Chapter Seven (Part One)
“Going to The Roman Empire,” Trip says. “Me, you, Vandalia and her consort. I have to find out more about Angel and the other woman.” Trip has told Mowgli everything she did that afternoon, but he still isn’t computing. It’s difficult for him to switch from computer geek to party animal without some downtime in between. Besides, he has yet to adapt to Trip’s come-hither look as he’s grown fond of her tomboyish, no-nonsense persona. Seeing her tarted up reminds him of when he first met her, and he, like she, doesn’t care to remember those days.
Trip had raced home from Tosca’s impatient to look up information about Andretti, but to her dismay, there was nothing relevant on Ricardo Andretti. There was one in Modesto, but he was ninety-five years old. There was one in New Jersey, but that didn’t help her. Then she thought of trying just Andretti, but that was hopeless. She was incensed that her hot new information did little to propel her forward. She wondered if Seamus had misheard, but there weren’t many names that sounded similar to Ricardo. She would have to do further sleuthing on this point before she could do an efficient search. After that, she had gone out and shopped until her credit card screamed from exhaustion, but it had been worth it. She had spent almost five-hundred dollars on clothes, and there wasn’t a speck of black to be seen. By the time she returned to Vandalia’s, Mowgli was already comfortably ensconced on the living room couch.
“The Roman Empire,” Mowgli repeats, as if he’s never heard the name before. “You, Delilah Esther Wire want to go to a strip club.” His voice couldn’t be more dubious if Trip had said she wanted to run with the bulls in Spain.
“I don’t want to go,” Trip replies tersely. “Try to keep up here. That’s where the dead girl worked. There’s another girl who’s involved in the case who might work there as well. Vandalia thought it’d be a good idea if I didn’t go alone.”
“Well, she’s right about that.” Mowgli is frowning as he looks up at Trip from his place on the couch. She’s still standing, unable to unwind. “I don’t like what this case is doing to you.”
“Neither do I,” Trip shoots back. “That’s why I have to find the motherfuckers.”
“Del, you sure you want to do this? Maybe it’ll die out by itself.”
“Yes, I’m sure!” Trip stares down at Mowgli, daring him to defy her. “I got off the fucking streets and got a fucking life. I damn well want to make sure I can keep living it.” This has moved beyond a matter of pride for Trip—it’s becoming personal. If she can’t find the motherfuckers and bring them to some kind of justice, she’ll be running around for the rest of her life looking over her shoulder and waiting for the other shoe to drop.
“Then I’m in,” Mowgli says simply. Trip thumps him on the head in appreciation before sliding onto the couch next to him. They are watching the Food Network when Vandalia comes home.
“Hi, honeys, I’m home. And I brought a friend. Can he come out to play with us?” Vandalia coos, dragging a slim, dapper young man—he’s all of twenty-two or twenty-three to her thirty or so. He’s half a foot shorter than her nearly six-feet, and she outweighs him by a good fifty pounds. His eyes are hazel and his hair is buzzed short. He has a nice smile, but that’s about all I can remember about him on first sight. He’s wearing khakis, a long-sleeve black shirt and a tie. “This is Greeley Parson, boy and girl. Roberto Esteban and Trip Wire.” She shoves Greeley into the chair before flitting off into the kitchen. To Greeley’s credit, he doesn’t crack wise about my name.
“Nice to meet you,” Greeley says with a smile. “She’s quite a woman, isn’t she?” His eyes follow Vandalia’s ample backside as it disappears from view.
“That she is,” Mowgli says dryly. “Where did you meet her?”
“At the theater. I do some volunteer work. Stuffing envelopes, cold-calling, that sort of thing. I’m an accountant in my day life. How about you?”
“Vandie and I go way back,” Mowgli drawls. “I did a drag show once, and she was the emcee. This was in another lifetime.”
“You’re Esmerelda!” Greeley whoops in pleasure. “I’ve seen your act! It’s great.”
“Like I said, another lifetime.” Mowgli looks pleased that someone remembers his act, though, and he gives Greeley his full attention.
