Chapter One

The crowd became louder as the lights went down. Behind the curtain, Crystal double-checked the fittings on her peel-away outfit. She listened to the stage manager, Rick, welcome everyone and go through the list of women performing that evening. All were familiar names to her, having worked at the Tom Cat lounge for almost six months now. Two women dressed in skimpy costumes brushed past her to take their positions on stage. Crystal nodded and waited next to the center pole.

"And so, without further ado." Rick said, "Here are the Tom Cat Kittens starring the kitten of the month, Crystal Peaks!"

The crowd became louder as the lights went down. The curtain went up and the music began. Crystal wrapped her left calf around the pole, waiting for the right moment. The driving, sexy beat was designed to capture the carnal mood of the show and the blonde stripper knew how to use that mood to her advantage. As she gave her fake smile to the audience, her eyes scanned the tables nearest the stage. Experience had taught her well and Crystal was able to quickly pick out the prime candidates for tips. Facing the most promising prospect, a middle-aged man holding several bills in his hand, she gave him a wink and spun around the pole. The girls on either side of her did likewise and they fell into the oft performed routine. As the music changed, Crystal tugged on the corset, pulling it away from her body. Giving a false smile to the cheers, she shook and wiggled her breasts as she had so many times before. Keep looking, she thought to herself coldly. Look all you want, you'll never have it. She shimmied and shook, causing her oiled mounds to bounce and sway in time with the music.

Tonight, however, fate had other plans for the young stripper. As she moved along the e.g.of the stage, bending down to let the patrons stick money along her G-string, a large hand reached out and pulled her off the stage. Crystal found herself on the lap of a balding man, his hand still gripping her arm.

"I want a little more than shaking for my money, baby," he said lecherously, using his free hand to paw at her exposed breasts. His iron grip made it impossible for her to get away, forcing her to put up with the fondling until the bouncers arrived to remove the offending patron. As much as Crystal wanted a minute to recover, a glare from Rick forced her back upon the stage.

Several rows back, the waiter placed a drink on the table. "Will there be anything else?" he asked.

"I'm all set," the man said, turning towards his strikingly beautiful companion. "What about you, Laura?"

She held up her half-finished glass. "I'm still working on this one, Peter." She put her pen down on the notepad and smirked. "Remember, getting me drunk doesn't help your cause at all. Better to spend your money on Studley over there." She pointed at one of the bouncers.

"Oh yeah, fat chance of that," Peter replied. He ran his fingers through his thinning red hair and looked at the bouncer again. "You think he is?" "Well" Laura took another sip of her scotch and soda. "If he is, you'd better hope he's into receiving and not giving or you'll be sore little man tomorrow."

"Oh but for a man like that," Peter sighed, earning a chuckle from her. "And what about you?" He motioned with his eyes at the stage. "A set like those could smother you."

"Yeah but what a way to go." Laura finished her drink and motioned at the waiter. "Besides, that's not what we're here for." "Yeah, yeah

I know you're just getting the layout right for the story. Jeez, you gonna pine away forever?"

"I'm not pining away," she said frostily. "I just don't think a stripper is exactly what I'm looking for in a mate, that's all."

"Who said anything about lifelong commitment? I'm talking you taking Miss Big Tits back to your place and rocking her world for the night." He leaned back and lit a cigarette. "Come on, Laura. You need more in your life than your computer and your stories. You gotta admit she's a good looking package."

"Thanks but no thanks, Peter. We're just here so I can get the details right." She sipped her drink, letting the liquid burn down her throat. "It's your choice," he said, shaking his head. "Nothing wrong with a little tumble in the hay once in a while."

"You are such a slut, Peter," she said with a smile. "You live with Michael and run around like single man. You must buy condoms by the case."

"At least I don't need a calendar to remember when I last had sex." Laura gave him a death glare but the young man smirked and looked back at the stage. "Say what you want, my dear. I say you're still pining away for her."

"I am not," she hissed, jabbing his arm with her elbow.

"Then why haven't you found a new roommate? You know you can't afford that place on your own."

