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The G-String Chronicles

Chapter Text

“Catch!” The artful bouquet of orange blossoms encircled by white rosebuds landed on Rae’s shoulder; nonchalantly she caught it in her hands, turning it slowly.

“Rae, darling, you’re next.” Millie’s tear-dimmed eyes were seeking hers.

“Rae’s next,” clambered the three bridesmaids, looking dainty and frothy in the pink organdy gowns, crowding about the slim figure of Ramona Plutt, Jr. A smile softened her tanned face, revealing very white, even teeth. But her sea-green eyes looked cool and utterly detached at all.

Why the flutter and commotion, she wondered, shrugging organdy-covered shoulders. So, Millie caught herself a husband. My dear little sister, so easily pleased. Rae’s eyes swept disdainfully over Millie, her younger sister, and her white satin bridal gown, whose short, plumpish figure clung possessively to Abe Zuvio, the groom; she gazed raptly into his round, blotchy face.

His collar’s too tight, it’s choking him, thought Rae. What a blob of flesh he is. Soft all over, I bet. To have that to contend with every night, she shuddered inwardly. Then she looked at Zuvio’s sky-blue eyes lost in Millie’s. Why, it was almost indecent exhibition of their silly infatuation. Well, anyway, Millie would have no trouble with the hot water heater, she had her plumber handy, concluded Rae, moving onto the dining room where three tables had been joined together to form a huge buffet. Rae felt thirsty. The good champagne, she knew, was in the last bucket to the right.

Galli Rax would be around near the liquid refreshments, she thought, watching his tall, broad-shouldered football-hero frame. He was rotating a bottle slowly in the ice-packed bucket, his powerful back to her. Feeling her eyes on him, he straightened up and turned. At the sight of her cool loveliness, a happy smile lit up his appealing sun-bronzed face and his dark eyes sparkled.

“Hi, Rae, you’re just in time before the crowd loots the place. Piper Heidsieck! You look like pink champagne yourself. And, I see you caught it.”

His eyes were on the bridal bouquet, nestled against her left breast, clearly outlined by the tight bodice hugging her form lovingly. He licked his very full lips and a gleam came into his eyes, a gleam she knew so well. For, whether Tom, Dick or Harry took a real good look at her, there was always that boudoir gleam. It left her utterly cold; and made her despise them, all of them, knowing if she so wished she could twist them around her little finger. It so happened she didn’t wish to.

She watched Galli lift out the bottle; and now the cork popped and he poured the pale, bubbly liquid carefully into two flute glasses, tendering her one. His eyes on her were warm and caressing.

“To you, Rae Plutt, next in line of the brides.” He drained his glass, eyes on her slim figure.

“To life and its surprises,” she toasted, the bubbles tickling her nostrils.

“You’ll make a beautiful bride,” Galli’s voice was reverent.

He looked at the pure oval of her face, the straight, thin-bridged nose with the flexible nostrils, the wide, very red, sensuous lips, and got lost in the depths of the enormous green pools of her eyes framed by thick, dark lashes. Caramel-brunette clouds of hair fluffed about her pink cheeks, hair that was unlike any Galli had ever seen — fairy princess hair. The very dark, rather heavy brows formed a piquant contrast to the flawless golden complexion. And now he looked at her figure and he felt the heat rising in him. The firmly rounded breasts were much in evidence, and her waist looked incredibly tiny. Too bad the bouffant skirt is hiding those gorgeous gams of hers, he mused, sighing audibly.

Rae’s laughter sounded like the tinkling of a silver bell. “Too bad this isn’t a bathing beauty contest. Here,” she held out her empty glass, “may I have a refill?”

Galli obliged, helping himself. “You know, Rae, you’re the most beautiful girl in Jakkuville.”

“Considering Jakkuville’s population of five thousand, I wonder whether that’s a compliment,” she mocked. And now she gave him a sweet smile. Even a burg like Jakkuville had its millionaires. And Galli Rax was one of the few, at least his father, owner of the Rax Junkyards, was. Speculatively she gazed at Galli, weighing all possible and impossible possibilities. All the girls in town seemed to think he was quite a hunk of man, clean-cut, and he looked easy-going, she concluded. But Rae would never try. Wouldn’t try one bit.

“Are you going to stay in town?” he inquired, taking a slow sip. “I thought you were going to Niima University.”

“I’m all through with learning, I’m starting doing now. Pop’s too busted to send me to college. That is, the engineering department. I’ll never have an office all newly fixed up like yours.”

“I’ll try once more — how about dinner?”

Rae smiled. “Sorry, Galli — thanks anyway.”

“Rae, what are you planning to be when you grow up — an old maid?” Slowly she walked away from him, her hips swaying gracefully. He inhaled her spicy perfume and his hands almost broke the fragile stem of the glass, holding it so tight.

“Ahh — somebody — told you!” she said, being pulled back.

“Days I’ll be busy. But my evenings will be lonely. Rae,” he put down the glass and his strong hand touched her shoulder, “how about it?” His eyes were hot and demanding.

“How about what?” Rae smiled and shrugged his hand off.

“You and me. I could really show you a good time.”

“In Jakkuville?” she smiled contemptuously.

“Why stay in Jakkuville? It takes only an hour or so to get to Tuanul in my new Kal.”

She looked at him speculatively, her eyes resting on his strong, brown hand with the dark hairs showing around the wrist.

“How about it, Rae? I’ll treat you nice. I’ll show you some excitement. Let’s shove off right now and go places. Car’s outside.”

“I should stick around,” she wrinkled her smooth brow, “see Millie and the groom off, throw some rice.”

“Aw, come on,” he coaxed. “Let’s go quickly,” he urged, “I hear the hungry crowd.”

Possessively he took her arm. Rae listened to the approaching footsteps, to the laughter and voices of the wedding guests. She doubted that Galli Rax could excite her in any way, no man could; and maybe it might’ve been fun. But not more fun than to stay and listen and answer silly questions.

She gazed at the bridal bouquet in her lap. She didn’t want it. She tossed it out of the window, watching the fluttering white satin ribbon, seeing it land on the pavement.

“Now, what made you do that?” Galli threw her a startled glance. “Don’t you want to be a bride?”

“I don’t see any reason why I should.” She arched her very dark brows. “I don’t feel like being tied down.”

“You’re a strange girl, Rae. Even in school you were distant and aloof. You let no one come too near you. You’re so different from the other girls I have known.”

He sounded worried, a little relieved maybe of what he almost got into.

Rae guessed his thoughts. She always knew what a man was thinking when around her.

“That should make it a close shave for you, Galli.” She smiled mysteriously. “With me, you’d never know where you stood. But I promise, you would’ve never been bored.”

Chapter Text

Rae’s mind was miles, years away, in the past. And as so often, her thought stream of remembrance halted at one special scene taking place five years ago when she was a gangling girl of fourteen, consulting her mirror nightly in the secrecy of her room, looking with admiration and delight at the roundness of her bottom.

‘Sunny Sides up,’ or ‘apple pie with two scoops of vanilla ice cream,’ Millie referred to it laughingly, those hard bulging twin hillocks of her girlish fanny. Millie! A tender ache of longing tightened her chest, her good-looking, good-for-nothing, charming younger sister. Where was she right now? she wondered.

She closed her eyes and it all happened again as if it had only been yesterday…

Rae had just come in the back door, tired and hungry after a day behind the yard goods counter of Outpost’s store. Her feet felt like two clumps of lead and she was heading for the kitchen and some dinner. She froze in the door, her eyes staring into the lit living room, staring at the bulky figure of her father who was bending over the huddled form of her mother; his one hammy hand was pulling at her long, brown hair, the other was raised. It was coming down hard on her mother’s flushed cheek.

“I told you to ‘ave my things pressed an’ ready. You slattern, I’ll show you who’s boss ‘ere. Where’s my good blue suit?” He was shaking her shoulders. “Go, get it now.” He let go of her hair and shoulder, kicking her voluminous skirt. “Get up and get my things ready.”

Hazel, her mother, stumbled up, holding onto the table edge, facing him now, her eyes, green like Rae’s, hanging on him, adoring and imploring.

“Raymond,” her voice was that of a humble beggar, “don’t go, please, don’t leave me. I’ll do anything you say. Just don’t go…”

Rae watched the cunning smile curl her father’s fleshy lips.

“Go, get my things packed and ready,” he ordered. “You said you’d do anything.”

“Ray.” — Hate and contempt churning in her, Rae watched her mother groveling at the brute’s feet, raising pipestem arms. “Raymond, please stay. You can beat me and stay drunk all you want. Just stay!”

Rae felt like rushing in, like stopping that pudgy, self-satisfied face, coming to her mother’s defense. But she didn’t move. He was right if he could get away with it. If her mother’s backbone was made of jelly, it served her right. She hated and despised her mother for letting him lord it over her. No man will ever get away with anything as far as I am concerned, she swore to herself. She watched her mother getting up, heading for the bedroom.

Coughing loudly, Rae made her entrance known, sauntering into the room, her lips pressed into a smile of contempt, her eyes blazing green fire. She put her small hands on her plump hips and dared her father. He looked away from the mirror and his hand let go of the tie he had been straightening. He looked at Rae, his sandy eyebrows arched.

“Hello, Rae. Back from work? You better stick around and bring home the bacon for now on. You’re the breadwinner of the family now. I’m leaving.”

He came one step nearer, looking at her cocky stance. “Haven’t got anything to say? Going to miss your Daddy?” he asked and his hand lifted to touch her hair.

And now she let go, her lips puckered, and she let him have it, spitting straight into his face, hitting his chin.

“You dirty brat,” his hand lunged out, but she was faster having anticipated his move.

She ran to the door, slipped through before closing it, hissed at him.

“You dirty dog, I hate you! I’m glad you’re leaving.” She pulled the door closed, holding onto the knob with all her might, listening to his low cursing on the other side of the door. She felt weak and exhausted and a wave of hate spilled over her making her sick, making her run to the bathroom where she retched and vomited pure gall.

That night, her father left for good. During the next few days Rae watched her mother disintegrate, go to seed, her frail body shaking in spasm, the eyes tear-swollen. But there was no comfort from her. For days this went on, with Rae leaving for work, gulping down her morning coffee and running out of the house. Coming home nights to face her harassed-looking mother at dinner. They hardly talked to one another. Each Saturday Rae put her pay envelope on the kitchen table. Not all of it. Her mother didn’t know, wouldn’t know if Rae could help it, about the two dollar raise she had gotten.

Finally her mother broke down, accusing eyes on her. “Rae, what kind of daughter are you? Here I am grieving myself to death and never a word of comfort from you.”

Rae looked at her mother cruelly and clinically, at the lined face, the dishpan hands, at the bony, shapeless figure belying her forty years. She looked hard, never to forget what could happen to a comparatively young woman, making her appear fifteen years older, bedraggled and joyless, being a carpet for a man to tread on, being soft, pliable and vulnerable, being manhandled, tortured and in the end deserted for being jelly-spined and soft. Never would she forget how her mother looked, never! This would never happen to her.

“Rae,” her mother’s washed-out eyes implored, “come to me!” She held out her arms but they remained empty.

Rae would never forget the hurt look, the look of a stricken, defenseless animal in her mother's eyes. She heard her low whisper. “Rae, daughter, what have I ever done to make you hate me so?”

Surprised at her calm unconcern, Rae had watched her mother’s face go to pieces, the red, water-shriveled fingers hiding the tears of dejection. This is my mother, she thought, the woman who brought me into this world, suffering the pangs of childbirth. But her heart lay like a lump of ice in her chest and neither love nor pity moved her.

“I don’t hate you, Mum,” she shrugged her shoulders. “It’s just that I’m not—” she searched for the fitting word — “not emotional. You let Pop use and abuse you. So he did.” Her voice sounded like she was, cold, devoid of feeling.

Then her sister Millie had come home. The sister Rae hadn’t seen in four years, the sister who had always remained a stranger to her, soft, cuddly, easy-going, good-natured Millie. She had taken charge of the household and Rae watched her mother’s face light up and she looked at Millie’s ever-smiling brown eyes. But her work-ridden body and her tired heart gave up. Two weeks later she died. Just fell asleep and never woke up, trying not to be any trouble even in death.

And then Uncle had shown up for the funeral, handsome and sleek, smartly attired. Coming back from the cemetery, uncle and niece were facing each other, Rae’s eyes lighting up, going hungrily over his features so much like her own, only in a stronger, more determined way; the chin more pronounced, the nose longer. But the same green cat eyes, even to the unbelievably light shimmering brunette hair. His face looked sun-bronzed making it appear healthy on the surface. But as she looked closer, she saw the nest of wrinkles around the eyes. She looked at the well-fitting dark suit, hand-painted tie, her eyes fascinated by the diamond horseshoe stick pin. And now her heart beat faster, and a wave of love and frenzied tenderness was drowning her.

“Uncle! You look wonderful. So handsome.” Her arms went about his neck and her lips came down, in a formal niecely fashion.

She looked up, sensing his eyes going over her in a detailed, critical manner, omitting nothing.

“Hm, my favorite niece has turned out to be quite a dish,” he said, smiling his slow, warm sensuous smile that made her go weak. “You’re quite a beauty, you know. Temptation walking. None of my lady friends come up to you, my dear. But then,” his lips curled in contempt, “I don’t pick them — they pick me. And I only allow the gilded lilies to come near me. Got to be smart, kid. Lead with your head or you’re sunk.” As his face hardened he look years older. Now his cool green eyes held a cruel expression. “You have to go after what you want in a straight line, Rae, no sentimental Mickey Mouse, remember?” Now his features softened and he was oozing charm. “I just came to put in an appearance for the funeral. By the way, ever hear from Ray? He took out a flat, gold case and snapped it open. “Cigarette?”

“Thanks, Uncle. You light it for me.” She watched his long, well cared for hands put two cigarettes between his lips and touch the flame of his gold lighter to them. He handed her one.

“Let me look.” She took the case from his fingers, her greedy eyes on the mat gold. She reopened it and read the engraved inscription, ‘To Plutt, the only one.’ A hand seemed to clutch at her heart squeezing it empty your blood. “Very handsome, Uncle. Who is she?”

Plutt snatched the case from her fingers and snapped it closed, his face angry.

“None of your business, Rae. I asked you, did you hear from the old man?”

“Of course not. I didn’t expect to hear from him,” she stated coldly. “I know he’s living with some redhead in Tuanul.”

“He could at least have had the decency to show up for the funeral,” he said, piqued.

“Why?” inquired Rae, looking up at him. “He is what he is, he doesn’t pretend a show of feeling where there’s none.”

She felt Plutt’s eyes on her, trying to read her mind. “You know, you’re a cold-blooded little devil, I hand it to you.”

“I’m like you, Uncle. Oh Uncle, take me with you, away from all this. Please. I won’t be any trouble. I’m tough — like you.”

He shook his head. “Sorry niece, I walk alone. I’m leaving in twenty minutes,” he consulted his wristwatch. “But here,” he pulled out a little red leather notebook, tore out a page and scribbled something on it. “Here is an address where I can be reached. Only if it’s important.”

Rae had taken the bit of paper and tucked it inside her bra; it rested against her breast which, by now, was nicely rounded. Later when he had left she looked at it. It was a Batuu address.

And only the thought of that piece of paper, the thought of Uncle associated with it, had kept her going with her life of drab drudgery. Auntie Violet had moved in with them. Millie had found herself a young man on whom to lavish her overflow of love and affection. And now she and her plumber are probably happily plumbing, thought Rae. She sighed, wondering what Uncle was really doing and how he was getting along…

“Kid, you look so lost. Why the sigh?”

“What?” Rae was startled back to the present and an older gentleman. Again she smiled at him. “Oh, it’s nothing, Luke. I was just thinking how mysterious other people’s lives are. We never know what makes them tick.”

“Well, kid, you’ll find out what makes Luke Skywalker tick,” he laughed. “I’m really simple, no problem at all.” Listening to his frank laughter, she silently agreed. Luke was simple, he would be no problem at all.

Chapter Text

Rae had never been South, in fact, she’d never been anywhere. As a bank of fog cleared, she watched the revealed sundrenched Southern landscape with rapt delight. The pretty stewardess advised: “Fasten your seatbelt, please, we’re landing.”

Rae did as told and felt sudden excitement bubbling within her. Is this really me, she thought, Rae Plutt, Jr., flying a plane and landing in the pearl of the Sunny South, the world resort town of Batuu, just like some millionaire to spend the winter? They were losing altitude fast; and now the silver bird wavered, there was a jolt. The noise of the engine stopped and they stood still.

Rae stepped off the plane and walked behind the other passengers toward the gate. Her eyes lifted to the cloudless sunny sky and joy filled her heart. She felt light and young and carefree with not a worry in the world. Passing the gate, she looked at the sun-browned, health-glowing faces of the people who had come to meet their friends. No one was meeting her, but there was one person she must see. Uncle! The thought made her heart beat faster. She took out a slip of paper, scrutinizing it. It said in Plutt’s sprawling handwriting, ‘3006 Flamingo Drive, Batuu Beach.’ There was a phone number. Should she phone or just take a cab to that address? Plutt would find her a place to stay. She might even stay in his place. But he would not like to be surprised and become angry. She knew his temper. Stepping into the phone booth, she dialed the number, her heart pumping as if it wanted to jump out of her chest.

“Yes?” A woman’s voice answered. Rae’s heart almost collapsed.

“I want to talk to Mr. Greg Plutt.” She was surprised how strained and haughty her voice sounded.

“Greg who?” asked the voice.

“Plutt, I’m Rae Plutt, his niece.”

“Oh, you mean Gregory,” the voice became a throaty chuckle. “Why didn’t you say so in the first place? Never told me he had a niece.”

“Well, he has,” Rae grew impatient. “Will you please call him to the phone?”

There was a silence, then the voice said. “That would be rather possible. He’s not here.”

“But where is he?”

“That I’m not at liberty to tell. He’s not in Florida. This is only an address where he receives is mail.”

“But,” Rae felt desperate, “when do you expect him to be back?”

“Hard to tell, but in no case for a month. Sorry.” The receiver clicked at the other end.

The air in the booth was suffocating. Rae rushed outside and sat down on one of the benches in the waiting room. Her arm hugged her purse closely. With unseeing eyes she gazed at the bit of tropical landscape framed in the wide door; the fronds of the palm trees swayed gracefully in the slight breeze and the sun lay in a solid block of buttery yellow over the luxuriant greenery.

She had, she knew, exactly five hundred and eight-two dollars in her handbag — her entire fortune. Even little as she knew about Florida hotel rates in the winter, she suspected it wouldn’t last long. One month, the voice had said, at least one month! It might be longer, even two, she thought. And where would that leave her? Stranded.

She had to take her life into her own hands, decide what she wanted it to be and aim for it. She would go to that address and meet the woman of the voice. But something told her Uncle would hate it; it would appear like spying on him.

Uncle! Where was he? What was he doing, and with whom? She had the strangest feeling that Plutt was engaged in some dangerous, sub-rosa activities. Then she shut off the thought. Probably he was with some wealthy female on the pleasure cruise. Rae couldn’t afford to waste any mental energy figuring about him. She had a problem right here now.

She would need some different clothes. Her coat look too wintery. Her eyes went over the elegant young woman heading for the exit who was wearing a smartly cut cotton dress, exposing the best part of her sun-glazed back. Rae never wondered how a suntan would become her back home; it had set off the golden sheen of her hair, she thought.

Now, where to go? She got up and glanced about the waiting room that had miraculously filled up again. A voice announced Flight B was arriving from New York and the crowd started moving toward the gate. Everybody seemed to be expecting somebody. No one was expecting her. For one moment she felt an aching sense of not belonging, being a Pariah. Mother, she thought she belonged to her! Her heart hardened; she belong to somebody all right, to herself. A cup of coffee would help. After that she would get a cab.

She passed through the open glass door into the small coffee shop, her eyes idling on the boxes of candy, the dolls and music boxes, the savings banks shaped like giant oranges, behind glass. The girl behind the counter was very young and incredibly pretty; her big brown eyes smiled at Rae. She wore a pink nylon uniform through which the nut-brown skin glowed. Rae sat down, ordering coffee. The girl’s suntan was proof she had enjoyed Florida sunshine for sometime. She would know about a cheap hotel. But Rae didn’t fancy a cheap hotel. The girl put down the coffee.

“Sugar?” The squat sugar bowl was being shoved toward her by a strong, tanned hand, a male hand. Looking up, Rae saw the owner of the hand. Very blue, liquid eyes smiled at her out of the dark-brown, lean face with which the teeth gleamed like bluish white porcelain. A small moustache darkened the upper lip. The man’s hair was blond-silver and wavy. He wore a yellow silk shirt, open at the neck. Rae returned the smile and now he spoke.

“Your first trip to Batuu?” he asked, his very heavy eyebrows lifting.

“Does it show?” she smiled faintly.

“You’re indecently lily-white in spots and your coat is too heavy. In two weeks you’ll be evenly toasted. Ought to become you. With that dream hair.”

Rae sipped slowly of the weak coffee, appraising the man. He must be grazing fifty, she figured, his tan made him appear years younger. He was short, wore impeccable slacks and brown and white expensive sports shoes. Not bad, she thought.

“Full face, alright?” his voice mocked. “Or would you like to study my profile, too?”

“That won’t be necessary,” she countered haughtily.

“Well, anyway, I could drive you to the beach. It’s quite a ways, you know. Save you taxi fare. You are going to Batuu Beach? Batuu town is just a hick place with Main street, banks and drugstores, also some shops. Are you going to put up at the Black Spire? It’s the newest hotel. Just opened two weeks ago. Fabulous. If you have no reservation, I can get you in.”

“Thank you, Mr.?”

“Luke Skywalker’s the name.”

“Mr. Luke Skywalker. But I’m not in the millionaire class. I have some business here.”

He eyed her shrewdly. “Business? A beautiful girl like you has only two kinds of business in a resort town like Batuu. Either she’s looking for someone to spend money on her, or she’s getting rid of a husband.”

“You are very smart, Mr. Skywalker. And I intend to put up at a rather modest hotel or take a private room.”

“I see. And I presume you have no idea where to go. Aren’t you lucky we met? I’ll drive you to another hotel on Bantha Beach a friend of mine owns.”

Rae looked him over carefully. He was well-dressed and seemed in the know. No harm in accepting a ride.

“Well, it is very kind of you to show a stranger around.”

“Shall we go then?” He put down a dollar bill for their two coffees, saying to the waitress, “keep the change, cutie.” Then to her, “Let’s go, my car is outside.” He arose and she got up, following him.

He got her bags and presently they were stored in the rumble of his sky-blue Kalevalan. Yes, she thought, sliding onto the seat, no harm at all riding into Batuu in a deluxe model car with a deluxe model man.

“Permit me to serve as Cicerone,” he said. “We are at present rolling along Seventh street, one of the busier thoroughfares. Behold the fancy sport shirts of the men floating in the breeze. Also, yonder suntanned nymph atttired in halter and shorts going to make a deposit at the First Batuu Bank.”

“And no hats,” observed Rae.

“A hat stamps you as a tourist, the gold-plated breed to be exploited by every storekeeper. Also,” he winked at her, “a pale skin.”

Excitement was bubbling within Rae. And this is the end of November, she thought, when Jakkuville people are bundled up in furs, and on her side of the tracks in three-year-old coats. They were rounding the corner, heading into a wide, tree-lined drive.

“Bakaar Boulevard,” instructed Skywalker, “the only halfway decent road in the city.” And now they were on a two-lane road with water to the left and to the right. An old gray-painted freighter was anchored at a little dock. She drew a choked breath of admiration.

“Batuu skyline. Nice, isn’t it?”

“It’s the most beautiful sight ever,” breathed Rae. Like toy pagodas, chess figures and tiny building blocks, the short but infinitely unique and picturesque skyline of downtown Batuu rose out of the calm waters, bordered along at shoreline by palm trees growing from a fringe of green. To Rae it appealed like a mythical city rising from the ocean.

“Look to the left, Palm and Golden Lichen Island, where the mighty dwell.” He pointed to a palatial mansion surrounded by tropical trees, fronting the calm waters. “Those are the people who cultivate,” he stated “most of these homes are only open for six weeks, during the height of the season when the ponies run in Surabat.”

Rae was subdued, overwhelmed by the spectacle and even more impressed by the wealth it represented. Yes, she had come to the right place. There was something in the balminess of the air, in the luxuriant colors of the trees and sky that made her feel giddy.

They were crossing another bridge. “And now we are in Batuu Beach,” he said, “the real stage where things are happening, the city of Batuu proper being only the hinterland. Of course, you’re seeing the more modest part of the beach. Later, I’ll drive you up Black Spire Avenue. We shall have cocktails at Oga’s,” he promised.

Just as the thought dawned on Rae that she was taking chances trusting herself to a perfect stranger, he said, “You know, little lady, you’re taking chances, talking to strange men. I could very well have dark designs on you.”

“Have you?” Sharply she looked at his pirate’s profile, the prominent, aquiline nose, the rather wide lips. His chin was weak, she decided.

Never taking his eyes off the wheel, he said, “If I have designs on you, they’re not on the wolfish side. I think you and I, we could do each other some good. I take it you like money, or rather what it buys. So do I. But more about that later. By the way, don’t you think after trusting me with your person, it’s about time to trust me with your name? I can’t very well introduce you as my dear friend, the Fairy Princess, to Hondo Ohnaka.”

She giggled. “I’m Ramona Plutt.” The name rolled glibly off her tongue. Rae was such a silly name, while Ramona sounded more important, she decided.

“Well, Ramona, here we are at the Golden Lichen Hotel. It isn’t swanky but the beds are okay.”

He got out and came around to open the car door for her. She slipped out and took a good look, couldn’t breathe for looking. She found herself in another world. Down the broad avenue one solid row of hotels reached up into the clouds, their various signs making her dizzy. To the right, emerald green lawn bordered the dark water and graceful palm trees which into the blue, their fronds forming feathery patterns. Her eyes were riveted on the dark band of water. This was no puny lake or river, this was the ocean! She wanted to run down to the water’s edge and explore. But she glanced at Skywalker who was directing a bellboy to carry in her luggage.

Following her mentor into what appeared to be a luxurious lobby, she wondered about the price of their rooms. And also whether it was wise to let a complete stranger take charge of her. What had he meant by saying ‘we could do each other some good?’ She certainly was not inclined to do anybody but herself some good. Also, she wanted to explore by herself. But it was too late now and she could always move to another place if the going got too rough for her to handle.

She glanced about the friendly lobby with the tents covered sofa and chairs. A few people were watching television. She stepped up to the desk were Skywalker was talking to a baldheaded man with shrewd blue eyes.

“Hondo, this is my friend, Miss Plutt, give her a nice room. I know you have a vacancy. And,” Ramona watch him wink at Holdo, “professional rates, she’ll work for me.”

Ramona wanted to object. What did he mean? She had no profession.

“That’s fine, will you please register, Miss Plutt?” His well manicured hand shoved the registry pad towards Rae.

She took up the pan, asking, “How much a week?”

“Oh, for a friend of Luke’s only eighteen a week.”

Ramona was horrified, figuring quickly that it amounted to the monthly rental price of a nice home in Jakkuville. But she could always move. With a flourish she wrote Ramona Plutt, Tuanul, A.Z., onto the sheet. Ohnaka took the pen.

“Your luggage is in three, Miss Plutt. I hope you’ll be comfortable.”

Skywalker was standing discreetly aside but she knew he had been watching her every move.

“I know you’ll want to unpack and tidy up a bit,” he said. “I’ll be running along. Pick you up at seven for cocktails.”

She saw the flash of his white teeth as he threw her a smile and turned. Before she could thank him and ask what she intended to ask, he was outside. Who was he really, and what was his business or profession…?

She was now free to rush outside and take a look, her very first one, at the ocean waiting out there, beckoning her to its arms like an eager lover. But Hondo Ohnaka was watching her behind that desk, she knew. Why should he find out that she was so green and that this was her first trip to Batuu? She walked up to the desk.

“May I have the key please, Mr. Ohnaka?”

“The key, why of course. Sorry, I forgot.” She watched him take a key out of a tiny cubicle. He came out from behind the desk, addressing an invisible somebody behind the frosted glass partition. “Watch the desk, Miss Stynnix. I’ll be back in five minutes.” And to her. “I’ll show you to your room, Miss Plutt.” He proceeded her to the elevator. She stepped into the small cage after him and he pressed the button.

He inserted the key into a door exactly opposite the elevator. She followed him into a medium-sized room, pleasantly furnished in gray wood. The bed was wide and looked inviting. Her luggage was there.

“The bathroom is pint-size but it’s all there,” he informed her, throwing a door open.

She peeked into the darkish space, saw a glasses-in shower, observing that it was white-tiled.

“Thank you, Mr. Ohnaka, it will do fine.”

“Call me if you need anything,” he pointed to the phone on a little table by the bed. “Anything at all,” he smiled mysteriously and slid out of the room, closing the door behind him.

And now she was alone, realizing suddenly how very much alone she was. She hung up her wintery looking coat in the deep closet and stepped up to the window, opening it, about to stick out her head when her nose bumped against the screen. Of course, this was tropical country and bugs and mosquitoes had to be kept out. The windows looked out into a narrow alley opposite which was an open small door, the back entrance of another hotel. She was disappointed not to be able to look out at the ocean, speculating how much a room facing the ocean would cost. But this was already too expensive.

She started unpacking, staring dejectedly at her heavy looking things. She would have to get an entire new wardrobe. Her five hundred dollars is going to shrink in no time.

She sat down in the deep, gray easy chair and started thinking. She would have to make money and without any delay. Work! The idea was distasteful. Batuu was a playground. Well, some people’s work was playing around. What could she do? Stand her feet sore behind another counter? Fix heaps? Be a waitress? It seemed tiresome and unglamorous. Suddenly she felt crushed. She was not skilled in anything. Fear entered her mind. But only for a moment. She stepped up to the oval mirror, smiling at her lovely reflection. Men found her attractive and she also found men attractive — men with jack! Those who came here to play. Well, she would play it smart — her way. She had no precise ideas how. But apparently Skywalker had. She could always listen to a proposition. Humming softly, she started undressing and passed into the bathroom. At seven it would be cool enough for her to wear her blue suit. It looked smart and had been expensive — two appearances she was going to make.

Chapter Text

“You look like a little girl, like Alice in Wonderland,” observed Luke Skywalker, his keen pale eyes watching Ramona over the rim of his tall, frosted glass.

“I feel very much like it,” she admitted, sipping at the intricate concoction, the Blurrgfire punch, a specialty of the house that Luke had insisted on her ordering. It had a taste unlike anything she’s ever taken before; it was acidly sweet, pungent, and most potent. “This tastes like all the fruit of the Gardens of Araby mixed into one, plus alcohol. It’s absolutely fabulous. Like this whole place.”

Her tiny, ringless hand swept the semi-darkness of the crowded cocktail lounge intricately lit by what she supposed to be Egyptian goddesses carrying ghostly green torches. They were sitting at one of the little black-topped tables and her hand felt the glossy blue upholstery of the bench. The very long bar was jammed and on the postage stamp size dance floor, ambitious couples were essaying to samba. The Latin-American band, clad in midnight blue tuxedos, was playing on the raised platform. The atmosphere was mellow. Laughter and a cacophony of voices floated toward them, borne on wafts of air drenched with smoke, perfume and body exudation.

Ramona gazed at the beautiful, smartly turned out women, mostly in dinner gowns; jewels sparkled on throats, hands and arms. I bet I’m the only poor one here, she reflected. But that will be changed, and soon, she vowed to herself, looking up at Luke who was watching her expression, a wise smile on his lips.

“Like it?” he asked. “You belong here in this setting. You’re like a fragile, precious hothouse flower that can only come into full bloom and live in a rarefied atmosphere.”

“Are you staying in this hotel?” she inquired, her enormous green eyes two question marks. “It must cost a king’s ransom just to spend one night here.”

“I have a room here. It takes plenty of the green stuff to reside at the Black Spire Hotel. But pretty girls like you shouldn’t have to worry about bills.”

“But I do,” the words escaped her lovely lips before she could stop them. Her eyes were on his face, big blue searchlights. “You see, I’m here to see my uncle. Oh, the plane ticket was covered after I sold the car. But,” she tried a fake smile, “there’s not much left.”

“I gathered that much, my dear.” He followed her eyes which rested in shame on her too simple costume, her ringless hands. “You don’t need any sparklers,” he added. “Your youthful charm outshines any jewel in this room. Of course, I know that a pretty girl needs pretty clothes to set her off. And now we’re back again at the petty annoyance of cash. I—”

“Well, hello, Luke, and what have we here? Introduced me to this caramel-haired angel.”

He looked up sharply at the big bulk of a man who was hovering over their table.

“Hello, Sheev, meet,” he hesitated one second, “Miss Ramona Plutt. Ramona, my dear, meet Sheev Palpatine, of the drugstore Palpatines,” he added instructively.

“Glad to meet you, Mr. Palpatine.” Ramona gave him a flutter of her dark lashes and a smile.

“May I buy you a drink?” asked Sheev.

From the eager way Luke pushed back a chair for the man Ramona knew he must be important. But even without the revealing gesture his appearance would have told her so. He oozed good-natured joviality; his carelessly worn clothes were of the finest material and the hand he raised to attract the waiter had a huge solitaire on its little finger. His thick, wavy white hair framed his rubicund, florid face in which the blue eyes squinted merrily. His loosely hung mouth was fleshy, not unlike that of a lecher. He was stocky, some would call him fat, mused Ramona, watching him order another round of the same, listening to the obsequiously bowing waiter.

“Yes, Mr. Palpatine, at once.” The man almost flew to get their drinks.

Slowly Ramona lifted her eyes meeting Palpatine’s impudently inquisitive stare. His tongue flicked over his pursed lips.

“Nice work, Luke,” he addressed Skywalker. “Is she on tonight?”

“Well,” for a split second, Luke seemed nervous and at a loss for a quick answer. His fingers toyed with the tall glass. “We are sort of closing the deal now. I haven’t succeeded yet to make my terms acceptable to Ramona.”

What terms? wondered Ramona.

“You do strip?” inquired Sheev of her. It was a question taking an affirmative answer for granted. “A delight with that figure! Most stripteasers just strip without teasing.” He seemed to enjoy his dexterity with words. “But you, my lovely, were born for it.”

“In the end, getting down to bare facts,” laughed Luke “all females do strip, only most of them have to do it for free.”

Ramona’s eyes grew round. She looked from the bellowing Sheev to Luke whose dark eyes were overspilling with malice.

Her face froze in her eyes were hard as green glass. “So, that’s your game, Luke Skywalker,” she said icily. “I’m glad Mr. Palpatine enlightened me.” She arose but Sheev’s fleshy hand restrained her move.

“Now see here, Miss — eh, Ramona, I’m sorry if I put my big foot into things. Let’s all be friendly.” He picked up his drink the waiter had deposited. “To the loveliest lovely in Batuu Beach,” he raised his glass, his blue eyes apologetic. “Join me?”

Ramona relaxed, eyeing Sheev closely. Maybe it was not as bad as it seemed, to become a stripper, if it got important men like Sheev to notice you. She did not have to jump to such hasty conclusions… But Luke could have told her in advance without trying to trick her into it.

“Look at Gypsy Rose Lee,” said Luke suavely. “She’s quite a lady as well as being a noted authoress. She has class. And with a little managing you can outclass the best of them. What do you think, Sheev?”

“I can’t talk, I’m all eyes,” answered Sheev. He was simply drooling, picking up her slim hand, raising it to his lips. “Permit me to kiss your hand, Madame.” She felt his moist mouth leaving a wet trail on the back of her hand. She withdrew it, but slowly, her voice cooing.

“Why Mr. Palpatine, I think you do this to all the girls.”

Luke let go of a hearty rumble of laughter. “Ramona, for a country girl you know all the city answers. Mr. Palpatine, I suggest you come to the Grand Theatre later. That’s my little after-theater after theater spot,” he explained for her enlightenment. “Ramona will be there.”

“Will you, Princess?” His porcelain-blue eyes implored. Ramona nodded, knowing full well she would be.

“In that case,” Sheev arose, remembering his manners and feeling he was horning in on a business deal, “I’ll leave you to nice people.” He pressed a bill into the waiter’s hand that made the man gasp. “Hasta la vista.” With this sweeping wave of the hand he walked back to his table.

The silence grew awkward between them. Finally Ramona looked at Luke’s waiting face and giggled.

“Wow, what a character! But he’s appealing.”

“His money is, at any rate. My best customer, not only mine but also the ladies’,” he added, smiling shrewdly. “Ramona,” his voice purred, “I was going to tell you, to explain…”

“Well, Sheev saved you the trouble. You know,” she looked at him candidly, “I always wanted to watch a striptease act. I never dreamt of being part of one. It’s all too funny.” She shook with laughter.

Luke’s brow was knitted, he wanted to uphold the tottering dignity of the profession. “There’s nothing to laugh about. Real good strippers are worth their weight in gold. There’s an art in undraping…”

“Spare me the high-minded talk about a low racket, Luke. I like you, I sensed you were smart. Well, so am I. You thought I could make money stripping in your joint. I think I can make money for us both. I like the idea of money, loads of money. I won’t say I will be a stripteaser and I won’t say I won’t. You just take me to your place and let me watch.”

Luke patted her hand with a gleeful expression. “Attagirl, sure I’ll show you. And then when you see how easy it is and how the money rolls in, I’m sure you won’t say no.”

They had another drink on that.

“And now I’ll buy you the best seafood dinner on the beach. We’re going to the Turret, way up the beach at the old post. From there we’ll move onto my spot.”

He paid the check and they walked out, Ramona felt many eyes on her, male eyes, who didn’t see her too simple suit but whose eyes were undressing her. I’m being mentally stripped right now, she thought. And it was amusing.

Outside the night was mellow and a huge buttery moon hung in the mauve-colored sky. Luke’s car was being rolled up and he helped her in.

Presently they were driving up Black Spire Avenue. Ramona’s eyes were busy watching hotel after hotel, each bigger, taller and more lavish, their neon signs shooting colored fireworks into the sky. Finally there were no more of them and now only a green strip of grassy sand separated them from the black, calm expanse of water. Here and there, a palm tree reached fantastic black fangs into the sky. Ramona watched the silvery path of the moonbeams trembling on the water, spellbound. Her eyes looked to the horizon where water seemed to meet sky in an infinite embrace. They drove below an underpass and he stopped the car at the entrance of a brightly lit up building. “This is it.”

They entered a jammed, glassed-in veranda looking out on the ocean and were shown to a table.

“Mr. Skywalker, it’s a pleasure.” The headwaiter hovered about them. “I recommend crayfish flown in from Maine.”

“Fine, Watto. And after that, lobster?” he asked of Ramona nodded without hesitation.

They ate a wonderful dinner, washing it down with lots of delicious Burgundy. This was the life. Ramona felt marvelous, her head felt light. She looked at the happy crowd, eating, drinking and laughing. Those were the privileged, the moneyed people. She, too, would be one of them, she decided.

“Enjoying yourself, little girl?” Luke’s hand covered hers.

“I’m ‘aving a wonderful time, Luke. You’re swell to do all this for me?”

“Shall we move on?” he suggested. “I’ve got to change into my tux. I’ll drive you to your hotel. It would be more fitting if you wore something more evening-ish.”

“Of course, Luke,” she blushed. What could she wear? She had nothing that could be called a smart evening gown. Well, she would have to find something. She could not take any chances with this opportunity.

“I’ll call for you in an hour. That will give you time to look your prettiest. Although you couldn’t look prettier.”

He was already driving down the avenue. As he stopped at her hotel, Ramona got out of the car and watched him drive away. She entered the lobby, got her key and went up to her room. What to wear? She tore dresses off the hangers, her eyes flicking over them contemptuously. There was the flowered crepe, but the neck was too high. The blue taffeta cried hick. There was nothing.

But there was! From the last hanger she took the bridesmaid dress, the pink organdy she had worn at her sister’s wedding. The dress that had attracted Galli. Galli! Her fingers on the billowing skirt, she thought of Galli, and for one second his appealing face appeared before her as if in a vision. By now he would be running his father’s company and engaged to another girl. She forced such thoughts out of her mind and got down to the business at hand. She tried on the dress; it was impossibly chaste, the tight-fitting bodice was veiled by organdy. Well, she would fix that. She tore open the dresser drawer, found the scissors and cut boldly into the filmy material. She took off the dress and cut the organdy off the waist, ripping out the sleeves.

Now it looked more like an evening gown. The tight-fitting satin hugged the roundness of her breasts lovingly, exposing milky shoulders. She brushed her hair into a cloud of caramely foam and made a fluffy bow of the organdy scraps, pinning it into her hair. She watched the wide skirt billow and foam. Then she put on her silver slippers.

I do look like Alice in Wonderland, she thought, gazing into the mirror. Her eyes shone like green lanterns. She applied her mascara and redefined the outline of her lips. She picked up her silver bag and looked at her reflection again. Something was missing. An evening wrap. Nothing could replace that. In disgust she picked up her wool coat, caring it on her arm, hoping she wouldn’t have to wear it. She shut the door and went down into the lobby. She was early, and sat down in a chair near the door. Hondo Ohnaka appeared from somewhere, stood in front of her, ogling her boldly.

“Stepping out, Miss Plutt?”

“I’m watching for Mr. Skywalker,” she answered curtly.

“Oh yes, of course. Luke knows how to pick his ladies. They’re all of them beauties. But if you permit me to say so, you’re the prettiest stripper he ever brought down here.”

“Why thank you, Mr. Oh.” She thought of denying she was a stripper. But what what was the use? She was going to be one. By now she knew it.

“Excuse me,” Ohnaka was called to the phone and she was left to meditate. Suddenly she thought of Uncle. What would he say? But if she made good, if she became the toast of the beach, he would approve. Galli would be horrified. But Galli was the past.

“Hi beautiful, stop dreaming.”

Luke stood before her, all smiles. He looked grand in his expertly tailored tuxedo and his hair shone like blue glass — as did his shoes. She stared. In his hand he held a wide, soft mink stole.

“Let’s see how this looks on you. I borrowed it from Amilyn. Just for tonight.”

He was thoughtful. How had he guessed she had no wrap?

“Stand up, let’s try it on.”

She arose, letting him put the stole about her shoulders. Her hands caressed the silky fur.

“It just needed you to wear it,” he said. “Give me your coat, I’ll put it in the backseat. Come on, I’m late.”

Chapter Text

The night was balmy but there was a slight breeze and Ramona luxuriated in the feel of the soft fur tickling her neck and cheeks. She looked at the neon lights throwing many-colored designs against the darkness of the sky along Black Spire Avenue. They were crossing a bridge.

“Docking Bay 9 Causeway,” instructed Luke. “All the islands you see dotted with homes and palm trees, as well as this very causeway we’re riding on, are man-made, earth lifted from the ocean.”

Ramona decided not to be surprised at anything anymore. In these miraculous parts the impossible was probably now, and the probable became fact. They crossed Bakaar Boulevard, glowing with lights, and soon the houses flanking the road were simpler, mostly two-story frame houses with rather unkempt lawns. The further they drove, the darker it got.

“We are in the Country now, with poor streets, less luxurious dwellings,” he stated. “This road however, leads to Surabat where the ponies run.”

The taverns and lit up roadhouse flashing by looked more like what Ramona had been used to. She wondered about the Grand Theatre.

“There are reasons why my place is located where it is,” he smiled shrewdly. “Never mind the outside, the best Beach people flock to my place for I give them what they want, a glimpse of beauty, a promise of excitement.”

Luke Skywalker, one of two children of Padmé Amidala, the world-famous coloratura soprano, was the owner of sixteen burlesque houses, not to mention their out-of-town productions, and undisputed impresario of burlesque.

“Burlesque is the poor man’s Follies, the last rung in the ladder to the Great White Way,” was one of his expressions, but Rae was sure he didn’t feel that way about it. He was convinced that a Luke Skywalker production meant not only “clean entertainment for the whole family,” but also stood for the very best Belleau-a-Lir could offer. If he thought Eugene O’Neill could write a good girly-burly blackout, then O’Neill was the man for him. If he couldn’t write anything but Dynamo and Strange Interlude, Skywalker would shrug his shoulders and say: “Who wants to know from such corn? Girls! That’s what the public wants!”

He might have been right at that.

Of all the athenaeums, the Grand Theatre was the favorite. It survived a good many depressions and the policy was GIRLS! GIRLS! GIRLS! In smaller print they advertised LAFFS! LAFFS! LAFFS! Next in prominence, BOXING THURSDAY NIGHTS.

Skywalker emphasized the “clean entertainment” part, too. “It’s not what the customers see. It’s what they think they see.” He emphasized it on Rae’s mind this same night he changed her name from Ramona Plutt, Jr., to Rey “Hot Garters” Gardner — R-E-Y to give it a little personality and because there was already another actress named Rae.

“That Ramona is too refined for a stripteaser,” he said. “Refinement in burlesque we must have, but not too much.”

Luke Skywalker didn’t care much whether Rey wanted to be a stripteaser or not. He thought of himself as a star builder; a sort of cross between David Belasco and Flo Ziegfeld, with a little Napoleon thrown in as an added attraction.

“I will personally see to it that your name is in lights on Belleau-a-Lir,” he outlined her future to her. From the routine he was giving her, it sounded like she was going in training for the ballet, or at least the Olympics.

“Experience. That’s what you need.” His eyes, peering at her, closed dreamily. “And clothes; velvets with feathers, diamonds in your hair.” The red and blue city lights reflected on his silvery head as he raised his voice above that of the Batuu sound.

When he really interested Rey was when he got down to cases, a play-or-pay contract. Diamonds in Rey’s hair was well and good, but at the moment she was a little hungry.

“First you play my circuit, then you play a year in stock here in Batuu. If at the end of that time I, Luke Skywalker, feel that you are ready for Belleau-a-Lir, you play the Grand Theatre.”

He waited for Rey to gurgle, “Not the Grand Theatre!” with awe in her eyes. Unfortunately, she had never heard of the theater, so all she could give him was, “What’s the salary?”

“With a twenty-week guarantee, and Luke Skywalker personally grooming you for stardom, we don’t talk money.” With a grand gesture he handed her the contract. It was a blurred carbon copy, the salary the blurriest part of all, but Rey would sign it. Twenty weeks is twenty weeks and it sounded like a chance to get herself out of hock.

He drove through a rustic gate, the inside of the fenced-in yard forming a vast parking lot. It was jammed with expensive cars.

“We seem to have a full house,” stated Luke, helping her out of the car that was rolled away by a doorman. Leading her up to the entrance of the huge baroque palace that bore the legend Grand Theatre over its door in red neon letters, he remarked. The Grand Theatre wasn’t exactly the show place that Luke had affectionately called it, but it was one of the choice burleycue theaters. In the nineties, when only opera was performed there, it must have been considered elegance personified. The façade was gray marble, the lobby long and spacious. To the right, there was a wide staircase that led to the balcony and it loges. The red carpeting was frayed and worn, the goldleaf peeling symbolically enough from the cherubs that decorated the ceiling. In places, the marble had cracked and had been repaired clumsily with plaster. Full-length, hand-tinted pictures of girls were in various forms of undress graced the walls. The one of Amilyn Holdo, wearing a sunbonnet and holding a bouquet of flowers just large enough to bring the customers in and keep the police out, was third from the left.

Opposite the staircase was the candy butcher’s counter, piled high with cigars, cigarettes, and candy bars. An automatic Coca-Cola dispenser stood next to the counter. Greedo, an ex-racketeer, ran the concession. He had never been an important racketeer, just a relative of one who found it cheaper to put Greedo to work than to support him. He wore a white wash coat when he was working, dazzling checks when the show was over. Strictly a green-fedora guy, he gave them a ten percent discount on their cokes, so he was popular enough backstage.

Some pretense had been made toward keeping up the front of the theater, but, aside from an occasional sweeping backstage, no one gave much thought to the actors.

“Do as you please, you are my guest tonight. I’ll introduce you to Amilyn Holdo, the Alabama Heat Wave. Get acquainted with her. She’s my star, a spot into which I intend to build you. I’ll arrange for her to teach you what can be taught. The finer touches will be up to you. Remember, you’re wearing her stole. And,” he placed a hand on her arm, “if anyone wants to treat you to a drink, it’s okay. Ready?” He smiled at her encouragingly and they entered the very dark vestibule. It was so dark, they practically groped their way through the place cluttered with people shedding their wraps.

Bon soir, Mr. Skywalker.”

Rey looked at the pretty blue black-headed hatcheck girl. “Evening, Vi. Busy night,” he threw her a smile. Vi was taking charge of a five thousand mink coat; the woman who had pulled it off was a ravishing brunette, her ample curves plainly outlined by a peach-colored gown that hugged her tight. Diamonds sparkled that her throat, dripped from her ears and her brown arm was covered to the elbow with glittering bracelets. Rey noticed her fine posture, the haughty bearing, the piquant features of her heart-shaped face forming an odd contrast.

“Lady Sindian, delighted to have you here,” Luke had left Rey and was bending low to kiss the woman’s extended hand.

“Mr. Skywalker, nice to see you. Meet my husband. Dooku, this is the one and only Luke Skywalker who knows how to amuse his clients. That’s more than I can say about our Destra Beach spots,” she added.

“Hello, Skywalker.” Count Dooku, as Rey observed, did not extend his precious hand. He nodded, while Luke smiled and bowed.

So this is how a real Count looks, reflected Rey, eyeing the tall, gaunt man in faultless evening attire. His lean horse face bore a slightly fatigued, blasé expression. His black shark eyes were bereft of expression. Rey decided that he was a cold fish, very unapproachable. She would stick to untitled customers.

Luke took her arm, steering her through the jostling crowd into an even darker room. She could barely make out the closely crowded together ailes and listened to accelerated breathing, even sighing. A hush lay over the audience; they seemed motionless, spellbound. Directing her eyes upon the lighted stage, Rey knew why. For there, right under the glaring purple spotlight, a nerve-tickling, tantalizing, titillating, breathtaking spectacle was taking place.

A girl, a full-blown woman rather, was weaving and undulating her yellow anatomy to the accompaniment of a slow, Oriental Melody. Her head was thrown back and her eyes closed; the parted luscious lips, the rapt face, spelled what the body dictated — pure, unadulterated ecstasy. The reddish black shoulder-length mass of hair shifted in rhythm with her body movements; her white, rounded arms were longingly raised. The upper part of her body seemed motionless, and now Rey stared at the filmy bra which looked like another, transparent layer of skin, covering, or rather sheltering the two fully rounded globes of breast proudly thrust out in a daring challenge. The curved hips rotated slowly and joyfully, having a life of their own and as the music grew faster, the gyrations became wilder. The woman jerked her hips sideways, thrusting her abdomen forward, curves of flesh weaving, undulating in their pearly sheen.

People whistled, howled and stamped their feet, hands clapping wildly. And now there was a chorus of raucous male voices, shouting, “Take it off, take it off,” the “it” referring to a tiny jeweled G-string bearing a golden fig leaf in the center. The girl’s gyrations slowed down. Now she stood immobile, a yellow Venus, her dark eyes like black torches, opened wide. Slowly she walked, or rather weavingly meandered toward the side curtain, showing her long, lovely back with the shadowy indenture of the spine, the perfectly shaped buttocks having a rhythm of their own. She paused, one hand on the dark red curtain, and half turned, her right hand fumbling at her hip. For the space of a second there was no G-string and in the next, the curtain swelled her up.

The crowd went mad, the stamping, hand-clapping and shouting was deafening. Draped in a purple cape, the girl reappeared and took three curtain calls.

Now some lights glowed, bathing in the large room in a mellow light and Rey could see the tightly wedged crowd with the tiny aisles almost touching one another. They were eighty percent male customers. She saw four tuxedoed men get up and heard one say, “We might as well leave, that’s all we came to see.”

Rey felt oddly stirred up, the blood seemed to course faster through her veins. She was biting her lower lip. It was the most exciting spectacle she’d ever seen. The girl was good. And gorgeous. Could she, Rey, ever be that alluring?

She sensed Luke’s eyes on her. “Nice, eh? Some woman! That’s Hanoi Rose. She mows them down. Come on, I’ll introduce you to everybody. And for your information, three years ago, Rose worked in a hash house.”

They threaded their way along the aisle, ascended four wooden steps and were on stage. Peeking through the side curtain, Rey saw a chorus line of twenty slender girls kicking black-stockinged legs to the ceiling, performing the time-honored Can Can. She sniffed the grease paint, perfume and body exudation, blending into one special aroma, one she would come to know so well.

Luke knocked at a black-painted door bearing a white star, entering without waiting for an answer to his knock. Rey slipped in behind him.

“Hi sweets,” he walked up behind Alabama Amilyn who was sitting at a dressing table littered with bottles, jars and opened boxes of powder. She wore a blue plastic bib and her face was a thick, white mask of grease. The eyes looked felineish in their heavy makeup; the red lips smiled at Luke in the mirror.

“Oh, hello Luke.”

He lifted the apron and pressed a kiss on the woman’s shoulder. “Nice going, Al. You’ll have them eating out of your hand.”

Her dark brows lifted and she quickly proceeded to apply more grease to her face. “You like me, pet!” Her tone was cajoling and from the glint in her eyes Rey knew that he was her lover, and more, that she loved him.

“I’m not different from the others,” his voice was professional but rather warm.

Only now Amilyn saw the girl standing behind Luke, the lovely girl in her own mink stole. Her eyes narrowed but she kept a smile on her lips.

