Reads: 11

This is why I make the big bucks, Hope Langdon thought, as she considered different ways of trying to calm the tiny Indian coed sitting in the client chair on the other side of the desk.

~~~

For her part, Malika Mehta was only there because her back was absolutely to the wall, financially speaking. She had briefly considered coming in after her roommate Kami became $6,000 richer in the space of about ten days—but then had backed away. Malika liked Kami because “opposites attract” and Kami would always have more nerve. According to Kami’s narrative, she’d gotten six thousand because she’d stripped down in front of the camera and then had “gone upstairs” for the $5,000 promised in the business card ads.

That much money for “doing nothing” she’d told Malika—even though cast iron nondisclosure agreements kept her from explaining to her roommate what had happened “upstairs”.

‘Nothing?’ Malika had asked.

‘Almost nothing.’ Kami had hedged a little. ‘Nothing serious. Not even as bad as a frat party where every other guy is trying to get his hand up your skirt. And honestly, Mel, it’s crazy to be staring at starvation when you could be picking up that easy money. I wanted to ask her, and so I asked her—’

‘Asked her what?’

‘If it would be $10,000 for the two of us together—so you wouldn’t have to go up there alone. And she said she thought he’d really like that—’

‘You’re out of your mind!’ Malika snapped. ‘Then you’d see me naked!’

Kami just laughed: ‘That ship has sailed, sweetie! Besides, you’re not even naked when you go upstairs.’ Kami had instantly clamped her hand over her mouth. ‘Oh shit! And here I am: not supposed to say anything! OK—well, whatever you do, don’t say that I told you. They’re serious about the whole nondisclosure thing, and I need to stay on their good side. Even if I don’t get greedy, I can cover tuition 100% and end school debt free. Debt free! I mean: Jesus, who would’ve believed that six month ago?’

‘And if you do get greedy?’

‘Just suspend your righteous judgment for a few minutes and go talk to her!’ Kami urged. ‘You can see the house from the streetcar stop, the door’s open regular business hours, and she’s an easy person to talk to. Very classy. But friendly. Once you’re inside, you’ll see how much money there is just waiting to be picked up. All you need to see is that first room. The way it’s decorated. How big that place must be. And how much money this guy has just burning a hole in his pocket. And doesn’t want much in return, when it comes right down to it. You’ll still be a virgin on your wedding, that’s for sure. If you want to be, I mean.’

‘I’d still be a virgin? In every way?’

‘No question about it. And everything I’ve just told you is a secret, by the way. Don’t get me in trouble!’

~~~

And, now that she’d spent a little time in the mansion, Malika understood how little Kami had been exaggerating. The reception area looked like a movie set. If the desk was removed she would half expect to see weary prostitutes, dressed in old-fashioned underwear, waiting for their next “gentlemen callers”.

But the receptionist, who’d introduced herself as Hope, made it all seem close to normal. She was a kind of updated Southern belle—just as Kami had described her—who calmly walked Malika through all the money-making options: in no hurry at all, since there was no one waiting. No one else in sight, even.

Hope discussed everything in a very hypothetical way: allowing that Malika might change her mind at any moment. A total stranger, she was assuming that Malika had a choice, when, in fact, Malika understood that she had no choice at all unless she wanted to go back to India. And so listened carefully, being very careful with the very expensive English china, and—for the sake of form—glancing through the nondisclosure documents as Hope made small talk in her very posh Tidewater drawl.

‘We seem to have some dog days left over from August, unfortunately. Hoping it will be cooling off soon. Schools already begun? Is that right?’

‘Right. Tulane.’

‘And you’ve decided on a major?’

‘Computer science. Not the most creative major, I know....’ Malika’s voice trailed off as she seemed to run out of things to say.

Langdon chimed in: ‘But certainly something that will always be in demand. We’ll always have computers now. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them, to be sure. But we’re very lucky here. Mr Galahad is a digital genius. He set up all these systems himself, including the server and the security system for the house. I don’t even dare ask any questions about it. I’m sure he’d make me feel foolish in a heartbeat.’

