It would have been easy to miss him, tucked away in the least popular corner of the club and partially hidden by shadows thanks to a burnt-out bulb overhead that no one cared to replace, but Nikki kept a sharp eye out for the patron she’d come to think of as Shadow Man. Three or four times a week she could find him there, back to the wall and eyes on the crowd. An untouched drink would collect dust in front of him like a forgotten prop he had no real interest in. Although he blended into the crowd it was obvious he wasn’t the typical customer who came to get lit and pay a pretty girl or two to grind on their laps.
The Shadow Man provided endless fuel for Nikki’s overactive imagination. Perhaps he was a cheating husband, wary of running into one of his wife’s friends or coworkers at a less than stellar venue. Maybe he was an off-duty cop, unable to really let go and relax. The mystery only intensified her curiosity, and her desire. Although she’d yet to get a good look at his face, the rest of the package looked positively yummy. The Velvet Jacket Cabaret wasn’t a dive bar but it wasn’t the Gold Rush either, and most of the customers were working class wearing jeans or maybe Abercrombie. Shadow Man always wore a tailored suit that teased Nikki with hints of the muscular, athletic body just inside. The top two buttons of his shirt were almost always undone, offering her a tantalizing peek that left her wanting so much more.
What intrigued her most was that she never saw him come in, nor had he ever stepped up to her bar. She hadn’t even seen a waitress take him a drink. He simply materialized at his corner table set back in the shadows, one drink in hand and both eyes on the crowd. None of the waitresses knew anything about him, not even her best friend Cyla, who danced at the club and had a knack for knowing everyone who came in. With her casual interest now bordering on obsession, Nikki knew she had to do something before she became one of those crazies in the movies who made attic shrines or mailed hair clippings to the objects of their obsession. She wondered what would happen if she slipped out from behind the bar and went to his table. Would he talk to her? Order a drink? What if he asked her out? Just thinking about it sent a hot shiver up her neck.
Every night she told herself she would find out. She would gather up every bit of courage she had and casually walk over, give him a little smile, and ask if he needed anything. He would raise his eyes to hers and wink, and in a deep, sexy voice that left her panties immediately damp, tell her all he needed was her phone number. She would hold out her hand, he would give her his phone, and she would program it into his contacts, complete with a saucy selfie she would take at that very moment. Just like that.
Except it never happened. Courage always escaped her, and as she looked up from the line of drinks she’d been pouring she realized he’d escaped her once again as well. Shadow Man had left the building.
It was three a.m. when Nikki’s shift finally came to an end. She poured herself a Dr. Pepper and took a seat near the stage to watch the dancers and give her aching feet a break. The girls were all gorgeous and Nikki loved seeing them perform. They were so brave. Just thinking about doing what they did made her palms sweat and her heart race. She couldn’t even find the strength to go say hi to one lonely guy. To be on stage with all her bits hanging out was so scary that even imagining it gave her the nervous giggles. Her friend Cyla told her being stared at was the easy part. “Imagine doing wall sits and squats in six-inch platform heels! My knees sound like Rice Krispies when I walk.” Nikki didn’t need the warning. She was happy as a bartender where she could people watch all night long in comfy shoes and her prettiest outfits.
Tonight hadn’t been so great though. One of the soda guns had broken and there wasn’t another one in the stockroom. She’d had to make do by sharing one with the other bartender on her line, which slowed things down considerably. Cashmere was nice enough but she tended to get snappy if someone invaded her space. They would have to have a new one for Saturday night or they’d be in the weeds from the start. Nikki finished her soda and went down the hall to the manager’s office to put in a request.
The door was closed and she could hear voices inside. The grouchy Russian manager wasn’t a mean man but his patience was thin enough on a good day and Nikki knew better than to test it by barging into a closed door meeting. Leaning against the wall by the door, she let her thoughts turn to Shadow Man and how her night might have ended if only she’d left the safety of her bar station and gone to his corner table. Would he have invited her out for drinks, or even better, back to his place? Wrapped her up in his arms and kissed her hungrily? Her pussy grew wet at the thought and she squirmed against the wall, clenching her thighs slightly against the ache building between them. Meanwhile the voices behind the door raised in volume, intruding on her delicious fantasy.