“Oh, you brought her along,” she said casually.

“Amilyn, this is Rey. She’s green as you were yourself not too long ago. I hope you approve of my taste,” he tried to get some coolness into his voice.

Amilyn looked at Rey thoughtfully, then said, “She is lovely, Luke, but then, I always knew how excellent your taste was. Welcome, Rey,” Amilyn put out her hand.

Rey took it. “I’m so very happy to meet you,” she said. “I’m looking forward to your performance. And I’m also most grateful for the loan of the stole.”

“Think nothing of it. I’d do anything for Luke — and his friends,” she added.

Rey knew what Amilyn felt, that she was absolutely, hopelessly in love with self-contained, eccentric Luke who accepted her devotion as his bestowing.

“Well,” apparently Luke fell ill at ease in the stuffy, littered room, “I’ll leave you two beauties to become better acquainted. I have to circulate.” He was at the door and out of the room, quick as a flash.

“You don’t mind if I finish putting on the rest of my makeup and prepare a bit?” asked Amilyn, proceeding to do so.

Rey sat down on the one unoccupied chair. She knew Amilyn was watching her in the mirror.

“Go right ahead.” Rey took off the mink stole, draping it atop a cluttered old fauteuil, wanting to give Amilyn a chance to really see her. With the grease paint applied, Amilyn’s face was that of a shimmering, opal color, the cat-girl eyes popping out of the face, the long, stiffly mascaraed lashes giving it an artificial tarantula look. She threw off her bib becoming totally nude. She grabbed a pink gown off a hanger, slipped it on and lay down on the couch, eyes half closed.

“And now, let’s have a heart to heart, woman to woman talk, kid,” she said, cool eyes on Rey. “What’s your game?”

“Oh,” Rey raised her brows, “I’m just a small town girl wanting to make the grade.”

“The grade meaning the limelight, the big time?” asked Amilyn.

“Exactly,” nodded Rey, deciding to be truthful. “I’m in Batuu to start over. When I was a senior in high school, my father ran away from home and left us the jalopy, twenty bucks, and no place to live. There was no inheritance after my mother died. I sold engines from scrapped heaps. That was all I knew, I had to do something to eat. Luke picked me up at the airport, gave me a lift. I had no idea he had this in mind for me.”

“Luke may have you on his mind. You never know with him, he’s a funny rare bird. But I warn you, hands off, he’s mine, and what’s mine I intend to keep.”

“Relax,” smiled Rey. “I, too, am a funny rare bird. Men don’t interest me, at least not in a sentimental way. All I’m after is their money.”

Amilyn studied her carefully. She seemed satisfied. “In that case we’re friends.”

Rey watched the woman’s face relax, noting the fine lines from her nose to mouth. Amilyn must be about forty, she guessed, and worried stiff about losing her precious Luke. She could keep him and as far as she, Rey, was concerned. She liked him as she would like any sweet cantankerous old fool who helped her along the rocky road to success. In him she sensed a hardness matching her own.

“You look incredibly girlish, how old are you?” inquired Amilyn, lighting a cigarette.

“I’m of legal age, just past twenty-two,” stated Rey. “And I’m not sentimental one bit. I don’t believe in love, or the Fairy Prince on a white charger. I rely on myself and my good sense.”

“You may be twenty-two,” said Amilyn, knitting her brows, “but you have the tired wisdom of a woman of fifty beyond the pale of amorous experiencing. Didn’t you love a boy or two in that jerkwater?”

Rey shook her head. “They did all the loving for me. I just accepted their little pretties — to pay the bills and keep the lights on,” she said indefinitely.

“I hand it to you, you’re cold-blooded and beautiful enough to land a millionaire.” She sighed. “Burlesque is a tough racket. Today you’re on top and they’re chasing after you like dogs in heat. All of a sudden there’s a new face and a new body and you’re yesterday’s news. The trick is not to take anything to heart, not to take any of those dogs seriously,” she stated with empathy, knowing full well she herself had not adhered to this. “Why don’t you go out, mix and mingle a bit, case the joint?” she advised. “I’m sure you’ll have no trouble getting some man to buy you a drink. I want to do my limbering exercises. I go on in fifteen minutes and again after midnight. Drop in to see me after my next show.”

Rey got up. “Well, I’ll be seeing you, and thanks again for the use of the stole.” She picked up the object in question, putting it about her shoulders. At the door she turned. “And in return, the first ermine wrap I own, you can borrow.”

Quickly she slipped out of the door, closing it and treading her way through the half-draped, bespangled, giggling girl artistes. She landed in a big room, noticing the massive horseshoe bar crowded with tuxedoed and palm beach-suited males, alternating with the decoletéed, suntanned females. Small tables were ranged along one wall, partitioned off into tiny booths kept in cozy half light by arty lamps. She groped her way toward the bar when a hand came down on her arm, and Sheev Palpatine’s jovial voice said, “Hi beautiful, stop right there. You’re booked for the night.”

“Why, Mr. Palpatine,” she gave him a sly glance, “I had hopes of running into you. Luke, Mr. Skywalker left me alone to sort of get my bearings and I feel rather shy.”

Nothing felt less, but she figured the pose became her youth and also his middle-age; she sensed that she aroused the protective instincts in big hunks of men of his type.

“Well, he took her arm, staring her toward a booth that had miraculously been vacated, “you can feel at ease with me. I’m old enough to be your father.” He laughed alone at his remark.

She sat down close to the wood-paneled wall and he wedged in beside her.

“Close quarters, it’s more cozy,” he said.

She breezed in the faint scent of cuir de Russie, emanating from her person, and looked at his monogrammed gold cufflinks. His face was blotchy and the eyes bloodshot. A pretty cigarette girl of Moorish beauty halted at their table, her heavily fringed black eyes lighting up.

“Good evening, Mr. Palpatine. I got your special brand of Havana. See?” She took two fat, brown cigars with a gold band from her tray.

“Evening, my dear, you look appetizing. He pinched her rosy cheek lightly and she giggled. “Most of all of you. What brand of cigarettes do you smoke?” He turned to Rey who was watching the very pretty girl in her revealing black satin waist, wondering how many men pinched her cheeks during an evening. If it hadn’t been for Luke, that’s what I would have been, she thought.

“Thanks, but I’m too young to smoke,” she said coyly.

He laughed uproariously. “As long as you’re not too young for other things I’m not worried. Here dear, buy yourself some lace panties, preferably black ones.” Rey gasped, maybe she should have been a cigarette girl — the bill was a ten spot. “And now my Ramona, how about some champagne? Every girl likes champagne but only the pretty ones get to drink it often.”

He ordered Cordon Rouge and from the way the waiter’s eyes popped, Rey knew it was an extra special, ultra expensive brand.

“And now, my Ramona,” his fingers ran over her small hand, “tell me about yourself. All I know is that you’re an exquisite and an aspiring teaseuse. How about the men in your life?”

Rey raised candid eyes to his. “There’s no man yet. Most of the boys, back home — they’re drunkards. I’m here to start anew.” She was watching his face, hoping she sounded convincing. It was easy.

“You poor child,” he patted her arm and suddenly his was about her waist. “You need someone to take care of you. You’re so young…”

Rey hung her head to hide the laughter in her eyes. He should know.

“Mr. Palpatine, it’s wonderful to meet a man, an important person like you, showing some interest in poor little me.”

The waiter arrived, depositing a tripod on which rested an ice-packed bucket holding the champagne. She watched the cork plop to the ceiling. The waiter poured the pale gold liquid into the fluted glasses. Memory stirred in her. What does this remind her of? Then she knew. Her sister's wedding and Galli pouring champagne for her. It had been the start of it all, of her short-lived chase. It might be a start again, the beginning of a promising friendship with an important man.

“To you my dear, and to your success.” He drained the glass.

“To my success, and to our friendship.” She gave him an intimate smile and felt his arm tightened about her waist. She emptied her glass. Then, gently but firmly she detached his arm from her waist.

“I may be young and inexperienced, Sheev, but I am not fast.” She tweaked his cheek. “I want to know you better. Give me time.”

“I always try to please a lady, especially one as desirable as you,” he purred.

She heard the orchestra play Amilyn’s accompaniment and saw Luke looking for them. She arose. “Sheev, come on, let’s watch Amilyn’s act. She’s terrific standing still. I have lots to learn.”

Docilely Sheev arose, leading her into his box. “She is terrific,” he breathed into her ear. But so are you. I doubt if she can teach you anything.”

Chapter Text

Ben Solo leaned against a brick wall, hiding in the shadows, a cigarette dangling from his fingers. He flipped ashes into the cuff of his trousers and stared across stage...

Flickering lights and shadows distorted the actors in the halls beyond, turning the throngs of people within — aristocrats and moneyed gentry — into a mass of indiscernible movement, reminding Ben of the tide of the Surabat River, ebbing and flowing and slick with color and stink. Faceless bodies — men dark with formal dress and powdered dancers gleaming light in their silks and satins — ran together, barely able to move for the craning necks and flapping white ostrich fans waving gossip and speculation through the stagnant corners. And at the center, the man they were desperate to see — Uncle Luke, shining bright and new. Not since Grandpa Anakin had reigned. No. Not Grandpa. Maestro Direttore. And the reinvented Luke, older but still handsome, returned like Belleau-a-Lir’s prodigal son — a head shorter than the rest of the assembly, fair-haired and stone-faced, with the mighty blood of the Skywalkers had boasted for generations. Able-bodied and unwed and everything high society wished him to be.

And nothing high society believed him to be.

Ben could imagine the ignorant whispers running riot through backstage.

Why should a man of such prominence play the hermit?

Who cares, as long as he’s a Skywalker?

Do you think the rumors are true?

Who cares, as long as he’s a Skywalker?

Why hasn’t he ever come to town?

Who cares, as long as he’s a Skywalker?

What if he's as mad as they say?

Who cares, as long as he’s a Skywalker?

I hear he’s in the market for a wife. He wants to get out of burlesque and go legit.

It was the last that had summoned Ben from the darkness. Ben’s hand barely landed on the door handle when it turned beneath his touch. He released it instantly, backing away, getting into the darkness.

And then the girl appeared.

She closed the door behind her with urgency, pressing her back to it, as though she could prevent others from following with nothing but sheer strength of will.

Strangely, Ben thought she might be able to do just that.

She was strung tight, her head against the door, long neck pale in the moonlight, chest heaving as a single, ringless hand came to rest on the shadowed skin above her elaborate gown, as though she could calm her ragged breath. Years of observation revealed her movements unpracticed and natural — she did not know she was being watched. She did not know she wasn’t alone.

A puff of air touched the fabric of her gown shimmering in the moonlight, but it was too dark to tell what color it was. Pink, perhaps. Orange? The light turned it silver in places and black in others. Moonlight. It looked as though she was cloaked in the moonlight.

The strange observation came as she moved to the stairs, and for a mad half-second, Ben considered stepping into the light to have a better look.

That is, until he heard the soft, low warble of a nightingale — Hux calling him. Reminding him of their act, which the girl had nothing to do with.

Except that she prevented it from being set in motion.

She didn’t know the bird was no bird at all, and she turned her face to the sky, hands coming to rest on the railing as she released a long breath, and with it, her guard. Her shoulders relaxed.

Ben would admit he should’ve known something was up. She’d been chased there. She must have seen the signs backstage; they were everywhere: FULL NET PANTS. NO BUMPS. NO GRINDS. KEEP YOUR NAVEL COVERED. You couldn’t miss seeing them. Because if a girl did her specialty and took off her last pair of pants, Amilyn was definitely going to hand in her notice. A thread of something unpleasant wove through him at the idea that she’d fled into a dark alley and onto a darker street, where a man waited who might be worse than anything inside. And then, like a shot in the dark, she laughed. Ben stiffened, the muscles in his shoulders tensing, his grip tightening on the handle of his cane.

It took all his will not to approach her. To recall that he’d been lying in wait for this moment for years — so that he could barely remember a time when he wasn’t trained to dance with the girl and stay ahead. His divine leading lady.

He was not going to allow a dame to knock him off course. Divine or not. He didn’t even have a clear look at her, and still, he could not look away. It was a striking gown, but once your eyes turned to the girl’s face, you forgot what she was wearing. Looking at it, you felt stealing over you that sense of perfect contentment stirred by the sight of any perfect object. There was nothing you would have changed in that cream-skinned oval with its straight nose and full, sweet mouth and wide-spaced dreaming green eyes that seemed to hold all the serenity of the sea she was supposed to be gazing at. But the sea wasn’t there, and the ship was moored to a set, and the puff of air was stirred by a wind-machine. Only the girl was real.

“Damn it all! Why don’t you watch your cues?” Canady, the stage manager, had the door open and was shouting at Hux. “You’re on,” he yelled.

“Someone ought to tell them just how awful they are,” she said to the sky. “Someone ought to march right up to that Lady Sindian and tell her that no one believes her phony accent. And someone ought to tell Count Dooku that he stinks of perfume and would do well to take a bath. And I should dearly love to remind Sheev to keep his hands to himself before I slap his jaw and they find it in Galma.”

She paused just long enough for Ben to think she was through speaking into the ether.

“And must Amilyn be so unpleasant?”

“That’s the best you can do?”

He shocked himself with the words — now was not the time to be talking to a solo chatterbox in the alley.

He shocked Hux more, if the harsh nightingale’s call that immediately followed was any indication.

But he shocked the girl the most.

With a little squeak of surprise, she whirled to face him, her hand coming to the expanse of skin above the line of her bodice. What color was that bodice? The moonlight continued to play tricks with it, making it impossible to see.

She tilted her head and squinted into the shadows. “Who’s there?”

“You have me wondering just that, Punkin, considering you’re talking up a storm.”

The squint became a scowl. “I was talking to myself.”

“And neither of you can find a better crack for Amilyn than unpleasant?”

She took a step toward him, then seemed to think twice of approaching a strange man in the darkness. She stopped.

“How do you describe Alabama Amilyn?”

“I know her pretty well, so I can dream up something. But considering you were happy to lambaste Dooku’s hygiene and crab Palpatine’s act, surely the Alabama Heat Wave deserves a similar level of creativity?”

She stared into the shadows for a long minute, her gaze fixed to a point somewhere beyond his left shoulder. “Who are you?”

“A man of no consequence.”

“As you are in a dark alley behind the Grand Theatre, it seems you might be a man of consequence.”

“By that rationale, you are a woman of consequence.”

Her laugh came loud and unexpected, surprising them both. She shook her head. “Few would agree with you.”

“I’m rarely interested in others’ opinions.”

“Then you mustn’t be a member of the majority,” she replied dryly, “as others opinions are like gold here. Exceedingly cared for.”

Who was she?

“Did Luke hire you?”

She blinked. “How did you know Luke hired me?”

“I make it my business to know things.”

“About theaters you do not operate?”

I will operate this theater, someday. He resisted at the words. “There’s only one type of individual that haunts the stage doors of theaters. Why are you?”

She lifted a shoulder. Let it drop.

It was his turn to scowl. “Are you meeting a stage-door Johnny?”

Her eyes went wide. “I beg your pardon?”

“Dark alleys make for excellent trysting.”

“I wouldn't know.”

“About alleys? Or trysting?” Not that he cared.

“About either, honestly.”

He should not have experienced satisfaction at that answer.

She continued, “Would you believe that I enjoy being alone?”

“I would not,” he said. “And besides, this spot is off-limits.”

She tilted her head. “Is it?”

“Most people understand that backstage is off-limits.”

She waved a hand. “So I’m not as smart as I think I am.” He did not believe that, either. “I could ask you the same question, you know.”

“Which?” He didn’t like the way she wove the conversation around them, twisting it in her own direction.

“Are you here for a tryst?” For a single, wild movement, a vision flashed of the tryst they might find here, in this dark alley in the dead of winter. Of what she might allow him to do to her while half of Batuu laid in the aisles and gossiped just out of reach.

Of what he might allow her to do to him.

He imagined lifting her into his arms, discovering the feel of her skin, the scent of it. Uncovering the sounds she made in pleasure. Would she sigh? Would she cry out?

He froze. This woman, with her lovely face and her remarkable body, who talked to herself, but not the kind of woman Ren ordinarily imagined taking on the walls. What was happening to him?

“I’ll take your silence as a yes, then. And give you leave to tryst on, sir.” She began to move away from him, down the steps.

He should let her go. Except he called out, “There’s no tryst.”

The nightingale again. It was louder than before. Hux was annoyed.

“Then why are you here?” the woman asked.

“Perhaps for the same reason you are, Punkin.”

She smirked. “I have trouble believing you are an aspiring spinster who was driven into the darkness after being chased by a wolf.”

So. He’d been right. She had been chased. “I have to agree, none of that sounds quite like me.”

She leaned back against the wall. “Come into the light.”

“I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

“Why not?”

“Because I have my false face on.”

She lifted a shoulder in a little shrug. “So do I.”

“You’re not supposed to be on stage. And you only get one introduction.”

Her lips dropped open into a little O. “Who are you?”

He ignored the question. “Why are you a spinster?” Not that it mattered.

“I’m unmarried.”

He resisted the urge to smile. “I deserved that.”

“My father would tell you to be more specific with your questions.”

“Who is your father?”

“Who is yours?”

She was not the least obstinate woman he’d ever met. “You first.”

“I don’t have a father.”

“Everyone has a father,” he said.

“Not one they consider dead,” she said with a calm she did not feel. Embittered or tranquil, she remained utterly lovely, utterly desirable. And the question he’d come to ask her took on a more personal significance. It was no longer just curiosity, but something he wanted explained to himself. Here was a girl who, by simply existing, must mow men down. Every turn of her head, every change of expression spelled enchantment to the senses. How had she escaped the hunters? Why wasn’t she married?

“We’re on that track again. Why are you a spinster?”

It wasn’t an easy question to ask, but once it was out, she made the rest easy. A moment’s reflection, then she nodded her head. “Yes, I think I can talk about that.” Having agreed, there was no backing and filling. What she wanted to say, she said in straightforward fashion, without flustered reserves or coy hesitations. What she didn’t want to say she kept to herself. She made it easy, too, because she’s intelligent. She doesn’t babble. She doesn’t dish out hooey that she learned from a copy-book or thinks may sound well in a magazine. At one time and another she has searched her own mind, learned to know herself, learned to be honest with herself. She’ll give you the honest fruit of that self-knowledge or she’ll give you nothing.

“The whole thing can be summed up in one sentence,” she said slowly. “I don’t want to marry — I won’t marry — till I meet the man I can’t live without. I’m a normal girl. I’ve yet to fall in love. I’m practical. If it were just a question of that, I’d have married long before now. But practicality isn’t the whole of marriage. My mother made a mistake. She should’ve divorced. But her ethics, her religion, her whole outlook forbade it. When she married, she had to stay married. She had no choice.”

With that weight removed, her face looked lovelier than ever in its natural frame of brown hair. The eyes she lifted to his had a little smile in them, but it wasn’t a merry smile.

“I know what you’re thinking, what anyone would be thinking at this point.”

“About?”

The honest answer came instantly. “She’s too—” She stopped, spreading her hands wide, and he would have given his whole family’s fortune to hear the rest, especially once she began anew, ticking reasons off her long ringless fingers.

“Selfish, ambitious.”

All humans are selfish, he thought, and we in this business are probably more selfish than most. We’re pampered and fussed over. At first we’re grateful, and then we begin to accept these things as our right. “Why should I stand this, and why should I stand that?” we say and take that attitude with us into marriage. Of course it’s ruinous. Of course you’ve got to give and take. And, as far as ambition was concerned, her intimations were ambitious. She herself was nitroglycerin.

“When my father asked me once if I was ambitious, I said no, even though I was, because ‘good girls aren’t supposed to be ambitious.’”

He had ambition, too. Only he didn’t have to crack his joints to get where he was going. He had brains. Though, his brains haven’t told him how he was going to get this girl.

“Cold, heartless.”

That was absolutely not true.

“I tossed over the king of school.”

Still not the whole truth.

“And there’s the rub?”

“Quite,” she said. “My mother was only seventeen, and she knew marriage wouldn’t be a step into paradise. But even at seventeen, if she’d said to herself, ‘This is forever. Are you sure?’ She might have given herself time to realize she wasn’t sure and saved us all a lot of heartache.”

She was speaking slowly, choosing her words, intent on presenting the facts in their true light, a light that revealed not heroes and villains, but the blundering humans most of them were.

“Though it seems unfair, as the boy in question never intended to marry me in the first place.”

“Why not?”

“He didn’t know me.”

“How unfortunate.”

She turned away from him, returning her gaze to the sky. “Not for him.”

Ren had never in his life wanted to approach another so much. But he remained in the shadows, pressing himself to the wall and watching her.

“Do you carry in your mind any picture of the man you might one day marry?” he asked.

The answer came promptly, as if it were a matter she’d given thought to. “Not a picture, no; but two things he’s got to have. Moral courage and breeding. I can’t stand a leaner. I don’t want my husband to be my baby, too. Oh, in little ways, yes, but not in the essentials. If there’s any leaning to be done, I’m old-fashioned enough to think the woman should do it. I’m no clinging vine. I’m used to being independent. I’m not one to hang fondly on a man and get a thrill out of being a slave to petty authority: ‘Darling, you smoke too many cigarettes,’ and so on. But I want to know that if I do feel like leaning all over him, I can and he’ll stand firm. Any woman wants that. She may love the other kind in a pitying way. But I want to love my husband plain, without pity, without feeling I have to apologize for him, even to myself — least of all to myself. And by breeding, I don’t mean a line of aristocrats behind him. There’s a breeding of the heart, an instinctive good taste that aristocrats sometimes don’t have and hod-carriers do. It includes a certain fastidiousness of mind and body. I don’t like dirty fingernails and uncouth language. He’s got to be literate. I don’t care whether he’s a college graduate or not. He’s got to love education for its own sake — not for the sake of some letters after his name, but because it opens new worlds and trains you to make the best of what you’ve been born with. I HOPE I’m not sounding smug, making demands, as if I were a paragon of all virtues myself. After all, they’re not unreasonable demands, are they?” she pleaded with comic wistfulness. “Character and a certain degree of culture? And perhaps I can redeem myself by stopping there.”

“If you are unmarriageable for all those reasons, why waste your time here?”

She gave a little laugh, the sound low and lovely. “Don’t you know, sir? Any unmarried woman’s time is well spent near to unmarried gentlemen.”

“Ah, so you haven’t given up on a husband.”

“Hope springs eternal,” she said.

He nearly laughed at the dry words. Nearly. “The rest doesn’t matter?”

“I don’t care what he looks like.”

“Handsome or ugly, it’s all the same to you?”

“Of course, I’d be pleased if he weren’t a Dracula.”

He did laugh at that, a single, harsh bark, shocking the hell out of him.

“I’d be pleased if he were beautifully attentive and considerate and thoughtful of me. But if he weren’t, I’d soothe my vanity by putting it down to absent-mindedness. I’d be pleased, too, if his tastes were something like mine.”

“Money?”

“Yes. Frankly, money is important. But only to an extent — that he should make enough to keep his own self-respect. A million dollars has no attraction to me. The more money you have, the more you worry about it. This little girl can make her own way. But for his own sake, I shouldn’t want to marry a man who would have to take from me. If he were out of luck, I’d give with both hands. But however generously you give, taking humiliates a man — makes him feel inferior — which must never be. It’s fatal to any marriage.” Her kindling eyes said more softly. “I couldn’t bare to see my husband anything but proud.” Then again she sought relief in lightness. “I forgot,” she smiled. “There’s one more must. He must not be a comic. I can’t stand a man who thinks it’s funny to embarrass himself — to slip on banana peels, take a pie in the face, seltzer in the pants, for instance, and then go haw-haw-hawing all over the place, as if he’d done something really noteworthy. I always feel like bashing him one,” said the tiny-looking girl and eyed the slender hands in her lap as if to weigh their bashing power.

“With such low standards, it’s surprising that you’ve had such trouble.”

She grinned, teeth gleaming white in the moonlight. “It’s a wonder that the man in the shadows hasn’t fallen over himself to get to me, I know.”

The reminder of his purpose that evening was harsh and instant. “You’ve got designs on Skywalker.”

Over my dead body.

She waved a hand. “I am only after what he promised, as are all the rest of the girls in Batuu.”

“They say he’s mad; washed up,” Ben pointed out.

“Only because they can’t imagine why anyone would choose to break into burlesque.”

Uncle Luke had never wanted to join a burlesque troupe. No vaudeville actor did. If you found one in burlesque you could be sure he got in through the starvation route. Luke certainly did. Maybe not exactly starvation, but when there’s only one punch left on your meal ticket, it’s close enough. Not only that, but he’d been locked out of an egg crate of a hotel in the thriving city of Peka! Besides, vaudeville or opera didn’t bring the crowds like burlesque did. And, as far as the law would allow, the producers tried to give the predominantly male clientele what it demanded. But Ren did not say that. Instead, he said, “He cares about actors.”

Her grin turned into a smirk. “They’ve seen his money, sir. And it is handsome as sin. A hermit impresario still makes print, after all.”

“That’s ridic.”

“That’s show business.” She paused. “But it doesn’t matter. I’m not cut out for it.”

“Why not?” He didn’t care.

“Because I have no romance in my soul.”

Why the hell not?

He didn’t speak the question, but she answered it nonetheless, casually, as though she were speaking to a room full of ladies at tea. “There was a time when I thought I did,” she offered more to herself than to him. “And then…” She shrugged her shoulders. “I don't know what happened. I suppose all those other things. Ambitious, selfish, desert rat, frigid, spinster.” She laughed at the list of words. “I suppose I shouldn’t have dallied, thinking I’d find myself answers, as it didn’t happen.”

“And now?”

“And now,” she said, resignation in her tone, “when I get ready for a date it’s with a suit of armor and brass knuckles.”

“That’s just a come-on. You’re trying to make it look difficult. You’ll change your tune. What’s your heart’s desire?”

Hux’s nightingale called in the darkness, and she replied on the heels of the sound. “No one has ever asked me that.”

“Go ahead. Make a mystery out of it,” he prodded, knowing he shouldn’t. Knowing he should leave this girl to this alley and whatever future she has was to have.

“Something inside me has always been there. But now it’s awake. And I’m afraid. I don’t know what it is or what to do with it—” She looked toward the theater, towards backstage and the hallways beyond, and the illuminated runway beyond that. “And I need help.”

“Look, I think you got it figured. I could tell by how you dished me. And the way you ducked Palpatine’s finagling, so please take it easy. I’m good to have your on your side, but I’m not saying that you need me, either.”

“I need someone to show me—” she began, then stopped. Shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. You’ve far more important things to do.”

“I do, but I can’t do them while you’re here, angel, I’m more than willing to help you sort this out.”

She smiled at that. “You’re funny.”

“No one in my whole life would agree with you.”

Her smile grew. “I’m rarely interested in others’ opinions.”

He did not miss the echo of his own words from earlier. “I don’t believe that for a second.”

She waved a hand. “There was a time when I did. Right at the center of it all. I was incredibly popular. Everyone wished to know me.”

“And what happened?”

She spread her hands wide again, a movement that was beginning to be familiar. “I don’t know.”

He raised a brow. “You don’t know what made you a seventy degrees cooler on the inside?”

“I don’t,” she said softly, confusion and sadness in her tone. “I wasn’t even near lukewarm. And then, one day—” she shrugged — “there I was. Icebox. And so, when you asked me what’s my heart’s desire?”

She was lonely. Ben knew about lonely. “You want stardom. To be loved. To belong. The same as the rest of us.”

She gave a little, hopeless laugh. “No one gets what they want. Not without a connection.”

He nodded. “Luke.”

“A girl can dream.”

“And you?”

“Diamonds in my hair.”

Another warning sound from Hux, and the woman looked over her shoulder. “That’s a very persistent nightingale.”

“He’s irritated.” She tilted her head and curiosity but when he did not clarify, she added, “Are you going to tell me who you are?”

“If you’re interested enough you’ll find out.”

She nodded once. “That is best, I suppose, as I only came out to find a quiet moment away from superlicious smirks and snide comments.” She pointed down the line of the hall, toward the lighter stretch of it. “I’ll go over there and find a proper hiding space, and you can resume your skulking if you like.”

He didn’t reply, not certain of what he would say. Not trusting himself to say what he should.

“I won’t tell anyone I saw you,” she added.

“You haven’t seen me,” he said.

“Then it will have the additional benefit of being the truth,” she added, helpfully.

The nightingale again. Hux didn’t trust him with this girl. And perhaps he shouldn’t.

She dipped into a little curtsy. “Well, off to your creeping then?”

The pull of his muscles around his lips was unfamiliar. A smile. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d smiled. This strange girl summoned it, like a sorceress.

She was gone before he could reply, her skirts, disappeared around the corner, into the light. It took everything he had not to follow her. To catch a glimpse of her — the color of her hair, the shade of her skin, the flash of her eyes.

He still didn’t know the color of her gown.

All he had to do was follow her.

“Ren.”

His name returned him to the present. He looked to Hux, once more in the wings.

“Will you get your funny-looking mug on that stage!” Hux said. It was showtime.

Ren tossed his cigarette in the brass prop cuspidor and made a dash for the wings. “I’ll tell you something about us funny-looking actors: We got a union — and you’ll hear from us!”

“Gee, you sure work fast!”

“Nothing to it, red.”

“Butterflies are hard to catch.”

“Not when you have practice.”

“But you don’t have practice.”

“The right butterfly never fluttered by.”

“We’re on,” Hux whispered. “Got your bald face on? You didn’t forget anything, did’ja?”

Ben shook his head once, gaze fixed to the place where the woman’s mysterious skirts had disappeared. “Just maybe my lyrics.”

Chapter Text

Luckily Rey had left a call downstairs for eight o’clock. The insistent ringing of the telephone startled her out of a death-like sleep. She grabbed the receiver, trying to get her burning eyes open. “Yes?” she drawled into the hostile, inky looking instrument.

“It’s eight o’clock, Miss Plutt,” said a pleasant voice, unknown to her.

“Thank you.” Her own voice sounded unfamiliar and hoarse.

Jumping out of bed, she stretched and sauntered over to the window, staring at the words Fire Exit across the alley, blazing in the strong sunlight. She suddenly remembered that she had to call up Luke’s nephew Ben, his name was.

There was no avoiding Sheev dragging her into his box. And she’d fled the moment he had turned the other way.

Rey had comes down the stairs stumbling slightly, Rose saw her, reached out to help — “Hey…” But she pulled away, fled down a dark hallway, her heart thundering as a stagehand tried to help her, but she swept past him, hurrying for the exit. When she burst out the door, her heart had threatened to beat from her chest.

And to think, all that thunderous pounding happened before she’d met him.

Though, met wasn’t precisely the correct word.

Encountered did not seem quite right, either.

It had been something closer to experienced. The moment he’d spoken, the low thrum of his voice wrapped around her like silk in the night air as he tempted her like a vice.

A flush washed across her cheeks at the memory, at the way he seemed to draw her in, as though they were connected by a string. As though he could pull her to him and she would go, without resistance. He’d done more than pull her in. He’d pulled the truth from her, and she offered it with ease.

She’d catalogued her flaws as though they were a change in the weather. She’d nearly confessed it all, even the bits she’d never confessed to anyone else. The bits she held close in the darkness. Because it hadn’t felt like a confession. It felt like he’d already known everything. And maybe he had. Maybe he wasn’t a man in the darkness. Maybe he was the darkness itself. Ephemeral and mysterious and tempting — so much more tempting than daylight, where flaws and marks and failure shone bright and impossible to miss.

The darkness had always tempted her. The locks. The barriers. The impossible.

That was the problem, wasn’t it? Rey always wanted the impossible. And she was not the kind of woman who received it.

But when that mysterious man had suggested that she was a woman of consequence. For a moment, she believed him. As though it wasn’t laughable, the very idea that Ramona Plutt — ice queen, unmarried daughter, because of her own mind and opinions and hard life, coming from the wrong side of the tracks and wrecked home life, and properly unfit for this world.

The impossible.

So she’d fled, returning to her old habits and stumbling into the darkness than the cold, harsh light.

And he’d seemed to know that, too, the stranger. Enough that she almost hadn’t left him in the shadows. Enough that she’d almost joined him there. Because in those few, fleeting moments, she had wondered if perhaps if it wasn’t this world she wished to return to, but a new, dark glittering world where she might begin anew. Where she might be someone other than Ramona Plutt, mask of venom, someday to be caught in her own net of emotions. And the man in the alley had seemed the kind of man to provide just that.

Which was mad, obviously. You didn’t run off with strange men you met in alleyways. First off, that was how a person got murdered. And second, Uncle would not approve. And then there was Luke, poor Luke stuck with Sheev and probably wondering where she’d disappeared to.

And so she did what you do after a mad moment in the dark; she’d turned her back and made for the light, ignoring the pang of regret as she turned the corner of the great marble facade and slipped into her seat beyond the massive stage.

She watched for a long moment, catching a glimpse of Amilyn as she brought her strip to a blistering end. The stage was plunged into darkness. Then the voice she heard earlier sang to her again. He was a rather melancholy man with a droll sense of humor. A face, in itself, that wasn’t funny, but he made his presence one of the funniest in burlesque. They called him Kylo Ren — the Silver Hades, the King of Deadpan. Every bit of it earned.

She took up the phonebook, running her finger down the long list of names, found Benjamin Solo. She was immediately connected with his hotel and made a date for twelve noon. That would give her plenty of time to gather her mental forces. She needed it for her mind was befuddled and her head was throbbing. What a relief it would be when they could see each other in the daylight and he was out of makeup.

She passed into the bathroom, looking into the full length mirror inserted in the door. One thing about Florida living, it saved you nighties. She chuckled. Provided if one slept chastely alone as she had done on this, her first night. Critically she inspected her nymph-like, svelte figure, tanned and rosy, thrusting back her shoulders, so that her perfectly rounded breasts stared at her invitingly. Her her hands slid down her torso while she looked at her tiny waist, her fingers touching the velvety taut skin of her abdomen, running down the delicate curve of her hips. With a feeling of pleasure she discovered that her knees dimpled, her perfectly straight, slim legs grew into tiny ankles. Now if I only had a G-string, she thought, I could practice taking it off. She started to twist and rotate her hips, trying bumps and grinds, at the same time keeping the upper part of her anatomy rigid. She decided she looked rather awkward and needed supervised practice. Instruction from Amilyn, although not too unwelcome, seemed in order and necessary. With distaste she looked at her extremely naked face. As of this afternoon she would start working on her painting routine.

While standing under the cold needles of the shower she went over the events of the past night. It hadn’t been too easy to get rid of Sheev who had insisted on showing her his suite at the Black Spire. He had even included Amilyn and Luke in his invitation, hoping, as she guessed, to keep her with him after they’d leave. But Luke had settled that.

All of them, Amilyn, Sheev, Luke and herself, had gathered in the bar after Amilyn’s last show. Luke had to shake innumerable hands and say countless good nights to hilarious customers. Rey kept watching Amilyn who was worthwhile looking at. She appeared strikingly, devastatingly alluring in a low-cut, flame colored crepe gown baring the better part of her teardrop breasts. Her lavender hair swung and shifted about her perfect shoulders, and the violet eyes formed a piquant contrast to her hair.

“So you’re going to coach little Ramona,” Sheev’s voice was addressing her face, but his eyes were glued to the semi-globes temptingly displayed as fruit, ripe and ready to be plucked from the basket of her décolleté. “I envy you the job. May I be present at the first lesson?” His eyes squinted joyfully. “I could hold Ramona up in case she stumbles.”

“That would be out of character for you,” Sheev,” Amilyn’s eyes mocked. “Nothing you’d like better than a pretty girl stumbling into your lap.”

“You are unique, Amilyn,” he seemed flattered and his eyes were hot. “How did I ever let you go?” he sighed.

“You didn’t let me go,” corrected Amilyn’s icy voice. “You dropped me right on my fanny, going nuts over that diamondback, Bazine. Remember, or is it too painful?”

Apparently it was a memory painful to his vanity for Sheev turned to Rey. “Don’t believe everything she says, sweet child. Besides, she has been too wrapped up in Luke to know about my latest love which is dead. Died the minute I laid eyes on you.”

He’s positively repulsive, thought Rey, watching his blood-shot eyes, the flabby mouth, feeling his hand running up her arm. Rey knew Luke was watching and moved her arm so that his hand dropped away.

“Luke, darling, I feel a bit tired,” Amilyn raised demanding eyes to his, “shall we go? I have my cat outside. There’s some delicious cold chicken in my refrigerator just waiting to be eaten.”

Luke however, had his eyes on another chicken, his blue eyes were on Rey’s face. “I think I better see Rey to her hotel,” he said calmly. “Then I have to see Ben about some business. Sheev will take you home, Amilyn. He knows where you live.” There was naked malice in his voice and in his eyes as he said this.

Amilyn’s eyes had narrowed and her face hardened, she looked fiercely maternal in that second gesture. She nodded, but Sheev spoke anyway.

“Who cares who brings her home?” he said lightly. “I suggest that no one go home. You may repair to suite 208 at the Black Spire. There will be catering to all of your tastes, Scotch, Bourbon, Rye, and what have we.” He looked at Amilyn whose face was blank, looked at Luke, his eyes finally imploring Rey. “Is it a deal?” He pressed Rey’s hand which lay in her lap.

Rey was annoyed. “I have an early brunch appointment,” she stated. Sunday brunch with the comic, heehee. “Let’s make it some other time, Sheev.” Sheev’s face fell.

“Rey must be tired,” said Luke. “She had a rather full first evening in Batuu.”

“That goes twice for me. I’m having my numbed feet soaked in hot water, after which they will be rubbed in olive oil. After all, I gave four performances.” Her expectant look wasn’t lost on Luke.

“Well, shall we start moving?” he asked getting up and stepping behind Rey who arose, saying sweetly, “Thanks, and goodnight,” to the amused Amilyn and letdown Sheev. She followed Luke to the exit of the now deserted bar.

“Hey,” hollered Sheev after them, “Ramona, I don’t even know where you’re staying.”

“If you’re interested enough you’ll find out,” she called back the comic’s words, slipping through the vestibule out into the moon-glazed night.

It was one of those nights only Florida is able to offer, with the huge silver coin of the moon suspended on a chain of stars in the velvety sky. It turned the night almost into day, luminously outlining every tree and every house. The palm trees along the fence looked like giant dark plumes, and a bluish, ghostly light showed Rey every pebble in the road, every blade of grass. She looked at Luke’s strong profile, noticing his strange smile.

“It is beautiful. Never have I seen a better and bigger moon. Not even in the desert. And the air is a caress. I never even dreamed it could exist.” He took her arm, steering her toward his car. “Tired?” he asked, and for the first time Rey detected a paternal tone in his voice. Did the old man have tender feelings after all, she wondered, getting into the car?

“I’m more bewildered than tired,” she answered as he slid behind the wheel and started the motor. They drove along the road and Rey watched the magic landscape.

“How do you like Ben, my nephew?” he broke the silence.

The question was not easy to answer. “I do like him, and I admire his act. He’s,” Rey was searching for the words to describe how the tall man with magnetic eyes, yet possessing a solemn quality that suggested an old soul living deep inside, impressed her, “he’s atomic, vital, and very intriguing. And beautiful. But so very emotional.” She stated the latter as if it were a fatal shortcoming.

“And that is where you beat him,” he chuckled softly. “For you are not emotional. We are rather alike in this respect,” he added. “I cannot stand actors dripping with sentiment; they delight in demonstrations of affection, create scenes, and have tantrums. More trouble than they are worth.”

Rey sensed he was referring to Ben, and for one moment she felt sorry for the boy who seemed caught in the web of his emotions, bound to be hurt by this cool, unfeeling man. But of the two it was Luke she understood and resembled better. In fact, she resembled him a lot.

“You’re going to have Sheev on your hands,” Luke laughed. “He will go to no end to get you. He’s worthwhile dallying with.” He threw her a sidelong glance. “That is, if you feel so inclined. His infatuations are costly to him and they’re short-lived. Ask any of the girls, they can give you all the gory details.”

“I don’t think I need any information. I have his number. In case I decide yes, he’ll have to work for it.”

“Smart girl. Am I at liberty to give him your phone number?” inquired Luke calmly. “He’ll pester me for it, first thing in the morning.”

“Better not. Make him come to the Grand Theatre.” She smiled. “You can use suckers — er, customers like him.”

They were back on the beach and Rey lost herself in the serene beauty of the night.

“I gather you’ll have to see your uncle and get that catching up business started,” said Luke, stopping the car in front of her hotel. “Also, you’ll need a few cottony dresses and such.” He took out his wallet and Rey’s eyes grew round seeing the wad of bills in it. “This is just an advance on my investment in you, on your salary.” He tended her two hundred dollar bills. I take it you are interested in the job.”

“Thank you, Luke. You’re the most thoughtful person ever.” She took the bills quickly, afraid he would change his mind, stuffing them in her bag. “And, I am interested in working for you. I hope I won’t cause any complications — between you and Ben,” she added.

“Don’t you worry your pretty head about that. I’ll keep Ben in line.” His voice sounded cold as ice. “He’s a rather possessive pupil and I can’t be possessed, at least not for too long.”

“That much I guessed,” she giggled. “And that’s again where we are alike. I shall call up my uncle and try to see him in the morning. After that, thanks to you, I can indulge in a little shopping spree.”

“Good. I suppose you’ll be back at your hotel at four. I’ll arrange with Amilyn and the girls to start the instructions before they go on.”

“I shall be here. And,” she took her lovely stole, laying it on the back of the seat, “you better deliver this with my thanks.”

She got out of the car, closed the door and looked at his sharply outlined features. “I do hope our working together will be successful.”

“I hardly ever make a mistake in my investments,” the ghost of a smile softened his features, “and in this case I feel sure I picked a winner.” His eyes held hers, warm and ardent. “Good night, sweet dreams.”

He started the motor and she stepped away, watching the long blue car roll smoothly away.

… Rey stepped out of the shower, rubbing her skin to a glowing pink with the big Turkish towel. And now what to wear to duly impress the couturier? The sun was shining and it was warm, almost hot. The high-necked, flowered crepe gown would have to do. And, not too much makeup. Fully dressed, Rey surveyed herself critically in the mirror, finding she looked austere enough for the eyes of her boss’ associate.

During the cab ride she enjoyed the picturesque skyline all over again. Traffic was brisk, but in less than fifteen minutes she was in Merchant’s Row, riding up to the top and fifth floor of the Jewels of Bith building.

“Miss Gardner, I presume. From behind the fortress of her massive counter, cool brown eyes behind horn-rimmed glasses tried to sum up all of her in one glance. She nodded, feeling rather uncomfortable in high shoes. “I have here a detailed list and message from my colleague, Mr. Luke Skywalker, asking me to remake your look. We will find you something compatible.” She wondered what exactly that meant, not wanting to ask. She was saying, “Mr. Skywalker is broadminded enough not wanting to cast any impressions that might prove harmful to your future.” The way she looked at her told her that she believed her future was to be in lights.

Rey complied with all of his suggestions, leaving her address and phone number for the deliveries. After fifteen minutes that seemed fifteen eternities to her, she stepped out into the bright sunshine, dismissing the whole affair from her thoughts.

She walked along Ubaat Street, feasting her eyes on the displays and after two hours delightfully spent in selecting and buying Southern wear, she had seventy-five dollars less, but lots to show for it.

Back in her room, she unwrapped her purchases and consulted her watch. 10:30. She’d have time for a swim. She pulled off the hot-looking dark crepe gown, peeled off her underwear, donning the new black bikini suit. I’m almost stripped now, she reflected, gazing at the tiny bra, and more revealing than covering what it was supposed to hide, the scanty scanties, their lacy sides showing her pink skin. The new beach towel on her arm, suntan lotion and rubber cap in the huge rubber bag, she left the hotel through the bathers’ exit, crossing the street.

Her feet made contact with the hot sand; joyfully she ran down to the water’s edge, looking in frank delight at the emerald expanse of water, watching white-crested breakers rolling ashore forming a lacy pattern at her feet. Way out, a tanker was gliding slowly along, and tiny sailboats danced on the waves. Bronzed figures reclining under beach umbrellas animated the long stretch of fawn-colored sand, and the endless line of hotels rose into the silky dome of the sky.

Rey sat down on the huge towel, anointing herself with lotion. Fifteen minutes exposure on each side, no more, Mr. Oh had advised. She donned her sunglasses, stretched out on her back and closed her eyes, feeling the hot rays caressing her limbs. She relaxed and let her thoughts drift, visualizing herself as the Golden Farceur. She turned over, keeping her eyes on the clock in the tower of the Ariana Hotel; she couldn’t afford a sunburn.

She arose, running to meet the onrushing breakers full force and unafraid, and she would meet life and circumstances.

Chapter Text

At exactly noon Rey’s phone rang. It was Ben calling from the lobby. She was still in her bikini suit, shoulders and legs anointed with the lotion.

“Hi Rey, ready?”

“Oh Ben, I’m having a miserable time — too much sun.”

“I’m coming right up, I’ll fix that.”

Before she could answer he hung up. And why not, she thought, walking to the mirror to comb her hair? He would soon see her with less on, but not with much less on, she giggled, proceeding to hang her new dresses up in the closet, then tidying the bedspread. She dashed into the bathroom and sprayed her self with Chypre.There was a knock at her door. Never would she permit any man to come in to her place without knocking, she thought, recalling how Luke had entered Amilyn’s dressing room without ado.

“Come in,” she called.

He closed the door softly, his eyes on her in open admiration.

“I came at the right time to really look over my uncle’s investment,” he chuckled. “Nice, very nice. Turn around.” Slowly She pirouetted, arms raised. “Hm, you do look rather lobsterish.” He stepped close, his fingers touching her shoulder lightly. “I don’t think you’ll peel. Let me.”

He went to the dresser, wadding some Kleenex into a ball, came over and removed the lotion. “Now, does that burn?”

She shook her head. “I just feel hot.” Realizing the implication in her words, she blushed.

He laughed. “You hot? Never. You’re my little iceberg number. And now, let me see your new dresses.”

She brought out the four dresses, holding them up, one after the other.

“Hm, very pretty and dainty. I like your taste. I suggest you wear this one.” He pointed to a green, crisp cotton. “After your lesson I may take you out to dinner. Alone. I worked the dice at Froffitch’s Poolroom.”

“If you sit down in the comfortable chair, I won’t be long.”

She deposited the dresses on the bed, took the one of his choice and went into the bathroom, taking underwear with her, light green, foamy nylon things to match the color of the dress.

The bikini suit was on the floor and she was bending down to pick it up.

“Ah, lovely, very lovely.” She straightened and turned forgetting she was naked, feeling Ben’s hungry eyes looking at her delicious form. “I am a curious man, Rey,” his voice held a new huskiness, “and I have to gratify that urge.”

“Well, do I pass?” Shamelessly she threw back her shoulders, feeling his eyes concentrating on her taut breasts. Excitement quivered through her as she saw the gleam of desire in his dark eyes. She held her body rigid, green, cool eyes on him. His hands reached for her but laughingly she retreated.

“Look, but don’t touch. I have to get ready for my lesson.”

Ben stared at her face, saw her cold eyes and smiled. “Sorry, I was carried away. I can bide my time. And I have an idea when the time is right, we’ll be very close, very intimate friends, Rey.”

I have the same idea, she thought, but aloud she said, “Let’s just wait and see. You’ve got your hands full with…” and she smirked and let her gaze slide down his body to his crotch again, “the show.”

His brows knitted and he went to sit down in the other room, radiating with the blue tinge of glandular congestion.

I can get him whenever I want him, she thought. And she did want him, like no other man. And she might give him her body in return for his patience and sensitivity, she reflected, slipping into the lace-edged panties, fastening the matching bra. Was it so terrible to have those feelings about a boy? No nice girl did. The half slip, entirely pleated, showing the contour of her lovely legs through the filmy material. The dress matched the color of her eyes. It was a strapless number, billowed about her calves. She put on the new purple sandals showing off her arched instep. No stockings. She walked into the room, posing for him.

“Like it?”

“You look so utterly deceivingly fragile, like a Dresden doll. Like a twelve-year-old. You may get me in trouble, fooling with minors,” he joked.

“We aren’t fooling yet,” she challenged. “Shall we go?”

He arose, while she threw necessary beauty aids into her purple bag. As she turned he stood close to her, his eyes compelling.

“Rey, I’m given to sentiment. I’m not like you — cool, calm and self-possessed. And you do things to a man.” His arms were about her waist, and his lips came down on her hard. His teeth teased agreeably. She liked the kiss; if left her breathlessly exhilarated. Abruptly he let go of her. “And now, shall we be on our way?”

He opened the door which she locked and in silence they went down to his car.

They crossed Docking Bay 9 Causeway and drove down the wide, tree-lined boulevard. Amilyn lived right on Bakaar. He stopped in front of a luxurious apartment house. Ravenstar Apartments was printed in white letters on the blue marquee.

The ornate lobby was done in varying shades of green; the self-service elevator took them to the third-floor. Ben rang the buzzer of the second door to the right. The door was immediately opened by “Barely” Bazine Netal.

“Come on in and join the wingding.” Her huge eyes devoured Ben, then flicked over Rey. “Oh, I see you brought Amilyn’s pupil along. Nice.”

Rey was surprised how a person’s voice could variate from cooing to being icy in just two sentences. Ben remained standing near the door, his face blank.

There was a warm chorus of: “Hi, Ren!”

“Hullo, ladies!”

“Won’t you sit down, sugar?” invited Amilyn. “Mix yourself a drink. You know where the makings are.”

Rey chose the nearest chair, an angular, modernistic piece of furniture, matching the ultra-modern pieces of the very spacious living room. She’d inspect the premises later, she decided, concentrating, clenching her jaw ever so slightly, on Bazine who looked voluptuously appealing. Her hair fell in glossy ripples down to her shoulders, and her dark red chiffon housecoat hung open, revealing black, spidery scanties and a soupçon of a black lacy bra through which her rosy skin flirted. Her lips, her black eyes, her body invited; but Ben was not interested.

“I better run along. You girls will be busy,” he said. “I’ll pick up Rey in about an hour and a half. You show her the ropes, Aunt Am.”

His hand was on the door knob. Bazine moved close to him, her tempting body brushing his shirt.

“I still can't believe it. Where did you get those magnificent eyes?”

“That’s stupid, Baz. They came with the head.”

“Alright honey, as you say.” She offered her lips and Rey knew, Bazine wanted her to know that Ben was hers. But Ben moved his head away, patting her cheek.

“You better get down to business, Baz.” Quickly he opened the door and slipped out.

Bazine frowned and her mouth hardened. “Well,” she turned, looking at Rey. “Ren’s all business. We might as well start. I better fortify myself.”

While Bazine and the rest of the girls busied themselves with their drinks, Rey looked around. Yes, that was the kind of place she would have. And soon. The walls, drapes and the soft carpet spanning the floor from wall to wall, were all soft shades of gray. There were low, glass-topped tables and a few bold landscapes graced the walls. Flowers everywhere.

“This is a lovely room,” she said, “so spacious and light.”

“Come and see the rest of the place, honey,” invited Amilyn, preceding her into the huge bedroom, all done in blue. The extremely wide, low bed was opened and Rey noticed the pale blue sheets. A wide couch of deeper shade of blue stood along one wall, smothered with many-colored cushions. The curtains were drawn. Bathing the place in mellow half-light.

“This is the bathroom,” said Amilyn and Rey peaked into the black-tiled space. “And this door leads into the kitchen and dinette. There’s another entrance from the kitchen. Good to have,” she laughed, “if you need to duck the shamuses.”

Rey wondered how many times Amilyn had to expedite through that convenient door. Amilyn was plenty shrewd. But being in love makes her soft and feminine, reflected Rey.

“You better take off that pretty dress. Here,” from the bottom dresser drawer Amilyn brought out two black G-strings and two diminutive bras, handing her one set. “Put these on, I’ll do likewise. And we can start practicing.”

Amilyn stepped to a little table, opened the phonograph cabinet and started a record. It was. Tanga. Rey knew that tune well. She started taking off her things. Then, as Amilyn appeared out of the bathroom in G-string and bra, the instructions began.

Rey was awkward, and after thirty minutes ready to sit down. But Amilyn and the girls insisted. “No, no, your movement, all the life of your body must be centered in your hips. Forget you have a spine or shoulders, just rotate. See, like this.”

Rey and the girls watched Amilyn’s wiggling body, her breasts spilling out of the tiny receptacle, her hand flat on her navel, to show Rey how her tummy moved and her buttocks joined in accord.

“Come here, angel, put your hand on my belly button. Keep it still, now, feel my movements.”

Rey’s cool palm felt the contact of the satin-smooth skin, moving faster and faster. Amilyn’s epidermis emanated heat which imparted itself to Rey’s body who was overcome by a strange dizziness. Amilyn’s breasts bounced in rhythm with her hips, touching Rey’s face who couldn’t keep her eyes off those luscious grapes of flesh. You felt an odd desire to touch them, to feel the satiny flesh. Their eyes were on Rey’s slim form hardly covered by a tiny velvet bra; a strip of black velvet G-string ran around her hips centered by a black daisy. All eyes were on that daisy and they were hot.

“You’re some kid, you’re a honey,” her voice was a hoarse whisper. “No wonder you caught my godson’s eye. That hair! He wanted to touch it, first time he laid eyes on you, he confided to his ole auntie.” Her hand ran over the caramely foam of Rey’s hair, her violet eyes ardent and demanding. “You see, you got to get some passion into those.” Now her hand lay on Rey’s slim hip, moving lightly up and down in a soft caress.

