MADISON CRUZ MYSTERY #1

HOT SCHEMING MESS

Secrets, spies, and sexy guys complicate things for Madison Cruz as she tries to connect with her FBI mother, yet hide evidence for her grandfather. When bad news and hidden clues are dumped in her lap she’ll do anything to discover who the real threat is. Hunky wrestlers and crazy friends aren’t helping even though they really, really, try to! As the mystery heats up, so does her attraction to a couple of sexy guys who are vying for her affections. With two to choose from you’d think Madison could have double the fun. But she can’t think about that right now, because the enemy is right behind her.

* PRAISE *

“I chanced across this book while searching for humorous mysteries, and I hit the jackpot. Madison Cruz is one of the most fun heroines I’ve read about in a long time, and her adventures are both suspenseful and hilarious. While still pursuing her dream career as an actress, Madison works to discover the mysterious secret surrounding her grandfather and her FBI-agent mother, assisted by a colorful and entertaining group of friends, including two possible love interests. This book made me laugh out loud several times. I couldn’t put it down until I reached the end.” — L. SVACon

“Unique and fun from beginning to end, I had a hard time putting this one down. Lighthearted and witty. The author did a great job moving the story along.” — Payne (Elk Grove, CA, USA)

“Absolutely wonderful book! The characters are a riot and the twists and turns in the plot keeps you guessing to the end. Great job Lucy Carol! Looking forward to more fun and suspense!” — Grtgram

“This book was a fun read. Don’t let the title fool you, even though the character finds herself in a hot mess, the book is nothing of the sort. It’s got a captivating main character and funny secondary characters to keep readers turning pages. The twists and turns in the book are not your ordinary plot devices either. This book reminds me of Stephanie Bond’s books on Red Bull.” — Brandon (Georgia)

READ AN EXCERPT

Chapter One

For desperate people, a job sometimes can step up and say “Hello. I’m a bad idea. Do you want to play with me?” And since Madison Cruz was desperate, her answer was, “My mother warned me about ideas like you. But she was just messing with my head. So yeah. Let’s play.”

Madison knew that even bad ideas had their merits if you looked for them. But bad ideas also had consequences. She covered her face with her hands, peeking between her fingers. Watching the wrestlers rehearse, she finally realized what she’d stepped into.

“I’m about to get my ass kicked, aren’t I?”

“Don’t look at me,” said Spenser, “I already told you this wasn’t smart.”

They sat at a beat-up old cocktail table in a bar called Sound Beating, watching the rehearsal for Bruise Boys, a wrestling show played for laughs. The eager young men were fun local guys who loved to play rough with a wink at safety. Their local flavor was part of the charm, but right now the prospect of being tossed around was not charming Madison.

She lifted her shiny dark hair, fanning the back of her neck with a happy hour menu. The August heat wasn’t helping.

“I disagree,” said ExBoy, sitting at her left, “Why would anyone want to kick such a fine ass?” He grabbed her backside with a firm squeeze. “High quality.”

She slapped his hand away with a loud smack, forcing herself to pay attention to the rehearsal in front of them. But her body responded to his touch, and while she tried to hide that fact, she suspected he knew damn well his effect on her.

Xander Lucious Boyd, nicknamed ExBoy, had the kind of good looks that she took as a warning. His golden hair, blue eyes, and dark honey lashes made her suspect there was Scandinavian blood at work here. Other than stolen kisses, they hadn’t yet sealed the deal.

Another wrestler got slammed into the floor, pretending grave injury right on cue.

Madison looked around for the waitress, eager for their drinks to arrive. She’d brought empty beer cans to use as props in the show and had them set out on the table. But it was real drinks with real ice that she waited for.

She’d ordered rum and Cokes, happy to avoid the caustic whiskey Sound Beating had a reputation for. Maybe they were trying to match their whiskey to their dilapidated décor. Tattered posters on the wall with loose staples sticking out advertised shows that were already over, or bands that had long ago broken up or joined society in nine-to-five jobs somewhere. Pock marks on the walls were big enough to conjure up questions of how they got there, some with old gum shoved inside.

She wrenched her attention back to the rehearsal.

“Okay, I’ll rephrase the question. Am I about to get my fine ass kicked?”

“Really, Madison,” began Spenser, “I wish you hadn’t accepted this gig. It makes me nervous.” Spenser pushed her blond hair away from her face as she searched in the camera bag in her lap. With an exasperated sigh, she pulled the bag up on the table, looking deeper inside.

“That makes two of us, but I need the rest of my rent.” Madison gently knocked her head into Spenser’s, peering into the camera bag with her. “And if you happen to find any groceries in there I’d be happy to take them off your hands.”

Spenser pulled out her camera, looking through the viewfinder. “When have you not needed groceries?”

“Six years ago.”

“High school.”

“Pretty much. I can’t believe groceries still feel like a luxury. I need higher paying gigs.”

“Or a blindfold and a cigarette,” said Spenser, giggling. “Isn’t that what they give a condemned man in front of the firing squad?”

“But I don’t smoke.”

“And you’re not a man.”

“I like that about her,” said ExBoy. Damn, the way he gazed in her eyes was too distracting. She caught herself looking at him longer than she should and jerked her face back in the direction of the stage, wondering if her cheeks were pink.

“How do you do that?” he asked.

“Do what?”

“You look at me like your eyes are light green jewels on display.”

She blinked. “You love to rattle me, don’t you?”

He smiled. “I was just—”

“I need to pay attention to this rehearsal so I don’t get killed.”

“What are you afraid of?” he said. “They asked you to throw empty beer cans, and a chair.”

“They also asked me to improv with them. They said I would be safe,” said Madison, “but look at them!”

This kick-ass wrestling show, fueled by soap opera back stories, was unlike anything Madison had ever been involved with. Each guy invented a character for himself complete with stage names such as Dewey Decimator, Sparkle Pecs, Dizorder Lee, and of course Spenser’s boyfriend, Atomic Waist.

