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Brothel without a Heartbeat
By Josephine Stone
I look at the layers of rock. The ones on top are light and look like they are covered in powder. As I dig deeper with my plastic ladle, the rocks beneath are darker, clumped tight together and heavy. In some corners it is easy to wedge the spoon, bending at a 45 degree angle, under a clump and lift it out, smaller rocks spraying across the wooden floor. These bigger clumps are the spots where she likes to urinate. The feces are easier to get out. They are always on top, and she usually does a good job of covering them so they just slide on the spoon, and into the wrinkled, plastic grocery bag. Good cat. You have me whipped, Skaldskaparmal, and sometimes I cannot believe I get on my hands and knees to sift through these layers of disgusting pebbles, actually thinking to myself about igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic layers of your shit and piss. You are my best friend, though, and I suppose people do a lot for friendship sometimes.
I'm already late for work, and that makes me relax. It's the initial hitting the time you're supposed to be there that's a doozy. Might as well take a nap now. I shake my head at my lethargy and figure that if I've already had my face in Skalds' box my day can't get much worse. It's not much work to do anyhow, just a few visits to make before I contact Rob with the stats. I throw on my best black suit, walk through each room to make sure all of the lights are off, and then head out to catch the bus. I kind of like the fact that it is so unreliable, and that everyone looks so sad on the bus. It's like we're on a ride to visit our terminally ill children, or to a gas chamber, and the driver knows it and doesn't want to hurry because none of us really want to get there too fast. People always seem to be thinking so hard, too, and it can be suffocating at times.
I hop off at the Cranston Street stop across from a strip mall with its basic chain grocery store, Chinese restaurant, alcohol store and tattoo shop. I stay on the east side of the street and walk up the asphalt to the door of Moore's Funeral Home. Thankfully there are a lot of cars out front, a good sign. I am glad a lot of people are here to see her, and it will take the pressure off of me having to talk to anyone. I walk in and hear the typical, drab piano music playing from a hidden boom box. The place is packed, the walls covered in flowers. I take a seat in the back row, preferring to walk up alone, or when there is less of a line. I'm one of those wait-till-all-those-pushy-people-board-the-plane, or get-lunch, or get-into-Wal-Mart-on-Black-Friday kinda guys. I can wait.
Approximately an hour of people watching passes before I head up to see her. I try to look solemn, but it's hard around all these really bad hats and sandals. I can't believe some people. I see her, pretty as a picture with her hands crossed under her breasts. Her long, auburn hair is neatly combed and she is wearing a white dress her parents picked out. She looks so alive it's surprising when her hands don't rise and fall with breath or beating heart. I crouch down as if to tell her something, and just stare at her face, perfectly preserved. She is much more pale than in her obituary, but is still the stunning shell of a 23-year-old woman taken too soon. I try to make a face I imagine someone who just had a great deal of closure would make, and walked back through the wake and into the sunlight. Time to catch that shiny monster downtown.
I get off at the 22nd Street stop this time, and walk a few blocks over to Samson Avenue where Rob's building is. It's located in an industrial warehouse area that is mostly empty, and is one of many eye sores that line the block. For cheap, he has a few floors and a large basement. His office was on the first floor. I ring the bell and stand where the camera can see the back of my throat as I pretend to consume the small "hidden" piece of equipment.
"Knock it off, asshole," Rob seethes through the slits of the intercom located right above the bell. "Get in here."
The door buzzes and I walk in straight down the hallway toward the back. His office is the only open door, and the only light on. His building is always so cold, and so dark inside. I plopped down on a crumb covered arm chair in front of his desk and cross my left leg over my right. I can hear a guy moaning through the wall in the room right next to us and I grimace.
"Is that Thomas?" I ask, annoyed, staring at the groaning wall.
"Nah. Some new guy. He's cool. If you wanna check out the sitch, it's a new one, too," Rob replied as he continued to type and stare at the computer screen.
I exhale a deep breath while I uncross my legs, as though I am doing him a big favor. I slap my hands on my knees and push up. The chair creaks. My dress shoes echo on the green linoleum floor, like a hospital, and I slowly turn the knob of the next door over. I put my head through the crack I have made without opening the door much further. I didn't want much light to get in, or for this new guy to notice. The room had no windows and there was a bed in the middle. A young, pale guy was violently thrusting his hips between the open legs of a girl, panting and repeatedly picking her leg back up to rest against his side. I quickly closed the door.
"Looks good," I said once I was back in the room. "But you need to see the beaut from today. About 5'7", 120 pounds, auburn hair."
"Oh, the tragic drug overdose?" Rob asked sarcastically, still occupied and still sounding as though he weren't really listening or caring.
"Yeah. She's great. Will be at Greensburg tonight. Joanna should be there," I mumbled, picking lint off my shirt.
