Author’s note: Alyssa, a very beautiful and talented 8th grade dance student, is heading to a music video audition she has been forbidden to attend. The audition was set up by a very kind, severely burned and disfigured patient at the Cedars-Sinai Burn Center where she volunteers. Alyssa feels that he “gets her” passion for dance and choses to trust him. The girl, however, has no idea that the damaged man is Gary Mercer, who’s hell-bent on retribution for his ruined condition through trafficking naïve, trusting Alyssa into the porn industry.
Compared to the beach, the San Fernando Valley was hot and airless. Alyssa stopped at a drug store for a bottle of cold vitamin water, then headed up Lankershim Boulevard on foot past Universal Studios. The area between the theme park and the back of Bob Hope Airport was mostly what her sociology teacher would’ve called blue collar Hispanic.
There were gang tags everywhere. Alyssa shivered in the heat, feeling more intimidated than she’d anticipated. Cars whizzed by on their way to someplace else. A skinny pit bull mix emerged from between two buildings, pissed on a pile of discarded tires, drilled her with a wary look and disappeared back across a weed-choked lot.
As she approached a side street, a shiny, deep purple pimpmobile bounced around the corner and cruised slowly past. The young driver wore reflective aviators and a black beret. Checked her out then made an obscene gesture with his tongue.
Alyssa turned away, not wanting to give him the pleasure of a reaction. His sound system assaulted her with deep bass notes that made window panes rattle in a T-shirt store nearby. She prayed he’d keep moving and tried to look like she knew where she was going, marching toward Vanowen without making eye contact.
The driver sped up and headed toward Lankershim. Thank you, Jesus. Looked like the asshole wasn’t all that much into further hassling her. She picked up her pace.
Nearing Tujunga, Alyssa wiped perspiration from her forehead with the sleeve of her hoodie. She took it off and tied it around her waist. The directions to the studio didn’t seem quite right. When she stopped to check her phone’s GPS near a boarded-up liquor store, two young guys about her brother’s age, covered with tats, emerged from an alley. They spoke to each other in rapid Spanish but switched to English as they advanced on her.
“You lost, baby girl?” The speaker was short, shaved bald, and built like a mountain gorilla she’d recently seen in a Jane Goodall documentary. His glassy-eyed partner was much taller with a faint, peach-fuzz wannabe moustache. From across the street another man emerged from the shadows. Older, maybe mid-twenties, he wore a black Nike track suit, unzipped to show his shiny, waxed chest.
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Alyssa gulped hard and kept walking, not too fast, not too slow. She tried to avoid panicking, but adrenaline pumped though her veins like an open fire hydrant.
“Need some help finding your way, chica?” gorilla said. “You don’t look like no local bitch.”
The others watched from a short distance, moving on the periphery like a wolf pack tightening the noose on its prey.
“I don’t need any help,” she said, trying not to sound scared shitless. “I’m going to the Airport Studio, they’re expecting me.” She stood up straight and walked onward, eyes ahead.
“Ah, she’s going to the studio,” the tall, lanky one mocked. They all chuckled and began to close in on her from three angles.
Where the hell was she gonna run? Their raw scent shimmered in the hot air. She could barely breathe.
A taxi cab cruised slowly by and pulled to a stop just beyond her. The window rolled down and a cabbie, dark-skinned and probably Middle Eastern, called out the window. “Come on, missy. Sorry I’m late.”
“What? Oh, okay.” She had no other choice. Alyssa ran to the dusty green vehicle, yanked open the passenger door and hopped in, panting and praying that she hadn’t just stepped into another disaster. The taxi pulled away from the curb. Alyssa looked over her shoulder at the three scowling gangbangers standing on the sidewalk. The lanky one gave her the finger.
She turned back to the driver, hoping he wasn’t some kind of pervert. “Thanks for that,” Alyssa said. “Not sure if I have enough money for a cab. So, can you let me out at the next block?”
“Missy, what you doing here all by yourself? You crazy?”
Alyssa shrank in her seat and stammered, “I’m trying to find the Airport Studio, it’s on Tujunga. I have an audition there.” She checked her iPhone. “In fifteen minutes.”
The cabbie shook his head. “I take you to this studio.”