Rey’s eyes were almost black. This was a new experience for her. She was curious just how far these girls would go.

“Are you made out of wood? Haven’t you got any passion in you? Wake up and live, kid!” Amilyn’s arms went about her waist and Rey’s lips were parted by her artful tongue. She searched for moisture in her mouth. Swallowed hard. Slowly wet her dry lips.

Rey allowed Amilyn to lead her to the couch; she stretched out and her eyes grew round watching the other girls throw out their hips provocatively.

“See, that’s the way to get them going.” Her hands fumbled with the bra which she now held in her raised hand. Another quick move and the G-string fell to the floor, leaving Amilyn triumphant and unclothed, smiling eyes on Rey who stared fascinated at the lovely tempting fruit. Amilyn laughed throatily, bending over Rey. Their skins made contact. Amilyn led brigade all the way — all the way.

They knew how to extract the most excitement, they played on the human body like virtuosos, and their hands held strange magic. Rey felt agreeably stirred up, then soothed, and finally appeased. So, that was that. Now she knew!

Slowly she disengaged herself from Amilyn’s protective arms, arose, and adjusted her practice costume. Amilyn lay on the couch with the others, arms outstretched — waiting. But Rey put the needle on the record and started Tanga. Slowly she began rotating her midriff.

Eyes widened in disbelief, Amilyn staring at her. Finally Bazine sat up, fury in her eyes.

“So the lady’s been waited on, she’s satisfied. And what about me?” She came over to Rey, taking her by the shoulders and shaking her. “Ain’t I good enough for him? Ain’t I good enough to try? Ain’t I beautiful enough to appeal?”

Contempt was in Rey’s green eyes, her voice was icy. “Come on, Bazine, let’s go on with the instructions.”

Amilyn’s face grew purple, her mouth contorted into a vicious line. Suddenly, her hand shot out and she grabbed Bazine around the waist. Then, in almost the same motion, she turned her across her outstretched lap as she slid under Bazine and sat herself down on the couch.

Amilyn solidified her hold in the small of the back, clamping Bazine down and embedding her in a vice. Then she began slapping her with her free hand, rapidly and crisply, across her buttocks. First one side and then the other. Red marks from Amilyn’s fingers appeared straight across Bazine’s bare, soft white flesh. The sharp sting brought tears to the girl’s eyes.

Amilyn now paused to rant, “You third-rate Jezebel. You ought to be more careful with who you try to pick up. Ben would never fall for a wicked, vapid face like yours.” Her voice rose to a shrill crescendo as she began slapping at Bazine’s hips again, giving her another rapid and crisp volley of blows.

Bazine tried to squirm herself loose off of Amilyn’s lap, kicking her legs frantically up and down, but to no avail, as the other woman’s grip was one of steel. Bazine was crying fully now.

Amilyn had paused once again to chant: “It’s not blood rolling in your veins, it’s venom. Amilyn gave her another dozen slaps, provoking Bazine’s crying to become more pronounced and anguished.

“... Lemme tell you something, dear girl,” Amilyn’s voice has become matter-of-fact now. “You’ll never please any red-blood he-man. Sure they’ll fall for your pretty ‘Snake Charms.’ But when they hold you in their arms, what will they have — a black heart! But I’ll skin you, you little bitch.” Amilyn was snarling again. “I’ll cut you into fine strips. I’ll roll you in batter and French fry you to perfection, I’ll wear you as a belt and boots.” Then Amilyn gave Bazine still another volley of blows, delivering them harder and more furious than ever, putting the full weight of her powerful shoulder behind every single delivery.

Bazine’s crying changed to almost-screams. Her hips were entirely enveloped with a livid coat of red. She was in such excruciating agony, that she actually felt as if she was French-fried just Amilyn had promised her she would be; as though some furious serrated blade had been heating in a fire or furnace and scraped on her soft, bare white hips. It burned something awful.

It must have been several full minutes that Amilyn kept this up before she finally stopped. When she did, she gave Bazine a push which sent her catapulting onto the rug. Bazine emitted a scream as the tender, sore area came into such sharp, sudden contact with the hard floor, which was not cushioned adequately as the rug was very thin.

“... And now, you’d better get yourself up from there and get out,” said Amilyn peremptorily. “And there’ll be no more hospitality from me either. Get yourself another snack.”

Bazine continued to sit where she was, sobbing, tears coming down her cheeks in a steady stream of rivulets.

“You heard me,” screeched the berserk Amilyn. “You’d better get yourself up from off there and get the hell out of here, before you catch the same thing all over again — only worse.”

Bazine, with much effort, managed to do as she was told. Amilyn threw open the door wide, pushing Bazine bodily out of the door into the kitchen, throwing the girl’s dress and underwear after her. Amilyn slammed the bedroom door closed and thoroughly bewildered Bazine picked up her things. As quickly as she could, she got dressed and left the apartment, holding and rubbing her blazing bottom, hoping makeup would hide the black and blue marks she was certain would appear later.

Who would defend her now? And what to tell Luke, she wondered. Lie and say she was drunk? And why not? Knowing Amilyn, Luke would believe her. Amilyn was a wonderful stripper, but not the only one. She, Bazine, would out-strip Amilyn, and Rey, and all of them, she told herself. She hated the vile girl. She had allowed those unsavory hands and lips to caress Ren, just to find out. Well, she had found out; it had meant a little more than something to her.

Yes, she could do without Amilyn’s friendship very well. She’d never forgive her for walloping her bottom so. She’d pay her back were it hurt most. And where it would hurt the most was Luke and Ren! She would take them away from Amilyn, and then she would just laugh at her. It wouldn’t be hard to do. Ren was falling for the girl’s passionless restraint and conservatism anyway.

The more she thought about it, the more the idea appealed to her. A girl had to be nice to the boss’ nephew, it always paid off. In her case it would pay off big. Besides, the thought of Grummgar making love to her seemed rather attractive.

She had been walking down the three stories and found herself in the spacious lobby now. She sat down on the comfortable couch, deciding to wait for Grum right there; although it was the most difficult thing she had to do under the circumstances.

Chapter Text

“Okay, Ben, let’s go.”

Just as the excitement wore down, they whisked out the back door and Ben tore the door of the black, low-slung car open. The car he still had installments on. She slipped in and he closed the door, walking around to the other side. He got behind the door and started the engine; they were off.

Rey leaned back in the leather-upholstered seat, drawing a deep breath. She rolled down the window and let the cool evening breeze fan about her cheeks.

His powerful hand came down on her thigh, crushing the crisp freshness of the dainty material and through it she felt the heat of his palm. It was pleasant to her; she liked to be exciting, to test her powers and in the end, use it to her own ends. But now it didn’t leave her cold.

“Where are we going?” she inquired, moving closer so his hand didn’t drop on the leather seat.

“I know a nice spot, it’s an inn in the hills, a hotel. They have a cute bar there, also a hot band. Sleepytime Inn is the name. Okay?”

“I’m not exactly sleepy but it’s okay by me.”

They were on narrow, rutted country road and Ben had to concentrate on driving.

Rey made up her mind quickly. Now was as good a time and opportunity as any to experiment with the facts of life. She took in Ben’s strong profile, the jutting jaw, and her eyes remained on his powerful hands on the wheel. She wouldn’t mind too much for those hands to fondle her. There had to be a first time, a first experience with a first comic. And a smart girl chose her partner smartly. And Ben had just won six dollars in a crap game. Just money enough for dinner. And that’s where she was heading. Her mind was all made up. Had been made up for quite some time. The contraceptive Amilyn gave her to protect Luke’s best interest was in place. Palm trees, moonlight, and under each palm tree a millionaire. But mostly, there would be Ben! One hundred and ninety pounds of muscle and sex appeal. Not bad. And he didn’t even have a clue. Yes, she concluded her reverie. Ben would do nicely for a beau.

“You know Rey, they have lovely cabins there; they are really more like quaint villas. We could…”

“You mean, spend the night.” She concluded the sentence. “Well,” slowly, deliberately, the thick fringe of lashes came down over her eyes. “I must say, you’re rather direct.”

“I’m sorry,” his voice was apologetic. “I didn’t mean to insult you. It’s just that I want to have you all to myself.”

“You do, do you?” And now the unfathomable green eyes were on him and he almost drove the car into a tree; he had to swerve abruptly to the left. The jolt threw her against him. He stopped the car on the shoulder of the road and quick as a flash, his arms were about her fragile waist. His desire-swollen lips made contact with her mouth.

She held quite still, feeling his lips open and his hot tongue pressing against the portal of her teeth. Listening to his choked breathing, feeling his hand cupping her left breast, she was melting and waking. Waking into an experience of sensation, a feeling of excitement. And then it happened. Bolts of lightning shattered through her body. Liquid fire burning through her veins. It burned and snaked through her body until it reached her heart and stopped it. She let him play with her lips, allowed him to fondle her, feeling his excitement, the quickening of his pulses.

“Rey, you’re wonderful. You’re driving me out of my mind. Rey, darling,” his black eyes compelled her gaze, “do you like me, a little bit? I know I’m going to love you.”

I know it too, thought Rey. Because I’ll let you. Let you possess me and I know I can drive you mad. It will please me to do so. And I’ll go all the way. A sweet feeling of victory was swirling in her.

“Rey,” he shook her shoulders, “your eyes look so big and scared. I just asked you, do you love me a tiny, little bit?”

“Silly, of course I do — that’s why you’re so dangerous. Playing post office isn’t a kid’s game anymore. For what other reason would a girl be willing to spend the night with a young man?” she asked, making it quite clear to him that she would.

“Darling!”

His stormy embrace was ruinous to her; it worried Rey. And she must, first thing, phone Amilyn and let her, someone, know not to go to the police department at three in the morning or check any morgues. Yes, that would make it okay. She didn’t have to know what she was doing, and with whom — though, it wasn’t a hard guess — just letting her know that she was alright. Then she’d call Rose, just in case…

He started the car rolling, and Rey’s thoughts were rambling, plunging into the future, for she was on her way to an exciting unveiling — her own!

Chapter Text

Ben made good on his promise of showing Rey an exciting time on a shoestring. They imbibed a great many Grasshopper ice cream cocktails concocted by Cookie, the bartender and psychological consultant of the various inebriated stooges frequenting the tiny, very dark bar. From there they graduated to the candle-lit dining room of the Sleepytime hostelry being served cheeseburgers in style.

And now Rey looked dazed, feeling the bottom of her stomach drop after a mixture of beer, Grasshopper cocktails and Burgundy wine.

“Coffee will help,” advised Ben, pouring some into her demitasse.

“I feel like drowning,” Rey chuckled. “My tummy has been fed so much liquid. Let’s walk a bit, fresh air might help.”

“Watch out for that spilled beer.” He drew back and picked her up in his arms.

The whole time she sucked on his neck. “Thank you.”

They passed through the tall French doors out onto the wide terrace overlooking the dark hills. There was a full moon inking out the indentated outline of the hills. The air was delightfully pure and cool and the slight breeze made the branches of the old trees sigh. After walking for some minutes along a well-kept, wide road, Rey ventured to take a long deep breath and felt she would live and enjoy life. She looked up at Ben who was silently trotting by her side showing her his rather stubborn profile. She took his arm.

“And now you are miles away, Ben. Dreaming?” Her voice was softly caressing. She wanted him to look at her, she wanted him to get stirred up.

He turned his head abruptly, his hands coming down on her shoulders hard, preventing her from walking ahead.

“I was dreaming, Rey. A wonderful dream of the future, our future.” His eyes, in the clear light of the moon, looked ardent. “Rey, I have never played around ever. There were many insinuating invitations to become a gigolo. In other words, a kept man.” He spat savagely, as if to clear his mouth of a bad taste. “Some promised fine homes, servants, all the money I could spend; in short, the same promises that wealthy old men sometimes proffer pretty young girls. In both cases, the older ideas are similar. Some girls accept the old men’s invitations; others do not. Some comics yield to the promises of loaded old dames; I did not. I refused all such viscous propositions because I posses an inborn respect for myself. I earn an honest living. My principal objection to gigolos is that they abuse masculinity. Man was put on earth to work and provide for his woman. When he shirks his duty and leans on her for support, he misuses his purpose and his self-respect goes into the discard. I like my self-respect. But for some reason or other, with you I want to play. I want you for keeps.”

Rey smiled, thinking, that’s very good my boy, for I not only want to play. I want to play ‘what I want I take’ and after that you’re mine.

“I’m touched by your sentiment, Ben.” Much as she tried she couldn’t keep the lyrical tone out of her voice. “But no hasty promises, please. Let’s just see how we appeal to each other.”

“Baby, I don’t have to see, I know, I can feel it in every bone of my body.” His arms crushed her against his chest as she felt his trembling.

“Let’s turn in wherever we’re going to turn in,” she proposed, “it’s too cool out here.”

She knew Ben had made arrangements with the desk clerk when she had gone to powder her nose, right before they had started for the bar.

Thus she was by no means surprised when he flashed a key, taking her arm and leading her to one of the Moorish style bungalows peeking out of green bushes like cubes of Turkish honey. Rey counted twelve of them. She saw Ben’s long, black car parked under the porte-cochère of bungalow number thirteen, noticing at the same that all other bungalows, ranged in a semi-circle, had cars parked below the side arch. They were certainly doing a lot of sleeping at the Sleepytime Inn. The thought made her chuckle.

Ben, busy inserting the key in the lock of the number thirteen, turned to her, startled. “What’s so funny, Rey?” He seemed in a serious mood.

“Oh, it’s just that a lot of other couples seem to have the same idea, how to spend a pleasant night at Sleepytime Inn.” Her eyes twinkled wickedly.

She followed Ben into the tiny entrance hall of the bungalow, watching him lock the door from the inside. He snapped on the light switch and took her arm, leading her into what was the main room.

“Like it?” He watched her face to see her reaction.

“Why, it’s charming, Ben; they certainly did a lot of interior decorating to make the place appealing.”

As if it were needed, she thought, her eyes flicking over the rose-colored stucco walls. The rose color scheme was carried all the way through, including the drapes, rug and the cover on the extremely low, extremely wide bed. The whole place looked like a rose-colored bonbon, she concluded. She watched Ben switch off the ceiling light and now only the rose-shaded bed lamp was bathing the place in an intimate, cozy glow. As if all that were needed, she thought. The couples who came here to spend the night, one night mostly, she felt sure, were colorblind; blind to anything but each other’s charms. Yes, all that was really needed was a nice, big bed. And a bathroom, she concluded, passing through the open door in and up-to-the-minute equipped, black-tiled bathroom.

It would feel awkward in the morning, she thought, looking across at the long killer-diller coat with a drape shape and wide shoulders; voluminous pants with reet-pleats, billowing out at the knees, tightly tapered and pegged at the ankles; a porkpie hat; pointed, thick-soled shoes; and a long, dangling keychain. It took the idea of a suit and stretched it almost to caricature. In one way it was a practical garment. A regular suit would have been too confining for the gymnastic movies of swing and jitterbug. The roomy pants accentuated leg movement, and pegging them at the ankles meant that they didn’t get tangled with the clothes of other dancers. But by that time they would be on intimate enough territory for him to let her buy him a complete, brand new outfit, including a new suitcase, she decided. He would use it for their trips. She suppressed the thought of Uncle, he didn’t fit into the picture right now. Although, she chuckled, he would rather disapprove of Benjamin Solo as a first experience for her. Ben was a boy without a bank account!

She stepped up to the long mirror inserted in the door and took a good look at herself. This was the look before! She would also look at herself after, she decided. After she had become truly a woman. Her tiny hands went up to her hair, fluffing the silky mass about her tan face devoid of rouge. Her eyes looked curious and impertinent, daring to be shown anything that would surprise them overly.

She went into the other room to get the comb out of her handbag. That, and luckily her camel hair coat, she had picked up before the evening on this pleasure jaunt.

Ben turned to her. He had hung up his coat and loosened his tie. His open shirt showed smooth alabaster planes on his very manly chest.

“Darling!” He walked up to her, one arm about her waist and his right hand lifted up her chin as he gazed into her lovely face. “Are you sure you want this?” His voice was husky, treaded with emotion. He searched her eyes but they were not telling. “I care enough to wait — till after the wedding.”

Her brows went up and there was a surprised look in her eyes, divulging the workings of her mind. She looked at him soulfully, figuring quickly. This put a new angle to what she had intended to be just an incentive, a taste. If she married her practical joker now it would take a Zola to do justice to this story, to weave together all the human elements and highlight them as they should be highlighted by the supreme loyalty of one woman; Plutts confined themselves merely to the statement of facts. They were psychologically cold, hard and utterly ruthless. And they didn’t have the luxury of falling in love and throwing caution to the wind. For her own part, Rey strived to completely identify with that. She had been determined to entertain men with her body, but only as a means to achieve her own material ends. Inwardly, she was supposed to remain a cake of “brunette ice.” And now there was this dizzy affair. Uncle wouldn’t like that, she thought, already getting used to the idea. Mrs. Kylo Ren without a bank account, she knew, would receive a different reception than just plain Rey Gardner. But Ben would fight to give her happiness and security she missed in childhood.

“I want you to be happy, Rey. Above everything else I want you to have that sure sense of security in our home, that sense of peace and stability you missed so much in your childhood. Rey, darling, say you will consider.”

Ben’s brown eyes hung on her face, his arms crushed her to him as she offered her lovely, soft lips for his kiss that exhausted her, draining every ounce of strength from her slim body; a kiss that made him a trembling, desire-shaken boy, a kiss that meant to tell her of his love and adoration — a kiss that meant absolutely everything to her.

“Ben, my dear,” she disengaged her lips, “let me take a breath or I shall faint.”

“Forgive me, I’m sorry. I’m such a clumsy clod. And you’re so strong and fearless, like a little anthropophagus. Safety never felt so good.” His fingers ran lightly over her silky hair; it seemed to excite him even more. He had difficulty breathing and the gleam was there in his eyes now almost black.

“Let’s get comfortable,” suggested Rey. She was tired and decided whatever was going to take place was going to happen to her lying down. She danced on her feet all day at Amilyn’s. Well, if she married him she could at least get a foot rub whenever she pleased. That was important.

She picked up her bag and disappeared into the bathroom, intending to strip down by herself. His clumsy fingers might tear a strap and where would she be? In the door she turned, giggling.

“You better take off your things, Tarzan. It’s uncomfortable to climb trees in the jungle with all your gear hampering your movements.”

She took off the dainty dress, hanging it carefully over a chair. Then, in front of the mirror, she took off the nylon slip. The panties of flesh-colored lace molded the graceful curve of her thighs and she decided to let him take them off. The rose-colored satin bra was unhooked and hung over the back of a chair. And now, not with distaste anymore of her farmer’s tan but with glowing pleasure, she looked at her matching, evenly tanned breasts, firmly rounded. She cupped them in her hands, feeling of their weight. They’ll be worth their weight in gold, she decided, just the right size they were. She gazed at her wonderfully straight long legs, deciding to keep on the girdle beneath the panties; nyloned legs were so much more exciting. And now she was ready. Her lips smiled at her provocative reflection. This was before! The next time she looked at herself, it would be au naturel, and it would be after!...

He turned toward Rey, unbuckling his belt at the same time. But his fingers froze the moment he caught sight of her. She made his mouth water.

“Rey,” his hand caressed her buttocks,
a sight that ramped him up even more. “You’re magnificent.”

With that, brunette ice crumbled.

Ben took her face in his hands and kissed her tenderly. She responded, slowly at first, then hungrily. They caught on very quickly. He pushed her against the wall, pressing his body against hers. They groped at each other, tore at each other’s clothes. Ben found her. Bore into her. And she was dripping. Pounded her with gorgeous, sumptuous rhythms. Rey moaned and writhed. Poised between pleasure and impracticality. Until finally abandoning all thoughts of anything but now. She could feel the emotion pulsing between them. The table shuddered against the wall. As she was filled with pleasure, something crashed to the floor and shattered — a perfume bottle, as she’d find out later. Her hands clutched at his waist, his buttocks. She pulled him into her… and screamed, clasped by pure white light, wedged between his body and the wall, nowhere else to go.

For a long moment, Ben remained pressed against her, his eyes fixed on hers. He kissed her softly, intertwined his fingers with hers, and pulled her toward the bed.

She wavered, but with one more tug, she followed.

He tugged the comforter and sheets away. They stumbled in, ripping off what was left of their clothing, their hands, lips and tongues all over each other.

Ben threw Rey on the bed, kissing her neck, her breasts, touching her in ways she hadn’t touched herself. Then he was thrusting so hard that she could hardly contain him — he was plowing her, deep, groaning with abandon, and Rey was barreling towards the burst of light again.

Suddenly, Rey pushed him off. Confusion flashed across Ben’s face. But in the next instant, Rey thrust him down on his back and crawled on top, straddling him.

She made love to him with urgency. Ben groaned with pleasure, “Take it, Rey. Take it all…”

Then his body convulsed and lifted, filling her with a force she’d never felt before, and in a moment, her witless body was climaxing again, clasping hard around him, making her gasp and mew.

And now, it was after! It was five o’clock in the morning when Rey left Ben’s side, detaching herself gently from his arms possessive even in his sleep. She stood up in the greyness of dawn pulled back the cover to look at this boy, this man rather, whom she had permitted to be the first and only of what she surmised would be a sensational partnership.

She looked at the powerful, hard-muscled body abandoned in sleep, at the bulky chest covered with a scattering of dark, beauty marks that she had kissed rather agreeably, at the broad shoulders and the strong, straight legs. She had selected the right specimen or, rather, it had selected her. She suppressed an oncoming giggle, busy studying his face. He had a nice, boyish face, she decided, and her hands had liked the feel of his crisp, thick hair. She stepped up close, stared down at the shadowy, bluish lids with the thick, straight lashes. That full-lipped mouth had coaxed her alive several times. I cornered a slot machine, the big payoff, she thought, passing into the bathroom, switching on the light to look closely at every inch of herself after!

Her fingers touched a round, red mark on her thigh and she recalled how his face had looked in the agonized frenzy of taking her, his gasped, choked breathing, his trembling. It hadn’t hurt, or, just a tiny bit. And the back of her legs felt strained. Warmly she observed her green eyes, enormous and underscored by orangish crescents now. It had impressed her very much. And now she giggled. Yes, that was it, it had been an agreeable tickling sensation, making her feel light, as it freed of an excess of energy. It had been enticing, titillating very, and to a large extent, exciting. And it had profoundly touched her emotions. A dark horse had rushed past the grandstand in a sweeping triumph, she thought, wondering how she could have ever felt real excitement with any other man. Quickly she dismissed the thought from her mind. She stepped under the shower, her mind lucid, deciding on ultimate action, meaning probable marriage.

As she went to join the still sleeping Ben, she had planned it all to the tiniest detail.

Not now, but someday, would come the time to insure him. They would be married very soon or, she would tie him up with her beads and maul him until they were man and wife. On the square and legit. Then let his parents and Luke rave and rant. And then they would have to accept the faît accompli of their only precious son and nephew having married a penniless girl from the wrong side of the tracks. She felt real good now. Life was wonderful and simple and you could bend events to your will if you remained calm but there was nothing if the right man swept you overboard by silly emotion.

She joined Ben on the bed, her white arms went about his middle; her head rested on his shoulder. He moved slightly, half-asleep, his eyes remaining closed. But his arms found their way and his lips were on her hair. And in his dreams he was close to her as his following cataract of passion proved to her.

She clung to him tightly, letting him have his way with her, submitting to his stormy passion, offering her beautiful, slim body to this onslaught — giving her heart, her mind, her feelings, all of which became a thing fused, familiar and tangible, not to be shared, strictly his!

Chapter Text

“We better leave, Benji. I can’t be late for my debut.” Enticingly she smiled into his hooded eyes, watching his big, bulging frame occupying the best part of the wide bed. Firmly but gently she detached her slim-curved form from the grip of his arms, standing up and stretching.

“Baby, come back to your Benji,” he pulled her back down, and with amazement she noticed his renewed vigor. Twice in one afternoon was amazing for a man of his inexperience, she thought.

“Benji,” she begged, “I have to get some rest.”

“You can rest right here,” he chuckled, his avid eyes on her delectable form. “You can rest after,” he promised, his wet lips sealed her mouth. The closeness of his hard body was addicting to her. But she wanted to get him that green roadster she had seen on Batuu Avenue; it looked cute and sporty. She hadn’t broached the subject yet but she intended to have his permission to buy it for him before leaving. A star stripper’s man had to have a showy car and tonight was a night to make her a star! She felt sure of her success.

“Sweetheart, come on,” he coaxed, his mouth at her ear. “I need a little cooperation.” He led the way and she obliged. It took no time at all to get him in the mood. It isn’t just in his cocky mind, she thought, his body can sure keep pace with it. It already took her to the top to watch him writhe and pant. His eyes were heavy and his hands were clawing at her body. Now he freed her breasts, his fascinated eyes on them as they bounced joyfully.

Watching his contorted face smoothing out into serene calmness, she drew a sigh of satisfaction, “Ben.” She loved him, she knew she did, and the Three Big Words were on her lips, just at the tip of her tongue. His eyes were closed and she listened to the sighing garble escaping the dark cavern of his opened mouth.

Slowly she arose, her inner thighs agreeably sore, and passed into the bathroom to clean up.

Too much is never enough, she thought, washing her hands while admiring the smooth bronze skin of her face. Two weeks, days, hours and many sheet changes, of Ben Solo were all a girl could handle. She grabbed up a comb and ran into her rumpled hair. She had to admit that her time had been well spent. By now, as bad luck would have it, she had a sweetheart. She still did not own an ermine wrap but there was the belonging her secret heart had craved. Her comic entertained her plenty without money. Yes, the car would be her “just because” present to him, she decided, quivering like an old fire hose to get back into the bedroom.

“Because — in relation to anything else I’ve said, you’d have to print this in letters a mile high — the only real happiness I’ve ever got out of life is the contact with the people I love. Nothing else matters, Rey. Not money, not clothes, not looks, not being flattered and run after. All that’s pleasant, but empty. If you had it all and lost your family and friends, it would be just a heap of nothing and that would sicken you. Loving your own and being loved by them is the only happiness there is. If I know anything in this world, I know that. So it seems reasonable to suppose that a comic who hasn’t got a nickel and more friends than a whole litter of kittens you loved more than anyone else would manage to compensate for the lost thrill of money that you love. After all, you can’t love money as you love people.”

When asked about his present ambition, he replied, “Security of principal.” This explained the suave comic. He was never so hurried he failed to be urbane. He has been mellowed by time and hardship into what Walter Winchell would call “a regular guy.”

Except when he did a villain, Ben was always in character on the stage. For he was the kind of a chap who would give his last dollar to a beggar and not bother to be thanked.

Ben’s strongest medium was not dramatics. He was a personality, he was handsome, he had a basso swoon-making voice. He was never exuberant in real life and never insincere. If you were to go on a long journey with any man in show business, you would just assume it would be Ben. It made him a first-rate man.

She stepped over the bed, gazing down at the slouching Ben, wondering whether all men without money were burdened with a barrel-chested physique like his. His work had been exercise enough for him. “I keep in physical trim with the Y’s swimming pool,” he smiled. “Everyday I go up to it and give it a long piercing look. Also I think a lot about tennis, and I talk a very good game of golf.” And her hand automatically went to him, stroking his back, his neck, his brown eyes blinked and gazed back to the appealing reality of her presence, his lips widened in a smile of pleasure.

“Baby, baby, you certainly are hot stuff. I hand it to you.”

Her cool green eyes stared at him and she bit her lower lip to suppress a laugh. Hot stuff he called her, not dreaming she was brunette ice!

“Benji, time for us to go.” And as he made a move to lie down, her hand held him up. “Get up, Benji. You can rest in the car. I’ll drive.” Now she tried to get some coolness into her voice that did not reach her eyes. “Of course, if I had a car it would be so much easier for you to recuperate. You could spend more time with me.” She had to make it interesting to him. “Benji,” her fingers combed through the torn silk of his hair. “I saw a darling green roadster. I think you’d look cute in it!”

Ben’s hand reached out, his fingers clutching at the round globules of her breasts.

“If you treat Benji nice he’ll let you get that roadster for him.”

“But Benji, it may be gone by tomorrow. It’s on display at Haz’s on Seventeenth and Batuu,” she added, her huge eyes on his face.

“Well, after I take a nap we’ll take a look-see. Maybe I’ll drive you home in it tonight after your debut,” he beamed.

“Benji, you’re a wonderful man, and I’m a lucky girl.” She bent down and kissed him smack on his moist lips, freeing herself quickly from the arms that fastened about her slim waist.

“We’ve got to be going, Benji, lots to do.”

Ben watched her donning her bra and scanties; she stepped into her high-heeled white pumps and slipped the white pique sunback dress over her tanned shoulders, took one quick look at herself in the mirror and grabbed up her purse.

“See you out in front, Benji,” she waved and slipped quickly out of the door, closing it softly. In the corridor she drew a deep breath. Pressing the down button of the elevator, she mumbled, “What a girl hasn’t got to go through with just to get her beau a car.”

The doorman got her the car and she waited for Ben to come downstairs, thinking, I think he should have a nicer place, a place of his own. But then she thought of Luke’s austere face and dropped the idea. It would have to wait until she had her debut.

Back in her room, she dropped every stitch of clothing and lay down on the bed, closing her eyes. She’d rest an hour. She needed it for tonight was the big night. Her debut! She had to go through her routine with Rose before the show. She wanted to slay them, mow them down, outstrip Bazine. She wouldn’t fail Luke by allowing her heart to steal her ambition. He had bided his time, watching the course of her affair with Ben with cautious amusement.

“You’ll wear him out, Garters, you’re too much for him. I see him aging by the hour.”

By now she was Garters. Everyone agreed with Luke and had found Ramona too ponderous a name for a snip of a girl like her. Tonight, after the show, and after Ben had the ownership papers for the green roadster, she’d let him know she was eager, willing and able to go in the backseat. Left hip, right hip, up and down, circles, bucking like a thoroughbred, she could do it big and long. He wouldn’t be hard to take again. A tiny thrill ran through her body. He’d be nice to take again, and it would even be pleasurable to be taken after that blowhard, Bazine.

She wondered about how Bazine felt. But then, she didn’t wonder, knowing Bazine hated her with a blazing fury knowing she was about to take second place. That is, if she, Rey, outwiggled, outteased, outdazzled her tonight. Well, she would! By now, thanks to Rose’s coaching, her routine was smooth; it was utterly different from Bazine’s. Rey would appear to her audience a shy, bashful girl, uncertain and only dimly aware of her allure. She set the alarm for 5:30, and her head dropped back on the pillow. Three minutes later she was fast asleep.

And now, she was on stage, standing behind the red curtain that separated her from her public. The orchestra was blaring a cheerful march, and presently the violins took over, chanting the enticing rhythm of Tanga. Rey felt the bald glare of the spotlight on her scantily clad anatomy; she listened to Hux’s voice, announcing: “And now, for the sensation of the evening. You, ladies and gentlemen, are about to feast your eyes on the charms of the Golden Farceur. This is her first appearance here in Batuu.”

Rey listened to the scattered applause, trying to remain calm. This was her chance, she had to make good.

The curtain rose slowly, revealing the Golden Farceur draped in a shimmering shawl, under the glare of the white spotlight. Gazing into the dark pit of the palace, Rey made out the blurred outline of faces, the gleam of white shirt fronts, the fiery sparkle of jewels, heard the crackle of a program. One man out front clapped like mad. She knew it must be Sheev, and smiled vaguely in his direction. She began going into her dance routine, unwrapping herself with artful slowness, finally dropping the golden shawl near the side curtain, undulating temptingly up center stage with her shoulders proudly thrust back. Her brown, smooth hips, banded by the narrow jeweled G-string, were twisting and swerving, now rotating faster and faster, her wild gyrations ending with the tiny breastplates raised in her hand. She unclasped the garters from her legs and tossed them into the audience.

Deafening applause filled the hall, especially because “Hot Garters” Gardner conveniently “forgot” to wear her stage tights. “Take it off! Take it off!” As in a daze, Rey heard the chorus of male voices. Hands clutched over her firm breasts, she wiggled toward the side curtain, an enigmatic smile on her parted lips. Dropping one hand, she slid it carelessly over her smooth abdomen. Now the golden daisy of the G-string was in her hand — now there was no G-string. Quickly she slid behind the curtain, her ears listening to the noise of stamping feet, the clatter of hand-clapping and the wild shouts.

She took six curtain calls. All Bazine ever had taken were four, she thought triumphantly.

The dressing room, filled with orchids, roses and gardenias, looked like a hot-house. And there was Ben! As she sat down in front of the dresser she watched his expression in the mirror. It told her all she wanted to know. That she was a success, that she had made good — that she was a star!

“Did I mow them down, girls? What’s the verdict?” Watching her own smile in the mirror, she was surprised at the cool glitter of her green eyes.

“Can’t you hear? They’re still clamoring for you.” “You’re tops!” “You’ve got snap — oomph! And you don’t learn oomph. You have to be born with it.” She watched Ben approach, his ardent eyes on her lovely face in the mirror. His lips touched the golden daisy in her hair, slid down to her ear.

“You are a wonderful darling, Rey. I’m proud of you.”

There was a pounding at the door and Sheev’s voice boomed. “I need to see Rey. Are you all decent?”

“No — come on in!”

There was a scramble for robes and kimonos. The door opened and Sheev stormed in, his arms weighed down by a carload of American Beauty roses. From the green stems dangled a green leather key case. Ben’s eyes fastened on it.

“It’s like dressing in a goldfish bowl,” Rose complained, and then added, “if I may coin a phrase.” Sheev glared at her.

“Sheev, how sweet of you.” Ben took the flowers, burying his head in the blood-red buds.

“Careful, Benji,” said Rey, “don’t lose the keys to your car.”

Sheev scowled at Ben, then looked at Rey who detached the key case carefully from the stems.

“You are a darling.” He crossed over and gave Rey a peck on the cheek. “Let me thank you later, after the show.”

She watched as Sheev stomped out of the door, ignoring Ben completely. The door banged shut but she wasn’t worried. She knew how to handle Sheev! Her smiling eyes were on Ben.

“You don’t mind, dear, I feel a bit tired — and dazed. I want to rest. Did they — like me?” Her enormous eyes dug into his face. “Honestly, Ben?”

“Rey, you were a sensation. A dream. Fabulous! Everybody out there went wild, including me. You’re number one now, Rey.”

“Thanks, Ben, it sounds wonderful.”

“I’ll thank you for the roadster — later.” His eyes made a promise that he definitely intended to keep. “Well,” reluctantly Ben moved toward the door, saying, “I’ll be getting ready for our other two performances, Rey.”

Deftly her fingers spread a layer of cream over her face, and she dropped her tiny trappings, slipping on a green silk robe, Sheev’s gift. There would be no more costly gifts from him, as of tonight. She smiled, lying down on the couch. Eyes closed, she retasted her moment of triumph. She had done it, she was a star!

Before dropping off to sleep, her final thoughts were of Uncle, wishing for him to be out there in front. It would make her success completely satisfactory.

Chapter Text

The entire chorus dressed in one room just off the stage, the principal women and showgirls in a room upstairs, and the men’s dressing room was on the top floor. A ventilating pipe ran from the basement room, a small, damp, airless, unused place, through the chorus dressing room, the women’s, the men’s, and right up to the roof of the theater.

They used this pipe as a sort of telephone when they had something to shout from one floor to another, but when they were talking among themselves they would stuff a makeup towel in it. Otherwise the voices would carry to every room in the theater.

It was Friday of her third week at the Grand Theatre when they were talking about how to romance Skywalker into installing a new toilet. It was a subject that came up from time to time, but never before as urgently, and they hadn’t thought it confidential enough to stuff the ventilating pipe.

None of the girls had had a really bright idea when Ren yelled down, “Look. To keep you tomatoes from squawking so much, we guys are chipping in a buck each for the down payment on a new throne. How’s that strike you?”

If this were Jakkuville and if Ren had been in any other business and she had been anything but a stripteaser, they would have looked like any other kids going steady. In burlesque, romances seem to be different; they eat night lunch together. It happened before she could nip it. His middle name must be persistence, Rey thought. He fought pressures on all sides of his life including burlesque, his relationship with Rey, taking over the family trade, and Rey. Yet he was emotionally stable enough to take it. He was naturally sensitive, quiet, shy, and beautiful, but conflicted with his uncle and peer’s advice that he “toughen up.” They dealt with first love in a way few others have. Ben, the confused and passionate young man who just wanted the punchline to make sense. Only at the moment they felt, well, sort of funny. Having him talk about a throne. Even it if it had to be talked about.

The old one was by rights a museum piece. It was probably the first one to be built indoors; a collector’s item but they weren’t collectors, so Ren’s suggestion was greeted with enthusiasm. Fourteen of them gathered around the pipe and shouted their thanks to Ren and the boys. The fifteenth, Bazine, started writing down the names to see how much of a contribution they could depend on.

“I’ll start with the men,” she said. It sounded natural coming from her. Greedo, the candy butcher, was the only man in the theater she hadn’t given the glad eye to and Rey couldn’t see why she skipped him. He certainly was prettier than Louie Grummgar, her saloonkeeper favorite.

Not that Rey objected to a girl taking her sex life seriously, but Bazine overdid it. Maybe it was alright when she was younger, but even though she kept herself well-groomed and dressed to the teeth, the bags under the eyes and the neck were starting to hang like an empty salt sack. Her hands gave her away, too. They were bony, greedy-looking hands, and they clutched the pencil as though it were diamond studded.

“Armie Hux,” she said as she wrote.

He was their straight man, a “Meet Chu in the moonlight, m’boy” type. Thought he was too good for burlesque, and made Docking Bay 7 Café his hangout instead of Ronto Roasters or Saka’s Kettle, where they all went. He always carried a briefcase full of scripts. “A sensational play that is being tried out in Cato Neimoidia this summer,” or “the American rights to a terrific thing they did in London last year.”

Rey never saw the manuscripts and always suspected the briefcase bulge of being a couple of old telephone books. But she was naturally skeptical.

“Armie Hux,” Bazine repeated, with a little twist to her mouth.

Rose looked up from a bedspread she was crocheting. “You said that once, dear. We all caught it.”

Hanoi Rose Tico had worked for Luke since the year… Well, it was when she and her sister Paige were kids and they both joined the “Kiddies Revue.” They had done boy-and-girl team numbers then. Because Rose was small and dainty, she was the girl. Paige wasn’t as graceful as she might have been, and the braces on her teeth didn’t help her beauty any, so she was the boy.

Since then Rose had gone through several transformations. At the moment her hair was an odd shade of dark red, like black-cherry pop and she had developed a temper to go with it. But Luke could only think of her as Rosie who had trouped with four guinea pigs, a white rat, and a chameleon.

Luke always raved about her versatility. Naturally she got the job. A singing, dancing, lute-playing stripteaser is a good bet at seventy-five a week in any business.

“Then there’s Finn,” Bazine said quickly. He was the second comic and had been shellshocked in the war. He had a round, happy face. Bazine made a fast job of writing his name.

“And there’s Poe, and Temmin, and — oh yes — Ren.” She paused and gave Rey a look as though they were sharing some secret.

“Ren ought to pay double,” she added with a sly smile. “He’s in here all the time.”

“If you’re going to speak in hypotheticals, don’t forget Louie, even if he doesn’t work here. And while you’re at it, you better put Luke down for his whole salary,” Rey said. “It’s an old psychological trick.”

“Is that so?” Bazine said sarcastically. “Well, someone else has screwy ideas, too. Some dames never know when a guy is taking them for a ride.”

Rey would never have mentioned Luke’s name if she had seen Amilyn standing in the doorway. She was still jealous of him, even though they were as solid as ever. In thirty years, he never even looked sideways at anyone else. The first week Bazine was in the theater she had marked him as her “next.” During the weeks following, she had dropped hints that she would be opening at the Grand Theatre.

Up to now Amilyn had ignored them, but tonight there was a tenseness to her mouth and bluish splotches on her cheeks that made Rey nervous. But then, Alabama Amilyn and Barely Bazine were always fighting anyway these days, so how could she have guessed that their ordinary hair-pulling, name-calling differences of opinion were leading to anything?

Rey said, “Er — I was just joking with Baz about how much jack we can get out of upstairs for the…”

“Yeah. I caught the end of it.” Except for those two splotches, Amilyn’s face was opalescent. She had just finished her number and the skirt of her costume was thrown over her shoulders. Crisp, purplish hair fell over her sparkling eyes and her body paint was streaked with sweat.

There was something soft and pathetic about her as she unpinned a grouch bag from her G-string and took out a ten-dollar bill. “I’ll put up money for Luke,” she said, glaring at Bazine. “I’ve sorta got the habit.”

“Good thing you have, girlie,” drawled Bazine. “You sure couldn’t hold a guy unless you did pay up.”

Amilyn moved so fast that they couldn’t have stopped her if they’d wanted to. All Rey could see was her arm flashing through the air, the dull gleam of a nail file, then a streak of blood on Bazine’s shoulder.

“You evil-faced bitch! I’ll mash you to a pulp!”

Rose and Rey grabbed her, pulling her toward the hall. Bazine slumped over the makeup shelf, the blood dripping into a powder box. A photograph of a woman, posed to look like Mata Hari, even to the jeweled breastplate and serpentine ornaments upon her arms and head, smiled up at her. Bazine directed her remark to it.

“She tried to disfigure me,” she whimpered. “She’s always been jealous of my beauty. Oh, my face, my face.”

If it had been anyone else but Bazine, it might have made a touching picture. They all knew the picture was her mother, who had died when Bazine was born. Bazine never let the photo out of her hands. When she left the theater at night she took it with her and brought it back the next day.

The picture wasn’t the only momento she carried around. Aside from her bankbook which was her Bible and Koran rolled into one, she had her mother’s gallstones preserved in alcohol and they were on the shelf, too. At first the gallstones made Rey a little sick. Later she pretended they were marbles and let it go at that.

This wasn’t the first time Bazine talked to the picture, either. Whether she was tight, she had long, intimate conversations with it. She wasn’t the type for sentimentality, but maybe she was sincere about this one thing. Rey didn’t know. She did know that it got pretty tiresome at times and this was one of the times.

Amilyn was struggling to get free and shouting so loudly that even Ackbar, the doorman, was alarmed enough to join the crowd at the door. Most of the stagehands were in the group and Rey asked one of them to help her hold Amilyn. Rose had to go down to do her number so they were short of hands.

“Jealous of her beauty,” Amilyn shouted. “Who in the hell would be jealous of a sewer-mouth son of a bitch like her?”

A couple of men grabbed Amilyn, but then they had Bazine to handle. She had jumped up from her chair and was making a dive for Amilyn.

“It’s only an expression,” Rey kept saying. “She doesn’t mean that your mother was…”

Bazine winced with pain as Rey touched her shoulder. She dropped weakly into the chair. Jannah Lilac, the Siren of the Tropics, handed her Rose’s bottle of gin.

“Here. Clean it with this,” she said. “It’s alcohol. You know, like they use in the hospitals.”

When Rey poured on the gin, Bazine’s screams were partly for the sting, but mostly to keep the center of the stage for herself. Amilyn was getting altogether too much attention from the men who were trying to restrain her from rushing back into the room.

“Dirty liar!” Amilyn yelled. “Carrying her mother’s picture around all the time. Her mother never had any children!”

One of the men put his hand over her mouth but it was too late. They started dragging her upstairs, urging her to have a drink and forget it.

Her voice, hoarse with anger, came through the ventilator later. “As long as there’s sidewalks, she’ll always have a job.”

Rey quickly stuffed the towel in the pipe, but within a few seconds that wasn’t necessary. The stagehands were setting the “Under the Sea” ballet and the show was going on as usual.

Bazine stopped sobbing, but she was going into another number: the tragic queen, Mary of Scots, and a little Joan of Arc thrown in for good measure.

“Thank God, Mother, I still have my bump.”

“Yes, and you do still have your fatal beauty.” Rey was too bored with her to spare her feelings. Her voice was cold. “This is only a scratch. Anyway, you had it coming to you. If you don’t stop thorning Amilyn, she really will get you one of these days.”

“And if she doesn’t, I will!” It was Rose, tearing furiously into the room. The little dangling pendants on her headdress were swaying back and forth, producing a tinkling sound. Rey felt a breeze as she passed her.

“Gimme that.” She grabbed the bottle of gin. Then hung up the long-necked pear-shaped wooden lute under her arm. “It’s tough enough doing By the Light of the Silvery Moon for those jerks out front without you and Amilyn calling each other by your right names. Ruining my specialty because of a toilet!”

Bazine turned away to repair her tear-stained makeup, and suddenly Rose started laughing.

“Rey, you’da died if you seen Yoda crawling down from the fly gallery when the fight was on. He was in such a rush not to miss anything that he damn near broke his neck. He kept looking over his shoulder instead of looking at the rungs of that iron ladder and every now and then he’d miss.”

Rose flopped into a chair and put her feet on the shelf. “Then, when ‘Barely’ Bazine gets called a…”

“Shh.” She nudged rolls and gave her the eye. Bazine was tensing herself, and it wouldn’t have taken much for the fireworks to start all over again.

Rose took the hint. “Well, anyway, when the names get called back and forth, he’s already down onstage and in a flash he’s on his way up to our dressing rooms! Him! Can you imagine? Not only that, but who do you think he runs into! Ackbar! I tell you, Rey, when the two of them got together it was a scream. Boy, did they start dishing us. They were both a little embarrassed to catch each other on our landing anyway. So real chummy that they get out to Ackbar’s corner in the stage entrance. Then they opened up. What they said about us!”

The very thought of the conversation made Rose roar with laughter, but Rey couldn’t see the funny side of it at all. She remembered Ackbar’s face when he stood on the landing. There was so much disgust in it that she felt, well, sort of naked. Ackbar and Yoda were the only two old-timers in the theater. Everyone said they went with the lease and she guessed it was true. Ackbar had been there since the days of the Grand’s grandeur. He was a singer and then something happened to his voice. He had taken smaller and smaller roles until he finally wound up as a doorman.

Yoda had been there almost as long. He had always been a stagehand but now he was too old to do any of the harder work, so he handled the flies. Some of the curtains worked automatically, but a lot of them were the old ones that operated on the sandbag principal. He handled those from the ceiling of the theater. It wasn’t a hard job, but it was a lonesome one. He usually climbed up once a day and stayed there until the end of the night show.

Neither of them wasted much love on the burlesque actors. When they got together they talked over the past glory of the theater, and Rey guessed they thought they were interlopers. They must have sounded like a band of wild banshees when they got started, so Rey could hardly blame them.

“They kept shaking their heads and clucking their bridgework,” Rose said. She was impersonating Yoda and had to stand up to make the act convincing. With her knees bent and her lips drawn tightly over her teeth, she walked around the room. “Yessir,” she cackled, “it’s a good thing the Princess isn’t here to see the class of people that are in her old dressing room.”

Even Bazine had to laugh.

“The two of ‘em keep shaking their heads at that dame’s picture, you know. The one with the spear that Ackbar got hanging on the wall back of his chair. Well, Yoda was doing a Bazine and talking to it like it was a person.”

“My Gawd!” Bazine dropped her powder puff and turned to Rey. First Rey thought she was mad again because she said Yoda was doing a Bazine, then she realized she was going elegant on her.

“That dame happens to be a picture of Leia Skywalker-Solo in her Brünnehilde costume.” If Bazine had been Brünnehilde herself she couldn’t have been more indignant.

Rey sniffled. “Well, she looks very nice to me… neat, in fact. Classy. Very classy. Too classy, in fact. Luke runs a dance and drink place. Not a kindergarten. What his customers go for, she ain’t got. I’d sure hate to strip that regalia she’s got on.”

“She didn’t strip. She sang.” Rose looked at Rey wide-eyed. “There’s other kinds of show business besides burlesque, you know.”

That incredulity wasn’t wasted on Rey. “Sure, I know,” she said, “there’s movies and radio and…”

“And grand opera. Leia Skywalker-Solo was a singer.”

“Well, what was she doing in a burlesque theater, then?” Rey said.

“It wasn’t a burlesque theater then, you dope. It was an opera house,” Bazine said coldly.

Rey was trying to figure that one out when the showgirls came in, babbling as usual. They had just finished the ballet and were dressed in seaweed costumes. With the exception of Karé, the twenty of them looked enough like sisters. They were all blondes and all six-footers. Luke Skywalker was very proud of them and they knew it, so they ran the strippers a close second for temperament.

“Did you see the old Gink that sends me the perfume?” One of them asked as she began undressing.

Karé Kun, the prettiest of the twenty, pouted. When she wasn’t pouting she was crying. She was that type. It didn’t take much to make her do either, but she had a legitimate beef this time.

The perfume man had been hers for several weeks, and even though she didn’t like the Djer Kiss, she did like the attention.

“He probably realized I wasn’t that sort of girl. Stepping out of her pearl costume, Karé hung it carefully on the back of her chair. She was the “Spirit of the Pearl” in the ballet and it was a coveted spot in the show.

“Anyway, I’m too busy rehearsing to bother with trouble.” She spoke with airy unconcern. “Skywalker had told me that afternoon as I got ready he’ll let me do a speciality.” She looked down at her nose at Freya Frenris. “So there.”

Freya wasn’t interested. “What’s this about a new toilet?” she asked.

They told her of the plans.

Rose was balancing a mirror in one hand and an eyebrow tweezer in the other. “Yep. Everybody chips in a buck,” she said between pulls. Then she giggled. “Hey, Rey, can you imagine Leia in the iron suit trying to…”

The picture was too much for her. She collapsed with laughter.

“When we get the new toilet, let’s wrap the old one up like a Christmas present and give it to the Gruesome Twosome.”

“Who’s that?” Karé asked, and Rose paused a moment to get her breath.

“Ackbar and old man Yoda,” she said, they can press it in their memory book!”

Chapter Text

During the night show, when Ren and Rey were doing the “Pickle Persuader” bit in the second act, Canady waved frantically to her from the wings. He was clearly upset, so she knew there was trouble. She looked at the footlights for the red bulb to flash: that was their signal to cover up or clean up because a censor was in the lobby. If a strange cop, anyone who even looked like a censor, came in, the ticket taker buzzed Arty, the electrician, backstage, and Arty used the red light to relay the warning to the actors.

But the light didn’t flash. So Rey wasn’t quite sure what was the matter.

Hux was playing straight for the scene and Rey saw him look out front. Her eyes followed his. In the back of the theater, their buttons and badges shining in the dark, there were cops — at least twenty of them. It looked like a policemen’s convention.

Then Luke padded swiftly down the aisle. There was no question about it. This was going to be more serious than the usual reprimand from the police.

Hux’s voice shook a little, but he went on with the scene. “Just wave this persuader under her nose and she’ll give you anything you ask for.”

“Anything?” With the police watching, Ren cut the habitual leer. “Would you sell it to me?”

“It’s a very valuable article, m’boy,” Hux said. “However, because you have an honest face, and because I like you, I will sell it. For one hundred dollars.”

Ren shoved the money into Hux’s hands. That was his exit cue. And not a moment too soon, Rey thought. When he got to the wings he managed his last line.

“Remember, m’boy. Just wave it under her nose.”

Ren held the pickle tenderly by the string that was tied around it. “Anything I ask for,” he mumbled as he approached Rey, “anything.” He was swinging the pickle.

“When the lights black out,” he said under his breath, “try to get away through the coal chute. This is a raid.”

She stared at him stupidly.

Ren went on in a loud voice, “Give me your money.”

Rey bent over to get the money out of her shiny satin garter while Ren ogled her leg. “I don’t know where the coal chute is,” she whispered.

Ren pocketed the money. “Now give me a kiss.”

She puckered up her lips. He barely breathed the words against her mouth.

“In the cellar next to the vacant room, through the hall.” Ren went through the business of counting the money and mechanically whispered in her ear. She couldn’t put much heart into it, but she slapped his face, and that was the cue for the blackout where Rey made her exit. The orchestra was playing Happy Days Are Here Again, which, under the circumstances, was the end of the show and meant that the audience was leaving.

“In the cellar, next to the unused dressing room,” she whispered over and over again.

It was pitch-dark backstage. Someone, Arty probably, had killed all the backstage lights. Rey thought maybe somebody did it to help the actors get out of the theater, but it made her feel panicky. She couldn’t tell where she was going at all. She lost all sense of direction.

There were scuffling noises of people moving in the dark and then someone brushed against her. She didn’t wait to find out who it was. She just kept on running. For all she knew she might be running into the arms of the nearest policeman. But it didn’t matter.

Then her hands touched something curved and cold, the water cooler. Now she was alright. The cellar steps were to the left. She groped for the iron railing.

As her foot scraped the top of the spiral staircase she felt a hand on her shoulder, then another on her mouth. Suddenly a pair of lips pressed hard against her ear. She dug her nails into the hand, but it only pressed tighter.

“Hi, sweetheart. Our arrangements are always so tactful.”

“I suppose you wish I was more like your mother, don't you?”

“What?”

“I saw her picture. She would think I’m disgraceful. I haven’t got an ounce of class. I promise. I don’t even have a background!”

“Now wait a minute, wait a minute. I don’t care about your background. There is no reason in the world why I shouldn’t see you.”

