Ch. 1: Welcome to Shreveport

The alarm clock next to the hotel bed let out its angry beep far too soon. Lillian forced open her eyes and looked at the large red digital numbers – 12:00….AM. Slapping the obnoxious machine off, she threw off the covers and began to madly rush between the closet and the bathroom. With only three hours of sleep, this was going to be a long night. She slipped into the violet dress she’d set aside and ran back to the mirror to double check her makeup. She smudged the smoky black powder around her hazel eyes just a tad more and hoped it didn’t smear all over the place and make her look ridiculous. On second thought, she might look more authentically ‘goth’. She giggled aloud at her own joke.

Lillian was most certainly not shooting for angst-riddled, black-clad, fake-id carrying teen. No. This was decidedly not her usual lifestyle. In fact, she struggled to remember the last time she’d dressed up to go to a club. As a grad student maybe?  No. Too poor and married to her books. She was more of a pitcher of beer at the pub with good friends type. Now as a young professor, she was overworked and still had no social life, despite the respectable salary. She’d bid farewell to her twenties last year. At least this latest research project was a good excuse to pretend she still had a bit of excitement left. Glancing at the clock again, she wiggled her feet into some impressively high silver mules and checked the mirror once more. “Oh for god’s sake,” she muttered to herself, realizing that she had absentmindedly grabbed her briefcase. She dumped the contents onto her floor and dug around in her suitcase until she found a black leather hobo with long leather tassels. It was a little worse for the wear, but that counted as vintage, no? She quickly stuffed it with a pile of pens, notebooks, and a voice recorder.     

From the hotel, it was a short drive into Shreveport. She ignored her nerves by forcing herself to pay attention to the lush nighttime scenery. Live oaks swathed in Spanish moss seemed to caricature the humid air, making everything seem slower and heavier. Tucked here and there were weathered clapboard buildings – some seemed to still be businesses in the daytime, others were boarded up in plywood, having succumbed to the economic downturn. She loved the decadence of southern decay. It somehow always seemed so brazen and unapologetic. Elsewhere in the U.S., people seemed overly preoccupied with tidying up the natural decline of things. In the New England college town where she worked, new paint and shiny glass and perfect concrete were routinely plastered on every surface, denying the passage of time. This landscape felt as though she were settling into a well-loved chair. It embraced her with its familiar imperfections. 

Not that she knew actually this place. Hell, she had only arrived a few days ago. But exploring unfamiliar worlds was her specialty. As an anthropologist she was well traveled and no worse for the wear. During her doctoral work she lived on a small Pacific island studying cloth exchanges among women. How hard could a vampire theme club in Louisiana be? Her colleagues had their doubts. They had seriously balked and snickered at her latest idea.  In fact, she’d made it here by the skin of her teeth.

“You want to do what?!” exclaimed the Dean of Social Sciences, when she had approached him about how she wanted to use her research grant.

“I want to study people who do costume role playing, like live action role players and Trekkies and whatnot.”

“Professor Choate, do you honestly expect me to approve your sabbatical? You can’t be serious.”

“Sir, this is a worthwhile endeavor. It’s an aspect of social life that hasn’t been adequately examined.”

“But Lillian,” interjected the chair of her department “you really need to consider how this will reflect during your tenure hearing. If the work isn’t solid, how will we justify renewing your contract?”

Exasperated, Lillian stared at her colleagues. She was floundering in a sea of disbelief. “ Everyone studies problems!” she exclaimed animatedly. “I want to learn about pleasure! Why do people love dressing up in costume, as fantastical characters? What is so much fun about inhabiting imaginary worlds? Are they really so different from our own?” Yep. Drowning. They stared back at her unblinking. Looking at the floor, she took a breath. She tossed a last ditch effort at them. “We need to take seriously the business of pleasure.” The two leaned in and whispered in low tones.

Please let them accept, she prayed. Please don’t can me over this. It is a good project!

“Listen Lillian, I think it’s clear that we all share some reservations about this…”

“Yes!” interjected her department chair. “Let us not have another ‘Nelson debacle’” she cringed.

