The next morning, Mike stood in the large atrium at his new place of employment. He lingered near the back of a group of his co-workers, listening with half an ear to their conversation. The area where they congregated was beautiful, with a quietly tinkling fountain, plants with thick green leaves in colorful pots, and big arched windows looking out onto a wide, deep green lawn that led to a copse of trees. Every morning, the Marin's Outdoors employees gathered here, networking while drinking a professionally acceptable morning drink.
Marin's Outdoors main business was selling hunting and sporting gear, but they also hosted camping trips and other wilderness events. The morning social hour was a time for the people in different departments to bounce ideas off each other for joint projects that would benefit the company as a whole.
Mike held a mug of coffee, taking prolonged sips as a way to avoid actively participating in the conversation, which had shifted from work to discussing going out to an exotic dance club that evening. His tactic worked, up to a point. Eventually his co-workers turned their sights on him, pulling him directly into the conversation.
Gina, a petite Afro-Latina woman with a short, wavy haircut, and a diamond stud earring in each ear was the most excited. "Come on Zielinski you've got to join us. The Flirtatious Fox is one of the best exotic dance clubs in the Playground."
"The Fox has lots of variety so you'll definitely see someone you like," chimed in a guy from finance.
"And it's For the Troops night. Former military get in free and drinks are half-off."
The last wasn't exactly a selling point. They made good money at Marin's and he didn't need the discount. But maybe he should go. He hadn't done any socializing since moving to St. Louis and he did want camaraderie. If it turned out that he couldn't find what he was looking for with Strong's superhero team, maybe he could find it here at work instead. Several of his co-workers were also former military so they had that in common. He looked down at the brown leather glove covering the hand that held his coffee mug. And he was willing to bet that at least some of them were hiding scars under their clothes, just as he was.
"All right. I'll meet you guys there."
Gina clapped him on the back. "Yeah! I knew you were good people."
Thanks to practice, Mike didn't flinch at the uninvited touch. He did however, subtly shift out of range to make sure he wasn't touched again. "It sounds like it'll be a good time," he said politely.
Soon after he agreed to join them, the morning coffee break ended. Mike returned to the marketing floor, greeting the administrative assistant he shared with two other employees as he passed the man's covered but organized desk on the way to his office. The office he'd been assigned was small but nice. Thick, gray carpet covered the entire floor. An L-shaped bamboo wood desk was the focal point of the room while bamboo shelves and wood fronted filing cabinets took up most of one wall. The office had three large windows with a decent view of downtown St. Louis. He hadn't brought many personal items in yet, but the framed poster-sized nature shots that had come with the office gave it somewhat of a lived-in feel.
In his current position, he handled the influencers and other signed talent contracted to represent Marin's on social media. It was decent work, but a far cry from the Army life he was used to. Adjusting to wearing slacks, a dress shirt, and a tie every day was a big change. Mike knew he was lucky to have found such a good position so soon after leaving the Army. He hadn't wanted to return to his home state of Oklahoma, so when a friend mentioned they had a contact in St. Louis who hired veterans, he'd immediately applied. Then, deciding St. Louis would be a good place to live whether or not he was offered the job, he'd made the move to the city on the river as soon as his discharge was complete.
A little over a month had passed since his move, but he still didn't feel settled in. He'd joined the Army as soon as he'd aged out of the foster care system at eighteen, and remained enlisted for ten years, so it stood to reason that he was lost without that familiar structure.
Determined not to waste office hours dwelling on his personal life, Mike turned on his computer to get started with work. His first task of the day was to review his stable of influencers' social media feeds, check to be sure there wasn't anything controversial attached to their names, and that Marin's products were featured as scheduled. He was diligent, carefully going over a full day's worth of Instagram posts, TikTok videos, and Twitter profiles for a half-dozen influencers, looking for red flags. Thankfully, nothing negative caught his attention. There were only pictures and videos of attractive people in front of idyllic campsites, artfully splashed with mud while straddling four-wheelers, or paddling canoes across serene lakes. Even his one problem case had been on his best behavior lately. It had been nearly two weeks since he'd had to ask the popular outdoorsman to remove a post that didn't align with Marin's brand.
