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In Atlanta, she tried going to school but quickly grew frustrated; she'd have to repeat the ninth grade. She wanted to work instead, in part so that she could buy a new wardrobe of cold-weather clothes. Her mother had refused to spend the kind of money Falicia had in mind.
So Falicia dropped out, over her mother's protests. Nobody controlled her before. It wouldn't be any different now.
She picked up a job at the Taco Bell across from Greenbriar Mall, where she won a quick promotion from front register to drive-thru and met a customer who introduced her to a dive of a sports bar off Old National Parkway. It was a place where one night a week amateurs were allowed to striptease down to a flimsy costume. Falicia had no trouble duping the manager into believing she was legal. She was even hired on part time - until she met a man who told her that for a certain price, he'd get her a fake birth certificate and Social Security card. That meant she could get a driver's license that made her 21, which in turn would get her an adult dancing permit - and a ticket to the real clubs .
Within months, Falicia made the rounds of strip clubs best described as a groaning half-step up from the sports bar. She mostly frequented Dancer's Elite .
At Dancer's Elite, Falicia noticed that one of the girls, "Candy," had a tattoo on her breast of a man's name. "Michael Berry." Falicia soon realized he was a regular at the club. But she wasn't sweating him. He didn't interest her, wasn't her type. When she first talked to him, he struck her as kind of gay. His voice, she thought at the time, was too soft for her.
She'd been hooking up with someone else, anyway. He was in his mid-20s, an age the 16-year-old considered too young. But he did help her move out of her mother's place and paid her weekly tab at the Suburban Lodge. She got pregnant by him. And she got tired of him. She moved back in with her mother and gave Dancer's Elite
On stage one summer night, a week or so before her going-away party, Falicia's stomach was threatening to give her away, her six-pack having slackened into a telltale swell. She was accustomed to pulling in $200 a night. Tonight, she was holding a miserable $20.
A bunch of men down at the left corner of the stage were looking at her, commenting on what they liked but holding tight to their bills. She was mad and about ready to step off the stage when one of the guys, in a yellow hat and shorts, handed her a wad of cash. Like clockwork, she lowered herself to her knees, to dance closer to him. As she did, she glanced at the bills he'd just handed her. She was holding a stack of twenties.
"I've been trying to get at you, and you've been ignoring me and stuff," Michael Berry told her. "Come holla at me when you get off stage."
He paid her $20 each for a bunch of lap dances. They normally cost $10. When she was sick of dancing, he paid her just to sit and talk, dropping twenties into her hand.
"Let me take you home and rub you to sleep," he said.
"I don't go home with people I meet at clubs." At the time, there was no going home with guys, no giving out phone numbers. She left this part of her at the club. It would be there when she got back tomorrow.
When she showed up the next day, so did Mike.
He convinced her to go out with him, but he was arrested on the night they'd made plans . Mike called her collect from jail nearly every day. And then he sent someone to pay Falicia's mother's phone bill. He also sent Falicia a young guy, "Shy." Mike had told Shy to do whatever Falicia told him to. Shy drove Falicia to work, to run errands, to see the obstetrician. She did nothing for him in return. Mike was pulling strings, even behind bars. Falicia liked that. She assumed he earned his money, respect and command from selling dope. She didn't mind.
On Dec. 30, 2000, Falicia gave birth to a boy, Mikaele. Mike got out of jail a few days later but gave Falicia a few weeks with the baby before coming to see her. He immediately asked her to move out, to let him put her up somewhere. She refused. She wasn't ready. She went back to dancing. He brought roses, chocolate and a big cookie cake to Dancer's Elite. He bought her jewelry, bought her mother jewelry. The girls at the club swooned. "Oh, that man is so sweet," they'd say. "That man really loves you." A few weeks later, Falicia agreed to move in with him to an extended-stay hotel.