"You have to look into this. You're the only ones who will."
Life has mostly settled down for burlesque dancer Francesca "Frankie" Strong, and that's just how she likes it. But word of how she handled San Francisco's Chinatown mafia has already made the rounds, and when a showgirl suddenly dies at the club where she works, Frankie finds herself sucked into the investigation.
With growing pressure to keep focused on his assignment, the death of a showgirl is the last thing undercover cop Johnny Marsden needs. Cafe Outré's owner has asked for his help, however, and the chance to be near Frankie again is too tempting to refuse. Working so close together, can they continue to keep the secrets that would destroy their shaky truce?
What starts as a simple case of murder quickly escalates into a whirlwind of lies and jealousy, all revolving around a dangerous new street drug. What Frankie and Johnny uncover is beyond anything they expected, and the deeper they dig, the clearer it becomes.
Something big is happening in Chinatown.
About the Author
When not sweating blood over the keyboard, Laura Oliva is a full-time mom, wife, amateur chef, gardener, and (non)recovering clotheshorse. Laura lives in Northern California with her young son and her remarkably patient husband.
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How many people noticed he was having whiskey at eleven in the morning?
Johnny Marsden took a hard swallow of the amber liquid swirling in his glass and decided he didn't care. The burn felt good. Like a weight, anchoring him to himself. And he needed anchoring. Now more than ever.
Someone was watching him. He recognized the telltale prickle on the back of his neck, but didn't turn. He already knew who it was.
He buried his gaze in his glass. He couldn't avoid Veronica Casey forever, but he could for the moment. She paused behind him, then her footsteps echoed off in the opposite direction. Johnny snorted. Apparently, everyone was mad at him lately.
Not that they didn't have reason to be.
The whiskey started to pound behind his eyes. You're a good friend, Steve. The words still made his mouth sour. He was a good friend, all right. Such a good friend he'd let Frankie Strong believe he cared about her. Such a good friend he'd gone and fucked someone else the moment she'd started to care back.
Oh yeah, he was a very good friend.
He leaned back and swung around on the barstool. Even closed, Cafe Outré hummed with activity. A bevy of blonde showgirls -and one muscular showboy- were spread around the center tables, stretching, practicing a few steps. One of the bouncers adjusted the overhead lights while the other helped maneuver props around the stage. The band sat in their pit, the harsh sound of tuning instruments a soundtrack for the bustle.
And Frankie was on the catwalk, dressed casually for once in a loose shirt and black leggings. A black fedora sat crooked low over her eyes. Her black and white spectator shoes looked simultaneously out-of-place and completely appropriate.
Johnny shook himself. He'd had his chance with Frankie Strong, and he'd blown it. She'd made that clear. You're a good friend, Steve. He'd been friend-zoned. It was a new experience.
He hated it.
All the more reason to do his job and put Cafe Outré in his rearview mirror. He shook himself again and rescanned the room. Catfish was standing in the pit, beside a pixie of a woman who looked about a hundred years old. The office would be empty. Maybe he had time to...
Frankie swung her cane up over her head and tapped out a quick dance sequence. Johnny froze in his seat. Her long limbs moved in tandem, impossibly graceful. Fluid. He swallowed, tried to look away. Couldn't.
Jesus, he was turning into a sap.
Below stage, the prehistoric pixie clapped her hands. Her vermilion hair shimmered around her head. "Good! That's good. But one thing you might try..." She imitated the sequence where she stood.
Johnny turned back to the bar. He caught the woman's eye behind it and tapped his glass. She came over with the bottle he'd been steadily draining. Her dark dread-locked hair was pulled away from her face, giving him a clear view of the look she shot him.
She shook her head and topped off his drink. Johnny inched it closer. "Thanks, Maria." He tossed back a throatful.
"How can you drink that paint thinner this early?"
Johnny coughed. The alcohol scorched his nose, burned his eyes. He blinked through a watery haze in time to see Frankie swing into the stool next to him. She smiled briefly at Maria, now wiping down a stack of glasses, then turned to him again. "So? How'd it look?"
Her bright gray eyes were fixed squarely on his face. Johnny managed a nod. "Looked good."
What else was he supposed to say? He couldn't think of anything. He looked around for a distraction, settled on the dance troupe mustering onstage. Half-drunk water bottles littered the checkerboard tiles in front of them. Behind the bar, Maria's dishrag paused on the glass in her hand.
Frankie notched her shoulder under his arm and gave him a light shove. Her touch sent a shock through his system. "Come on, I mean it."
How did she do that? Act like nothing had ever happened between them? He wished he knew. However she did it, he wouldn't mind imitating her. It would be a hell of a lot better than the gnawing guilt he'd been battling lately.
She was still waiting. He shrugged. "Really. Don't change a thing." He managed not to cringe, prayed she would take the hint and leave.
No such luck. "How are you and Ronni doing?"
Johnny jerked his eyes to her face. Frankie reddened. "I mean, with your act?"
Like hell that was what she'd meant. He kept his eyes on her. "Act's fine." He blew out a breath. "A little dry I guess, but fine." She shifted, but didn't move. He took a leap. "How are you and Bianca?"
Instantly, he wanted to kick himself. The light in her eyes dimmed, and a strange look crossed her face. "There is no 'me and Bianca.'"
He tried to muster some genuine regret, but couldn't quite manage it. Before he could think of something appropriate to say, a crash sounded from the stage. Both he and Frankie turned.
One of the showgirls -a platinum blonde with a short, edgy crop- was on her hands and knees. Even from across the room, Johnny could see the look in her eyes. Or rather, the lack of one. They were blank, her face slack. A thin ribbon of drool trailed from her lips to the black-and-white-checkered tile.
He was searching out Casey before he realized what he was doing. She caught his eye from her seat at one of the back tables. Her expression said the same thing he was thinking.
The rest of the troupe huddled around the dancer. One of them reached down and touched her shoulder. "Vicki? Are you all right?"
The dancer's fingers were white against the floor. The muscles in her arms strained and twitched. Her back heaved. Vomit spewed from her open mouth. The other showgirls leaped back.
"Is she okay?"
"Oh my god! What's wrong with her?"
Johnny stood. This didn't look good at all.
The dancer slumped forward. Her face landed on the stage with a sickening splat.
Then she went still.