The room’s dark, cracked walls comfort Sparrow. The backroom of the club has fifteen vanities crammed around the border, towering, wooden monstrosities that rise almost to the ceiling, none of which match, except for the flaking paint. The free space in the center of the room is tiny but it’s enough for over a dozen people to dress together if they don’t mind being crowded like fish caught in a bucket.
She’d started performing as a cover for her real job, gathering information, dealing out death and pain, and found in her travels that all dressing rooms feel the same when you fill them with men in drag, no matter the language of the performers. And any intruder is hustled out quick as half-dressed drag queens can haul them, which has saved her life at least once. Sparrow feels safe at the Shining Girls, and most especially here.
Which is why she’s stuck around so long, seven years now, a new house record. The venue is usually a crossroads for entertainers on their way up to bigger and better things or not-so-very-far down to the gutter, and most don’t stick around long, either way.
But Sparrow, she was in motion her whole life, and she’s tired of moving. She sees Shining Girls as a place she can retire and die quietly in, unlike the loud chaos her whole life has been elsewhere. And that’s why the current circumstances at the club are pissing her the hell off.
She picks up her makeup brush and gets to work re-touching her face. In seconds the girls will join her, filling the room. She needs to be ready. Sparrow long ago learned that when you are trying to crack someone else’s face yours should be flawless. Holding the stick of kohl to her eyelid, she sweeps down and out, drawing a fat line. The real stuff is illegal in the United States but she has a connection in Addis Ababa who sends her care packages. She doesn’t believe it actually wards off evil spirits but she doesn’t deny it has power, either.
The other performers enter with a loud bang, in a cloud of chatter and cheap perfume. Hair of every color is on display, purple afros and pink bowl cuts, blue/red bobs and even a bald head painted with geometric shapes in gold. Their clothes shine just as much as their makeup, a glittering yellow pantsuit here, a silver mini-dress with electric lights blinking at the waist there. They jostle each other, moving like a school of tropical fish, though with a lot more noise.
Sparrow is immediately covered in a fine layer of multi-colored glitter with their entrance. She wipes at her eyes and coughs, loud and hacking, to make a point. Next to them, she looks drab with her razor-cut black hair, black tank, gray patchwork leather pants and five-inch black stilettos. Still, all the girls offer her space.
“Pretty as a picture and mean as an old junkyard dog,” her daddy once said, right after they started speaking again, right before she buried him. It’s the only compliment that has ever made her blush.
No one’s crossed her twice, not deliberately… except Heather. She’s new on the block, has been pushing Sparrow, driving her to hold a knife to Heather’s throat while all the other girls screamed and clutched each other on the other side of the room. Sparrow had held herself back, but only because Bruce hates it when she damages other performers.
Just yesterday, though, Heather had fallen, the eleventh victim in a series of poisonings. Rumors are flying about Sparrow’s involvement, of course, but the girls who’ve been around a few months are too smart to believe it. They know she’s more likely to cut someone than poison them.
The girls at the vanities near the door are still whispering about it. None of the mirrors are assigned but it’s understood that seniority buys space, and Sparrow’s is at the back of the room where it’s the least crowded. After applying one last coat of bright purple to her lips she turns, deliberate in her motions.
“What are you fags gossiping about now?”
Lucitania turns, slow, taking the bait, her molded hair—a crown of black and white ropes of tangled horsehair braided together to resemble snakes—barely moving. She blinks, eyes blackened from lid to lid with something safer than what Sparrow uses, and continues to shed her costume from the last performance.
“What do you think, bitch? Wondering who’s gonna get taken out next.”
Sparrow says, “Well, if I was going around poisoning folks, and my last victim survived, I wouldn’t stick around. They might be able to identify me.”
“Jewel stayed home tonight. So did Dy and Charly,” Favu adds, never pausing while painting their face in maroon and turquoise camouflage.
“Cowards,” Angelica snorts.
“Smart,” Vandalle counters, adjusting the mirrors on her costume.
“So they’re better than us? Fuck them!” Aja Marie’s anger makes it hard for her to control herself, and the lines she’s applying around her eyes becoming harsher and sloppier.
“Who said anything about better than? Why shouldn’t they stay home?” says Lucitiania, now perhaps halfway done undressing.
“They can afford it.” Sparrow’s voice cuts through the rising chatter and stops it cold, the way mentioning money will do to those living hand-to-mouth, as so many of them were. “Same rule as always, don’t drink anything a customer gives you.”
