There were many realizations Laurel was coming to while touring the country. One of them was that solitaire is an addictive game. It was generally the way she tried to go to sleep each night. She played solitaire until the noise in her head quieted. Tonight however, they had the night off and she did not want to play the game all night. She was starting to feel restless, but she did not know what to do about it.
BJ and a few of the others had gone to see a movie. Laurel was invited but declined. She was in the mood for something different. Sighing, the bassist grabbed the phone book from table between the beds. She was not expecting to find the type of bar she was looking for listed, but it was. She copied down the address and called the front desk to request a taxi.
The driver did not look at her twice when she told him the address. He just nodded and started the car. It was raining again, and she watched the water bounce off the windshield. She thought South Mississippi had wet falls, but she was learning more about the country. It seemed as if every region had a wet period, and she was present for most of them. It really did seem to rain eight days out of ten on the tour. She might be wrong, but that was her estimation.
The taxi pulled to a stop in front of an abandoned looking building. Laurel thought it never failed. Gay bars and clubs always seemed to be in buildings that should be condemned. This one at least had neon signs advertising various types of beer. It also had that most important of signs, the one that read open.
"Thanks buddy." She handed him the cost plus tip before opening the door.
"You want me to wait for you?" He asked.
"Nah, but thanks for the offer." She considered it for a moment. "Tell you what. If you drive back by here in about three hours and see me standing outside, stop."
"I can do that. Have a good night, miss."
"Thanks." She waited until the taxi pulled away before locating the door.
Like most bars she had been in, this one boasted several pool tables, it was dark and smoky, the bar itself was in the center of the room, and rickety chairs and tables surrounded it. This was a womens bar. It was the first one she had ever been in, and she expected a bit more from it. It looked so typical.
Regardless, it was a bar, which meant it served alcohol. Plus, it was a womens bar, which meant if the occasion arose, she could find a willing partner for an hour or two. The main reason she was restless was her lack of companionship. It had only been three full months, but that was a record for her.
"Can I help you?" The bartender asked as Laurel took a seat.
"Beer. I dont care what type as long as it comes in a bottle."
"Are you old enough to drink?" The bartender looked at her curiously.
"Yep." She pulled out her wallet and showed the woman her drivers license.
"Laurel, eh? Youre a long way from Mississippi. What are you doing up here?" She asked as she reached beneath the wooden bar and pulled out a beer. "Need a glass?"
"No thanks." Laurel took the bottle and then took a long swallow.
"I dont want to sound rude or anything, but dont I know you?"
"Dont think weve ever met." The bassist knew her behavior was running contrary to her upbringing. "Sorry. Ive been under a lot of stress lately and need a night out."
"Thats not a problem. We get some real surly ones in here." The bartender laughed. "You do look familiar though."
"Guess I have one of those faces." She shrugged. She did not want to hide her identity, but could not be certain of the reaction. She definitely did not want to trade off her so-called fame. Her natural ego was a little too large for that. She liked to win people over by her charm, not her position with a best selling band, or as the object of a scandal. "Is it always this crowded in here? I mean its early and a Wednesday night."
"Usually. On Wednesdays we have the pool tournament and two for one shots." The bartender explained.
"Cool. Can you set up a tab, or do I have to pay drink by drink?"
"I can set you up a tab, provided you are good for it." The bartender laughed.
"Im good for it." Laurel pulled out her wallet. "Here, if theres anything of this left, you can have it as a tip." She handed the woman a large bill.
"I can live with that. Anything else I can get for you?"
"Not at the moment. Well, another beer would be nice." Laurel finished the one in her hand. "Thanks." She watched the bartender set another bottle in front of her.
Just then another woman took a seat at the bar. The barstools were a little too close together for Laurels comfort. She wanted to scoot hers over an inch or two for breathing room, but resisted the urge. She could not think of a way to pull off the move without looking almost hostile. She was really trying not to draw attention to herself. She knew the stories about groupies. More than once, some person on tour was robbed, used, or slammed in the press after a seemingly harmless one-night stand. Laurel had no desire to be news again. It was bad enough that the Hattiesburg paper had ran yet another story on her. Harold was busy keeping the fall out to a minimum. That was the real reason behind her restlessness. She wondered if Nicole were somehow involved in that story. By now, several other papers and two leading entertainment magazines had picked up that story. It was not hurting the sales of their CD, in fact it was boosting them, but Laurel still craved anonymity for one night. Sadly, she was not in a place that would let her get it.
"Dont I know you?" The other woman at the bar asked.
"I dont think so." Laurel kept her eyes on her beer. She knew how rare gray eyes were. It would be a dead give away.
