I know what you're thinking: where the hell have you been? Well, I'll tell ya: every time I tried to write the next chapter of Sucker Punch, this huge block sat on my keyboard and refused to move. I've named him Harry. Then, a tempestuous gal named Irene kicked me outta my own house (and tore up the East Coast in the process), so I've been shooting the breeze with no Internet. Between Harry and Irene, plus copious amounts of boredom, I basically sat down and hammered out two chapters for Once Upon Another Time (coming soon!) The second one bit me in the hand and turned into this film noir-esque piece of work, its inspirations being Tracer Bullet and Sin City. It should only be several chapters long, and I promise I haven't given up on Sucker Punch! Alright, no one actually reads this, so I'll quit my yapping and let you get on with it.

This story contains: Foul language, murder, mayhem, and [references to] casual sex. Sounds like a typical day in my life. ;P

Boots up on the desk, pea coat slung behind my chair. The revolvers resting on my hips are cold against skin; autumn's really getting into the swing of things and the damn landlady turned off the heat. The clock tells me it's really late. Or really early, depending on how you look at things.

I flipped through the file of my last case. Missing person case; guy looking for his runaway girlfriend. She was too easy to find—the woman ran straight back into an ex's arms. Boyfriend forgot to mention that he liked to smack women around for fun, which might explain her absence. I reminded myself to charge him twice my usual rate and briefly wondered if I should tell him the girl's ex is in the Mafia before dismissing the thought. I'm not a saint.

A cup of cold coffee sitting by my hand called my name, but then I saw the burnt-out cigarette floating on top and decided I wasn't that desperate. Yet.

I considered going down to Linden Baum Diner to finally get myself a decent meal when the phone rang.

I stretched out a hand towards it, too lazy to actually sit up in my chair. "Kuga."

A pause. "Are you the detective?"

"Yeah. Who's asking?"

The man hesitated. "You take murder cases?"

Feet off the desk, straighten up in my chair. I reached for a pen. "Depends on the circumstances."

"14 Fuuka Avenue. You familiar with the place?"

The pen stopped twirling in my hand. "Yeah, I know it."

"Can I expect you anytime soon?"

"I'll drop by in an hour."

The voice sounded relieved. "Thank—"

I hung up. A glance at the window showed that dawn was nowhere near approaching, and the night wasn't too friendly to most individuals. Good thing I'm not most.

I swung on my coat and grabbed my car keys. I don't even have to check for the pair of revolvers on either side of me—cold steel is always at my fingertips, as well as the brass knuckles in my pocket and the knife in my boot. A weapon a day keeps the psychos away.

Gotta make sure I have my ID, too—some people get jumpy around me, thinking I'm a cop.

I'm not. Natsuki Kuga, private investigator. You might ask why anyone would hire a PI for a murder instead of calling the police, but this is Windbloom City—chances are, the murderer was a cop.

That doesn't mean all our cops are scumbags—just most. Windbloom City has a perturbingly high rate of police brutality.

The elevator was still broken, so I took the stairs. Two punks eyed me as I walked to my car. My coat was swept to the side as I reached for my keys, coincidentally giving them a flash of my guns. They scattered.

14 Fuuka Avenue was Garderobe, a very exclusive strip club and escort agency located in the heart of Windbloom City's entertainment (read: red-light) district. The general rule at Garderobe was 'look, don't touch'—but rules could very easily be broken, especially for the right price.

The line of people waiting for entry burned holes in me with resentful eyes as the bouncer let me through with a nod. The Garderobe girls who were otherwise unoccupied by clients called out greetings as I headed for the manager's office. My face is well known around here—take that as you will.

None of the girls looked particularly worried or distressed, but they were born actresses—it isn't easy faking love night after night. At my first knock, a young, good-looking guy with dark hair opened the door.

I frowned at him. "Where's Graceburt?"

"Retired. I'm her son, Reito Kanzaki." He shut the door behind me and sat down heavily behind the desk. "She said I should call you if I ran into any trouble."

"And I suppose by trouble, you mean a dead body."

"Make that dead bodies and you have the general idea." Reito shrugged.

I raised an eyebrow. "Someone killing off your girls? Hate to break it to you, but not many people care if a few prostitutes are murdered."

He studied me carefully. "I prefer the term 'escort.' Are you one of those people?"

"No. I'm just letting you know that it's unlikely the killer will be found."

"Then I suppose it's a good thing the victims are clients, not escorts."

Well, that threw me for a fucking loop. "Interesting. Why haven't you contacted our illustrious police department? God knows they'd care more about a dead businessman than a dead prostitute—sorry, escort."

"I want to keep this as quiet as possible, not scare off any customers. Besides, they don't know that the victims have certain things in common."

"The cops don't know the murdered were all Garderobe clients?" Typical. The Windbloom City Police Department has two settings: lazy or corrupt. Or both.

"That's correct."

