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Chapter 1

If your name is Britney Brassieres, being taken down by a tsunami of champagne might seem only fitting.

One minute she was belting out Oops! I Did It Again, the next she was on the floor, her arms flailing as the Mo"et-not the really expensive kind, but that White Star you can get at a discount if you look hard enough-showered her.

I know it was Mo"et because I saw the guy with the bottle. Hed come up to the edge of the stage near my table as Britney was singing, shook the bottle, then popped the cork, which was as loud as a gunshot as it went airborne and slammed right into Britneys chest.


It wasnt an accident, either. Hed aimed it at her.

I jumped up on a gut reflex and impulsively shouted at the guy. Hey!

After successfully hitting his target, he turned the bottle on me-confirming that hed actually heard me-and everyone else in my vicinity.

Unfortunately, it still had some oomph left, and liquid splashed across my face, getting into my eyes and dripping down my face onto my chest. I tried to blink, but it hurt, so I kept my eyes closed and listened to the pandemonium around me: chairs scraping as people scrambled to their feet, glass shattering. The vibration moved through my legs as the floor shook with the weight, the hurry to escape. I wanted to shout out that it was just champagne, but that cork explosion freaked everyone out, and when they saw Britney fall, they figured the worst.

Bodies jostled me as they shoved past, and I struggled to keep my balance, holding out my arms like a trapeze walker and hitting someone who grunted but didnt stop.

Joel? I shouted above the din. Joel?

An arm snaked around my waist. Im here, Brett. You okay? His voice was soothing as his big belly pressed into my side, and for a second I relaxed before tensing up again.

Yeah, just got some champagne in my eyes. Is Britney okay? I asked, trying to open my eyes, but they still stung and I shut them again.

Shes moving, Joel said. I think shes okay. What happened?

Guy with a champagne bottle. Whered he go? This time I forced my eyes open, blinking quickly a few times, clearing the fog. I scanned the dimly lit nightclub. There had been about a hundred people here for the show; most of them now were pushing one another toward the door; someone was screaming, someone else wailing.

The scene on the stage looked like something from a Shakespearean tragedy: Britney, in her blue and white schoolgirl outfit and long blond tresses, was splayed across the floor as her fellow performers hovered over her, clucking like the mother hens they were. I spotted Charlotte with them, kneeling and stroking Britneys forehead. Britneys lips were moving, and her eyes were open.

MissTique, who ran all the shows here at Chez Tango, flailed her arms as she teetered on six-inch clear plastic stilettos on the edge of the stage, not because she was going to fall, but because she was trying to calm everyone down. She shouted, All right, Everythings fine, and Get me a cocktail. The last was to a young man with a remarkable physique whod been dancing shirtless behind Britney before the champagne attack.

Wheres Bitsy? I had to lean in toward Joel so hed hear me as we took a couple of steps toward the stage.

Bitsy is a little person, and it was easy to lose her in a crowd.

Or bump into her.

Watch it! I heard her say and looked down to see her rubbing her arm where Id collided with her.

I was about to apologize when it grew darker, sort of like a solar eclipse. But instead of the electricity going out, it was merely Miranda Rites blocking the light behind her. She looked like someone had dumped a bottle of Pepto-Bismol on her: a vision in pink sequins and a high bouffant of pink-accented orange hair, the multicolored butterfly tattoo Id given her just a few weeks ago stretched between her shoulders just above the ample bosom. It was fake, of course. The bosom, I mean, not the ink.

Shes okay, right? I asked Miranda, shouting, cocking my head toward the stage.

The dark concrete walls didnt swallow the din; it just bounced off them into my ears with a sort of echo effect.

I think shes in shock. To compensate for the noise, Mirandas voice had reverted back to its husky tenor, giving her that Sybil split-personality thing: Is she a woman? Is she a man? Can she be both? She hit her head, though. I saw it from backstage.

Did you call an ambulance?

Theyre on their way. Cops, too.

I thought about my brother, Detective Tim Kavanaugh. I wondered whether hed show up. He might be a little surprised to find me here at Chez Tango.

It was opening night of MissTiques new Nylons and Tattoos show, featuring Britney, Miranda, Lola LaTuche, and Marva Luss.

Drag queens.

Theyd chosen The Painted Lady, my tattoo shop, as the one theyd entrusted with designing their new ink, because Charlotte Sampson, our trainee, knew Britney, who was Trevor McKay when he wasnt dolled up. In Charlotte s other life, as an accountant, shed done Trevors taxes the past couple of years. When Trevor found out Charlotte had ditched her former career choice to be a tattoo artist, he said it must be karma.

Because of our contribution to the show, Charlotte; my shop manager, Bitsy Hendricks; my friend and tattooist Joel Sloane; and I had been given the VIP treatment: free drinks, a great table, a backstage tour. The only one in our shop who had chosen not to come was Ace van Nes, who had issues with the idea of a drag show-but he had issues with a lot of things. Id been a little leery at first, too, for different reasons than Ace, but I easily caved to peer pressure when Charlotte, Bitsy, and Joel said we just had to be there.

So thats how we ended up covered in champagne, the music blasting, a strobe light cutting across Britneys body as she lay sprawled on the stage, her five-inch red platform heels pointing toward the ceiling and looking oddly like the Wicked Witch of the Wests just after the house fell on her.

My eyes were still smarting from the bubbly, and I closed them again for a second. When I did, my memory kicked back to the guy whod sprayed me. I hadnt seen his face. The strobe had created a cutout image, his outline flashing light, then dark too fast for me to remember many details, especially with the oversized hooded sweatshirt and baggy jeans that hung precariously low from his hips, with bunched-up boxers protruding from the top as though he was some urban kid.

But hed had his sleeves pushed up to his elbows. Maybe he didnt want to get any of the Mo"et on himself. By doing that, however, hed given me something I could share with my brother the detective. Something that I would never miss.

He had a tattoo on the inside of his right forearm. A rather distinctive one.

It was a queen-of-hearts playing card.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS | Pretty In Ink | Chapter 2