by Justin Swartz
"Hit me with this again," I said to Scarlet Pony, the redheaded stripper sitting
in my lap.
cost 'ya twenty bucks," she replied in her heavy Southern drawl.
"Not the dance," I said back. "Your idea, about the cards?"
Scarlet wrapped her arms around my neck and hugged my face to her titanic tits.
"You know how some men collect baseball cards?" she asked.
"Uh-huh" was my muffled reply.
"Well, what if they had strippers on them?"
I came up for air and scanned Scarlet's face. She wasn't joking.
"You're serious?" I asked.
"Dead serious," she said, tracing a red fingernail down my face. "There's
money to be made there, Mike."
"How would we even do it?" I wondered aloud as Scarlet's nails unfastened the buttons
on my shirt.
"I have friends in low places," the stripper explained, pulling my shirt open and
caressing my bare skin. "One's a printer, and the other's a photographer."
"They have credentials?" I quipped, fighting the urgency inside my groin.
"Heavens, no," she said. "They're strictly under the radar. Those photos you have
of me? This photographer took them, and the printer made the copies."
"Uh-huh." I was too busy watching Scarlet's red nails unbuckle my belt to form any
"He has tons of that glossy cardstock, the kind they print baseball cards on." Scarlet
unfastened the button at the top of my fly as my erection trembled with anticipation.
do I come into this?" I asked, my voice rising in pitch as Scarlet unzipped my fly, revealing
the large bulge in my boxer briefs.
"Why, Mike, I'm surprised you asked such a dumb question." Scarlet opened the boxer
briefs, reached inside, and held my cock in her hands. "You're the money."
I never did utter an affirmative. I was too busy soaring in ecstasy as Scarlet gave
me the most exquisite blowjob I'd ever had.
next day, with Miss Pony by my side, I went to the bank and withdrew the start-up funds
necessary for her stripper card enterprise. It amounted to the sum of eight thousand dollars,
a big chunk out of the money my father had left me two years ago, when he passed
from congestive heart failure. Maybe he shouldn't have been eating that Monster Burger
at his age, but I'd never been able to stop my father from doing anything. Naturally, he'd
never been able to stop me either.
I drove Scarlet to the printer's place, located in a lousy neighborhood on the east
side of L.A., and explained what we wanted. Scarlet had already spoken to him about her
idea, so that made things easy. He worked up a quote for ten thousand cards, using the
glossy cardstock with the ultraviolet coating, which also included shrink-wrapping for
easy sale. Scarlet was thrilled, although I was considerably less thrilled when I forked
over the six grand for the job.
Our next stop was to the photographer's studio, which was nothing more than a studio
apartment ten miles north of the printing shop. The guy had all the latest equipment and
software, which I'm sure was either pirated or bought out of the back of a truck, as well
as sophisticated lighting equipment that he could never afford. Nevertheless, Scarlet's
enthusiasm bled over into my lack thereof, and I handed the shutterbug the two thousand
dollars I had left. He told Scarlet to come back on Saturday with as many girls as she
could find, and to "ditch the stiff dick."
I returned Scarlet to the Pussy Galore Strip Club around seven so she could get
ready for her shift. She assured me everything would be all right, kissed me on the lips,
and went inside. Before she entered the building, she told me I wouldn't regret my investment.
problem was that I already did.
Saturday came faster than I expected it to, and I arrived at the photographer's
place at nine a.m. sharp. I walked up the spiral staircase to his studio and saw Scarlet
waiting in the doorframe, dressed in nothing but denim cut-offs that were unzipped all
the way down. Her breasts swung freely from side to side as she sauntered up to me, wrapped
her arms around my neck, and kissed me hungrily.
"Today's the big day, Mike," she whispered in my ear. "Let's put all your money
to good use."
the next nine hours I witnessed a line of girls entering the studio, stripping down to
their barest of essentials, and posing while the photographer's camera painted pretty colors
across their faces. I saw so many tits—big ones, small ones, medium ones, and plenty
of fake ones—that I thought I'd actually grown tired of them. Tired of tits? What
a pathetic state for a man to be in.