"You have hundreds of clients; I'm surprised you noticed a few went missing."

Reito shrugged again. "They were among the highest paying customers. You would notice, too, if an extra hundred thousand dollars stopped coming in every week."

"I think I sold my soul for a little less than that."

Reito smiled wistfully to himself. "Believe me, she's worth every penny."

I frowned. "You're telling me that you made all that money off of one escort? Jesus Christ, she must be one hell of a good lay."

"It's not just that! She's requested for public and private services all the time. People will gladly pay through the teeth for her because she's absolutely stunning to look at, a witty conversationalist—"

"Down, boy, down," I dryly interrupted. "I didn't ask for her credentials. What's her name?" I had a sneaking suspicion that it was—

"Viola. Well, that's her pseudonym; I'm legally obliged to withhold her real name."

I crossed my arms and scoffed disdainfully. "Shizuru Fujino. Of course she'd be in the middle of this."

He looked startled by my reaction. Surprise gave way to ill-concealed jealousy; the kid really had to work on his poker face. "You know her?"

"Unfortunately. What are the names of the victims?"

"Uh—" He shuffled through the mess of papers on his desk before pulling out three photographs. "Yuuichi Tate, Miya Clochette, and Nagi Dai Artai. All murdered in the past two weeks."

I looked them over. The first two were nondescript individuals: Tate was a blond guy with prominent sideburns, Clochette a brunette with a big forehead. The third victim I recognized. "Dai Artai is—was—that albino politician. His body was found only two days ago, wasn't it?"

"Yes, but the police couldn't catch the murderer for the first two and I sure as hell don't believe they'll catch whoever it is now. I ignored the first two incidents, but Dai Artai's death is too much of a coincidence." He looked hopeful when I suddenly stood up. "Does this mean you're taking the case?"

"Lucky for you. I'll start by questioning Fujino."

"Is that really necessary?"

I leveled my best 'are-you-fucking-kidding?' stare at him. He sighed. "Well, try to be gentle. She's very fragile right now because of Dai Artai."

I snorted. "Her, fragile? Clearly you don't know her as well as you'd like." I smirked as he sputtered in protest. "Don't worry, I promise not to tell her about your little crush. She in today?"

"She should be in her dressing room. Do you know how to get there—?"

I turned on my heel and headed backstage, where the girls prepped before their "performances."

The dressing room reminded me of the ones you'd find in a theater—a row of vanity mirrors, glittery makeup spread askew on desks, clothing racks filled with different pieces of lingerie. Outside of all its negative connotations, striptease was just another form of dance, an art requiring sensuality and fluidity. These girls were performers—they just wore less clothing than most other entertainers.

Three doors on the other side of the room were the private dressing rooms, the special privileges granted to Garderobe's star acts. The woman I was looking for was behind the middle door, the room reserved for the best.

I sauntered in like I owned the place. "Anybody miss me?" Damn if I didn't feel special at hearing the happy shouts that greeted me.

The door of the rightmost private dressing room opened a crack and a familiar redhead poked out her head. "Why is everyone so goddamn loud!" Our eyes connected and a lazy smirk crept over her face. "Well, well, look what the cat dragged in. You look terrible."

"Miss me, Juliet?"

"Bitch, it's Nao. Only clients call me Juliet, and I wouldn't do you for all the money in the world."

"I have better things to do, thanks," I shot back.

"Whatever, Kuga. Why are you here?"

"Can't I see how old friends are doing?"

"Please. You're too selfish for that to be true." Nao craned her head towards the right. "CHIE! Look who decided to grace us with her presence!"

I rolled my eyes when the leftmost door opened and a mess of dark hair poked through. "Speak of the devil! Natsuki!"

"Hello, Chie."

Chie damn near skipped towards me and swung me several inches off the floor into a bone-crushing hug. She reminded me of a greyhound puppy: tall, thin, wiry—all legs and no curves—and all-too-easily excitable. She suddenly stopped and looked down at me mock-seductively. "Why Miss Kuga, is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?"

"You wish."

Throughout all the commotion, the middle door stayed firmly shut. Nao followed my gaze to the closed door and smiled mischievously. "Chie, I don't think she's here to see us."

Understanding dawned in mocha eyes. "Ohhhh. HEY, SHIZ—"

I clamped my hand over her mouth and looked at her disapprovingly. "Chie, getting her to talk to me will take some finesse. You shouting at her won't help."

"Mmmph-mm," she mumbled. I took that as an agreement and removed my hand.

I took a deep breath. "OI! FUJINO!"

Chie looked confused. "I thought you said shouting at her wouldn't help?"

"I said that you shouting wouldn't help," I corrected. "Shouting is the only way I can get her attention."

The door opened, cutting off Chie's reply and creating a silence throughout the room. The kind of silence that appears when you see someone so beautiful, you actually can't breathe, and it almost makes you wonder if some higher power decided to actually take some time to mold this person instead of saying 'fuck it' and throwing the genetic dice.