ExBoy’s enthusiasm was shameless as he watched the guys throw punches and slam each other onto the floor. He smirked and nodded, leaning forward to rest his stubbled chin on his fist.

“Don’t they seem a little carried away to you?” asked Madison.

A waitress with rainbow hair arrived with a tray of rum and Cokes. Madison pulled her big black tote bag out from under the table to get her purse.

“Don’t worry,” ExBoy said. “They know what they’re doing.”

That’s when Sparkle Pecs crashed down onto their table like an explosion.

Madison and Exboy sprang from their seats, but Spenser had her face behind her camera and didn’t see it coming. ExBoy’s wooden chair hit the floor a split second before Madison’s chair bounced away. Her purse rocketed across the room. Spenser’s whole body jerked to the crashing sound, and she nearly dropped her camera. Nearby chairs mutated into raucous dominos while the empty beer cans popped upward to differing heights before falling to the floor, a hollow metallic chorus in an out-of-sync rhythm.

The table lurched, dumping Sparkle Pecs into Spenser’s lap.

The waitress, looking quite bored, still stood there with her tray of drinks, not a drop spilled. Her hands occupied, she blew a stream of air upward to chase a rainbow strand of hair, hot pink, out of her eyes.

“Sparky, you idiot!” Spenser shoved Sparkle Pecs off her lap onto the floor. He sat up rubbing his head but wearing a smug smile. His long, light brown hair was cut like a grown-out mohawk that he didn’t bother to gel up anymore, letting it hang limp to one side.

Daniel bounded across the stage over to the chaos, his jeans and baggy t-shirt disguising his physique. One last chair fell over and a can rolled away as Spenser yelled, “Daniel! So help me, if he’s broken any of my gear—!”

With medium olive toned skin, Daniel, aka Atomic Waist, had thick Italian hair growing back so fast he already had a shadow on his scalp after having shaved his head that afternoon. He didn’t have leading-man good looks, but at six feet six inches tall, with an amazing build, he was hands-down the muscular beefcake of the show.

He grabbed Sparkle Pecs, saying, “That’s my woman, moron,” as he pulled him up, easily tossing him back onto the stage.

ExBoy nodded his approval. “And it’s only rehearsal.” Looking over at Madison he said, “I can’t believe you get to be in the show.”

“Neither can I,” she moaned.

Sparky called out, “Sorry, Spenser. But you have to admit, the audience is going to love that move.”

“Pick some other table,” Daniel growled.

Getting down on the floor, Madison and ExBoy crawled around looking for scattered pieces of Spenser’s gear. They found a carrying case and snatched up a few spare camera batteries.

“What’s the matter?” ExBoy asked.

“Just fighting my own stereotype is all.” Madison lowered her voice, reaching for a small USB cable. “I’m a girly-girl who’s scared of all this stuff.”

“But you’re not in the wrestling part,” he smiled.

“Look what just happened with that table. I could get hurt in front of my family.” She grabbed a collapsible tripod and a lens cap. They stood up.

ExBoy’s smile was gone. “Your family?”

“I invited my grandpa and my mom,” she said.

His face seemed frozen.

“What? You already met Grandpa at least, a few weeks ago when I moved into my apartment,” she said. Then she added, “You two carried my couch together.”

“Yeah. I know,” he said, turning his head. His eyes focused in the distance.

The bored waitress said, “Table, please. Someone?”

The wrestlers scrambled, setting the table upright and grabbing all the chairs off the floor, putting them back neatly by each cocktail table. The waitress set the drinks down one by one from the tray, which she then tucked under her tattooed arm. Madison found her purse, dug around, and gave the waitress an extra big tip to help smooth any ruffled feathers.

The waitress leaned into Madison, her smoky eyes taking on a conspiratorial look behind the rainbow hair. “There’s a big old guy at the door. Says he’s Vincent Cruz, your grandfather. Do you want us to let him in before the doors officially open?”

“Yes, please. Oh, and was my mother with him?” The waitress shook her head and said, “I didn’t see anyone with him.”

Madison deflated but caught herself, and recovered. “Look, I want him to have a nice time, so could you tell him anything he wants is on the house but charge it to me? It’ll be my secret.” It was her last few dollars, but she knew she’d be paid after the show tonight.

“Family secrets,” the waitress said, nodding as she turned to go. “I like it.”

Dewey Decimator, his dark brown hair pulled up in a samurai-style ponytail at the top of his head, said, “That was bullshit, Sparky. I’m supposed to be the one who goes flying into the table.”

“You could do your big flying leap and land on top of me,” said Sparky.

Dewey Decimator stared for a moment and blinked. “You’re right.” He rubbed his hands together, thinking. “Then we could pick up Madison’s chair while she’s still sitting in it. We’ll throw her at Atomic Waist!”

“Wait, what?” Madison looked up.

“Dewey, you’re an artist,” Sparky nodded.

“Well, you taught me, bro,” said Dewey.

“Did I just become a crash test dummy?” said Madison.

“No, seriously dude,” said Sparky, “your skills are scary.”

Dewey beamed. “Thanks.”

“Hello?” said Madison.

A deep chuckle erupted from Atomic Waist. “Picking up a girl and throwing her at me might be a bit over the top, don’t you think?” he said.

“That’s what we’re here for, dude,” said Sparky. “Over the top entertainment.” He grabbed Dewey’s samurai ponytail with one hand and pulled back a balled fist with the other, pretending to take aim. Dewey smiled and held up his middle finger at Sparky.

“Don’t try to make her wrestle,” said Atomic Waist. “She was brought in for a different kind of comedy—as a side character.”

“This will be fantastic,” said Sparky. “Don’t worry about it.”