Once that task was finished, Mike moved on to reviewing submissions for people who wanted to collaborate with Marin's. There were a lot, the coming fall and cooler temperatures inspiring many social media personalities to think of outdoor activities and working with a company who could sponsor them. Mike worked quickly using a Yes, No, Maybe system. The Yes and No submissions received one of the two form emails he'd created to speed up the response process. The Maybes he flagged to review their platforms in more detail before making a decision.
For the rest of the morning, he tackled the remainder of his task list with the same smooth efficiency. He was so focused that he almost worked through lunch. He might have done so if his phone hadn't rung with an inter-office call, taking his attention away from his computer.
"Hey, Zielinski. It's Gina. Wanted to give you the details for tonight."
Mike grabbed a pen and memo pad. "Okay, shoot."
"We're meeting at seven in the Fox's parking lot. It's toward the front of the Playground on Mars Street."
Mike jotted down the information Gina gave him before asking a question. "What's the Playground?"
"Oh, goodness. You're so new," Gina said with a friendly laugh. "The Playground is the red-light district in East St. Louis. It's on its own little island, where adults can go to get up to all sorts of fun and shenanigans. Pretty much everything is legal and it's all play all the time. That's how it got the nickname the Playground."
Another laugh. "You'll definitely see when you get there," she teased.
She finished giving him directions, telling him which highway exit to take. Once they hung up, Mike went to the break room to get his lunch. He returned to his office, eating the contents of his protein box while he stood at one of the large windows. It was a clear day, and the early afternoon sun glinting off a massive, amber-glass sky scraper drew his eye to the tall building and the giant gold P perched atop it. The building housed Pruitt, Inc., a large corporation based in the Gateway City. Spread out on the grounds surrounding the golden tower on the hill were smaller buildings for the company's manufacturing plants, distribution, and other facilities.
It was a huge campus. Taking up that much real estate in the middle of a major city must have been expensive and had more than likely displaced lots of businesses and homes. Pruitt products were everywhere in the country and the resulting jobs and corporate taxes had bumped the aging city on the river to a level of prosperity that hadn't been seen in decades. Still, even as a new resident, Mike was aware that many St. Louisans weren't completely happy with Pruitt's invasive presence in their city. He'd seen the anti-Pruitt graffiti and heard people complaining about the company while he was out and about.
Finished with his lunch, Mike turned away from the window and thoughts of giant corporations. He had a lot of work to complete before he could go off to play tonight.
* * *
Around six-thirty that evening, Mike finally walked out of Marin's. He crossed the nearly empty parking lot to his dark gray Chevy Blazer. Inside, he took off his tie, tossing it on the passenger seat before he put the vehicle in drive and headed for East St. Louis. As he drove over the Eads Bridge into Illinois, the Gateway Arch shone silver and orange in the light of the setting sun. His tires whirring on the pavement, he looked over the guardrails at the wide expanse of water below him. It was a muddy brown, gently waving in the wake of the traffic on the river.
After exiting the bridge, he drove a few miles down a dark street with squat brick buildings on either side. They were plain, missing the charm of many of the older buildings in downtown St. Louis. Then he turned a corner. He came to another bridge, this one stretching over a lake and leading to a small, man-made island. At the end of the bridge was a sphere of colorful lights, beckoning him closer. The closer he got, the brighter the lights became. A digital billboard stretched over the bridge at the mid-way point. On top of the sign in bright red neon letters read Welcome to the Playground! And on the display, a woman with a white fur coat opened to reveal the red lingerie beneath swung back and forth on a wide swing. She leaped off, arms stretched forward as if she was reaching for someone to catch her. The image faded to black before she was caught. Mike drove beneath the sign just as the display began to repeat.
And then he was in the Playground. Up close, the kaleidoscope of colors separated into distinct signs, every one of them bright and determined to catch his eye. Mike drove slowly, exactly at the speed limit so that he could take in everything the red-light district had to offer - which was a lot more than strip clubs. A sign with old-fashioned flashing bulbs as a backdrop to pinup art of a woman kneeling in black stockings, coyly looking over her shoulder, offered live peep shows. Above a building with a glass front a giant green pot leaf glowed, advertising the smoke house below. A deck of cards lit to give off the effect that they were shuffling from one end of the sign to the other identified one of the many casinos he passed. There was a white stone building with tall narrow windows, all lit by a red light, with a bright purple sign proclaiming it as Madame Blyth's Bordello.
He passed a cybersex chat cafe, a tantric massage parlor, and an outdoor boxing ring sheltered by a pavilion. There was a corkscrew water slide inside a giant glass tower, and they even had go-kart racing on a neon-lit track that swirled above the island like a life-sized Hot Wheels race set.