A digital genius, Malika thought. That could be good and bad. She wondered how much this Mr Galahad character already knew about her. She gestured toward the light gleaming on Hope’s computer.

‘Is this all being recorded? Our conversation? Is the person who lives here...who’s...who’s going to be looking...is he here right now?’

‘It’s not recording,’ Hope replied, gently. ‘It’s streaming. It’s live on the system, but we don’t create any permanent files—’

‘Meaning that he is here...right now?’

‘This is the simplest way for him to become acquainted with you without any extra stress, and without any embarrassment if you happen to decide this is something you don’t want to do now—or don’t want to do at all. But please be assured: none of this is being recorded, and none of what we do here would ever leave this building.’

This was all delivered in such a glib and practiced way that Malika was sure it had been carefully rehearsed—probably after more than one lawyer had reviewed the text.

Even as she took up the pen, Malika was thinking: This is a terrible idea...this is a terrible idea....

All the same, she signed the documents in every place that was indicated, and handed them back to Hope: who dropped them into a hanging file and smiled at her maternally: ‘Ready to go back?’

~~~

She felt ready. But almost scampered back out into the street when Hope went to the front door and threw the deadbolt with a loud snap: locking them in.

But the woman immediately noticed her client’s startled expression: ‘We can’t have any visitors while we’re in the other room. There’s quite a bit of cash in my desk.’

Which, again, was exactly what Kami had told her. All payments were made in cash—and all the cash was in the desk.

‘You can bring your book bag with you, if you prefer.’

Which Malika did prefer. Her can of pepper spray was in the bag. Maybe not the most effective way to defend herself from black market organ thieves. But the best she could do on short notice.

Moving through a series of hallways, the place seemed more like a museum than a residence, until they finally reached a room at the back of the house much more utilitarian than the overdressed rooms they’d passed. But—even though there was much less fabric, and vases, and ferns—the room still had a lot of money in it: dominated by a very large, elaborate staircase (wrought iron, obviously) that soared up from the ground floor to the mysterious floor above. What Kami coyly referred to as “the upstairs”.

Five thousand an hour.

For nothing, Kami said—contradicting everything that Malika thought she knew about life. Something for nothing? Malika was sure she was old enough to know better.

Like just about everything else in the house, the staircase seemed to be there to remind visitors that expense had been no consideration in putting the place together. Whatever Mr Galahad wanted, he got. Regardless of the cost.

That being said, the video setup—on just a simple table—was not super-elaborate, although it was state-of-the-art. A small digital camera on a sturdy tripod connected by wire into a desktop computer probably hooked into a server somewhere else in the house. One wall of the room had been mostly cleared, and a seamless white background hung from the ceiling: the focus of video lights and a couple of reflectors on stands.

The camera pointed in that direction, and Malika understood that would be the stage where she would be standing. If she didn’t change her mind.

On the same side of the room, but off in the corner, was a four-panel shoji screen with a freestanding clothes rack, complete with hangers.

Hope gestured toward that part of the room as they came in: ‘There’s some privacy for you behind the screen. It takes just a few minutes to get things set up. Then you can let me know when you’re ready.’

Even though it was just the two of them in the room, everything felt very public to Malika—while feeling very clinical at the same time.

‘Everything?’ Malika asked, forlornly. ‘Everything, you said?’

‘Correct. Just as we discussed. Everything. Completely naked.’

Malika took a deep breath, still looking around: ‘I don’t know...now that I’m back here....’ her voice trailed off.

‘Well—we’re not in the business of forcing people to do what they don’t want to do. But it’s just the three of us, remember. Just the two of us, in fact. Very private. Nothing will ever leave this building, and we’re not in the business of making people felt hurt or vulnerable. Mr Galahad understands how brave you are in agreeing to do this, and he wants to assure that you have absolutely nothing to fear. We want you to feel completely comfortable, and—if Mr Galahad finds you pleasing—’

Malika interrupted her: ‘That’s a long shot, I think.’

‘I don’t see why. You’re a very attractive girl.’

‘Come on! I know that my butt’s too big, and my legs are too short—’

‘That’s ridiculous. Your proportions are very good. And you have beautiful eyes.’

So maybe this will work out, Malika thought. She’d been a little embarrassed by all of Kami’s chatter about “easy money”. But now she felt a little surge of materialism, herself. She really needed a new laptop. And a winter coat. And some shoes (still on sale, she thought). And the basics: like food, and rent. And it would be so wonderful not to have to worry about money every waking minute.

‘So: if this works out, I could maybe go upstairs?’

‘Of course. You and your friend together. Or you—just on your own. If Mr Galahad gives us the green light.’

‘And that’s five thousand dollars?’

‘Five thousand. Tax free. For just an hour of your time. Meeting Mr Galahad, and following his instructions. Then—if it’s something you find enjoyable—or even something you don’t mind doing—you could always be confident of some money coming in.’

Another deep breath. ‘I don’t mean to be rude,’ Malika began. ‘You’ve been so helpful. But...upstairs...it’s nothing disgusting, is it? Would it be something that a whore would do? Would I be giving a stranger a blowjob? Or anything like that? Would I be doing something that I’d be ashamed of for the rest of my life?’

But this was something Hope had no information about. ‘I’m afraid I don’t really know—’

‘Please, Hope! You can understand why I’d be worried.’

‘I’m being as honest as I can be. Mr Galahad doesn’t tell me what goes on up there. And I don’t ask. And your roommate wasn’t supposed to say anything, either. I hope she didn’t—’

‘She didn’t. It’s all hush-hush.’

‘It’s important she didn’t say anything,’ Hope emphasized. ‘Because then she’d be in some real trouble. But I have the advantage of having known Mr Galahad for some time. Of course he’s eccentric. Just look at this place. But he’s not cruel and he’s not destructive. And, most of all, he wants to make this a success.’

‘And what does success look like?’

‘That you’d feel comfortable coming back, if the invitation is offered to you. But, today, we have our moment of truth now—and you have to decide, since I do have to get back to reception soon. I can take you back up front if you think it’s time to leave, or....’

Hope’s voice trailed off as Malika walked resolutely to the privacy screen in the corner. But, as if she thought there might be a change of attitude after a few minutes, Malika spoke again from behind the screen: ‘And it’s everything, right?’

‘Yes, dear. Take off everything.’