“You guys said this would be improv!” said Madison, looking back and forth from Sparkle Pecs to Dewey Decimator.

“That’s right,” said Dewey. “We were told you’re really good at winging it.”

“Sure I can wing it. But getting physical with you animals wasn’t part of the deal.”

“Yes it was,” said Dewey.

“Not like that, it wasn’t! I’m supposed to act like a drunk customer out of control, distracting Atomic Waist while you get the drop on him. You said to improvise and try to get you guys some laughs.”

“Don’t worry,” said Dewey. “We do this kind of thing all the time. No one gets very hurt.”

“Very hurt?” squeaked Madison.

Sparkle Pecs remained excited. “Aw, c’mon, Madison, this will be fantastic! They’ll be blogging about it all week.”

“Yeah, while I’m in the hospital. Look,” she said. “I’m not a sack of potatoes you can throw around. This is not what I thought it would be.”

“I’ll be a sack of potatoes,” said ExBoy. “Fresh potatoes.”

“Well what exactly did you think this would be?” asked Dewey, his hands on his hips.

“I was hired to do improv,” she said. “I’m supposed to jeer and throw empty beer cans at Atomic Waist so he’s distracted with me while he’s raging at the audience. From there I improvise to get some laughs. Nothing was ever said about throwing me!”

“It is improv. We make up a lot of it on the spot to keep it fresh,” said Sparky.

“Oh, please. You’re doing fight choreography at best, with improv thrown in. You want improv, I’m your girl. I could be drunk for real and do a better job. But I’m not going to experiment with improvised fighting. Forget it! I’m out!”

“You can’t be out!” said Sparkle Pecs. “They’re opening the doors.”

Madison turned her head quickly. Sure enough, the first few patrons were paying their entrance fees at the door.

Chapter Two

“I don’t care if the audience is in their seats. If I can’t feel safe, I’m not doing it!” declared Madison, crossing her arms, her face like a rock.

Atomic Waist jerked his head down and back up, mouthing a silent “fuck.” He shook his head as he said, “Didn’t I say this would happen if you guys got carried away again?”

Dewey started, “But—”

“Didn’t I? And there’s no time to fix it now.”

Dewey Decimator rolled his eyes as he turned away, pacing the stage, studying the floor with hands on his hips.

ExBoy leaned in, whispering, “You get me hot when you’re tough.”

She whipped her head toward him with a flinty look.

He flinched. “Or not.”

There was a brief silence in the room broken only by the murmurs of people being admitted into the barroom. With a long heavy sigh, Atomic Waist rubbed one hand down his face and turned to Madison.

“I’ve seen you on stage, Madison. I know this could work. So I’m hoping that if you at least watch the show tonight you might change your mind for next week.” He turned, walking backstage, and called, “Come on, we have to get ready.”

“I’m sorry,” Madison said, wishing there were a way to fix it. She hated leaving them hanging. Her rent would be hanging now, too. Bye-bye immediate paycheck.

“But what are we going to do now?” Sparkle Pecs pushed his limp mohawk back as he called out to Atomic Waist.

Atomic Waist’s voice echoed back once more, “Wing it!”

Madison watched them head backstage as Sparkle Pecs and Dewey Decimator kept glancing back at her, then arguing with each other.

“You had to go and land on their table,” said Dewey.

“You were the one who said to throw her!”

The summer heat in the barroom added a sense of urgency as the consequences of her lost income sank in on her. So much for the undiscovered merits of a bad idea.

She turned to the cocktail table, dug out her tote bag once again, and put the empty beer can props back into it. No one said a word to her as she packed the props away, throwing the big tote bag back under the table.

Reaching for that icy cocktail, she plopped down in her chair and sipped her cold drink. Rum and Coke was Madison’s favorite cocktail and the chilled fluid felt good going down her throat. But it didn’t ease the situation.

ExBoy emptied most of his drink in one long draw and looked around the room. Madison could see those blue eyes calculating. He took the last sip then stared at the ice in his empty glass, not moving. The longer he stood there, the more his eyes creased.

“Hey, what’s wrong?” she asked.

Shaking it off, he turned his smile back on as if it never had left. He set the glass down.

“I’ll have to catch the show some other time. I gotta go.” He headed toward the back door. The way he could both show up and disappear without much warning still caught her off guard.

She looked at Spenser, who had her camera all set up on the table, waiting for the show to start, and said, “I guess it’s just you and me now.”

“What’s with him?” Spenser swung her head in the direction ExBoy had left, and added, “And what’s with using the back door?”

Madison shrugged. “Wish I knew.”

“Are you guys officially a couple yet?”

A rueful chuckle escaped Madison. “No, and I don’t think we should be. Forget that he comes and goes like a tormented superhero; he’s just too hard to figure out.”

“Uh-oh.”

“What? I don’t like it when you say uh-oh,” said Madison.

“He sounds mysterious and brooding. Hard to resist.”

“Oh, spare me! He’s just…hot as hell, that’s all.”

Spenser nodded. They clinked their drinks, and each took a swallow.

“I’m glad you quit the gig tonight,” Spenser said. “I made Daniel promise me he wouldn’t let anything happen to you. I don’t worry much about him, though. He’s so big, all those guys just bounce off of him.”

“Tell the truth,” said Madison, curious. “Do you call him Daniel or Atomic Waist when you two are alone?”

Spenser smiled. “Mr. Waist, Atomic Toy—”

“Okay, that’s enough—”

“Satin Buns—”

“You can—”

“Tasty Waisty—”

“Stop!” Madison tried slapping her own face, but it was too late. She had a visual. Tasty Waisty?

The barroom was getting noisier as people arrived, finding seats and ordering drinks. The crunchy thump of cheap wooden chairs dragging across scuffed wooden floors mixed with bursts of laughter at different tables. The tone of people’s voices took on a new quality of bass notes and sharp spots as the size of the audience grew from a gathering of small groups to a crowd.