Nelson was an ill-fated colleague who had tried to study online chat rooms and ended up being busted on one of those nightly news shows for soliciting sex from a minor. “Of course not.” For starters, she wasn’t a god damn pervert.  “I’m looking at real communities in real space and time, not in the virtual world.  That is why it will work.  There is concrete observational work to be done, actual documentation.”

“Alright,” sighed the Dean.  “Just do this well, okay? Your work reflects on us too, you know.”

“Keep it rigorous,” added the department chair. “No pop science.”

“Absolutely. I know you will be pleased with the findings. And thank you for your generosity and consideration. I really appreciate your support.”

Gack. Kissing her bosses’ asses that hard had really left her feeling bitter. Good thing she was 1000 miles away from her ivory tower. Lillian turned left into a commercial strip and pulled into a parking space. From the car she could already feel the music pumping out of the club. A large neon sign hung above the growing line of people. “Fangtasy” it read in a loopy red script. A tall blond woman stood at the door checking ids – in knee-high stiletto boots. Lillian found her place at the end of the line. The clientele were certainly eclectic. There were vamp kids with dyed black hair and faux-leather clothes waiting impatiently alongside overweight tourists in polos and tennis shoes. Welcome to the weird. The place must be a goldmine.

During her preliminary research, Lillian learned that Fangtasy had opened up a year and a half ago. Inspired by the famous Charlaine Harris novels and the successful HBO television spinoff, True Blood, everybody and their mother (literally) seemed to visit. The owners had only narrowly skirted a major copyright lawsuit by changing the club name from Fangtasia to Fangtasy.

Lillian reached the front door after a considerable wait. “Evening,” she said and handed her ID to a pale blonde. The woman didn’t respond. The employee must be styled after the “Pam” character. Very clever.

She tilted the ID in the light and passed it back. “You may enter at your own risk,” she said curtly. Lillian’s inner child wanted to jump up and down and clap her hands. It was all so wonderfully campy – like Disneyland for freaky folks. Her initial nerves began to give way to sheer, overwhelming curiosity.

Inside the club, dance music throbbed and colorful beams of light spun over the patrons and pulsed in rhythm to the music. Leather and spike bedecked young people crowded the dance floor and mingled around high top tables. Busty blonde waitresses in white shirts and ponytails served trays of drinks. Lillian was absolutely delighted by the ridiculous fake Sookies. Many people seemed to be ordering the “bloody dacquarie” special – a crimson concoction garnished with a bone-shaped plastic toothpick through a lime. Lillian made her way to the bar.

“Hi, can I see the manager?” she called out over the music to the nearest bartender.

The guy snorted and rolled his eyes. “The manager doesn’t deal with guests, ma’am.  What do you need?”

“I wanted to get permission to interview some of the patrons. I am writing about vampire fan culture in America.”

The young guy snorted. “You a reporter?”

“No, I’m a professor of anthropology. Could you please give the manager a call?”

“Boss doesn’t see guests without an appointment.” He leaned across the bar in a confidential whisper. “Too many idiots think they’re gonna meet an actual vampire. I mean, HELLO! It’s t.v.!!”

Her heart sunk. Did she really come out tonight for nothing? Without the appropriate permissions, she couldn’t start working. “Yeah, I’m sure that’s a common problem. Let me give you my card.”  She passed a business card over the black lacquered bar and into the guy’s red syrup stained fingers. “How soon can I expect to hear back?”

“I dunno, guess you’ll just have to see.”

“Alright, well at least give me a gin and tonic while I’m waiting.”

She took the drink and found a booth out of the way near the corner. She couldn’t even take notes without approval. Contrary to popular belief, social science was extremely serious business. Working with human subjects was highly regulated. For now, she could at least enjoy her drink and soak up first impressions of the atmosphere. The “vampy” club-goers and other young folks stood around island tables talking closely over half-filled bottles and empty glasses. Many people were out on the dance floor grinding and shaking away.  The more touristy types, she noticed, kept mainly to the booths where they sipped their sugary alcohol and plowed through plates of greasy bar food. Or they hung over a large souvenir case, where no less than three employees were busy swiping credit cards and passing back bags stuffed with Fangtasy and official True Blood merchandise. At the center of the back wall, a large carved chair with plush leather and brass tacks sat on a raised platform surrounded by velvet roping. A single spotlight illuminated it rather dramatically. People snapped photos of the empty chair. It was an odd but brilliant mix – decor and staff so over the top it threatened to break the suspension of disbelief. On the other hand, the throne made it seem like maybe, just maybe, a real vampire might just walk in and sit down. Whoever conceived of the club was one hell of a keen businessperson.