"Per-fect," Rob said with the last two slams of the enter key.
He turned his chair finally to face me.
"Well don't you look nice today," he smiled.
I shook my head. This is the part where I should blush and say, "Aww, you cut it out." But I'm not buying into those weird games. I hate when he looks so smug, complimenting me as if I just learned how to dress today, or just showed him how I used the toilet instead of the small, pink chair next to it. I am not his child.
"What time are you thinking we head down?" he asked, realizing my annoyance wasn't topical.
"Joanna said two. Should be enough time," I replied.
The moaning stopped. We looked at each other. We heard the door open a few minutes later and the young man appeared in the door frame of the room we were in, his distorted shadow thrown across the floor like an oil spill, or what I guessed a demon would look like. His face was sweaty and he looked embarrassed that I was there.
"This is Dave," Rob said to the young man, pointing at me. "And this is Steven."
We both mumbled "nice to meet you"s and didn't shake hands, for good reason. Steven looked nervous, pulled out a wad of cash in a rubber band and set it on the desk.
"We’re meeting tonight, and you're more than welcome," Rob said with a smile as he pulled the wad closer to his side of the desk.
"Yeah, uh, thanks. I, uh, have to work tonight at the.." Steven said as he started to awkwardly point his thumb over his shoulder.
"At the pizza shop. I know. But if anything comes up, just stop by," Rob said with a larger smile. He liked knowing things about people and reminding them that he knows at random times. He's a freak.
Steven started to turn on his heel, I nodded at him and he was out the door.
"What is that kid, like eighteen?" I asked, raising my voice when I could hear the front door slam.
Rob shrugged and lit a cigarette.
"You mind?" he asked as he pointed to the now silent wall, blowing the smoke out of his nostrils.
I let out another deep breath, slapped my knees and was back in the room. It smelled sick, like old food and semen. The girl lay on her back, in the same position I had seen Steven with her. When I got closer to her face I gagged.
"ROB! ROOOOB, GET YOUR ASS IN HERE!" I yelled through the wall.
A moment later he was behind me.
"This kid fuckin' mutilated her," I said angrily. "He pay extra for this? 'Cause we can't use 'er again now."
The girl's eye sockets were swollen and pooled with blood. Between her blue, split lips, broken teeth could be seen blocking the back of her open throat. It was obvious her cheek and jaw bones were broken, her face unstructured, unshaped, inhuman. Her breasts and thighs were covered in bruises whose color bled into intricate spider web-like designs of dark purple and blue. The carnage reminded me of a squashed squirrel I had seen during a stroll through a residential area yesterday, it's guts pushed out through its mouth, completely flat like a spent bottle of toothpaste.
"Yeah. Forgot to tell you about this new deal I've come up with," he said, pulling the blanket over the girl's face. "In addition to our new option of price variance based on levels of dec-, er-, on levels of freshness, I figured we could get people to pay extra for the chance to do whatever they want to the body. You have no idea how many sadists in this town are going to eat this special offer up!" he finished with a toothy smile.
I stared at the blood soaking through the sheets covering where her face had once been.
"Whatever, man. I don’t know if I'm really cool with-"
"And does what you're cool with matter at all in this situation? You are a grunt. You are the one on the hunt. You are completely replaceable," Rob said before I could finish my sentence.
I let out another deep sigh as I began to pull the sheets from under the mattress and flipping them over onto the top of the bed. I gripped the corners of sheets at the head of the bed and stared over at Rob, my mouth drawn in a tight line.
"You helpin', or what?"
He took his place at the foot of the bed and grabbed each corner. We lifted at the count of three and made small shuffles with our feet, biting our lips at the weight and strain on our arms. There was a small square door located in the middle of the wall in the hallway, probably once used for a dumb waiter, or for a trash disposal for a furnace in the basement. Rob dropped his end of the load with a thud and pulled the handle of the small trap door open, groaned as he bent over to pick her back up, and then we watched as the bottom of the white sheet fluttered into darkness of the hole. We stood there to listen for the slam at the bottom, smiled at each other and exaggeratedly brushed our hands off for a job well done.
"I'm headin' home. Be back around two for the pick up," I said, still wiping my hands off on my black slacks.
"What about preparations for the meeting tonight? It'll surely be over by then," Rob said with an air of disappointment. "You would get to see all the guys, all the new girls set up, have some drinks."
"I'll show up early. But I'm not helping you set up some fag fest. I'll be back around midnight, I suppose."
I began to slowly walk down the hall, feeling his eyes burning into my back. He didn't like when I decided what I would be doing, but I wasn't going to be his bitch tonight. I spend every day doing that.
Once at home I plopped down on the couch and grabbed the shoe horn on the side table.