A local DJ’s mix of breakbeat music started in the background.

In Seattle’s historical district on the edge of downtown, Sound Beating, like its neighboring bars, was older than its patrons – a proud dive. It got its name from its location near Puget Sound combined with the music that wailed from this place back in its heyday. Its history gave it enough street cred to keep the locals coming, while the occasional novelty show like Bruise Boys brought in new blood.

Madison jerked upright. “I almost forgot my grandpa. He’s here somewhere.”

She turned in her chair to look for him, leaning to one side, scanning all the patrons gathering around tables and chairs.

“Haven’t seen him much this last year. Somehow time gets away.” She craned her neck. “And now my mother is back in Seattle.”

Turning back around to face Spenser, Madison knew that more than any of her friends, Spenser would understand the significance of what she was about to say. “The FBI finally approved her transfer. So she’s working in their Seattle Field Division now.”

Spenser looked up in quiet surprise. “Have you seen her yet?”

“No, but we talked on the phone.”

Spenser hesitated, then asked, “So how’d that go?”

Madison shrugged her shoulders. “It was nice. But weird.”

“Why was it weird?”

“Because it was nice.”

Spenser sat quietly, watching Madison. “This is kind of big news. You seem to be taking it all so well.”

“You mean like a grown-up? You can say it.”

Digging through her camera bag again, Spenser pulled out an elastic hair band. “Well, you actually are a grown-up now.” She pulled her blonde hair up into a ponytail. “But you can’t beat yourself up for behaving like a kid when you were a kid.”

“I invited her and Grandpa to come tonight, but I guess she didn’t show.”

“You’re not surprised, are you?”

Madison sighed. “No.” She propped her elbows on the table, bringing a hand up to run fingers through her hair. “What was I thinking? She’s never approved of what I do, and she’d hate this place.”

“Little Freudian slip on your part?” Spenser pulled her hair through the last twist of her elastic hair band, the ponytail turning out crooked. “You know, like a declaration that you’re going to be yourself and all that?”

“No, I wasn’t trying to…” She stared at Spenser a moment, the thought sinking in. “Well maybe. So I guess she’s being herself, too, and refusing to come.” She stood, adding, “Situation normal.”

Madison’s gaze searched all the way into the back of the barroom until she finally saw her grandfather. Sure enough, he was sitting near the back like a big sentry at the door. “There’s Grandpa,” she said.

In his late sixties, Vincent Cruz was six feet two inches tall and still robust from the hard toil of his landscaping business. His rolled-up sleeves exposed strong forearms, but his face was leathery and lined like an old treasure map still unsolved. His five o’clock shadow was barely perceptible, but Madison knew it was fierce enough to sand these old tables smooth again. Although he had some hair, he opted to shave off what little he had left, refusing to do a comb-over. He’d finally sold his business and retired last year, but couldn’t seem to keep his hands out of the soil.

Madison wished she hadn’t forgotten he was here, but she doubted he had noticed. He seemed more interested in everyone who entered, checking out each person as they walked through the door as if they needed to pass his inspection. It wasn’t like him.

Madison asked Spenser, “Do people worry more when they get older?”

“I don’t know,” said Spenser. “Why? Is he worried about something?”

“Hard to say. He won’t admit if anything’s wrong.” She pushed her chair back under the table. “I need to tell him I won’t be performing tonight.”

Threading her way through the crowd, she squeezed sideways between the backs of old wooden chairs holding excited people, making her way to the more open space where he sat. Through the force field that was his presence, she slipped easily into the space that others seemed too intimidated to occupy.

His face lit up as she approached and he pulled a chair up next to his. They did a well-worn private handshake in which they’d bump fists, press palm to palm, lace their fingers together, and bend their hands downward, pretending to crack their knuckles while they each made a loud cracking sound effect.

Madison said, “How’s my hero?”

“Fine. I think that pretty waitress over there likes me,” he said, nodding. “Keeps offering me drinks.”

“You should take her up on it.”

“Nice try,” he said. “I already told you not to be spending your money on me. I just wanted to see your show.”

“I won’t be performing tonight after all.”

“Heard that discussion all the way back here.” He smiled and knuckled her chin. “My tough little girl.”

“Disappointed?” she asked.

“Well, I did want to see you wipe the floor with those young fellas. Show them how it’s done.” Madison was relieved to see that old twinkle in his eye. “Their loss,” he added. “So I think I’ll get going.” He stood.

“You don’t have to go. You just got here.”

“Sweetheart, you were the only reason I had any interest in the show. That, and I was hoping to see you and Ann together again. It’s been so long I don’t even have a photograph of the two of you that isn’t old. But she called a little while ago and said she has to work late.”

“She probably didn’t want to come.”

“Well,” he looked around the room with a soft chuckle, then back to her face. “This might not have been the best time and place for a reunion.”

Madison twisted her lips to the side as if she were giving that some hard thought.

“Don’t give me that, you stinker. You did it on purpose,” he said.

“Nuh-uh! Spenser says it was Freudian.”

“Whatever it was, it was bullshit.”

Madison’s shoulders dropped. She exhaled.

“Why don’t you give Ann a call tomorrow,” he asked, “and offer to go meet her for coffee?”

Madison looked across the room. Where was a distraction when she needed one? Spenser? ExBoy? A barroom brawl? “I just want to stay out of trouble,” she said.

He laughed. “Since when do you stay out of trouble?”

“You know what I mean. She’s never approved of the choices I made even though she was never around.”

“She was just a baby herself when she had you. Give her a chance.” He took her hand in his, saying, “I raised you both, and I have every confidence that the two of you can pick up the pieces.”

Madison sighed. “All right. I’ll arrange it.”

“It’s just coffee, sweetheart. It’ll be a good start,” he said. “She really misses you.”