At the end of the day, Scarlet took her turn in front of the camera. Everything
inside me surged to life as she posed provocatively for the lens. This wasn't just a photo
shoot—this was a celluloid seduction, and I was convinced that if people didn't at
least buy these cards for Scarlet, then they were fools.
I led Scarlet out to my car after the shoot was over. She was still dressed in her
cut-offs but had added a red lace-up bustier to it. When a nighttime breeze blew past us,
I instantly surrendered my coat and wrapped it around her shoulders.
"You're a nice guy, Mike," she said in thanks. "I wish..."
"You wish what?" I asked her, leaning against my car.
"Never mind," she said. "It's not important." She leaned against me and wrapped
an arm around my waist. "I really appreciate all of this, y'know. Without your
investment, this wouldn't have happened."
"Promise me one thing, Scarlet," I asked her.
"Can't make any promises," she said, looking up at me. "Not in my business."
"Just don't screw me out of my eight grand."
Scarlet stood on her toes and kissed me. "I promise."
And even then, I knew she was lying.
The next two weeks went by like a snail race on a rainy sidewalk. Scarlet and I
kept up our extra-curricular activities, and she kept me updated on the newly-named Stripper
Deck's process, but it sounded like she was saying a hundred different words that meant
absolutely zip. The sex wasn't the same either, which was a disappointment to me and Miss
Pony. I thought I'd loved Scarlet, but now we were business partners, and tepid ones at
that. The sex had become ubiquitous, like we accepted we had to do it in order to keep
the partnership going. It got to the point where Scarlet's touch barely got my penis off
the launching platform.
It was Wednesday, two weeks to the day when Scarlet asked me to invest in her project,
when I first saw the Stripper Deck cards in public. They were at the counter of Carl's
Car Wash, tucked in with the baseball cards, just like Scarlet had wanted them to be. I
bought a pack for shits and giggles, and while I got a nasty look from the aging female
clerk behind the counter, I didn't care—my investment had finally paid off.
I sat outside under an awning as the team of car-washing teenagers went to work
on my ride. I ripped open the pack of cards, and sure enough, there they were—topless
pictures of the girls from the photo shoot in attractive poses. The back of the card listed
their vital stats, a brief biography (like anyone really gave a shit about that), and the
clubs they performed at. It was all very professional, just like baseball cards, or the
comic book collector cards that were all the rage when I was a kid. My money had indeed
been well spent, and Scarlet's hard work showed on every card in that pack.
One question still nagged at me, though. It was one I should have asked from the
start of this whole thing.
What do I get in return for my investment?
than I expected, the Stripper Deck cards were everywhere. I spotted them at gas stations,
bookstores, video rental joints, drug stores, strip clubs, and the occasional dildo store.
I couldn't believe how fast they spread or how many packs were being sold. It was
masturbation material for three bucks a pack, and I didn't see anyone putting these cards
in their bicycle wheels. Not that kids still did that today. Do kids even ride bicycles
went to the strip club and asked for Scarlet Pony. The bimbo working the bar told me she
didn't know anyone by that name. I glanced around the room, at the stage, at the guys getting
lap dances, trying to spot her. She was nowhere to be found. My pony had left the stable.
left the club and went to my car, disgusted. Scarlet had conned me out of eight grand,
and I was pissed. That was my old man's money, and Scarlet was probably lying naked in
a bed made of my cash. I wanted my eight grand back, Miss Pony. Then we'd be square, and
we'd be out of each other's lives for good.
I turned my engine over and drove around east Los Angeles for a while. I couldn't
figure out where Scarlet would be, what she would be doing, and where she would be spending
her money. Then I had a crazy thought—what was Scarlet's real name? It had to be
on file with the California Business Association, since she needed to (at least) form an
LLC before launching her enterprise.