“Then why haven’t you told her about me…”

“Because the last time I spoke to my mother, it wasn’t the most friendly. What? You think I’m not suppose to be crazy about you? Is that what you expect out of me? I didn’t even know girls existed before you!”

“Benji, I'm sorry. I'm sorry Benji, on the level.”

“Alright, you’re sorry.” He hated the disappointment in her voice, hated it. He tried to smile, but he couldn’t, and instead, he reached up and touched the smooth skin of her face. He could hardly stand to be near her and not touch her. They’d been a couple for about a month now, and he just wanted her that much more.

“Oh Benji, please don’t be sore!”

“I’m not sore, Rey,” he breathed on her.

“Oh Benji, Benji, I just can’t stand when you're sore at me…”

“Oh, Rey, I don’t know what’s the matter with me lately. I always lose my temper. You’re the only girl in the world for me, don't you know that, Rey? I’m gonna marry you for your money someday. You little brat...”

His green-eyed doll, who wore those startling dresses slit away down the sides, had one on that night. He slid his hands to her thighs, beneath the opening of her dress, and up, to her breasts.

Rey closed her eyes; he slid his fingers over the tip of her nipple. With a sigh, she swayed a little, braced herself against his chest.

This wasn’t what he planned, not during a raid, but he couldn’t resist her, and began moving his hands everywhere, sliding over her arms, caressing her breasts, her hips, her back.

He took her breast into his mouth and Rey seized his shoulders to steady herself. He had a hand at the apex of her legs, his fingers gliding into her cleft.

It was he who groaned this time — she was hot and slick. He put an arm around her waist, staggered back away from the staircase, undulating his hips wantonly —

“No, Benji! I’m not a brat! I’m not a brat, Benji! I’ve been a perfect child since the day I was born!”

“Nuh-uh. You won’t lose any arguments from me. Not looking like this. You won’t have time. You know, if I had my lasso, I’d drag you to me like a calf at a Western. Only no calf had to hide as pretty as this.”

“What would you do when you got me? You’ve had a little trouble putting on the brand so far.”

“Ah, that’s so far. After a sight like this, my grandfather would rise up from his grave if Benjamin missed the bus.”

“Benji, when you’re kissing me, don’t talk about dead relatives and if they can see us now.”

“What? Oh, I’m sorry, what should I talk about?”

“Well, do you have to talk?”

“No. Not if you’re a good girl and keep quiet.”

“But I’m not a good girl. Good girls don’t do things like this, Benji, and they certainly aren’t supposed to enjoy it...”

“Rey, please… you scorch me...”

“Benji, I’m afraid. Oh, Benji... please, Benji.”

“Rey…”

Passion overrode logic along with every ounce of self-preservation Rey had. Heat flashed another wave of want over her chest and burst into an aching demand between her legs.

“Benji, my Benji... we mustn’t, Benji... oh... oh… Benji, Benji, I want y—”

“Guh!...”

Her mind suddenly blacked out, too. The hands loosened and she came to. She didn’t even know it was her screaming.

The lights went on, all of them at once. A voice boomed in her ears.

“And where do you think you’re going?”

“Hey, would you mind putting that blackjack away? My fiancée doesn't care, but I'm a very timid fellow.”

“You idiot!”

“Take it easy yourself, big boy!”

The fingers now held her arm in a vice. She twisted around and sank her teeth into the hand. It had coarse red hair on it that caught in her teeth like shredded wheat. She tried to bite it again, hair or no hair. As she lunged she looked down at a pair of thick-soled shoes, massive legs, and a skirt!

“Don’t you bite me, you hussy,” the policewoman bellowed, “or I’ll bite you back.”

“Hey, loosen the fingers! Another ten seconds and gangrene will set in.”

Rey tried moving her neck around to see if it would still work. It worked alright, but she had to handle it carefully. She was mad clear through, so just for luck she give those fat legs a good, swift kick.

The woman grabbed her other arm and started shaking her. Rey had been in a cyclone in Arizona, an earthquake in Nevada, and once she was in an elevator that dropped four floors, but compared to her those things were kid stuff.

She wasn’t the only one who was being rough-hustled. There was a cop struggling with Jannah, who was half naked. Another was fighting it out with Hux in the wings. Rose was pounding a cop on the head. If she hadn’t been so mad she might have felt a little sorry for him.

“No use trying to get away,” he shouted between thumps. “We have the place surrounded.”

There was a shrill whistle and more blue uniforms piled over the footlights.

“Stop it! Don’t fight!” It was Luke, climbing over the extended apron past the proscenium arch. “Don’t fight! I’ll fix everything.”

The struggle ceased. Uniforms were straightened. Girls arranged their loosened kimonos. Then they were all crowding around Luke. There were a few muttered curses from the men and scattered nervous giggles from the girls.

Rey’s captor, the hairy-handed Amazon, shoved her ahead of her. “Get in line with the rest of the scum.”

Luke was making a speech, trembling and wiping the sweat from his face with a limp handkerchief. His eyes looked like Smith Brothers’ cough drops.

“I have never in all the years I’ve been in the business let my actors down.”

There was a round of subdued applause. Poe called, “That’s right.”

The little man held up a hand for quiet. “You will be out in an hour. I give you my word.”

The applause was louder.

“And you are not riding in the wagon!” He waited a moment for the announcement to sink in. “I, Luke Skywalker, out of my own pocket, have hired limousines to take you to jail.”

“Three cheers for Skywalker, our boss,” yelled Finn. The response was deafening. Luke smiled, and accepted the tribute with the hint of a bow. “No artist that’s working under the Skywalker banner rides in a pie wagon.”

The way to the police station began with some bravado. There were the usual stock jokes.

“I’m glad I got here early. The last time I took a ride I had to stand all the way…”

“This is the way I like to travel… for free…”

The cops in the car ahead of them had Rey’s sympathy. Bazine and Hux had already climbed in with Rose when Amilyn elbowed her way past those in front of her and jumped in beside them. Through the window she saw a tangle of arms. If Amilyn was in form, Hux was getting the worst of it. Rey was a little pleased.

Ren was seated on the jumpseat of their car. He had a bottle, and between gulps his voice rang out, “If I had the wings of an angel, Over these…”

Oola Onyx and Jannah, who were sharing the bottle, began harmonizing with him. “… prison walls I would fly…”

As they neared the station Ren leaned forward and poked one of the cops in the front seat on the shoulder. “You’re a public servant, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I am,” he said.

Ren gave them a broad wink and said, “Well, then, get me a glass of water.”

“What you sweet little hyenas need is a padded cell,” said their uniformed escort.

The gray walls of the station sobered Rey at once. The steps leading to the entrance were almost blocked by news photographers and the curious. There were several cars in their safari and word must have spread that they were filled with burlesque actors. The policeman told them to get out and follow him while another cop brought up the rear. Jannah and Oola climbed out of the car, smiling as cameras clicked. Jannah raised her skirt as she started up the stairs; she turned and winked at one of the cameramen.

“That’s one picture they’ll use,” she said to Oola as they passed between the green lights.

Rey felt too sick to move. Everything had happened so quickly that she hadn’t realized she was actually on her way to the tank. Ren held her arm. “Steady, Garters,” he said. “This is all in a day’s work.”

She had to brace herself to make the walk through the yelling crowd. The entrance was only a few feet away but it seemed like miles. A woman rushed up to her.

“I could have a fur coat, too, if I wanted to do what you do.”

Another dragged her gaping child away. “Get away from that vile woman,” she said, almost pulling the poor kid’s arm out of joint.

A gray-haired man tossed a bunch of flowers at her feet. “She walks in beauty, like the night,” he quoted, and was roughly pushed aside.

Ren whispered, “Your public, Punkin.” She tried to smile at him but she felt too much like Marie Antoinette being led to the guillotine to put much personality in it.

At the doorway Ren was told to wait and she was directed down a long hall. At the end was a huge oak door. Another policeman opened it and told her to enter.

She faced a theater audience! Instead of the main kick there was a desk, but otherwise everything was the same. She even recognized most of the customers; the sailor who used to bring his dinner with him and sit through all four performances, Karé’s perfume man, even the one that sent Amilyn flowers on Mother’s Day. They smiled encouragingly as she entered, and there was a scattered round of applause.

The sound of a gavel hitting the desk made her turn. The judge was a woman! And not a pretty prospect either. She was a little like the one that had arrested her, but instead of reddish hair, hers was mouse brown. She wore it pulled tightly behind her ears revealing bulging veins in her forehead and underneath her right eye that looked like they were about to burst and she had a mole, with a hair growing from it, on her lip. She heard Amilyn gasp when she looked at her, and she couldn’t blame her. The woman’s angry eyes looked reprovingly at the audience. When they were silenced she nodded to a policeman and he took Jannah’s arm. While he led her to the desk she felt her legs go weak. She stared at the mole while the woman barked questions at Jannah.

“What’s your name… age… American citizen?...”

The woman was writing the answers on a card that looked like an application blank.

Suddenly she realized that she was standing before her. Automatically, she answered the questions. In a shallow wire basket to her right she saw a stack of the cards. Jannah’s name was on top. Hardly aware of what she was doing she read it. There was a space that said “charge.” After it, in broad penstrokes, was written “prostitution.”

The full significance of that word slowly hit her. She stared at the card, not believing what was there. She watched her filling out the other spaces on the card. When she got to the charge blank she saw her right “Prost…”

“What are you putting down?” She heard herself shout.

“I’m booking you for prostitution, and don’t speak unless you’re asked to.”

“Speak?” She screamed. “I’ll tear this jail down, I’ll…”

“Well, then,” she said coldly, “what are you in for?”

“I’m an actress. A stripteaser.”

“What’s the difference?” said the matron and finished, “... itution.”

Bazine was next in line and her screams added to Rey’s made a healthy racket. There was some purpose to her noise. She demanded a telephone. One of the policeman lead her to a pay booth at the end of the room. She turned and winked at her. “Grum’ll fix these tin-badge coppers,” she said. “Let them put down what they want to. The more they put down the more he’ll shove…”

The cop interrupted her. “Did you want to telephone?”

“... the more he’ll shove down their throats,” Bazine finished triumphantly.

The mention of threats reminded Rey of hers. While Bazine dialed her number she told her matron about the arresting officer manhandling her.

“If it weren’t for my iron lungs,” she said, “she wouldn’t have found me.”

“Move along,” the matron said indifferently. “Next.”

A policeman approached the matron and whispered in her ear. She frowned at him, then she went through the cards and began scratching something out of each one with her pen. When she wrote on Rey’s she saw that she put “Producing an obscene play” in place of “Prostitution.” She’d won her point, but she didn’t feel any better about it.

In the meantime, Bazine had reached Grum on the phone. She left the door of the booth open and she heard her say, “But, Sugar, I was sure you could fix it.” Her scowl deepened and she waited. From her expression Rey had a good idea of what Sugar was saying and she knew it was nothing about fixing anything. Now, if it had been a nice, gory murder, Grum and his lawyers might have been some help, but a little thing like a raid was beneath their dignity.

“... But, baby, they were so mean to us.” Bazine’s silky voice wasn’t fooling Rey and she doubted if it had any more effect on Grum.

She could visualize him on the other end of the phone. He was probably in his office at the back of the saloon. His feet, in their sharp-toed shoes, would be on the ornate desk, a cigar clenched in his yellow teeth and his mouth turned up in that horrible grin. The hungry look there of her male admirers. Part of them lusted after her. The larger part knew she would demolish them, and pick her teeth with their bones.

Grum was certainly no beauty boy. And the guy had more arms than an octopus. The grin alone made him hideous; when you add squinty eyes and black oily hair to the top of the face you get something you wouldn’t want to run into in an alley, especially if it was in broad daylight.

His last name, Grummgar, might account for his nickname, Louie “The Grin,” but Rey thought it dated back to the time he was in a street fight and someone tore his entire jaw loose. The doctor who fixed it must have been in a hurry — Rey was sure some gunsel was at his back when he operated — anyway, he sewed Grum’s mouth up at the corners. Maybe he thought a perpetual smile would help the personality. Two thin scars pointed from Grum’s mouth to the cheekbones. When he was angry the scars turned red. She thought there might have been red at that moment. No one likes to be called a clown-faced baboon, which was the least original description Bazine was using.

“If I stay in this clink overnight you’ll be damned sorry,” she shouted and slammed the receiver on the hook.

The night-court audience was having a wonderful time; between listening to Bazine and watching Amilyn, it was a good show. Amilyn was pulling her girdle down and her stockings up. She gave them a flash of leg before she went to the desk. Bazine sauntered out to the wooden railing where Rey was standing.

“Get a load of the makeup on Amilyn,” she whispered.

She hadn’t noticed anything unusual about Amilyn’s appearance. Until Bazine called her attention to it. One look and she understood her amazement. Amilyn not only had put on horn-rimmed glasses, but she had slashed lipstick from ear to ear! Her hair was pushed up under her hat and one eye was jumping, as though she had a tic.

Even her voice was different. When the matron asked her name she said, “Amy-Lynne Louise Holdo.”

Bazine nudged her. “She’ll never put that over. They’ll give her ten years for perjury.” She smiled with the hint of satisfaction. “Ten years added to forty-some-odd will make it just dandy for her when she gets out.”

A policeman was telling Ren that the men could leave. Ren was more surprised than pleased.

“Say, if you got any pull around here,” he said confidentially to the cop, “I’ll make it worth your while to see that the women aren’t put in a cell with a lot of cokies. You see that willowy brunette with the wicked jaw? Well, I’m her lover. Luh-verrr,” he enunciated, in case there was any confusion. “She made love to me, Pavlov over there...”

“Pavlova, ya mean?”

“Not the way she does it. You see, it was Spring in Batuu, and I was so young. I didn’t know what I was doing. We were all like that on my father’s side. Anyway, it was beautiful. And she promised to marry me.”

“You’re a brave man!”

“This bull don’t just give out steak for free, ya know?”

“Put us in a cell!” His words made Rey forget about Amilyn. She hadn’t thought of what was coming later. It seemed bad enough to be standing in the courtroom having all those people stare at her with all her clothes on. But a cell!

And the cell it was! There might have been worse cells in the jail but theirs certainly wasn’t the bridal suite. Five women who were in ahead of them had taken most of the bed space, if you could call those unglorified boards beds.

There was an unpleasant odor in the small room that grew thicker and thicker. One of the women swayed in her direction. If she hadn’t seen her move she’d swear she’d been dead for years.

“What are you in for?” the zombie asked.

Rey was in no mood for girlish confidences but Rose spoke up, “Mopery.”

“Ah, they can’t put you in for that,” said the woman with a beery smile. Now take me f’rinstance…”

But Rose had taken enough. One good whiff did it. She moved hastily away.

Two of the other women were laying pinochle on one of the cots. “Get one of your friends,” said the the thin-faced Creole girl who was playing, “and we’ll play four-handed.” She had sores on her face and neck; as she spoke she scratched her face with her cards.

“What about you, girlie?” the other woman said, beckoning to her. She tried to answer but could only shake her head. The stench and close air had her reeling.

She put her face as close to the bars as she could, and breathed deeply. Amilyn stood next to her at the cell door with her hands clutching the bars. She hoped there might be a window open somewhere and if there was a breath of clean air she wanted to get it before it hit the room.

“Stinks, doesn’t it?” Amilyn spoke calmly, but she saw that her knuckles were white from their stranglehold on the bars. She was right about the odor; the corridor as almost as bad as the cell.

“How’d you like to spend ten days in a place like this?”

“Don’t think about it,” she said with more confidence than she felt. “Luke said he get us out in an hour and he usually keeps his word.”

Amilyn was silent. The only light came from a green-shaded globe at the far end of the hall. As it filtered through the cell the bars made long shadows on her face. A strand of purplish hair had fallen from under her hat.

“I wish I’d had sense enough to give a false name, too,” Rey said.

Amilyn stared straight ahead. “Are you kiddin’?” she asked tonelessly.

“No, I mean… well, if you give a false name the newspapers…”

“You’re a dope. Why don’t you dry up,” Amilyn said.

Rey started to walk away from her but she put her hand on her arm. “Wait a minute, honey. I didn’t mean to snap at ya but… dammit, I’m afraid.”

That was obvious, but Rey still wasn’t mollified.

“I think that dame at the desk recognized me,” Amilyn whispered. She looked quickly to see if Bazine was listening. Bazine was talking to Rose; Amilyn went on: “She’s the one that sentenced me two years ago. Gave me ten days at hard labor. If she ever gets wise to who I am it’s curtains… it’s my third time up and they told me the last time to leave town and never come back. Leave town? Hell’s bells, I gotta make a livin’. Where else can I go? I’m played out on Luke’s circuit and I ain’t even known in the West.”

“She didn’t look at you like she recognized you,” Rey said.

“You don’t know that dame,” Amilyn replied warily. “She’d be dirty enough to string me along. Of all the guys on the police force I gotta run into her.”

She was silent for a moment. Rey tried to say something but the words wouldn’t come. That same feeling of pity she always had for Amilyn seemed to choke her.

“Oh, it ain’t the ten days I worry so much about,” she said slowly. “It’s Luke. If the cops get a conviction he’ll lose his license sure as hell.”

“What do you mean?” Rey asked quickly. “They can’t do anything to him for what you do.”

“Maybe not, ordinarily. But this new license commissioner has been waitin’ for a crack at the Grand Theatre since he got in office. Reform ticket or something. All he needs is a verdict of ‘guilty’ and he cancels the license. Why do you think Luke spends all that dough to get warnings when the censors are in the joint? Do you think he shells out to every cop on the beat because he wants ‘em to have the finer things in life?”

“He must have slipped up on a payment,” Rey said, “because we didn’t get any warning this time.”

Amilyn wasn’t listening to her. She looked at the bars in front of her.

“When they say hard labor they ain’t kiddin’,” she said. “They put me in the laundry. I stood over a tub scrubbin’ heavy sheets and filthy rags for ten days. They gave me soap that was so damn strong it took all the skin off my hands. Even when they was bleedin’, the matron wouldn’t give me anything to put on ‘em. Gawdawmighty, they were sore. My back was damn near a question mark from bending over and I had that neuritis that put me out of commission for two months from standing in a puddle of stinkin’ water from six to six.”

She laughed, a mirthless laugh. “Amilyn Holdo,” she said. “Tub eight, American Family soap.”

It was almost like a music cue; when she stopped talking Rey heard the sound of running water. Then Jannah’s voice: “Look, ain’t they considerate? We got a sink and everything.”

Rey could just see her outline in the corner of the dark cell. She was taking off her dress and slip. When she got down to her scanties, she took off her brassière and began rinsing it.

The card players stared at her with their mouths open.

“What in the hell are ya doing?” one of them asked.

Jannah put on the dripping brassière, the water must have been cold because her teeth chattered and there were goosebumps on her legs and arms.

“Best thing in the world to keep your breasts from falling,” she said. “Do it every night of my life.”

A bundle of rags detached itself from the farthest corner. A tiny head emerged and stared at Jannah. It was like one of those heads the witch doctors prepare when they take all the bones out and fill the skull with clay; shrinking the head and making the skin looked like tanned leather.

“There are devils in your body.” The mouth snapped shut as though it were wired.

Jannah screamed and ran to the barred door.

The face spoke again: “I will drive the devils from your body. I will save you from a life of sin.”

A policewoman peered into the cell. “Stop this noise.” The rags collapsed and were still, then the policewoman laughed. “She’ll be alright until morning.” Her heavy footsteps echoed down the corridor while Rey got Jannah over to a cot where Rose, Oola, Kay Le Bang and ”Tassel” Tallie Lintra were sitting. Rey threw her coat over her but she still shivered. They made room for Bazine and Amilyn, and the eight of them sat there, silent and miserable.

One of the other women spoke: “It’ll go tough on me this time.” She was a big blonde and she wore a red sweater that emphasized every line of her lumpy body. “Yep. They caught me with the stuff right on me. Third offense, too.”

She sucked a tooth noisily and Rey wondered what she meant by “stuff.” Dope, she decided.

“What did they get you dames on?” she asked.

Bazine spoke up. “They booked us on prostitution, but…”

“That’s what they got Korr on.” The blonde tossed a thumb in the Creole girl’s direction.

“Well, I know my rights,” Bazine snapped. “They changed it or they woulda had a nice case on their hands… I’da sued ‘em for false arrest or something.”

“Yeah.” The blonde found something in another tooth. “Who you gonna sue? City Hall? Hell of a lotta good that’ll do you. What are you in for?”

“They pinched a theater I’m working in, a burlesque theater.”

“You mean you’re a burlesque dame?” Her voice was suddenly hostile. “These others, too?”

Amilyn nodded.

The blonde moved away. “There’s two things I hate,” she said. “One’s a baby killer, the other’s a dame that strips down naked for a bunch of morons.” She spat on the cement floor.

Korr looked up from her cards. “It’s bitches like you that are ruining my business.”

Luckily, at this point the matron unlocked the door. “The eight of you that came in last, take it on the heel and toe. One at a time.”

They filed out without looking back. The blonde’s angry voice followed them down the corridor right into the anteroom where Luke was waiting. The familiar smile was still there, his manner as courtly as ever.

“I said an hour, didn’t I?”

He looked gravely at his thick gold watch. “Well, it’s been exactly one hour and ten minutes. To celebrate… I, Luke Skywalker, invite you all to Oga’s for a snack. Steaks and champagne.”

At the door someone grabbed Rey’s arm. She felt a quick panic. It was the policewoman whose furry hand she had bitten. She gave her a searching look.

“I’m sorry I had to meet you under such circumstances,” she said. “You know, if things had been different, we could have had a lot of fun together.”

Chapter Text

Luke had reserved the entire second floor of Oga’s restaurant for his celebration party. A long table was already set when they arrived. Ferns and carnations made a decorative centerpiece and gleaming champagne bucket separated every other chair. The waiters stood at attention as they made their boisterous entrance. They had picked up the men at the bar downstairs where they had been waiting. It was evident they hadn’t been idly waiting.

“What in the hell were you celebrating?” Amilyn asked Armie Hux. He had a death grip on a chair and it was the only thing that kept him from falling flat on his face.

“Wassh it to you?” he asked. Amilyn didn’t have time to answer him because Bazine had come between them and was smiling up into Hux’s bleary eyes.

“We’ll go play over here, Huxy,” she said, leading him to a place near the head of the table.

“I hope they go play in traffic,” Rose whispered to Rey. Hux leaned over and kissed Bazine’s ear.

Amilyn turned her head toward Luke, then she pulled a chair and sank into it. Luke had taken his place at the head of the table. “Everybody find seats and sit in them. I have a short announcement to make.”

When the scuffling was over Rey found that she was sitting between Ben and Rose. Finn, the second comic, and Poe, his partner, were next. Further down, Temmin, the tenor, was helping Kaydel with her coat. Jannah had put her blouse on inside out; she was still too dazed to realize it. Her mascara had run and she was rubbing her cheeks with the wet end of a napkin.

Luke raised a hand and the commanding gesture had it effect. They all looked at him attentively.

“For me to apologize for what has happened,” he said, “would be like apologizing because a mountain moved, making an avalanche.” The attention he was getting seemed to please him; he let a smile cross his face. “Nor do I expect apologies from any of you,” he said. “I was watching the show from out front, not one actor did anything that would warrant such a… an ignoble act as that raid. Believe me, the stigma will be erased from your names.”

There was a subdued round of applause, then Luke beckoned a waiter and the champagne began to flow. Luke had remained standing and when the last glass had been filled he spoke.

“I drink a toast to my actors!” He drained his glass. The actors still looked at him; no one spoke and no one moved to drink. It was as though they waited for a royal command. Luke gazed with appreciation at his glass before he placed it carefully on the table. He didn’t seem to notice that none of them drank. With a half smile he took a cigar from his pocket and held a match to the end of it. Before speaking he let his eyes rest on each one of them.

“Some people must think that I’m non compos mentis, some people must think I’m a dope,” he said slowly. “They must think the Grand Theatre is run by such a loony that he doesn’t know what’s what. I’m saying right now, and these four walls are my witness, not one thing goes on in any of my theaters that I don’t know about. I know almost what you eat for breakfast. I know everything! For instance, number one.” He held up his hand and turned down his thumb. “I know that there are inside forces that would like to see the Grand Theatre closed! Number two,” he turned down another finger, “I know why! There is room for only one keyster in the manager’s chair and that keyster is mine! Some people don’t like that, they got ideas, big ideas. They think I should make a little room for them so they can move in. But they can’t because I, Luke Skywalker, am no dope. The Grand Theatre opened in a blaze of hoopla to a black-tie audience, presenting for the first time on the Great White Way such Skywalker innovations as the illuminated runway, the striptease, the tassel dance and the twofer, and what I say is the law.”

He made a fist and pounded it on the table with much force. As he adjusted himself he looked again at the silent actors. He waited just long enough for his next statement.

“Someone in my theater is responsible for the raid! Someone in my theater deliberately phoned in a complaint to the Purity League. And they called the police. They deliberately kept the light from flashing in the footlights. I wasn’t notified until it was too late to contact my friends in the station and settle the beef amicably. Yes: someone thinks they are smarter than Luke Skywalker. How do I know these things, you ask? Because I got friends, that’s why. I got friends that warn me of such finks. This is my answer to such a dog.” He beckoned to a waiter. “Bring me the briefcase I left at the desk.”

In a moment the waiter returned carrying a black leather case. Luke took it from him and unhooked the catch, opened the two leather straps, and emptied the contents of the briefcase on the table. A sheaf of papers fell out, legal-looking papers, folded three times and clipped together at the ends. Luke picked up one of them and held it for Bazine to look at.

Her mouth fell open. “Why it’s…”

Luke interrupted her. “Yes, it’s a certificate from the State Historical Society. The Grand Theatre is a registered landmark. To each and every one of my actors I give you a fifteen-percent raise and home among the pantheon.” He called to Ben who walked to the head of the table. Luke patted him on the shoulder and handed him the paper. “My nephew Ben and I have been working together to restore the theater to its former glory. The ghosts are part of the heritage. This is my answer to such a fink who thinks he can close the backbone of the burlesque industry.”

Ben looked stupidly from the certificate to Luke. Then he mumbled a self-conscious thanks and went back to his chair. It wasn’t until he sat down and opened the paper that the realization of what Luke had done struck any of them. Temmin leaned over Ben’s chair to read the small print on the paper. Luke had them printed especially. Their names Luke Skywalker, and Benjamin Skywalker Solo — were in gold letters across the top.

“This is more than what has been asked for!” Temmin said happily.

Luke beamed. “And why not? To me actors are like gods; they perform better when the employment is steady and the pay is good.”

Bazine nudged Hux as Luke was talking. “Work like gods. Star strippers make between seven hundred and two thousand a week. Now if he’d give us some of that old stock he’s got it’d be different…”

Luke was bowing and accepting the thanks of the actors. Rey hoped he was too busy to hear Bazine. Ben heard her, though; he cocked an eyebrow at Rey.

“Our Snake Charmer is looking a gift horse in the mouth again,” he said.

When Rey laughed her throat ached. She looked in compact mirror to see if there were any marks, and Ben asked her what was the matter.

“You look like you’ve been on a hayride with Dracula.”

“Nice work, you — you saboteur! And these are just the ones that I can see!” she said. Then she stopped short, it made her remember; remember digging at the hand with her nails when it was around her throat. Those hands were thick! The hands so big and strong. It made her crazy. Heat raced up her back to engulf her chest and neck. Blood roared in her ears, accelerated by her racing heart and the strange desire blasting through her.

“No, no, no — not I!”

Ben looked at her out of the corner of his eye, then he smiled innocently as he drank from the full champagne glass. “If just drinkin’ that stuff makes your clothes fall off you better stick to your Seagram’s, no crown,” he said. “You like that, don’t you? My love bites?”

“Nooo…” embarrassment doubled down on the lust blazing through her to set Rey on fire from head to toe. Certainly a woman of today examining the issue would not be so foreboding. Modesty, at the Grand, often dangled on a breathtakingly thin string. One might think I am unrealistic, thought Rey, because of the outbursts and almost too fragile youths. It was easy to laugh and say how stupid and ignorant love was at their age, but for those who’d lived and felt it, Rey thought it’d be difficult to see them as far-fetched in anyway. Or even scoff at them and their desperate behavior. Rey’s mother told her better count to ten; then if that didn’t do the trick, start counting again. Rey counted to up ten a thousand times but she kissed him anyhow. Ben on the other hand was told by his father that there were two kinds of girls in the world: Those with class, like his mother, and those without. His only advice for his son was to not get into trouble, by which he meant get a girl pregnant. Ben knew all too well about the “other” kind of girl, Bazine, for instance, as their business was packed to the galleries with them. Heat flamed over her cheeks before sinking down her neck — and still, “but I did like the feel of your hands on my neck and they did press awful hard, and the lights going off and everything, Luke saying that it was an inside job and…”

“It’s too coincidental,” Ben replied easily. “You keep reading them dime thrillers and you give yourself ideas… I like it, Punkin. I just want to be a good man and be under you.”

His smile made Rey feel a little better but she still thought a bruised neck was the first thing the customers would notice.

“What’s the dialogue about the bubble water?” Poe said. He had finished his drink, too. He poured the last few drops in his frizzy hair and begin massaging it vigorously. “Anybody ever asks me if I drank champagne I can tell ‘em I not I only drank it but I bathed in it. And damned if bathing in it isn’t better than drinking it.”

Luke must have expected something like that because the next chorus of waiters brought bottles of Scotch and rye. He may not have been generous enough to please the girls with a new toilet but he certainly wasn’t throwing a skimpy party; Rey got dizzy watching the bottles fly past her. He wasn’t kidding about the steaks either; they were the biggest, most beautiful Porterhouses she’d never seen.

One of the waiters put a plate in front of Luke, but Luke waved it away with a graceful hand. He turned his champagne glass around and put it to his nose; he closed his eyes when he breathed in the aroma.

A sawed-off Bacchus, Rey thought. He frowned and Rey had a sudden fear that she had spoken aloud. But Luke got to his feet again and let his eyes survey the table. “Anybody that would try to break up this happy little family is worse than a fink,” he said.

As usual, Luke was right.

It was so close to showtime when the party broke up that Ben and Rey went right onto the theater. They took a double-decker bus to the end of Belleau-a-Lir and walked from there. Ben thought the air would do them good but she knew it was going to take more than a little air to make her feel like playing the matinee.

The night before had been too hectic for her; raids and champagne don’t mix.

“Maybe an aspirin would help,” Ben suggested. They walked to one of Palpatine’s drugstores near the theater and then had coffee. She tried an aspirin, a Bromo, then an Alka-Seltzer. By then she was feeling healthy enough to have coffee too.

During her second cup, she told Ben about Amilyn’s record and what she had said about the license commissioner wanting an excuse to close the theater.

“Well,” he replied vaguely, “that leaves her out. She certainly wasn’t the one that tipped the cops.”

It took Rey a moment to understand him, then she remembered Luke saying that the raid was an inside information thing.

“But does that mean anyone can call the police and complain about the theater or something to bring about a raid?” she asked. It didn’t sound right to her somehow. “At that rate I could complain about a revival meeting! That is if…”

“In burlesque, it’s different,” Ben explained. “First of all, it isn’t the police so much as it is the self-appointed ‘Purity Leagues.’ They’re beefing all the time to the cops. Naturally the cops can’t ignore ‘em. Not all the time anyway. So the cops call Luke and say that they’re dropping in for a visit. Then we get our warning in the foots. By the time they get to the theater, there’s nothing for them to see.”

“What do they see anyway?” Rey exclaimed. “What’s the difference between a pair of net pants that doesn’t show from the front of the house and, well… no pants? I don’t get it. Another thing. If someone in the theater did call the police they’d be jeopardizing their own jobs.”

“The theater is registered as a historical landmark,” Ben reminded her. “Say, for instance, that some big corporation was going to build offices or apartments and they wanted to build it where the Grand Theatre is. Whoever owns the land is going to lose himself a pretty buck or two. They won’t be able to touch the theater, you can bet on that. In our case there’s a unique quality of the property, style of architecture, highbrow association with my grandparents, and the theater’s impact on major events of historical significance. Luke was smart enough to hire a team of researchers to dig up photos and newspaper clippings to support the claims. All he’d have to do is call the commission. In his lease it says the theater has got to stay a theater. He can’t even make alterations without authorization… preservation ordinance or something. Palpatine is a good example, too. He’d been wanting to own an interest in the theater for ages.”

The counter boy put an order of scrambled eggs in front of Ben. While he ate them Rey thought about what he had told her.

“He wouldn’t call the police unless he was out of the theater,” she said. She was really talking to herself. Ben was too busy eating to listen. Sheev Palpatine, drugstore magnate, in a police lineup. Not if he could help it, she thought.

“He couldn’t have kept the footlights from flashing anyway,” she said aloud. Between mouthfuls Ben asked, “Why not? All he’d have to do is stand near the switchboard and cover the buzzer. He could lean an arm on it or something, maybe… Say…” Ben dropped his fork on the counter and pushed his plate away. He jumped off on the stool and made a dive for the door. “Wait here,” he yelled to her. “I’ll be right back.”

In less than five minutes the door swung open and Ben came in, very pleased with himself. He ordered another pair of eggs before he told her what he had been doing.

“No one stood anywhere near the buzzer,” he announced. “The thing is out of whack. Someone nipped the wire leading to the thing. Cut as clean as anything.”

So Luke was right, Rey thought. It was an inside job. But who? Surely not Palpatine. Not Amilyn with her police record. Oola? Rose?

“Benji!” He was deep in thought. She had to call him twice to get his attention. “No corporation is going to let on that they’re interested if they can help it, and they certainly wouldn’t let a burlesque actor in on the deal.”

“You’re right, Punkin,” Ben said. “Not only that, but I can’t see any of those guys messing around with a buzzer backstage. That’s not the way they work. We’ve got to keep peace in the family. Luke is the boss and what he says goes. All they gotta do is squeeze. Do it all the time; they just squeeze the little guy out.”

He finished his second breakfast silently. Rey drank her coffee and they went into the theater. They stopped at the switchboard and he showed her the warning buzzer.

“It looks like it was cut,” she agreed, “but it could have been done accidentally.”

Ben said, “Could be, if it makes you feel any better,” and followed her upstairs. The dressing room was closed and stuffy so Ben opened the window for her. When other women began drifting in he went to his own room.

The “good mornings” were brief. She guessed they felt as she did and that certainly was not good. Amilyn was last in and the only one who was cheerful. She had three containers of beer under one arm, a stack of newspapers under the other.

“We’re on the front page of every paper in town,” she shouted happily as she kept the door closed. Bazine hastily gulped a Bromo-Seltzer before trying to speak.

“I’m dying and that one comes galloping in with newspapers.”

She wasn’t alone in her dying act; the wet cloth on Rey’s head was so cool a moment before now felt warm and heavy and the soothing effects of the coffee had worn off. “I’ll never get through the matinee,” she said. Rose handed her a glass of something bubbly. She drank it but it didn’t help. She mixed one for herself and she made a little face when she downed it.

Jannah pulled her head out of the sink to gasp, “I’ve never been so sick in all my life.”

Rey believed her. Her face was a pale green. She turned a bloodshot eye on Rose.

“Do you think maybe we’re poisoned?”

“Poisoned, hell,” Rose said. “You were just trying to drink old man Luke into bankruptcy.”

Amilyn pushed a container under Rey’s nose. “Here, kiddo, take a swig of this,” she said. “It ain’t like the champagne we drank last night, but it’s on the cuff anyhow.” Rey took just a sip. Amilyn prattled on. “Louie sent it over, said he’d send more later. I was supposed to deliver it to her highness, Cleopatra, but…”

“That’s right, you stinker,” Bazine mumbled. “Wait until I’m sick and try to get your dirty work in. Oh, the hell with it.” She held out a weak hand and Amilyn laughingly shoved a container in it.

Rose and Oola, sharing Rey’s container of beer, were deciding that a hangover was a small price to pay for the party the night before. While they talked Rey took another drink. It was so cold and tasted so good she took another before passing it on to Oola. When she finished, she put her initials under the stain her lip rouge made and passed it back to Rey.

“Hey, wait a minute,” Rose yelled. “You ain’t married to that beer, you know. How’s about me?” She waited until Rey put her initials under her rouge mark. “I don’t like taking things from Louie,” she said as she tipped his container. “That guy never gives nothing for nothing.” As she spoke she watched Bazine, watched her turn the two bracelets on her thin wrist until the largest diamond flashed in the light.

Bazine handled them lovingly. With a half smile she said, “Oh, I don’t know about that.”

Rose snorted. “Don’t tell me he gave you those service stripes for saying no.” Before Bazine could answer she added, “Two panda eyes a week. You paid for ‘em, girlie.”

Karé Kun, the featured showgirl, said, “Yessir, I’ll settle for an old brooch that belonged to Mother.” A look from Bazine squelched her, but only for a moment. “Maybe Louie sent us the beer so we’d tell him what it’s like in jail.” She really meant it.

“Sure, that’s right, lame brain,” Rose replied tersely. “He’s only having his mail forwarded to him from the Prism, but he wants to know what jail’s like.”

Karé pouted daintily. “Oh, look!” She was all glee again as she held the Batuuian up for inspection. “They got us on the second page. And look at all the pictures. Here’s you, Jannah, going up the steps.”

Jannah threw the Times on the shelf. And she sauntered over to Karé she said, “This one don’t even admit that we’re a theater.” She grabbed the paper from Karé.

“My Gawd, what a lousy picture. They coulda touched my chin up a little.” She read a few lines. “Listen to this: Raid Surabat Burley, Belleau-a-Lir Burley Pinched On Quick Look By Vice Spy… but they arrived in limousines like high-priced Belleau-a-Lir actors. The SRO sign hangs nightly at the Grand Theatre since the invasion of the bedazzling eye-soothing burlesque star known along the Surabat as ‘Hot Garters’ Gardner. Discovered recently sitting at the counter of a Batuu airport coffee shop, the astute Luke Skywalker signed the unknown beauty on the dotted line. Bringing her to the Grand Theatre and re-starring her in the two sizzling made-to-order charmingly enthusiastic sketches, ‘Julius Teaser’ and ‘Panties Inferno,’ has sprinkled high culture over his blunt enterprise like fairy dust and placed Hot Garters among the sensational hits of many Belleau-a-Lir seasons. Miss Gardner, however, was indignant. She said one detective who came to her dressing room was so worried lest she escape, he wouldn’t leave the place while her outspoken buttocks in pink beads changed to her minks.’”

“Beads!” Rey exclaimed. “I’ve never worn beads in the theater in my life.”

Jannah stopped reading to say, “I suppose you’ve worn minks since you were born.”

“Read that part about me again,” Amilyn said.

“‘I’m the home-type girl, said Amilyn Holdo, a rather coarse blonde who can sling a rifle as gracefully as she can a tube of lipstick.’”

“Not that part, dope,” Amilyn complained. “I mean the part where they say I came from Gatalenta.”

“Well, keep your pants on,” Jannah said impatiently, “I’m getting to it.” She continued. “I came from Gatalenta to make good in the hick town in a big way. I can understand now why they put a whole planet between Alabama and Florida!’”

“I think that’s kind of cute,” Amilyn purred as she took the paper from Jannah and carefully cut out the item. While she pasted it to her makeup mirror with a gob of grease paint, Jannah read another headline:

“Hanoi Rose Tico Is No Rose to Purity Squad. ‘I’m glancing with tears in my eyes,’ the president of the Suppression of Vice Society cried chokingly over the phone yesterday. ‘What’s the matter?’ he asked. ‘It smells to high heaven. Take it away.’ They call it Rose Tico from Otomok, but I’d call it Dirty Gertie from Gehenna.’”

“Gehenna?” Amilyn said. “That’s a new one on me. Where’s that dictionary?” She tossed things around looking for it. It was buried under a Science and Health and several horoscope magazines. While Jannah read, Amilyn thumbed through the pages.

“‘... it must be hot,’ said the desk sergeant, and when called for volunteers the reserves stepped forward as one man. Pictures on pages 23 - 24.’”

“Geezer… Ge-gen-schein… hey, here it is. Gehenna!” Amilyn kept her finger on the paragraph in the dictionary.

“‘Gehenna. Used as a dumping place for refuse.’ Hell. ‘A place where prisoners are tortured.’” She looked at from the book, a crafty gleam in her eye. “Ya know,” she said, “I think we got a case against these guys. They can’t say we got a dump place here, and they gotta prove we torture people or we can sue them for libel or something.”

“You and your suing all the time,” Bazine sneered. “I got a life-size picture of you getting away with it, with your reputation. You overexposed debutante.”

Amilyn slammed the book on the floor and pulled herself off the chair. She doubled her fist and waved it at Bazine. “Just one more crack, sister,” she said, “and you get this right among the eyes!”

The loud banging on the door interrupted her. “Hey, are ya decent?” It sounded like Greedo.

Karé pouted. “I wish he wouldn’t say that; it sounds so cheap.” She wrapped herself in a gingham housecoat while the rest of them hastily covered up, and opened the door. Greedo, the candy butcher, stood there with a bulky package braced on his knee.

“You sure took your time,” he grumbled. “None of you has anything I haven’t seen from out front a dozen times.” He gave the awkward bundle a hoist and stumbled into the room. “Gimme a scissors, somebody,” he said. “I gotta bargain for ya.”

It wasn’t until Greedo walked into the light that Rey got a good look at him. His suit made her head ache all over again. Never in her life had she seen a suit like it. It had green and yellow threads running through the material, as though the purple wasn’t enough! She couldn’t look at the shirt, it made her too dizzy.

“My Gawd!” Rose gasped. Get a load of Beau Brummell!”

Greedo smiles, then he eyed her suspiciously. “Is that good,” he asked, “that Beau business?”

“On you it’s good,” Rose said.

It would have to put him in a better humor. He laughed with her, then said, “Somebody gimme a scissors or a knife or something. I got a bargain for ya.”

Oola handed him her a manicure nippers to cut the cord. He pushed his green fedora back on his head and went to work with the scissors.

“Here, let me help you,” Oola cried.

He was cutting everything but the cord, including himself. “Get away,” he said. “It ain’t often I get a chance to make like Lady Bountiful, and anyway I ain’t no cripple.” The Lady Bountiful got Rey; headache or no headache she had to laugh.

He uncovered the package from the bottom. They saw the pale-blue enamel base, the bulging bowl.

“It’s the toilet!” they exclaimed in chorus. “But where did you…?”

“Don’t ask too many questions,” Greedo said meaningfully.

“It ain’t hot, is it?” Rose asked.

“Whaddya mean hot?” Greedo was indignant. “Who d’ya think’d go around copping a can?”

Rose try to modify him. “I only meant, how come you got it so quick, and how come you got it anyway?”

“Well, it’s like this.” He opened the coat of his suit and twined his thumbs around the pink suspenders that had pictures of mermaids painted on them. “I got a pal in the business, see. And when Ren is in the saloon getting a quick one, he tells me how you dames are squawking about the old can and how everybody’s chipping in to get a new one. So I think of this pal of mine, known him for…”

“Get to the blackout,” Amilyn said irritably.

“Like I said,” Greedo continued after a withering look in Amilyn’s direction, “I get in touch with this pal of mine that I’ve known for years. Him and me used to work together in the old days. When we got legitimate he took up plumbin’. Natcherly I think of him and whaddya know? He gives it to me wholesale!”

Even Amilyn had to admit that it was wonderful. Rose threw her arms around the candy butcher and kissed him on the forehead. Rey couldn’t get that close to the suit but she yelled her thanks.

“No one but you would think of getting it wholesale,” Rey added admiringly.

Greedo preened himself a bit. “Only suckers paying list prices,” he said. “This little job sells for seven-fifty without the seat. My pal gives it to me for four bucks and throws in the seat gratis. Not only that; I can save you a deal on the installation, too. A regular plumber would soak ya about ten skins, but my guy’ll do it for half. He don’t belong to no union.”

“That’s out!” Oola jumped her feet. She had just been elected secretary to the president of the Burlesque Artists’ Association and she took her job seriously. Her eyes sparkled as she went into her speech.

“Plumbers got a union. We got a union. When we don’t protect each other that’s the end of the unions. Remember what we went to before we organized? Ten shows a day, no extra pay. Fired without even a days notice. Seventeen dollars a week for the chorus girls? Forty hours a week rehearsal?”

Amilyn said in a dispirited tune, “Hooray for the B.A.A.”

Karé gave Oola a baleful look. “Do we have to listen to all that again?” she said.

“No you don’t,” Oola answered. “But no yellow-bellied scab is walking in this room while I’m here!”

“So alright.” Greedo was getting annoyed. “Pay the ten bucks!” He went out, slamming the door behind him.

“Now look what you’ve done,” Rose said. “Now we gotta move this damn thing ourselves. You and your ‘fellow workers tonight’ dialogue.”

“It’s unite. Not tonight,” Oola replied with dignity. “And anyway, I’d rather move it myself then have a non-union odor in the room.”

For all her big talk, Oola was quite small. When the Galaxies Opera House was the theater in Coruscant, she was featured as ‘The Darling of the Runways.’ When you consider that the fire department made them take out the runways several years ago and that the Galaxies Opera House had been torn down over ten, it made Oola a little old for the type of work she did. That week, for instance, she was doing “Won’t Someone Please Adopt Me and My Baby?” She wore a short baby dress and carried a huge ragdoll! When she stripped the dress, the audience got a flash of diapers pinned on with an oversized safety pin. If they were insistent enough she stripped the diapers, too, but it took a lot of coaxing. The last few years she’s been finishing with the diapers on.

She looked funny, pushing and tugging away at the blue monument that stood in the middle of the room. They all got up to help her.

Rose was panting a little from the exertion when she said, “You know what we oughta do? We oughta have a regular unveiling.”

“Oh, yes!” Karé clapped her hands gaily, “Like when they unveil statues of generals and honoraries and things.”

“We’ll make it a party,” Rose announced, “very exclusive.”

“Just us actors,” Jannah added.

“And the stagehands,” from Oola.

“You gotta invite the candy butchers with Greedo getting the throne,” Amilyn reminded them. She turned to Rey. “You get the waiters to bring the food.” She nodded, and she told Jannah to do the invitations. Oola was to get the plumber, of course.

“And on account of Louie being in the liquor business,” she said to Bazine, “and you being so friendly with him, you get the beer and stuff.”

They played a midnight performance on Saturdays and there was an hour and a half between the first and the last show, so they decided to have the party then. That was their regular party night anyway. The Saturday before, they had had spareribs. The actors had carried their food right on the stage with them because they were so afraid that by the time the scene was over the ribs would be gone.

The law since then was: “No spareribs in the theater.” Rey thought a Chinese supper would be a good idea. The actors couldn’t carry that on stage.

Her menu planning was interrupted by the stage manager shouting, “Overture! The music’s on.” He threw open the door and stomped in. “I don’t like to bother you dames, but there’s a show going on,” he said sarcastically.

As stage managers go, Canady was about average, but that wasn’t saying very much for him. Rey hadn’t worked for a lot of them but she had found this one thought he owned the theater and everybody in it. Canady was alright until he was annoyed. But he annoyed easy. He yelled at Amilyn as she flew down the stairs. “You miss that opening and I swear I’ll dock your salary.”

Then he picked up the bedspread that Rose was crocheting and began idly unraveling it as he read the newspaper clipping that was pasted on the wall.

“This damn raid’ll hurt business,” he said, shaking his head sadly. He put down the spread and felt behind the mirror for the bottle. With his thumb flipped the patent top open and tilted the bottle to his lips. “Yep,” he said, after clearing his throat, “soon as the jokers think we’re cleaning up the show, business takes a dive.” He put the bottle back and without another word left the room.

A faint odor of Tweed went along with him.

“I guess he’s sore because Luke didn’t invite him to Oga’s,” Rose said rather sympathetically. She hadn’t seen the unraveling act or her tone wouldn’t have been quite so soft.

“Well, if I’d known I was going to have a hangover like this,” Jannah moaned, “he coulda gone in my place. I wish to Gawd he did have it.”

Rose put her fingers to her lips and tiptoed to the door. Canady was quite an eavesdropper and Rose wanted to catch him in the act. This time he was too quick for her; by the time the door was flung open he was halfway downstairs.

Chapter Text

The kitchen porch of the Chinese restaurant faced their dressing-room window. Before the big fight with Bazine and the waiters used to send the food to them over the roof.

The fight had occurred during an Indian-summer hot spell. The waiters used to stand out on their porch to cool themselves, and they kept their windows open for the same reason. They looked in. Rey always admitted that part, but she hadn’t seen a man yet that wouldn’t look at a dressing room full of half-naked women when he had a chance. Bazine was the only one who made a scene about it. She stormed around calling them hopheads and chop-suey hustlers and threatened to have them deported.

One day Rey asked her why she didn’t dress away from the window as the rest of them did.

“Why should I?” she screamed. “I guess I can dress and undress where I want to. It’s my room, isn’t it?”

“Sure,” she said, “it’s your room. But that’s their porch too, and they’re probably a damnsight warmer in their hot kitchen than you are in the theater.” Rey should have known better than to appeal to the Bazine. She had a heart, but it operated on the cash-register principle.

She wound up throwing a Coca-Cola bottle at one of them. It caught him on the side of the head and knocked him out. The other waiters called a cop and for a few days merry hell was popping. Bazine had to pay a ten-dollar bill for bandaging the Chinese waiter’s head, but that didn’t include a splint to patch up their beautiful friendship. They wouldn’t deliver any more groceries across the room unless Rey called them. How she rated she didn’t know, but every time she called “Hola ma,” they answered her.

Rey waited until Friday night to order the food for the party. A small white-coated figure appeared on the porch and returned her greeting.

“I want twenty-five dinners for tomorrow night.”

He went into the kitchen. Rey waited a moment. Then the screen door squeaked and he reappeared. He had a pencil and a pad of paper in one hand. The other held a small box. In a ray of light from the kitchen door she watched him as he crossed the roof.

“You want regular forty-five-cent dinner or special?”

“Special,” she answered. “Ten orders chicken sub gum chow mein, six orders shrimp fried rice.”

“Lot water chestnuts,” he added. The pad of paper rested against the windowsill and a delicate brown hand wrote out the Chinese version of twelve egg rolls and ten orders of roast pork. “You want mixed fruit?” he asked.

“Yes, and tea and rice cakes. Everything.”

He finished writing the order and put the pad and pencil in the pocket of his coat.

“Tomorrow night,” she said. “11:30 sharp. Okay?”

He nodded for an answer. Then she saw the box again. It was wrapped in loose foil and he was offering it to her. “Ginseng root,” he said in carefully spoken English. “Grows only under the gallows where men have died. You eat it. Live forever.”

Before Rey could tell him that it didn’t sound like a good idea, he had forced the package into her hand and was gone.

“Hola ma,” she called. “Hey, come back.” The white coat gleamed like phosphorus. There was the sound of soft slippers crunching the gravel on the roof and the screendoor squeaked again as he disappeared into the kitchen.

With the package in her hand she went over to the shelf. She didn’t want to open it in front of the girls, but she was too curious to wait until she got out of the theater. It was heavy and had been sealed with red wax. She held it up to her ear and shook it gently.

Rey stood there turning the gift around in her hands.

Rose’s petulant voice brought her back. “I asked you twice already,” she said, “what’s in the box?”

She raised an eyebrow and looked at her skeptically when she explained that it was a root that the waiter had given her and that it grew under the gallows were men had died.

“He said if I ate it I’d live forever.”

She burst out laughing at that and turned to the girls. “Rey’s got a new red-hot pash.” She took the package from her hand. “The Chinese waiter just gave her a weed that’s guaranteed to make her live forever.”

The girls gathered around her as she broke the seals. The first one was brittle and snapped off easily. The second she had to pry off with a nail file.

She had removed the lead foil and held up a tin box for the curious girls to examine. The tin box was also sealed. Great chunks of brick-red wax were on either side.

She began to lift the top. There was a cotton-lined box with two long, dry roots embedded in the fluff. The roots were tied at the top with a piece of cord.

It was by this cord that Bazine lifted the gift from the cotton. She held it for a second and watched it sway back and forth. “Look! It’s shaped like a man,” she said.

Karé shivered. “Ugh. It’s disgusting. Put it back in the box.”

Bazine still stared at it, her black eyes wide and glistening. “Not so much like a man,” she whispered. “More like the skeleton of one.” With a cautious finger she touched a bleached, bonelike root. The pupils of her eyes dilated. She pushed the root and set in motion again. Her heavy breathing was the only sound in the room.

She said, “A skeleton hanging from the gallows. Let me keep it, Rey. It fascinates me.”

“Oh, cripes!” Amilyn exclaimed. “Give her the damn-fool thing. I’m going to take a drink.” She pushed the chair aside with an angry gesture.

The girls went back to their makeup places silently. Amilyn finished her drink and pulled a step-ladder in front of the toilet door. She lifted a large box of laurel leaves and a hammer to the shelf that stood away from the ladder steps, then emptied a box of tacks in her apron pocket, took another quick drink, and began climbing the unsteady steps.

“Dizzy for roots,” she mumbled, with a look at Bazine. “That’s a new one.”

Bazine couldn’t answer for there was the sound of Amilyn’s hammering disturbing the quiet of their dressing room. She teetered dangerously on the ladder. Her mouth was full of tacks and they made her sing indistinctly.