Madison said, “When I talked to her on the phone, she did say one thing that worried me She said you may have had some personal information stolen?”

He studied the tabletop. “Ann told you about that?”

“Yeah. She said the University of Washington was hacked. It must have been bad if the UW called the FBI. She said they got into the archives of old employee records. Weren’t you one of their gardeners?”

“Ancient history,” he insisted.

“She’s just trying to warn you, Grandpa. Some people steal social security numbers to open credit cards with.”

“Okay. I heard you,” he said.

As they hugged, she said, “I promise I’ll try to make it work tomorrow.” He hugged her even harder after that and left.

Returning to her table, Madison pulled her mobile phone out of her purse and looked through the pictures she kept on it. Grandpa was right. The most recent photo that Madison had of her and her mother together was so old Madison had been in junior high—a painful time of her life. She gazed at the surly image of her young self and wished there were a better picture.

I should hire Spenser to do a portrait of us together. Her heart grew lighter at the thought. Grandpa would love that! The more Madison thought about it, the more excited she got at the idea. Mom would love it, too. In fact, she’d like that it was my idea.

She knew Spenser would not ask to be paid, so Madison needed to raise the money first, then present it to Spenser and insist that she wouldn’t let Spenser do it unless she let Madison pay her. More money issues but I have to find a way.

“Are you okay?” Spenser asked.

Madison said, “Other than mommy issues, boyfriend issues, and wondering where I’m going to get the rest of my rent? I’m fantastic.”

Spenser stuck her lower lip out. “Can I beat up your mean mommy for you?”

Madison gave a short laugh. “My mom could kick your ass.”

Spenser giggled and said, “Special Agent Ann Cruz could kick both our asses at the same time.”

“And look good doing it,” said Madison.

“While holding a drink and not spilling it,” said Spenser.

“Or wrinkling her pantsuit.”

“Or smearing her lipstick, or…”

The waitress returned, but this time she brought a tray with four shots of whiskey and a note. Madison picked up the note.

It said: “You said you could do it drunk and still do a better job. So put your money where your mouth is and we’ll follow your lead. Double or nothing.”

Madison’s eyes widened and her heart rate sped up a fraction. Rent and groceries. No, more than that. The portrait!

She spotted Dewey off to the side of the stage watching her. He raised his eyebrows and tilted his head, his dark brown samurai ponytail peeking around the side. She stared at the center of the empty stage, calculating the merits of this new bad idea.

She wadded the note, slamming it down onto the table. Snatching one of the shot glasses, she toasted Dewey, making sure he saw it, and raised the shot glass to her lips. When he smiled, she threw it back.

The flood of fire on her throat bent her over, one hand flying up to cover her mouth as she coughed, while the other hand flapped in the air as if she were waving a manicure dry.

Sound Beating’s whiskey experience was well earned, with a formula strong enough to melt plastic and bring a corpse back to life. It carved its initials in your throat. This whiskey asked who’s your daddy.

She caught a glimpse of Dewey laughing at her.

“What are you doing?” Spenser asked her. Madison didn’t want to give her a chance to talk her out of it so she grabbed the next shot and threw that back, too. More burning, and gasping as her eyes watered, her shoulders scrunched up, and her face contorted in sympathy with her stomach. Her pores opened.

“Madison, what the hell?” Spenser grew alarmed, rising from her chair.

Madison couldn’t talk, more little coughs escaping her, so she frantically dug around inside her purse. Spenser grabbed the wadded up note, trying to open it.

Madison whipped her car keys out of her purse, thumped them down on the table next to the camera in front of Spenser and grabbed the third shot, throwing it back.

The burning eased up on her throat and her eyes took it better this time, but now her stomach lurched. She felt shaky. She sniffed hard, trying to clear some of the runniness in her nose.

Spenser’s lips formed a hard line of annoyance as she read the note. She threw it down and reached for Madison’s last shot.

“Nnno!” Madison’s raspy voice finally showed up as she dove for the last shot.

“Don’t be an idiot—” Spenser said, grabbing the glass at the same moment, launching the girls into a tug of war.

Chapter Three

Madison knew Spenser’s instinct was to be neat and not spill anything, so she bent over the table trying to sip from the shot glass as Spenser pulled it out from under her.

“Spenser,” Madison dropped back into her chair, “they said they’ll follow my lead. If they do, everything will be fine. Please understand,” she begged, “I can’t face my mother with my rent overdue. She has a way of finding these things out!”

“God damn it, Madison! It’ll serve you right if you break your neck!”

“I know, but…will you send flowers?”

Spenser covered her face in her hands, expelling her breath. Her voice came out muffled.

“Yes, but only the kind of flowers you hate. Which ones do you hate?” Dropping her hands she fixed her eyes on Madison, her cheeks pink, and Madison knew her dear friend was having a hard time remaining humorous with this one.

“Venus flytraps?”

“Fine! When you break your neck I’m bringing a bouquet of Venus flytraps.”

They were silent.

Spenser said, “I’m sending a note ordering Daniel to tell the guys he’ll kill them if they don’t follow your lead as promised.”

In a small voice Madison said, “Thank you.”

Feeling her pores opened and the crowd’s body heat adding to the heat already in the room, she picked up her rum and Coke and pulled out an ice cube for relief. She crunched on the ice, taking in the room.

It was very carefully painted and arranged to appear indifferent to design. Even the low hanging pipes over the stage, instead of being painted to blend in or disappear, were made into a feature looking like battered industrial chic.

Spenser worked with her camera gear again, giving Madison the impression that she was just trying to look busy. Madison tried to think of something to talk about to ease the situation, at least till the show started.

“You know you’ve barely come up for air since you met Daniel,” Madison said. “You two are pretty mushy.”

“Just the way I like it. How’s the new apartment?” Spenser said with a smirk. “All settled in?”