I pulled a u-turn and headed for the nearest library. I needed free internet access,
and a place like that would work fine. I found one, got talked into signing up for a library
card, and logged onto one of their computers. I launched the web browser and found the
California Business Association's website. It allowed you to search for a business by name,
so I typed in "Stripper Deck" and hit the 'enter' key. There was only one result in the
ensuing search, and it was the one for Miss Pony's company...only she wasn't Miss Pony,
but Miss Veronica Benedict. When I expanded the search, I found an address registered in
Veronica's name, which was listed as the business location.
Leaving the library, I climbed back in my car and headed for that address. I guessed
it was her apartment, or a back room in a gentleman's club. What I found was something
I cut the headlights on my car and coasted up to the box-shaped warehouse. It was
situated off an alley in Compton, and I knew the second I got out of my car and the home
boys saw a white boy roaming their streets, I'd be deader than dead. I shut my car off
and waited for a few minutes. There was no activity outside the building, but the
lights were on full blaze inside, and the sound of forklifts, tow motors, and wooden pallets
being moved could be heard on the street. What the hell was going on in there?
I scanned the alley. It was clear, as near as I could tell. I climbed out of my
car, closed the door softly, and walked toward the warehouse's front doors. There was light
coming from between them, and what I saw made my heart plummet all the way to my feet.
Veronica—was inside the warehouse, supervising the shrink-wrapping of the cards.
As the workers, some of them Latino, others black, and still others Asian, packed the cards
together, they slipped a tiny bag of cocaine against the pack before wrapping it and moving
on to the next one. I took a step toward the space between the doors, turned, and saw even
more workers, even more cards, and even more cocaine being packed into Stripper Decks.
This certainly explained why the cards had been selling so damn well. My only question
was 'Why?' Why would Scarlet, Veronica, or whatever the hell her name was jeopardize her
investment by mixing it with drugs?
The side door to the warehouse opened and the woman of the hour exited, a cigarette
in her right hand. She wasn't dressed like a slut anymore; the little black dress, heels,
gloves, and stockings gave evidence of that. The money—my money—had
treated her well. As I stood in the shadows, I could see her take a drag on the lung killer
and exhale, all in one smooth motion, like she did when she unbuckled my belt and seduced
me out of eight grand.
I said, not realizing I had spoken.
She whirled around, dropping the cigarette in surprise.
"Remember me, Scarlet?" I asked. "Or is it Veronica?"
"My God, Mike!" Scarlet said in her Southern drawl. "You nearly scared the bejeezus
out of me!"
"Too bad I didn't scare my eight grand out of you."
"I'm sorry, Mike, but there were complications," Scarlet replied, a nervousness
coming through in her voice. "The Stripper Decks didn't sell as well as I thought they
would, see, and when we didn't make back your eight grand, I thought it best not to involve
you anymore in—"
"Don't talk like some entrepreneur!" I raged. "You're a stripper and a con artist.
Nothing more, nothing less."
"I thought you liked me, Mike."
"I thought I did, too." I walked toward her. "But you broke your promise."
"What promise?" Scarlet asked in confusion.
"I made you promise not to screw me out of my eight grand," I reminded her, taking
two more steps. "And now I see why the cards have been selling out everywhere I go.
They're laced with cocaine!"
"How else was I supposed to make any real money?" Scarlet shot back, jabbing
a finger at me. "You think your lousy eight grand was going to make a dent in my
debt? You think people would really buy cards just because there were strippers
on them?" She laughed, putting a hand to her forehead. "Oh my God, Mike! You always were
dumb, but I didn't think you were stupid."
"Tell me something," I said, standing almost on top of her. "Is it Scarlet, or Veronica?"
"Veronica, you dumb ass!" she shouted.
"Funny," I said. "You look more like a Betty."
"That's just hilarious, Mike," Veronica said flatly.
"You'll look even more like Betty with that black eye."
Veronica blinked hard.
"What black eye?" she asked, confused.
"The one I'm about to give you!"