"You look familiar. We didnt sleep together by any chance did we?"
"Nope. I think you have me confused with someone else." Though she could not remember the names of all the women she had been with, Laurel felt she would remember this one. This one broke the one rule she lived by, never sleep with someone butcher.
"You know, I was wondering the same thing." Another woman approached them. She was really starting to question her sanity. This seemed an insane thing to do under the circumstances.
"Ladies, lets leave her alone ok?" The bartender made her presence known. "You dont like people pestering you when youre trying to drink."
"Yeah, but look at her. I know Ive seen her somewhere before." The first woman protested.
"Thats right you have." The bartender answered. "But I dont think youve seen her in years. Ladies, Id like you to meet my niece. Say hello to the other patrons, Natalie."
"Hi." Laurel did not turn in her seat much.
"Hi, yourself, kid." The two women seemed to lose interest, but remained polite.
"Can you get me another drink, Jude?" The second woman asked.
"Sure." The bartender, now known as Jude, handed two more beers across the bar. Satisfied, the other two women went back into the abyss behind the bassist.
"Thank you." Laurel said quietly. "But how did you know?"
"I saw a copy of the paper behind the bar. It was opened to the entertainment section. Thats a bad rap theyre giving you there kiddo." Jude looked sympathetic.
"Tell me about it. Now that you know who I am, literally and so forth, who are you?" She did not mean for it to sound that rude. Fortunately, Jude laughed.
"Im the owner, barkeep, and dishwasher. Names Judith, but every prefers to call me Jude." They did not shake hands. It would have given the game away. "I do have a niece called Natalie, so keep the identity for the evening. She wont mind."
"Thank you again." She smiled. "I was worried about being recognized. I really just needed a night out, you know?"
"A little normalcy?"
"Yeah. All this is happening way too fast." Laurel commented more to herself than to the bartender.
"Believe it or not, Ive heard that story many times. Have another beer and go mingle. Theyll leave you alone now that the two larger mouthed members of our congregation have informed them all that youre my niece." Jude handed another beer over the counter.
"I think I will. I should be ok, as long as they dont ask me to sing." Laurel hopped off the barstool.
"Yeah, I think that would blow your cover." The bartender laughed again.
The other patrons, laboring under the assumption that Laurel was Judes niece, were extremely polite. It took them a few moments to loosen up, but before too long, she was just another patron. It felt nice to be treated as someone normal. It was September. The madness had started the second week in June when they began touring. In three full months, Laurel had a number one hit single, another that debuted in the top ten, a hit video, a very successful band, a fast selling CD, and now a reputation. She wanted to kill whoever had written and researched that article. Most of it was untrue, but people did not care about that. They sensed a scandal, and blue gecko was the flavor of the moment.
"Natalie?" Laurel turned. It was a good thing she was used to several nicknames, or she would not have known the conversation was directed to her.
"Yes?" A tall brunette was standing in front of her. Out of habit, Laurel looked for blue eyes. This womans were green. She let out a sigh mixed with relief and longing.
"I just wanted to know if you wanted to dance?" The woman seemed shy. "My names Carrie."
"Its nice to meet you, Carrie." She turned on the charm. It was also habit. "Id say a dance sounds like a good idea."
They danced to a slow country song. For Laurel to say that she hated country would be an understatement. However, this song she rather liked. It was with regret that she released her partner. It was with sorrow she returned from her fantasy and realized her partner was not Nicole. Still, life is made of moments, and this was a good one.
"Do you wanna get out of here?" Carrie finally asked the big question.
"I kinda need to stay close to the bar. My rides coming back in while to get me." Laurel did not want to run the risk of taking the woman back to the hotel. She also did not want to get stranded at a strangers home. She knew sex was inevitable. In fact, she wanted it, but she was at a loss as to where it could take place.
"Thats not a problem." Carrie took her hand and led her to the bathroom. A small gathering of women in the bar cheered.
"Not to sound like a wet rage or anything, but Im not all that good at holding up walls." She did not know what it would do to her knee. She also did not want to be a cliché again. "Do you have a car here?"
"I do." Carrie smiled as they changed direction. Laurel hoped it was a large car and not a truck. She did not want more trouble than it was going to be worth.
This area of the city was dark. Carries car was parked behind the bar and off the street. Laurel was relieved to see the mid-sized sedan. At least she would have a little more room than normal.
Wordlessly, Carrie unlocked the car. They climbed into the backseat instead of the front. The front had bucket seats. Laurel missed Nicoles Chevy. It had a nice front seat. She had very fond memories of it.
"Youre not nervous are you?" Laurel asked quietly as Carrie turned to her.
