Part OneIn the mirror’s glassy surface, I watch detachedly—almost disembodied—as a familiar hand applies makeup on my face.
Foundation, thick and matte. Powder, dust from a flaking cake that shimmers on the skin as the brush caresses cheeks, forehead, nose, neck, and breasts.
Lipstick, for color. Red. Fire-engine bright. Slathered on in a pretty, painted smile, it reminds me of a clown.
A tear slides down my cheek, ruining all my work, causing the paint to smear.
All except that smile.
My smile is—as always—perfect.
“I can’t believe this!”
I yawn and stretch, hearing the crinkle of newspaper beside me.
“I cannot believe this!” Keith Longrin yells again, pounding his fist against the mattress. I roll over to look up at him sitting against the headboard of our bed. “Look at this, Cady, just look at this!” He waves the paper at me. “The governor’s priest—Father Whatshisname—just came out of the closet today in the Sunday paper. The front page!”
I yawn again and begin to crawl up, tucking my knees and elbows beneath me, to sit facing him, the comforter wrapped haphazardly around me. “A priest came out as gay?” I push stray, bedheaded blond hair out of my face, pulling the blanket up with me as I shiver in the morning air, wondering why Keith cares so much.
“Not gay.” Keith scoffs. “I wish. We could have spun that to our advantage.” He sipped from a mug of what smells like life-giving coffee as I see thoughts—campaign plots and strategies—churn in his intense gaze. Feeling groggier in the face of his focus, I lean forward to snag my own sip from the other side of the mug. “No, he came out as a member of,” he pauses to shake his head before saying through gritted teeth, “that club.”
I stop, perking right up—choking on the coffee I’d just sipped. I sit back with a squeak as I sputter and cough. I wave him away while he sets the coffee down and leans forward in an effort to pat my back. “Donovan’s?”
It's the governor’s latest endeavor to clean up the city. After struggling with his war against drugs, Jacob Reynolds realized that if he was going to be re-elected next term, he needed a war he could win.
So he’d aimed his sights on Donovan’s. Kink clubs. Dungeons. Bath houses. And sex workers. It’s the latest craze for politics. Publicly shutting these organizations down—with lots of cameras and media present to document, of course—works as an instant way to boost voter morale and an official’s lagging approval rating. And, let’s face it, they’re easy targets. Nothing excites conservative voters quite like a sex scandal happening right under their noses.
So Governor Reynolds and his entire staff jumped on the bandwagon.
I gaze at Keith over my mug as I take a deep swig and think, some had leapt more enthusiastically than others.
I’ve always considered myself a conservative, ever since eighth grade civics. I believe in fiscal responsibility and slow and steady change. And I believe that, unless it’s broken, there are parts of a person’s life where government just doesn’t belong.
I firmly believe in the politics—lower taxes and giving more power back to the state governments—that had built Jacob Reynolds’s first campaign, when he was just an up-and-comer in the republican party. I’d volunteered and interned and eventually got hired to work on his campaign on those promises.
And then the political sphere shifted. Tom Rosen, a celebrity tycoon with a flair for drama and presidential aspirations, changed the world. Suddenly, the nuance of tax code and financial reform got outshined by border walls and birth control rights. The rhetoric against the strain of overspending and the choke holds of regulation were replaced with rants about the evils of immigration and vice. Instead of debating the points of political rivals, suddenly we were debating the rights of those deemed the undesirables.
It shouldn't have been possible. A man who made more than half the country his enemy—women, minorities, the LGBTQIA+ community, immigrants, liberals, and even conservatives who refused to get in line—shouldn't be able to become the next president of the United States. His promises to "make America Rise Again," like some callback to Confederacy days, should have fallen on deaf ears. The American people should have known—should have learned from our past—that in order to truly rise as a nation, we cannot be content to leave our own people, whatever their race, religion, gender, or orientation, behind. A man who would sell the soul of our country, that had been won with the blood, sweat, and tears of those before him, should never have been elected to lead.
And yet it happened.
Right before my eyes.
And, suddenly, I wasn’t the same kind of conservative that Governor Reynolds and the rest of the party had become. Or that Keith had slowly morphed into. Or even like my working-class, rural, Protestant parents want me to be.