I threw my right hand back, formed a fist, and clocked Miss Veronica Benedict for
all I was worth. She crumpled to the sidewalk in a heap and lay there, unconscious, as
I shoved my rage aside and thought of my next move. Punching Veronica had felt pretty damn
good, and it was a start, but I needed to do something better, something bigger, to make
all of this come to an end.
drug Veronica to my car and shoved her in the passenger seat, buckling her seatbelt and
tightening it so she couldn't get free. As I climbed into the driver's side, several men
exited the warehouse through that same door and drew pistols and revolvers. I shoved my
ride into reverse and slammed the gas pedal, driving backwards down the alley, as Veronica's
bodyguards pelted my car and windshield with bullets. By the time I made it back onto the
main road and shifted gears again, the men were ages behind me, and so were the warehouse,
the printer, the photographer, the strippers, and especially the woman once named Scarlet
By the time I finished explaining everything to the cops, Veronica was waking up
in a holding cell, minus her belongings and fancy jewelry. Her cellmate was a butch lesbian
who weighed two-eighty and liked to play with "the soft ones." I wished her luck
when she got to the penitentiary.
The next night on the eleven o' clock news, I watched the report about the Los Angeles
Police Department storming the warehouse and catching everyone in the act. They also caught
Hector Torres, a wanted Hispanic drug trafficker, who had been Veronica's cocaine supplier.
Unfortunately, the police didn't say anything about restitution for my eight grand, so
I guess I'd never get my money back. At least they weren't hauling me off to jail as an
accessory. That's a consolation prize I'd gladly take.
A week after Veronica's arrest, I noticed that the Stripper Deck cards were harder
and harder to find. The stores where they had been were now carrying Juicy Fruit, Snickers,
and Paydays. The days of the stripper collector cards, and getting a little added high
in the process, were gone.
That same week I stopped by Carl's Car Wash and went inside to pay. I looked at
the rack of baseball cards and saw that the Stripper Decks were marked down to fifty cents
I bought them all.
Russell hated California.
He'd come here looking for gold, just like everyone else, but someone forgot to
inform him the gold had left town. That's exactly what Russell should've been doing, but
something had compelled him to stay in California, specifically the town of Bloodstone.
He wasn't sure what that something was, but he figured he'd know it when he saw it.
descended the stairs from his room above the sheriff's office and stepped into the path
of the blistering sun. It was Thursday afternoon, around two o'clock by Russell's estimation,
and the heat was already making him sweat. It was a short walk across the street
and down a building to the saloon, so Russell decided to bear with the abysmally hot weather.
It had been nothing but sweltering since he'd arrived in Bloodstone.
The saloon was a shithole. Russell knew that. The people in Bloodstone knew that.
They kept coming back anyway. It was the only place in town to find a cold drink that wasn't
loaded for snake. When Russell walked in, the saloon was dead as a tombstone, say for a
jolly fat man with a curved white beard and rosy cheeks, who was sitting at the bar and
drinking his sixth mug of beer. Russell likened him to a Santa Claus figure, if Saint Nick
ever got drunk and strapped his gun on backwards.
Russell nodded to Clyde, the barkeep, and had a seat two stools down from Mister
Jolly. Russell removed his hat, placed it on the scratched surface of the wooden bar, and
turned to Clyde.
"One beer, Clyde, and I'm outta here," Russell told him.
"That's what they all say," Clyde quipped with a wink. He had thinning silver hair
and a bushy mustache that was going white on him. "Besides, we ain't got no beer."
"You what?" Russell asked, frowning.
"No beer whatsoever," Clyde affirmed. "This damn fool drank it all."
Russell cast his best scowl at Mister Jolly. The man ignored him and didn't look
me a whiskey, then," Russell told the barkeep.
"Got it," Clyde said, snatching the whiskey from a shelf. He twisted the cap off
the bottle and poured it into a highball glass, throwing some ice cubes in with a flourish.
Then he shoved the glass across the bar and into Russell's hands. "Fifty cents."
"Shit, Clyde," Russell told the barkeep. "You raising your prices or something?"
"Got to do it, Russell. Otherwise I'll lose this place."