"Not really. I mean this is my first time in a car, but not my first one nighter." The woman replied. "I just dont want your aunt mad at me."
"I dont think she will be." Laurel laughed as she pulled her close. "I really dont think she will be."
"Do you happen to have anything to use?" Laurel asked. A search of her pockets and wallet did not reveal items she normally carried. Then again, she had not needed them with Nicole.
"Any what?" Carrie asked. "Oh, yeah, I have something." She reached into the front of her car and pulled a condom from the glove compartment. Laurel used her pocketknife to reconfigure it.
After that there were no more words, just rough grunts and moans. Laurel was well acquainted with a womans body, and she enjoyed displaying her skills. Before too long, she had Carry crying her pseudonym to the heavens. Twice.
"Damn I needed that." Laurel sat back on the bench seat.
"You got off?" Carry seemed amazed. Now came the tricky part for the bassist.
"Yep." She lied. There were very few people who could invade her personal space that far. Laurel was more comfortable giving than she was taking. Several people seemed to appreciate that part of her. Only rarely did someone protest during a one-night stand.
"Thats not fair. I want to make love to you too." Carrie was the type to protest.
"Sorry." Laurel tried to think of a way to phrase her refusal tactfully. "I can only really go once a night. Its a genetic thing." It was a lame excuse and she could tell Carrie had trouble accepting it. "Its a medical thing." She clarified. She really did hope no one in the bar figured out her real identity. She did not need to be labeled contaminated goods on top of everything else. She was proud of her clean bill of health.
"That happened to my cousin. She had to have an operation before she got married so it wouldnt hurt on her wedding night." Carrie took the meaning in an entirely different direction. Laurel was glad. She would rather be deformed than diseased if word got out.
"Yeah. It sucks. I need to go say goodbye to my aunt." Laurel checked her watch. She had ten minutes before the taxi was due to reappear.
"Ok." Carrie let her out of the car. "Im going to go home now. Thank you, Natalie."
"It was my pleasure." Laurel gave her most charming grin. It was the one that always made Nicoles knees weak. It had the same effect on Carrie. She reached out and kissed the other womans hand. "Drive safe."
Laurel did not watch the car leave the parking space. Instead, she walked back to the bar. She headed first to the bathroom to wash her hands. Jude was waiting at the bar when she came back.
"Have fun, kid?"
"A blast." Laurel answered. "Thanks for everything. I need to get back and get some sleep. Keep the bill ok?"
"I will if you do something for me."
"What?" She turned back to face the bartender.
"Give em hell. Dont let those bastards get ya down. And dont quit, or theyll win. We need good representation out there." Jude advised.
"Ok." Laurel felt bemused. Now she was a champion for the gay rights movement. She wondered, as she exited the bar, how that happened.
She leaned against the outside wall and lit a cigarette. The driver was due to return soon, and she wanted to wait outside. Her tryst with Carry left her with something to ponder. Judes words did too. It was yet more to think about for an already over worked mind.
The questions her encounter with Carrie raised were the easiest to answer. When Laurel was fifteen, the daughter of her mothers best friend seduced her. Sex became another way to get back at her parents. That was not the problem though. She never understood why it was so hard for her to let someone else touch her. She had no memories of abuse. She suffered from nightmares, but they were always about the car accident, setting the gas can on fire during a bonfire, or something else that almost got her killed. It was not a product of abuse, it was not painful, but she did not know what it could be. It was something she never talked about with anyone. Nicole could cross those boundaries, but it was not easy for either of them. In fact, it had become difficult for Laurel to let down her defenses that much after the accident. She wondered if that were not the root and branch of her problem.
Jude had been correct. Laurel now had another reason for staying on the road. If she were to walk away now, whoever wrote that article would win the game. As much as she hated it, she was forced to stick it out. Laurel Anne Kendrick was not a quitter. She would not let them be right about her. She had read the article. Mandy sent a copy of it to her. It was interesting to note that no one person was given credit for the story, and no mention of Nicoles name was anywhere in it. Either the photographer had something to do with it, which she doubted, or the true nature of their relationship was better hidden than either of them had believed. Either way, she would soon find out. She still remembered a certain critics home phone number.
"You ready maam?" The taxi driver asked as he pulled up to the curb.
"Yeah. Thanks for coming back, buddy."
"After the tip you gave me, theres no way in hell I was gonna let you be stranded out here. Where to?"
"Back to the hotel. I have to call another reporter." She climbed into the backseat and let herself relax into the cushions.
"Calling in a story? Are you following those bands around?"
"You could say that."