“Well that didn’t save Heather did it?” Aja says, lifting her right eyebrow, painted a neon blue to match her pageboy cut.
“She’s not dead yet!” This was the first time Sparrow has heard from Ravage all night. If Heather could be said to have a friend, it was Ravage, who arrived within a week of her. Sparrow’s seen them chatting here and there.
“True,” Sparrow says slowly turning back to her mirror, keeping her eyes on the reflection of Ravage’s face. “But do you really expect her to survive?” She makes her voice rough with laughter and picks up a brush to dust some more blush on as she watches Ravage’s face goes red, then pale. “You weren’t even that close, were you?” She meets Ravage’s wide eyes in the reflection. Ravage tries to pull herself together and pretend she’s not bothered.
Sparrow does it better, of course. Ravage is an amateur.
“No, it’s just scary.” It’s the perfect thing to say, but the delivery is as fake as her complexion.
Sparrow can almost see everyone thinking of Heather’s collapse in the middle of Shining Girl’s minuscule dance floor as they delay going back out there to the customers. The twitching limbs, the foam at the corner of her mouth, the pattern of froth on the floor thrown around by her convulsions. Most of the other victims had crashed their cars, fiery catastrophes that left little behind of the bodies, and more importantly, little for the police to make a pattern of.
“Either way, now that they have a body that’s not burned to a crisp… and y’know, alive, it should be easier to solve, right?” Britannia, a young black, British queen, says as replaces her Cleopatra wig with a three-foot-wide red afro. Sparrow wants to kiss her as she sees Ravage’s face freeze and lip-liner she’s applying runs off the track of her lips.
“They’ll probably search the club top to bottom for clues, too.” Forget kissing. If she keeps being this helpful Sparrow will fuck her on stage. “They didn’t find anything last night or this morning but I heard Bruce say they’ll probably be back a couple of times.” Ravage loses control for just a second as her eyes shoot down to the drawers of the vanity quickly, then away. The other girls sit quietly for a moment, looking at one another, then begin to head out to the floor in pairs or larger groups, except for Lucitania, who heads over to one of the small cots crammed behind a vanity to nap.
Sparrow walks onto the floor alone, unafraid.
The public space of the club is a hodgepodge mess of stained wood floors, black metal tables and red-vinyl cushioned chairs. The walls are painted black, and silvered mirrors are hung in what might have made a pattern once, before a few had been broken in fights, earthquakes, and other mishaps. Pillars with names, dates and crude poems carved into them break up the sight lines in the space. The room is half-full, and people are congregating in loose groups. The line for the only bathroom is extraordinarily long so either someone is fucking or puking in there.
The headliner shows are now over. At this point the more senior girls can go home, leaving the rest to entertain who’s left, but almost all of them choose to work the floor, see if there are any admirers so besotted or drunk or both that they’ll stuff money down false cleavage. Sparrow doesn’t like to go out there but she needs to appear to need the money, makes her cover more solid. The regulars know better than to touch her, at least.
The rest of the shows tonight are short ten-minute sets alternating between Ravage, Tanget and Bennie, the three newest girls. Bennie isn’t happy to be back on the newbie circuit after moving up a few months ago but with Heather gone she’s the next girl in line. She swirls onto the stage in a long blue velvet gown that, as she lip synchs to a pop-country tune and twirls about, reveals itself to be full of slits that flare with every movement.
Sparrow wanders over to a loose knot of men, pretending to work them, but keeping an eye on Ravage. Ravage, in turn, can’t help but pass by in an obvious attempt to hear what Sparrow is talking about, a drink in one hand. Sparrow steals it from her with a small, practiced twist of her wrist.
“Hey! That’s for—”
“I don’t care.” Sparrow smiles at her. Raising her voice she calls to the towering blonde a few feet away. “Angelica!”
The other girl stops, tilts her head and raises an eyebrow. Sparrow wonders if everyone who works at Shining Girls can raise one eyebrow but her.
“You mind following Ravage over to whatever trick she’s working on and getting him a new drink? She’s got to be on stage soon and doesn’t have time.” As Angelica smirks and turns around, Ravage looks ready to kill. Angelica’s a swooper, happy to steal others’ targets, and now Ravage won’t get within ten feet of the man for the rest of the night. The two leave, Ravage stomping and pushing her way through the crowd, and Angelica following with a sway and roll to her hips that causes quite a few eyes to dip south of her equator.