"I think this place is already lost," Russell growled as he put the fifty cents
in Clyde's outstretched hand. Russell drank his whiskey and smiled. That was exactly
what he'd needed.
"You hear about that lucky dog Willingham?" Mister Jolly asked the air.
"You talking to me?" Russell inquired.
"Who else would I be talking to?"
a barkeep here?"
shook his head.
man, why don't you go home and sleep off whatever you came in here with."
"But I didn't tell you about old Willingham yet!"
Russell frowned at Mister Jolly. The man was drunk, that much he knew, but the last
thing he needed was some intoxicated Santa Claus pestering him over a guy he'd never heard
"Sorry, don't know him," Russell said. "I don't care to, either."
"Sure you know him! 'Ol Willy, from around Denver?"
then, maybe a story would jog your memory!"
"What do you think this is, mister? Story time in a school?"
"No, sir, not at all," Jolly said, trying to be as serious as he could manage. "I'm
just trying to tell a tale."
"I'm not in the mood, mister," Russell informed him, "but let's suppose you tell
me your tale in the time it takes me to finish this whiskey. If your story's good, then
I'll pay for your drinks. If your story's bad, then you'll pay...period."
Russell scowled at him again. "Got it?"
Mister Jolly gave him an exaggerated nod of the head. He drained what was left of
the beer in front of him, wiped the foam from his mouth, and launched into his story.
"Now, ol' Willy wasn't the brightest sort, sir, that's for damn sure," he began.
"But he did know how to take care of himself."
"Did he, now?" Russell asked, intrigued.
"Y'see, Willy was panning for gold with some other fellows on the edge of San Francisco
last year." Mister Jolly looked down at his feet. "They were all too dumb to know the
gold rush had already rushed by them, and there were two boys who were especially
dumb." The man scratched the bridge of his nose. "One was named Jefferson, and the other
was named Colt."
you said?" Russell asked. "Like the gun?"
"Exactly like that," Jolly replied.
"Now that's interesting," Russell told him. "Continue."
"As I was saying," the man picked up, "they were all a little stupid when it came
to gold." He stroked the curved end of his beard. "So they toiled in that river, day
after day after day. Most folks gave up and headed to other parts of the state. Some perished
in the heat. Eventually, it came down to three of them—Jefferson, Colt, and ol' Willy."
Russell reached for his whiskey, but thought better of it and pulled his hand back.
He wanted to be sober to hear what happened next.
"Just as Willy was about to pack it in for greener pastures, those two boys found
the last speck of gold in that poor, dry river." Mister Jolly placed the back of his right
hand against his sweaty brow and wiped from left to right. "Now, like I said, Willy was
about to mosey on out of there, but he reconsidered when he saw the gold in the kids' hands."
"'Course he did," Russell said dryly. "Tell me, stranger—does this bedtime
story have a happy ending?"
Jolly looked down into the last mug of beer he'd drank from.
exactly," he whispered in a grave tone. Russell decided to cut his witty comments short
and let the man talk. "Those two brats stayed at it all night and found quite a
fortune...but that's when ol' Willy decided to turn the tables in his favor." Mister Jolly
wrapped his left hand around the handle of his beer mug. Russell noted how weathered his
fat hands were. "Y'see, Willy knew the kids would never part with their gold willingly,
so the only way to take it was by force." The man wrapped his right hand around the side
of his mug. His eyes were pinched shut, as if he were living the story inside his
head. "Willy put Jefferson down like a sack of grain."
"And Colt?" Russell asked quietly.
"All it took was one punch," Jolly replied. "But trust me, Willy beat the shit out
of the kid." He opened his eyes slowly. "Y'know, just to make sure."
"I'll bet," Russell said, downing the last of his whiskey. "So what happened to
Willy and all this gold?"
"Who knows?" the man said with a half-shrug. "Just rode off into the sunset, I guess,
spending his money on booze and women and—"
"Joshua Willingham!" a hoarse voice interrupted from the saloon's doors.
