The Ranch Carson City, Nevada Present Day
Way too much velvet for three in the afternoon. Even for an oasis in the middle of the desert, a place that reeked of perfume and cigar smoke and Jack Daniel's, a place that I had been directed to by a cocktail napkin scarred by bright red lipstick. The velvet seemed to flow from everywhere at once; snaking down the wood-paneled walls, erupting from the low, tiled ceiling in voluptuous, pulsating waves, bursting from the shadowy corners, undulating beneath the plush daybeds and aging sofas that lined both sides of the ornate parlor. The stiff, blustery air-conditioning wasn't helping matters; the blasts of frigid air made the velvet dance and shimmer like living tissue. As a visual, it was more nauseating than enticing.
It had been a long taxi ride from the Strip, and I was dead tired from the heat outside. Arid, desert heat, not the kind that makes you sweat. Rather, the kind that cooks your brain. It was early September, and in this part of Nevada, that still counted as summer. You had to be crazy to come this far out into the desert in summer. Crazier still, to come to a place like this in the middle of a Friday afternoon.
I stepped deeper into the parlor, calming my nerves with deep breaths of frigid perfume, smoke, and whiskey. I wondered if the taxi was still waiting outside, as I had asked, or if the driver had simply pulled away as soon as I'd passed through the metal gate and made my way to the wire-screened front door. I certainly wouldn't have blamed him. Anyone deviant enough to pay three hundred bucks for the ride out to this ranch in the middle of nowhere deserved what was coming to him. I was no exception.
The truth was, this wasn't my first time in a place like this. For the past ten years, I'd traveled the world in search of stories, and sometimes those stories took me to places you really couldn't talk about at cocktail parties. Places like this ranch of paneled wood and velvet; a low, squat building that from the outside seemed to blend into the horizon -- except for the neon sign on the roof and the decorative hitching posts in the driveway.
I took another step into the parlor, a circular space cluttered with anachronistic furniture, braced on one side by a long, mahogany bar. The bar stools were the same color as the velvet, a dusty crimson, and the sofas and daybeds had been upholstered to match. There were paintings on the walls, most of them of horses, a few of women and men in Wild West getups: hoop skirts, cowboy hats, boots with spurs. Kitschy, except I was pretty sure some of the paintings were authentic, since I knew that this place had existed, in some form or another, since the days of boots with spurs. An institution, of sorts, certainly more permanent than the neon behemoths of the Vegas Strip, built on something more primitive, seductive, and, indeed, human than the vice that had founded Sin City itself.
I'd almost made it to the middle of the room when I saw the woman sitting at the stool at the far end of the bar.Midfifties, short, squat, wearing a pink summer dress and white, high-heeled shoes. Her hair was a mop of curls, and her lipstick was an unnerving shade of orange. There was a glass of brown liquid on the bar in front of her. It could have been Coke, but just as easily whiskey. She heard my progress through the parlor and turned, but there wasn't any surprise in her gaze. I guessed that despite the heat and the time of day, this place still had its fair share of visitors.
She slid off her stool and turned toward me, smiling an orange smile.
"Welcome, stranger." She didn't seem to really look at me, instead focusing on a point just left of my ear. Seemed like force of habit; maybe she didn't want to remember my face. "Have a seat on any of the couches, and I'll show you what we've got."
I lowered myself onto one of the daybeds, tucking my legs under the plush material. I was trembling beneath my white cotton buttondown shirt, but the truth was, it was more anticipation than fear. Even though I was there for different reasons than the average client, the thrill was impossible to ignore.
The woman leaned back against the bar and clapped her hands. Then she cleared her throat.
"Ladies from the right!"
There was a shuffling sound, then a door opened along the right wall of the parlor. The first woman who came through the open doorway was ridiculously tall, maybe six feet, and her eight-inch stiletto heels made her seem almost gargantuan. She had flowing blond hair, glowing strands twisting down over her bare shoulders, gold rivulets dancing down the cavern of her surgically enhanced chest. Her bright red lingerie left little to the imagination. She was pretty, certainly, but more than a little terrifying as well. And she wasn't alone.
She was followed across the parlor by three more women, all in brightly colored lingerie and stripper heels. Two of them blond, one African-American. One of the blondes was short, a little more rounded, with a circular face and ovoid eyes. She could have been nineteen, if not for the spiderweb of lines at the edges of her overly pursed lips. The other blonde was much older, though she carried herself well. Surgery, again, and a lot of makeup, expertly applied in thick swatches across her cheeks, under her eyes, across her lips. The black girl was the only one of the four who was smiling, and it helped her stand out even more; she was by far the most beautiful of the girls, and she wouldn't have looked out of place on the pages of a magazine. Five nine, thin, smooth, brown legs, and a rounded, natural chest. Her outfit was lacy and white and fit perfectly over her curves.