“You can’t do this, Yefim. You know we can’t trust him!”
“Trust me, ok? It’s handled!”
Sighing dramatically, she rolled her eyes to stare at the stained ceiling. Her romantic daydreams would have to wait until she was home, away from the noise and people and most of all, the heated argument that was getting louder by the second. Idly she wondered how many years it took for a Russian to lose his thick accent. If Yefim was any indication, it never went away. As she waited for the disagreement to end, she stared at her nails and wondered how they had gotten so ragged. If Cyla saw them she would insist on a spa trip first thing in the morning. Not that that was a bad thing. She loved their mani-pedi trips. Maybe she would see if Cyla wanted to do that after they woke up. Maybe this time she would get them to paint pandas on her nails. Or daisies. Or pandas and daisies. She wondered what Shadow Man would think of that.
“If The Bear finds out it’s both our asses.”
“It’s just a couple of kilos. Keep your mouth shut and he won’t!”
“So much risk! Too much! First whores, then smurfing the books. Now this? I don’t like it.”
“You like the money though, yes? I am not hearing you bitch about that!”
Nails forgotten, Nikki froze as her attention shifted sharply to what was going on behind closed doors. What was he talking about? Cyla had told her to steer clear of two of the dancers because they were working as prostitutes at private parties and drama seemed to follow them wherever they went. Apparently the club manager had a hand in that business. Kilos? There was only one thing kilos referred to in Miami. Nikki had no clue what smurfing the books meant, but she doubted it was good.
“I swear on my mother, Yefim, this is the last time. I want to remain on this side of the grass.”
Nikki decided it would be best if she just left a note about the soda gun. The argument wasn’t going to end any time soon and it didn’t sound like one she needed to hear anyway. She’d barely taken a step when the office door flew open and a pudgy, sweaty man with thinning hair and a long scar running down one cheek stormed out to find her standing in the dimly lit hall. It was Yefim’s slow-witted, pig-faced cousin, Ruslin. She’d only seen him a few times, usually just stopping by for a free drink and to leer at the performers. No one liked him, least of all Yefim. For a moment they stood frozen, gaping at each other until a wild-eyed Yefim came around him to grab her and drag her into his office. Ruslin followed them in, quickly closing the door before planting himself firmly in front of it. Shaking her furiously, Yefim demanded answers.
“How long you been eavesdropping, Nikki?”
“I wasn’t eavesdropping!” she protested as he shook her like a rag doll.
“Don’t lie to me, I saw you standing there!”
“No! I just got here! I wanted to ask you to get a soda gun for tomorrow!” Panic washed over her and she began to cry. Yefim was always a bit of a grouchy hard-ass but he’d never raised his voice to her, much less laid a hand on her. Now she was afraid he was going to hit her.
His mouth fell open. “A soda gun? What the fuck are you talking about?”
“Mine broke, I had to use Cashmere’s almost all night. It made her mad.” Tears ran down her face. “Please, you’re hurting me!”
Yefim’s grip slowly relaxed but his face remained just inches from her own, his angry breath hot and sour in her face. “Tell me what you heard!” he demanded.
A frightened voice inside her head warned her to think carefully before she answered. Yefim’s face was bright red and the vein in his forehead was bulging. She wanted to say she heard nothing but he would know she was lying. For the first time since she’d met him, Nikki felt afraid of her boss. She had to tread cautiously. “Just Ruslin saying he didn’t like something and you asked if he liked the money.” She swiped her nose with the back of her hand. “And I was thinking I needed a manicure and maybe I’d go to the spa this weekend and then he came out. I swear I just got there right as he opened the door! Please, Yefim, you’re hurting me!”
Yefim glared at her for what felt like an eternity before finally releasing her shoulder and returning to his desk. Ruslin opened his mouth to speak but closed it again when Yefim raised a hand in warning. “I’ll pick up a soda gun tomorrow,” Yefim said as he turned his attention to the papers on his desk. “Now get out of here, Nikki. I got work to do.”
She didn’t wait to be told twice.
Yefim settled back into his office chair and rested his face in his hands while his cousin shut the door.
“You think that’s all she heard?” Ruslin nervously asked.
“No,” Yefim replied without looking up. “No, I do not think that is all she heard.”
