Memories: Mani's Scholarship... ((Story))




The smell always struck Eldrath when she walked into Mani's Gentleman's Club. The cigarette smoke got into everything, your hair, your clothes, even your skin. Sometimes after a show, Eldrath would go back to her apartment and just stand under the shower for a half an hour trying to get rid of the stink. She'd quit smoking about six months ago, when she'd come to Paragon. It amazed her how she'd been able to handle the smell of it back then as opposed to now. She couldn't believe how much she hated it and the sick feeling of longing it gave her when she walked into the place. A lot of bars had gone smoke free over the past few years she knew, but no one was going to get the ordinances changed here in King's Row. The suburb bordered on being a demilitarized zone, a cluster of the poor and poverty stricken mixed in with the lower working class families just trying to get by.

The smoke hung in the poorly lit room, cut into brightly colored beams and streamers by the flood lights near the three runways that Mani's girls used for their shows. A long “U” shape counter surrounded each stage, with a collection of stools for the patrons who liked to be close to the action. Behind those, a series of small four seater circular tables sat where the girls who weren't dancing waited on customers. The bar sat near the door, a long, track lit affair with tall shelves behind it displaying every brand of cheap liquor and quite a few of the more pricey ones: Patron, Thor's Hammer, and some more obscure ones in languages Eldrath didn't know and couldn't pronounce. The counter looked to made of stained cherry but wasn't. You could see were the laminate had lifted and bubbled under one too many spills, revealing the cheap press board underneath. Not that it mattered to Mani's clientèle. The folks who came into the club weren't there for the decor after all.

Following the line of the bar back into the club, a patron would come to restrooms. The public ones were a fairly ghastly affair. They got cleaned every night religiously by some poor migrant kid that couldn't have been older than fifteen and should have been at home sleeping in preparation for school. Instead, here he was cleaning up some looser's spunk from the tiles in the stall. What a waste, Eldrath thought to herself when she'd see him coming out of there after close. Still you had to have money to live. It didn't make it any less depressing. Hector, that was the kid's name, had a good head on his shoulders, he was quick. Eldrath had decided that he needed to go to college, even if it was just the local community variety. She made it a point to rib him about it every chance she got, turning on the charm and accenting it with the T&A to make the message stick in his subconscious. She hoped she'd gotten through to him. It made her feel better about working there to think she had.

School actually had been, and was still, her reason for taking the job at Mani's... or money for school to be more precise. GIFT paid a housing stipend to ESPers, so long as they maintain their registration and make themselves available for consulting. They offered to most potent psychics positions in the agency, that or rooms at the Zig for the rebellious powerful ones. There were too many minor ESPers to keep on government payroll though, by far. So upon graduation, Eldrath had found herself with a shiny new mutant registration card and high school diploma and no clue on what she wanted to do with her life or how she was going to make a living. She'd moved into the GIFT maintained a transition dormormitory (they keep them in all the cities that GIFT maintains offices in) into a shared suite with five other women and started looking for a job and an apartment. Correction, an apartment she could afford, which in Paragon pretty much amounted to King's Row.

Eldrath had found a flat that was on the seventh floor of Rosewood Condominiums. The name would fool a casual observer reading the classifieds into thinking they'd found one of those living units for the rich and single, but Rosewood actually was a failed housing project. The lower floors housed a stunning variety of the working poor, addicts and not a few squatters. The upper stories had been claimed by a ring of Skulls, one of the local street gangs. The gang bangers cooked Supradine up on the seventh and top floors, a kind of mix of PCP and crack, highly addictive, brain destroying poison that they sold on the street corners around Rosewood for ten bucks a hit. The sad thing was that this was one of the better places she'd found in her housing search. Eldrath had moved in quietly, not looking for trouble and for the most part finding none, at least initially. Drug dealers didn't care about you if your weren't competition or customer after all. They did however have a taste for attractive young women.

It had happened fast, when it did finally happen. Eldrath had been climbing the steps up to her flat, carrying a bag of groceries up the many staircases. One thing that was good about the building, it kept her in same, she thought. The holes dotted the walls of the stairwell punctuated with gang tags and symbols in big psychedelic lettering that covered what remained of the wall. As she turned the corner on the third floor Eldrath had passed Mrs. Madivoch, a little old Russian woman with a thick black mustache that looked like caterpillar hiding under her nose. She'd had greeted Mrs. M as she always did. Mrs. M for her part had replied with her signature grunt, which wasn't friendly or unfriendly, more a simple acknowledgment of one's presence. Then Eldrath had had the stairwell to herself again until she reached the sixth floor.

Two Skulls stepped into view on the stairs above Eldrath, casually as if they'd just been on there way down to the corner. Their faces had been painted in that white stage makeup all the Skulls wore. It made their visages into a death's head, rictus-like mask. One of the gang bangers had short, buzzed-cut blond hair and the other oily black, slicked back over a round skull. They wore tattered black band tee's, faded blue jeans and combat boots. They didn't say a word, but remained quiet as stones, just standing blocking her way. Eldrath's hackles rose up, goose flesh prickling the hair at the nape of her neck and making her bowels go watery. If this had been a coincidence, she knew, she would have heard them before she saw them, joking and laughing on the steps above her. They had been laying in wait... waiting for her. The sound of a boot scuffing clumsily on the steps behind her made Eldrath turn. Two more Skulls had appeared on the stairs below her, both looking up at her with lewd smiles that made their painted faces appear even more horrific. Then slowly, as if they had all the time in the world, they closed with her from above and below.