“What about you, Trip? How do you know Vandalia?”
“Through Mowgli—him.” Trip points at Mowgli. “I needed a place to stay, and she was kind enough to offer.”
“What do you do for a living?” Greeley asks, his eyes fastened to Trip’s face. She wants to tell him that she doesn’t always look like this, that she is more serious than what she looks like now, but that is not relevant at the moment. She doesn’t want to tell him about her job, either, though. She’s never been ashamed of it, but it doesn’t seem prudent to mention it.
“I’m between jobs right now,” Trip says carefully. Greeley takes this at face value.
“Isn’t Vandalia grand?” He asks enthusiastically, bouncing in his chair. “I first saw her as Eliza Doolittle—sorry, did you say something?” This last to Mowgli who makes a suspicious snorting sound. Mowgli vehemently shakes his head, then softly starts humming, ‘I Feel Pretty’. “I can’t remember who played the Professor, but Vandalia stole the show.” His eyes mist up in remembrance. “I saw her as Rizzo in Grease.” Mowgli switches to ‘Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee’. “Nora in The Dollhouse.” Fortunately, that’s not a musical so Mowgli can’t hum a tune. “You know who she’d be great as? Sateen in Moulin Rouge.” Right on cue, Mowgli starts humming, ‘One Day I’ll Fly Away.’ “She’s a great actor. She should be on Broadway.”
“Don’t you mean actress?” Trip asks curtly.
“No,” Greeley shakes his head vigorously. “Vandalia says that’s an outdated term. She prefers actor.” Adoration shines in his face. Trip slides her eyes Mowgli’s way, asking, ‘Is this guy for real?’ Mowgli shrugs, indicating that he has no fucking idea. “She was a divine Mimi in Rent.” That’s all Mowgli needs. He jumps up from the couch and bursts into, ‘Out Tonight’; Vandalia’s rich contralto blends with his as she emerges from the kitchen, tray in hand. Greeley listens mesmerized as Mowgli and Vandalia slide into ‘Light My Candle’ while Trip watches with barely-concealed impatience.
“Beautiful, beautiful,” Greeley applauds as soon as Vandalia and Mowgli finish. “Bellisima, darling!”
“Thank you,” Vandalia bows, pecking Greeley on the cheek. “Try to keep the adulation in check, though, OK?” She beams at Greeley who beams back at her.
“So, what are we doing tonight?” Greeley asks, his eyes still glued to Vandalia.
“Going to The Roman Empire,” Trip says, watching with satisfaction as Greeley’s ears turn red.
“Um, what?” He fumbles with a piece of cheese from the tray and carefully places it on a cracker. He looks like a teenager caught looking at a naughty magazine. “The Roman Empire. Isn’t that a strip club?”
“Yup.” Mowgli nods, plopping back down on the couch. Vandalia drags a chair closer to her beloved and sits beside him. She pats him reassuringly on the knee which brightens his countenance immeasurably.
“You guys sure do interesting things.” Greeley looks from one to another, wondering if they are making fun of the new guy.
“Trip has to find out about one of the girls,” Vandalia explains, feeding Greeley’s cracker to him. “Roberto and I thought it’d be better if she didn’t go alone.”
“I’m not dressed for a strip club,” Greeley says feebly, looking at his clothes.
“You’re fine,” Trip replies. “The Roman Empire caters to the middle-class. You’ll fit right in.” She stands up. “I, on the other hand.”
“Wear that cute pink dress I gave you,” Vandalia orders, feeding Greeley another cracker.
“This I gotta see,” Mowgli says impishly, his face curving into a grin.
“One word and I kick your ass,” Trip warns him, her face hardening. Bad enough she has to dress in cotton candy—she is not putting up with any grief for it.
“I guess I’m good to go,” Mowgli says, looking down on his ensemble. He’s wearing a black long-sleeve dress shirt with black chinos, a black blazer and a silver tie. It’s his work look, and he’s got it going on. “Not much I can do about it if I’m not. Coulda warned me that I was going to be pimpin’ tonight.”