Ruslin threw his hands up in the air. “You have to deal with her then!” he cried in frustration. “It is both our asses on the line here, Yefim!”
“It is not that easy,” he sighed.
“How is it not? It’s one bimbo. This city is full of them. You can have another set of dancing tits in an hour! Get rid of her!”
She’s a bartender, not a dancer, Yefim thought absently. And I knew this would happen the day I hired her. He pushed his chair back and sat up straight, his eyes boring into Ruslin’s. “That bimbo’s last name is Koshka.” He waited for his cousin to understand what he was saying. It didn’t take long, and seeing the color drain from his panicking cousin’s pudgy face almost made him smile in spite of the situation. Yefim leaned back in his chair and stared at the ceiling. “So as I said, it is not that easy.”
Ruslin grabbed the crystal bourbon decanter off the desk and poured a drink, then downed it in one gulp. Slamming the glass down and pointing an accusatory finger at Yefim, he snapped angrily, “We are fucked and it is because of your mess!” A sheen of oily sweat coated his temples as he paced the office floor. “Your mess, you clean it up!” Before Yefim could reply, Ruslin stormed out, slamming the door behind him.
Yefim threw a paperweight at the door, wishing it could hit Ruslin’s sweaty head instead of the solid maple door. His fat fuck of a cousin had been more than happy to take his share of the proceeds from their clandestine side businesses, but the second the shit hit the fan suddenly it was all Yefim’s mess. Not that he had expected any differently. He was a fool to bring Ruslin into it to begin with, just as he was a fool to hire Nikita Koshka in the first place.
Not that he’d had much of a choice. The Koshka name may be dust in the wind for over a decade but it still had connections and they were powerful ones indeed. Anyone else handing him a bald resume like hers would have gotten the boot, but she was a Koshka. Even though she had shown up with zero training or experience, dressed like a schoolgirl with a silly backpack, he knew better than to turn her away. At the time he’d hoped perhaps she would put in a good word for how he ran things. Now he had to make sure she didn’t put in a bad one.
Normally a single call to an ambitious local would make the problem go away. A random mugging, a home burglary gone wrong, any number of things could befall a person on any given day. Unfortunately locals tended to talk and more than a few desperate men had found themselves rotting in jail or a swamp because a local hitter couldn’t keep his mouth shut. Just one pissed-off girlfriend wanting revenge was all it took, and Yefim couldn’t afford to risk the hit being connected to him. One nasty rumor could be his undoing. He had no choice but to call in a professional. It pained him to think what that would cost, but in his world you got exactly what you paid for. If he went cheap, he might as well save the money and put the bullet in his own head.
Thinking about it made his heart hurt as well as his head. Nikita Koshka was a good kid and a damn good employee. She always came to work on time and more important, sober, which was more than he could say for the rest of his staff. Her bizarre choice of work clothing drove him up the wall but the customers didn’t seem to mind and she was a whiz at pouring drinks. Though he would never admit it, he’d grown rather fond of the girl, but he couldn’t let his personal feelings get in the way. Ruslin was an idiot but he was right. Yefim could not afford to screw this up. The last thing he needed was a bunch of cops sniffing around the club. Or worse. Nikki knew too much and had to go, quickly and oh so quietly. “I have no choice,” he told the empty room as he pulled a new burner cell phone out of his desk.
The Velvet Jacket Cabaret wasn’t what Gage would call seedy but it certainly wasn’t on the highest end of the spectrum when it came to Miami strip clubs. There were nicer places he could have taken a seat at, with equally nicer looking dancers, but he preferred the Jacket. Unlike the watchful eyes of management and security at better establishments such as the Gold Rush, the staff at the Jacket was content to ignore him as long as he had a drink in hand. Besides, he didn’t go to watch girls. It was simply a place to relax without being bothered. If someone asked him to describe one of the dancers, he’d be hard pressed to do so. They simply didn’t register.
The same could not be said for one of the bartenders. At first it was the ears that caught his attention, a furry white pair clipped into the equally white hair of a girl that barely looked old enough to drink coffee, let alone mix drinks. While most of the female staff at the Jacket dressed as scantily and sexy as possible, this one went in the other direction entirely. He couldn’t recall ever seeing her bare more than the slightest bit of skin, which was in stark contrast with the other bartenders who seemed determined to prove they had no tan lines. Some nights she looked like an expensive doll, other times she adopted a more playful, youthful look. Always with new kitten ears and always with hair equally colorful. A few days ago it was cotton candy pink. Tonight it was a silvery white. Tomorrow it might be blue. He shuddered to imagine what she spent at the hairdresser.