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Nicole sat back in the chair behind her grandfathers desk. The article she finished was very distressing. What was worse was Jeff did not even have the decency to sign it. Laurels high school graduation photo stared at her from the desk. She turned the paper over.
"What were you thinking, Jeff?" She asked quietly. Sheryl had sent her the paper with more of her mail. An unnamed source was quoted throughout the article, but Nicole was never mentioned.
According to Danny, the band was now operating under a blanket of silence. He called the manager after the article came out, but was denied access to Laurel. That was also distressing. After reading the article, Nicole was sure the bassist would blame her for it. Now there was no way to apologize. All windows of opportunity had been barred and shuttered. There was only one thing she could do about it. She had to go to Hattiesburg and get the rest of her stuff anyway. It would be so easy to pay a little visit to the papers publisher while she was there.
"Ready to go?" Stan stuck his head past the door.
"Yeah, we have to run a few errands while were there." Nicole cut out the article, folded it and stuck it in her pocket.
"Banks and stuff like that?"
"I thought wed go visit a few old friends at work."
"Thats a nasty grin you got there, cuz. Im glad Im not on the receiving end of it. May I ask whats going on?" Stan asked as he started the truck.
"Well." Nicole fastened her seatbelt. "You know the reason I quit the paper?"
"Yeah. You told me that."
"Well, listen to this." She was glad to see that the article upset him as well. It was her fourth time reading it. It sounded worse each and every time.
She was fuming so much that the ride to Hattiesburg seemed to take twice as long as normal. It did not though. Stan was an expert at driving the large diesel truck. He made good time, better time than she often did. She wondered, when she realized how quickly they made it there, if the same person taught Sheryl to drive. The critic was well known for her speeding ticket collection.
"Stan, can you take us by the paper first?"
"Sure. Where is it?" He asked as they pulled to a stop at the citys busiest intersection.
"Turn right." She instructed. He followed her directions without question and soon they were pulling into the parking lot at the paper.
"Wahoo, look who came to visit." Sheryl threw down her cigarette and hurried to meet the truck.
"Hey. Jeff here?" Nicole was too upset for niceties.
"Yeah. Hes inside. Guess this means you read the article?"
"That wasnt an article. It was a hack job." Stan ranted as he climbed out of the truck. "Hey Sheryl."
"Hi. Look, you wanna meet us a Mabels like normal after you yell at Jeff? Personally I dont want to be anywhere around when that happens, so Ill just take your cousin off. You can take my car."
"Thatll work." Nicole was disappointed that she would not have emotional support, but did not want to jeopardize Sheryls job.
"Come on, farmer boy, lets get out of here." Sheryl handed her keys to Nicole and corralled Stan back into the truck.
Nicole paused for a moment before entering the building. She had to wait for the receptionist to return. She no longer had a key, so she was not allowed past the gate without permission. She did not know whom she wanted to yell at first, so she asked to see both the publisher and Jeff. With every minute she waited, the closer to her boiling point she became. She had thought that the story would die the moment she walked out the door. That is what upset her the most. She sacrificed her career and it did not do a bit of good.
"Nicole, theyll see you now." The receptionist buzzed her through. "Theyre in the conference room."
"Thanks." She remembered where it was easily.
"Come to ask for your job back?" Jeff asked as she entered the room. She carefully closed the door behind her.
"I thought you were going to be civil, Jeff." The publisher reprimanded him. "If you cant be than you have to leave."
"I will be." The supervising photographer grumbled.
"Have a seat, Nicole. Have a drink and tell us what brings you back to us."
"Im here to discuss that article with you, sir." She remained standing.
"What article would that be?" The publisher asked.
"Mr. Pinket, have you been informed of the reasons behind my departure?"
"Jeff said that you two had a disagreement over something, and you left over it. It did not sound quite right, or in character for you, Nicole. However, you were not here to tell me otherwise."
"Do you keep up with whats going on in your paper closely, sir?"
"I try to. I must admit I was on vacation a few weeks ago, and Ruth took over for me. Why?"
"Because I left over this." Nicole pulled the front page of the article from her pocket and handed it to him. "Jeff originally wanted me to do the story since I was friends with Ms. Kendrick, but I refused. He then told me to do it or walk, so I walked. I was not prepared to see the story that cost me my job in the paper anyway." She watched as Jeff tried to become one with his chair. "I believed that according to our guidelines, a story this damaging to an individual was beneath us. Having known Laurel Kendrick for a little over two years, I can say that the unnamed source was so off the target; this paper is now liable for damages incurred to Ms. Kendricks reputation. More so, it can be proven in court, and I would gladly testify as a character witness, as would several other names of note in this town."