Amilyn spat the tacks out of her mouth one by one before taking another drink. Bazine stared at her as though she were some biped prehistoric marine mammal. Amilyn snorted. “It’s called work!” With one bang of the hammer another leaf was nailed to the top of the door. She mumbled a curse. “Broke my favorite nail.” She examined her finger closely and waddled down the ladder and handed Karé the hammer. “Now you, angel pants,” she said. “I’m through.”

Karé took her place on the ladder and Amilyn gave orders to follow out her design.

“It’s supposed to be a bower, ya know.”

Karé nodded knowingly and the steady bangs of the hammer kept the conversation down.

Rey was surprised to see everyone in the dressing room so early for the Saturday matinee. Then she remembered; she’d been promoted. On the itinerary she noticed that her specialty was in the middle of the first act, her second number opened the second act.

“Pretty good spots for a new woman, eh?” Oola had been reading over her shoulder.

Rose looked up from the bedspread she was crocheting, sadly, “I guess you’re on your way to the rathole downstairs, Rey.”

“Oh, nuts.” Rey dragged her Japanese kimono from a hanger. “Why do I have to go down to the basement with the props? You wouldn’t want to dress there. It’s damp and…” She put her arms through flowing sleeves and pinned the robe on tightly.

“Because you’re the star.”

“I don’t care what I am,” Rey trilled. “I’d rather dress with everyone else than a pigsty.”

She shuffled toward the prop room, a large, drafty place to the left of the stage. Instead of stairs, a ramp lead to the double door. Threepio unlocked a huge padlock that was attached to a bar and socket. He opened the door enough for Rey to squeeze through.

“Didn’t want anybody to see the stuff until the move,” he said mysteriously.

With the exception of a small clearing for a card table and a few chairs, the room was filled to the ceiling with furniture and props and gags that would be found only in a burlesque theater. A gazeeka box, loaves of papier-mâché bread strung together, dozens of bladders, all sizes, hanging from the ceiling, a chandelier made of wood with leather braces for chorus girls to cling to, a park bench, a fireman’s helmet, and the constantly used bedroom suite. The bed was made. It was being used in the show, as usual. A lavender rayon spread concealed the fact that instead of the mattress there were boards. A tired, droopy doll, wearing a tarnished silver gown, was draped on the pillow. At the foot were several carefully wrapped packages.

“I walked my legs off getting some of this stuff,” Threepio said, “and wound up having to make most of it myself.”

Rey gave him the “There isn’t anything you can’t make” dialogue and the wide-eyed admiration look. His thin chest bulged a little under the faded blue overalls.

“Take this, for instance.” His callused hand offered Rey a piece of board with two clamps on the side, a roller between. “You know what it is?”

Rey nodded yes. It was obviously a toilet-tissue holder.

“Behold!” He inserted a roll of blue paper. With a dramatic gesture and all the timing of a good actor he tore off a strip of the tissue, then looked up, waiting for Rey’s reaction.

Music was coming from the roller! A tingling music-box version of Whistle While You Work.

“It’s wonderful!” she gasped.

“Yes? Well, that’s not all.” He waved a piece of tissue under her nose. It was perfumed. “Heliotrope,” he said proudly.

“Now you see why I had to let you in on the secret. I must have help to get the stuff out of the room so nobody will see them.”

“Why not after the show tonight?” she suggested.

“The paint on a couple of things won’t dry for twenty-four hours,” he said. There was a troubled wrinkle between his pale eyes.

Rey thought a second. “How’s about the finale of the first act?”

He slapped a fist in his hand. “By golly, that’s it!”

With all that settled, he began showing her the other surprises: a blue bath rug, a plunger painted to match with a rhinestone handle, a pair of oilcloth curtains.

“This is the most important of all,” he said.

At the end of the room stood the floral tribute, a huge horseshoe made of wax daises. A ribbon with success spelled out in gold letters was draped from side to side. It was fastened to an easel and must have been over six feet high.

“I wanted to get something more symbolic,” Threepio said, “like when they open a barbershop, they make a new pair of scissors out of flowers. Only all my ideas are too corny.”

“It couldn’t be more beautiful.” Rey reassured him.

Canady, the stage manager, found her. “Oh — it isn’t much now, but we’ll get all this junk out of here and have it fixed up nice for ya,” he said apologetically. “Classy enough to fit the Queen of Sheba.”

“It’s not junk! It’s — it’s — art!” she turned on Canady, her eyes on his retreating form. “You tell Luke I’m perfectly content where I’m at! Or I’ll revolt!” She winked at Threepio and closed the door gently as she left.

The chorus girls’ chatter through the ventilator reminded them that the opening was over. Bazine had a number after Amilyn’s strip. They both began dressing hurriedly. Bazine took off her kimono and pulled a plain black dress over her head and pinned on a floppy black hat with a red ostrich feather that hung down over her shoulder. She was doing Love for Sale. It seemed a very appropriate song. She vocalized the first eight bars, “Love for sale, appetizing young love for sale…”

Rose had the courtesy to wait until she left the room before saying, “Young love. With that face!”

Ben kicked the door open. “Hiya, Punkin. I gotta container of coffee and a bag of buns for ya.” He put them down on the nearest chair and made a dive for the stairs. “Got to make with the jokes. See ya later.”

Rose shook her head. “I don’t know which one of ‘em is the worse, so help me, I don’t.” She opened the container of coffee and a bag of sweet rolls. “Bazine’s knocks her with fancy fists and diamonds and this guy knocks you out with cute words and cold coffee.”

She was right. The coffee was cold. Rey dunked a roll and ate it. “Hot or cold, he’s a cutie,” she said between mouthfuls.

Amilyn came in dripping sweat, Karé almost following on her heels.

“Jesus are they tough today,” Amilyn complained.

“Oh, I hope they’re alright for me,” Karé said heavily. “By the way, why are Joe and Moe still in their cages?”

Amilyn turned her head away with a tired gesture.

“Bazine said she didn’t need the boys,” Oola answered offhandedly, “trying something new. Whee!”

“What’s that dame up to?” Amilyn spun on her heel and faced Oola. Rey thought for a minute she was going to strike her. Oola did, too. She backed away quickly.

“She didn’t say too much,” she stammered, “guess we’ll just have to wait and see.”

The orchestra picked up the last eight of Love For Sale in four and forte. With a glance at the itinerary, Rose shouted, “That’s her!”

There was a mad rush for robes, kimonos, and housecoats. In burlesque it was considered good form to wait until the second or third performance before catching a new act, but with Bazine it was different. They rushed downstairs, three abreast.

Even the dancers were in the wings, twenty deep. Rose explained to one that theirs was a professional interest. The kid nodded and let them move in her place.

Bazine was a smoothie alright. One peek convinced Rey of that. There was a hum of appreciation drifting over the footlights. Rey looked through the peephole at the rapt, sweating faces. A long, thin tongue licked the purple lips and the music built up to a crescendo. She flashed a rhinestone G-string, and with the same sensual, expressionless face she threw her torso into a bump that shook the balcony. The audience went mad. She dropped the skirt and waited for them to stop applauding.

Amilyn whispered in Rey’s ear, “I had a black cat like her once. Only not so jealous.” Rey looked. And she thought that competition wasn’t so tough after all. Just as she started relaxing — she never thought she’d have the nerve to take that brassière off — it happened. She not only took off the brassière, but her G-string, too. Rey couldn’t believe her eyes. There was nothing but a small strip of adhesive in front and a string of fringe in the back. How she kept that on Rey didn’t know. Glue maybe. The customers weren’t thinking about that anyway. That strip was practically the end of the show.

She had heard behind the velvet curtain, and Temmin, the tenor, was doing a ballad. Rey gritted her teeth when she thought of the setup Luke had given her. To strip in four shows a day was hard work — an Olympic marathon of struts, dips, grinds and bumps — when they all had to wear full net pants. And there were many types of strips nurtured — the wild strip, slow strip, sweet strip, strip-with-a-story, parade strip. Rating Rey’s act, Winchell had called it “seven minutes of sheer art.” Right after the raid, too. And then to have Temmin follow her in a pinned spot with a ballad! Rey was so mad she shook, and she wasn’t alone. Amilyn’s hot breath on the back of her neck was coming faster and faster. Rose stormed her way past them on her way out front. It would serve Luke right if she did make a scene, Rey thought. How in the name of burlesque can anyone follow that?

She must have spoken aloud because Karé’s coy voice asked, “Why didn’t she were full nets like everybody else?”

Rey liked Karé, always did, but at that moment she could have strangled her in cold blood. “I’m — not — sure,” she said deliberately. Karé edged away.

Ben had also been watching from the wings. After her outburst he gave her a mischievous grin. “Why do you let it get ya?” he asked. “You don’t work like that.”

Burlesque comics were less interested in art than in the broadest sort of cornball humor — sometimes slapstick, often raunchy:

“Ya know, Ren,” Hux ran his hand over the bald comic’s head, “your head feels exactly like my wife’s backside!”

Ren then ran his hand over his own head, “Ya know? You’re right!”

Rapid-fire puns and double-entendres were their simple stock in trade, and punchlines were emphasized with a leer and a bash from a billy club. Those comic sketches of theirs may not have been downright dirty, but even Luke, despite his somewhat sanitized account, did not deny they were earthy.

“No, I don’t, but I have to follow it. How’d you like to follow a comic that spits in his pants for a laugh?” Canady made a shushing gesture. “Oh, shush yourself!” she cried. Then Ben laughed. For a minute she didn’t like him either, then she laughed, too. It was silly to get mad at a thing like a woman taking off her pants.

On her way upstairs she decided to keep her specialty so girlish that the audience would think she was a fugitive from a finishing school. Organdy ruffles, a big picture hat, or a parasol, and strip trailers like Oh Promise Me and I Love You Truly.

And after removing her outer clothing and tossing several garters, she would begin to cooch.

From knee to neck she’d be convulsive. Every muscle becoming eloquent of primitive emotion. Amid groans, cat calls, and howls of approval from the audience, she’d stop. Standing suddenly erect, with a deft movement she’d reveal her nude right leg from knee almost to waist… Streaked and sweaty, her face taking on the aspect of epilepsy. She’d bite her lips, roll her eyes, pull fiercely at great handfuls of her brown, foamy hair. Indescribable noises and loud suggestions mingling in the hot breath of the audience. Men in the orchestra rising with shouts. A woman — one of six present — hissing. Laughter becoming uproarious. And then, sensing her climax, Rey would give a little cry that was more of a yelp, and cease.

Rose was throwing things around the room again. A box of powder exploded on the wall. “Ach-to!” she yelled. “I’ll Ach-to him.” A jar of cold cream missed her head by inches.

Karé whispered, Luke went away for a couple of days. “That’s why she’s so mad.”

Amilyn was ransacking the old wardrobe trunk. A pile of gaily colored rags that were once costumes were heaped beside her. She finally found something that interested her, a piece of pink monkey fur about three inches square. With fiendish determination she glued it on in place of her G-string. As she stood before the mirror admiring her new “costume” Rey could visualize the cops walking down the aisles again.

Crash! An empty bottle hit the sink. Rose paused to get her breath. “So help me,” she vowed, “on the night show I’m going to take off a couple of layers of skin.”

Karé and Rey tried to quiet her. “Don’t be too hard on her. She’s bad luck to some people and not so much to others,” Karé cautioned.

“Luke will hear about the scene you’re making and then he’ll think we’ve been picking on her,” Rey said.

“Yes. She’ll have a beef and Luke will give her the better of it.”

The fight was all out of Rose though. She began brushing her black cherry-colored hair, counting each stroke carefully. Suddenly her face lit up. “Let’s shoot the wad and eat at Ronto’s,” she said. “I’m sick of that damned drugstore grub.”

Her idea started a purse-fumbling contest. Amilyn unsnapped the catch on her grouch bag and counted off two dollars. “A buck for dinner and a buck for drinks.” She bit the inside of her mouth thinking. “Yep, that’s for me,” she decided finally.

With the exception of one showgirl who was too stingy to treat herself to a fancy feedbag and Hux, who was too stingy period, a pre-party dinner was arranged.

Ben and Finn joined them at Ronto’s later. Rey was paying so the first round of drinks was Ben’s treat. Rose bought a round, then Rey had to go for one. Amilyn loosened up for the whole two bucks and by then it was time for the theater again. An old German cuckoo clock went into its act; the bedraggled little bird poked its head out of the window eight times.

“My Gawd,” Finn yelled, “it’s a half hour and we ain’t ate yet.” There was time for one quick round, though, so they all ordered another martini each. They were served in big glasses with the little sour onions instead of olives.

Amilyn staggered a little when she went to get her coat. “Hic. Never seen it to fail,” she said. “Every time I eat onions I get drunk.”

Paying the check was an ordeal. The waiters had to collect an installment from each of them. Amilyn tried to pretend she was too drunk to count, but Finn held her while Rose went through her pockets.

They never could decide why Ronto’s didn’t cater to them after that night. Amilyn walking off with half the silverware in her purse might have accounted for it, but Rey always thought it was because Ben tried to take the hall tree with him. It would have been alright if there hadn’t been so many coats and hats on it.

Maz Kanata was waiting in the stage entrance. She was the G-string woman who once a week made the rounds of the theaters. “I meant to tell you, Punkin, black and red are my favorite colors. And no fancy contraptions or they’ll get in my way,” Ben winked and clicked his tongue at her. Maz must have been waiting for a long time because there was a small mound of cigarette butts on the floor beside her. They were all smoked down to a quarter of an inch and the wet ends were pinched together. Rey remembered her as the horn-rimmed couturier. She made beautiful underwear. Her suitcase on the trunk was opened to show the new line of net pants and brassières. Over the lid the rhinestone gadgets were on display. She always remembered a figure; she kept track of their measurements in a little black book.

Oola was the first to grab a rhinestone number that a couple of them had their eyes on.

“That one there is five bucks,” Maz said, with the usual cigarette hanging from her lower lip.

“Five bucks!” Oola gasped. “Why I never paid over three since I’ve been wearing them.”

“Well, beads has gone up,” she replied stiffly, “and I got a living to make.” She took the G-string from Oola and held it up to her wrist. “Anyway, this here is plush-lined. Plain, I can let you have one for four bucks.”

The plush lining sold Oola. With a giggle she snatched the costume from Maz and scurried upstairs. Maz put her name in the black book with the note that she owed five dollars and turned to her other customers.

Rose was trying on a blue satin nightgown. “I’ll give you five bucks for it,” Rose said.

“That one is real Alençon lace. Like a glove it fits.”

Rose and Rey bought plain net pants and Jannah finally bought another brassière, not because she needed it, because brassières were her hobby.

As Maz wrote the items with the stubby, chewed pencil, she said casually, “Just seen Grum’s waiters bringing in a barrel of beer. And a case of rye, too. Must be going to have a party, huh?”

“You should stick around, Maz,” Rose yelled after her. “Anyhow, the party ain’t until after the next show.”

An expression of acknowledgment crossed Maz’s face, then she grinned.

“Okay,” she said brightly, “I’ll wait.” Swinging her suitcase in front of her she went back to the stage entrance and flopped down on the trunk. She pulled her feet up and braced herself comfortably before she began making a supply of rolled cigarettes.

Chapter Text

It hadn’t worked out the way Rey had wanted it. And now, here I am hopelessly in love, reflected Rey, standing before the mirror in the dressing room, fastening the garland of tiny blossom buds, adjusting the full blown pink daisy in the center. She undulated her hips, watching the calibrachoa buds dance on her tanned, satiny midriff. Two velvet daisy petals barely covered her own pearly buds. Raising her arms, she watched the effect closely. Her eyes looked like tiny mountain lakes imbedded in black fringe.

Rey frowned as the door was pushed open; her lover would properly knock. Her eyes narrowed as she beheld Bazine in her red, sequined costume. Bazine’s face was a livid mask of fury. Hands on her hips, she shot a vicious glance at Rey and her voice hissed.

“So you got it all, you lousy tramp from nowhere. You stole my spot. But that wasn’t enough, you had to steal Ren from me.”

“It wasn’t hard and I didn’t have to steal him. Egotism is just a case of nonentity.”

“I can’t keep him from giving you a tumble,” Bazine laughed harshly. “But I won’t let you keep him. I saw him first, do you hear? But you wouldn’t understand.”

Tears of rage and frustration dug a path down Bazine’s thick coat of makeup. “I came to ask you to give Ren back to me. I can see that you wouldn’t know what to do with that much of a man. You had Sheev wild about you — what do you want with Ren?”

“It pays to be nice to the boss’ nephew.” Rey’s giggle was wicked. “Isn’t that what was on your mind when you found out he was next in line to take over the theater? Well, you figured if you got your fangs in him it’d put you in the limelight. Except now I’m out front. I like it. And what I want from Ren is what any woman wants from a poor man. That’s the way it goes.” Rey laughed dryly.

“If you think I’ll let you get away with it, you have another thought coming,” Bazine’s voice grated. “I’ll fix you. Ren has no idea you’re looking up a guy named Plutt.”

“You don't know what you're talking about,” dared Rey, feeling rather uncomfortable. She must have slipped somewhere. She hadn’t told Ben about Uncle, or that he and Plutt were one in the same, only Luke knew the hazy details, and she intended to keep her family affairs as private as possible. Smart as Ben was, she was smarter; she had him fooled. By now he was eating out of her hand, at least, so she had hoped.

“I’ll fix your wagon.”

Bazine sneaked up on her from behind, and her long, lacquered, blood-red claws dug into Rey’s thighs, streaking them with red lines. Rey felt Bazine’s cruel nails digging into the tender flesh of her buttocks. Turning, she yanked Bazine’s hand away. Her eyes were almost black; and her own hands fastened on Bazine’s locks, pulling hard. Bazine’s hand shot out slapping Rey’s cheek hard, again and again.

“There, and there, and there, you damned hussy! You may have Ren fooled with that goody-goody baby in the woody routine but you never fooled me. I hated you first time I ever saw you.”

“That goes double.” Rey’s hands pulled and she let go of the screaming Bazine, she held a strand of black hair in her fist. Again Bazine’s nails belabored her body, marking her hips.

“I’ll fix you, you sand tramp,” she hollered. “You’ll look pretty with your face a swollen lump and those marked thighs.” She laughed wildly and there was a mad gleam in her dark eyes.

Rey looked around and her eyes fell on a big, silverback hairbrush. Rey picked it up by the end of the long handle and started swinging it at Bazine, who recoiled, smashed into a table littered with bottles and jars. It crashed to the floor and jars and bottles splintered into bits.

And now they were at each other, skin to skin. Rey’s G-string and daisy petals lay on the floor, trampled by Bazine’s savage heels. One of the girl’s claws dug into the elastic flesh of Rey’s exposed breast who screamed loudly. Rey raised her other hand up to her breast to rub the small wound, the hairbrush dangling loosely in her hand in so doing.

As quick as a flash, Bazine darted out, prying the hairbrush completely away from Rey. Then, before Rey could recover her shocked bearings, that strong hand of steel was clamped in her side again and she was propped over Bazine’s lap.

Rey was well aware of what Bazine was intending to do to her. She’d quite vividly remembered the last occasion when Bazine had found herself in such a position with Amilyn and now Bazine had a hairbrush — a big, heavy, oversized hairbrush — which she fully intended to use on her:

“No no,” Rey screeched. “No, Bazine; no!”

“What do you think, you can get any mercy for me?” said Bazine with evil, sardonic laughter. “Well then, you’re very much mistaken,” she answered her own rhetorical question. “Because you won’t. You didn’t learn your lesson from the last time you got it. So this time, you’re gonna really get it! I’ll teach you to lay off, you lousy, little bitch. I’ll teach you to steal the spotlight away from me and my men. Yes, I’ll teach you. I’ll pound that pretty, sassy little rump of yours until it bleeds. That’s what I’ll do. Then we’ll see if you’ll learn to lay off or not.”

“No, Baz. Please, no.”

“What’s good for the hair is good for the derrière!”

Then Bazine was swishing the hairbrush over her head and through the air. It landed with the sharp, cracking thud. Rey screamed loudly. But unlike the previous time when Amilyn had rescued her, Bazine wasn’t interrupted to rant and rave. She was too enraged for that. She just kept swinging as fast and furiously as she only could. Every shot was hard and pounding, and Rey screamed anew every time the big, oversized meat end of the brush landed on her soft, bare flesh.

Rey thrashed about and kick her legs frantically up and down in a dire effort to get somewhat out of the range of the savagely biting hairbrush back; but all to no avail. Again and again it landed. Rey didn’t believe that such pain was possible — the agony she was in. It was so excruciating, that it would have been totally impossible for her to have previously conceived such a thing. It was as though, every time she received a blow, some huge guillotine had dropped from it scaffold, deep into her flesh, and was utterly burning and tearing it to pieces.

Still, Bazine didn’t let up… Five-ten… fifteen blows… Rey’s soft, previously taffy-hued flesh, was now entirely covered with scarlet welts and ridges from the terrific momentum of the heavy hairbrush back being embedded in her soft, now raw, flesh.

Twenty… Twenty-five! It actually looked like Bazine was going to make good her threat literally. To pound Rey’s soft bottom until it bled. By now, welts had appeared on top of welts even. Rey had stopped screaming, her voice being reduced to a soft but harsh murmur. Her legs had stopped kicking also, as it was impossible for her to continue to move them; they lay still, feeling like two huge, immovable elevator pillars.

“What’s going on here? Stop it.” Ben, white-faced and tense, stepped forward. Luke and Amilyn were behind him. They separated the two girls, prying Rey loose off of Bazine’s lap; but not before thirty-two tremendous wallops had been delivered on Rey’s bare, soft flesh. Thirty-two, to the exact count!

Ben, seeing immediately what had transpired, or at least getting more than a vague idea upon even his initial, superficial observation, said softly to Rey:

“You’re hurt, Rey. Here, lay down.” He led the wavering, trembling figure to the couch and Rey sat down, still screeching wildly — uninhibitedly now — as convulsive sobs raked her whole body with spasms.

Luke stared at the marks on the girl’s breast and the one side that was exposed of her thoroughly beaten buttocks and turned to Bazine. His icy eyes ran over her bedraggled form, taking in the tousled mane of hair, the torn dress, noticing her breasts escaping from her brassiere, spilling out of the torn front of her dress. Bazine’s eyes were smoldering pits of fury still.

But Luke’s voice was controlled. What was done, couldn’t be undone, he figured resignedly. “I suggest you leave this room at once. Also, as of today, you don’t work here anymore.” And she gazed at him with the eyes of a stricken animal, his voice rose to a pitch of fury. All of his previous, suppressed self-control, went completely by the wayside. “Well, don’t look at me like a sick cow. It’s all your own doing.”

“Luke!” Bazine’s arms were raised in an imploring gesture as Rey continued to scream just as wildly as ever from the excruciating pain she was still in.

Amilyn was well aware of this cacophonic accompaniment in the background. “Didn’t you hear him? Get out!” she commanded. Suddenly she swung at her — two full, backhanded blows — which caught her once on each cheek. It was now Bazine’s turn to screech. Then, as Amilyn took her around the waist and pushed her towards and out of the door, she gave her a vicious kick with her knees, square in the center of her buttocks, making the girl screech again even louder than before when she had double-slapped her face. Amilyn immediately slammed the door and locked it.

Ben went to the medicine cabinet and got some cotton and disinfectant. As he came over to the couch, Rey’s eyes, enormous pools of green, were fixed on his face. She had stopped her screeching, but her body still trembled with convulsive sobs. All at once she got new strength from some latent source. Probably over what had just occurred between Luke, Amilyn and Bazine — the action they had taken against her. Rey whimpered, “I’m a sight, Ben. I won’t be able to go on tonight.”

“Nonsense, dear.” He saturated the cotton and daubed at her breast, touching the other marks along her thighs and buttocks. “Luke’ll send Rose in; she’ll take care of those marks. She’s used to it,” he laughed. There was a note of ardor in his voice. “Does it hurt badly, Rey?” He bent down, touching the bruises delicately with his lips.

She sighed. “I wonder why by Bazine hates me so,” she said coyly.

“Let’s not fool each other, Rey. Bazine wants what you have — me! But she’s all through, with me AND the theater.”

Rey closed her eyes to digest this. It was worth being bruised and beaten, even as badly as she was, to have the threat of Bazine removed permanently. It was more than adequate compensation. She could even afford to appear generous now.

“Now Ben,” coaxed her voice, “don’t be too hard on her. The girl is desperately in love with you. She IS attractive. But I can well understand why you don’t care. Women in love are so tiresome.”

Ben looked at her for a long time speculatively. “The only thing Bazine loves is rubies, silks and furs.” Then he laughed and said in an odd tone of his voice, “I don’t think that could possibly ever happen to you — being tiresome. Well,” abruptly his tone changed and became brisk, “Luke’ll send Rose in immediately, so she can put some hot lard lotion on your hips. That way you won’t have any black an’ blue marks later from the hairbrush and all of the bruised feeling — that dull, throbbing pain — will be gone. Phasma replacing Bazine and her snake number can take your spot for the first show; so don’t worry. By midnight you ought to feel up to it.”

“Ben,” he was at the door and turned, looking at her arms held out to him, “I think I could do with a kiss.”

“Yes, but Miss Kitty will have to wait until tonight.” He went out, slamming in the door.

Rey laughed softly. He was embarrassed, now she really had him where she wanted him. Her cheek stung and the bruises burned, especially her bottom which was still one raw blaze of agony. Bazine was a wild cat. How she must love him — as much as she hates me, thought Rey. Was any man worth fighting over? She couldn’t understand it.

Then she thought of Ben and a hand seemed to clutch fiercely at her heart. The burly theaters that still offered all-rounder comedic leading men like him — why, they’re about as hard to find as a stripper’s right age.

Tomorrow she must phone Uncle. He might be back earlier than expected. He might read about the sensational new stripper, the Golden Farceur, on the amusement page of the Batuuian never doubting her to be his little niece whom he had last seen as a drab, shabby girl in a drab, shabby town.

And now her mind drifted to the actuality of her triangular project: Rey — Benji — Ren. Of course, she preferred Benji to Ren. Benji’s lovemaking was tender and voracious at the same time; he gloated over her, savored her as he would a chocolate éclair. He picked her up, enjoyed playing with her, then put her back on her altar. He didn’t dare impose on her or asked how she spent her girltime away from him. When they tried to give their flaming loins a rest one season, they both felt extremely uncomfortable from the tension that arose when they mutually suppressed their instincts. Thus, weekending at his suite and dazzling him.

“You certainly know how to treat your coveted lover gracefully,” he had complemented proudly, the days she had invited herself to his room. She chuckled in amusement. It was rich, having two providers living in the same body! And she was just a poor starving creature.

His tie was loosened, suit jacket gone, shirtsleeves turned up to expose his forearms crossed over his chest, feet spread in a power stance. And his eyes were locked squarely on her.

He had to be the sexiest man in the entire world, as far as she was concerned. The exposure trembled down her legs, and she locked her knees to stop it from showing.

She wet her lips in a slow pass that screamed seduction. The movement swiped out at Ben in the tease that it was. And for some damn reason, he wanted to tease her right back. His tongue pushed at his teeth, but he kept them tightly closed.

“Oh please, let me.” He knelt down in front of her and pulled her closer with one hand, setting the other to her soft, bare ankle beneath her skirts. “Rey. You’re not wearing any stockings,” he whispered in her ear.

“I’m not?” she asked. “Not that I try to live up to the name of Hot Garters, but I do occasionally forget.” She dipped her head, and he adored her embarrassment. “And I didn’t expect anyone to see.”

“I can’t see,” he whispered, letting his frustration fill the words, loving the laugh he summoned with the words.

“I most certainly didn’t expect anyone to touch.”

“Mmm,” he replied, letting his hand climb higher.

“That’s the problem with being flame, Rey… moths want to touch.”

“Show me,” she whispered.

God help him, he did, taking her lips and letting his hand climb higher pushing her skirts up, over her knee, revealing a long, soft expanse of leg. He took her thigh in hand, lifting her leg, pressing closer, and damned if she didn’t come to the edge of the ice block to meet him. He pressed a line of kisses to her shoulder and down the slope of one breast to the neckline of her dress. “Here?” he whispered, playing at the place where her breast rose from the spangled fabric. He raised a hand, tugged at the bodice, baring more skin, enough to reveal the upper edge of a nipple. He stretched back, the tip clearly caught between his teeth, and her back arched impossibly more. “Here?” He licked at the soft skin, loving the way it puckered beneath his touch. She hissed at the sensation and he pulled back from her. “Are you catching cold?” He stole her line. She shook her head. “No. No. No. No.” Her fingers tightened at his head and she rose toward him, closing the distance between them. “Again, please.”

Yes, please. Rey’s back bowed, her other nipple aching for the same attention.

She swallowed. Inhaled. The heavy scent of sex and arousal flooded her, adding another layer of stimulation. She sucked in another long, slow breath.

A soft whimper of want tumbled out before she realized it was there.

He feasted on Rey. That was the only way she could describe it. His head buried between her spread legs. While she rolled a nipple between her fingertips. She squirmed, another purring moan tumbling out before a gasped “Please.”

No admirer had been so devoted to her. Ever.

Bare-chested, he undid his pants and wiggled out of them. Once he was completely naked, she pushed his legs apart then used her nose to sniff his legs. She moved up and up until she reached his groin. She used her hands, her nose and her mouth and was all over every part of his bunnies.

“Bunnies” is what Kaydel called that part of the male anatomy.

She was known as “Kay Le Bang” because she worked so hard and fast, with bumps and grinds that shook the second balcony.

“I like you, Rey. So I’m gonna help you out. I want people to be happy. ‘Cause sometimes when I tell the truth, women look at me funny. ‘What side are you on, Kay?’ Well, I’ll tell you! I’m on the side of love. I’m on the side of ‘let’s tell the truth, stay happy an’ never get divorced.’ ‘Cause I lost an armoire and a dog and I’m still sore! I’m going to tell you some things. They’re hard truths. Ya kint change a man. Get that idea right out of your silly little head. Pick one you like just the way he is. Why? ‘Cause a man is in his simplest form. It’s like trying to bend a rock. So stop nagging at him. Men are simple. Why? ‘Cause they got outdoor plumbin’, and it pulls on their lower spine an’ creates pressure on their medulla oblongata making it impossible to hold a complicated and convoluted thought. You’ve got to relax. You know what Ren wants from you? Remember, men are simple and delusional. This is as good as it’s gonna get. So you hafta love him an’ embrace ‘im. Won’t that be swell? And you’ll make it to your fiftieth wedding anniversary if you remember to keep it simple. He only wants three things from you. Three! Are you ready to hear ‘em? One, be in a good humor. Two, be quiet! And, three, lick ‘im. Now, I’m going to break it down to you. ‘Cause ya look like you’ve had an apoplexy. Number one, it’s a cinch that people want to be around other people who are happy. Take responsibility. Don’t get yourself in a bad humor if you did something he didn’t ask you to do and he didn’t celebrate your little accomplishment. Number two, when I say shaddup, I don’t mean all the time. Some of us sling around the larynx or crack wise for a living. I just mean selectively quiet. We women tend to want to talk all the time. If it’s in our head, it’s out our mouths. So when he comes home from work, let ‘im come through the door. Shhh!! He has to unwind first. Let ‘im go to the kitchen an’ grab a beer. Let ‘im go into the den, loosen his tie and unbuckle his belt. Let a little breeze pass the bunnies. And then ask him, ‘How was your day, dear?’ And then give him the news report. Let ‘im relax. Do ya understand what I mean when I say the ‘bunnies’? You know, the bunnies, Rey. The testicles. Gonads. Balls. The thing is woids are powerful, and the more you make sumpin’ sound cute the more likely you are to pet it. Men like it when you pet de bunnies. ‘Cause they’re very sensitive. They’re not pretty, the bunnies. There ain’t nothin’ like dat on a woman. No matter how young a man is, the bunnies look old. You never get a new pair. Just hand-me-downs. ‘Your uncle Beauregard died and left you his balls, son. Wear ‘em in good health. These are good ones. Civil War balls.’ They like it when you touch ‘em. Which brings me to number three — and I don’t want to sound crass. So I’m just going to say it fast. Please pay attention. Learntolickacock. Do ya hear me, Rey?”

He could feel her snuffling and taking deep breaths.

He loved the imagery, even if it didn’t make rational sense.

She licked him repeatedly up and down his shaft. Occasionally, she’d draw the head in her mouth and suck but mostly her wet tongue worked him over but good. She could just hear Kay in her head:

“After he slurped on Snap ‘the Wonder Clam,’ do ‘im a good turn. Yes, Rey. I have a name for that, too.”

And there she was with her face between his legs.

“You’re going to make me come,” he said, still unable to move his arms.

“Yes. I am.”

She was so definitive that he grew very still. Rey had something specific in mind. It was erotic as hell.

All the licking had made his cock wet. She stroked with one hand, plunging down and flicked her tongue over the head of his cock.

“I ain’t kiddin’, Rey,” his voice raised a couple octaves and sounded squeaky. “I’m going to come. I want to hold back for you. But if you keep this up…”

Her nose wrinkled up and she bared her teeth. “This is my show, Benji. Now give me what I want!”

Was this his sweet little Rey, showing her teeth and making demands?

He’d never been so turned on. Or frightened. But mostly turned on.

Because she kept stroking, he was ready to fire one off.

“I’m going to suck you now, Benji, and I want your come inside me and down my throat!”

The moment she began to take steady draws on the head of his cock, he let it all go and began to come. He’d been needing and poking with Rey for a month and here she was sucking him dry.

His throat opened up and a strange sound, like a howl, came out of his throat.

Rey kept working him just right, as pleasure pulsed through his cock.

Her voice added to the sensation. “That’s it, Baby, come for me.”

When he opened up and cried again, his bunnies sent another round rushing through him. The intense pleasure had his back arching hard. The whole time, she kept stroking and sucking bringing every pulse into her mouth, until at last he was empty and his hips had settled down on the bed.

When she lifted up, she crooked her finger, motioning, and he bent down and put his mouth on hers. “I love the taste of you.”

She still tasted him in her mouth. She kept licking her lips. She wanted more.

She couldn’t believe how she’d gone after his genitals, demanding that he release into her mouth first. Because he always said he loved how her mouth looked. And her instincts had told her that was what she needed, so she’d gone with it. The second time he rubbed between her shiny, slickened cheeks and came on her buttocks. He looked so happy; making a mess. Just like some wild beast marking his territory. She didn’t even know a man could come more than once without passing out and snoring like Kay’s loafing ex-husband or some of the other girls’ milquetoast boyfriends.

And that’s when she felt it, how much stronger she was in her bones and muscles. Something about taking his hot and creamy spend into her body had strengthened and changed her even more.

Of course she loved Ren and his artful lovemaking stirred her up; it was invigorating. He gave of himself as much as he wanted to give — never in halves. Well, she decided, she would make herself give him all of her.

Ben’s sloppy kisses and his unselfish attention on her, incidentally also got her in the mood, her use of his body, all thrilled her. And he had, by now, three thousand dollars in the bank. It might not be a bad idea to be married to a man like Ben; he had a heart as big as Texas. Oh yes, Benjamin Solo — Kylo Ren — loved her. He might say it, but she could also feel it.

Of course she hadn’t said it. Jannah had warned her about that. “The guy has got to go first,” she’d said. “Otherwise, you come off as needy and end up with egg on your face.” Maybe that was true and maybe it wasn’t, but Rey hadn’t found the courage to say it yet.

She thought of him as he had been this morning after they’d made love. She was combing through trade papers while he lay sprawled across the bed, sleeping. The top sheet was wrapped around his leg, the rest of him wonderfully naked. His dark and thick hair, which he often wore straight and greased, was covering part of his face. He was beautiful — a strong, pointed jaw, firm chin, high cheekbones, and a single dimple in his right cheek when he smiled. He bore little resemblance to Anakin, although there were times when a certain expression brought back the memory of the Old Master. And he had clear and sparkling penny-brown eyes beneath heavy brows with thick black lashes that made her absolutely melt.

But it wasn’t just his looks she — and most every other actress in Batuu — loved. It was that he was so good to her, morally supportive. And bright. And snappy. Especially in the mornings. They both were a riot in their underwear.

Maybe Amilyn was right. It had been almost two months. They were perfect for each other. And they hadn’t talked about the future in a long time. Maybe, she thought with a smile, that her career and her love life were reaching new heights. Maybe everything was coming together in perfect symmetry, she was finally getting a break.

She would be headed for a new life altogether. Maybe they’d get a new apartment, she thought. Something bigger. Something uptown. She would devote more of her time to him, accompany him to the races, even play cribbage with him. She’d let him teach her the silly game.

Her eyes closed, and even the entrance of Hanoi Rose did not awaken her. But Rose’s deft fingers and the pungent aroma of the liquid rubbing into her sore spots, made her eyes open.

“Hi Rose, you have the softest touch.” Rey’s green eyes smiled at the attractive girl in blue halter and shorts.

“You must hold still and let it soak in. It may burn a little but it’s healing. Bazine claw you?” Her big, Hershey bar eyes looked knowingly at Rey who nodded. “She has it in for you. She stormed out of here, yelling she’d get even with you. Luke fired her.”

“Yes, I know. I’m sorry about it,” lied Rey.

“No, you’re not. At least, you ought to be glad. You’re on top now. Strippers come and go. After a month or more, the audience wants a change. Bazine lasted longer than most. Not with Luke,” she said, “no one lasts with Luke, Rey.” Her eyes, wise and serious, were on Rey’s face.

“You don’t have to tell me, Rose. But thanks for the warning. I know you mean well. But I’m tough.” Rey’s laughter sounded brutal. “I’m not afraid of any man. Sometimes I wonder whether I’m human at all.”

“I don’t get you.” Rose shook her black curls. “You’re too young to be so — blasé. Here you have a Svengali papa in Skywalker, who snaps his fingers for his little…”

“Correction,” Rey laughed, “I have Rey. I’m both mother and father to myself.”

“But only yesterday—”

“That was yesterday when I wanted a diamond pacifier. Now that I have it, I changed my mind.”

“But it must be kind of” Rose searched for the proper word, “lonesome, I mean not to love anybody.” Her face looked tragic.

“I can’t do it,” Rey giggled, “I have to think of myself. I’ve gone through a lot to get these things. My life has been bitter and hard. I’m not like other women. All I've got are these things. Without them, I'd be nothing.”

Rose shook her head, it was too much for her.

“What about Ren? What have you two kids been doing? What’s this I hear about long weekends?”

“What do you mean?”

“You oughta know. So don’t give me that cold-blooded business.”

“I see where Bazine has had a busy week. Oh, that’s just a crazy rumor that somebody started.”

“I was under the impression it was more than a rumor. Baz seemed to have some very definite information. She was quite upset about it.”

“Bazine would be.”

“Isn’t it true?”

“Bazine is a fool for making up a bunch of absurd stories.”

“I know a hundred different ways to make a man cry uncle, so we can do this the easy way or the hard way.”

“Okay, it’s true.”

“Don’t you think you’re being rather foolish?”

“Perhaps. You know what he did the first night I went out with him? We were walking through the Sleepytime bar, on our way out. And he pointed out a patch of beer, he bridal carried me over it…” She paused. “...I always think about that when people ask that question.” Another pause. “I thought — would Galli Rax have ever done that? No. Would Niv Lee? Yolo Ziff?”

“Was he the fella that hired the skywriter?”

“Yes.”

“Just checking.”

“I never feel alone with him. So we’ve spent all this time together. But I could feel myself getting anxious… I knew there would be a confrontation over marriage. He started getting that look taking me home in the middle of the night, all the lying and pussyfooting… you know that look?” Rose giggled. “He has the ability to grab your heart and tear it to pieces.”

“A torn up heart doesn’t seem to go with that smile somehow.”

“And then you know it’s going to be a problem. Ben has his own ideas about marriage, and I have mine. So we went through all the different feelings, all the different arguments you’re supposed to go through. What will it do to… independence? Career? The relationship?”

“This may be all very well for Ren, but letting you in for this sort of thing is a bit thick, isn’t it?”

“Oh, no, now, don’t blame him, Rose. Ben wants to do right. I’ve been fighting him off all season.”

“Don’t you want to get married, Rey?”

“Not particularly. No.”

“Why? Because you want to be sure?”

“Oh, I am sure of our love. It’s marriage I want to be sure of.”

“You have theories.”

“Yes, I have. Nearly every girl I knew back in Jakkuville was either unhappily married or unhappily divorced, and I simply came to the conclusion long ago that marriage was diseasterous to love. There’s too much about it that’s all wrong — the awful possession people exert over each other, the intimacy, and the duties. I don’t know… but love can’t stand the strain, that’s all.”

“Nah. Love can stand the strain, Rey.”

“Not from my observation.”

“I think the marriages that have frightened you have very little to do with love. And, from my own observation, I’d say those marriages were based on anything but love. Women have to have husbands and they get them. Those are the kinds of marriages that don’t last. The ones based on love do.”

“And that’s why I mauled him anyway. Twice.” She laughed, relieved. “This is all so comical. Here I am talking about the possibilities of our love not enduring and we’re hopelessly in love.”

“You two won’t be able to get away from it for long. I don’t doubt that there are many relationships of that kind, but the successful ones marry sooner or later. Ya can’t lick the marriage institution. Now, as I was told, Phasma will do the first show. I’ll put makeup on those bruises before you go on, Rey. No one will notice. I can’t remember the day when Bazine clawed me,” she chuckled.

“You? What for?”

“Oh, it was about Finn. I just had my sudden yen for him and she made a crack. I punched her in the jaw.”

“I’m sorry, Rose,” her arms were around her. “You’re a saint, you know.”

“Save the mascara,” and she shrugged.

“Where is Finn now?” Rey wanted to know.

Rose’s limpid eyes twinkled. “Right where he belongs, with me. He’s my husband,” she added quietly.

In disbelief Rey stared at Rose. “You, a stripper, and Finn, a comic… But doesn’t Paige object?”

“How could she?” Rose smiled cryptically. “She doesn’t know I’m at it again. You see,” she sat down on the edge of the couch, her eyes far away, “he had loads of money when he met me. I was stripping then, when Luke had the Takodana Castle. And he spent it on me. That is, I got what the ponies didn’t take. Now she’s about to lose her eyesight, lying in a Otomok clinic, and with the money gone, it’s only fair for her to think the money that’s needed to maybe save her eyesight is coming from where Finn lost it — from the ponies.”

“You mean — she thinks…” Rey’s eyes were like saucers.

“Exactly. She thinks we’re down here having a streak of luck at the track. Luke was decent enough to give me my old job back. My Seven Veils dance, minus six veils, doesn’t drive the customers mad but I fit in nicely.”

Rey stared at Rose like at a seven day wonder. It seemed incredible to her just how far a woman’s love could reach.

“When is the operation?” she asked.

“When we get the final three hundred together. It won’t be long.”

Rey shook her head. “You must love her very much, your sister. And your Finn.”

“I love them more than myself,” stated Rose simply, trying to reveal the miracle of love to Rey.

So that was why Rose, who was very attractive, never joined the wild parties but went home, with Finn, right after the last show; why she wore five ninety-eight dresses and mended her nylons. She did without to help restore her sister’s eyesight. Rey was amazed and deeply shocked. Also, Rose’s sacrifice frightened her; she couldn’t understand it.”

Chapter Text

It wasn’t as easy as she had thought for Bazine to find another spot. News in the strip circuit travels fast and the news that she spelled trouble preceded her, also the fact that being thirty-four (she looked thirty) was much against her. The customers went for the tender chickens, unless one were Gypsy Rose Lee, which she was not. Luke had just paid her for that week and she owed a stack of bills. After making the rounds of the better theaters, and there were just so many using strip acts, she went to see Sam Snoke. The season was well underway which made it more difficult to land a job. They knew each other well, she and Snoke. It was humiliating that she, the Ophiologist Sinsation, had to come and beg for a job. Six weeks ago when he had been after her to place her with the Supremacy Club, she had scorned the offer. They paid only eighty-five a week, but she had been getting one hundred and fifty with Luke. Now eighty-five looked good to her.

She was sitting in Snoke’s cubbyhole of an office, across from his desk, her eyes flicking over the walls plastered with semi-nude girl smiling at her in various alluring poses, they all seemed to be leering at her. She focused her eyes on Sam’s spidery figure hunched in his chair. His bald head shone like a pink billiard ball and behind his horn-rimmed lenses were sharp gray eyes squinting at her.

Bazine crossed her exciting long legs, knowing Snoke went for legs. Her hands fidgeted with her green linen hanky and slowly her stiff, mascaraed lashes fluttered up and her lips broke into a smile.

“Long time no see, Sam,” she purred. “I know it’s my fault but you know how it is, being busy.”

“I know how it was,” stated Snoke dryly, a shrewd expression on his hawk-like features, “and I also know how it is with you now. If you weren’t down and out you wouldn’t be here.” He shifted the mass of papers on his desk from the right to the left, his cool gaze on her.

“Now Sam, is that nice? Of course you know what gives. My engagement at the Grand Theatre is over. And I knew you’d get me a spot. After all, I’m known, my routine sets them crazy.”

“You are known, that’s the trouble — too much so. And all the good spots are filled. But I could get you a spot, you’re an attractive number — if you treat me right.” Now a gleam came into his eyes and his looks centered on her sunback dress which had practically no back and very little front. The tight green bodice spanned her full bosom, the low décolleté revealing the cleft between her overripe breasts, totally revealed as she now bent forward, an enticing smile on her lips.

“I always treat people right if they treat me right,” she said, getting up and stepping close to him. Snoke’s nostrils quivered, inhaling the strong, exotic perfume emanating from her entire person. Bending low so that her bosom was within reach of his loose lips, she wondered whether she’d have to go all the way. Looking at his greedy eyes, the slabbering mouth, she knew she would have to please that revolting little man.

“You’re quite a piece,” his voice sounded choked, “tasty enough to eat and I think I shall help myself.” His gray, blue-veined hand with the bony fingers lifted the apples out of the basket. He weighed them in his hand, his eyes bulging at the sight of their elastic firmness. He giggled, making them bounce and Bazine felt like slapping his ugly face. He took delight in kneading and squeezing them. And now he said, “I feel like a baby.”

She held herself rigid, standing against the desk in a humped position, while his moist lips nashed greedily of the pink goodies. As he let go, Bazine watched the saliva trickling down his chin.

“I better lock the door; right now you’re my most important client and I don’t like to be interrupted during a business conference.” He laughed and crossed over, turning the key in the lock.

Bazine was boiling over. She would have to go all the way but before she did she wanted to make sure. She watched Snoke discard his shirt and unbuckle his fancy snakeskin belt. His hand was at his shirt, when she said: “Sam, what spot have you got in mind for me? I mean, right now.” Her eyes were sharp and her mouth was set in a determined line.

“Don’t be too choosy, baby. Season’s almost gone. Waxie Maul at the Crimson Dawn Lounge will be glad to take you. Deliah Blue, the Dallying Damsel, quit cold.”

“That lousy bum, that queen! I’d rather starve than work on Valara Beach,” ejected Bazine.

“Now that’s no way to talk about your future boss,” advised Snoke. Maul’s okay and he pays seventy-five.”

“Seventy-five! That’s half of what I was getting at the Grand.” Bazine’s voice was choked with anger.

“The past is the past. And I’m afraid if Valara Beach ain’t aristocratic enough for you, you’ll have to starve. Well, make up your mind. Gotta know now.” His hand fumbled with his buttons.

Bazine figured quickly. Was there another way out? Could she find herself a spot in a better burlesque house or club? But she had tried. Also, Snoke knew what was going on. Tense with suppressed fury, she knew there was no other way.

“And what about your commission?” She tried to smile.

“Well, I’m taking part of it now. I’ll go easy on you,” he promised, dropping his pants, picking them up and folding them carefully over the back of the chair.

There was very little of Snoke, but what very little there was revolted Bazine’s eyes. I’ll get even with that lousy tramp Rey, she swore to herself, stepping over to the narrow leather couch now occupied by Snoke’s spindly frame. He was all arms and legs; the basket of his ribs showed under his gray-white skin that never saw the sun.

He followed her eyes and leered. “For a puny guy I’m okay, don’t you think? The girls are always surprised. Come on,” he urged, we got only fifteen minutes, then I take you over to Maul’s myself.”

It was the most disgusting fifteen minutes Bazine had ever spent. She wanted to hurt Snoke, make him pay for the degradation she suffered at his cruel hands, his lips leaving a moist trail wherever they settled — which was practically everywhere on her exposed anatomy.

“Let’s not be old-fashioned,” he let her know his wishes at the start. “I met a girl the other day, she made me feel real good.”

It was messy and horrible. Mentally she counted off the minutes while her lips were all over his bony frame.

“One-sided arrangements are no good,” he turned over and groaned.

Bazine was comparing the nauseating procedure to some of her former private performances. There had been Ziro Desilijic Tiure, a Greek, who had made her sore. Also Cad Bane, that a gambler who slapped her buttocks ferociously, just as she had, in turn, done to Rey. But that had been when she was slinging hash, before Luke made her into Barely Bazine, a deluxe teaseuse.

As for Snoke, he had different predilections concerning the polymorphous erotogenic. His main fixation was pinching and squeezing, analogous to his spending of money. Bazine was well aware that her buttocks and thighs would be filled with livid black and blue marks for days afterwards. His clutching, probing fingers would inevitably precipitate a desperate, spasmodic thrust which made Bazine wince all the more.

She listened to his panting, saw his thin torso arch, his face a gleeful mask of unbridled lust. Now his body relaxed and his face settled into an ecstatic calm. “Good kid,” he breathed, “nice job,” he stated factually, apparently satisfied with her routine.

Bazine got up and went to the wash basin, rinsing first the water tumbler, then rinsing her mouth. Deftly she picked up her undies, put them on, and slipped the green sunback over her shoulders, her brown back to him. Looking into the oval mirror over the basin, she repaired her makeup, eyeing her mouth with disgust. As she turned he was buckling his belt.

“See, that wasn’t too hard on you,” he laughed. “And now, let’s go see Maul.”

The job at the Crimson Dawn Lounge was hers and she hated it. The routine in this low-class establishment was different; here the customers consisted mainly of salesmen, clerks and other low-salaried and low-minded males. The contact with the audience was more personal. It was a small and smoky place with the stage right on the top of the front row tables, with avid hands able to grab at your thighs. They appreciated the Ophiologist Sinsation and after each of her three appearances, she, like the other performers, had to step down and join the paying customers for drinks. Dirty hands dug into her sequined breastplate and she had trouble keeping on her G-string. But she didn’t have to take it off. Just when she had wiggled the goggle-eyed customers into a state of frenzy, her hands fumbling tantalizingly with her bra, she stepped behind the side current, never obliging. Maul didn’t have the right connections; he wasn’t in a class with the Grand Theatre, a flesh peddler, a jellyfish salesman, so the customers got cheated. But they made up for that by pawing between shows.

She never went home with any of the low dudes, nor did she permit them to invade the sanctuary of her lovely apartment. Although she couldn’t afford it any longer, she still hung onto it. A well-heeled boyfriend was what she needed more than anything else. She was going over the list of possibilities, lying on her bed in her cozy room. Why, of course! Palpatine had been given the goodbye by Rey. She hated to take leftovers but in this case it would pay off. Sheev had liked her a lot, she knew his continental tastes; he would like her again.

Her hand reached for the receiver and she dialed his number. His drawling voice answered.

“Yes, who is it?”

“Palps, you must have been asleep. I’m trying to take a nap but I feel rather restless. How’s about coming over and calming me down?”

He sounded elated. “Bazine, darling, how sweet of you to call. I just feel in the mood to renew our acquaintance. I’ll be over in a jiffy.”

Well, that was easy, she chuckled, getting up and passing into the bathroom. She had just showered. She brushed her rich blue-black curls till they looked like a rippling halo under the Edison electric light, and redid her face. Her eyes ran down her unclothed form, her hands weighing the ripe fruit of her rounded breasts, then trailing down to the curve of her thighs.

I’m still appealing enough for a connoisseur like Sheev, she reflected, spraying herself with My Sin, accent on bosom and thighs. An extra spray on her buttocks; he took delight in them, she knew.

Just as she stepped into a blue, transparent gown, her bell rang. Without bothering to tie the velvet sash, she went down to open the door to let in Sheev, resplendent in yellow flowered silk shirt and tan slacks. A whiff of cuir de Russiehit Bazine in the nostrils.

“Why Sheev, how nice you look.” She led him to the couch and he sat down while she remained standing before him. He took both of her hands and his watery blue eyes twinkled merrily.

“What I see of you looks nice, too,” he chuckled, drawing her down on his lap. She suffered his hands to clamp down on her lovelies and felt his hot breath on her neck. “How could I ever leave such delicacies?” he murmured, his lips exploring the nacre shell of her ear.

“What’s with Rey these days?” It wasn’t good tactics but her curiosity got the best of her shrewdness.

“I wouldn’t know. We parted company weeks ago. Ren had already taken over before I bowed out. It was a rather costly arrangement,” he cackled, “but I can afford it. I’m glad I’m back where I’m appreciated.” His arms tightened about her waist and she suffered his moist kiss. “Mind if I get comfortable?” he asked.

She arose and he too got up, unbuttoning his shirt. “I prefer the bed,” he laughed, draping his bulky frame, which was now clad in blue nylon shorts, over the bed.

“It’s like old times,” his sighed contentedly five minutes later, hugging her curves. “You know what I like, you know how to please a man.”

While she proceeded to please him, her mind was busy figuring. Sheev was a good thing, she had to hold onto him. It took a long time and her lips and thighs were numb when he finally relaxed his grip on her and breathed a sigh of ecstatic relief.