She'd reacted on instinct, terror spurring her mind as she lashed out with her power to push the nearest one back. The gangbanger's eyes went wide as his unconscious erupted like a volcano, suffocating his mind with a deluge of memories and nightmares. He clutched his head trying to blot it out but the surge wouldn't let him do anything but shake as his bowels let loose and he soiled himself. His partner looked at him with surprise and then he turned back to Eldrath, his eyes blazing with fear and a Superadine induced fury. She felt the other two Skulls rush up from behind her, more than she saw them. Their minds blazed with anger, lust and madness. She spun as hands grabbed her arms, slamming her to the wall and pinning her in place.

The two Skulls laughed and ripped her short tee, exposing her dark latin skin and the white bra underneath. One slapped her hard and she saw stars while she felt the other grope her pulling the undergarment down and exposing her. Eldrath's head swam, her head pounding from the use of her gift and the slap that was already raising a mouse like a goose egg on her cheek. She looked into the face of the man who was fondling her locking his gaze with her white within eye eyes. His own were baby blue, like chips of slate streaked with broken blood vessels from the drugs that had overloaded his flesh and fried his mind. She slipped behind them, using his lust as a conduit, like an elevator down into his psyche. Tendrils of her will sparked synapses and she felt his grip relax as his emotions shifted. Desire, jealousy, lust... just a little push and he was letting her go, staring with hatred at the other man holding her. A knife flashed into his hand and he stabbed. Blood sprayed out over the floor, over her over everything as he stabbed and stabbed. He took the man other man down to the ground where he continued she slash and cut in jealous rage.

The last gang banger looked on in horror, his pistol now in his hand. He pointed the gun at Eldrath's head and pulled the trigger. The sound shattered the air in the hallway, sounding more like a cannon than a pistol. Eldrath flinched away from the muzzle flash, but felt the bullet pass harmlessly to her left and embed itself in the wall. He fired again and again, each time the field of scintillating air about her turning the bullet aside easily. Eldrath raised her hand and she felt the power flow her like an eruption. It yanked the gunman from his feet and tossed him like rag doll over the edge of the banister and down the stairwell, spinning end over end. He shrieked as he fell and then his voice was cut short as his skull struck one of the landings three stories down and shattered like an egg. Still croched beside her, the incensed murderer looked up at Eldrath with face full of insane adoration. He held out his blood covered arms in supplication for her to take him. Eldrath's stomach lurched at the sight of the gore that covered his arms and she lashed out again, the shockwave of her thought knocking him unconscious.

Eldrath had stood in the stairwell for about fifteen minutes, shaking, adrenaline withdrawal making her weak. Her head had felt like it would split in two from the effort of defending herself. She'd touched her hand to her nose and come away with red blood, lots of it. She'd staggered in a daze to her room, leaving her groceries on the blood soaked steps. The police had found her there about three hours later when they finally arrived, standing in her shower under the hot water with her eyes closed. They'd let her dress and then taken her in for questioning, putting her into the back of the police cruiser while she'd watched them take the bodies of the two dead Skulls out to the coroner's wagon.

She been charged with double homicide, charges which had been summarily dropped when a GIFT PK had supplied the evidence from the remaining Skulls' minds about their attempt to [censored] her. She'd been released on her own recognizance, pending formal dismissal or the charges but it was a formality. Eldrath had returned to Rosewood and the gang had not bothered her again... yet. The Skulls gave her a wide berth as the stories had circulated over the next few weeks and soon the rest of the seventh floor of the Rosewood Project was empty, save for their abandoned drug kitchens and the refuse they'd left. Tenants saw it as a reprieve from the blight that terrorized their building. Eldrath had been surprised to find small gifts, mostly baked goods from some of the old tenants, left surreptitiously outside her door.

The terror of the incident had pushed the necessities of life back for a short bit, but they presented themselves in the form of her bills over the next couple weeks. Eldrath had thought a lot, sitting along in her apartment. She'd thought mostly about those young men's minds she'd touched, two of which now were dead, two who still sat in the King Row's Clinic for the mentally disturbed. They'd been not so much older than her. She sat awake at night, looking out her window at the alleyway and the vagrants who picked the dumpsters clean.

It was then she decided that she had to get out of that place, as soon as she could, by any means she could. She contacted the University in Steel Canyon, but the tuition could have paid her rent three times over and far exceeded the stipend GIFT supplied. Eldrath didn't have the grades for scholarship and the government had stripped the loans programs to the bones years ago. Work study could have been an option, but the competition for the few programs there were was fierce. In high schoo, Eldrath had never even thought to apply. Now deadlines had passed and she was adrift.

That had been where she was when she stumbled on Mani's. At first Eldrath had balked at the idea, but her rational mind quickly picked apart her feeble moral arguments against dancing at the club. The fact was she could make enough money to pay her tuition, maybe to move into a better neighborhood, and do it all in a few nights of a couple hours work, with plenty of time for study. It just made too much sense, and so she enrolled in what she jokingly came to call the Mani's Scholarship Program for Sensually Gifted. She danced, three nights a week, pulling in about five hundred dollars a night on good nights. School was paid for with a little left over for savings. And for the first time in her young adult life, she felt independent. She was standing on her own. Not exactly as she might have imagined it, and she doubted her parents would have been particularly pleased, but that didn't matter. She'd done it, herself and that was enough.