“No. Still living out of boxes. And stop mocking me.”

“I didn’t say a word,” said Spenser.

“That wasn’t your voice in my head just now?”

“No. You have me mistaken for some other voice.”

“Oh. Sorry. I thought that was your voice telling me that I’m a sorry-ass procrastinator.”

“How did you find such a nice place for rent that cheap?” Spenser asked.

“ExBoy found it for me. I owe him for that.”

The breakbeat music shifted in style and volume, meaning the show would start soon. The anticipation in the room ratcheted higher as conversations and laughter picked up. The increased thumping rhythms added to a growing unease within Madison.

“When are they going to start this stupid show anyway? The sooner the better before all the whiskey really does hit me.” She pulled the empty beer cans back onto her table, in preparation for the moment she’d need them.

“I’d better be ready to jump when they do,” said Spenser. “I need shots of all the action.”

Madison assumed most of the shots would be of Atomic Waist. He’d been wearing normal clothes when Spenser introduced him a few months ago. But tonight, Spenser said he would be wearing …um… a tight little sparkly, spangly, bathing-suitie kind of thing, denoting his evil character’s vanity. It was just so wrong, because it was so right. Oh, and wrestling shoes. But she doubted anyone would notice the shoes.

Thinking of how to tell her mother about the portrait idea Madison leaned back, mumbling, “She could’ve at least shown up.” She rubbed her eyes, then looked up at the low hanging pipes over the stage.

Unblinking, Spenser said, “You must have known that someday you were going to have to deal with this.”

“With what?”

“Getting to know your own mother. Seeing her through your adult eyes.”

Madison blinked, thinking about that idea. “That would be different,” she said, as a nice little drowsiness came on.

Right then, as if on cue, her cell phone began to play the theme music to the movie Jaws, which meant her mother was calling.

Right when the wrestling show started.

Whistles and clapping exploded as the stout and sturdy MC strutted onto the stage holding a microphone with a long cable. Madison looked from the stage to her cell phone.

Now she calls? Now?

She tossed the phone unanswered into her purse under the table and let the show sweep her away.

The gravel-voiced MC yelled, “Oh, yeah! Oh, yeah! You hot writhing hunk of underbelly wetness!”

The crowd catcalled back, drumming their hands on the tabletops, making it sound like thunder in the room. It penetrated, filling her with excitement.

The MC paced back and forth on the stage like an animal searching for a way out of his cage, the microphone cable snaking along with him. “But it’s not the rain that’s made you wet!”

His voice dropped to a low urgent purr as he pressed the mic to his lips. “It’s that fevered anticipation. Your hot breath on our windows.” His voice turned to a gravelly whisper. “That bad dream moment when you’re scared and tangled in your sweaty sheets.”

He returned to yelling. “Scared that you might miss out on Bruise Boys!”

The crowd hollered out their enthusiasm, banging on the tables and floor.

Cool but coiled, Madison waited. Determined to win this bet, she listened to every word, watched every move, searching for the right moment to get involved.

Someone threw an empty beer can onto the stage.

She looked around, spotting a guy at a table nearby chucking another beer can. She put her arms protectively around the cans on her table, resisting the urge to start too soon.

The DJ’s head bobbed as the throbbing beat of the music picked up a notch, dueling with Madison’s heartbeat for dominance.

“I am Dizorder Lee,” the MC continued, “your host for this evening! We’re so glad you untangled yourselves and got here! All the suits have gone night-night.” He made a loud kissy sound into the mic. Almost as one, the audience sent kissy sounds back. “And the real fun can begin! Our first bout has some interesting guys you’re going to love, and one conceited asshole you’ll love to hate. First up we have Dewwwey Decimator!”

Dewey strode out, waving to the audience. He brandished his fists at every table near him.

“Dewey was fired from the library when he went postal with his fists, punching everyone in sight when all the late book returns hit in one day!” The crowd waved their own fists in the air in salute to Dewey. “He’s our kind of guy!”

Dewey, his lanky build belying his serious strength, jogged to the side of the MC, nodding and pointing at random people in the audience.

“Next! We have none other than…Sparkle Pecs!” Sparky danced out in a fighter style, stopping to make muscle poses and show off his strong chest with glitter rubbed all over it.

“Sparkle Pecs spent many bored years as a vampire until he dedicated his undead life to fitness! The result: he has almost cured himself! That’s right! But be careful. If he starts to lose a fight, he’s tempted to resort to what he knows best.” The MC turned to Sparky and said, “Don’t make us muzzle you, Sparky. Fight fair.”

Sparky reluctantly agreed, nodding his head, and bounced over to stand next to Dewey Decimator.

Dizorder Lee shook his head. “I don’t know what to tell you about this next guy. He gives the fine sport of wrestling a bad name. He’s disgusting! Coming out here half-naked all the time! He makes me sick! And I think we should all—”

Atomic Waist ran out on the stage in a fury, grabbed the announcer by the neck and punched him full in the face with his huge fist, then repeatedly pounded on the top of his head. If Madison hadn’t seen it in rehearsal she would have wondered if it were indeed real.

The crowd gave a loud moan on first impact, shouting and booing as Dizorder Lee collapsed on stage, knocked out. His microphone and long cable draped over his belly.

Dewey Decimator and Sparkle Pecs in the background were too engrossed in a fierce battle of Rock Paper Scissors as they walked off the stage. They didn’t notice what Atomic Waist had just done to poor Dizorder Lee.

It was ridiculous fun and Spenser jumped up, booing and laughing with the crowd. Grabbing her camera off the table, she ran off to find better angles to shoot from.

Atomic Waist held his fists up high in the air as he flexed and roared his rage at the crowd. They roared back, begging for more.

Damn! His real name was Daniel, but Madison had to admit the stage name Atomic Waist was a much better fit for him.