“Sweetheart, there’s no one like you.” His hands caressed the smooth skin of her abdomen and his blue eyes were on her face. “You took quite a tumble; sorry, kid. How’s life at the Crimson Dawn Lounge?”

So he knew, Luke must have told him. “It’s abominable, I hate every bump and grind I do in that lowlife joint,” her lips curled in contempt. “And all I’m getting is seventy-five a week.” Her big black eyes were on his face. “It’s hard for a girl,” she added, her fingers toying with his gray hair.

“Yes, it’s bad when it’s hard for a girl,” he leered. “Well, from now on Palps will help out. Only, don’t expect me to patronize the Crimson Dawn Lounge.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it, Palps,” she smiled, “you belong in refined surroundings, as, for instance, my boudoir,” she giggled, tickling his chest with her joyously bouncing lovelies.

Chapter Text

Rey rode out the crest of her wave of success, enjoying life to the fullest. Where Bazine took an Eva Tanguay sensibility into burlesque and lowered the bar for other dancers, Rey stuck to the Helen Hayes route. The statuesque brunette made her stomach muscles rotate and roll, she quivered, she shivered, she shook in a mounting frenzy as her gulps of breath turned into moans, then tiny yelps. She had lure. Male audiences drowned out the musical accompaniment with yells and cheers of their own. After the climax of her performance, she tossed garters to the audience, no longer just one but a dozen or more, and then called a few men onstage to kiss her hand. By night, she allowed Ben to remove her garters for her. With an act like that, she had it made; Luke engaged her as the star attraction while Amilyn graciously passed the torch and bowed into the background, which meant she had her own solo spot at the end of the show and was spared having to appear in sketches or production numbers. Though, she still kept her cherished acts with Ren. On his insistence, she moved into a lovely four room apartment on upper Black Spire Avenue, located in an ultra-modern apartment building.

As she informed her brother-in-law, Abe Zuvio, by phone of her change of residence, he asked acidly what tree her money grew on for such luxurious appointments. To which her answer was even more acid: “Certainly not from the support I’m not getting from the Plutt family.” She banged down the receiver, irritated, and also a bit worried. But there was nothing they could do to her, as Ben assured her smilingly.

Rey was lounging in a diaphanous, white tea gown that floated in a graceful drape over the light green couch on which she reposed. It was a very warm January day and the sun streaming through the open window, made a golden splash on the deep green carpet. As she shifted position, her gown came open, exposing her exquisitely slim, nut-brown anatomy.

Ben, highball glass in hand, was watching her. He wore white nylon shorts, and nothing else. “You sure took to the sun, Punkin. I’m glad you’re tan all over. Still going up to the T’alla solarium?”

“Indeed I am. See, even my lovely bumps are bronzed.” She pointed at the firm peaks of her breasts with pride. “Want to touch?” she tempted, her green eyes inviting.

“I don’t mind if I do.” Ben came over, sat down by her, and his teasing fingers electrified her body. His arms closed about her waist and he kissed her on the lips, a long exhausting kiss that made her body come alive. Her hands ran down his smooth back, stopped at the shorts.

“Expecting company?” she asked. “You’re so dressed up.”

In a jiffy, Ben remedied the situation and now their skins made contact; hers, cool and fragrant, his, warm and vibrating. He bent over her, looking into those unreadable eyes, all asparkle now.

“Rey, sometimes I don’t understand you.”

“I understand you… very well.”

“Oh, Rey. Darling, we really ought to be married.”

“Yes, and I’d give my soul, too.”

“You know, living apart like this, it’s just as terrible as the things you’re so afraid of in marriage.”

“Yes, I’ve heard all that for the past couple of months.”

“Well, I know we’ve had it for a couple of months, but I still feel all the romance you’re so afraid of losing. More, Rey. I love you more than I ever dreamed I could.”

“Let’s not talk anymore about love and marriage. Can’t you just put your mouth on me already?”

“Bossy... Listen, Rey. If I can’t hold up my end of the marriage, I’ll let you divorce me. I promise faithfully to go away every time I get on your nerves.”

“You wouldn’t even know if you got on my nerves.”

“Well, you’d tell me.”

“Well, that’s just it. I wouldn’t tell you.”

“Well, then. Every morning, before I kissed you, I’d say, ‘Good morning, Mrs. Solo, my love, my all. Am I on your nerves?’”

“And I would answer ‘no’ as your dutiful wife and we’d both sit down to a very glum breakfast.”

“Oh, we wouldn’t! Why, I’m the soul of wit in the morning. Now, you know that. Don’t I radiate?”

“Of course, you do. But you can’t keep it up for a lifetime. And a husband cluttering up my room in the morning!”

“You know what the trouble with you is, Mademoiselle? You don’t realize what a bargain I am.”

“Now, wait a minute, hold everything!” She lifted her legs up, threw her arms around him, and giggled. “Now, go on, Don Juan. Tell me about yourself.”

“Well, there have been many women who have felt the urge of Terpsichore and wanted to park their heads on this manly bosom.”

“A taxi-dancer career?!”

“Career is too pompous a word. It was a job and I have always felt privileged to be paid for doing what I love.”

“At how much an hour?” she teased.

“You know I’ve never played fast and loose with anyone but you. I never wanted to.”

“And, you know, I don’t go for sentimental hangovers. I’ve got a career. I like you more than anybody I’ve ever met. But then,” she added, “I was always more of an individualist.”

“You’re just a good ole hunk of woman.”

And he bit her on the buttocks!

“You’re just dirty.”

“Do you love me?”

“No! Not if I’m a hunk of woman.”

“Do ya love me?”

“Stop, you thief!”

“Doooooo yoooouuu?”

“Now stop! You’re going to make me sore—”

“Do you!”

“Oh, yes! You half-wit!”

“Aw! And you are a hunk?”

“Yes!”

He kissed the top of her mound, “That’s for you, Miss Kitty.”

“Now you’ve ruined everything.”

“Well, at least I have my self-respect. Because this big clod has fallen for you all the way.” He smiled. “I love you as you are. You’re the kind of gal who makes a man feel like the moon just flew over the mountain. You make me feel like I can do anything, or be anything I want to be. That inspirational spirit is the moving force in your comedy strip. And when you’re being serious, too. Of course, you can get tough when you have to. It would be any man’s biggest mistake to underestimate you. That’s what makes you dangerous. Also, I like to believe that while we are together I’m all you ever need. You’re all that I need. You’re my wife whether you say your lines or not. I’ll grab you any way you’ll have me. We don’t have to have any reins. We’ll be different. We’ll not interfere with each other’s freedoms. We’ll make concessions for each other.”

“I’m perfectly satisfied as long as you are as sweet as you are now.” And as long as the presents are coming your way, she reflected.

“You know, you’ve come quite a way in the short space of four weeks. Did you see the item in today’s amusement page? It says, quote:

‘Luke Skywalker has another winner. The lovely Golden Farceur, strip teaseuse extraordinaire, is making men goggle-eyed at the jammed Grand Theatre.’

Unquote.” He watched her reaction closely. But her eyes remained cool.

“I intend to be a success,” she stated calmly. “I owe it to you, and Luke. And the salary he’s paying me is fine. It is rather nice and also thrilling to be pointed out and stared at when we go anywhere. And,” she giggled, “I have a dozen applicants eager to step into your shoes. I tell them to take a good look.” She raised one brown, slim leg, exposing the slender ankle spanned by a golden chain. “I know when to forget my dignity.”

Ben’s face questioned. “You know how to command a silence. And how to command me. Is that there charm my initials?” He tried to be casual though his eyes had watered.

“You think I’d wear an anklet with someone else’s initials? Are you happy?”

“Illicitly.”

“Aren’t we a fine pair?”

“That we are. We are a fine pair. And that is a fine token. Made from fine gold. Fine hardware...”

“Now, wait a minute. I insist upon a little worship, too!”

“Ah, of course, darling.” Ben’s seriousness increased. “God’s finest little woman, I worship you.”

“Well, yes, that’s a fair start,” she was enjoying herself. “Go on.”

“If I could figure out a way to carry our children, I would.”

“Oh, yes, that’s beautiful! My noble darling! God’s finest gentleman.”

“And on that end, God’s noblest gentleman. I love you!” the comic moaned.

“And tonight, after the last show I’ll be expecting you at the bar.”

“You just try and stop me from that appointment! A party without me is a fête worse than death.” Now there was mirth in Ben’s voice.

She looked at him cryptically. “I’ll bet, you piker...”

“I always got your best interest at heart. That’s me. Tell me something, my keep cool cutie...”

“No, you tell me, Benji. If it’s on the Q.T. I don’t want to know about it. I have so damn many secrets in my head now that I’m afraid to open my mouth for fear they’ll fall out. But I told you in confidence about my never having a birthday.”

“I’m a Boy Scout,” he said, but Rey wasn’t convinced. “I keep my mouth shut.”

“There are just two things I want to ask you. And if any or all of you is decent and honest, I want you to tell me the truth. Did you fink? When is the party? You think I’m dumb? There’s only one place you could have it. Attention embarrasses me. I don’t like to be on display. You don’t answer me, do you? I’ll answer for you. Didn’t you?”

“How do you know?”

“What’s the difference? It’s the truth, isn’t it? Benjamin Solo, you come clean with me. You can’t come clean. Comics don’t know what clean means. Only now some of the other strippers at the Grand Theatre know and I didn’t want them to know. Nothing big. Not only am I the boss’ nephew’s pet. I’m also a charity case. And it’s all your fault.”

“What’s the matter? You look upset.”

“I was born upset!”

“Well, cut it out, will you? It shouldn’t be a damn secret.” He smiled. “It’s your birthday.”

“So I’m getting a ‘surprise’ party here from the other artistes and their beaux, with you as the host. Well, I might invite one or two important friends of mine. That would further the interests of the theater. That way you can watch me,” she giggled. “I mean, a real shindig with canapés from the caterer’s and lots of liquor. You see, I have antisocial ambitions. A party like that is expensive. And, darling,” arms curled about his neck, “you’re such a grand host.”

He frowned at her. “You know, the only time your voice betrays any feeling at all Rey, is when you want something.” He thought for a moment. “Are you going to include Bazine and Sheev?” he inquired.

“Of course. Bazine isn’t working for Luke any longer. She tried to come on to you the first day I ever fell in love with you. She was the smartest thing I ever saw and I was jealous. I thought you belonged to her. She acted as though you did. Even if I knew you were never attracted to her just a little — I’d find out if you were! She’s looked at me with strange eyes ever since. But I’m not jealous. I was then, but I’m not now. I hope she and Sheev are very happy. You see, all of us have been kind of mixed up about each other. Lots of times I’ve been mad at Bazine, but I shouldn’t have been. She’s just like a kid who can’t stand it if another kid has one marble even if she has twenty. And Sheev, he was wrong in looking at my ankles and his feelings for me. He was running away from something, and the best thing he could’ve done was run after it and face it and struggle with it for the rest of his life if he had to. He was running away from a part of himself. You can’t separate a man from what really belongs to him. I found that out and prayed Bazine would find it out, too. Naturally it was a little bit hard for me to face eventually. But I discovered my mistake. But I hadn’t gotten quite around to facing things again. Well, I’m sorry, but I lost my head. That’s all, Benji,” she was sincere.

“There are times when it seems hard to punish human nature for just being human. Okay, it’s a deal. Shall we say, today a week? But it would have to be between six and nine, before the first show.”

“No good, Benji. Some of the girls might have a few too many and appear minus their G-string. No, my party will be different. Starting at four A.M., after the last show.”

“You certainly are keeping odd hours, madam. But I see your point. It’s a deal.”

“Darling,” her lips fluttered over his cheek. “You are the nicest man. Come and claim your reward.” And as she felt his pulsating body warming up to the task, “Oh, I forgot, of course, the hostess would need a super gown. I saw just the thing in Maz’s. What would be more fitting for the Golden Farceur than a golden-lamè gown?”

“No objections,” he murmured into the foamy mass of her hair.

”Oh, and darling, a girl could afford to spend a week’s wages on one party gown and tux,” she purred.

“Any tux that comes with a dress that costs over a hundred and fifty smackers is a frock! Why not be direct? It’s a bit steep,” he added, “but I guess you can stand it.”

Her “thank you, Benji,” was lyrical and her kiss was a kiss of fire, dynamite touched to his body. His arms tightened about her and his lips were fierce and demanding, touching her everywhere. His eyes were those of a panther ready for the kill. She felt excitement rippling through her body, her cheeks brushed his eyelashes.

“You tickle so nicely, Benji,” she said.

And now there was no more time for words. The flame leaped high, consuming them, making them burn with desire that had to be fulfilled. His hard body crushed her softness, and passion’s tongue of fire licked at their bodies and they were overcome by the heat. As he made her his, she melted in the flame of his desire, agreeably appeased and joyfully becalmed. The delicate language of tenderness his lips spelled on her body, brought her a thrill supreme.

Gazing through the long fringe of her lashes at his relaxed, well-muscled body resting by her side in the afterglow of exalted desire, she thought: Now look what you’ve done. Hit her when her guard was down. The big clod. She shouldn’t love him. Hadn’t she decided not to fall in love right now? As if that was up to her to decide. She was human, wasn’t she? She hoped not. Yet her heart stirred; it pattered like a tattoo in her breast. She had never been happier. It made her greedy. She wanted to hold onto it as long as she could. She was in love with a nice, gorgeous guy who wrote great jokes but didn’t have a nickel. In spite of bearing the illustrious name Skywalker. A guy who positively refused to cash in on the fame which his family earned by industry and suffering. Blood would tell, after all. She was managing her own career. That was something few girls got to do. And her mood suited the moment. This was the time for romance and farce. And she was free to be what she had never been before. She was free to be funny. She seemed to be a new woman. Now she was in charge of her fate. And other people’s emotions. What did Benji, the man, and what he really stood for, mean to her? she wondered.

“Darling,” she turned him over like a pancake and his eyes came open, “tell me, what really makes you tick?”

He sat up, rubbing his eyes. “You ask the strangest and most impertinent questions. And I for one, am not like you, I’m an open book. It’s a question I can answer to myself. I, unlike you, need to work not for financial rewards, but for emotional ones. I love the camaraderie of the stage. It was a place where a lonely lad came fully to life. It there was a dramatic storm brewing, I had to be in the center. But, if anything, my devotion to the craft has only intensified over the years. I want to go on till they shoot me.”

She wanted to dig up his past, her morbid curiosity at work.

“Benji, where do you really come from and what have you done before?”

“You mean, before I became a comic? You look exactly like a peasant.”

“Well, I am a peasant. There’s no neurotic blood in me.”

“Thank heaven.” His face grew modest. “Well, as you know, I came from blue-blooded stock, and my forebears did cross on the Mayflower, that overcrowded tramp steamer. My father taught Literature in a backwater college and was a Deacon of the church. He ran away with my mother, his kind of life being too respectable for her. I was raised in the theatre, my first cradle being the lid of Mother’s old theatrical trunk. Between scenes, she would hurry backstage, warm milk over a gas jet and feed me. The stagehands were my first playmates, the lore of the stage my first education. My first garments were fashioned by Mother’s own hands from odds and ends of theatrical costumes. She won her spurs in a hard school. She wanted me to learn the same lessons. As I grew up, Mom became more famous and her earnings ran into big money, but I had nothing given to me to indicate that I was the son of a rich woman. I had to earn my own money in grade and high school and buy most of my own clothes. I never drove a car until I was twenty years old. My only vacations were those spent with Dad in the mountain cabin he loved so well. He taught me his own philosophy of life. I was kicked out of school for being: “... a subtle influence for disorder...” After the first shock, no one in the family seemed to mind much. My father, perhaps, might have taken it rather hard but for me it was a break. I could start right at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New Alderaan without waiting that extra half year. The tuition was four hundred dollars a year. An additional amount would be required for my upkeep. Mother didn’t want me to be an actor. No one knew better than the hardships of a professional career. So I apprenticed to a boilermaker and it was rough work which built up my physique. Later, I joined a carnival — had a mind reading act. And then I read my own mind and decided to be the boss of my own show. From burlesque in a carny to a grindhouse in a glittering resort town. But I’m just getting warmed up. Comfortable?”

“That explains a lot, I mean, your general attitude, your belonging anywhere, and to anybody.”

“Uncle Luke had no earthly use for appendages known as relatives. He was also wealthy enough to be fortified against intimate association with them. I knew all these things. But what did an uncle’s attitude have to do with a young man’s ambition? I hugged my secret as if it were a leading lady. I would write to him, who lived, secure from relatives, in a Batuu town. I would tell him that I was a different relative, that I came not as a relative — but for a touch. The days merged into weeks. I would divide my spare time between the carnival and writing to my uncle. It was not a simple matter to induce an old man into sending money to a young relative who wished to embark on such a preposterous a career as acting. The letter was finally finished. It was twenty-three pages long. It was tactful, pleading, and proud. No young man with such a burning desire to get on in the world should stand convicted of his uncle’s fate — caused by others. A sentimental thread ran through the letter. In fear, I nevertheless mailed the masterpiece. A month passed. No answer came. I had told my uncle in the letter that seven hundred dollars would take care of me for a year at the Academy. I’d even offered to pay it back at a high rate of interest. More unhappy days passed. My work at the carny grew more monotonous. When, not hearing from my uncle, I decided to get to New Alderaan in some manner and work my way through the Academy. Then one day, long after the weeds had grown high on the grave of my hope, a letter came. It was postmarked from a town in Batuu where my uncle lived. He had long considered my letter. Many paragraphs followed in a cramped and ancient male hand. He thought the letter was well-written, almost intelligent. He told me that he had considered my ambition, though dubious, almost worthy. He had instructed his attorney to advance me seven hundred dollars. One brought back to life could not have been more elated than myself. The world was now my oyster, and my uncle had furnished a knife with which to open it. I studied at the Academy for a year. It ended all too quickly for me. It was the low ebb of my life. Still at that dangerous age between boyhood and manhood, I seriously considered jumping into the nearest river. By an odd stroke of irony, I might have if had not another letter from my uncle come to me at that time. He cheered me in this moment of despair. He convinced me that no one had asked me to be an actor, and that I needed humor more than self-pity. ‘If you carry the thoughts of suicide and failure in your heart, other people will feel them.’ I had come to the same conclusion of my uncle that I would make a career in Batuu. My uncle learned to love one relative. Proudly he watched his brilliant nephew become an honor to their name. He collected; then chuckled. It was eleven years in returning the seven hundred dollars to him. Luke is a conservative man — and honest. That lesson, more than anything else, indicated how precarious was an actor’s life, and how hard the struggle. He made me a better man. I wouldn’t be here if he hadn’t advised me to go to it. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I may be an actor or I may be just a good boilermaker, but I’m going to find out. I’ve burned all my bridges behind me and if I do flop, it means starting at the bottom again.”

Yes, we are an odd couple, an attraction of opposites, she thought. Now I know where we stand. Soft boy and tough girl. A man deeply devoted to family; a girl who was neglected by hers. He had the unconventional beauty; she had the drive and ambition. The boy had a lot to learn and she’d had a lot to teach. And he knew you didn’t meet many girls like her in burlesque. If he were anyone else, if he were a lazy, weak-bodied rich dude, he could never hold her in his arms. Yet, a strange feeling of fullness pervaded her entire being. Somehow, somewhere, Ben had surprised her, kept her grounded. She was grateful to him. Something deep down in her commended him for his abundance of sentiment, or his other selflessness, or his emotional torrid zone. And liking him and what made him strange to her, she also suddenly liked herself.

“Darling, why so serious?” He was up and about, dressed in his natty Destra Beach suit, busying himself fixing a highball at the portable bar.

She stood there, straight and slim, on her small, bare feet, one ray of sun hitting her brown body. Her hair formed a vapory cloud about the oval of her face.

“You look like a kid, a sweet, innocent school girl,” he said.

“Yes, a kid who knows too much and believes in nothing,” her voice was flat. She slipped into the white satin mules and now her voice became animated. “You know, I’m changing my routine; Rose taught me a dance number. I’m doing it with a dummy; and in that one I’m going to be dressed.”

Like most strippers, to appear before their audience and be applauded in a state of full dress, was a secret ambition hardly ever gratified.

“I hope not too much dress,” said Ben. “You can’t cheat your audience. They pay to see what’s below the dress.”

“Oh, but my dance number is very exciting and most suggestive,” she assured him.

“Well, I’ll watch it tomorrow,” he said.

“You know, I still can’t figure it out — the allure of the strip. Why would any man in his right mind pay to see a girl fumble with her bra, his eyeballs popping when she’s about to take it off for just one split second? To me, striptease is an unkept promise; it is for those whose tongues are hanging out, for men who can’t get more of a woman than just a look. I mean, those either too young to explore for themselves, or those too worn out and decrepit, those with strong urges and weakened anatomies.”

“Not being a man, you wouldn’t understand, Rey. It’s a vicarious thrill. Just the idea of never being able to touch, less possess, yet to see one desirable woman reveal her charms, fires their imagination.”

“Just what I meant,” giggled Rey. “It’s all in their imagination.”

Chapter Text

During the show their dressing room did a lively business. Everyone and his brother dropped in to offer suggestions for the birthday party. The fact that they also sampled the rye might have accounted for the nearest stampede at intermission.

Finn wanted to have a paper coronation and sashing like a birthday queen. Ben thought things should be a little more dignified.

Poe, Finn’s partner, was still being a second comic. “I tell you,” he said, shaking a finger in the air. “Ren should pop through the center of a giant birthday cake like Amilyn did for Luke on his fiftieth and Winchell’ll use it in his column.”

“The freedom of press ain’t that free,” Oola said. Threepio, the prop man, ambled in a little later with some excuse about the sink leaking. It had been leaking for twenty-eight weeks that Rey knew of, but, of course, they didn’t have a case of liquor every day. He righted a collar on the pipe and made like it was a job that called for fortification.

While he poured a healthy slug into a Dixie cup he winked at Rey. In a stage whisper that could be heard in the Bijou uptown, Ben told him not to forget the surprises.

“What surprises?” Rey asked. “I hate surprises.”

Threepio grinned. “You’ll find out.” And she did. But not the sort of surprise Threepio intended.

Before Rey did her scene with Ben at the end of the second act, it was settled that they would pop the bottle, crown the queen, and still leave a little time for dignity. The noise of the room had subsided a bit. Ben was making a speech. In the same tone he used when he made his audience spiel he said, “Friends, confederates, we are gathered here today to pay homage to not a great man, but a great woman. Rey!” Loud cheers followed his speech.

Ben smiled proudly. After all, wasn’t he a showman? “Now this here friend of ours…” he began.

Rey shushed him. “Get to the point,” she said.

“Well,” Ben went on. “in keeping with the informal spirit, happy birthday, darling!” Hux passed by the room but wouldn’t come in for a drink. He hardly glanced at Amilyn when she called him.

“Give you the old kiss-off, eh?” Amilyn was too pleased to conceal it. She was painting her toenails with bright red polish; little hunks of cotton between each toe made her feet fan-shaped. She managed to walk over to what was Bazine’s side of the room.

Hux brought a foot down on the newly polished toes. “Oh, excuse me, so sodden.” Amilyn’s claws were sharpened. There was real malice in her smile as she looked up into Hux’s face.

Before Amilyn could say any more than “Ouch!” Rose grabbed her. Half playfully, half forcibly she led the fan-shaped feet back to the opposite side of the dressing room.

“No fights tonight,” she said, pushing Amilyn into a chair. “Little birdies in a nest.” A drink of rye settled that discussion.

The laurel leaves over the door had decorated more peaceful spots than the stripper’s dressing room that eventful night Bazine had been fired and the toilet unveiling nixed. The tension wasn’t relieved any when Canady barged in making a noise like a stage manager.

He took a look at Amilyn, then a glance at the half-empty bottle on the shelf. “I give you all fair warning,” he said. He paused for a moment to build up for the following announcement: “Any man or woman that misses a cue from now on, and that goes for the finale, too, gets fired at once.”

No one said a word. Amilyn closed one eye to get a good view of the stage manager. Karé pouted a little and swung around in her chair, one of those, “well you didn’t have to include me” pouts.

Rose said in a cold voice, “Hear, hear.”

“Don’t hear, hear me.” Canady used a fist to pound on the shelf. The bottle went bouncing in the air and down again. “You’re getting a little too smart for your pants anyway, Miss Tico,” Canady shouted and stamped out the room.

Rose waited until he was halfway upstairs to say, “What pants? Is he kidding?” She pulled the makeup towel out of the ventilator to listen in on what was happening upstairs in the men’s dressing room.

Sure enough, Canady was up there, but Finn hadn’t given him time to go into his routine. He was describing Poe’s mother, catching the show. “Yeah, well she comes backstage and says, ‘Oh, Poe, you was so funny! It was all I could do to keep from laughing.’” Canady’s voice tried to cut in, but Finn stopped him. “That ain’t all,” he said, “there is a topper. Poe, he says to his mother, ‘But I’m a comic, Mom; you’re supposed to laugh.’ And she says, ‘So alright then, let them laugh, just so you shouldn’t make a fool outta yourself.’”

Finn and Poe laughed but alone. Rey didn’t wait to hear if Canady went into the spiel about missing cues.

Ben stopped in the wings and grabbed Rey’s arm. She thought he was going to tell her something about waiting for a laugh she’d muffed, so she began apologizing and explaining.

“No it ain’t that,” he said quickly, “but now that you mention it, you have been stepping on that line since the first show.”

“I told you when we rehearsed it that it wouldn’t get a laugh and now you keep blaming…”

“Stop it, Punkin.” His kiss stopped her. He threw his comic coat over his shoulders and kissed her on the nose appeasingly.

“Come on. I’ll buy you an ice cream sundae at Ronto Roasters,” he said with the same reverential air.

“That’s what I love about you. You’re so romantic,” she said with a smile. “Anyway we haven’t time to go to Ronto’s, the finale is next. Let’s run into Grum’s. You can bend an arm there just as easy.”

“Come on,” he said with a trace of impatience, “I got my reasons for not wanting to go to Grum’s.” With that he pulled Rey across the stage and through the alley door.

Ronto’s was almost two blocks away but they must have made it in a minute flat. She was panting when they swung the the double door open and made their way through the sawdust to the back booth.

“One Tatooine Sunset for me,” Ben yelled out to the man behind the bar and a boat of the best ice cream you got in the place for my illegitimate daughter.”

“Hear you’re having a powwow tonight.” The bartender had put the drink in a little puddle of liquor left by a previous drunk and was ready for his usual ten minute conversation. He wiped his hand on a long white apron that made his front look three times larger than it was.

If he doesn’t go away and let me cuddle up to Ben, she thought, I’ll…

“Yep. Sure are,” Ben said. “Drop in if you want to.” The barkeeper waddled away after thanking Ben and thanking Rey.

“Look,” she began, “I’ve been very patient with you. Now I want to know what’s cooking.”

Ben watched her dangle the cherry stem like a noose after sliding her lips off it. Her eyes glanced at the clock above the bar.

“The finale!” she shouted.

Ben turned white. They jumped off the benches, nearly upsetting the booths in their rush for the door. Ben told them to charge the bill and they flew down the street. Canady’s exact words came to her as Ben almost dragged her through the alley. “Immediate dismissal… any man or woman that misses a cue… and that goes for the finale, too.”

Ben lost one of his yard-long shoes and she waited for him to run back and pick it up.

Suddenly the orchestra went into action, loud, nasty, and lousy, Happy Days Are Here Again. The finale was on and they’d missed it!

Ben didn’t take time to put his shoe on. He tucked the toe of it in his pocket and yelled to her, “You take stage right. I’ll take stage left.” He hopped through the door on one foot. “Just run on waving your arms and singing... Maybe we’ll get away with it.” With a grin he flew across the stage.

Rey was trying to be as quiet as possible, hoping that she could sneak by Canady, when she collided with Ackbar’s swivel chair. It fell over with a crash like a kettledrum symphony with the cymbal finish, and she fell on top of it. The leather seat pillow helped to break her fall but she banged her head on the heavy leg. She was still dizzy from the conk on her head when she pushed the draperies aside and dashed through them. Ben had told her to wave her arms and sing. Well, she sang at the top of her lungs, but only a few bars. I was the only one singing. The orchestra had stopped and the musicians stared at her as she stood there petrified. It was the same feeling as when your brassière strap breaks before it’s supposed to.

Ben’s voice from the opposite side of the stage made her turn her head. He was singing too, and waving his arms like a windmill. Centerstage, with their hands on their hips and their mouths half open in wonderment, stood Finn and Poe.

Finn was the first one to find words. “If you don’t mind too kindly,” he said with a little bow, “me and my partner would like very much to do ‘Pick Up My Old Hat.’”

Rey didn’t know how she got off stage. Skulked, she guessed, would be a good word for it. All she remembered is making a beeline for the stairs. Her only hope was to reach the dressing room before Canady or someone would see her. She called herself several kinds of a fool right then remembering that the orchestra also used the finale music to bring scenes on. She stayed close to the wall on her way to the stairs. Most of the women were in their finale gowns. Rose and Jannah were near the water cooler, but Karé, to her dismay, was in the wings. She’ll be the one to tell Canady, she thought.

The showgirls were getting cokes from the candy butcher and Oola was talking to Arty, the electrician, about her lights. Rey didn’t want to hear all of it, but she was complaining and Arty seemed bored. She tried to make herself little as she hurried up the stairs. Freya Fenris was on her way down, and in Rey’s rush she nearly pushed her over the railing. Rey mumbled an apology, but as usual she ignored her.

The showgirls were being announced and as Rey adjusted the last hooks on her wardrobe. Then she leaned down to look in Karé’s mirror and fixed her hair.

She was still breathless when the curtain closed in after the finale. Canady rushed onstage before they had a chance to leave. “Curtain call,” he barked. “Hold your places for a curtain call.” The actors mumbled angrily but they waited for the speech that Canady was warming up to.

“Where in hell is Rey?” He started and ended his speech with those five words. No one answered him. His face set in grim lines. “When I said that anyone missing the finale would get their notice, I meant it.” He paused for a moment. “And that goes for the Golden Farceur, too, by Jesus.” He looked at the actors standing in their places.

“Who seen her last?”

“Oh, nuts,” Amilyn complained. “We got a party on, Canady. Anyhow we all saw her. She was getting into the finale costume when I left and everybody was in the room.”

Canady dismissed them after the women verified Amilyn’s remark. That is, he dismissed everyone but Rey when he spotted her trying to blend in with a fake palm tree. She was certain that he was going to call her down for the racket she’d made in the stage entrance so she had her excuse ready.

“I don’t know what happened, Canady. All of a sudden I got faint… my head was killing me and I just…”

“I don’t care about that,” Canady said. You made it and that’s what counts. It was that damned Bazine that would get me sore. Is was just like her to miss it on purpose so she could get Luke to hire her back after I’d fire her.”

She thought he was finished so she started upstairs and he stopped her again.

“Wait a minute, kid,” he put his hand on her arm and looked around furtively. He just wanted to wish her a happy birthday with the entire company singing to her onstage, but then he figured she didn’t go for all the fuss, and hugged her instead.

As she hurried upstairs and into the room she thought that Canady was just the type to be a secret softie and do more worrying about it than the President and Congress put together if the other actors ever found out.

The pre-party was in full swing; it didn’t surprise Rey. When there was only an hour to have fun in, you didn’t waste time with preliminaries. Someone shoved a glass of beer in her hand and Ben shouted from across the room.

“Over here, Punkin. I saved a chair for you.”

The room is so smoky, even with the window open, that Rey could hardly see him. He was sitting at her makeup shelf and the chair he saved for her was his lap.

“What kept ya?” he asked as he sat down. “Canady get you for messing up the scene? He can’t fire you as long as I’m here, you know.”

“Aw, he’s just doing what he’s paid for... the old bulldozer.” She didn’t know why she added that, either. She did know that it would save a lot of trouble if she’d told him what Canady’s intention really was.

The room was so noisy that she couldn’t hear what Ben was saying. The quartet at the beer barrel were harmonizing, the Victrola was going full blast. Maz, with her cigarette hanging magically from her lower lip, was singing a solo. Her black bag was beside her, in case she could make a sale, Rey guessed. She was a little drunk.

Finn and Poe were the bartenders. They wore full makeup for the occasion: white aprons, check shirts and big black mustaches. A stick filled to the top with pretzels was in Poe’s hand.

The room was too full of smoke for her to find everyone. A group had gathered around Karé’s Victrola. Some baritone was singing Water Boy to beat hell. Between the corny quartet around the barrel and the Victrola, conversation was impossible. Waiters from the restaurant climbed in and out of the windows like an old two-reel comedy. Rey couldn’t find the one that gave her the root, but then it was hard to distinguish them when they all wore those same crisp, white jackets.

In the mist of all this Ben suddenly slammed his mug of beer on the shelf. “Say, we gotta get Mr. Yoda.” He started for the door. “Can’t have a party without inviting him.”

Rose waved her hand, a “Go ‘way” gesture. “He’ll never come down from that perch of his,” she said. “Not as long as we got another show to do. Once up, once down. That’s his routine.”

“I don’t blame him,” Oola chimed in. “If I had to climb all those stairs and then scale that wall to get up there, I’d stay, too.”

“He doesn’t scale the wall, you sill’,” Rose said. “He’s got a ladder, sort of, iron rungs set in the bricks. I’ve been up there, I know.”

Ben had to let them argue it out. He stood on the balcony and called the flyman. “Hey, Mr. Yoda. Mr. Yoda!”

There was no answer and Rose continued, “Sure I’ve been up there. It was a couple of months ago. I had a snootful and just to be sociable I went up to visit him.”

She took a gulp of beer and waited for Oola to ask, “What did he say?”

“He didn’t say nothing. Aside from being mean as hell. Sorta glowered at me and…”

“And what?” Oola was getting interested. So was Rey, for that matter.

Rose hesitated before answering, a puzzled look on her face. “I hope I just imagined it, but I thought when I yelled him to help me get from the rungs to his platform” — she used her hands to describe a distance of a foot or so between the ladder and the flies— “he... Well, dammit, I know I was drunk, but I swear he tried to swat me.”

“You must have been damn drunk,” Oola replied. “Why, if he swatted you and you really fell you’d smash your brains out.”

“I had to grab the guy ropes… Then he spoke in riddles, ‘Do or do not. There is no try’...” Rose’s voice trailed off and buried her face in the beer mug.

Rey joined Ben on the landing and added her voice to his. “Hey, up there!” The flies were in the darkness and there was no answer. Ben yelled again. “Hey, are you alright up there?” A glimmer of light flashed.

“What do you want?” Yoda’s shadow loomed up and the ropes behind him made a phantomlike scene. The voice seemed to come from far away.

“Where in the hell were you?” Ben shouted, and the voice answered, “I was taking a nap. What do you want?” He sounded angry.

Ben went on, “We got a party goin’. Come on down and have a drink.”

The shadow stretched taller and taller but there was no answer.

“He won’t come down,” Rey told Ben. “Ask him if he wants us to send some beer up to him.”

“If you want some beer send an elevator down,” Ben shouted through his cupped hands. He went into the room to get the bottles and Rey waited for the elevator to descend. She knew it would, Yoda didn’t like them but he did like his nips.

“Ben’s going to get it,” she shouted. Still no answer, but she heard the scraping sound of the elevator hitting against the brick wall.

The elevator was another invention of Threepio’s. It was a square box with four ropes that met in the center. They were fastened to a longer rope that worked from the flies on a pulley. When the flyman wanted hot coffee or the papers, he called downstage and asked one of the stagehands to put the things in the box and then he pulled it up.

She had watched the elevator operate a hundred times or more but that night there was something about it that fascinated her. As it passed the upstairs landing she saw something glitter. Then as the box descended through the darkness the shiny thing was in her hand. It was a delicate hair clip, and she had an impression that a piece of bead fringe had been hanging from the rope. The kind of fringe Maz used on her more expensive G-strings. “Oh, thank you, Mr. Yoda! How kind of you!” At that moment Ben returned with the bottles of beer. After putting them in the box he gave the rope a tug and Yoda slowly pulled the elevator.

She hadn’t really forgotten the hair clip, she thought she would have told Ben about receiving it hadn’t been for Grummgar’s voice coming from the foot of the steps. Then Ben went into the room and as she started to follow him Grum called to her.

“Did’ja get the beer and stuff? he asked. She couldn’t see him very well, just the outline of a short, bull-necked, thick-chested man. The outline was enough to make her feel repugnance. She knew he was waiting for her to ask him up but she couldn’t.

“Yeah, we got it,” she said and went into the room. She couldn’t even say thanks. Invitation or no invitation, she heard his heavy steps up the stairs...

It was five in the morning, an hour when most parties end, Rey’s party was going full blast. Rey, a golden chalice in her draped lamé gown, stood at the bar helping Ben pass out the drinks. There were drinks from every taste, from a simple highball to a color-streaked Café Royale, concocted by Cookie, the bartender of the Sleepytime Inn, hired for the party. All the furniture had been pushed against the pale gray walls of the spacious living room and the couples were lounging on the couches. Yoda had come alone. He was sitting cross-legged, Buddha-fashion, on the floor, watching Barely Bazine perform. For performers will perform wherever there is an audience. And this performance was worthwhile and breathtakingly exciting to watch. For Barely Bazine was being truly Bazine, doing her famous twenty-minute snake number which she performed with two boa constrictors called “Moe” and “Joe” without benefit of costume.

Rey watched the effect of her slow, sensuous dance in the expression of the faces of her guests.

Kay Le Bang’s blonde head was cushioned against Temmin Wexley’s manly chest; her childishly brown eyes stared at the dancer while her hand tried to encourage Temmin’s bashful hand that was at her plunging neckline. She looked luscious in her white satin evening gown, cut so low, it left nothing to the imagination. Temmin’s moon face beamed, his mouth was open and there was no space for a razor blade between his bulging tummy and Kay’s buttocks. Kay was really beautiful, reflected Rey; her features were exaggerated, but the pert upturned nose and the tiny permanent pucker put the wide-set, lustrous eyes into focus. She was Rey’s age and did a bubble dance with all the bubbles bursting in the end. Temmin was keeping her in form and style. Rey knew she had divorced husband number one back in Dulathia and now Temmin could marry her.

Now Rey’s eyes searched the darkest corners of the room. She knew Phasma, the Cossack, as she was billed at the theater, would be curled up there, a picture of dethroned royalty if Rey ever saw a Norma Shearer movie. Not that the woman who sat there, with Hux, her new tipsy friend, looked like Norma Shearer; more of the Jetta Goudal-Nita Naldi variety with platinum blond hair and heavy-lidded eyes who talked like diss. The five-ton accent was a cross between Russian and Dutch comic. Phasma’s number was as she was herself, wild and exotic, unrestrained. On the stage, she fascinated the males appearing in a black velvet Russian costume trimmed with karakul. She wore red leather boots with black tassels in front. The hat, a high papakha affair, was fur and she carried a huge karakul muff that revealed rather than concealed the joyous bouncing of her frisky, pear-shaped breasts. And bounce they did as Phasma performed many tricks that came only with experience, like dropping her shoulder straps and rolling a feather muff around her breast. She must have some extra muscles, thought Rey, looking as she began slowly lifting the skirt of her evening gown with a dark-gloved hand, the other hiding those wonderful toys of joy that made the audience hold their breath as, the rest of her body completely motionless, she made them bounce and jump and wiggle, elastic as rubber balls.

Hux’s face was like chalk and his mouth hung open. He was looking at Bazine. Rey didn’t hear vat — what — Phasma asked him, but then he brushed past her saying, “You think I’d have anything to do with a dame that was mixed up with a guy like Grum?” He stumbled toward the stairs and descended them one at a time, slowly, like a blind man. Phasma pushed the bottle away and followed him downstairs.

Was it the sight of Grummgar that made him look so white, she wondered, or was it the first time he knew Bazine and Louie being lovers?

Well, it was none of Rey’s business, but she did have to agree with Karé. No diamond bracelets are worth it. Like her, she’d settle for an old garnet brooch that belonged to Mother.

Rey’s eyes flicked to “Tassel” Tallie Lintra, whose plump anatomy was wedged into a canary-colored satin gown. Her pearly bottom spilled out of her décolleté and her oval, untanned face appeared even whiter, framed by her copper hair which she wore in a heavy coil at the nape of her neck. She dazzled the customers of the Grand Theatre by appearing draped solely in the mantle of her gold spun hair, reaching down to her rounded knees. She was whispering something into the ear of a little man who reached to her ear. Dopheld Mitaka, whose fame was as great as his stature was small; he was one of the winning jockeys. And part of his winning sparkled on Tallie’s wrist. Rey suppressed a giggle, wondering who covered whom… when…

Finally her eyes centered on the exciting performance of Barely Bazine. Bazine was a showstopper. She was no girl, by any means, thought Rey, gazing fascinated at her ultra-feminine form. She was temptation incarnate, hot Tabasco, a full blown woman. Her figure had the proportions of a Venus de Milo. Around the white column of her neck she wore no sparkling jewels, but Moe’s oily, green-shimmering snake rope. Yes, Winchell was right. Barely Bazine was a double-barreled proposition, vitalizing and devitalizing at the same time. Glimpsing those pearly, pear-shaped body attachments of hers, strong men grew weak and weak men strong. Her husky, offbeat-voice had matched her allure; it was like Bazine herself, sex unadulterated. Framed by glossy midnight black curls, her heart-shaped face was of an extreme pallor in which the wide mouth looked like a bloody scar. As she pirouetted slowly, Rey noticed that Joe was wound about her waist. Now Bazine raised the white columns of her arms, a reptile’s pointed head in her right. And as she slowly went through the sensuous ritual of her dance, the snakes’ oily ribbons trailed and twisted across her white body. Bazine’s black eyes were fixed on the boa constrictors’ heads and Rey wondered who was hypnotizing whom. It was whispered that the brothers shared Bazine’s bed. Now the dancer offered her plump, alabaster breasts for the boa constrictors’ kisses. And now, as her thighs undulated rhythmically, the whole lengths of the reptiles were coiled about her midriff like a G-string, with the snakes’ heads the center of the G-string. Rey listened to the gasp that went up from the audience and stared at the picture of Bazine who had pressed down the snakes’ heads. It was oddly exciting, and also repulsive.

Rey wondered what Grummgar thought; no man would like to compete with twin brother snakes. Grum’s heavy brows were knitted and his haunted black eyes stared at the revolting spectacle. His fingers crushed the fragile stem of the cocktail glass in his hand and it broke, the glass hitting the floor, splintering into bits. He jumped up and shook Bazine’s shoulders.

“Stop it, stop it! Let go of those lousy snakes,” he roared, his black eyes smoldering.

Bazine dared him; her dark eyes suggestive of the Odalisque of the East and her voice mocked. “Why should I? Joe and Moe are wonderful, so graceful and smooth.” Her white hand looked whiter touching the snakes’ dark, oily bodies.

“Stop it,” yelled Grummgar, “you’re vile!” His hand shot out and he slapped her cheek hard.

Rey’s horrified eyes saw the snakes’ pointed heads split open, and the black ribbons of tongues lance out. It was Ben and the comics who saved the situation, pinioning the limbs of the fuming Grum. Yoda booted him in the behind while the stagehands helped toss him into the bedroom.

Ben mumbled an apology and turned to the group of stagehands that had gathered. “Fine bunch of guys I couldn’t be more proud of,” he said. “Nobody beats the stuffing outta one of our girls and gets away with it. Break it up now. This is supposed to be a party.” Then he turned to Bazine. “I’m sorry. Forgot myself.” When she didn’t answer he shrugged his shoulders and went over to Rey who surprised him by planting a big wet smooch on his mouth.

Bazine patted her snakes lovingly. To the relief of all she passed into the kitchen, putting the snakes into their basket. She went immediately into the bedroom and Rey knew she’d calm him down. She also knew how…

Rose, who had been sitting on Finn’s lap in a corner all by themselves, walked up to Rey.

“That dame,” she said, “is more trouble around here than a forest fire! If I were her I’d quit Grum cold.”

“Don’t tell her I told you, but Bazine has a most tempting physique; there is a mystery about her. She just uses those snakes as a teaser — like Spanish Señoritas use their fans,” she giggled.

Rose changed the subject. “It’s a lovely party, Rey, and you look like an angel in that gown.”

“Looks are deceiving, Rose. I’m afraid angels have a rather dull time, especially with what Ben has planned later, what with being so pure and perfect. I see you bought a new dress. Blue is very becoming of you. But you shouldn’t have gone to the expense.”

“Oh, stop it, you’re worth it. I’m so very happy tonight. I sent off the rest of the money to Paige yesterday. Luke was kind enough to advance me two weeks salary. The operation is next Monday.”

Rey looked at the pretty face of Rose, now radiant with happiness. Lucky Paige, she thought.

“Paige is a lucky girl,” she said. “My little sister wouldn’t deprive herself for me.”

“She didn’t appreciate what she had, Rey,” said Rose, walking away to hide her tears.

Is this what I’ve been missing out of life, somebody caring about me? wondered Rey. Her wondering was interrupted by Ben who stepped out of the bedroom, frowning deeply. He walked up to Rey.

“They’ve kissed and are making up.” Then he went into an impression of Louie “The Grin” Grummgar. “‘Look, baby, if I can forgive and forget a thing like that you can forget any cracks I made just because you got me sore.’ That Bazine is something else, she has him under her spell.” His eyes flipped over the couples, drinking and laughing. “Nice party, Punkin. And the hostess is the nicest feature of the party. You look simply wonderful, baby.” His eyes took off the artfully draped gown. “That dress does things for your figure. Or is it your figure that does things to the dress?” he laughed.

“Why, thank you, kind sir. I think everybody’s happy. You keep the drinks coming while I see everybody gets some food.”

Rey didn’t have to see to it, they were helping themselves, crowded about the artfully arranged buffet table, set up by Oga’s, Caterers. The babble of conversation flowed seamlessly as her slim figure appeared. Rey felt three pairs of female eyes appraising her warmly, friends’, confederates’ eyes. She suppressed a smile to her lips.

“Well girls, how’s it going?”

Tallie, good-natured and easy-going, smiled at Rey. “Everything is tops. This is a swell layout, Rey. And you yourself look like a goddess.” The girl’s lips were smiling and it reached to the eyes.

Rey watched an approving glance pass between Tallie and Phasma. “Quite an expensive party, Vey. And I haff danced for royalty. Such food!” Phasma’s dark red lips barely moved, but one side curled up a little. She looked as though she were inspecting the czar’s cornucopia of pleasures at a festival and piled a big blob of caviar on her plate and Oola passed the crackers.

“Yeah, good thing Rey is footing the bill. Ren knows how to throw a party,” snickered Tallie, lifting a tiny sandwich off it’s lacy doily.

Rey bit her lower lip. She was bawling inside. The party was a surprise. Of all the Grand’s actresses, she traveled the longest, hardest road to stardom. But she never begged an audience for affection. She won its respect. Over and over again.

Burlesque queen of Batuu. Emphasis on the word queen. Rey loved the South. From the moment she arrived in Florida, she adored its open spaces and spirit. It offered her everything the dusty, cracked streets of her childhood had not. Now, in maturity, she discovered that the old frontier gave her stage character room to expand. The big country could accommodate big emotions. Instead of forcing her feelings inward as more barren landscapes had. It allowed them to open outward. And now she dreamed empires and became their absolute ruler. At the Grand Theatre she rode ahead of her own private army. She couldn’t always reign in her private demons, especially when family was concerned.

Waxie Maul spoke over her shoulder. “Ren may know how to throw a party, but what would any party be without a gracious hostess?” Gallantly he raised Rey’s hand to his lips. “May I make my acquaintance?” He took her elbow, steering her to a couch.

Rey sat down, listening to the laughter and animated talk that seemingly had stopped the minute Maul had joined their company. She knew they were watching Maul; they hated his guts because he was finagling her. She was glad she had become friendly with all of those girls. She did need their friendship, and she had Ben!

Ben was back, handing her a slender, fluted glass filled with pale, bubbly liquid. He draped his broad-shouldered lanky frame on the couch next to her. In his long translucent face the brown eyes looked blacker. As he grinned now, his teeth shown white.

“Ben! Come here.”

“To you, my love.” He tossed down the champagne, and she sipped slowly, the bubbles tickling her nostrils, watching all of him, from the crisp straight black hair of his head down to the shiny black patent leather shoes. He isn’t bad at all, she reflected. “I hope I’m intruding.”

“Yes. Of course, you are, Moose. Have a seat. How are you? Haven’t seen you since that thing.”

“Hello, Maul.”

“Relax. Make yourself comfortable.”

“Thank you. I think I will. It’s only where I flop. Well, aren’t you going to congratulate me?”

“No.”

“You don’t think I’m to be congratulated?”

“Well, not after spending the last hour telling Miss Gardner why she shouldn’t work for you. She’s so beautiful, vivacious and so very young. She really doesn’t belong in that first cousin to a morgue.”

“You convinced her, of course,” Ben said without a change of expression.

Maul offered Rey a cigarette, which she declined, and took one for himself. It seemed hours before he lit it. “No. In spite of everything, she’s sticking with you.”

“In spite of what?”

“Have you a match or a light?”

Ben offered the flame of his silver lighter. Instead of telling Ben what was on his mind, Maul puffed deeply on the cigarette and let more wrinkles settle on his forehead. “In spite of what?” Ben repeated.

“In spite of reason, common sense and promises.”

“He never made me any promises, Ben.”

“Oh, Rey. You know I promised to break you from bondage, didn’t I?”

“That was a promise to yourself, not to me.” Slowly her long lashes lifted, her green eyes hypnotizing him. “And that’s the kind of a promise I have a right to decline.”

“I don’t mind telling you that this is a terrible disappointment to me.” To her surprise he was blushing. “I thought we two understood each other.”

What kind of proposition was this, wondered Rey. She didn’t care to know more about him, especially about his entrepreneurial status. She lowered her lids.

“I thought we two modern people had the same slant on life,” he appealed to her with empathy. “And now, ‘Hot Garters’ Gardner, who should never belong to anyone but herself, has ultimately decided to just become another piece of property. The property of the old Skywalker family. That’s a grand outlook. Is that what you want from a producer, a boss, a man, Rey?

That let Rey in.

“Now see here, Maul—”

“Confidence! I want a man to give me confidence, somebody to fight off the blizzards and the floods, somebody to beat off the world when it tries to swallow me up. That is what I want, Mr. Maul, and I’m the lucky bozo who dropped into Ren’s arms.”

Dark drives, unspoken passions. A man’s love and his theater empire were at stake. She had joined a rebellion within Ben’s rule. He was putting it all on the line for her. Man and woman were now locked in classic convergence. ‘The Fighting Men.’ A better title for this sketch would had been ‘The Fighting Woman.’ The depth of her boldness was often breathtaking. Love had tamed her. She was in line to be the Grand’s grand matriarch. She would rule with a velvet glove, but, as always, there would be an iron hand underneath it.

“You’ve got ideas, Garters.”

“I’m sorry, Rey.”

Rey’s lips kissed Ben’s hard fingers. ”This is what I want.”

“I think I’ll be going. So long, Ren.”

“Goodbye, Maul.”

Rose’s slight figure was before them, her heated eyes on Maul.

“Rey,” she addressed her, keeping her voice casual. “I think you better go see what happened to Bazine. But better knock first.”

It was a warning. Rey arose, forcing a smile and Maul too, stood up, imploring eyes on her.

“Well Mr. Maul, duty calls,” she gave him a dazzling smile.

“Goodbye, Miss Gardner. And when you get all you can stand of Ren, I’ll be waiting. Lots of luck.” Maul bowed deeply and Rey left the two men hoping Ben wouldn’t act temperamental. Maul wasn’t even a possibility and Ben was reality, her sweet Benji.

She was about to knock on the bedroom door when she noticed it was slightly ajar. She slipped inside and stood stock still, not daring to breathe, like a ten-car smash-up, she couldn’t look away.

Bazine’s white, luscious form was spread out on the bed, her legs like open scissors, and Grummgar, fully dressed but with slightly deranged attire, was kneeling by the bed, his dark, wavy head bent over Bazine who was moaning softly. Rey watched Bazine’s body quivering in the throes of passion, saw the scissors fold.

“There is no one like you, Louie,” the red lips whispered as her hand came down on his hair.

Rey’s first feeling was one of shock. What a thing to do in my home, she thought. Then she felt like laughing. What was the love nest for, if not for lovemaking? Unobserved by the two, she slipped out of the door and saw Ben coming toward her.

“Baz okay?” he asked.

“She couldn’t feel better,” giggled Rey. “Leave them alone. We’ll just have to burn the mattress.”

There was a loud knock at the door. Now who could that be? wondered Rey. Some tenant complaining? But Ben had taken care of complaints, letting the other three tenants know in advance about the party. They were all sports, there had been no objections. She watched as Ben opened the door and was shaking hands uncomfortably with an ugly little man in a shabby gray suit. They both walked over to her.

“Rey, this is a former acquaintance of mine, Sam Snoke, he’s gotten us talent in the past. Sam, meet my star, the Golden Farceur, called Rey.”

“I am certainly glad to meet you.” He shook her hand, seeing what could be seen and also what the gown revealed of her at a glance. “She’s okay, Ren,” he said. “Anytime you don’t want her, I’ll place her.”

Ren growled threateningly. “It so happens,” his hot eyes were on Rey, “that I want her. And I intend to keep her.”