~~~

By the time Malika was naked, the light level in the room had increased dramatically and the red light on the video camera was glowing. Malika could have guessed where to stand, but Hope pointed to a location anyway: ‘Just stand on the mark. That’s where the camera’s focused. And please keep your hands at your sides.’

‘Sorry!’

‘No—I understand completely. It might be fun to think about this as something like a message to a boy you like who’s far away. A special Valentine, perhaps.’

‘To remind him what he’s missing?’

‘Of course. Just to get into that kind of mood.’

But Malika couldn’t imagine herself ever doing that: ‘And is Mr Galahad looking at me now?’ She assumed it was a two-way link on the computer. Sure enough: Hope glanced at the computer screen, before going back to the camera.

‘Yes, he is. It’s live upstairs, and he agrees that you’re a very attractive girl. You have beautiful breasts, by the way.’

Malika indulged herself with a kind of crooked smile: ‘Well—he hasn’t seen my ass, yet.’

‘Then we can take care of that now, and I’m sure you’re exaggerating. Just turn around. Just slowly. And, of course you’re being much too self-critical.’

There was no sense of disapproval from Hope. No sense that Malika was doing something desperate and awful. And yet she felt compelled to explain a little bit more about why she was there.

‘I lost my job. Did I tell you that?’

‘Yes, you did,’ Hope replied, making a gesture to encourage Malika to turn all the way around again. ‘My goodness, that had to have you worried. Higher education is so expensive.’