“I have to change, too,” Vandalia says, standing up. “Roberto, you vet out my Greeley—see if you can shake the skeletons loose of his closet.” She turns to Trip who is on her way out of the room. “Make sure you’re clean-shaven.”
“I’m Asian,” Trip shoots back. “I have no body hair.”
“Lucky girl,” Vandalia mutters.
Trip escapes to her bedroom where she wastes precious time sulking. She does not want to wear the pink dress which does nothing to hide her assets. She feels vulnerable with so much flesh-showing. She pulls out a tawny catsuit she bought this afternoon instead. It molds to her body as if it is spray-painted on, but it covers her legs which is her goal. The neckline is plunging so the top has the same effect as the dress Vandalia foisted off on her, but it doesn’t feel as exposed. A thin, gold link belt at her waist is a nice accent. Dark brown leather knee-high boots finishes her off. She walks to Vandalia’s room and knocks on the door. At Vandalia’s, ‘Come in’, Trip strides into the room. Vandalia, wearing only a body slip, halts in her preparations to stare at Trip.
“Good look,” Vandalia finally says. “Gotta change your makeup, though. You know how to do it?” Trip shakes her head. It’s been too long since her Tenderloin days, and this is the kind of knowledge she actively tries to forget once she no longer has use for it. “Wait until I’m done dressing.” Trip sits on the bed, watching as Vandalia slithers into a green dress that matches her eyes. It plunges alarmingly in the front and back, and the skirt is short enough to show off a great pair of legs. She’s done in twenty minutes, which is an incredibly short amount of time considering how fabulous she ends up looking.
“Nice,” Trip comments, eyeing Vandalia up and down.
“I don’t do women, sugar,” Vandalia laughs, patting her hair in satisfaction.
“Not my type,” Trip says, deadpanned. Vandalia laughs again before turning the chair in front of her vanity mirror sideways.
“Sit.” Vandalia points to the chair. Trip sits. Vandalia removes the pink and white goop, leaving Trip’s face a healthier color. She adds foundation that slightly darkens Trip’s skin tone, then gets to work. Trip watches carefully so she can duplicate the look if need be. Fifteen minutes later, Trip is a dark, exotic beauty bathed in sepias and mahoganies. Her lips are a reddish-brown, and she looks like she’s ready to swing from a vine. A pair of coppery, twisty earrings complement the look.
“Holy shit,” Trip says when Vandalia finally allows her to look in the mirror. Who is this woman staring back at her? She’s not certain, but she’s pretty sure she doesn’t like her.
“Let’s go see what the boys have to say,” Vandalia says, pleased with her handiwork.
“Oh my God,” Mowgli stutters as he catches sight of Trip. If he thought her earlier look discomfiting, this one is downright heart attack-inducing. “Oh my fucking God.”
“Wow, Trip, you look great,” Greeley smiles, unaware of the momentous occasion. “Why are you freaking out, Roberto? Your girlfriend looks great.” Three heads swing to stare at him, much to his discomfort. “What, what’d I say?”
“She’s not my girlfriend,” Mowgli says in a strangled voice. “And I’m freaked out because…” His voice trails off. He pulls out his wallet and fishes something out of it. A picture. He hands it to Greeley.
“Who’s this?” Greeley squints at a picture of an Asian woman wearing fatigues, a black tank top and no makeup. Her lips are compressed, and her eyes are unsmiling. Her black hair is pulled back in a utilitarian ponytail, and she has her arms crossed in front of her chest.
“Ah, shit, Mowgli, you still carrying that around?” Trip sighs as she catches a glimpse of the picture Mowgli had handed to Greeley. “I thought I told you to burn it.”
“That’s you?” Greeley’s eyes widen as he looks from the picture to Trip, then back again. “And why does she call you Mowgli?”
“Yes, that’s me,” Trip replies, reaching for the picture. Before she can snatch it presumably to tear it up, Mowgli grabs it back and carefully tucks it into his wallet. “I call him Mowgli because he’s a friend to all animals.”
