6 min read

Cha-Cha’s is Spooky

Read to the end for three simple rules to follow in literally any situation.

Previously: The sisters make their first courier run of the day, delivering a shimmering writ to a baroness in a too-luxe hotel room. This document contains the name of the newborn that is literally erupting from the baroness’ personal privates as they speak. (Not literally.)

— 22 —

Batya somehow manages to get her opulent new robe over her work suit and struts through the lobby of the Khamsin. “Looka me,” she says. “Fancy as the dickings.”

“I hope you mean dickens.” Mina skims the next job sheet, then snaps her fingers at her sister. “Enough prancing, we need to ramble.”

Bat’s not crazy about the tone or the snapping. “Who what why.”

“New prospect, bookie called Finch. Margaret added a note here: Make him a regular and you’ll receive a special bonus.”

“I do love a special bonus.”

Mina turns the paper over. “Special bonus is a thank-you card signed by whomever is around, free of charge.”

Bat twists her mouth into what I’m going to call a vicious moue. “Terrific. Where he at?”

“Cha-Cha’s,” Mina says, waggling her eyebrows.

“Yuck. Cha-Cha’s is spooky.”

“You’ve never even been there.”

“You don’t know every place I been.”

“Yes, I do. We’ve been all the same places our entire lives, except those four beautiful years before you were born and I had the world to myself.”

“What about this past year?” Bat says, angrily peeling off the robe. She knows Mina would love to pretend their time apart never happened but it did happen, actually, and she will never let her forget it. “This whole year I did things you know nothing about. It was beautiful.”

Cha-Cha’s is a papaver den in a winding alleyway right off the main arcade. A barker is out front trying to reel in saps with poorly improvised come-ons (“right down these stairs are / um / very comfortable chairs”) and hand-printed flyers offering vague discounts. Bat and Mina step through the bead curtain and the mid-morning light is immediately snuffed out and replaced by dark clutching smoke. Doesn’t matter what time of day it is outside, as soon as you step inside Cha-Cha’s it’s the wrong side of midnight.

It’s a long, narrow space with a series of shadowy alcoves across from a bar. There are indeed comfortable chairs, along with sheer curtains, hazy lanterns, and crimson booths covered in pillows.

The clientele is all over the map—salts, salarymen, barflies—but they’re all doing the same thing: biding their time, working up the nerve to go through the sparkling blue curtain there at the far end, framed by an archway painted with hundreds of eyes of various shapes and sizes. Leaning against the jamb is a spindly woman in a dress the same color as the curtain, admiring her inch-long nails which are the same color as the dress.

Bat spots a glistening fellow seated in one of the alcoves, five or six telephones spread out on a table next to him. He’s wearing a three-piece suit and a fat tie and no earrings. He’s writing something tiny in a large ledger when he looks up and waves them over. “You gals from Hardbart Manufacturing?”

“Hawthorne Grain, yes,” Mina says.

“Finch,” he says, gesturing for them to sit. “You probably know that.”

“We don’t. But we can’t wait to learn more.”

Bat trots out her preferred icebreaker: “What’s your favorite smell?”

Finch doesn’t hesitate. “Top three are diesel, Christmas Eve, and I don’t have a third one.”

Bat nods, impressed.

“I ain’t used a courier service before but—no big deal or anything but action is hot so I’m shopping around.”

“We heard you’re an up and comer in the bookmaking industry,” Mina says.

“Up and comer nothing, I’m all done coming up, top of the heap now, miss, got cash moving in and out all day long. Now I need hands I can trust.”

Mina points at Bat’s hands. “Best in the business.”

Bat points at Mina’s hands. “Important people pay top dollar to take pictures of those beauties.”

“OK, sold.” Finch moves a few phones aside, slaps down an attaché case, starts pulling out thick envelopes. “Settling a bunch of accounts this morning, need you to make some lucky clients happy.”