‘And my parents simply can’t send any more money. They think they’re doing enough looking for a husband for me.’

‘You’ll have an arranged marriage, you think?’

‘I don’t think. I know. But you can just imagine what would happen to all that if these pictures ever—’

‘But they won’t!’ Hope insisted. ‘They won’t. Ever. This is for Mr Galahad’s private experience. He’ll never share this with anyone and no hacker will ever see it. There will be no consequences from any of this. Except you’ll have a little more spending money at the end of our session.’

~~~

Afterward, Malika felt like she could use a shower. But there was no provision for that after just a video shoot.

Instead, Hope took a moment to relay how impressed Mr Galahad was with his visitor’s appearance before leading Malika back to reception: where the lady in charge immediately unlocked the front door (even though no one was waiting) and unlocked her desk—from which she pulled one of the familiar translucent envelopes that Kami had been showing off.

Since Hope handed it over without counting it, Malika assumed that each one contained exactly $1,000.

‘And there you are.’ Hope gave her a warm smile while Malika quickly slipped the money into her bag. ‘Thank you for coming. We certainly hope to see you again. I might have said, “We hope to see more of you”—but we’ve seen it all and I think Mr Galahad was very charmed.’

‘I’m not sure exactly how I should be feeling.’

‘Well—you could start by feeling a little richer. Now: if you make the decision to join Mr Galahad upstairs remember that we need to know in advance. The telephone number is on the information I gave you. He’s not always here in the house and we want to make sure he’s here if you decide you’d like to spend some time with him.’

‘Not here? Where does he go?’

‘I honestly have no idea. But he did send me an instant message while we were in the video room, and it should be mirrored on this computer here.’

Malika felt a little bit of a chill, since—in her active imagination—she’d already spent a lot of the money she was going to get by making that appointment upstairs.

‘Mr Galahad messaged you? He changed his mind?’

‘No. He’s thoroughly impressed with you. But he did mention that, before your next appointment with us, you need to make an appointment at a salon.’ Hope had a business card in her desk. ‘These people are very good. And reasonably priced.’

Malika assumed she could keep the card. She put that in her bag, along with the money.

‘I need to get waxed?’

‘Your roommate might have mentioned it. But she has our secrets to keep, of course. One long appointment. Or several shorter ones. However you decide to have it done.’

‘To handle my bush, you mean?’

‘Well—everything. Just tell the salon to take everything.’

‘It really bothers him? Hair?’

‘If he’s paying the price, then he makes the rules. That’s the way I look at it. And it’s not just Mr Galahad. It’s a modern attitude, I think. No real enthusiasm for pubic hair anymore—if there ever was.’

‘Down there? And every place else, too?’

Hope gave her another very engaging smile: ‘After your body hair disappears, all of your money worries disappear, too. Wouldn’t that be nice?’

~~~

Leaning against a telephone pole, waiting for the streetcar that would take her back to campus, Malika’s feelings of discomfort and dislocation lingered. Checking carefully to see if anyone might be watching, she tugged on the edge of the payment envelope until she could see the bills inside. Not enough for a new computer. But her rent for the next month. A new fleece jacket before it started getting colder. Good looking heels for those rare nights she went clubbing.

The money had actually happened. Which meant that all the rest of it had happened. Not exactly a whore, she thought. There was a generally accepted definition for that: and it wasn’t what she had done, or was planning to do.

But still: it felt like a slippery slope.

The card for the waxing salon was in that same pocket, but Malika knew of an Indian lady in Algiers who charged a lot less, and had snacks that reminded Malika of home.

Home, and her family—who might literally kill her if they knew what she was up to.

But she would set aside some other time to worry about that. She’d seen Kami coming out of the shower a few days before and had noticed that her roommate had suddenly become very smooth. Even losing her delicate little moustache.

Now Malika knew why.


Submitted: January 14, 2022

© Copyright 2022 churchmouse. All rights reserved.

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