By the time he reached his destination, Mike was nearly on visual sensory overload. But he still admired The Flirtatious Fox. The building's exterior was constructed from pristine white brick. A black and gold marquee with a digital display of exotic dancers flashed over the entrance. Above the marquee, a red and white neon fox perched, its tail flicking back and forth, the right eye blinking closed in a saucy wink.
Mike parked and got out of his SUV, making his way across black asphalt to where his co-workers had already gathered in a group on the sidewalk. He was the only one still dressed in his work clothes. If he'd gone home to change, there was a big chance he wouldn't have come back out. Removing his tie was the best he could do for a casual look.
"You made it!"
"What do you think of the Playground so far?" Gina asked.
He looked around at the dizzying display of lights and entertainment and crowds of people walking the streets. "It's a lot more than I expected."
"Come on inside," she said happily. "There's even more good stuff to see."
They herded him across the street to the Flirtatious Fox, through the gold framed doors, and into an explosion of color and sound and beautiful people. The club floor was a glossy dark red, the ceiling painted gold with flecks of glitter to make it sparkle. In the center hung a huge stained-glass globe, the light within it casting colorful reflections all around the room.
At the moment, the Fox's dancers were in the middle of a group burlesque routine. They swept through the crowd, shimmying so that tassels on breasts and chests swung in delighted patrons' faces. High kicks flashed secret places barely covered by the tiniest of thongs. Go-go dancers in boots and lace briefs dipped and twirled in gilded bird cages scattered throughout the club.
"Let's sit over there!"
Gina spoke loudly so that the group could hear her over the music and cheering crowd, pointing out a section three rows back from the stage with several empty tables and chairs grouped together. They agreed but stayed where they were until the music ended. A shower of gold confetti rained down, the audience clapping and whistling as the performers took their bows before disappearing backstage in a swirl of color and glitter. Then their group headed for the spot Gina had chosen.
As soon as they settled in, a cocktail server came over to take their drink orders. The young man was dressed according to the theme for the night in green camouflage booty shorts, combat boots, and Army green tape over his nipples in an X. He efficiently took their orders, clearly at ease in his bare skin. Mike remembered a time when he'd been comfortable going without a shirt in public. Those days were over for him.
Their group talked and Mike easily joined in, appreciating that they were making the effort to get to know him and include him in their social group. It wasn't long before the server returned and set Mike's glass of rum and Coke in front of him. Mike had just taken a sip when the DJ's voice boomed throughout the club.
"And now, patrons of The Flirtatious Fox. The act you've all been thirsting for. Please welcome to the stage the titillating, tantalizing, and always tempting...Glimmer!"
"Yes, we're right on time," Gina said as she excitedly straightened in her seat. "I love his performances."
Eli put his drink down on the table. “Hell, I'm straight and I love seeing this guy dance." He leaned over to look at Mike. "What about you Zielinski?"
"Then you should like this performance."
"If he's Mike's type," someone put in.
"Glimmer is everybody's type," Gina said with a laugh.
The music changed to the slow, sultry bass beat of a popular hip-hop song. The red velvet curtain parted and a slim Caucasian man stepped through it, gliding onto the stage with a long-legged stride. He was dressed in a sexy version of Air Force dress blues. A pale blue shirt tied in a knot above his navel revealed a narrow waist and hard abs, the short sleeves rolled up over lean muscled arms. Tight, dark-blue shorts rode low on his hips and cut high on his thighs. Shiny, black over-the-knee boots, and a brimmed service hat pulled down low to shield the upper half of the dancer's face completed the look.
The man started dancing, and Mike overheard a low conversation between Gina and the woman next to her.
"God, I would love to peg him."
"Does he like women?"
"In my fantasies he does."
The dancer gripped the pole and jumped up to swing around it, removing the hat and tossing it to the side. He flung his head back and a sheet of ink-black hair spilled down over his shoulders, flaring out like a silken flag as he spun. When he raised his head back up and looked out over the crowd, Mike's mouth dropped open. His heartbeat paused before it picked up speed double time.
Even from three rows back he recognized those eyes. Tiger's eyes. It was Stardust, the man he'd met yesterday at the firehouse.
My rambling and not at all edited thoughts on romance novels, writing, and pop culture.