If it had just been her unique style, he would have lost interest in her after the first few visits, but there was more to her than elaborate dresses and ever changing hairstyles. It had taken him a while to pinpoint what was different about her, mostly because he couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen it. She was happy, and not just that sort of upbeat facade he’d grown accustomed to from those in the service industry. Her infectious smile was genuine and always present, and her eyes twinkled as if she had just heard a delightful joke. Even when the bar was piled three people deep and drink orders were shouted out like machine gun fire, she never lost her sparkle. It drew him in like a moth to a flame, even though he knew she would be the one burned if he got too close.
There were other places he could go to relax after a job, but the Jacket had become his regular stop off in the early evenings now. Watching the girl at the bar work helped take the edge off. He didn’t know her name but had taken to calling her Kitten. Between her playful, almost innocent personality and her endless assortment of cat ears, the name suited her. From furry ones to metal ones encrusted in crystals, she never seemed to wear the same pair twice, and all were selected to coordinate with whatever outfit she showed up in that night.
Tonight a set of sapphire blue ears poked up from a mass of silver white curls that cascaded halfway down her back, and he’d entertained himself imagining what it would be like to stroke her head between the soft furry ears. Something told him she would have enjoyed it almost as much as he would, but that was beside the point. He was at the Jacket to relax, unwind, and not be noticed. Stroking one of the bartenders like a cat would have the bouncers on him in a heartbeat.
She’d already noticed him more than he liked. She tried to be smooth about it, sneaking glances here and there, but he’d been on to her for weeks. At first he chalked it up to her keeping an eye on his drink, but before long it was clear her interest went beyond pushing Smirnoff. There’d been a few nights including this one that he’d sensed she was on the verge of coming to his table, and he made sure to slip out the back before that could happen.
It wasn’t that he wouldn’t have enjoyed her company. Far from it. Her playful mix of innocence and mischief aroused more than just his curiosity. There had been plenty of nights he’d stroked himself to sleep to the image of her saucy eyes sparkling up at him from his lap. Not just nights either. Even as he drove home he couldn’t stop thinking about the soft curve of her cheek or how her hair might feel wrapped around his fingers. Unexpected thoughts of what hid underneath the flouncy dresses and colorful tights got him hard at the most inappropriate times lately, and that was a problem. She was a distraction guys like him couldn’t afford no matter how much they might want it. He’d been avoiding the truth for a while now, but it was time to set fantasies of his little kitten aside and find a new place to unwind in the evenings.
Gage lived in a deceptively nondescript condominium complex, away from the fashionable zip codes and waterfront views. What it lacked in curb appeal it more than made up for in amenities. The security alone would make Miami’s narcotic kings envious. From surveillance systems to motion detection, and some of the best trained security money could buy, management had gone all out. An attendant was there to greet him with a handheld retinal scanner and a .9mm pistol barely concealed inside her well fitted jacket the instant he pulled up to the parking garage. The good-looking blonde would have attracted attention in any of Miami’s hottest nightclubs, but Gage would have pitied any man who tried to take advantage. He’d seen what she could do to a punching bag in the facility’s gym. She waved him past when the scanner beeped approval and he cruised to the far end of the garage to his reserved space. Unlike the Velvet Jacket there were no shadowed corners here, and monitored video cameras cast watchful eyes in every direction.
Gage pulled into his space and killed the engine, then leaned back in his seat. He was in no hurry to go inside. Nothing and no one waited for him at home and normally that was exactly how he wanted it, but tonight it depressed him. His thoughts were restless lately, whether because of his inconvenient infatuation with the bartender or the fact that he hadn’t taken a job in a while he wasn’t sure. Perhaps he needed to spend some more time at the gym and burn the extra energy off, or maybe he just needed to eat. He hadn’t had anything since that morning’s coffee and whole grain toast. A change of clothes, a shower, and dinner might be the cure for his moodiness. The thought of food was met with an enthusiastic rumble from his stomach. In addition to stellar security, there was also a chef on call at all hours, for which Gage was grateful. His own cooking skills were marginal and with his tendency to travel on a moment’s notice it didn’t make sense to keep much food on hand.