Recalling when he and Spenser first met, Madison thought it odd that instead of carrying on about that manly body, Spenser had talked about him having an adorable face, with the way his eyebrows drooped at the outer corners like a hound dog puppy. He always looked like he was happy in an apologetic way. Studying him now, Madison decided his face was as exciting as wilted lettuce. But he was built like a thunder god and when he smiled, Spenser fell apart like she was twelve years old again. Must be the goofy smile.

Tonight the storyline that the wrestlers had planned involved Dewey Decimator discovering that his collectible action figure toys were found in Atomic Waist’s locker. And Atomic Waist would refuse to give them back—the bitch.

Madison marveled at how much the downtown crowd loved guys coming out on stage in a dive bar and pretending to beat the shit out of each other over imagined offenses. She had the best seat in the house, right next to the stage, and her instincts told her it was time to spring into action.

They want to wing it? They want improv? She started throwing the cans at Atomic Waist.

“Panty Waist! Hey, Panty Waist!” She threw as hard as she could. The empty cans kept flying and bouncing off him. “C’mon! Are you afraid of girls?”

A look of surprise, then fiendish delight, spread across his face, as if he’d just noticed a little bug that needed squashing. He turned his body and his roar of rage in her direction.

Her nerves went on full alert for a second, but all that did was adrenalize her. Adrenaline was good.

She tore off her shoes, her long lean figure climbing up onto her table, pulling her chair up with her. The crowd started hooting and clapping their approval as she stood on top of the table, waved the chair in the air, then threw it at him.

He ducked it easily, crossing his arms as if to say, “Is that all you got?”

Sparkle Pecs snuck back out from the side of the stage while Atomic Waist’s attention was on Madison. Cheers grew for Sparkle Pecs as Madison pulled up another chair on top of her table and sat on it, chucking the last of the cans at Atomic Waist’s head.

Several people in the audience shouted, “Go! Go! Go! Go!”

He curled his finger at her like, “Come here.”

Her answer was to throw the second chair at him, but this time he caught it, held it with both hands, and ran across the stage toward the table she stood on.

Sparkle Pecs lunged at Atomic Waist from behind at the exact instant Madison leaped off her table onto the chair Atomic Waist held in his big hands. She used it as a stepping off platform to plant her foot on his shoulder and spring up into the maze of low hanging pipes over the stage.

The momentum of her spring threw both Atomic Waist and Sparkle Pecs off balance. They crashed together onto the floor of the stage next to the MC. The chair bounced and rattled off the edge of the stage while the audience went crazy with glee.

Madison hung on, feet dangling, and swung her strong legs up to wrap around the pipes, pulling herself up to a sitting position.

The MC returned to consciousness, and began crawling away on hands and knees.

Dewey Decimator chose that moment to burst onto the stage, facing the audience, his face contorted with great drama. “My action figures are missing!” he wailed. “What kind of an insane world do we live in?”

Atomic Waist stood up and grabbed Sparkle Pecs by his grown out floppy mohawk. He dragged him along as he crossed the stage toward Dewey. Sparky desperately scrambled on his knees, trying to wrench the big hand from his hair.

“When the dignity of a man’s property is not honored,” Dewey pointed a finger in the air, “we have gone down the road of anarchy, of mobocracy, of—”

Atomic Waist grabbed Dewey by his samurai ponytail. Sparky managed to get on his feet, taking a swing at Atomic Waist. He missed, hitting Dewey instead. Atomic Waist then swung his victims roundhouse style into each other. Their faces collided. Their heads bobbed around like Hawaiian hula dolls on a car dashboard.

Madison climbed to a standing position on the pipe as Sparky and Dewey slowly collapsed to the floor. The audience yelled and booed but also pointed at Madison overhead.

Atomic Waist followed the pointing fingers upward. When he spotted her, his eyes flew wide.

Just then Madison yelled, “Potatoes!” and dove out of the overhead piping.

Chapter Four

She saw Atomic Waist lunge with his arms outstretched. The crowd screamed their excitement. As the force of her weight fell into his arms, she felt them tense into hard muscle.

Her momentum swung them both around, causing him to stumble across the stage to keep his balance.

She pushed her dark hair out of her eyes as he came to a halt, studying her face. Her lids felt heavy and she saw him sniffing.

His eyes squinted at her as he whispered, “Holy shit, you’re stinking drunk.”

“That was the bet,” she slurred.

“What bet?” he whispered, “We’re supposed to follow your lead.”

“Keep moving,” she urged. She jumped out of his arms to the floor and slapped at his hands. He slapped her hands back. She slapped again, and wrapped her arms around his six-pack waist. Gritting her teeth, she strained to lift him.

He turned and picked her up easily, holding her away from him by her waist and letting her dangle.

She grabbed both of his ears and pulled his head towards her, as if she were trying to pop his head off, but she leaned in, whispering, “Get mad and spank me.”

“What?” he whispered.

“You heard me,” she whispered. “Do it.”

“That’s enough!” he roared. He got down on one knee, bent Madison over it, and proceeded to spank her butt, the crowd whooping and screaming with approval.

But without skipping a beat, Madison (“Ow—”) grabbed the microphone cable on the ground (“Ow!”) and pulled the mic over to her. “Take it easy—Ow!” She reached around to his backside as his big hands spanked her bottom. She pulled his tight little sparkly spangly bathing-suitie kind of thing open and shoved the mic down in there, far enough that it came out the leg opening.

With a girly squawk he leaped to his feet.

As Madison fell between his legs, she grabbed the mic that was hanging out of his tight little sparkly spangly bathing-suitie kind of thing.

Then she pulled.

With desperate speed he grabbed his front waistband with both hands. She pulled the cable faster. He instinctively did a little dance trying to get away. But that only made it worse, pulling his tight little sparkly spangly bathing-suitie kind of thing open in the back, exposing a bit of his high and mighty rear end. Madison now had enough slack in the cable, so she stood up and skipped rope with it.

