The golden beauty trembled like a leaf as she stood center stage. A neon sign reading The Petting Zoo hung behind her. But her feeble attempt to shield her face from the floodlight and cover her ample curves did nothing. Before her every seat of the strip club was taken. An endless sea of men had come to see her. Those who often favored the bar had left the rickety barstools to stand and get a closer look. Their gazes locked on her lace outfit as they waited for her to dance. Yet, the wolves were kept at bay as three armed men stood at pivotal locations in front of the stage.
“Give ‘em a lil’ something, sugar,” a man said, giving off an aura of importance. He was huge, almost as wide as he was tall and in a double-breasted suit. He sat front and center, plump lips pursed against a Cuban cigar. He slammed his hand down onto the tiny tabletop. A glass of whiskey trembled as much as the heavenly beauty before him. “Twirl, Mary Jane. Bitch, give ’em a lil’ taste!”
The woman on the stage took a hesitant step back. Who is Mary Jane? she thought, almost losing her balance in spiky heels. Her head pounded as all her thoughts moved in slow motion.
“I’m Beasley,” the man said, climbing up the steps of the stage. “But you’ve probably forgotten that by now. Haven’t you?”
Before she could ask why she was there—who exactly she was—Beasley shouted, “I told you to shake that ass!” Sprays of his saliva accosted her face with each word.
She slapped his face with all of her might. This was truly a nightmare. Moreover, the bastard didn’t budge. He only continued to clamp his hand across her mouth while his fingernails chewed into her cheeks.
“Fuck!” she screeched from the sting. She bit down on the inside of his palm. Beasley instantly let her mouth go, and then he coiled his fingers through her hair. He grabbed a handful of thick strands and yanked her down to the floor before him.
Mary Jane didn’t scream. Though she wasn’t aware of much, intuition told her that he wasn’t a man you could bargain with to keep your life. Besides, something in her was broken as if she’d done enough begging to survive for a lifetime already.
Her thick lips spread into a line.
He wrapped his hands around her throat, further challenging her with a hard squeeze.
Her glare never wavered as she dared Beasley to take her out.
The light began to dance before Mary Jane’s eyes, and her lungs screamed as he choked her. She had no idea what else there was to live for. She knew nothing about herself or even if her name really was Mary Jane. Why live? How would she even know if there was anything to live for? But deep down Mary Jane felt a seed of courage brewing and an innate need to know more about this place, about herself. She started to reach out to slap him again. She’d targeted his eyes, and they’d go out together. At least she had the sheer determination to seek revenge.
“Beasley, if you kill her, she won’t dance!” another voice boomed beside them. It was one of Beasley’s strong guards who was posted against the stage earlier to keep the horny hounds at bay.
The fat man let go of her throat. Mary Jane jumped up, gasping for air. She rubbed a hand across her neck. The large room hushed.
“Jake, I could kill you for thinking you have the right to even speak to me without being asked to,” Beasley replied as he wrenched his tie away from his triple chin. “But…you’re correct.”
She looked Jake over, concentrating on her unlikely savior in this den of sin. The guy with tanned skin and curly hair was the most beautiful man she’d ever laid her eyes on—and not because she had no recollection of the past either. His muscles strained against a V-neck shirt that clung to well-defined muscles.
His eyes were the same complementing gold as his skin tone, offering a fleeting sense of comfort as he looked her over. Not leering, but with compassion.
“Do you want her tonight?” Beasley grinned.
Mary Jane took a stand. “Let me go. I don’t belong here!”
Jake said nothing.
Beasley ignored her. “Yeah, you want her, Jake. Just looking at her makes my cock stand at attention.” Beasley nodded with a sneer, this time addressing her again. “Mary Jane, you’ll be my most-prized possession at The Petting Zoo, until I grow tired of you. Because there isn’t a single soul in this world searching for you. I’ll work that little ass of yours, and then I’m going to squeeze that scrawny little neck again. Next time I do it, the trashcan out back is where you’re going.”
Mary Jane’s chest puffed up as her lungs filled with air. She leaned back and hawked a loogie. The spit landed on Beasley’s nose. He backhanded her harsh enough to send her sprawling onto the floor again.
This time the crowd of men heckled, some of them arguing about how they’d paid good money to see her dance. Finally, dance. Beasley knew how to advertise his new meat with just a pet here, a paw there. However, he was ruining the very thing they craved.