The elevator in the parking garage took him directly to the lobby. Access to the apartments above could only be gained via a secondary elevator that was strictly controlled by the desk clerk. Even the lobby seemed unremarkable to the untrained eye. The clean, modern space was sparsely appointed, stylish without presumption. No fresh-cut flowers, no marble floors, no crystal chandeliers, and certainly no welcoming chairs and couches that might encourage visitors to relax. The only indication there might be more under the surface was the British desk clerk’s penchant for handcrafted bespoke suits from London’s Savile Row, and the MP5K compact submachine gun discreetly tucked away under his counter.
“Mr. Gage, welcome home.”
“Good evening, Henry.” Gage doubted the man’s name was really Henry, but the smell of British SAS on him was genuine. Although well into his sixties now, the imposing Brit still looked as if he could overthrow a small country and be home in time for his afternoon cup of Earl Grey. “What looks good on the menu tonight?”
“I would suggest the zahtar arctic char with citrus couscous salad. Would you like me to place an order for you?”
“That sounds excellent,” Gage replied as he checked his watch. “Thirty minutes?”
“Of course.” Henry smiled, but much like the man’s name, Gage doubted it was genuine.
The elevator whisked him quietly to his twelfth-floor penthouse, a sprawling space with floor-to-ceiling windows, impeccably selected furnishings, and not a single thing out of place. Like many in his line of work, Gage abhorred a messy environment and even a single dirty dish left on the counter set his teeth on edge. Whether it was a result of his years in the military or some deep-seated OCD, he didn’t know, but he made sure his home was immaculately clean and organized.
At one time he’d had a pet, a small dog he’d found in an apartment after he’d completed a job. Feeling uneasily responsible for it suddenly being without an owner, he’d brought it home. The rambunctious canine had been a joy to him in some ways, but it was soon clear he couldn’t give it the time and attention it needed. If the chewed-up magazines, pillows, and chair legs were any indication, the dog wasn’t entirely pleased with the arrangement either. A few calls later a loving, more suitable home was found, a cleaning service was brought in to restore order, and his home was returned to being his welcome oasis of order in an otherwise chaotic life.
The rest of the building was a virtual fortress, owned by the agency he worked for and designed to keep its residents safe as well as comfortable. The physical security alone was worth his monthly HOA fees, its staff a virtual greatest hits list of former British SAS, SEALS, Israeli Shayete 13, and Russian Spetsnaz. He didn’t know much about cyber security but had been assured it was the best available as well, ensuring all of his internet dealings remained private, well protected from the snoopings of would-be hackers or law enforcement agencies. Personal needs were also catered to. Whether he needed car service to the airport or laundry service at three a.m., a call to Henry was all that was required. Housekeeping, meal services, even pet sitting was available through thoroughly vetted companies, leaving him free to focus on more important things. The over-the-top amenities cost a fortune but they were worth every nickel.
He’d just emerged from the shower when he heard the door buzz. Grabbing a towel, he quickly wrapped it around his waist as he went to open the door. A middle-aged woman waited, covered plate in hand. As she entered the penthouse she kept her eyes deliberately trained to the floor, delivering his dinner to the dining table and then exiting as quickly as she’d come in. The crispy pan-seared fish left a mouth-watering aroma in her wake, causing Gage’s stomach to rumble appreciatively, and he didn’t waste time digging in.
It was delicious, cooked to perfection as always, but his attention soon wandered back to its favorite subject. The bartender he’d named Kitten overrode everything lately, including hunger. The girl who wore cat ears and doll dresses while serving drinks in a strip club had become a fascinating puzzle he wanted to piece together. Briefly he entertained the idea of doing a background check on her. Nothing serious, just a quick peek to see who she was outside of work. Before his more freewheeling side could grab his laptop and look, he shut the idea down hard. She was a fantasy, a beautiful sexy fantasy, but if he had any feelings for her at all then he had to leave her alone. The last thing she needed was someone like him in her life.
He was still telling himself that when he went to bed.