"I must say that this is not news. Jeff, what were you thinking? This is a hack job, pure and simple. Do you have something out for that girl?" The publisher really looked upset. Nicole smiled to herself. "And who is this unnamed source?"
"Im not at liberty to say." Jeff held to every journalists single point of protection. "It would compromise my sources."
"Bullshit." Nicole was startled to hear the old man use such language. Her estimation of Max Pinket jumped several notches. "Get Ruth in here." He punched the intercom and did not wait for an answer. "You will tell me who said all this. We need a deposition or something. Jeff, what if she sues?" He seemed more upset with the threat of litigation than he did the actual article.
"Just how do you know these things arent true?" Jeff finally exploded.
"Because I know who her lover was for the time you indicated she was seducing anything that moved. I also know a few of her professors, and they can tell you she never slept with them for better grades. I also know the rest of the band. Matter of fact, Im surprised the two no longer with blue gecko arent here already." She smiled wickedly. It was a bluff, but they did not know that. "And I was there when Jody was killed. Now, are you going to implicate me in any of this? Oh, and lets not forget who her parents are."
"Who are this girls parents?" Mr. Pinket asked. Jeff paled a little at the implied threat.
"Theyre public servants on the Gulf Coast." Nicole answered.
"They have ties to certain powerful families." Jeff clarified.
"Jesus. Did you think at all?" The publisher fumed. "Get our lawyers and find a reporter. Get the redheaded one." Mr. Pinket used the intercom again.
"Sheryls gone for the day, sir. Should I send in anyone else?"
"Not at the moment. Well page her later. Wheres Ruth?"
"Right here, Max." Only the highest-ranking staff at the paper could call him by his first name.
"What is the meaning of this tripe?" Nicole seemed to disappear into the background as he ranted. It took him half an hour to calm down and only then did he remember the photographer. "Nicole, let me walk you to your car."
"Thank you for bringing that to my attention. You can assure your friend that well have Sheryl issue a full retraction in Sundays paper. We will also send copies of it to the AP wire so everyone will know."
"Im sure shell be relieved sir." Nicole waited until they were outside before asking the two questions she really wanted to know the answers to. "Are you going to make Jeff reveal his source and what are you going to do to him?" The only hint her former supervisor had given was that his source was someone close to the band.
"I cant legally make him tell if the source asked for anonymity. However, Mr. Daniels will soon be cleaning out his desk. We are not a super market rag. We are a respectable paper. That story is not good journalism." He cleared his throat. "There shall soon be another opening here, if you know of anyone who would wish to apply."
"If I meet anyone like that, Ill let them know. Im done with Hattiesburg, Mr. Pinket." She unlocked Sheryls car. "Ill let Sheryl know you need to speak with her."
"Thank you. Im sorry you wont be joining us again. I was hoping youd bring more awards to this place." He genuinely seemed to regret her choice. She knew that was not necessarily personal.
"Thank you for the offer."
"Best of luck wherever you end up." He waved as he walked back to the building.
"Thanks." She added softly. The car started easily. It was time to go spread the word.
The traffic was as light as usual. After driving in New Orleans again, she expected more cars. Danny was doing his show on the radio, and she was tempted to use Sheryls cellular to call and harass him. However, he and Aaron had volunteered to help her move, so she left him alone. She could call and irritate him from New Orleans just as easily.
As she was driving, she wondered what else could happen. It was an old saying that bad things happen in threes, but she did not know if the article counted as the third. The first was the break up with Laurel, the second was her grandmothers illness, but the third could be anything. She turned into the parking lot of Mabels and realized she really did not want to know. She could live without seeing what was behind trap number three.
"Did you kick his ass?" Stan asked as she crossed the establishment.
"I dont kick ass." Nicole corrected. "I merely informed Mr. Pinket of the articles existence and let him kick Jeffs ass."
"So we need a new supervising photographer?" Sheryl asked.
"Yep. Theyre going to page you in a few minutes."
"Why page me?"
"Because you are tasked with covering the papers ass so Laurel wont sue." Nicole told her.
"Laurel wouldnt sue, would she?" Stan asked.
"I dont think she would. I dont know anymore though."
"What do you mean by that, Hotshot?"
"I mean that three months is a long time. I have no idea who she could have morphed into while on the road. Besides, her manager could talk her into suing. It might seem the way to salvage her reputation."
"Damn. There went the pager. Ill see you at the house when this is finished." Sheryl stood to leave. "Ill be there to help, I promise."
"I know. You always are." Nicole smiled at her friend. "Go to work. Well go pack."
"Bye Sheryl." Stan called behind her. "Anywhere else we need to go?"
"Nope. Just to the house I think."
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