The Risen. That was what Rosen's followers call themselves and what those in the party were expected to be. Deifying him into some figure who could do no wrong, no matter how outrageous, unconstitutional, or unconscionable his words or actions. How this self-righteous, alpha-male, might-makes-right, nationalistic sideshow became the focus—the face—of political conservatism, I’ll never understand. But somehow they—along with a good amount of fear-filled disinformation and flat-out ignorance—had taken over the party over, casting the entire conservative stance as caricatures and endless fodder for late night comedy shows.
“Donovan’s,” Keith grumbles, tossing the paper aside. I stare as it lands on the rumpled sheets between us. “We’ll get them—they’ll eventually slip—but this,” he says with a sweeping gesture over the newsprint story, “looks bad for us.”
Yes, it did. Reynolds had won on the merits of a campaign touting faith-based civic service. If his religious advisor was the enemy all this time, what did that say about the state of faith in his flock?
“Listen to this.” Keith picks up the paper again. “ ‘When asked why he felt the need to announce this now, Father Nicholas Bailey of Anointed Assumption Church said, “This issue is being framed in terms of lust and lasciviousness, of squalor and sin. But, in my three years as a member of this establishment, I’ve seen sinners find salvation, of a sort. I’ve seen the lost become found. And I’ve seen couples—often lost in mistrust or mired in the grind of modern life—find love again. These are gifts given. These are miracles witnessed. My faith tells me that God places upon us the sweet demands of love, so that we may find happiness by responding to them.” With unshaken faith, Father Bailey has no plans to leave Anointed Assumption.’ ” Keith balks, his hazel eyes—usually kind with a sheen of undeniable intelligence—bugged. “Can you believe this guy? Using religion to defend this whorehouse?!”
“It’s not a whorehouse.” I nearly groan, knowing that was the absolutely wrong thing to say as soon as it’d been said.
“We can’t prove that it is,” Keith insists, “not according to the letter of the law as it’s written today, but it’s only a matter of time.” He rolls his eyes dramatically—his whole head and shoulders getting in on it. “Men pay to get into this club to engage in sex acts of…” he shakes his head as his lip curls in disgust, “all kinds. If that’s not prostitution of some sort, I don’t know what is.”
Except that the men—and women—paying to get into Donovan’s aren’t paying to have sex with employees. They’re paying to get into a club where, yes, nights often end with consensual patrons having consensual sex. Which happens at nearly every club and bar anywhere.
Which is why the governor is having such trouble shutting Donovan’s down.
They aren’t doing anything illegal.
And, believe me, I would know.
I grab the paper from Keith, tossing it onto the bedside table, before I place my hand on his knee. I slant him a seductive look, the one that instantly makes him forget everything in the world but me.
It works. He blinks at me a moment before a haze of lust clouds his eyes.
I let the covers around me fall, revealing my body to him as the sunlight filters in through the slotted blinds.
He moans and kicks the sheets down to the bottom of the bed before crawling closer to me. He kisses me, his mouth ravenous as teeth and lips and tongue overwhelm me. Gripping his shoulders, I try to keep up.
I slide my hand low, down his neck, his chest, his stomach, his hip. My fingers cup him, already half-hard and hot, in my hand. He stops—his entire body freezing—with a hiss while his eyes close and ecstasy overtakes his face.
It marvels me that, like this, this man—this powerful, intelligent, capable man—is mine to control.
I begin to stroke him, my hand rubbing and running along his smooth shaft in the rhythm and routine I know he likes. He lets out a guttural groan deep in his throat that warns me that he’s close.
Pushing him down lower on the bed, I climb atop him, my knees straddling his hips. The stretch in my thighs, the bite and burn of pulled muscles, excites me. I reach into the drawer for a condom and a bottle of lube as his mouth captures my nipple and his hand cups the breast now shoved in his face.
It beads in his mouth while he laves and licks, while he sucks and nips softly.
I want to tell him to bite, but I know what he’ll say. He doesn’t want to hurt me.
Which is sweet, I think, as I lean back, my breast falling out of his mouth.
As his hand sweetly massages, I reach between us to slide on the condom. He’s hard in my hand while I rub lube along his cock. Knowing his need to be neat, I wipe my hand on my thigh before I reach for him again, rising up on my knees to slip him slick and ready inside.
I ride him, my thighs burning a bit as I bounce, strands of my short blond bob whipping about me, getting stuck in my mouth. “Are you close?” My voice is throaty and broken in a staccato beat tuned to my writhing body.