"Skaldskaparmaaaal, guess who's hooommeee!" I said in as cheerful a voice as I could muster. I always feel anxiety before these meetings, before the pickups, before schmoozing with the scum that partakes in the furnace I fuel. A small cat on my lap usually helps with the unwinding.
"If you don't come out now I'll never point a laser at the floor in this house agaaaiiin."
Still no reply. My best friend is very fickle, very unreliable, and not very punctual. We are so similar. I smile thinking about how I'd treat me the same way if I were her.
I wedge my shoes off with the horn and moan with relief. Those damn dress shoes strangle and scrape the back of my foot, and I had been able to feel my heart beat in my heels all day. After pointing my toes and rolling my ankles in small circles with my eyes closed and head laid back against the wall above the couch, I get up and walk over to the desktop computer in the corner of the room.
Minesweeper -- the next best thing to small Skalds. Fuck her, I thought to myself. I'm about to be tiptoeing 'round some bombs, causin' that emoticon to show me his "O-face" with each click.
After five successful guesses the smiley face's eyes turn to X's. I killed him. I stare at the screen and begin to think of how quickly that happened. How this silly game can say so much about the quickness that death can be served. It's a wonder I can have some existential moment about the brevity of it all when I deal in death. My sensitivity at times makes me want to vomit. I decide to call Joanna.
"Hi, this is Dave. Was wondering if Joanna was on duty today."
"Um, sure. Hold on a sec."
I could hear the phone being set on the counter, the rumble of the spiral phone cord moving against the receiver and a muffled "Joannnnaaa!" from the woman's voice on the other end. The plastic cord grumble began again for a few seconds. I could hear light breathing on the other end.
"Hi Dave," Joanna said. Her voice is sweet and she sounds twelve over the phone.
"Hello, my crust puppet. Just wanted to check in."
"Oh, how nice to hear from you, my little broken bulb."
She was good at playing along with my games, knowing exactly why I was calling, and adding to the fun of quickly coming up with silly pet names on the spot. We didn't need any fuckin' Sudoku to work these circuits.
"So the eagle's still landin' at two?" I asked, deepening my voice to sound like a commander on a secret mission.
"Cut the crap, Dave. I'll be back here then, and if you're late I'm gone. We won't have much time. I'll have the cameras off, the files gone. It'll be fine. Just got in come unidentified cremated remains that'll do. If you keep calling me like this you'll have my coworkers unconvinced that I'm a lesbian. Gotta go."
I sighed at the click and after slowly dragging the phone down my ear and neck I swung it up in my palm and onto the receiver. My only friends are people that I work with, ones that would never call me their friend, and always just want to keep things strictly business. Joanna has been working at Greensburg for years. I met her at a Waffle House one morning at 4 a.m., shortly after Rob and I had come up with our genius plan for the brothel without a heartbeat. Her occupation was pure serendipity. Rob and I had been friends for several years, met back in college, and since then had always been working on crazy business schemes like no-touch bathroom stall doors, pizza gum and meals with feels. Our latest venture was proving to be the most profitable. He is the brains, the organizer, and I am the outside man, the supplier. We collect corpses from Joanna, preferably Joe and Jane Does, homeless or without families. Age, race, cause of death all unimportant, but each cater to different clients, and depending on supply and demand, directly affects price. The business of cremation has been booming, with corpses reserved for funeral services becoming less and less common, so we've begun delivering, with a sum of money, the cremated remains of random objects and animals for Joanna in order to get the cream, or, really, the corpse of the crop. We provide discounts depending on levels of decay and the amount of times a body has been used. Sometimes, in rare situations, the higher the number, the higher the price for the sickest clients. After doing this for a couple of years you can read what a guy wants in a matter of seconds, by his body language, his wandering eyes, his perspiration. I am the magic eight ball of these men's fantasies, and with one shake of a hand can pinpoint and price a client.
I look at the carpet and Skalds is on her back, twisting and wriggling her body on the soft carpet with her feet folded in submission on her chest, reminding me of mosquito larvae in standing water.
"Now that you've decided to show up, I'm leaving."
I head up the stairs to the small bedroom located at the top. I change into jeans and a button-up long sleeved shirt and slip my feet into some running shoes. I want to blend in, as much as that is possible, into this group of men who will be seeing the Betties Rob is setting up in each room. Presentation is key, especially when gaining new members. I think sometimes about how these are men from all over the neighborhood. Men you think look normal as they walk their Labrador through the park, as they use the microfilm lamps in the library, as they talk you into the 40" TV set at Best Buy, or, as in Steven's case, as they deliver you pizza. I guess it's sort of like finding out the president of the PTA at your child's school is a member of the NRA. Or that the old man across the street that sits in a lawn chair waving at traffic is a registered sex offender.
I have time to kill, so I lay back on top of the covers of my made bed and set an alarm on my phone for 11:30.