“That’s really you?” Greeley repeats, stunned by the revelation. “Then, what’s with this?” He gestures at Trip who is scowling from behind her mask.
“It’s a long and complicated story,” Vandalia coos, taking Greeley’s hand and squeezing it sympathetically. “Suffice to say, Trip was in dire need of a disguise, and I provided it for her.”
“You did a bang-up job,” Greeley says enthusiastically. He’s not sure what’s going on, but he likes what he sees. He misses the scowl that crosses Trips face as he continues. “She’s definitely hot looking like this.” Mowgli winces as the words fall from Greeley’s lips. Even Vandalia, who doesn’t know Trip well, knows this isn’t the right thing to say. Greeley, oblivious to Trip’s reaction to his statement compounds his error by continuing. “Before, she was your average good-looking girl but now, she can walk into any room and grab all the attention.”
“I like the way I looked,” Trip says flatly. Though she doesn’t say it, ‘asshole’ is clearly heard in her voice. Vandalia sends Greeley a warning look, but it sails right over his head.
“Come on,” he protests boyishly, the smile never wavering. “You can’t possibly prefer your old look to your new one. What girl doesn’t want to look fabulous?”
“You think a woman has to wear makeup and tight clothing to look fabulous?” Trip is narrowing her eyes, and the cords in her neck are beginning to bulge. “You have something against the natural look?”
“What’s wrong with a little makeup and frills?” Greeley counters. “You have to use what you got.”
“Then why aren’t you wearing makeup and a tight outfit?” Trip hisses, her hands on her hips. “You could certainly use some help.” She takes a step closer to Greeley, but is intercepted by Mowgli.
“Come on,” Mowgli says, throwing a frown Greeley’s way. “If we’re going to do this thing, let’s go. I need to get something to eat first.”
“I’m not going anywhere with him,” Trip snaps, holding her ground.
“What did I say?” Greeley asks in bewilderment. “Why is she going all postal on me? I thought girls like it when you tell them they look hot.”
“Oh, honey,” Vandalia says sorrowfully. “You are so young.”
“What does age have to do with anything?” Greeley is in a snit now. “She’s got to be close to my age.” He points at Trip who doesn’t take kindly to his gesture. If she were any closer, she probably would have snapped his finger off.
“Excuse us a minute,” Mowgli says, taking Trip by the arm and dragging her to her room. He pushes her gently inside and closes the door.
“Don’t start with me,” Trip warns. “I’m not the idiot here.”
“I’m not going to defend him,” Mowgli replies mildly. “I just want to give you time to get it out of your system before we go out tonight. Like it or not, it’s good protective coloring to go with Vandie and her boy.”
“I’m not so sure,” Trip counters. “I’m going to have to do some quick thinking—what if choir boy can’t keep up? He doesn’t seem very fast on his feet.”
“Let me and Vandie take care of the boy—you just worry about getting your job done.” The two of them stare at each other, communicating without words as they often do. Trip is holding on to her mad, but she sees the wisdom in Mowgli’s words. It’s much more casual if the four of them go to The Roman Empire than if just she and Mowgli show up. Besides, with Vandalia there, people will be less likely to remember Trip.
“I’m not sure this disguise is such a good idea,” Trip says with a sigh. She doesn’t feel sure of herself dressed as she is, and that’s not a comfortable feeling. “My goal is to not be memorable.”
“Your goal is to not be you,” Mowgli reminds her. “This disguise does that perfectly.”
“I like being me,” Trip grumbles, crossing her arms over her chest. “I don’t like, this.” She gestures to herself in disgust.
“Then we better figure out what the hell happened. The sooner the better.” Mowgli grips Trip by the shoulders and looks her in the eyes. “Now, are you ready to put on this other persona? And what is going to be your nom de plume of the night?”
“God, Mowgli, I don’t know.” Trip rolls her eyes. “I don’t want to play this role.”
“Do you want your life back?” Mowgli asks her bluntly. “Because if you do, then you’re going to have to do this thing.”