Not long after, Ravage is few minutes into her short set, dancing and lip-synching. Sparrow hurries to the dressing room as Ravage turns to try and seduce the crowd on the other side of the stage. She approaches the mirror Ravage has been using and starts going through the drawers. She’s careful to be quiet because Lucitania is still asleep on one of the cots. Heather had always gotten in early enough to choose the vanity closest to the door, but now that she’s in the hospital Ravage has taken the space.
She goes through the vanity quickly but methodically, shifting everything at the same angle so she can put them back exactly where they were. She opens Ravage’s make-up bag and quickly rummages through the jumbled mess, lip gloss, tissues used and clean, the industrial-strength makeup remover they all use, which Sparrow hefts and smiles at.
The poison is not hard to find, a clear vial of liquid among the perfume samples, the container too pear-shaped to blend perfectly with the others. She is pretty sure of what she’ll taste even before she unstoppers it and takes a drop on her pinky. When she touches the drop to her tongue the flash of warmth is unmistakable. The drop plus the tiny sip of tainted drink she took from Ravage shouldn’t be enough to hurt her, but her heart still stutters. She replaces the vial and puts the vanity back in order.
Sparrow lays down on the second cot, next to Lucitania, waiting for her heart to steady. Half an hour later, she jerks upright as the door opens and jumbled bright faces and voices tumble through. She rises and dives into the thick of changing girls who are stripping off paint, glitter and fabulousness, in the process of becoming insecure boys again.
Ravage is handing out bottled water, her chosen vanity being the closest to the mini-fridge. Sparrow does not miss the flash of surprise on Ravage’s face at seeing her still upright. Ravage bends and reaches deep into the mini-fridge, ignoring the two bottles right in front, and tosses one to Sparrow. Sloppy. There’s a gap between the cap and the rim showing that it’s been opened once before. Ravage cleans herself up slowly, watching Sparrow and the bottle of water in the mirror. Sparrow does the same, waiting for everyone to leave her alone with Ravage.
Instead of trickling out after they finish, to meet up with tricks, fall into bed, or go into San Francisco and hit an after-hours club, they gather near the door.
“Sparrow, we’re all going to visit Heather.” Britannia says.
“How are you guys even going to get in? It’s nearly 3 in the morning.”
Britannia, now Brian, answers. “My boyfriend’s a nurse down there, he’s gonna let us in. You coming?”
Sparrow catches the widening eyes in the mirror and smirks before continuing. “However, tell her I hope she feels better, and that I found out we have some old friends from Texas in common who wish her well too.”
The anger lessens on most of the faces, not that Sparrow cares. She’d said it to get a reaction out of Ravage, who is cracking her face to pieces as she struggles to control herself yet again.
“Ravage, you not going?” Sparrow asks, voice syrupy-sweet.
“No. I’m—I’m just really tired. I’ll just visit tomorrow before work.”
With that the few stragglers finish the business of stripping off the make-up, hair, and costumes. It’s a faster process than putting it all on, and it isn’t long until most of them are filing out. Sparrow is alone with Ravage, or more accurately now that the outfits have been exchanged for street clothes, and their make-up is smeared onto crumpled tissues and wipes, Alan is alone with Gus. Alan stows his wigs and makeup and waits as Gus pulls tracks of vibrant red hair from his head.
“Aren’t you thirsty?” Gus says, fidgeting.
“Why aren’t you going to visit Heather?”
Gus’ hands stop moving for second, then resume their work. “Like I said, tomorrow. We don’t know each other that well.”
“How about all that traveling together for the past year, doesn’t that mean anything?”
Gus stops moving and stares at Alan before recovering again with confused, wide eyes, but Alan doesn’t buy it. He leans back, tilts his head, and drops his girl voice for his boy one.
“Who was the first one?”
“First what?” Gus’s voice is still high-pitched as he tries to fool Alan.
“The first boy you two killed.”
“I… what… who?”
“My guess is someone you both hated, for different reasons. Maybe someone who objected to you two hanging out? A fellow queen? A boyfriend?”
Gus says nothing, head hanging and shaking back and forth in denial.
“I suspected Heather—”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Gus says, voice jittering. His hands tremble as he tries to wipe at the last stubborn bit of eyeliner on his pale skin but his sharp movements simply smear it into a bigger mess.
“That’s why I poisoned her.”
Gus stops breathing.
“I remembered something Heather said in the heat of one of our screaming matches. She called me ‘whomper-jawed’, but if she was born and raised in California there’s be no way she’d use that word. That’s Old School Texas, all caps.”