Jake went to her side. He held out a hand, but she turned away from him in shame. His deep voice was comforting, strong, and smooth, “Come with me, darlin’.”
“No!” she screamed at him and sobbed so hard her vision blurred. “No! You abducted me. I don’t belong here. I’ll kill all of you!”
“Didn’t I tell you she had a mouth?” Beasley shook his head.
“You stole me!” she screamed, although she couldn’t recall anything beyond the past few minutes. As she shouted at Jake, he scooped her into his arms. She unfolded her body backward, hoping the dead weight would cause Jake to struggle and drop her. Tossing her over his shoulder, he carried her toward the steps leading off the stage with ease as the crowd booed.
“Tame the little animal,” Beasley called after them.
Upside down, she noticed her surroundings as Jake moved toward the side of the building. He then started up another set of stairs. The murky air burned her eyes. They ascended to the second level of a square-shaped building.
Below, strippers began to flood the stage. Some sort of hype man mentioned, “Mary Jane will return to The Petting Zoo soon enough, but for now…”
Jake stopped before a dingy, yellow door and opened it. She felt sick as he rapidly turned around with her, closing the door behind him.
Her teeth sunk down into his shoulder as he attempted to reposition her. She braced herself for pain. The tightening in her heart loosened when Jake placed her onto the bed with meticulous care. They were in a bedroom. The walls were white, not a picture or personal note anywhere. She glanced around for some sort of weapon. Something pointy, sharp. The only thing available was a copper ashtray on the nightstand at the opposite side of the room.
“This is my room, MJ. But don’t you worry about me touching you,” Jake murmured. His demeanor had changed. The sympathetic look was gone. Instead of ogling her, his façade was emotionless. The scar on his cheek was menacing. It was thick and aligned almost from eye to jaw. She wondered if someone had marred his glorious face to warn others away from him.
No more wondering, Mary J –she paused. The name was too awkward to complete. It couldn’t have been the name she’d had her entire life. No more wondering, she told herself, find a weapon.
She scurried to the farthest side of the bed, trying to get closer to the ashtray. It really wasn’t much of a weapon, but it’d come in handy if she needed to slam it across Jake’s head. She didn’t trust anything he said or his kind gestures. Putting a single ounce of trust in another person was far from her mind. Not even herself. She didn’t know herself enough yet.
“I will not let you touch me. I said I’d die fighting before I let you place a single finger on me.”
“I know,” Jake replied.
She glanced around. Since everything was placed far away, the only weapon available was the ashtray. “I swear, if you come near me, I’ll kill you.” I’ll die trying.
“Well, MJ, I highly doubt that. I done murdered a good number of people in my life.” His head cocked as if he was in thought. “Probably killed more people than the years of your life. You don’t know that either, do you? How old you are?”
She sat in silence. There was no need to answer. Jake’s question had to be rhetorical. She didn’t know anything. He did, though. She just had to read between the lines.
“But if you don’t touch me or bite me, I promise to return the favor.” He turned away from her and went to the dresser. His broad shoulders were now on display. After he rummaged around, Jake pulled out a flannel shirt and tossed it in her direction.
“What do you want from me?” She looked at the blue-green shirt then back at him.
“Nothin’.” Jake shrugged, keeping the distance. “I reckon you’re not as free and as wild as they’d like you to be—yet. So get dressed, MJ.”
While picking up the shirt, Mary Jane sighed. It felt like home to her. Home? It had the fragrance of fresh linen and woodsy cologne, like him. Her eyes burned.
She waited, but now blurred memories accompanied the sensations.
Tuning out the nostalgic feeling, she continued to take in the simple room. No pictures, no TV, nothing to indicate where she was or why or how. When had she arrived? They’d abducted her from somewhere. She didn’t have a shred of memory pointing to family or friends or even an attempt to call the police when she was taken.
She had a life somewhere. An accomplished life. It had to be true. She felt it in her bones. She wasn’t a cracked-out stripper.
Somewhere, someone had to be looking for her.
Somewhere, someone loved her enough to search without ceasing. She knew this to be true, even without the memories of her past.
“MJ, stop trying to figure things out for now, and just put on the shirt.” Jake started to take off his snakeskin boots. “This is my bed. As long as you stay on your side, I’ll stay on mine. If you bite me again, I’ll have to bite you. A blow for a blow.” Then he smiled. “A kiss for a kiss.”