With the audience in hysterics, the MC came over and jumped in with her, both of them keeping the rhythm of the skipping rope. As the cable made each circle, the stretchy waistband on Atomic Waist’s backside dipped down and sprang back up. The DJ added classic strip music, and Atomic Waist looked around in a panic, not daring to let go, not able to walk away, not sure what to do.

On the sides of the stage the other wrestlers bent over with the kind of high-pitched laughter that men only produce when they’ve laughed themselves helpless.

As the crowd cheered, Atomic Waist finally shrugged and took a grand bow. Madison, exhausted, stopped jumping and stood swaying, thinking about vomiting.

One last empty beer can came flying and hit her on her temple. “Oh!” She looked out in the audience, flipping the bird saying, “Show yourself, you mother fuc—”

That was the moment Madison saw her mother standing in the back of the room. Ann was quite still, looking down at the floor. Then she turned and walked out.

The audience whistled and pounded on their tabletops, as empty beer cans rolled across the floor, aimless.

 

*     *     *

 

Madison sat on the carpet, leaning against the wall of her living room. A couple of tears from earlier had already dried at the corners of her eyes. A wet sniff lingered.

Spenser had driven Madison home in Madison’s car and now rummaged in the refrigerator, packing away leftover tacos they had picked up in a drive-thru on the way home. “Are you sure it was her? The room was dark, and you were pretty hammered.”

“Yeah. It was her.” With a heavy sigh, Madison rubbed her eyes hard, probably making black smears but she didn’t care at the moment. “I think she was trying to call and tell me she was in the audience. But I never answered.”

She looked at her bare feet stretched out in front of her and thought how nice it would be to have pretty toes right now. When you can’t get yourself a new life, you may as well settle for a pedicure.

Spenser shut the refrigerator door and came over to sit down, searching for a spot. The couch had little room since it was covered in boxes from Madison’s recent move, their lids unfolded and hanging open to reveal an assortment of items unrelated to each other. Empty flower vases, books, candle holders, and lots of picture frames shared boxes with sandals, computer cables, and a tire pressure gauge.

Madison jumped up, held the wall a moment to steady herself, and took a few boxes off the couch, leaving a clear spot for Spenser. “Sorry,” she said, “Told you I was still living out of boxes.”

Spenser sat. “Would it do any good if I asked you never to be that stupid again?”

“Spenser…” She closed her eyes for a moment. She could feel a mild headache starting to come on. “I was sure I’d be all right if they followed my lead.”

“You’re going to feel like an idiot tomorrow when you’ve finished sobering up.”

Madison already felt stupid but didn’t want to admit it. “There was one thing I didn’t expect,” she grumbled. “The paycheck was double the amount as promised, but they said not to cash it yet. It won’t be good for another week.”

In the silence that followed they heard a tweeting sound from Madison’s cell phone.

She had voicemail from Phil, her agent. As she listened, her face became elated. “Yes! Emergency gig tomorrow. Phil wants my fairy godmother character for a children’s birthday party. The usual. Painting faces, balloon animals. He sounds desperate. He already emailed the gig sheet to me in case I say yes. I usually get $200 for birthday parties, plus tips from the parents. I need to call him back right away and say I’ll do it.”

She punched Phil’s number on her cell phone, but a knock on the door made her stop and end the call before it went through. “There’s Daniel,” she said, standing up. “Thanks for driving me home, Spenser.”

She went to look out the peephole, hoping to gauge Daniel’s mood before opening the door. But the person she saw standing there was her grandfather. What the…?

She was still a little drunk and didn’t want him to see her like this. She quickly wiped under her eyes in case her makeup had smeared, gave one more wet sniff, and rushed her hands down her hair to smooth what she could.

She opened the door and put on a cheery voice. “Hi, Grandpa.”

Spenser, right behind her but more surprised, said, “Hi, Mr. Cruz.”

He walked in, mild surprise on his face. “Well, hey there, you two.” He gave Madison a little hug. “I see Spenser is still putting up with you.”

“Always,” Spenser smiled.

“Well, if anyone can, it’d be you. I’d trust you with anything. You’re like family.” He looked around asking, “Everything okay here?”

Madison shrugged. “Sure. But did something happen? It’s so late.”

“Oh.” He seemed embarrassed. “I’m sorry, sweetheart; I wasn’t paying attention to the time. I, uh, came to get my drill.”

“Why didn’t you just call me? I could have brought it by in the morning and saved you the trip.”

“Well, I wasn’t home by the phone and—”

“Use your cell phone.”

“I can never get those things to work. I think mine is broken.” He took it out of his pocket.

“You have to turn it on,” she said, reaching over and turning it on for him.

He looked at it as if the phone had somehow betrayed him. “Oh. I see.”

Though his head was inclined toward the small phone in his hands, Madison could see his eyes had already wandered away, lost in thought. “Grandpa, are you all right?”

He looked up. “Hm? Fine. Why do you ask?”

“You seem unhappy. Did Mom call you about me or something?”

His look of distraction melted away as a laser focus replaced it, zeroing in on her.

I had to open my mouth.

“What happened?” he asked. He seemed to be holding his breath. She thought of a few ways to dodge and dazzle and get out from having to admit to the bet she’d won tonight, but he would probably find out tomorrow anyway.

She braced herself and said, “Mom showed up.”

“And?”

“I was performing.”

“And?”

“I was…” She stopped herself, then said, “Inebriated.”

He stared at her. “You were drunk?”

“I said inebriated. You said drunk.”

“Just how inebriated were you?” He sounded incredulous.

“Honestly?”

“Yeah. Try that.”

“Shit-faced.”

A freeze frame of confusion. Madison could see the sorting and filing of information going on behind his eyes.

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