“But I’m not sure…” She rummaged in her purse. Where was that twenty?
“It’s on the house.” He pushed back his shiny, straight hair. His credentials hung from the rearview mirror. His name was Farouk Hassan. A picture of what looked like his family had been duct-taped to the console.
“Well, thanks a lot, sir. Those dudes were scary.”
“I have a girl your age,” he said, following her glance. “Big dreams, like you. Begging me to let her try out for The Voice. I said no way ‘til she eighteen.”
“That’s kind of what my mom said, too,” Alyssa admitted.
“You should listen to her,” he said.
A few minutes later, he pulled up to a square, industrial-style stucco building with a small sign next to the glass front door that read Airport Studios.
A blue-and-orange jet thundered low overhead. Decomposing food wrappers, newspapers, and other detritus whirled in the acrid-smelling downdraft.
“You’re sure this is the place?” Mr. Hassan asked.
Alyssa nodded and pushed aside the urge to beg him to take her home. But there was no way she’d wuss-out on this audition. She’d come too far.
Hassan gave her a hard frown. “I hope you know what you’re doing, young lady. This area’s the center of the porn industry in L.A. Did you know that?”
Alyssa’s stomach clenched and she swallowed hard. She handed him the twenty-dollar bill she’d found, but he refused it. Instead, Hassan gave her his business card.
“Good luck with that music video.” he said and smiled kindly. “Call me if you need another quick getaway.”
Alyssa took a deep breath and tried not to freak out about the taxi drivers’ comment that this part of town was the center of L.A.’s porn industry. That couldn’t be true, he was just trying to scare her. She walked up to the studio building’s front entrance, but the double glass doors were locked. The place looked abandoned.
She wondered if Jennifer Beals started out in a creepy place like this before she landed “Flashdance.” Aly’s hands shook. She pushed a doorbell and waited, hoping that more gangsters wouldn’t show up and hit on her, or worse.
An anorexic-looking girl dressed like a ‘ho in a silky white mini-dress and black jazz shoes appeared in the foyer. She pressed a speaker button. “Yes?”
Alyssa licked her dry lips. “Alyssa Strauss here to audition for O’Brody’s music video. I have a one o’clock call time.”
The girl sized her up with a critical once-over, then unlocked the doors. Alyssa’s stomach twisted as she stepped inside the dim entry. It smelled of mold and sweat. Cheaply framed, faded pictures of hip-hop dancers from maybe the 90’s lined a yellowish, cinder-block wall. The girl locked the door behind them. Then, double-locked it from the inside with a key she dropped into a small, leather cross-body purse.
Alyssa could feel sweat begin to dampen her neck and armpits. The dull, metallic sound of that deadbolt engaging was unnerving. This whole scene didn’t feel right. In fact, it felt all wrong. She pushed her hands deep into the pockets of her hoodie and pulled out her cell phone along with the taxi driver’s card. It was time to bail. Her fingers were slick on the buttons.
“Sorry, little Miss…Stein, is it? Melissa Stein?
“Alyssa Strauss.” Her voice cracked.
Peering desperately at her phone icons, she saw no bars. Uh oh. Her BFFs Rachel and Yael would be waiting to hear from her.
“Sorry,” the woman said, not sounding sorry at all. “Shit reception here, Alyssa. Something about being directly under the airport flight path and FAA crap. But don’t worry.”
“Follow me, hon. O’Brody’s looking forward to seeing you. He’s such an awesome choreographer.” She turned with a swirl, revealing a winged-unicorn tattoo on her bony, thong-wearing ass. And what else? Bruises?
“You’re just the type he’s looking for, sweetheart.”
Alyssa gulped and followed the freaky receptionist.
Where was the music? Where was the sound of dancers shuffling feet and chatter?
Alyssa’s footsteps echoed in the silent, empty hallway.
Sue Hinkin is a former college administrator, TV news photographer, and NBC-TV art department manager, as well as a Cinematography Fellow at the American Film Institute. She was recently namedRocky Mountain Fiction Writers writer of the year.“The Burn Patient,”released mid-pandemic, won the Colorado Book Award. Raised in Chicago, Hinkin now lives in Littleton, Colorado. See more at www.suehinkin.com.