Rey understood. Ben took pride in his possessions and she was one of them. Sweetly she smiled into Sam’s gray, sharp eyes. “Mr. Snoke, it is a pleasure to meet a man of your importance. Won’t you have something to eat?” She led him to the buffet where his arrival caused horrific dread. All the girls knew him.

Everybody shrinked at once. “H-hi S-Snoke, g-goodbye S-Snoke,” “Snokey, you pruned bastard,” “Who the hell invited him!” Phasma spit on his suit while Tassel Tallie dumped a plate of caviar having lost her appetite, while Oola smashed the crackers. Someone else broke and spilled highball.

“Hi, kids!” Snoke looked them all over good. “Just one big, happy family.” But, he looked across the room, and his face lit up as Bazine, dressed in a leopard-printed, clinging gown, meandered over.

“Hi, Barely!”

“Hi, Sam,” her eyes sparkled. Her mouth, minus lipstick, was very pale. “All we needed to make this a real shindig with you.”

Then Snoke, looking about, said the one thing that almost ruined the party for Rey, said the one statement that must have been only on her mind.

“Seems to me,” his gray eyes flicked detachedly over Rey’s shimmering form, “the real life of the party, of any party is right here in front of me. I mean Bazine,” he added, gulping down the highball.

Rey stood tall. It was almost spoiled, but none of their efforts were a waste. All the girls were friends with her. She was warm and kind-hearted to them all, helping out, loaning them a ten spot till the next pay day. Well, thought Rey, I’m not alone. I’ll let on to Ben about this. She hoped all his socks had holes in them and she could sit for hours and hours darning them.

When the party broke up, hours later, she was exhausted. Their jolly ‘good nights,’ or ‘good mornings,’ ‘lovely party,’ ‘you look divine,’ did feel every bit poignant. And, she thought as she closed the door on the last departing guest, they did approve of her, and especially one of them, Maul. Let them love her; Ben loved her and that was what counted.

Chapter Text

Rey’s suspicions had been correct, the girls genuinely liked her, remaining intimately solicitous, always including her in their jokes and all of their parties. And Rey wasn’t above it. Hanoi Rose was her closest friend; the girl had left Rey’s party early and thus missed the incident with Sam Snoke. Rose lived in a state of feverish expectancy, waiting for the news from Otomok. Rey only hoped Finn was worth his salt; she sincerely gave him the benefit of the doubt. Although, here and there, she reflected, one met up with a dubious guy, as for instance, Waxie Maul. She hadn’t worried about him, knowing Ben was keeping a close watch on her. But Maul’s daily floral tributes flooded her dressing room. She was taking it easy, or what was all that hard work for? A strange peace possessed her, making her serene and relaxed.

Ben had approved of her new dance routine. “It’s wonderful,” he said, after watching her twist and turn, her slim figure hidden by a flame colored gown. The flaring, scalloped skirt was slit on both sides to the waist, showing the flash of her bronzed thighs. “It’s another scorcher. Just enough thigh,” he officiated the idea.

The music was still playing. And Rey came back and stood in her nightie in front of the sitting Ben. She very slowly took off her nightie. Ben stared at her stunning, naked body.

Rey leaned in very close to Ben… her breasts brushing his face… as her body started to move… he smiled, looked at her… and then, as Rey moved against him, his smile faded… and this was suddenly very private, very serious… her body was up against his as she moved… and then she turned.

She pressed her nakedness against his lap… he put his head back… she looked up, as she pressed against him… her eyes were on his… whipping her long hair… Ben raised his hands to hold her hips, stopped himself… and she pressed herself, squiggling, dancing against him, her buttocks hard into his lap… she cupped his hands to her breasts, squeezed them, threw her hair back, her eyes on him.

Ben watched her body, rapt.

She turned, faced Ben again, moving, dancing… and sat across Ben’s lap, her breasts against his face… her eyes directly on his… he put his head further back… she moved her head closer… covered his head with her long, luxurious caramel hair… as she arched, moved his head back and forth… it was still hidden in her hair… and he stopped moving suddenly as the record ended.

There was a long moment. She kissed his neck gently and flung her hair back over his face.

Ben looked at her a very long time — their eyes were on each other.

“That’s definitely not going in the show.”

And Rey got up and turned to him. Her face was expressionless, but there was triumph in her eyes. She was still completely naked. “No. That was just for you.”

She held her hand out. There was another moment as they looked at each other, and Ben took it, reached for her nightie, and walked toward the bedroom.

“That was fun,” she smiled.

“I love you,” he said, straight.

She smiled. He looked at her. He had to get up, slowly.

Thus, the Golden Farceur offered her charms again, revealing herself in a G-string and tiny bra to the frenzied males. And her whole heart was in it. The novelty of success had sunk in, it thrilled her like nothing had before.

What’s wrong with me? she wondered, sitting before her dresser, attired in white shorts and halter, gazing into the mirror that threw back her tanned, smooth face. She felt strangely out of sorts, attuned with herself and the world. Full inside. She jumped up, heading for the phone. Uncle, that’s what’s bothering her. By now he must be back in town. It was nearly two months that he had been away, and three weeks since that same unfriendly voice over the phone had informed her that Uncle was still absent.

With trembling fingers she dialed the number. What am I so fidgety about? She tried to control her nerves, listening to the ringing on the other end, once… twice, three times.

“Yes?” said a voice, “that you, Slim?”

Uncle’s voice! Her heart gave an extra beat.

“Uncle, my dear uncle! It’s me, Rey!”

There was a long pause. Then she heard his voice, hurried and angry. “Rae, of all people. You calling from Jakkuville?”

“I’m right down here in Batuu, have been for over two months, trying to contact you.”

“What you doin’ down here? It’s no good for a girl alone.”

He didn’t seem pleased, he was angry. A cold hand clutched at her heart.

“Things are looking very bright. Luke Skywalker, the Luke Skywalker, owner of the Grand Theatre, got me a job in the chorus doing a strip act,” she stated, knowing that would interest him.

“Strip act?” he asked.

“Yeah, show ‘em my shape.”

“Well, that’s a business in itself.”

“Aw, I guess I was never much of a businesswoman.”

“What would have became of you?” he wanted to know. “It was up to you to decide. If you would’ve stayed in that town, you would’ve been lost.”

“Where would I have gone? Paris? I had four bucks.”

“That’s what makes me sore with you. You’re a coward. Like your mum. She let life defeat her. She never fought back.”

“What chance did the woman have?”

“More chance than a man. A woman, young and beautiful like you, can get anything she wants in the world. Because you have power over men! But you must use men! Not let them use you. You must be a master, not a slave. What did Nietzsche say? ‘All life, no matter how we idealize it, is nothing more nor less than exploitation.’ That’s what I’ve been telling you! Exploit yourself! Get to some big city where you’d find opportunities. Use men! Be strong! Defiant! Use men to get the things you want.”

Rey giggled. “I’ll tell you all about it when I see you.” And now all of her anxiety was in her voice. ”When, Uncle, when can I see you?”

There was a long silence. “Look niece, I’m rather in a hurry right now. And I’m in trouble, head over heels. I’m expecting a long distance call. Give me your address and your phone number. I’ll call you first chance I get.” His voice rushed over the words, he was in a hurry to get through with her.

She gave him her home address and phone, saying, “Between nine and three I’m not in,” then explaining, “nine p.m. to 3 a.m. that is.”

“Nice hours you’re keeping,” his voice mocked. “Well, so long, you’ll hear from me.” Then he added, “You haven’t told anybody — I mean, my name or address?” now he sounded very worried.

“Of course not, Uncle.”

“Well, don’t. And for Chrissake, don’t ever come here, it will get me in trouble.” The receiver clicked at the other end.

He was in trouble, serious trouble, she felt sure. What had he done? He wanted no one to know who, or where he was. She flopped down on the bed, going over their conversation word by word. He was not pleased to know her in Batuu, and he was in trouble. What about? She tortured her brain, wetting the pillow with her tears. If it was money he needed, she now had ten thousand in the bank. It was all his, if he needed it. When would he call? And would she be in when the call came? From this minute on she would stick close to home. Then she thought of Ben, always eager to take her places and show her off. Well, she would pretend that she was too tired from working. She couldn’t tell Ben, couldn’t betray Uncle’s trust. What if Ben were present when the call came? He would want to know. Well, she would deal with that emergency when it arose.

That night she went through her strip routine in a detached, absent-minded manner, hardly smiling as she took her curtain calls. Later that night, her lovemaking was arduous and uninspired to Ben. He sensed that although her body was in his arms, her mind was far away.

“Expecting a call from someone — a doctor, maybe?” he was concerned. “You have been staring at the phone every five minutes. What goes?”

That would never do. She needed her Benji now more than ever. Uncle might need financial help.

“Of course not, darling.” Her lips brushed his cheek. “I’m just nervous, rundown. Maybe we’ve been overdoing it.”

“You look pretty healthy to me,” he laughed dryly, looking at her lovely, exposed form. But his ardor abated.

Three days went by, then four. Still no phone call. Rey was frantic, something dreadful must have happened to Uncle. Should she phone? But it might make him so mad, he’d never see her. A letter could get into the wrong hands and harm him. She got into her roadster and drove to Flamingo Drive, parking the car opposite his house beneath a sheltering hibiscus bush. She sat there, tensely watching, for one hour. But no one entered or left the house. She had to hurry home, Ben would be waiting.

He was. As she came in, he looked at her distraught face, pale under the tan, her worried eyes.

“Rey, something’s up. Tell me what’s worrying you. Maybe I could help.”

She took her head, trying a smile. “It’s nothing, Ben. I just feel so rotten. Fix me a highball.”

He obliged and she tried to compose herself. That night, she was very sweet and yielding in her lovemaking, trying to dispel Ben’s mistrust. She knew he was suspicious. It’s ridiculous, she thought, all I have to tell him is that Plutt was her uncle. He has to believe me, he’s in trouble. But she couldn’t say anything to him.

It was two days later and the hour was seven. Rey was lounging in her easy chair, attired in sea-green pajamas, a ribbon of the same shade wound about her hair, when there was a loud knock at her door. She arose, annoyed. Ben was needed down at the theater and wouldn’t be back until after eight p.m. She didn’t feel like being sweet now.

She went to the door and opened it, her eyes wide as she beheld Plutt. Quickly he stepped inside, casting a furtive backward glance down a deserted hall.

“Quick, lock the door, Rae.”

She proceeded to do so as told, watching him flop on the couch, looking in dismay at what had been her handsome uncle. His light tan slacks were baggy and wrinkled, and he wore a brown sports shirt. His hair had not changed, it was of the same dark, arresting shade as hers. But his face looked ravaged as if he hadn’t slept for days.

“Nice joint, Rae. Yours?” he asked, his hollowed eyes flicking over the cozy, luxurious room. Only now he looked at her, taking in her bronzed skin, expensive pajamas. “Say, Skywalker must have paid off.” Now he smiled.

“Uncle, oh Uncle! I’ve been waiting for your call. Uncle!” She threw herself towards him and his hands held her. Her lips touched his lean cheeks. All was well. This was Plutt, the only one who ever gave a damn about her — her darling uncle — and he was with her.

“Easy, Rae. Don’t waste kisses on your uncle.” He shoved her down on the couch. “Now, tell me all about this.” His hand swept the room.

Rey didn’t feel like talking, she was only feeling — feeling the powerful flood of tenderness invading her brain. Her heart came alive and was thumping wildly in her chest. But she knew Uncle had no time for sentiment.

“Well, are you going to tell me what gives? I haven’t got much time.” There was an angry edge to his tone.

Neither had she, Ben would arrive soon. It proved difficult to be coherent and tell about herself, how she finally had made the grade, being now the well-known strip star, the Golden Farceur.

He had listened without interrupting. When she finished he gave a low whistle. “Wow, you certainly hit pay dirt. But then, I always knew you’d get your way. You’re sitting on top. All this looks like plenty lettuce.”

“Well, I’m getting a nice salary. But what about you, Uncle? You don’t look well.” She scanned his march face, noticing the hunted look in his eyes. “What’s the trouble, Uncle? You can tell me.”

He shook his head. “Would only lead to more trouble. I can’t afford to be seen, understand? I need one thing to get me in the clear now, money, plenty of it.”

“I have a little money in the bank, Uncle, it’s all yours.”

“A little money won’t help. I need a nice, large amount. And pronto.”

“How much?” she asked, her green eyes searching his face.

“What’s the use telling you? You have nothing like it.”

“How much?” she insisted.

“Five thousand,” he said, and watched her face go to pieces. “See, I told you it was no use. I’ll just have to lam it.” He was up, moving towards the door, when she laid her hand on his shoulder.“

“Maybe you could stall them, whoever they are. I have the five thousand cash in the bank. It’s yours.”

He turned, animation in his green eyes. “You mean you have that much cash? Well, it would help.” He went back to the couch and sat down. “Can you get it tomorrow by eleven a.m.? he asked as she sat down close to him, covering his brown hands with both of hers.

“I’ll draw it out at nine in the morning when the bank opens,” she smiled.

And now his face looked wonderful to her as it lit up. His smile had the same old charm; it warmed the cockles of her heart.

“And now that we have settled that, how about having a drink?” she asked.

“I could do with one.” He seemed to have forgotten that he was in a hurry. “Scotch straight, no water,” he said, watching her pour. “Mind if I take off the shirt, it’s clinging to my back?” He proceeded to do so, draping it over a chair. Taking off his dusty, brown brogues, he spread out on the couch.

“This is the life, Rae. I’m glad you made good.” As she tended him the drink, he put it on the floor and pulled her face down to his. “You’re sweet, kid. You always had a tender spot for me.”

Tears choked out her throat. A tender spot! All the tenderness that was hers to give, all the emotion she was capable of, had been once for him, her ego-ideal — the mirror of herself. Then she saw the door knob turning.

Rey straightened up, trembling. Ben! What would she say? But she had nothing to hide. Plutt was her uncle.

Plutt got up, grabbing for his shirt. Her hand stopped him. “Stay where you are. It’s only Ben, my boss and fiancé,” she said.

“Rey, open the door.” The lock rattled and Ben’s fist was pounding on the door. “Open up or I’ll break the door down.”

She turned the key and before she had time to turn the knob, Ben burst into the room, his wild eyes going over the place. Rey watched his livid face as his looks centered on Plutt who stood there, his dark hair tousled, his torso barely covered by a sweatshirt, holding the shirt in his hand.

Seeing the livid fury in his eyes, his clenched fists, Rey laid a detaining hand on his arm.

“Ben, this isn’t what it looks like. You honestly don’t think I’d cheat on you, do you? Not when I was expecting you home at any minute—”

He never let her finish. He yanked her hand away from him, his voice hissed. “Who are you trying to kid? I’ve heard about things like this happening to other guys, but I didn’t think it could happen to me. I thought you were different. But you were lying to me the whole time.”

“I didn’t lie to you. I just didn’t go into detail.”

“There isn’t any punishment bad enough for you!”

“Don’t jump to conclusions!”

“Are you serious?”

“There are some circumstances—”

“I’ll say there are! But you ain’t gonna involve me in them! You’ve been lingering around the phone like a hawk, sneaking out in the middle of the night, and now I come back and find you in the company of a strange, decrepit old man you can’t explain—”

“I’ll give you strange, but decrepit?” Plutt balked.

“—in his undershirt with his arm around you!”

“If you just let me explain—”

“Oh no, Hot Garters can’t wiggle her way out of this one! I have been watching you. Restless, on edge, eh? In the future I’ll be more careful with my heart.” He marched to the door, not even letting her explain.

“Ben! You’re walking out on a girl who’s no different than she ever was. There will come a time when you’ll find out. Then how will you feel, you big clod?”

“When I find that out, Mademoiselle Gardner, I’ll let ya know!”

Before she could say another word he was outside and the door slammed shut.

Chapter Text

And now there was a complete switch again. Rey was catapulted from her throne as queen supreme of the Grand Theatre, with Bazine getting back her old spot, getting back into close contact with Ben, while she, Rey, was reduced to doing her bumps and grinds in that lowlife joint, the Crimson Dawn Lounge. And be grateful to Sam Snoke, which she caught him on the side of the head with a stinging haymaker, in the bargain. For as long as he lived, he would never try to proposition her for anything more.

She hated her job, the customers with their crazy suits and bold hands; she hated the world. With one exception — Ben! Her whole life revolved around him, he was the beginning and end of her concern. She needed that eighty-five per week Snoke had to wrangle from her. There was an emaciated bank account and she had sold her diamond ring along with other trinkets in order to get together the five thousand Plutt needed so desperately.

Now she was sorry she had done all of it. For, as Plutt explained, pacing the floor of her living room, that amount was the price to make his getaway. It seemed a complicated procedure, fraught with extreme danger. She watched him tearing into the rug.

“Relax, Uncle. You said it’s all arranged. What time are you leaving?” She didn’t dare ask where to, knowing he wouldn’t tell.

He consulted the wristwatch she had given him. “In about fifteen minutes a black sedan will pick me up downstairs.”

“Sit down, Uncle, I’ll fix you a drink.”

He let himself drop into the easy chair, his hands gripping the arms of it.

“Scotch straight, no water. Right?”

He nodded, taking the drink out of her hand and gulping it down. Rey took the glass and put it on the end table, sitting down on the closest chair.

“Uncle, can’t you tell me something about all this? I can keep a secret.”

He shook his head, his face closed. “This kind of business ain’t healthy for you to know, Rey.”

“Will I hear from you?” she asked, afraid of the answer.

“If I get to where I’m going I shall send you word.” He jumped up, again looking at his watch. “Time to go, Rey. You stay here.” He picked up his grip and came up to her. “Let’s not be sentimental. “Thanks Rey, you’re a brick.” His cool lips were on her cheek, his eyes were absent.

She had lost him already. A stab of pain tore her heart to shreds; it was bleeding.

“Uncle! My darling uncle!” Her arms closed about his neck and her mouth pressed down on the top of his head. “I’ll miss you.”

Brutally he tore himself loose, picked up his grip and walked out of the door.

And now she could be emotional. She threw herself on the couch and her body shook with convulsive sobs. Plutt — her alter-ego — was gone. She would never see him again, never watch him smile again. Plutt, the only one she mattered to, was gone! She gave herself up to an orgy of weeping, her bruised heart aching. Now she had nothing to live for. Although Plutt had not given her the slightest hint of why he had to get away, she suspected it must be something bad. She tried to dismiss the word criminal from her mind, but it recurred. For, why otherwise would Plutt have to hide like a hunted animal? But she tried to dispel the darkest suspicions that it might be woman trouble. Plutt was hard and calculating, always looking out for number one. But her uncle was no criminal — never! Doubts, however, kept gnawing at her mind.

She tried to adjust herself to her new, shabby existence. Now she was all alone again. Of course, there was Rose, her fortitudinous friend who came to visit her, but even to Rose who was her friend, she could not reveal the truth.

“You know, the customers of the Grand are still clamoring for you. Luke, Amilyn, and everybody misses you; the Chinese waiter is inconsolable. Even old man Yoda is giving Ren the cold shoulder till he comes to his senses. Of course, Bazine is popular but you outshine her any day. Now Rey, it’s none of my business but why did you have to do it? To ruin everything for some no good guy.” Her serious dark eyes searched Rey’s face that seemed to have shrunk, making the eyes look enormous.

“You don’t understand, Rose,” Rey’s defenses were up. “Ben thought I was cheating on him but I wasn’t. How could I? He’s the only man for me.” She held Rose’s glance.

“Then, if it was innocent, why didn’t you explain it to him?”

“That’s just it,” Rey lowered her lids, “I can’t. It — it would put someone on the spot, someone who’s important to me.”

“Then, if he means so much to you, enough to ruin your career, where is he now? Why isn’t he here with you?”

“Look Rose, if you are my friend, and I am certain that you are, you must believe me and not torture me with questions. In a way,” she smiled faintly, “I’m a victim of someone else’s circumstances.” She changed the ticklish subject. “How are things at the Grand? I bet the girls have forgotten me already. Why should anybody make a fracas.”

“Perhaps because a dumb but lovable — yes, lovable — girl like you is an asset to the Grand,” said Rose. “That’s why Luke hired you. Why should I lie to you? Can he run it by himself? He needs help. Plenty of help. People who think of him once in a while. The place is jammed every night. Bazine, of course, is in her glory, trying her darndest to take Ren on the rebound,” she looked up for a reaction, “Big surprise, no bite. Ren has taken the — incident pretty hard. He’s grouchy and irritable.”

“That ought to teach him! At least I can live with a clear conscience! He couldn’t, he’s the one who bowed out! Maybe this is besides the point, but if you ever really fall in love, you trust the girl!”

“Oh, Rey, don’t be so aloof and make that frozen puss!”

“Well, I’m much too happy! HAPPY!” she laughed acidly. “Who wouldn’t be after being smothered by somebody so metabolic for two months? He said I upset his glands. Being with him would just be an anti-climax! There isn’t a man who can make me forget who I am! I’VE GOT BRAINS! I’VE GOT TEXTURE!” A strange look was on her face. She blinked back tears, “I don’t believe in fairytales! All the kindness and gentleness in me has been killed! Yes, sir, I don’t have to look at those loud suits with the pleats he wears and the way he always has his vest buttoned wrong! Looks like a giraffe, like living with a box of matches, and gets drunk on a my shampooed hair, his ridiculously big hands or the way he blushes right up over his dumb adorable ears! Because he doesn’t know how to kiss, the jerk!” She was fighting back tears in big gulps. Rose was incredulous. “I’m born all over again! I’m free! Do you understand? You don’t know what that means to me! I can go places! I don’t have to see the same faces! No restrictions! Nobody to tell me what to do! You don’t know what that means to me! I’m free again! I — I-I’m free—”

Rose rummaged in her purse and pulled out a handkerchief. She offered Rey the handkerchief. Rey started at it. She didn’t want to touch it.

“Oh, Rey. Come here, you silly… let go.”

Rey was red-eyed. Twenty years all cried out. Rose put her arms around her for a moment, and then Rey offered her the handkerchief back. Her hand motion said — you keep it — and Rey found herself doing so. She shook her head, Rose picking her up and leading her back to the couch. She looked carefully at the handkerchief in her hand. She sat down on the couch, hiccuping, “What about Paige?”

As her eyes lit up, Rey looked startled at her face, usually a cute face, now ethereal in its glow of happiness. “The operation was successful. She has to stay on in the clinic for another month. After that, we’re going north to get her. She’s been promised her old job back. I’m very happy.”

“At least you get your reward,” said Rey. “You are good, you deserve to be happy.”

“Happiness has to be worked for, Rey. You are way past overdue, if you just could change your stubborn ways.”

“I’m afraid I can’t see life your way,” Rey sighed.

“You going to stay at the Crimson Dawn Lounge?” inquired Rose.

“I have no choice, I need the job. I’m considering moving. This place is too expensive for me now.” Her face darkened. “I hate the job and all it includes, but…”

“Heavens, I’ve got to knock off,” Rose looked at her watch and arose. “Anyway, you can count on me — for anything.”
Rose’s cool lips pressed Rey’s cheek and quickly she walked out of the room.

Why can’t I be like a Rose, thought Rey, simple, unproud, trusting and uncomplicated? Rose, always giving without expectation of receiving in return? But she couldn’t see it Rose’s way. She recalled the dire aftermath of Ben’s untimely visit, her stealing into the Grand like a coward to get her things, finding her dressing table, the one with the white star mounted over it, taken over by Bazine’s name.

She opened the door, staring at her costumes and gowns dumped in a corner of the floor. As she snuck in, Bazine and turned her head; she was sitting in front of the mirror. At sight of Rey, a viper smile was on her face.

“If you want your things, over there,” she pointed at them. “Remove them, and yourself. This place is too crowded for us both.”

Their eyes locked now and Bazine laughed a hard, metallic laughter. “You don’t look so glamorous now, but you’ll do for the customers of the Crimson Dawn Lounge. Just your style. And now, pick up your glad rags. I’m busy.”

Rey was boiling over, she chose prideful sarcasm as her weapon. “Well, you’re welcome to this. Also to Ben. You ought to be used by now to grab up leftovers.”

She went to pick up her costumes to put them in her car; they looked a mess. Her arms full, she halted at the door. “Good thing Sheev’s used to your quick switch of lovers. I know he’ll console himself quickly, I bet he already has.”

“You haul your freight outta here,” hissed Bazine, “or I’ll throw you out.”

Rey found it wiser to make a quick getaway without a hitch, glad Ben was not around.

Well, such is life, she thought, dressing to leave for the for the Crimson Dawn Lounge.

And then, at five o’clock one morning, her bell rang. She dragged herself out of bed, rubbing sleepy eyes and went to open the door. She stared at the stranger and started to let out a scream when she heard a well-known voice — Plutt’s.

“Don’t get excited, it’s me.” He stepped inside, closed and locked the door. She stared at Plutt who didn’t look Plutt, at this strange man with fair hair whose upper lip was brightened by a brush-like moustache.

His green eyes smiled. “Good, perfect. Even my own niece can’t recognize me. Good job, eh?” He put down the grip he held in his hand. “Well, am I welcome?”

“Uncle! You’re back. How wonderful.”

He dropped into the chair. “Nothing wonderful about it.” His haunted eyes were on her face. “Listen to me, Rey, and listen good.”

She sat down on the rug, her head resting against his knee.

“Let’s dispense the sentimental Mickey Mouse. I came back because there is no other place for me to go and hide.” And, seeing the fright in her eyes, he repeated. “Yes, hide. They didn’t come through, they took my — your money and gypped me. Rey, can you put me up for the time being? That is, till the heat is off?”

Her darkest fears came to the fore; suspicion became certainty. He had done something bad and ‘they’ must mean the law. But it could also mean blackmail. Her heart made her want to believe what her brain rejected.

“Of course, Uncle. I am all alone here.”

“It’s only for a short time, till I can find a way.” He tried to lessen the impact. “I’ll try not to be too much trouble.”

Her eyes shone. “You’re no trouble to me, Uncle.”

“Now understand, no visitors, no one must know I’m here. Got a spare key? Just in case…”

“Of course, Uncle.” She got up and went to the dresser, opening the bottom drawer and taking out the other key… Ben’s key.

“Here, Uncle.” She handed it to him and he put it in his pocket. “This is your home now.”

“It’s better than—” he bit his lip, not ending the sentence.

“Hungry?” she asked.

“No, but if you’ve got some beer.”

She led the way to the kitchen and he helped himself. She made his bed on the living room couch.

“You better get your beauty rest. I shall retire. Night niece.”

“Good night, Uncle!” Rey replied softly.

Chapter Text

Ben was sitting on a prop tree stump under the stairs. When Hux passed him, he tried to smile.The effect was ghastly. He looked as though he hadn’t slept for a week. His eyes were red-rimmed and swollen, a cigarette dangled from his fingers. Hux was going to say something snarky to him, but it suddenly struck him that he wasn’t acting. That look of dejection, the sad, slow smile; it was all part of Ren’s usual performance.

“Don’t go, Red.” He put a trembling hand on his arm. “Please sit down and talk to me. I’m going out of my mind, I tell you this thing has knocked me out.”

Hux sat down, but if Ben expected a sympathetic audience he was going to be a very disappointed Pagliaccio.

“What’s the matter?” Hux asked him. “Got a hangover?” He gave him the same look he’d given all burlesque actors, but Ben ignored it. He was going to finish his soliloquy if it killed him.

He flicked his ashes and stared across stage. “We made love on that stage…” He decided to switch it, so he started over again. “We made love on that stage, for all the world to see.”

If Ben wanted corn Hux decided to give it to him. “Yes,” Hux had he agreed, “and she was a lulu.” His sigh matched Ben’s, only Ben managed a compulsive sob for finish.

Hux might’ve known Ben would try to top him, but when he hung his head and started to moan, it was almost too much.

“Look, Ren.” He put his hand on his shoulder. “Let’s stop chewing on the scenery. I know how you feel about it. We’re all shocked and most of us feel that it’s an awful loss. But acts bust up all the time, good acts. There’s no sense to pretending that one dame is…”

Ben took his hand off his shoulder. “Don’t touch me!” he cried. “You bastard. You’ll never know how I feel.” He buried his face in his hands and sobbed.

For a moment Ben believed him. He almost felt that Hux was kindhearted and warm. Then he looked up and saw that his eyes were dry. He’d played his scene and it was as though the curtain had closed in.

“It puts you in a hell of a spot.” Hux’s voice had lost the note of sarcasm it held when he spoke of Ben’s used-to-be. He was plainly worried. “Pull it together before the next act.” Ben watched him go.

The Chinese waiter, in a new suit, carrying a bouquet, pranced down the alley, happy as a lark. As he turned in the restaurant, under-chefs were working, Amilyn chatting conversationally, a cook fixing their suppers. Everyone turned as he burst in, struck a pose and sung, to the tune of A-Tisket, A-Tasket, “I passed it! I passed it!”

There was applause and shouts of “Attaboy” as they crowded around him and slapped him on the back.

“So who are you? What’s your new name?” asked Amilyn.

Everyone was speaking at once: “Yeah — that’s right — he’s gotta pick one!” “How about Vanderbilt?” “Sure — you can’t go wrong with that!”

“John Smith the Second! There’s nothing sexier than that!” said Amilyn.

The waiter grinned at her. “I gotta better one, but there’s someone I gotta ask first what they think!” And he ran out happily. He burst into Luke’s office, where he sat gloomily in his chair, his feet up on the desk, a dead cigar stuck in his mouth. “Where’s Ma?” the waiter asked angrily.

“She ain’t here.”

“She sick or something? I give her root.”

“She don’t work here anymore. She quit.”

The waiter stared at him. “What you mean? — What happened?”

Luke took his feet off the desk, glaring. “What happened — nothing happened! She quit! People quit all the time! What’s the big mystery?!”

“But nobody in the kitchen even mentioned it—” the waiter said slowly.

“Why should they mention it?!” Luke shouted angrily. “They’re sorry — I’m sorry — everybody’s sorry! Whaddaya want us to do — close down the theater?!” Then he said more gently, as the waiter just stood there, “Forget it. You make friends with people, it don’t necessarily give you a life interest.” And then, with phony cheerfulness, asked, “Hey, what happened with the civics? Wasn’t she tutoring you?”

“I passed it.”

“Yeah? That’s tops! You picked a new name yet?”

But the waiter didn’t answer. He put the bouquet slowly down on Luke’s desk, swallowed hard, close to tears, and turned to Luke.

“Mr. Luke,” he said earnestly, “Ma was just crazy about it here. She wouldn’t quit for no reason—”

“Nunb—” Luke said wearily, “I’ve had a week shouldn’t happen to a dog. Please — don’t aggravate me.” He turned away. “You got questions to ask — ask Ren.”

Nunb stared, then turned and left. Bazine and the boys were onstage, starting a number, as he crossed to the bar. Ben sat at one side of the bar, his back to the wall — alone and gloomy. Jannah Lilac sat in a booth with Walter Winchell. The music of Bazine’s number drifted over. As Nunb entered and made a beeline for Ben, “What happened to Ma?”

“She quit.”

“Why?”

“Uhh — ask Luke,” Ben said uncomfortably.

“He said to ask you.” Ben didn’t answer. “So why did she quit?”

“What difference does it make?” he said wearily. “It’s hard to explain, and I feel too lousy to try.”

Nunb eyed him suspiciously, “You and Mr. Luke both feel lousy?” Ben looked at him, puzzled. “Because if it’s because you fired Ma—” He stopped abruptly as Winchell came up.

“Rumor has it you fired la belle Gardner—”

“She quit!” Ben said angrily.

“Why?” Winchell asked politely. Ben closed his eyes, groaning. “Rumor also hath it you pashed it. Could it be you were foul enough to handcuff her?”

As Nunb reacted, shocked, Ben opened his eyes, looked at Winchell impulsively. “Jannah!” he shouted. Grimly, Jannah walked up to him. “Been doing a little talking, Jannah?”

Jannah was defiant. “A little talking and a lot of thinking! About whether I care enough to remain in this rat-trap, under this type of management! In case you’re interested, Mr. Ren!”

“I’m not,” he said flatly. Jannah sniffed haughtily and left.

Winchell, as if quoting from his column, said, “Grand Theatre heir apparent Kylo Ren, when queried about the Jakkuville Babe, made the following comment—” he stopped abruptly because Ben had leaned forward and grasped his lapels.

“One word in the column about Rey, Winchell,” Ben spoke very quietly, “just one word, and you won’t know yourself.”

Winchell looked thoughtfully at Ben’s grim face, then sighed, and released himself.

“I’m used to the way your bartender makes martinis. Otherwise I’d spit in your eye,” Winchell said sadly.

And he left. Ben relaxed — then became aware of Nunb, still waiting.

Ben tried to change the subject. “Did you pass your civics?”

“Yes, I’m American now!” Nunb said bitterly. “And, yes, I picked a new name! Raymond Ren, it was gonna be! But if why I’m beginning to think Ma quit is why Ma quit, I wouldn’t use any name of yours for a million bucks!”

And he stalked out. Ben sighed.

“Another straight one,” he told the bartender.

“Sure,” he poured the drink. “Say, Ren — how come Rey quit?”

Ben looked at him, his eyes narrowing. But at that moment, Threepio, the prop man, came over.

“Mr. Skywalker wants to talk to you,” then he said hesitantly, as Ben nodded, “Sir, I know this isn’t any of my business, but I’m kind of curious why Miss Gardner—”

Ben cut in, menacingly, “Threepio. Please. Don’t ask me. If you know what’s good for you, don’t ask me!”

And he tossed off the drink, slammed the glass down and left. As Threepio and the bartender looked after him, then at each other, baffled.

Luke was pacing, chewing a cigar, as Ben entered, “Ben, I’ve been thinking things over.”

“So have I. Uncle Luke, I want to get away for awhile — go to my pop’s cabin in the mountains,” he frowned as Luke gaped at him. “I haven’t had a day off in six months — what’s to be so surprised about?”

“What I want to talk to you about is I want to get away—”

“Oh.”

“Whaddaya mean — oh?!” he inquired defensively. “I haven’t had a day off in two years!”

“Whose fault is that?” Ben was irritated. “Every time I try to make you go, you give me a song-and-dance about you get the blues when you’re not here! And you just got back from Ach-to!”

“So now I get the blues when I am here!” Luke said angrily. “And that trip to Ach-to wasn’t for pleasure! I’m only telling you this, but Amilyn and I were thinking about eloping!!”

“Well, congratulations!! I’m very happy for you two!!”

As they glared at each other, Yoda entered with his supper, saw Ben and glared. But Ben was glad to see him — there was less chance of a fight with Luke if someone was around.

“Hi, Mr. Yoda — come on in.”

“Are you sure it’s alright?” Yoda was suspicious.

Ben was puzzled. “Why shouldn’t it be alright?”

“Well — last night it wasn’t,” Yoda said dryly.

Ben remembered, lamely, “That was last night. I was a cinch to be pickled and might’ve said some things I didn’t mean and probably smashed a thing or two.”

Yoda nodded, went to the desk and settled down to eat. Ben turned to Luke. “There’s no argument — We can both go,” he said more mildly. “Just not at the same time, that’s all—”

“We could let Canady run the place a couple of weeks—” Luke dubiously suggested.

“Hah!”

“Yeah,” Luke agreed.

“I’ve got to get out of here, Uncle Luke — honest!” Ben said suddenly.

As Luke looked at him, troubled, the phone rang. He picked it up impatiently, Ben started to pace. “What?! Oh — hello, Maul — how’s tricks?” His eyes widened in surprise. “What—?” he sat down slowly, listening. “No — no, she’s no itchy-fingered Molly... no, she didn’t get cockeyed... Listen, she didn’t get the heat — she resigned!”

Ben looked over, startled.

“Well, because — for personal reasons, you could say... Believe me, you wouldn’t be making a mistake! She’s an A-1 teaseuse of the finest caliber, and besides, she writes a letter like nobody’s business! Yes, excellent at taking dictation and gave me the kick in the pants I needed to reached out to my sister. I can recommend her without — uhh — hesitation.” As Ben watched, frowning, Luke nodded, satisfied. “A pleasure, Maul. Hey — give her my regards!” He hung up, looked at Ben, pleased. “Well — that takes care of Rey. She’s all set.”

Ben was incredulous. “What do you mean, she’s all set?”

“In Maul’s new place. Stripping, three shows, just like here.” He chuckled, shaking his head. “The gall of Waxie Maul! Ten years with Uncle for grand larceny, and he’s worried is Rey honest!”

“Uncle Luke, are you out of your goddamn mind?” Ben shouted. “Why did you let her take such a job?”

Luke was astounded. “Why did I let her?! The girl’s free — she can work where she wants!”

“Why didn’t you tell Maul she was no good!”

Luke indignantly arose, “She is good — she’s tops! A sold-out house night after night for the first time in fifteen years! Why should I lie? What’s she supposed to be — blacklisted on accounta you, she can’t work any place?!”

“You know why she went over to Maul, don’t you?! To show me — to spite me!”

Luke stared at him. “That’s CRAZY! Ben, you’re getting one of them persecution complexes just like my—”

“If you finish that sentence with ‘Grandpa Anakin,’ so help me!”

“The girl needs a job, that’s all. You know what they pay burlesque actors?!”

“There are a million jobs she could get!”

“The only experience she has is in burlesque—” Yoda said matter-of-factly.

“Do me a favor — mind your own business!”

“Why should he mind his own business?” Luke said angrily. “Why don’t you stop minding Rey’s business?”

“Do you know what kind of place it is?!”

“It just opened up — nobody knows!”

“But everyone knows Waxie Maul, don’t they?” Ben asked sarcastically.

“A man can change, can’t he? What if he’s gone straight? What are you all of a sudden — a judge?!”

As Ben, speechless with anger, strode out of the room — “Aaaaah!” Luke shouted disgustedly.

“I beg your pardon?” Yoda was interested. Luke glared at him, turned and walked smack into Rose, who was hurrying in with a plate of cake, a kimono over her costume.

“Gee, where are you going in such a hurry, Mr. Skywalker?” she asked good-naturedly.

“I’m going to the bar! That’s where I’m going! I’m gonna get drunk!”

Rose was worried. “But you’ll get heartburn—”

“It’ll be better than what I got!”

And he stormed out. As Rose looked at Yoda, puzzled, he nodded at the plate in her hands. “And what have you got, youngling?”

“Oh — carrot cake,” she came in. “Finn says I should offer you a piece.”

“I wonder why—” Yoda was surprised.

“Oh, I can tell you! He says I’m a glutton for punishment.” And she grinned. Yoda laughed aloud and arose. As he pulled out a chair for her, Canady came into the doorway, “Where’s Ren?”

“He put on his shining armor, mounted his white horse and went forth to the rescue.”

Canady nodded, turned to go, then turned back, puzzled, “Pardon?”

“He went out.”

As Canady nodded, satisfied, and left, Yoda turned to Rose.

Ben’s car pulled up in front of the Crimson Dawn Lounge. It was the typical burlesque club, palm trees out in front. As Ben got out — “Hi, Moose — long time, no see!” greeted the doorman. Ben was a little surprised, “Didn’t know you were out, Nines.” And the doorman replied matter-of-factly, “Sure — coupla days ago.” Ben nodded and went in.

He crossed what seemed to be the main and only room — smaller than the Grand Theatre, dimly lit, filled with the noise of a small hot combo. It was surprisingly full, but the guests were surprisingly well-dressed. A few remarkably tough-looking characters stood here and there in strategic spots. Finally one stopped Ben — smiling, his hand outstretched, “Moose — about time you paid us a call!” then, lowering his voice, “Through the office and up the stairs.” Ben nodded — headed for the office door.

Rey was at a desk typing. She looked up, startled, as Ben entered, but recovered instantly. “Well, this is a surprise!” she said, so cold she was spitting out ice cubes.

“You can tell me all about it later,” his voice was flat. “For now, just get your things.”

Rey stared at him. “What are you talking about?”

“I’m taking you out of here.” He looked around. “Where’s your coat?” As she gaped, he went to a door, opened and shut it, went to another one. As he opened it, revealing a staircase, and sounds of voices coming from upstairs, Rey jumped to her feet. “That’s Mr. Maul’s apartment! What are you doing?!”

Ben shut the door. “Looking for your coat.” Impatiently, he turned to her. “Come on, Miss Know-It-All, Miss Take-Care-Of-Yourself — where is it?!”

“I didn’t wear one! And if I had, I wouldn’t get it! Now will you please get out of here before I—” The phone rang; she answered it sweetly. “Crimson Dawn Lounge — good evening!... Mr. Maul isn’t in the office at the moment — may I help you?... Yes, I’ll be glad to give him a message.” She listened — repeated puzzled, “‘Watch out’? Just — ‘Watch out’? Who is this, please?”

But the line was dead. As she hung up, frowning, Ben, who had been pacing nervously, not listening, turned to her quickly. “Alright, Baby — quit horsing around! Let’s go!”

She looked at him in outraged disbelief. Then, patiently, as though to an idiot — “Look, Mr. Ren — I can’t seem to make you understand that I work here. I like working here,” she lied. “I’m going to go on working here. It may be smaller than the Grand, but it’s a salary!”

Why?” he inquired sarcastically. “How come you’re so cheap now?” As she hesitated, the staircase door opened and Waxie Maul entered — a very different Maul, almost resplendent in a tuxedo and a genial smile.

“Moose! Pal! I knew you’d come to see old Maul!”

Ben turned on him angrily. “If I stay it’ll be to brain old Maul!” he pointed at Rey, “What do you mean, hiring a girl like that?”

Rey was furious, embarrassed. “Mr. Maul, I’m terribly sorry about this. I—”

Maul turned to Ben indignantly. “Whaddaya mean, what do I mean hiring a girl like that? She’s lookin’ for a spot in the chorus, I got a spot in the chorus, why shouldn’t we do business?!”

“You tell her what kind of business?”

What’s it got to do with her? She’s on onstage — sometimes she answers the phone in a nice British voice — every once in awhile she types a letter — look!” Righteously, he pointed to the letter in the machine. “What’s so terrible, she sits there and types a letter to my mother?”

“A lovely letter, Mr. Maul!” Rey added warmly.

Ben was disgusted. “He hasn’t got a mother! She passed on, God rest her soul, a good ten years ago!”

Rey faltered. “I don’t understand. Then why should he—”

“He’s got to find something legit for you to do, doesn’t he?” he was exasperated. “Because what he hired you for is window-dressing! Window-dressing for a gambling joint, that’s all!”

“That’s a dirty, lousy lie!” Maul told Rey as she gasped. “And anyway, what’s it to you?!”

“Maul, so help me, if you say one more word, I’ll—”

“SHADDUP!” Maul yelled suddenly. He lifted his head, listening intently. From overhead, muffled noises. He strode to the staircase door, opened it — sounds of loud voices, shouts, women screaming, came up sharply.

Rey was frightened. “What is it, Mr. Maul? What’s happening?”

But at the sound of footsteps starting down, Maul slammed the door, turned and ran out into the main room. As the staircase door burst open — a stream of people poured in from upstairs — some of them clutching money, all of them pushing past Rey and Ben into the main room, frantic to get out. The last one, a dealer — in shirtsleeves and visor, still holding a deck of cards — recognized Ben. “Hey, bo! Cheese it the cops!” And he was gone. Ben slammed the staircase door shut, locked it, grabbed Rey’s hand, pulled her towards the main room, then stopped abruptly. Pandemonium. Policemen were pouring in from the front entrance, stopping the group from the gambling room. Innocent guests were milling around in confusion. As someone helpfully pulled the fuses, turning off the lights — Ben slammed the office door too, locked it, and pulled Rey to the door he’d first opened. She broke loose, grabbed her purse, then followed him into a small washroom.

Ben locked the door, climbed up on the washbasin, pushed open the window over it, peered out cautiously, and climbed out. There were sounds of activity in the office, and then a pounding on the washroom door. As Rey got panicky — “Come on — open up in there!” shouted a male voice.

Ben’s face appeared at the window above, in a fierce whisper, “Well, what are you waiting for, you dope?!”

As she climbed awkwardly up onto the washbasin, Ben reached in a hand and hauled her out. Just as he closed the window from the outside, the door was battered open. A group of cops piled in.

Ben and Rey were walking on the street. Behind them were the sounds of police sirens and the clanging bells of paddy-wagons. Rey was silent, shaking. Ben glanced at her, concerned. After a moment, he said, not unkindly, “You might as well face it, Ba — Rey — you just can’t make a move without getting in trouble.” Uncomfortably, when she didn’t answer, “Still and all, if you don’t want to go back to Jakkuville, you don’t — that’s up to you. Only I can’t go traveling all over the city every night bailing you out. So you know what I think?” hesitantly; this meant more than it said, “I think you ought to come back to the Grand.” He stopped — trying to see her face. “Okay?”

He looked at her almost humbly, and she finally raised her eyes. They were blazing.

You’re the one who makes the trouble — not me! I’m telling you for the last time — It’s none of your business!” She pulled her arm free, her voice breaking, “And I can get my own cab!”

She turned and walked rapidly away, as Ben stood there uncertainly. “Taxi!” As he looked after her — Rey was waiting as a taxi pulled up. Two men were hurrying towards it from the opposite direction. They reached Rey’s side — they were both loaded. As Rey opened the taxi door, one of them pushed past her.

“Thanks, duchess—” he got in.

“But this isn’t your cab!” she said indignantly.

“Shh, shh, shh — it is so!” soothed the second drunk. Grabbing his arm, to stop him — Rey told the cabbie, “It’s my taxi, isn’t it, driver?”

The taxi driver was bored. “It’s my taxi, and in a minute I’m leaving with it!”

“Come on, honey — act like a lady!” the second drunk told Rey. He gave her a little shove to let go, and started to climb in. Ben strode towards the drunk, pulled him around, flattened him, reached in, hauled out the other drunk, and gave him a mighty shove. As he went down — Ben turned to Rey, reasonably, “See what I mean? You can’t make a move—!”

Then, speechless with frustration, she covered her face with her hands and stamped her foot childlessly. Ben looked at her with mingled tenderness and irritation.

Luke was alone and gloomy at the bar, his chin propped up on his hand. Bazine was onstage stripping. After a moment, Ben entered, hesitated, then got up on the next barstool. Luke looked at him curiously, but waited. Finally — he heavily shook his head.

Benjamin Skywalker Solo was what his past had made him, a very wry and irascible man. He was also a composite. A door should be open or closed, he thought. But the trouble was that although physically he had slammed the door on Rey, mentally and sentimentally he wasn’t quite through with her — the door had not been closed. Not even an inch. And maybe, for once in his life, his emotions had gotten the best of his judgment. He had never given her time to say one word in her defense and somehow his own heart came to her defense.

The truth was, he missed her terribly. She was so different from him; there was no one, there never had been any girl quite like her. Never! As cool and poised, and self-possessed — and as desirable!

He was glad Bazine had relented in her pursuit of him all of a sudden. He wondered who the new man in her life was; but it was not concern, just plain curiosity. It was no who came to the theater, also no one he knew, of that he felt sure. Sheev Palpatine, a very happy man these days, was lost to them as a customer. But they were on civil terms. He had met up with Sheev in the Black Spire bar where Sheev had proudly introduced him to a cool, proud beauty of the Social Register by the name of Sly Moore. And, taking a look into those haughty eyes, Ben knew from her ‘Mayflower’ air that Sheev was too smart to lead her to a strip joint.

Business was booming and all was well with the Grand Theatre. But not with Ben. He was short with the girls, ran out of patience supervising the various details a carefully run spot as was theirs required. His mind wasn’t on his business — it was on Rey. He wondered how she was taking it and how she was making out. He kept tabs on her life, having little chats with Rose that were most informative. He knew how to get answers without asking direct questions. And Rose was willing to supply him with information.

He was onstage, talking to Arty, the electrician, who was adjusting the lights, when he saw Rose passing by on her way to the dressing room she shared with the other girls. You had to be a star to have the privacy of your own room but Amilyn, and then Rey, hadn’t wanted to break up their little rapport.

“Hi, Rosie.” He stepped over, his smiling eyes on her neat figure. She looked nothing less than a stripper, a man-teaser, he thought, taking in her neat cotton dress with the chaste neckline. It didn’t cling provocatively, nor did it bulge; it just fitted the neat trimness of her perfectly. She was a little lady; his tone was warm as he addressed her.

“Early little lady, aren’t you?”

“Oh, Tallie asked me to sew up her G-string, she was in great peril of losing it last night.” Her dark, frank, unflirting eyes searched Ben’s face. She knew what was worrying him, the same thing that worried her — Rey, who looked bad these days.

“You’re always doing things for other people, kid. Time somebody was looking out for you.”

“Oh, but,” Rose’s face lit up, “thanks to you and Luke, Finn and Paige can take care of me soon. I wish somebody would look out for Rey, though, she doesn’t look too well.”

“Rey needs no one to do that; she always lands on her feet. By the way,” his tone was casual, “how is she?”

“I saw her yesterday, just for a few minutes. She seemed extremely tense, under a strain. And Ren,” she stepped close, putting her hand on his sleeve, “she wasn’t two-timing you.”

Ben’s face was impassive. “What makes you think so? She tell you?”

“That’s just it, she wouldn’t tell me what was going on. But she told me and I know she wasn’t lying, that,” Rose tried to use Rey’s every word, “that it would put someone else on the spot.”

Ben laughed dryly. “That does sound like Rey. She doesn’t give a darn if she puts herself on the spot if it suits someone else’s purpose. Well,” he smiled, “run along and do your good deed.”

He watched her high heels clicking down the narrow passage, he was trying to figure out something. Something was puzzling him about that man in Rey’s apartment that day. That was it. No one had hair like Rey, especially no man. Hers woven out of sunbeams, not gold, nor brown, just dark and lovely. Unique. Well, that man minus his shoes on, that man in her living room had that same dark hair. Ben couldn’t recall his features. But yes, he could. He had those same green icy eyes that didn’t come by the dozen. And the mouth. Yes, he had resembled Rey. But Rey had no relatives down here, she had told him so herself. The man wasn’t old enough to be her father… his thoughts traveled on the verge of discovery of Rey’s secret. And he couldn’t shrug them off.

He went behind the bar, deserted at this hour, unlocked the cabinet beneath that held his private stock, taking out a bottle of Whyren’s Reserve batch number NN182. He stood the bottle on the bar, sat down on the bartender’s stool and poured himself one.

His mind went over the blueprint of his past, reading the main lines. He had reason to be pleased by what he had achieved. To be sure, he did come close to measuring up to his Huguenot forbears, having many of their stalwart virtues; the first thing they had passed onto him was his middle name, Anakin, a secret he jealously guarded. There were heroics in his career; both his feet were firmly planted on the ground and for any good reason in service of the world would he risk to lose his footing. Necessity had made him a realist. Hope made him an idealist.

How like my father I am, he thought, letting the smooth liquor trickle down his throat. He lives by, and for his ideals. I’m like my mother, he thought. She, too, had run off, like him, unable to live up to austere principles. For one moment he wondered whether his progenitors were still treading this earth or whether they were inhabiting the Elysian Fields. He chuckled. One thing he felt sure of, even if they had departed this earth, they would inhabit the same place.

He thought of his carny days, of the motley of people thrown into close intimacy — those gypsies of the modern world. And he wondered what would have become of him if he never met Rey, even resembling the part of a quick-minded female partner in the mind-reading act. They had shared more than just that act. For weeks her slim, nut-brown body had graced his couch. What a woman she was, he thought, all body, all furious and giving and taking. And he had given up himself, that is, his body, taking all of her. He couldn’t go on without her. He’d lost his punch. She was the woman who loved me more than anybody when there had been nobody, he reflected. And she was the only one who loved him as he was. And did she understand him? Always!

“What makes you tick?” He recalled Rey’s cool question. And his answer, “We are opposites, but also complementary.” He had held her in his arms and he actually had possessed her. What had made her, so very young a girl, so hard-fisted and brittle as he never knew her to be? Always, with him, had she ran the gamut of real human emotion. He had touched her heart. He sincerely believed she possessed one. And of course she had. There was only one person in the world who had made that brunette ice melt. Suddenly, he fiercely knew he was that man, the one that emotionally awakened her, the one who really made her a woman.

Luke had outgrown the Grand; he had amassed enough money to retire, to take it easy. He wouldn’t be bored doing nothing. For there was one thing he’d always wanted to do. To draw, to paint. He had been good at it in school. But, Lord knows, he had other worries than to just sit and paint at that time. But now he could. He visualized a pink stucco house of Moorish architecture, buried in tropical shrubbery. Ach-to would be the right place, where nice quiet, cultured people dwelt, those who could afford to cultivate their garden and their hobbies. And in that dream house he, Luke the wanderer, visualized the slim, elfin figure of a woman with lavender hair, neither pink nor purple, hair spun of cotton candy. They would be married; the marriage license ought to come through any day now.

Ben drowned his third glass of liquor, saying to him: What’s gotten into you, old man? Snap out of it. Luke hadn’t even laid eyes on Rey for days. And never would he go with Ben to the Crimson Lounge. Never!

What’s gotten into Luke? he wondered. She’s just a selfish, lying brat from nowhere, something his uncle picked up in the gutter because he thought it was gold. Well, it proved to be slum gold and they were all fooled, he concluded. The fact, the very obvious fact, that love had caught up with her, she would never admit to herself. For, and again in that she and Luke were alike, neither Luke nor Rey believed in that mawkish, drooling sentimental emotion that made fools out of sane, normal people, and fools act even more foolish — that thing called love!