Russell, Clyde, and Jolly turned to see a kid, no older than sixteen or seventeen, standing
in the doorway as the doors swung shut behind him. His clothing, which consisted of a
poncho, long-sleeved shirt, pants, boots, and hat, were in complete disrepair and caked
with sand, mud, and dirt. The only thing that had survived was his gun belt, which had
a pearl-handled Schofield revolver in its holster.
Russell ventured a glance at Mister Jolly. He wasn't so jolly anymore.
"Right here, right now," the kid said in a heavy drawl. "You 'in me. Winner gets
'ta live. Loser gets 'ta die. Whaddaya say, partner?"
"I'm sorry, young man," Jolly said. "You must be mistaken. There's no one here by
"Oh, really?" Russell spoke up. "And just who was 'ol Willy?" He smirked. "If I
was a betting man, I'd bet I'm looking right at him."
The kid's eyes moved with snake-like speed from Willingham, to Russell, and back
again. Despite his tattered appearance, he was very alert and very ready to fight, almost
as if the only thing fueling his body was the need for revenge.
Willingham stood from his stool and brushed crumbs from his shirt. "Fine then, young
man! 'Ol Willy will show you what he's made of!" He walked to the center of the empty saloon
and put his legs shoulder-length apart. "How's this?"
The kid took one step to his right and copied the stance. "That's good, partner.
ready, young man?" Willingham asked.
"I'm always ready, Willy."
"We shoot on three."
felt his right hand fall to his battle-scarred Remington, resting comfortably in its holster.
He didn't know why he was edging in on the kid's action. Let him take the fat bastard
out, Russell thought to himself. Let him learn what it's like to take someone else's life
in your hands. But then there was the immediate regret, which Russell hadn't felt in ages,
that if this kid got himself killed and Russell could have prevented it...well, that just
wasn't going to happen, Russell told himself. Not today.
"One," Willingham said. His fingers danced over the handle of his backwards revolver.
"Two." Colt's shaking fingers flickered over the Schofield's pearl grip.
Russell's bullet entered Willingham's head through the right temple and exited through
the left temple, spraying dark red blood all over the walls of the saloon. The bullet lodged
itself into the far wall and stayed there, leaving a smoking hole in the wallpaper.
Willingham's body stumbled, dropped to its knees, and then fell onto its side, where its
wound bled out all over the floor.
The kid stood there, somewhere between stunned and petrified. Smoke twirled from
the barrel of Russell's Remington as he holstered it and smiled gently at the young gunslinger.
"Three," Russell finished. "By the way, kid, you're welcome. You were in no shape
to take him on."
The kid drew the Schofield. Russell froze. So did Clyde.
Squeezing the trigger with one hand and cocking the hammer with the other, the kid
emptied his gun into Willingham's dead body. The corpse jerked each time a bullet cut through
its dead flesh, its limbs flopping and slapping this way and that, until the
barrage was over. Russell watched the whole thing, the rage in the kid's eyes, the relentless
assault, and knew that this kid had run entirely on revenge while on his journey to Bloodstone.
"'Ya killed my best friend, partner," the kid said in his drawl. "Rot in hell."
He opened his gun and scattered the spent cartridges on the floor. "What'd you shoot
'im for, mister?"
be a reward out for scum like that," Russell said. "Tell you what, kid—I'll split
it with you fifty-fifty."
The kid finished reloading the Schofield and snapped it closed with a flick of his
keep your money, mister," he said. "I got what I came for." The kid turned
to the door and headed out of the saloon.
"Hey, I never got your name!" Russell called out.
The kid stopped and holstered the Schofield.
"It's Colt," he replied. "Like the gun."
Colt exited the saloon. The doors swung shut
"Exactly like that," Russell said to himself,
and decided Willingham wasn't such a lucky dog after all.
is a hardboiled crime writer based in York, PA. He has been published in Gary Lovisi's
Hardboiled and the e-zines Dead Guns Press, Close to the Bone, Black
Petals, and yes, Yellow Mama. You can read more of Justin's work here: lastgunsmoking.blogspot.com.