn it off faster and spare a multi-hundred dollar piece of technology. The screen went black: whether it had booted off in time or simply died a quiet death I didn’t know. My own fault; I should have left it off.
Devine sauntered over to us, standing with her feet at shoulder width and her hands on her hips a few feet from the table. Her tuxedo leotard really was a remarkable feat of containment engineering; if the bit about the impressively large package was even remotely true, I couldn’t imagine where she’d put it.
“Well, boys. I owe you--” she stabbed a red fingernail at me, “a drink. But ew, so... buy you a nightcap, sweetie?” She batted her eyelashes at Russo.
“Okay, you little faggot--” he stood, advancing on her, one hand balling into a fist. I shifted position, lashing a foot out under the table to hook his chair and swing it sharply into the backs of his knees. He sat down with the gust of air, and froze as the birthday boy from the next table appeared behind him, the supportive hand at his back concealing a small pistol. I watched him start to understand as my man pressed the muzzle a little more firmly into his spine. “Hey--” he started, but the last bluster went out of him when he saw that the birthday celebrant’s friends and the blond woman from the next row had his thugs in similarly supportive positions.
“I think you guys need some air,” said the man with the ballcap, hauling Russo up by his collar. “Come on. We’re going to go for a walk.” I nodded to him.
“See that he gets home, won’t you? Send a note for his parents.”
Hendricks nodded back. He looked a little self-satisfied; he prefers me to send my guests home alive. Something about being a good host. I blame the influence of Martha Stewart.
“Golly. You are a gentleman,” Devine said, and I saw... perhaps, just perhaps, a touch of respect in her eyes. Every bit as grudging as mine.
“Mm. Because we’ve established that I’m a terrible human being,” I murmured, as low as I could and still be heard. “What exactly would you have done to him, if I hadn’t been feeling charitable?”
She slipped off one of her fingerless gloves, just far enough to show the dull metal rings, and then covered them again. I nodded. I’d seen those in action.
“Just a little,” she said, defensively, thumb and index finger held half an inch apart.
“Of course. A lady like yourself wouldn’t be so crass. I’m sorry if I implied.”
She nodded at me, accepting this as her due, arms crossing over her chest, impressive bosom sticking out over top them. “I’m not buying you another drink.”
“I know.” I smiled, and felt it touch my eyes. “The show was more than worth it, anyway. You’re... extremely competent.”
She looked smug, turning on one ridiculously high stiletto heel, and I would have expected nothing less. “Come back next month,” she told me over her shoulder. “I’ll steal your drink again.” Her chin jerked, her lips pursed. “Too bad you can’t juggle. I’d make you an elf.”
I let her sashay away, watching her skinny hips swaying like a metronome. Next month.
I was going to brush up on my juggling.