“Not yet.” He grunts, his hands caressing my hips, my waist, my breasts, almost reverently, worshipfully. His eyes shine with an infinity that scares me. “A little longer. I want to stay like this for as long as possible. I never want to stop.”
He’s so sweet.
So I bob some more, my knees clenching him as I feel him inside me like a piston. I arch my hips to get in the position I know he likes and clench my pussy tight in time to hear him grunt and moan when he comes.
I collapse against him, resting in the crook of his neck, before running my hand through his dark blond hair and wetly kissing the salty skin behind his ear. I cuddle close as his arms wrap around me.
“I love you, Cady girl,” he says into my hair.
“Love you too,” I say, even though I don’t really know for sure. I say it because, even though I don’t really know what else to say, I know I can’t say nothing. I used to mean it. I know I did once.
I listen to him yawn and then, after a moment, snore before I relax into him and close my eyes too, feeling the rising sun warm on my face.
“I lo— I’ll miss you,” I say quickly before I hang up the phone after having just left a whispered message on Keith’s phone about working late, a gloved hand cupping the phone’s mouthpiece furtively.
“Rebel!” Elin the stage manager of Donovan’s Burle-Q Burlesque Troupe hisses, “The Risen number’s up next.”
I breathe out deep and slip my phone into my bag before standing tall on wobbly heels. I fix my long, brunette wig, fluffing the bangs over my grotesque zombie gore makeup as I lean in close to the mirror.
I’ve been performing as Rebel Rouser, a Russian Bettie Page, a doe-eyed devushka with a heavy accent and too many stilted A-meri-kan idioms, for nearly five years now. It’s a fun escape to play the clueless tourist or the tough-as-nails, sexy-bitch spy. To step into a role so different from yourself.
But, since the election, the Burle-Q girls had been performing as The Risen, sexy Rosen-supporting zombies who shimmy and shamble aimlessly over the stage losing limbs and clothes throughout the dance. A real crowd pleaser.
Stripped of my usual conservative suit or Stepford sweater set, I hardly look like myself. With ample cleavage showing and my long legs exposed by the torn “We Shall Rise” dress, the woman I’d been earlier that day—the prim and proper campaign aide—all but disappeared. With the dark wig and heavy makeup, I couldn’t recognize myself at all.
It’s almost frightening how easy it is to lose yourself. To erase all traces of the life you’ve built and the person you’ve become. A change of clothes, different hair, some makeup, and a brand new person’s born.
Which is the point.
Cady Carrington doesn’t exist in Donovan’s. In fact, outside a very well-protected file kept under digital lock and key, that part of my life has no ties to the club or any of its shady clientèle. And there are a whole bible of rules and regulations keeping it that way. Cameras, video, and recorders of any kind outside of the club’s sanctioned security are strictly forbidden. Anyone caught outing or telling on any fellow member is banned.
Donovan’s believes in privacy for its clients above all else. With all their efforts—not to mention my own—the two halves of my life remain completely separate.
Sighing, I blink at the image in the mirror and wonder who the hell I’m looking at.
“Rebel!” Elin calls. “Cue’s up in ten.”
I adjust my props—a detachable zombie arm and breast—and rush out of the dressing room to the stage wings.
The other girls are in place, making last-minute adjustments to costumes and props.
Elin hands out mic packs and says in a hushed whisper, “Good luck, girls, knock ‘em dead.”
The lights dim as the other performers clear the stage and we take our places. As the eerie music starts and the lights come up, I blink, blinded by the brightness. But soon my eyes clear and then—the first sight I see is her.
Smiling that brilliant, beautiful smile, she’s clapping, cheering us on. Cheering me on.
As we go through the routine—a mix of old school vaudeville humor, tawdry striptease, and good old fashioned bump and grind—all I see, all I can think of, is Hallie.
Even after the show is done and all the yocks have been had, I still can’t get her out of my head.
She’s so stuck in my head that I don’t even notice her watching me while I take off my makeup and change out of my costume. But, when I look up, there she is reflected back at me in the full-length mirror.
“Great show,” she purrs, her Southern belle tone drawing out the sound. “As always.”
“I’m,” I say, suddenly flustered and nervous as I futz with the edges of my robe, trying to decide whether to close it or not, “so glad you could come.”
“Well, you know me,” she drawls as she saunters close, snaking a hand beneath my robe to grasp my hip. “I rarely pass up the opportunity to come...”
Read Part Two Here