She was identified on the coroner's slab by the tattoos: the wind-up angel on her shoulder, a woman resting on a flower across her abdomen, some Japanese kanji across her wrist. A purple tank top and jeans were mostly intact, reeking of petroleum.
Her aunt gazed at the body covered in burns and perforated by gunshot and stab wounds. Yes, that was her niece. That was Brooke Alisha Phillips.
Moore, Pryor, Salina. The small towns of Oklahoma orbit the bigger cities like Tulsa and Oklahoma City, which exert a gravitational pull on the bored and restless. Some begin to burrow underground, slipping into the twilight culture of the state, its 5,000 gang members and rampant narcotics trade greasing the wheels.
Brooke was born July 27, 1987, in Moore to Greta Halfmoon, and Greta was familiar with the twilight hours. A drug addict, she unsuccessfully fought a court order for her 14-year-old daughter to be placed in the foster care of Brooke's two aunts. Brooke became pregnant at 16, dismissed the father of dubious worth and set about getting both her GED and a certified nurse's assistant degree, all while working full-time.
She would later tell Tyra Banks, the shrill talk-show host, that the schedule had led to such profound exhaustion that she was in danger of losing the baby. The child made it and stayed with a friend while Brooke took the bus back and forth to work. She scraped by, looked back at her own tumultuous childhood, and decided that both she and her child deserved more than the meager paycheck provided by cleaning bedpans.
At 18, Brooke started working at Night Trips, a strip club in Oklahoma City. As these places go, it was upscale: clean, white-collar clientele, with few fights or rowdy behavior. Brooke was attractive — a petite 5-5, short dark hair framing a pleasant face. She could dance, but her real talent was conversation. The first part of her shift was devoted to sitting with customers and talking to them, laughing at their jokes, frowning when they complained about work or wives.
They bought drinks and tipped her. Later, she would get on stage and dance for more tips. On a good night, she would see $1,000. Brooke — known as Hayden Brooks in the business — had everyone's attention when on the phallic stripper's pole, which she would envelop like a snake.
When business seemed to ebb, she'd hit another other club in the area. Once, she offered up a fake ID to get a job at Cover Girls, a place that couldn't hire anyone under 21 because of an arcane law involving the bar not being roped off from the stage. When the manager confronted her about it, asking why he should hire a liar, she shrugged.
"I worked at Night Trips and I'm cute," she said, and got the job. Two years prior, her mother had been on the same stage, dancing to feed her methamphetamine addiction.
She walked into Bosco's one day, a club where she could be a new face. She chatted with a few of the girls, auditing her chances of making money. One pointed to Lewis, a 50-something regular known as "the cute older guy" who talked to the women like women and not masturbatory objects. She sat down next to him.
"What do you think?" she asked. "Should I work here?"
"You'll make all the money, and all the girls will hate you," Lewis said, and that sounded just fine to her.
Lewis — not his real name — is an engineer and fancies himself something of a stripper anthropologist, coming into the clubs to drink and tell jokes and make small talk with the girls when they need a break from the customers. He's dated one and befriended many more. One, Montana, had two sisters; all of them danced.
Brooke would strip, flirt, pretend to find men desirable, then come sit with Lewis and drop the facade. She'd tell him how she needed new shoes, or that she had hurt her ankle, or that she just got an iPhone and needed lessons on how to use it. Sometimes she would ask for tips, and Lewis would shake his head.
"I'm not a customer," he'd say. "You've got enough of those. I'm your friend." It seemed like she needed one, he thought. Maybe she thought so, too, since she kept coming to his table.
"She put on a tough front," Lewis says, "but she was just lost."
Bosco's ended up burning down, so Brooke went to Double Ds Saloon, where the women were expected to be exceptionally well-endowed. Brooke wasn't, but she made money anyway. Lewis went there, too, and watched Brooke drink and steal glances at the clock until it was time to go home. She would be warm and inviting to the customers, pretend she was interested, sell them on the possibility of something they would never have.