Shizuru Fujino had that effect on people. You don't meet a woman like her every day—she was a stone cold fox with a backbone of tempered steel; the type of woman who'd break your heart, your wallet, and even your hand (if you put it in the wrong place) without batting an eyelash. And she'd look damn good while doing it.

She leaned on the doorframe and raised an eyebrow. "Hello, Sherlock." She languidly crossed her legs, her thigh-high fishnet tights just drawing your eyes to her legs like a cokehead to crack. She was dressed to kill tonight, creamy breasts practically spilling out of the top of her dark red corset. The color matched her eyes.

I racked my brain for famous prostitutes, but came up with a blank. "Aphrodite." Agh, lame. A few of the girls awwed. Damn it, they think I'm being affectionate. I glared at them.

"I thought I told you to stay away." She didn't look too thrilled to see me, but at least she wasn't throwing things. Yet.

At least thirty pairs of eyes watched to see what I'd do next. I'm not much of an exhibitionist, so I just brushed past her and sat on her couch. She closed the door in their curious faces and put on a silk robe before coming to stand in front of me.

I avoided her gaze by looking at the closed door. I'd bet a million bucks that eager ears were pressed up against it right now, waiting to hear some drama unfold. I hoped I wouldn't disappoint.

She started the kickoff. "What do you want?"

"Nice to see you, too, Shizuru."

"Viola," she interrupted. "It's Viola when I'm on the clock."

I ignored her. "Your rates went up. How much are you charging nowadays?"

"More than you can afford."

I scoffed. "Been there, done that."

Her look would've cut through diamond. I took the three photographs from my pocket and held them up before the conversation escalated into another fight. "What do you know about them?"

Something flashed through her eyes before settling into a cool indifference. "The blond was something of a limp dick—a extremely wealthy one, though. Miya mostly just wanted companionship, but she was decent enough in bed. Dai Artai was a real asshole, but his bite definitely lived up to his bark, if you know what I mean."

I rolled my eyes. "Do you know anything else about them other than their performances in the sack?"

"Jealous?" Her smirk was predatory.

"I'm not getting paid to find out who's the best fuck, I'm getting paid to find out who killed them."

"Ah. Good luck with that." She poured herself a glass of wine, offering the bottle toward me with a raised eyebrow.

I shook my head. "No thanks. You don't seem too cut up about their murders."

She took a sip of wine. "As I see it, this is Windbloom City. Shit happens."

I scrutinized her. Her nonchalant stance seemed a little too relaxed, her expression at little too unconcerned. "I need you to cancel any appointments you have for the next week."

"Not going to happen."

"Why not?" I pressed.

"Not only would I be disappointing my loyal clients, I would be causing Reito to lose business. The guilt would almost be too much to bear." Sarcastic as fuck, that woman. She sat before her mirror and began applying makeup.

"The guy has a huge-ass crush on you. He'd probably jump off a building if you asked." Oops, I forgot I wasn't supposed to spill the beans. Well, I never said I played nice.

Her lips twitched. "I know." And she probably would, too, just for kicks.

A deep voice floated through the door. "Why are you all crowding around this door? Go out there and start dancing!" Faint giggles were heard before there was a knock.

"Enter," Shizuru called out.

Reito poked his big head in. "Viola, are you ready?" He looked at me suspiciously, afraid that the brute detective had bullied the innocent courtesan (an oxymoron if I've ever heard one.)

"I'll be right out, Reito." He nodded and shut the door.

I got up to stand behind her. She was taller than me, definitely more so in heels, but it's not the size of the dog in the fight or whatever. "Can I at least see a list of your clients for the past two weeks and the upcoming week?"

Her eyes flicked downwards before connecting with mine in the mirror. "I'm afraid Garderobe has a client-confidentiality policy." She winked. "It's to keep out snoops like you."

I scowled. "Are you going to be helpful at all during this investigation?"

She abruptly stood and turned around, our bodies only inches apart. A strange tension permeated the air before she smirked. "It seems unlikely. Good bye, Natsuki—I'm sure you can see yourself out." With that, she brushed past me.

I gritted my teeth and watched her go. Infuriating, impossible woman—I didn't need her help, per se, but it would make my life a damn lot easier.

Well, two could play that game. I shut the door and locked it before pulling on a pair of leather gloves and taking out my lock kit. Did she think I wouldn't notice her glance at the top drawer of her vanity when I asked for a list of her clientele? The smallest things give away the most.

The drawer's lock was a breeze to pick, as I'd expected. There wasn't much; a wad of cash, driver's license, an old photograph that made me smile. And bingo! A small black planner. Flipping through the thin pad, I smirked at seeing names, dates, and addresses written in elegant script.

This seemed like a good enough place to start.

Now I shall rely on your reviews to tell me if this chapter was a good enough place to start! ;)