“Don’t try me,” she growled while shoving one arm after the other into the shirt. She’d argue and tell him that Mary Jane wasn’t her name, but what was the use? “Look, can you just tell me what you know about me?”
“All right, you don’t belong here. I saved you from Beasley tonight. And I ain’t one for a skittish broad. That shit makes me nervous.” He glanced down at himself as he began to unbuckle his belt. “Get comfortable, or I’m gonna have to kick your ass out. I need rest to keep my paychecks comin’.”
She tried to relax but couldn’t. He tugged out of his jeans. Boxer briefs accentuated a heavy package and thick thigh muscles.
He rubbed at the bristles along his chiseled jaw. He was a man that didn’t talk much.
She leaned back at the edge of the bed, while trying to appear comfortable. She gave Jake her full attention, believing he had something to tell her.
Reluctantly, Jake spoke, “I saved you from Beasley, Mary Jane. This ain’t the first time.”
Hadn’t he already said as much? She licked her lips in apprehension. “Have I…has Beasley slept with—?”
“He ain’t the type to bone his premium product. And I won’t allow you to follow the course of how shit happens here.”
She thought to ask about the other girls. But, with Jake speaking, she became mute and concentrated on how to find her own way out of this horror story.
Jake forked his fingers through his hair. “I just keep thinking, I’ve saved you so many damn times from him deciding that you weren’t worth that mouth of yours. I bet you don’t even recall. Different night, same story.” Jake reached over, opened the top drawer of the nightstand, and grabbed a glossy photo.
Lips tensed, she tried to remember her past with Jake. No. She didn’t recall him or Beasley, but instincts, more than the words coming out of Jake’s mouth, told her that they’d played this game before.
Still confused about the history they had and not wanting to irritate Jake with too many questions, she instead looked at the high-resolution flyer. There was a picture of three women: two busty blondes with a golden beauty in the center. The trio wore lingerie, but the focal point was dead center, a captivating woman.
“That’s you, MJ,” he indicated while pointing to the beauty. Before she could ask for a mirror to confirm, he continued with, “It's all about losing status and position here. It’s only a matter of time before another girl with big baby-blue eyes will capture Beasley’s attention again, then one of these girls on the sidelines will be removed, and you’ll get their spot. There’s only one place to go when you’re at the top.”
He was saying something about the not-so-lucky girl being repositioned elsewhere. She didn’t catch the sinister note in his voice, because she was stuck on the fact that she was the chick dead center. She lifted her hand. She had the same skin tone, but was this woman really her?
Why can’t I recall my own face? I’m not a vain woman, but it doesn’t take much education to be aware of something so simple! And why would they be advertising abducted women for the world to see?
He finished his statement by rubbing a hand at the back of his neck. “I’m so fucking tired of saving you from him.”
“Then let him kill me, or you kill me,” she blurted, carelessly. “If you were just implying that everything gets worse, I’d rather get it over with. Beasley becomes tired of his human chattel and does away with them? Let’s get to the good part.”
“That mouth of yours,” Jake mumbled to himself. He reached over, his knuckles caressing her jaw. “I’ve only known you a few weeks. During this time, you’ve reminded me of…of this good time I had in my life—when I was a man and not yet a monster. But you can’t go popping off at the mouth. Pick your battles and make it easy for me to help you. I’d save you a thousand times more, so I wasn’t saying I didn’t want to save you.”
“Okay,” she murmured, still confused. “I’ve been here for weeks?”
“Yup. And I wanna save you. Once. And. For. All. I haven’t felt anything in years, but I fucking hurt every time I see you here, in this shitty-ass Petting Zoo.”
Her mouth tensed. Her stomach dropped. This was not a life she’d chosen. Even if she couldn’t remember who she was before, she’d never want this life.
She hoped that her past wasn’t plagued with something that would warrant this karma.
This bad karma.
But then a tiny voice within her brain begged her to ask Jake how he could save her . . .
Jake spoke the very words she grew anxious over, saying, “I would save you. I’d come up with a plan, but you’ll just keep forgetting.” His teeth gritted in frustration. “We’ve gotta get you to stop forgetting,” Jake mumbled, more to himself than her.
“Come with me,” she murmured, deciding that bargaining with the devil was just as good as living with a slew of demons. “Save us both.”
Jake shook his head. “Nah, darlin’, ain’t no saving me. This is hell. I love hell.”