Gus is still except for his eyes, which follow Alan’s every movement.
“I didn’t really think about it until the deaths. It was a smart idea, dose them as they’re leaving so they die on the way home.” Alan crosses his legs and eyes Gus, trying to meet a gaze that’s jerking all around the room even as the rest of him sits frozen in his chair, looking for an out. “Did I ever tell you I worked in some punk clubs in Texas? We got into some crazy-ass stuff, smoking toad poison, eating mushrooms that grew out of cow patties. So I made a few calls to the drag bars I know there. No one recognized either of you by name. As soon as I described you, they remembered Heather, though not you. They also remembered the spate of deaths and disappearances that stopped when y’all left town.”
Gus is silent.
“Then I thought, ‘Huh, there’s a lot of land between here and Texas. I wonder if they did it again on the way over here.’ So I called some of my friends in Vegas.”
“Then Phoenix, then Albu—”
“It was my boyfriend.” Gus interrupted, his voice is so strained that Alan leans forward to hear.
“Emotionally.” Gus swallows. “After that we had to move, people were already suspicious, it wasn’t Heather’s first time. I didn’t expect it to continue but she was so convincing. We were helping others.” He’s desperate, but to be believed or to get away, Alan can’t tell.
“Even you don’t believe that. Heather likes to kill. I’m just trying to figure out if you like it too.”
“No!” Gus shoves himself back from the mirror, turning to confront Alan head on, face red, knuckles white as his fists clenched.
“They deserved it!” The violence and vehemence in his voice causes Alan to tense as he prepares for an attack. “Strutting around, working for nothing and getting everything!”
Alan relaxes a little and holds in a sigh. He’d hoped the string of killings he’d discovered across the U.S. were bloody revenge or justice killings. Lord knows he’d done his own share of those and wouldn’t be as perturbed by them, but these deaths sprang from jealousy and privilege, not justice. They were whiny and petulant little boys, killing not because their victims were privileged assholes but because they were angry and jealous. They didn’t really want to stop their victims so much as clear the way to be them.
“The drink you stole earlier—”
“Was laced?” And just like that all the remaining fight goes out of Gus, and his red-blotched skin becomes sheet white as he shrinks from Alan in his chair. “The question is if you don’t like killing, why try to take me out?”
“I thought you were on to me. I thought they might suspect David and it would lead back to me if they stopped. I panicked!”
It takes Alan a few seconds to remember that David is Heather’s boy-name.
“David is as good as gone, be dead by tomorrow morning, if not sooner.”
Gus gasps and closes his eyes but the emotion on his face straddles regret and relief so completely Alan can’t tell which will win out.
“Once he dies, they’ll go through his place where they’ll find all the Bufotenin he was storing up.”
“But the Bufo’s at my—”
Alan silences him with a look.
“Everyone gossips. They will realize that they saw her with many of the victims before their death. David’s death, well that’ll be chalked up to an accident. I just don’t know if David was running the show or if you were equal partners.”
Gus simply meets Alan’s eyes and doesn’t say a word. The answer doesn’t really matter but still Alan wants to know.
“I’ve had enough of killing. I came here to relax. But then you two come here and fucked all that up, didn’t you?”
“I didn’t start to kill until I hooked up with David.” He says it quietly and Alan can’t tell if it’s the truth. “I won’t kill again.”
Alan stands up. “If you do, make sure I’m your first victim because I will come down on you so hard you will never see daylight again.” It’s an empty threat because in a few hours Gus will be dead, the contact poison Alan added to his makeup remover already running through his system after being smeared over eyes and lips. He’ll pass in his sleep, if he’s lucky, because his face will be fucked up later.
Gus nods. Alan just turns and gathers his things. As he walks out the door Gus speaks one last time. “What if you had been wrong? What if David was innocent?”
Alan shrugs, and walks out of the room.
Then he’s out in the alley, passing by stragglers still on their knees or hoping to pick someone up for a warm place to sleep in tonight. Normally he’d be taking one of these rough, pretty, barely-eighteen runaways home but right now all he feels is disgust for men and their acts, all their acts. All he wants is sleep.
Gus will head home, and by the time he gets there he’ll already be too confused and sleepy to notice the changes to his apartment—suicide note, keys to David’s place, just enough to tell the story Alan wants told.
Arriving at his car, he secures the wig boxes, makeup cases and dresses against movement before climbing in the front seat. In a week at most, Shining Girls will go back to being the quiet divey retirement home Alan’s loved these past years. And God help anyone who fucks with that.