The following is an excerpt from my book The Heretic, which is scheduled to be available this summer. Watch for it.
Stephanie Dobbas—her stage name was Chippy—took another shot of Jack Daniels before she got back into her booth. Wednesday night was slow for business; she even found that when she was doing lap dances for a living. Even this close to Times Square, the tourists and military didn’t come around in the middle of the week.
So she was a little surprised when the light went on outside her booth, telling her that there was a waiting customer for her specialty, the bump and grind. It was late and she was getting tired. But she had to keep her energy up for at least another two hours. Bruce would slap her around pretty hard if she didn’t bring in her quota tonight.
The curtain—a sheet of plywood painted black—dropped down, and she looked out into the darkness. The lights around her made sure the customer could see her—all of her—and she couldn’t see them. Customers liked it that way, and as always, the customer was boss. She tried not to think of what a lot of the customers would be doing in the solace of their private rooms as she danced naked before them.
The music started and she started to move. She hadn’t gone very far when the customer tapped on the Plexiglas between them. She couldn’t see much of him, but saw a tattoo on the back of his hand.
“You’re not supposed to touch the glass,” she said into an intercom she had beside her.
The man tapped on the glass again.
“Don’t touch the frickin’ glass!” she almost shouted. She caught herself. The last time she had screamed at a customer, Bruce had beaten her to within an inch of her life.
The customer stopped tapping, and she began to dance again. She had just started to remove her wrap when she heard something smack against the Plexiglas again. She started to open her mouth in protest, and then saw what it was.
It was a photograph of her as a little girl. She stood on the lawn outside her house with her sister, mother and father. The sight made her freeze, her blood coming to her face.
“Where did you get that?” she choked. She switched a lever on the intercom that let her hear what the customer was saying.
“Stephanie? Your dad sent me,” the man said. He pulled out a flashlight and shone it on his face. Beneath the beard and the black hair, she saw the eyes of a kind man, probably not quite as old as her own father.
“My father doesn’t want me. He thinks I’m dead,” she said, trying hard to keep tears back.
“Your father sent me to get you. He loves you very much.”
She stared at the man as if he were a strange dream. No, it couldn’t be true. That life was so far removed from her life here. She could never go back.
“I can’t leave,” she said. “They won’t let me.”
“You leave Bruce and his friends to me,” the man said. “The only question is: can you forgive yourself enough to come with me?”
She stared at the man on the other side of the Plexiglas. This was impossible. She paused for a long moment, then nodded as the tears came.
“I want to go home.”
The man took a step closer to the clear partition, and then spoke.
Stephanie stepped back as far as she could, and the man pulled a tube of some liquid from his pocket. He squeezed a line of it on the Plexiglas in a big rectangle as if drawing the outline of a door. The Plexiglas began to smoke. A minute later, he raised his foot and kicked at the glass, and it collapsed toward her onto the floor.
“Come with me,” the man said, holding out his hand. Stephanie reached out and grasped the man’s hand, and stepped through the new doorway. She stepped down onto the floor, and he immediately covered her with a long brown coat.
They stepped out into the hallway. She could hear the whiny sounds of music, glasses clinking and drunken laughter from the bar at the end of the hallway. Bruce was in there, most likely. She shuddered.
They headed the opposite direction. A door at the other end of the hall let to an alleyway, she knew. They took it.
What she didn’t expect was to see Bruce—all six and a half feet and 330 pounds of him—waiting for the two of them in the hallway.
“Going somewhere?” he growled. Stephanie cringed behind the stranger, knowing that a beating was coming.
“The lady and I were leaving,” the stranger said.
“The lady, huh?” Bruce guffawed with laughter, throwing his head back. “That’s a good one.” He roared another minute.
“Listen, Goliath, I will give you one chance to just walk away,” said the man.
Bruce laughed again, then grew serious. He stepped forward.
“And I will give you a chance to beat it before I tear your arms off and feed them to you.” He looked at his watch. “Oops, time’s up.”
The big man lunged for the stranger. At the same instant, a brilliant light went off in Bruce’s face. His arms went up instinctively, but too late. He was completely blind in the dark night.
Stephanie caught part of the flash, and was momentarily blinded. She felt the stranger grab her hand and pull her down the alley. A moment later, her sight returning, she ran with the man down Broadway and a waiting cab.
“Where to now?” she asked.
The man turned and faced her. As they stood by the cab door, he handed her an envelope.
“This is a plane ticket that leaves in an hour,” he said. “Your parents will meet you at the airport.” He grasped her hands and looked in her eyes. She saw that a Bible verse was tattooed on the back of his knuckles.
“Stephanie, this is your chance for a new start. Don’t blow it.”
She began to cry again.
“Thank you,” she said. “What is your name?”
“My name is Elijah Brown,” the man said.