"You're my rental agent. How am I supposed to get someone in there when you won't show the place?" she retorted, twirling the swizzle stick in the drink.

"I have yet to find anyone who meets your high standards, Laura. I don't think the Pope himself would meet your requirements." "You think I'm being unreasonable?"

"Unreasonable?" Peter threw his head back and laughed. "You want a non-smoker, non-drinker, first and last month's rent plus an additional month for security. No pets, no kids, no"

"I get it," she grumbled. "I'm not that bad, but I have to be able to live with the person." She sighed and picked up her drink. "Don't you know any gay guys looking for a place?"

"You wouldn't want any of the ones I know, trust me." He smirked and drained his glass. "They're all neurotic or hopelessly hung up on either their mothers or their ex's."

"Oh, you mean like you?" she teased.

Peter feigned a hurt look for a second before grinning. "Well at least I'm getting it from someone other than Rosy palm and her five friends." "Touché." Laura said as she glanced at her watch. "It's getting late and I have to meet with the editor early tomorrow."

"They still won't move your deadline?"

Laura shook her head. "You'd think I asked for a million dollar bonus and a one year extension." She rose to her feet and reached for her jacket. "Thanks for coming with me tonight." She picked up her notebook and purse after Peter helped her get her jacket on. "Call me as soon as you hear anything about the apartment."

"I will." As they headed toward the front door, he spotted a corkboard with dozens of business cards held in place by multi-colored thumbtacks. "Ah, there's a good idea." Reaching into his pocket, he found one of his cards and put it up in the middle of the board.

Entering her apartment, Crystal threw her keys on the coffee table and sorted through the mail on her way into the kitchen. "Junk mail and bills," she grumbled, tossing the pile on the counter. She opened the refrigerator to reveal little more than outdated condiments and a nearly empty container of milk. She briefly considered having something delivered but the late hour ruined that idea. "Fuck it." Opening the freezer, the stripper pulled out a small pizza. She put it in the toaster oven and took a glass from the cabinet before heading to the living room. Next to the couch was a half-empty bottle of whiskey purchased the night before. Crystal filled the glass before reaching for her lighter and the joint sitting next to it. The pungent smoke burned her lungs but she held her breath for as long as she could before letting it out slowly. Almost instantly she felt a fuzziness, her body relaxing under the marijuana's influence. Another long toke followed by several sips of whiskey and the stripper was too stoned to remember the cooking food. She turned on the television, pressing the buttons on the remote until she found the music videos. She paid no attention to the band on the screen, caring more for the pounding rhythm that numbed her senses in concert with the pot and booze.

Crystal's nose twitched as the foul smoke brought her back from unconsciousness. "Wha-what the hell?" Her mind still fuzzy, it took several seconds for her to realize that something was wrong. By then the fire from the toaster oven had spread up into the cabinets and across the kitchen. The fire was too much for her to even think about putting out with an extinguisher. Throwing a lamp off of an overturned milk crate, Crystal began filling the container with her most prized possessions; a small trophy, a ceramic figurine, an old photo album, a folder with her important papers and as many clothes as she could stuff on top. As an afterthought she hooked her pocketbook around her neck, fearing she wouldn't be allowed back in to get it. She was right.

The fire department was already there, having been called by one of the neighbors. As soon as Crystal exited her apartment, they moved in with hoses to douse the flames. The stripper stood by helplessly as gallons of water poured into her apartment, saving the structure but ruining everything she'd left behind. It was either cry or be mad and Crystal chose the latter. After putting her I.D. and money in her pockets, she found someone willing to watch her lone crate of belongings for the night. After making sure she was no longer needed, Crystal went off in search of the nearest bar.

The blonde stripper was well into her second twenty dollar bill when a heavyset but pleasant looking guy walked up to her. "Can I buy you a drink?" "Do I look like I need another drink?" she snapped. "Go waste your lines on someone else."

"Hey, I was just trying to be nice," he protested. "You just looked so alone over here in the corner."

"Did it occur to you that it might be by choice?" Crystal banged her empty glass on the counter, catching the bartender's attention. The would-be Romeo gave up and returned to his companions while she numbly took the fresh drink.