I am grateful Rob's building is in a secluded area of town when I can hear voices inside from across the street. I ring the bell and position my face centered in front of the camera. The door buzzes. The solitude from earlier today is completely absent, each room full of people, smoke, clinking glasses and chatter. The first door on the right is a large living room where most are congregated and where Rob notices me immediately.
"Everyone. Everyone! This is my partner, Dave!" he shouts above the dull droning of voices.
Most turn to look at me, some smile, some wave, some say "Hello, Dave," "Nice to meet you, Dave," "Thanks for having us, Dave." I do not make an effort to smile, but do make one to get to a corner of the room where there is a chair and I sit, avoiding eye contact with any who may be interested or want to ask a question. I, like most here, am just here for the tour of the new ladies, and to get directions before picking up the new one from Joanna. A lot of the men around the room are middle aged, gripping the necks of their beer bottles as if they are live animals, anxious of their escape. Rob can tell by my expression that I do not wish to be here long and begins the formalities.
"Most of you know of our facility, and the business we provide. For new clients, you will soon know. We do not have these meetings regularly, but when a larger shipment is made, or when a larger amount of members exist, we find it necessary to clean the place up and present, celebrate and guide," Rob said with pride. "This is the first floor, and it has 5 rooms. The second and third floor each have seven. Any room can be designed to fit personal taste and preference, and décor generally rotates to keep things new. Same with the women that work the building, and for good reason," he said, as the knuckleheads around the room all laughed. "Let's take a look."
He swings his arm in the air open handed, gathering invisible gnats or ghosts, orchestrating the group to follow him into the next room down the hall. Every other room of the building was significantly smaller than the living room, so a few men could step in and look, while others peered over shoulders, nodding and grumbling. I keep my distance, waiting to see each room after all have passed. This first room contains the perfectly preserved corpse of an older school teacher who had died in a car accident. She is laying on the bed, eyes closed, arms crossed, in a school teacher costume. The gray wisps of her hair curled as if she had been awake before our arrival, primping for her exhibition. Next to each door there is a box of numbers for interested clients. This number served as a bid for her body.
The next room has a young woman chained by her wrists to the wall, her head down with her chin on her chest as if she found a comfortable enough position to fall asleep while bound in such a position. Another room has an older black woman who was missing a leg, sprawled out in the middle of a large bed, dressed in a glitter mini skirt and a black lace bra. The last two rooms were empty. Rob's office was the last one in the hall.
As we moved upstairs, the more bizarre the set ups were. One room is set up with a woman to look like a back room of a masseuse parlor, one room glimmers like a discotheque, another has films playing on the walls of women walking around the street, strange voyeuristic shots of innocent moments of their day. Somehow we'd been lucky to get a great deal of younger ones, and I could tell the guys were impressed.
"I remember reading about her, and how she was one of the only people in the state to die from the flu this year," a tall man with a hat said to another.
"Someone told me that the one-legged woman on the first floor lost it to gangrene," replied another.
What the fuck is wrong with these guys, I think to myself. I wonder why they don't go to where they can have real women. Where half of the rooms don't have a suffocating stench. Rob and I would have to make sure to rush around to get all these ladies in the walk-in fridge in the basement after closing up, because they don't last long out on parade like this.
At the third floor Rob utilized his new violent brain child. Weapons line each wall, some rooms with different ones, medieval room with maces and armor, more hands-on rooms with razor blades and ropes, modern rooms with cauterizing tools and trays of shiny, metal medical knives and hooks. I couldn't believe he had only told me about the idea earlier today, after allowing a client, and already had a full set up. Usually these rooms looked like the silly ones on the prior floors. I couldn't believe how the numbers went on this floor. The men now each had one or two. Rob moved up to the front of the crowd, called each out in order, and the highest bidder received a key and permission to be excused. Soon each door was shut, with some waiting in the hallway on benches making awkward conversation and perspiring.
"Don't look at me like that," Rob said, knowing I was annoyed with the set up of the third floor.
"You didn't even ask my opinion, and now it is a concept with its own floor! I really don't have a say on what goes on here. Fuck this place."
I turn and start down the stairs, half expecting him to tell me to stop, to wait up, to apologize for his rash behavior without my consent. The silence punctuates the echo of each of my steps as I make my way to the front door.
Joanna will console me. She's good at that. I was looking forward to being surrounded by the artificial air of the fridge units that pulled out like shelves all around the wall. Her hands coated tight with latex. The lab coat and name tag. She has the face of an angel, the job of an undertaker, and the scheming mindset of a villain. All of this generally confused and excited me. How could she be a part of all this, when she is like that? I can see my breath shoot out in large plumes from my mouth as I crossed the empty street and got into my car. I sat for a minute looking at the front door, wondering if he'd appear in its frame to catch me. I cut on the ignition and pull away toward the interstate.