The rest of the night was uneventful. Lillian wasn’t inclined to dance, certainly not with the several young men who’d come to her table to ask. They were young enough to be one of her college students. Towards 4am, after her third drink, Lillian decided to call it quits. As she was passing by the bar, the bartender gestured at her.

“Hey lady, uh, I’m sorry, I got caught up with work.  Lemme take you back, boss said he’d see you.”

Lillian stared at him.  “What? Are you…What!? I’ve been waiting here for four hours!” 

“Yah, well, um. Sorry.”

He took her down a hallway, past the bathrooms, and she scowled at the bartender’s back the entire way.  Everything was lit with a blacklight, which made the goofy vampire movie posters lining the black wall to pop out colorfully. At the end of the hallway, the kid left her in front of a door where a security guard stood.

“Hi, I’m here to see the manager?”

The big guy pointed at a camera above the door. She looked up and waved. The door buzzed and the guard turned the keypad and punched in a code, releasing the lock. “Go on in,” he said. “First door on the right.” She was alarmed by the heavy security. They must get some majorly obsessed folks in here. She made a mental note to examine that angle. How did the owners and staff perceive their clients? 

The inner hallway stood in sharp contrast to the rest of the club. The floor was clad in light wood and the walls were a pleasant creme color. She rapped on the door twice with her knuckles. “Come in Miss Choate” a voice called out. Inside, she was met by a short man in a navy pin stripe suit. “Hi, hi, hi!” he called out, offering his hand. “Nathan Riley. So sorry to keep you waiting.” The man had a funny air about him – dressed up and slick, but not in a sleezy club manager type way. He struck her as very lawyerly.

“Pleasure to meet you. It is Professor Choate, by the way. Thanks for agreeing to see me on such short notice.”

“Gladly, gladly. Well, tell me about what it is that brings you here. Some kind of report, is it?”

“Well, no, not exactly.” Lillian launched into her spiel. She tried to keep it simple, avoid the jargon, and made sure to explain that her work was not at all meant to be an exposé on the business or would effect the operation of the club, but simply a study about the clients and why they choose to pursue “costumed” and fantasy recreation. “I should add that I will be more than happy to share any and all resulting publications with you. I expect that the data might be of some interest from a business perspective. It might help you better understand your clientele.”

“Hrm, yes.  Good point.  Well, I’m gonna have to check with the owners, of course,” he said in a thick Louisiana drawl. “But I’ll give you a ring as soon as possible.”

“Alright, Mr. Riley. Who are the owners?” She hadn’t been able to find any information on them.

“Oh, well honey,” he said. She gritted her teeth at the “quaint” Southernism. “It’s a consortium of investors. But I wouldn’t worry. There’s no such thing as bad publicity, right? I’ll let you know what they say.”

“Sure thing. Thanks for your time.”

“My pleasure. You have a good night now, ya’hear?”  he replied.

She headed out of the bar and crossed the tungsten light dappled parking lot towards her car. Only a few patrons lingered outside to drunkenly grope each other. Perhaps it was the desolate strip mall or the inky black patches of woods surrounding it at a lonely hour of the night. Or simply the fact that her car was at the edge of the lot. But she had the strangest creeping sensation in the pit of her stomach. She glanced around to see if she was being watched and felt the instinctual impulse to sprint. She didn’t, but she sure as heck walked briskly. It would be just her luck to get mugged. Once in her car, she quickly locked the doors, turned the engine over, and adjusted the rear-view mirror. For a fleeting second, less than a blink, really, Lillian swore she saw someone standing by the dumpsters on the far end of the building, staring in her direction. She blinked again, but there was no one there. It was probably just a busboy taking out the trash. She dismissed her unsettling feeling and started back towards the hotel.

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