Mina goes for the upsell: “Are there sometimes situations—rare and unfortunate situations—where a client is not so lucky and needs encouragement to pay up?”

“You offer those kinds of services?” Finch looks Bat up and down. “This one, she looks like she could encourage.”

“I can encourage,” Bat says, a little miffed at his assumption. “I can also be a real sweetheart.”

“I might could maybe use some of the first thing. Up till now I been relying on this doodad.” Finch reaches into his case and gingerly takes out this multi-pronged steel instrument, a kind of mandala of gleaming jagged points, stabbing out in all directions.

Mina pulls back, Bat leans forward. “Hello,” she says. “Who is this?”

“I don’t know its official name, I just call it the tool.” He flicks a latch and the device expands to twice its size, revealing another layer of hinged…blades? Claws? To be honest, I can barely describe it in words. It looks like the work of a depraved alien mind.

Mina looks nauseated. “I ask that you please remove that from this meeting.”

“Freaky, right?”

“What do you even do with it?” Bat can’t take her eyes off it.

“I use it if folks don’t pay up.”

“Use it how.”

Mina shudders, gets up, positions her sister between herself and the tool. “It’s a…a violation, that thing.”

Finch chuckles, closes it back up, puts it away. “Works every time. I don’t even have to do anything, I just bring her out and bingo bango they can’t wait to settle up. But my client base is growing pretty fast, just saying, and me and the tool, well, that ain’t scalable. So I may need to outsource some of that type of work to the right provider.”

Mina sits back down, dabs some sweat from her forehead. “I’m sure we can accommodate you.”

“Fabulous, then I got another job for you. Deadbeat in arrears who needs some leaning on, holed up in the shipyards. Like I said, seeing if I can’t find a one-stop shop, so if you ladies could drop by this foot-dragger and encourage, why, I’d surely be grateful.”

“We’ll rattle him around,” Bat says. “Lemme borrow that tool, it’ll speed things up.”

Finch hands her the stack of envelopes. “Never known anyone to actually want more time with it.”

“I’m horny for that precious boy,” she says. “Gonna make him mine one day.”

Bat starts for the exit but Mina pulls her back toward that doorway of eyes.

“Nuh uh,” Bat says.

“Yuh huh.”

“You go ahead, I’ll hang out with the bookie.”

“It’ll be good for you. You’ll learn something.”

“You know I hate learning something. Anyway we don’t have any money.”

“Give me your knife.”

Bat has no interest in doing that but is interested in seeing what stupid idea her sister’s cooked up. She withdraws her stiletto from a clandestine coat pocket. Mina takes it, turns away from the alcoves, discreetly slices open one of Finch’s envelopes, picks out a couple twenties.

“Wilhelmina!” Bat gasps. “I’m very disappointed in you. Breaking the courier code. Is there a courier code?”

“They won’t miss it,” Mina says.

“Right, pikers never count their winnings.”

Mina folds one of the bills into a little fish—it takes a while—and swims it toward Bat’s hand. “Go to him,” she says.

Bat snatches the cash and stomps toward the woman with the blue dress and blue nails, then turns around and stomps back. “I can’t I’m too nervous.”

“Come on, it’ll be fun. I’ve done it once or twice.”


Mina looks at her, then looks at nothing. “I also did things this year you know nothing about. OK? Now go in there. It helped me understand who I am.”

“You’re a mean bully. I could’ve told you that for free.”

“I’d like you to look inward for once in your life.”

Bat glances back at the curtain. “What should I ask?”

“Just do what you do best: Don’t think about it too hard.”

Bat stomps back, hands the woman the fish-bill.

“Three rules,” the woman drawls.

“Let’s have it,” Bat says.

“One: Don’t touch anything. Two: Don’t stare. Three: Don’t make a big thing out of it, just get in and get out.”

She parts the curtain. Bat goes inside.


This has been Chapter 22 of Chokeville, a novel by Josh Fireland.

Next up: The Salty Abyss