He looked at his wafer-thin Swiss watch and decided to take a ride. There was plenty of time till the opening, and a breath of fresh air would clean the sentimental cobwebs off his brain.

He drove down Docking Bay 9 Causeway and, out of old habit, turned right on Bakaar, slowing down at Auntie Amilyn’s apartment house. As he perceived the marquee, lettered Ravenstar Apartments, he slowed the car down to a snail’s pace, lighting a cigarette. He could drop in for a peanut butter and jam sandwich and find out about the identity of Bazine’s mysterious new admirer. Because, interestingly enough, on the way over to Amilyn’s, he had passed Bazine’s place. He remembered where she lived because she and Grum threw that big barbecue last summer and no one in the chorus was beyond free food. It would be funny if he walked in on an intimate boudoir scene. His eyes glittered wickedly, and he pulled up to the curb, about to open the door, when his hand stopped in midair. Smack in front of him, a green roadster was parked. He’d know that sporty-looking model anywhere; he had driven in it often enough with Rey.

Now, what was his — Rey’s — car doing in front of Bazine’s apartment house? It meant she was up there. He knew there was no love lost between the two of them. And he also knew that Rey would let no one else drive his car. What was going on? Ben’s curiosity was aroused and he was very curious man.

For one moment he considered going up but didn’t want to referee in a female hair-pulling contest. He had his dignity as boss to consider. Then the idea struck him that someone else, maybe someone fat, old and repulsive, might own the same model car. He checked the rear license number. It checked. This was Rey’s car and she was up there for no good reason. He decided to wait it out and play detective. Bazine would have to leave in about a half an hour for the theater to go through her new routine. Remembering that those who detect dwell in the shadows, he backed the car into the rear of the parking lot, not too close but close enough to see what he wanted to see, being thankful for his good eyesight.

After three cigarettes his patience was rewarded. His eyes widened, and he stared, not seeing Rey but a tall slender older man dressed in brown sport shirt and tan slacks get into Rey’s car. Just as Ben was about to back into the Boulevard, the man got out and walked to the back of the car, bending down to inspect the rear tire. As he straightened up, Ben saw his face — the wide, cool, sea-green eyes. Something clicked in Ben’s in mind.

As the older man got behind the wheel and drove off, Ben sat there scowling. He had seen this face before, those cold green eyes, the narrow oval, also the brown sports shirt. But where? Of course, in Rey’s apartment. He was a man who—. But that man had possessed hair of that startling dark color, while his this older man who resembled him like a twin, had blonde hair and a moustache. And if he was an intimate friend of Rey’s, and he must be since he was driving her car, what was he doing in Bazine’s place? And did Rey know about it?

Wow, Sherlock Holmes, he chuckled, the plot thickens. He was never one to start what he didn’t finish. He would find out, he decided. A man like him had contact with all kinds of people who would be good to know at sometime or other, people of the beau monde, the high society, people of the demi-monde, those on the fringe of respectability and also, some characters of the underworld. Something was going on that wasn’t kosher and he for one, would find out.

He decided to call a certain number which would be answered at a certain antique store. Then all he had to do was to get Dok-Ondar on the phone and give him orders to detect. Also, the Mandalore detective agency owed him a favor. It was about time that he let them repay the favor.

He turned on the ignition key, then flipped it back, watching Bazine coming out of the door. Her car was not around and she walked briskly down the sidewalk, her face flushed under her tan. Her eyes glowed in a secret fire. Ben feared that look so well — her bedroom look. She walked on and Ben waited a few minutes, giving her time to catch a cab or get to her car which, for some obvious reason was not parked at her apartment house. The reason being, Ben figured wryly, that Bazine didn’t want any possible callers, including Grum, to know she was at home.

He started the motor and backed out into the Boulevard, sniffing softly to himself as he rolled down toward Docking Bay 9 Causeway and Amilyn’s.

Chapter Text

Rey was annoyed, wondering where her roadster and Plutt were. He could have the decency to bring it back so that she wouldn’t have to go to the needless extra expensive of taking a cab. Where was he? She hadn’t seen much of him these last days. He seemed to be off on some mysterious errand, needing her car the minute she got home from the job. Where was he driving at those odd hours, and with whom? she wondered. In a way she was glad to have some privacy for he often got on her nerves now, sullen and demanding, wanting lots of service as soon as she come home exhausted. He didn’t at all come up to the dream picture she had for years carried in her mind and heart.

But then, the thought dawned on her, she had never really known him at all, had never been able to know into what kind of a man he had grown to be. Her mad hero-worshiping had started when both her and Millie were kids, growing up. He had been so different from the unkempt, rowdy neighborhood boys, so neat and clean, keeping himself aloof. And then he had left, had been gone for years, turning up at her mother’s funeral. For a few hours, any person could resemble that ego-ideal of a girl’s imagination.

Yes, Plutt had been her ego-ideal. He had taken the place of a father-image or a mother-image, even, as well. Rey suddenly couldn’t bring herself to identify with either one of her parents and survive. Neither her father, who was so brutal and cruel — who had killed her mother when he walked out on her — or her mother, who had been so weak and helpless to allow him to do this to her. No, Rey couldn’t be and didn’t want to be like either of them.

Then, along had come Uncle at their mother’s funeral. True, Plutt was also cold and cruel and calloused. But, unlike the father, Uncle wasn’t that way as an end in itself; but purely as a means to achieve his end! Plutt really enjoyed life. He wasn’t an uncouth boor.

Besides which, to render a cathexis sense of emphatic, emotional significance for her, Plutt was the exact image of Rey physically — her cynical male counterpart to her own femininity — her physical ego-ideal. So, quite naturally, Rey reached out and seized this ready-made solution to her psychological problems. Here was the perfect answer, tailor-made to fit all of her needs — both her objective and her subjective ones, together; there was no contradiction between either of them, but ideal harmony.

Now it was slowly beginning to dawn on Rey that she couldn’t have her cake and eat it, too. Because, even though Plutt had served her psychological needs as a mental prop on one hand, on the other, she had found herself a cake — a block of immobile ice, totally incapable of really loving any other human being with the exception of Ben, who was really her intellectual equal. So, in other words, she didn’t love anybody else but her antithesis. And now she had been set to wonder about that, too — that last mooring post of her entire field of emotions.

Sadly she acknowledged the cruel truth to herself that Plutt was a fake, and idler, a crude selfish man, ready to take but never, never to give; a person with no consideration at all, neither for her nor anyone else. Suddenly she started to dislike herself intensely.

She opened her purse, looking for her wallet. Yesterday had been payday, she had asked for cash. She dumped the contents of the voluminous green leather pouch atop the glass-covered dresser, her fingers searching between handkerchief, compact, keys and lipstick — no wallet. She couldn’t have lost it. She was forever careful with money. She got up, walking about the room. Then she saw it lying on top of the bar. She picked it up, inspecting it. There was only one lonely five dollar bill. Now she spied the note, and picking it up, read:

“I hope you don’t mind if I helped myself. I need it urgently. I’ll pay you back. P.”

Furiously she tossed her wallet to the floor. It was more than she could bear. Tears of frustrated rage dimmed her eyes. Not enough that she gave him the best part of her salary for his mysterious purposes, he had to take it all. Just taking it without asking, like a no-good thief. He was no good, he was ruinous for her; he had ruined her career.

Where was he now, and on whom was he spending her money? Of course. She should have guessed before, on some girl. But Plutt was the kind who took from women. Well, she figured, maybe he had some scheme rigged up, courting some which dame, chalking up the money, her money he spent as business investment. He had no right to take her over the hurdles. But of course, she had allowed him the right; had allowed him every privilege. Things had come to a sad pass and she, Rey, was being kicked around. She was through with him, she would tell him so in no uncertain terms when he came home.

But he didn’t come home at all. She left for the Crimson Dawn Lounge in a state of frenzy, feeling something might have happened to him. Well, let him get what he deserves, she thought. Then she pictured him lying in the gutter, a bullet through his chest, and her love outburned her scorn.

That night, her three appearances on the tiny stage of the Crimson Dawn Lounge seemed torture to her and as she twisted and wiggled her limbs, a haughty, spiteful look came in her eyes.

This place should be out of bounds, she thought, approaching a lonely sailor’s table; it wasn’t her idea, but Maul’s eyes had sent her in that direction.

“Hi, there,” his round, blue eyes were bloodshot and Rey saw at a glance that he was in the last stages. One more stage and he would be bounced out. She halted hesitatingly, her hand on the glass table top, thinking he was too far gone to bother with.

“Whazza matter?” he slurred. “Too uppity to assoshate with a lonely tar?” His mouth twisted in a vicious leer and his hand shot out, yanked down the blue-sequined bra, exposing to him and all the other staring patrons, her firmly rounded breasts. Before she could prevent it, his fingers clutched the tender globes, and by her very breast he pulled her down the leather banquet. The customers, finding this vastly amusing, broke out into uproarious laughter.

Rey was too dazed by shock and fury for immediate reaction. Her shaking hands tried to shield her exposed torso.

The sailor laughed. “Relax and be friendly.”

Her left her covering her nudity, her right hand shot out, hitting him on the chin. He yelled, grabbing her by her hair, shaking her wildly, her head bobbing back and forth.

The almost exclusively male clientele of the place looked on in worried silence, watching two supersized M.P.’s make their appearance; Rey tapped the sailor with a deft snap and abruptly he let go of her hair as his pan bloomed. She stumbled up, rushing behind the curtain where Maul was expecting her. As his shrewd, colorless eyes ran over her, she felt like slapping his smirking sissy face.

“See here, Rey, any guy who comes here is entitled to some fun, especially a lonely tar. I watched you all evening. Those snooty airs of yours will get you nowhere fast.” Now there was malice in his eyes and venom in the silky voice. “This ain’t a high-class joint like the Grand and what of it if a guy wants to give you a little love pat?”

Rey straightened up, still holding onto her tiny bra, its strap torn. Now she was a green-eyed golden goddess, addressing a low subject.

“You call that a love pat?” She dropped the hands that had held up the bra and the flimsy cloth fell to the floor, leaving Maul’s lustily gleaming eyes on her exposed loveliness. Quickly she crossed her arms over them. “See what he did?”

“Yes, I saw you popped a customer on the beezer,” Maul leered, “rather nice if I were interested in that direction. So the guy wanted to grab himself a handful, he’s probably starved for a female charms. You didn’t smile all evening out there on that stage.”

“I don’t find anything to smile about in this dump. Can’t you run a more decent show, like Luke?” She bit her lower lip, knowing her anger had carried her too far.

Maul came close and the look in his eyes was vicious. Here is a man who looks dangerous, thought Rey; he looks like a killer. His hand, surprisingly strong although rosy and smooth as a woman’s, clamped on her arm, his voice snarled.

“If you don’t like working in my dump, as you care to call it, why don’t you switch to a more decent spot? Remember, you came from what you call a more decent place — you hotfooted it out of there, if you recall.” His smile and his silky voice didn’t fool Rey for a minute; she knew she had overstepped. “Well,” he went on, “far be it for me to force your charms on the customers. Plenty of strippers wouldn’t give their right you-know-what to work in a lively spot like mine.” Suddenly he shocked her by yelling: “Get out of here, and fast! I don’t want to see the lousy face of yours for another minute. Go peddle your charms somewhere else…”

He walked away, leaving her with her fury and dismay. She dropped down on the moth-eaten couch, trying to think. What had she done? Why had she allowed her irritation to override her good sense? She couldn’t afford to lose this job, low as it was. There would be no other. All the cash in the world she had was four dollars. Plutt had everything else.

A hatred, so intense it made her tremble, invaded her brain. She could humiliate herself and beg to have her job back; she was the Golden Farceur, better liked than any of the other performers here. But the others were willing to suffer all kinds of degradation; they did as Maul said. Well, this was one degradation she would not suffer. She heard the drums stop. The girls would soon burst in, prying her with questions she didn’t feel like answering. Besides, here unlike the Grand Theatre she was most unpopular with the performers. Here, even less so than at the Grand Theatre, she kept herself icily aloof, never joining the girls for a snack after the last show.

She went to the corner closet and took the three costumes off the hanger — they weren’t much costume — and draped them over her left arm, picked up her purse and left the Crimson Dawn Lounge by the fire exit. There would be no more curtain calls, she thought, standing at the corner, waiting for a cruising cab and cursing Plutt for making her part with another one of her remaining four dollars.

During that taxi ride from the club to her apartment, her niecely love for Plutt fought a losing battle with her heart. She was all washed up with him. Her terrible, all-consuming love gave place to black, implacable hatred. He was the cause of it all. On account of him having filched her money, she had been in this poisonous mood, thus losing her temper where it couldn’t be lost — with her employer. This was a second job Plutt had loused up for her. As he was lousing up her whole life, she pursued the thought. She was harboring a criminal! She didn’t know what he had done but it was something unlawful, that much she knew now. What had happened to her alertness and her good sense? A thing like tonight could never have happened at the Grand Theatre. Luke would never permit for any of his performers to be mauled, much less manhandled. Or Ben! If only she had held onto him! He always had steered her right. She owed them everything, she finally admitted to herself. They had given her a start, helped her along, guiding her straight to the top, providing her with the things she had craved, money and luxury.

The only thing she had craved. Finally it dawned on her that there were other things, desirable and needed to be happy than cold cash. It seemed funny that she who had been so expert in taking, never giving, had been taken for a real ride. Well, it was too late now — too late for everything.

The taxi stopped and she parted with another dollar. Her car was not in sight but she knew Plutt sometimes parked it a block away, being smart, as he told her. Trying to work off her excess fury, she walked up, not waiting for the elevator. Yes, he was there alright, having locked the door on his precious person so no one who could harm him. She rang a storm.

“That you, Rey?” his carefully disguised voice asked.

“Who else? Let me in,” she said provoked, listening to the key turning in the lock. He opened the door a tiny slit and she slipped in and closed it, staring into his insolent green eyes.

“What’s the matter? Cat got you? You look rather through the ringer. Moving?” He pointed to the costumes in her left arm.

And now the torrent of her rage broke loose; she let the costumes drop to the rug and faced him. Coldy, deliberately, she looked at this man who bore her features, who was kin to her. But now her eyes were open and her brain was lucid. And those newly opened eyes saw him for what he really was, a good-for-nothing wastrel, a hoodlum, worse. With this one look, she gave up the ghost and it died.

He must have read it in her eyes. He smiled a faint, tentative smile. “What are you staring at me for? Don’t you like the color of my hair? I don’t like it either, but that can’t be helped.”

“I don’t like any part of you,” her tone was acid. “Neither the color of your hair, nor your black heart.”

“Now isn’t that too bad?” he mocked. “My dear little niece’s mad at me. If it is on account of those few lousy bucks, relax.” He pulled out a wad of bills and tossed them on the table. “Here. Feel better now?”

“Where did you get that money?” she asked.

“None of your business. Don’t be nosy. Just a streak of luck.”

“As long as you’re staying here, it is my business,” she insisted, noticing the lipstick stain on his collar. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the money came from where that came from.” She pointed at the smear.

“You’re getting too smart for your breeches. Don’t concern yourself about my business.”

“It is my business if you take my car to ride around with some tramp. I had to take a taxi again.”

“Well, it got you here.” She watches the vicious glint in his eyes, listening to his gleeful voice. He came close so that she inhaled the faint scent of Chypre the girl he had been with.

Uncle and niece stood facing each other, two of kin, but not two of a kind any longer. For he wasn’t her kind. She loathed and despised him despising herself for her foolish, shameful idolizing. She hadn’t known, really known, up to now what a despicable person he was. Suddenly, she had grown up. Outgrowing this childish hero-worshiping, knowing it for what it was now — a loathsome, infantile complex, barring her from feeling any real emotions.

“Get out,” she said, “before I call the police. You wouldn’t like that, would you?” Now it was her turn to sneer.

She made one step toward the phone, and her eyes stared as his hand whipped out something black — gleaming and deadly from under his coat — it was a snub-mouthed, ugly black piece of metal — a gun! And he, her uncle, was pointing it at her. He backed up, his body covering the telephone. She read murder in those green eyes, and in a flash of horrorful insight Rey knew that this wasn’t the first time, and that what he had done, the bad thing they wanted him for, was murder!

His arm with the gun came down. “Just to let you know I want no Mickey Mouse. I don’t play games.”

“You — you’re a killer,” her voice came out choked. “Now I know why they want you. They’ll get you in the end. You are evil.”

His voice was calm with the calm of death. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you, make me mad. Besides, you won’t have to worry. I’m leaving here. It’s a small world and your pal Bazine appreciates my company.” He laughed a dry, mocking laughter.

So that’s where her money had gone. And Bazine had been the girl riding in her car! She must enjoy herself hugely and they, both of them, must be having a great time laughing at Rey.

“It’s a small world,” he went on. “Of all the women on this beach, fancy me running into your pal, Bazine.” He almost choked laughing. “She’s quite a dish, no wonder you lost your job to her.”

So that was Bazine’s version. Rey was insane with fury, horror, and also fear. She was going to use that phone, and soon. Let him get his desserts. She would outsmart him. So they were laughing at her, well, she would have the last laugh.

He was still holding the gun.

“Let’s not get mad, Uncle.” She forced to calmness into her voice. “Put that thing away, will you, and I’ll go fix us a drink. I could use one. I just gave them back their lousy job at the Crimson Dawn Lounge.”

“Well,” he put the gun on the table, right by the phone. “We’ll leave this here just so you don’t get any ideas. Now, I could use a drink.” He flopped on the couch, his eyes on the gun.

Rey fixed the drinks; her hand shook and she spilled part of the liquor. How to get that gun away from him and put the call through? If ever, now was the time to be composed.

“Here, Uncle.” As she tended him the glass and his right reached for it, her left grabbed up the gun, her fingers clamping down on the cold metal, her heart, dead with the mortal fright, as cold as the gun her hand was holding. It was the first gun her hand had ever touched. And she might have to use it on her uncle! Her left with the gun wavering in the direction of his chest, her right forefinger reached for the dial digit.

“Now Uncle, will you get out, or—”

The glass splintered against the wall and like a panther he leaped at her, yanking the gun out of her hand. She let out a scream and ran behind the bar. He was after her, the deadly gleaming weapon pointing. She knew she was done for. This was the end — an end she deserved. Well, why didn’t he shoot? She was cowering amidst the bottles, waiting, dying in advance.

“You have it coming to you,” she heard his quick breathing, “but—”

The telephone thrilled urgently… once, twice…

“Go and answer that phone,” he ordered. “It might be for me. And be careful what you say.”

He covered her all the way to the black instrument. She lifted the receiver which seemed like a lead.

“Hello…”

“Punkin, don’t talk. Just answer me. Is he there — Plutt?”

Ben’s voice. She rallied. “Yes.” She tried to sound casual.

“Any trouble?” he asked

“Yes, oh yes!” She put empathy in her voice.

“Keep the fort. I’ll be right up. Calling from the manager's office downstairs.”

“Well,” Plutt stood at attention, the gun ready.

“Oh, it’s Maul,” she said the first thing that came into her mind. Plutt would never know why she breathed a sigh of relief. “Put that thing down. I’m in a better mood now. I’ve still got my old job, boss just said so. I’ll fix us another drink. You can guard the phone, Uncle.” She could afford to be generous now.

He scowled but let her move to the bar where she prepared two drinks, a silent prayer in her heart. Ben would not fail her.

As she came over, his right, gun in hand, was pointing straight at her, while his left grabbed the glass, putting it to his lips.

And now the door splintered open, the gun spit fire, and all hell broke loose.

Chapter Text

Both Ben and Plutt fired at the same time and missed. Ben, taking the stunned Plutt by surprise, moved in on him, slapping the pistol out of his hand; it dropped onto the rug. Plutt rallied, throwing the full weight of his agile body against Ben whose gun hit the floor.

And now, breathless from fright and frozen with horror, Rey watched the two men grappling with each other. Now they were rolling on the floor, Plutt on top, his knee digging into Ben’s midriff. Now Rey saw her uncle’s slim hands curve about Ben’s neck. In that flash of an instant, Rey knew who she wanted to survive. She couldn’t let Ben die for her.

She saw one of the guns on the rug, picked it up, aiming it at Plutt’s head. Her voice was icily calm.

“Call the police, Ben. Quickly. I’ll keep him covered.”

The gun never wavered, her eyes never let go, watching his vicious snarl.

His hands were down. “Remember, Rey,” he hissed, “I’m your beloved uncle whom you are sending to the electric chair.”

Her hand kept steady. She heard Ben move, listened to him talking into the receiver. “Captain Ematt, come on up, grab your man.”

Ben turned, walking up to Rey, his hand supporting her arm with the gun. “They don’t have far to go,” he assured her, “just two flights up.”

It seemed a lifetime to Rey, and without Ben’s support she would have dropped her arm.

There were two policemen and they were in plain clothes. Their guns covered him.

“You can drop that gun now, Miss Gardner,” said the heavyset one, putting the handcuffs on the scowling Plutt. “Let’s go.” Roughly he yanked him up, shoving him toward the door.

Plutt never lost his nerve. “This is a free country. Wait a minute, there must be some mistake. Got a warrant?” he blinked.

“You are Gregory Plutt, and,” the one with the mustache pulled a folded paper out of his pocket, “here it is.”

Rey’s mouth opened, she had to know.

“What — what are you arrested him for, officer?” she asked.

“Don’t you know? We’ve been looking for a guy who got away down in the Kijimis, ran off on a boat carrying a load of dope. He got away — killing a cop.”

So that was the bad thing he had done. It was so bad, it couldn’t be worse.

For the last time their eyes locked, his cool and insolent, and it was she who lowered hers in shame as they led him away. “

“It’s all over now, Rey.” Before Ben could get her to the couch, and very sudden, she collapsed into a tiny bundle on the rug.

There are many ways for a human heart to die, stopping its rhythm or from shock. Rey’s heart, her misplaced love, had to die from shock in order to be reborn. For three days and nights, she lay in a state a feverish coma, then again, icy shivers raked her body. In her fever ravings her heart fought the battle all over again.

Finally, her youth and her iron constitution won. However, as the doctor had advised Ben, she had to remain in bed for at least one week. She had been so utterly spent that her mind was out of contact with the present. And if Ben had known before, he knew now from her feverish rantings what Plutt had meant in her life. Although an irrational (a compliment to an artist), softhearted man, he was shocked to find out how misplaced her emotions had been. He pondered the problem and finally knew under what long-lasting, remote control spell she had been, and what had made her as he found her — brunette ice.

He dispatched Rose to Rey’s bedside whenever his presence at the theater was acquired so Rey was never alone. Bazine looked and acted rather subdued, her latest boudoir calisthenics having ended with her lover in the hands of the law.

Through the half opened window, sunshine, bright and buttery golden, streamed into the room, hitting Rey’s tiny hands resting on the covers. She was propped up on many pillows and, although her eyes were closed, she was far from being asleep. Her mind was busily at work, trying to sort out facts from fancy. She was taking stock of herself. She had plenty of time for that; while her body was recovering, her mind was fighting its way back to normalcy, out of the tangled labyrinth of past emotions.

She wanted to start all over again. Differently, this time; she felt like a changed person. Her eyes looked at the world and the people in it with her newly gained insight. She had been all wrong about everything, she admitted to herself. Her way of going after things, worthless things and worthless people, had almost ruined her. That gun, his gun, could have so easily gone off in her direction. Ben had really put things to right. He had practically saved her life, being right there when she needed him. Her mind recreated the horrible scene indelibly engraved on her mental screen, of Plutt and Ben in a tight tussle on the floor, with Plutt’s hand ready to close about Ben’s windpipe. It had been touch and go. But she, Rey, had without wavering, wanted Ben to live.

Ben! And now her heart was flooded by a wave of tenderness, so overpowering, it made the tears come to her eyes. He was a wonderful person. Not really melodramatic, not really neurotic, but only concerned about her safety. She gave herself up to the newness of all the soft, tender emotion knowing with certainty that this was her soulmate.

Her eyes opened and she heard the door open and close, and she smiled into Ben’s concerned eyes as he came toward the bed, her hands held out to him.

“Rey, darling,” he took them, sitting down on the edge of the bed, keeping her hands in his. “I’ve been waiting for that smile.”

They looked at each other, discovering a thousand wonderful new details. He, the way her dark caramel hair curled behind her ear; she, that his left eyebrow appeared more winged. Then they looked deeper into the mirror of their eyes. Ben watched all the tears roll down Rey’s cheeks that had lost their tan.

“No time for tears, sweetheart,” he smiled. “The bad part is over. And, you better be up and about tomorrow. Rose took a call from Luke’s lawyer. The date is set for tomorrow at two in Judge Zudan’s chambers.” When he saw the worried look come into her eyes, he added, “Nothing to worry about. I’ll be there. Remember, I have to testify as to your residence. I’m very important,” he grinned.

“You are very important, Ben, in my life. I knew it before, but it took all this for my fat head to believe it. After that, I’ll have to start looking for another job. You know, I was fired by Maul.”

“Don’t worry about that. I’ve got a more dignified job for you in mind. You see,” his face was serious, “I, too, found out that I was too quick on the trigger. Without you, I might as well sell apples. What a life for an artist.”

Rey had to know. “What will happen to Plutt? And when you phoned me — how did you know I was in trouble?”

“Oh,” Ben smiled, “it’s a long story. If you promise not to get excited, I’ll tell.”

And to her tense, pale, listening face he told about finding her roadster in front of Bazine’s apartment house on a social call to Amilyn’s which had led him to Dok-Ondar who got busy detecting.

“It wasn’t too difficult,” he went on, “they were looking for your uncle. Of course, they were looking for a brunette, clean-shaven man. The fact that Bazine picked him up in a neighborhood bar and had a sudden yen for him, was one of those incredible accidents. It will go bad for him. But you’re in the clear. You’ll have to go down to headquarters and make a deposition… Anything else you want to know?”

She sat up. “How come you walked in here alone, knowing Plutt must be armed, also knowing he was dangerous?”

“Oh, just a little thought. I had a hunch you might not know how bad a fix he was in. I had the officers down here, waiting. I was going to lead Plutt to them and spare you the shock seeing the handcuffs put on him.”

She had nothing to say. It was just like Ben, exposing himself, endangering his very life to spare her shock.

“Anything else I can do to ease your mind?” he inquired.

She opened her eyes, and her heart opened wide as she held out her arms to him.

“Yes Ben, you can, and you’re the only one who can.”

As their lips joined in a tender kiss, her heart fluttered and danced; it moved and she felt it stirring, listening to its mad beating.

“Aw, and we waste time fighting. But let’s take things easy till you’re strong again.” He sat down keeping her hand in his. His eyes twinkled merrily. “Tomorrow you’ll be a free woman. But not for long… How do you like ‘Golden Queen of the Grand’?” he asked.

“Why?” Rey’s eyes were huge question marks. “What happened to Amilyn?”

“Well, after only thirty-some years, Uncle Luke is taking a leap of faith. It’s up to me now to take the helm. And ‘a home is not a home’...” He sat back in his chair with a serves-her-right look on his face. “That back there is the kind of loyalty I expect from you when we’re married,” he said.

Rey wasn’t sure she understood him. “I got the words, but I didn’t catch the music.”

“Aren’t you ever gonna get smartened up?” Ben asked. “I’m asking you to marry me.”

Before Rey blurted out a too hasty yes, she thought of the theater she’d be playing for the rest of her life. Four shows a day and have Sundays off, the drugstore food; the hotel, and the seltzer water in the pants.

Then she said it! Instead of just saying yes, she said, “You mean,” she was sitting up, her green eyes enormous, but not icy now; they were brimming with tender warmth. “You mean, you’d still want me?”

Then took her hand and whispered, “Punkin,” very softly. “Mrs. Rey Punkin Gardner Skywalker Solo, I never stopped wanting you. You know, I’m not as impetuous and clodish as you thought me to be. I do have good business sense.”

“You mean,” she had to know, it was all-important to her, “you want me for keeps?”

He laughed. “Rey, if a man like me who knew the score from first glance asks a girl to marry him, it is for keeps.”

Her eyes closed. She was hugging her happiness to herself, and her heart that had laid like a dead weight in her chest for so long, beat joyously, the core of ice around it melting in the glow of this indestructible love.

Yes, the brunette ice finally became transformed into brunette flames at last — at very long last — forever and ever…

Chapter Text

Exactly four days later, Rey was present at another wedding — her own. Without orange blossoms, bridesmaids, or even a wedding party. No caviar and champagne. Rey settled for steak and onions. Their kiss was long and tender. He cupped her chin with his hand. She forgot the ceremony was over, even forgot that they weren’t alone. The orchestra playing the “Wedding March.” Luke and Amilyn’s congratulations brought her back.

Karé was crying softly. “It’s so romantic. I can’t help it,” she sobbed.

It was romantic. Rey got goose pimples all over. It was just like Ben said: It was love at first sight, and when they took another look they were hitched. Everyone in the parlor was kissing her on the head and slapping Ben on the back. Jannah was even planning on what she’d wear to the baby shower and then Rose whispered in her ear.

“No more theories then?”

“What have theories to do with love?”

Rey could admit that she’d been right all along, but knowing Ben, she decided to keep it to herself. Then she sneaked a little peek at him.

He was taking bows already, as though he were the first comic to make an honest woman out of a stripteaser.

Maz, the G-string lady, was making a speech. It was all about wishing them happiness and how lucky Ben was. Then she put her black suitcase on the table and opened it. She brought out a box, one of those that she kept the best items in, and held up a ruby-studded G-string.

“My wedding present to the bride,” she said importantly.

She was beginning to murmur the conventional, “Just what I needed,” when Ben made a dive for Maz. He kissed her on both cheeks. “I love ya, Maz.”

Maz roared with laughter. They all laughed; everything seemed very funny.
Rey loved burlesque. She also learned to love the people who were in that work and cared as she did. In these last weeks, they returned that affection endlessly. They honored her not just a stripteaser but a woman who never surrendered to failure or to fame. But whoever she pretended to be there was someone she could not escape being: a woman of unquenchable spirit and unyielding independence. And now, she had latched her perfect man, her champion hurdler.

Maz took one of her hand-rolled cigarettes from her pocket and lit it. Then she reached for Ben’s drink and tossed back the rye.

“Happy, darling?” asked Ben, helping the new Mrs. Ben Solo into the car.

“Very.” Her green eyes gazed through the dark screen of her lashes at her husband who was getting behind the wheel. She felt funny, not solemn though. Turning, see looked back at the shabby, gray frame house peeking out from behind green bushes, her eyes still able to make out the wooden sign with the black painted lettering: Lor San Tekka, Justice of the Peace. It had been short and quite perfect. And now she was Mrs. Ben Solo. Nice going Rey, she smiled to herself. Where do we go from here? she wondered. Ben answered the question.

“And now I’m bringing my bride home,” he said proudly, covering her hand on the seat, “my lovely, lovely bride. Happy darling?”

“Yes, I truly am.” She didn’t mind answering the same question all over again. She genuinely appeared elated; she was nervous about making a nice showing with his parents, fearing in advance they wouldn’t approve her. Not that they could have a thing to say about her reputation. It was just that she didn’t belong. Her people were not eligible for the country club nor did Rey have more than a high school education.

Her fingers felt the fine wool of her new blue suit and her eyes rested on the plain platinum wedding band. There was one drawback to this hurried marriage — no diamond solitaire engagement ring. Rey couldn’t care less. There would be other things to make up for it. After several long years of slugging around, Rey was finally getting what she’d always wanted — a family.

She was bouncing off the bungalow walls, trying to maintain her excitement. “I mean, okay, what do I say,” she’d said that evening, waving a toothbrush around. “Hello Mum, hello Dad, right?”

“Right,” Ben agreed. He was in bed, watching her bounce around, talking and brushing teeth all at once. He wanted to always remember her like this always — vibrant and happy, her green eyes shining as she padded around wearing nothing but one of his dress shirts and a pair of bootie socks.

“Can you believe it?” she asked him for the thousandth time.

“Yeah,” he said, and leaned back, sprawled across the bed. “I can definitely believe it. You’re wonderful,” he opened his arms.

She laughed, tossed the toothbrush aside and gleefully pounced on him, holding still for his exhausting kiss. “See? This I why I love you, Benji. I can forgive your sock problem because you’re so wonderful to me.”

“Hey,” he protested, looking at the ridiculous bootie socks she was wearing. “I don’t have a sock problem — you do.”

“No, I have sock standards, which is completely different. And my standard is on your feet, in the laundry, or in a drawer,” she said, as she nuzzled his neck.

“But I don’t even get a fifteen second grace period,” he complained. “Once they hit the floor, the Sock Nazi appears out of nowhere, demanding I put them in the hamper.”

“You’re lucky! I haven’t said anything about boxers yet,” she said, and bit him on the neck.

“What are you doing?” he asked, his hand stroking her back, her bare leg.

“Leaving a mark so you can’t get rid of me if I flop horribly with your parents.”

The remark made him flinch inwardly. Rey was used to her isolation for years, a lifetime, and she was still adjusting to the idea that forever went beyond just around the corner. Unconditional. That was because the bleakness of desert life was still in her spirit. The harshness of the pueblo streets was still in her manner when she married him. Big-city passions living a small-town life. It was almost as if she never left home. Poor but decent; withdrawn but angry. A porcupine, he called her. Only her heart passed. And he was just what the doctor prescribed. Her emotions were so near the surface she gave her best performances on the first try. What he revealed was a radiance and vulnerability no one else had seen in her. Together they made magic.

She was transformed. He remade her in a new light, soft and caressing; stripping away phony glamor and phony toughness. And, as she had done for him, he expanded her range and confidence.

Her head popped up; brunette hair whispered across his face, tickling him. “How long?” she asked.

He pushed her hair behind her ears, looked into her glittering green eyes. “I don’t know, baby.” It was getting easier for him to work in the truth, because his constant presence was becoming a source of solace between them. He loved that, for a lot of reasons. He loved that he felt missed every time he went into another room. He loved that they were joined at the hip. And he damn sure loved having such strong feelings expressed by Rey when he knew that it was one of many upright hurdles in the past.

“More than a week?”

“Definitely more than a week.”

She groaned, pressed her forehead to his. “I can’t do it! Why can’t we just stay here? Why does it have to be there?”

“I don’t know,” he said, stroking her back. “Maybe because I’m afraid of that little woman? And I’m so very proud of you?”

“I know, I know,” Rey sighed. “I just really don’t know what to do with myself.”

“You’ll do fine.” He pulled her to him; her nose was on his chest and she smelled his particular odor that would forever set him apart, her first, last and only man, her husband. “You don’t have to do anything.” And he meant it, he truly meant it… but she’d always had a disquieting feeling that maybe she wouldn’t make the grade, like deep in the gut. But he did love her… nor did she want for anything. If he got busy, he’d make it a point to remind himself of the little things. Like how she talked with wildly expressive hands. Or how she would frown when she was trying to knit him a pair of socks she had been studying just recently. Or how she wiggled her fingers at him when she said good morning every day before disappearing into the bathroom.

“And I love the daises,” she added, and suddenly sat up, straddling him.

He’d gotten in the habit of having fresh daisies delivered every week just to see her smile, because she always lit up like a Christmas tree at the sight of them. Many nights, she sat at their dining room table, trying to replicate one of the delicate blooms with the expensive yarn he had given her.

She was not as talented in the art of knitting as she was at stripping or raconteuring — in fact, she wasn’t very good at all. But Ben would never admit it — he kept buying her yarn and ignored her various attempts that now littered their apartment.

“But that’s okay,” she said, caressing his chest with her hands. “I’ll be very excited about the big batch of daises I’ll get when you come back from fishing with your father.”

Rey smiled, moved her hands over his chest and he looked up. Did he detect trust in the depths of her moist green eyes?

Her lips moved caressingly over his full, soft mouth and her lashes brushed his cheek in a butterfly kiss. He sat up, quickly unbuttoned the shirt she wore, and pushed it from her shoulders.

But Rey laughed and resisted. “You said I could be on bottom this time,” she reminded him.

He grinned, pulled her off of him, rolled her onto her back and came over her. “I lied. If you want me to be on top, you’re going to have to earn it.”

“Ooh, bold talk,” she said laughingly.

He kissed her laugh, felt himself floating, the feral sensations taking hold. With his mouth and his hands, he slid down her body, leaving a hot, wet trail on her belly. He pushed her thighs apart, kissing them tenderly, and spurred on by Rey’s gasps and moans. And then he moved slightly, so that his mouth was on her sex.

Rey gasped and clutched at his head. Ben loved that about her — his wife was a lusty lover, and he slipped his tongue between the slick folds. He held her firmly with his hand and casually stroked her, his tongue dipping in and out languidly at first, tasting her, exploring each crevice, moving up to the center, then down again, to where her body throbbed. As her groans and her writhing increased, so did his urgency. He was stroking her harder, his mouth covering her, and Rey began to press against him.

He licked and sucked her into a frenzy of delicious torment, until Rey was literally gasping for breath. And then she cried out. He came over her, his hands skimming her belly, her breasts, to her face. Rey laughed as he pressed his lips to the hollow of her throat. “Ohmygod,” she said. “Ohmygod.” She flung one arm above her head, smiling deliriously.

Ben reveled in the soft feel of her body, the tender pressure of her hand and her mouth on his chin. He had never in his life known lovemaking, only reading about it in great parts, wonderful lines — speaking those glorious words — Shakespeare — Ibsen — lofty pursuits in life that sneered at his humble profession, like he knew it with Rey. Each time it left him spent and powerless and hungry for more.

She was moving beneath him, guiding him to her. “What are you waiting for?” she asked him breathlessly.

Ben laughed, moved between her legs and spread them wider, so that the tip of his erection was touching her, moving slowly against her. “You’ve never been exactly patient, have you?”

“No,” she said, and fumbled for his hardness. She quickly stroked with her fingers, then watched his eyes as she smeared her arousal on him, using both hands to do it, both hands to stroke and tickle and make him absolutely crazy. “Watch it,” he said with a smile. “You may get more than you bargained for.”

“Not at this rate.”

“Now you’ve gone and done it,” he muttered, and lowered his lips to hers as he eased himself inside her, moving his hips in small circles, until he had slid deep and wet into her, moving slowly, prolonging the moment, teasing her.

But Rey was in no mood to be teased. Her fingernails dug into his hips, urging him deeper and faster.

He smiled. “Where’s the fire?”

“You mean you can’t feel it?” she gasped, digging her fingernails into him even deeper. “Come on, Benji, don’t make me beg.”

“But I love it when you beg,” he said, hoping she’d beg soon, because he couldn’t keep the teasing up. He needed to be in her. Really in her.

“Please,” she said, lifting her head and biting his lower lip. “Please.”

That was all it took, and he lengthened his strokes. They were so good together that Rey instantly began to move with him, her hips rising to meet each surge, her breathing as ragged as his, her knees squeezing him.

Ben groaned again; he was sliding deeper and harder, his hands in her hair, his eyes wildly roaming her beautiful face, driving into her, over and over and over again until he closed his eyes and found a very hot and very potent release with a strangled cry.

With one last, residual shudder, he collapsed on top of her and kissed her forehead. “I love you,” she whispered.

“I want to live inside you.” She kissed him, raked her fingernails up his back. “You are so sexy, husband. I just want to eat you up.”

He sighed. She wriggled out from beneath him, moving gingerly to dislodge him from her, and stood up. “I’ve got to have something to drink,” she said, and walked across the bungalow into the tiny kitchen, completely and gloriously naked.

Ben rolled onto his side and propped his head on his hands, watching her. The Three Big Words had slid off her tongue, back into that place inside her she’d kept them all these years, all shiny and new, never used. Just for him.

There wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do for Rey, and there was at least one big thing he could do — he could be the guy she needed, the guy who would go the distance. He was like a marathon runner who would make it to the finishing line of full commitment, where he would inevitably cross, and then go another ten yards, falling flat on his face, gasping for air and wanting a drink.

She gazed through the window at the rolling hills of green, showing touches of creams, periwinkle and fuchsia. Spring was upon them early. Spring, to Rey, meant a new dress, no, just a dress. For the only close look at a dress she’d ever had was through the plate glass of Outpost’s window. Now she had several dresses and one for every occasion.

“One more hour and we’ll be home,” observed Ben, his foot on the accelerator. “I can hardly wait to see their faces.”

Well, I can wait, thought Rey. She wished she could keep him a little longer, to herself. Although, for three days and nights spent exclusively in Ben’s company seemed a fair start. He was sweet, incredibly sweet, and his adoration was touching. And it cocooned her heart. Also, she’d never tire of his ardent lovemaking; he seemed to possess untapped reserves of strength. Of course she had married a very old man, a gentleman of thirty. She giggled.

“What’s so funny?” inquired Ben, engrossed in driving. “Let me in on it.”

“The mattress in bungalow thirteen, it sags horribly. The next occupants will complain.” She watched the blush creep up his cheeks and his eyes momentarily disengaged from the road, his brown-brown eyes on her tanned face. Such concentrated love and slavish adoration was in them, it thrilled her. She had been used to the whispers and apologies of Jakkuville; respectability. Not her Ben; he wouldn’t fit in. He’d get on top of the highest building in the world and yell, “This is my woman! I love her and she loves me!” Love wasn’t something you should be afraid someone might catch you doing in the kitchen, after all.

“Darling, my very own!” he whispered. It would be easy, she thought, to pull over and tie him up. Too bad he was so strong. Then contempt for his handsomeness welled within her; it would serve him right, teach him a lesson for the next time.

The first scattered houses of Chandrila appeared. Now they were driving past a home looking incredibly shabby, in need of paint, but with lots of potential, to Rey. The fence needed mending badly. But they sped by and were presently on the other side of town, rolling along a wide road shaded by ancient, spreading Elm trees. Rey knew the house well; she had seen it in a magazine, never dreaming that she would ever enter it, least as Mrs. Ben Solo. She squared her shoulders, her mouth set, her eyes like green glass.

“Give ‘em all you got, Baby!” he’d tell her right before she shimmied onto the stage. And she’d kiss him back, “They couldn’t take it!”

Ben stopped the car in front of the massive oak door, got out and came around to her side, helping her out of the car.

The door was pushed open by him and he lifted her up in his strong arms, carrying the light bundle over the threshold. He stood her up and she took a deep breath, inspecting the territory quickly.

They were in a huge hole, its walls hung with soft-hued tapestries. A wide, winding staircase with an artfully carved wooden banister led up to the second floor. Rey gazed in awed horror at the life-size marble statue on a pedestal — of all things, naked lovers. And mid-pursuit!

Ben was following her gaze eagerly. “Like it?” He pointed at the statue. “You’re much lovelier than Daphne.”

Rey sighed in relief. She would have to watch herself. One was supposed to know about things like that. She will learn fast by listening, she decided.

“Ben, darling!” We were so worried, your father and I.”

Rey watched the approach of the handsome woman in black whose large warm brown eyes Ben had inherited as well as her features.

“Mother!” Ben went to her and watched the woman fling her arms about him possessively, kissing him on both cheeks. Now the eyes saw her, standing straight and tall and slim as a young tree, the silvery hair fluffing about the lovely oval of the face. Brown eyes stared into green ones and melded.

His mother’s arms dropped away from Ben’s neck. Her voice sounded warm and intimate.

“And who is this young lady, Ben? You haven’t—”

“Mother,” Ben came over, putting a protective arm about Rey’s shoulders, “this is the surprise I told Dad about on the phone. Mother, meet Rey, my bride.”

Rey essayed the ghost of a smile, watching the expression of startled surprise give way to one of relief on the older woman’s face.

“Rey, darling, this is Mother.”

“I must say,” the brown eyes, kitten-soft now, went over Rey’s proudly erect figure, remaining on the lovely expressive face, “she’s so ethereal, Ben. I better prepare your father. You know, the doctor warned, no shock.”

With another look and word of welcome she turned slowly, disappearing through a door to the left.

Ben stood there smug, his face flushed with embarrassment like a schoolboy awarded by teacher with a trophy mug.

Rey’s laughter sounded resilient as rubber. “What I didn’t expect, Ben, surely not that they’d welcome little nobody me with open arms.”

Ben, lover and shining knight, rushed up to her, kissing her cheek.

“It’s just a shock, the surprise, dearest. You’ll grow to love them when you know how sweet they are.”

And, as she unanticipated, they did. Also, they were very sweet.

That first night at dinner, she met the master of the house, Han Solo. She had taken special care about her appearance and looked like a caramel-haired angel in the sea-green, simple wool dress Ben had selected for her in Batuu; it clung to her seductive curves. Slowly her huge eyes lifted, looking into warm brown eyes under bushy gray brows. The fleshy mouth was curled into a welcome smile, a profound, honest smile testified by winsome she read in the eyes going over her appraisingly and rested for a moment on her lovely face.

“So you are the fish my son caught,” he said, extending a strong, heavily veined hand. “Very pretty, I must say.”

She put her tiny white paw between the hard, brown fingers, smiling sweetly, very sweetly. It was important to be liked by him. She felt sure with him she could make the grade. He was like Ben, wasn’t he?

“Mr. Solo,” she said, “I can’t imagine what a shock our marriage must be to you and your wife. But I hope you will get to like me.” Looking into his dark eyes, their expression unchanging, she believed it.

“My dear, call me ‘Dad,’ I dare say, this sudden — hm, feat of my son has rather surprised me and the Princess. But whether we like you — and we do, I’m sure — is not important. Ben is all we have. And I do hope you two make each other happy.”

He dropped her hand and she lowered her eyes, knowing she, Ben, Leia, or anyone else might fool others but not this man.

Dinner was an elaborate affair, the table gleaming with silver; the candlelight giving the shimmering damask cloth and the thin porcelain a mellow glow. Rey ate slowly, careful to use the proper fork.

After dinner they all moved onto the library, a high-ceilinged, austere room; its three walls were covered by amply filled bookshelves. Never in her life had Rey suspected one home could hold so many books. They were occupying the dark red leather sofa and easy chairs and Larma, the svelte maid, served the coffee. Mrs. Solo poured the black, steaming liquid from the shining silver urn into the dainty cups.

She looked regal in her dark red, brocaded gown. Rey was fascinated by the huge diamonds sparkling in her ears; she would inherit those one day. Then she cherished the thought. She would be around long enough, if she could help it. She sensed Leia Skywalker Solo’s eyes on her.

“I thought it best to move you and Ben into the left wing, for the present at least,” she addressed Rey. “I think you’ll find the rooms comfortable.” Her eyes said, every room should be comfortable to one who lives in a love nest, to conceive grandchildren.

Rey looked at her sheepishly. “I’m sure we’ll be very comfortable.” Then she added, smiling sweetly. “I would be comfortable anywhere with Ben,” knowing Ben’s mother truly believed her. Her eyes went to Ben who was talking shop with his father. He’s just a big bag of muscles, thought Rey, so biteable. Will he purr for me? Well, she resolved, Ben is a cinch for fatherhood. She knew how! Feeling her eyes on him, he looked up at her and as she read utter devotion in them she felt glowing victory. Her eyes met Leia Skywalker Solo’s who was watching her son’s face, knowing she had regained him.

“Does your family know about this — elopement?” Leia Skywalker Solos’ eyes were soft and probing. “I guess this will be a surprise to them too. Or,” she paused before letting go of her disarming snare, “did they know about your intentions to marry my son?”

“I have practically no family, Mrs. Solo. Mother died not long ago. My sister Millie is married, also. There’s only aunt Violet…” She purposely omitted the only one in the family who no longer mattered to her, Plutt.

“Oh, my precious dear! And your father?” The eyes never let go of her.

“Pop left us some time ago. I have no idea,” the truth came easy, “about his whereabouts.”

“Well, your family seems to have thrown away a winning lottery ticket. I hope you will get used to our life. We were a close knit family, we three.” She stressed the word three. A profound sadness swept her face. “Ben was a troubled one; mostly moodily quiet and resentful. He seemed almost catatonic with self-hate. That conflict between giving himself and the fear of giving in to his own feelings; a vulnerability so deeply imbedded that anyone with a pulse was instantly moved, almost disturbed by it. My successful career on the stage did not translate to the home, whereas I achieved stardom. I had raised Ben with a strict authoritarian hand and demanding expectations. Han was more patient, always taking the time to listen. But, also, he would let Ben get away with anything. He had an air of dignity at all times. It was only through his eyes that we saw his bewilderment at all the mischief he would get himself into. Me and my son were estranged after his childhood, meeting only a few times after he became an adult. My child resembled me in just one respect: we both were, effectively, orphans. We lead a rather quiet life.”

Rey knew she would love whatever life she would lead with them. At this very moment she decided to get Ben to move out here, take a place of their own.

“I think,” Rey looked pointedly at Solo mère, the money provider, “a young married couple should have a place of their own in the country to get away from the public eye. No matter how humble,” she added.

“You are so right.” A soft, beatific expression graced Leia Skywalker Solos’ delicate features. “I suggest that you get a place for you two. Of course it shouldn’t be anything like this,” her hand swept the expanse of the luxurious room, “probably you, young lady, as well as Ben have an idea of how to turn a house into a home. I believe in a young man proving his worth with his organization. Ben had to work his way up just as I did.” Now her soft eyes went to Ben who was squirming on his chair.

“Of course, anything you say, Mother. But I thought for the present, our apartment is big enough…”

“No apartment is big enough to hold a Skywalker-Solo family under one roof,” stated Mr. Solo warmly. “Under the right conditions, we’re breeders. I fully agree with your mother, Ben.”

Ben saw it all at a glance, their whole scheme; they were going to put them on easy pickings to lure him away, the prodigal son, to get them out of this life. He intended to come home but only as and when it suited him and Rey. Sweetly she looked at Ben.

“Don’t worry, dear. We’ll get along. After all, we have each other.”

That night, the light blue satin comforter wrapped tightly about them, Ben had told her about his decision.

“Darling, you love me, you won’t mind living in two places half of the year. It will be just for a short time — till I have proven myself.”

His arms enfolded her tight, his loving eyes searched hers. She dropped the curtain of her lashes over her eyes to show her satisfaction. So, they put the squeeze on him, she reflected. Two homes, one in the city and one in the country. Why, Miss Kitty had intended to do it for nothing, just a kiss.

“Darling,” his voice was anxious, his arms tightened about her, “tell me that you don’t mind.”

“It’s you,” she said sweetly. “I’m used to living frugally. But two houses for two people who enjoy going places isn’t much to consider.”

“No, it isn’t,” conceded Ben. “But if I know Mom, she’ll drag you off to afternoon teas and charity brunches by the hair on your head. That’s the way it’ll be if I get you into the Skywalker-Solo mansion with its family traditions. Even if we don’t live here, the other place will have family traditions, too.”

“There’s nothing wrong with your family, Benji.”

“Oh, sure, nothing. They’re alright as families go, but they’re all alike. They all want to hear the patter of baby feet.”

Her face lit up. “You know, you ought to be ashamed of yourself. Denying his rights to a sweet, old thing like Dad.”

“Aw, he’s a lamb and adore him, but I’m not willing to provide him with the heir of a grandson. Not for a few years.”

“A few years? Well, what happens to us in the meantime?”

“Just this thing. Just you and me. I want to cling to it as long as I can. We have a whole lifetime to be the Solos, so little time to be us. I want to hold onto my wife for as long as I can!”

Yes, he had her, and he had been caught in his own scheme. She had to find a way in.

“Sweetheart, my dearest,” her hands grew bold and her moist lips were all over his body. He was annoyed but excited; his mind felt like getting up and getting out, but his stiffening cock said he wasn’t going anywhere. Traitor. For he was already needy of her hungry lips and demanding caresses. Three days of marriage seemed to fly by so fast. The hot feeling in his stomach gelled like lava.

Her back arched, a soft moan escaping to flow with a sultry lethargy through the room. The move only ground her crotch against the seam of his pajamas, and his cock surged. “Oh, please, Benji, please.”

He didn’t discuss it anymore. Kissing her cheek lightly, he turned with her in his arms and pressed her back into the mattress. He rocked hard against the notch at the top of her legs until her fingers were biting into his shoulders.

He kissed her again and swept his fingers between her legs.

And Rey cried. He used the opportunity to lodge his hand between her legs. He cupped her sex, and she went right up onto her tiptoes. She caught his arms, and her fingers bit into his biceps. He kissed her temple.

From under half closed lids, he watched her face and let his fingers explore. Her eyes were closed tight, and her teeth bit into her lower lip. Purposely, he let his thumb drum across her nub. Her eyes flew open, and her jaw dropped. He did it again, and she came alive in his arms, clawing at him like a cat.

He dropped his forehead against hers, running from there to her slim legs, daringly crossed. “Spread your legs, sweetheart.”

“Please, please, please,” she groaned. His expression remained steady, his eyes went back to her face until, still on her tiptoes, she widened her position.

It opened her cunt to his invading hand, and he grunted in conquest. He locked his other hand on her buttocks as he let his fingers do the walking. He poked and prodded into all the nooks and crannies as her body shook.

“I love you, I love you, I love you…” she whispered.

“We could live on love like this.”

Enough with the small talk and baby touches. They were finally getting to the heart of the matter. She gave a solid tug on his cock and caught her hard against his body. He bore himself into her; slowly, he dragged his length along the tight, wet, velvety depths of her. She groaned at the intimacy, and the sound rang in his ears. Her mind was like a millpond, weighing all the possibilities, looking at all angles, looking for a niche in, the offered harbor of his loving arms and this loving marriage.