Trip shrugs, then turns away. How had her life spun out of control so quickly? One day, she’s on easy street, living large, doing a job she enjoys. This after years of walking the streets, scratching to get by. Then because of one lapse of judgment, she’s barred from her apartment, totally made over, and trying to figure out why Andretti set her up and how to get him back for it. More specifically, how to make sure the rap never reaches her because she’d be damned if she spent the rest of her life looking over her shoulder making sure that nobody is on her ass. She is a respected business woman with a good name; it pisses her off that this asshole idiot is aiming to take that away from her. She has spent a lifetime kowtowing to men, and she’ll be damned if one more steps all over her. Her eyes harden as she contemplates her situation. There really is no question of what she has to do.
“We on?” Mowgli asks, sticking out his fist.
“Definitely.” Trip smacks her fist on top of Mowgli’s. She takes a deep breath, lets her hips sink into the ground, tosses back her shoulders and looks at Mowgli from under her lashes. She snakes her hand out and strokes Mowgli’s arm. “Hi,” she breathes, her voice a husky alto. Without being overt, there is an implication of the South in her tone; it’s one of her favorite accents. “My name is Sherrilee, and I surely do like this town of yours.” She gazes into Mowgli’s eyes, tipping her head slightly to the side. “I’m here on vacation, and a little bird told me that I simply must check out the angel at The Roman Empire. What else is a girl to do but to check it out right away?” Trip trails her fingertips down Mowgli’s arm. Mowgli swallows hard and grabs Trip’s hand before it can wander astray.
“That’s perfect,” he growls. “Now, stop before you make me a confused boy.” Trip laughs throatily, still playing her persona.
“I’ve heard about your type of boy. I’ve always figured you just haven’t met the right girl yet.” Trip moves her body closer to Mowgli and flutters her eyelashes at him.
“Yup, you are definitely good to go.” Mowgli tucks Trip’s hand under her arm and escorts her back to the living room. Greeley and Vandalia are huddled on the couch, their heads close together. Upon spotting Mowgli and Trip, Greeley springs up from the couch and starts babbling.
“Gosh, Trip, I’m sorry that I acted like that. It was really rude of me. I apologize.” He holds his hand out and smiles winningly.
“Don’t you worry your head about it,” Trip purrs, extending her hand as well. She clasps Greeley’s, pulling him slightly closer. “But I’m afraid, you have me mistaken for someone else.” She touches Greeley’s cheek and smirks as he reddens. “My name is Sherrilee, and I’m tickled pink to make your acquaintance. I’d surely like to get to know you better.” She still hasn’t let go of his hand, and he doesn’t appear ready to ask for it back any time soon.
“Um, what?” Greeley is confused, but game. Vandalia looks on in amusement, as if watching a play.
“I’ve heard tell of a place called The Roman Empire which is supposed to be the heaven for an angel. I’d surely like to glimpse an angel on my trip to San Francisco.” Trip presses her body against Greeley’s and feels his immediate response.
“Well, Sherrilee, an angel such as yourself must have her wishes met.” Greeley pulls back slightly and bows at the waist.
“Thank you, kind sir,” Trip breathes as she bats her eyelashes at him. “You are too kind.” She maintains eye contact until he threatens to melt under the heat. Only then does she step away and break character. “You’ll do,” she says to Greeley. “But you’ll have to be faster on your feet than that. I’m incognito looking for information. Whatever I say, follow my lead. Understand?”
“How come you’re only saying this to me?” Greeley asks, a slight pout on his face. “What about them?”
“I know Mowgli,” Trip says. “He’s got game. I can tell Vandalia is a quick thinker.” A pleased look flashes across Vandalia’s face. “Plus, she’s an actress. Actor. She’s got game. It’s just you I’m worried about.” All trace of flirtation is gone as she studies Greeley analytically. “You cannot fuck this up for me so if you have any doubts, speak up now.”
“I got game,” Greeley says stubbornly. “Now that I know what you’re up to.”
“Then let’s go.” Trip decides. They all gather their accoutrements and are out the door. First food, then girls. A night to remember.