“So,” Mrs Bowen continued, smiling at Carol over steepled hands, “that’s settled, but there’s something else I think we need to talk about.”
Carol swallowed, nervous. She didn’t know what the madam wanted. That was bad. It was always bad when you were undercover and didn’t know something. Whenever anyone gave you the look that Mrs Bowen was giving her now. The look that said the other person knows something that you don’t, that something was going on and they knew you wouldn’t want to talk about it. That’s never good, not for anyone. But for an undercover cop it might mean that they were on to you, baiting you, letting you think everything was okay, but knowing that they had you, like a spider, waiting for the fly to realise it was dead. Carol didn’t think her cover was blown, she was good, she’d never been rumbled and Mrs Bowen had just set up the meeting for her with Conti. But there was always the possibility, always the chance, that she’d slipped up. In undercover, you’re always waiting for the day someone works out who you really are and comes after you with a gun. You always need to be ready to run. Carol tensed. She didn’t say anything. She didn’t know what she could say. Even if the madam hadn’t worked out that she was a cop, Carol was sure that this was a conversation she didn’t want to have.
“I was talking to Ellie, about the weekend booking.” No surprise there, the madam had spoken to Carol and Janice about it. The brunette would have wondered if the madam hadn’t spoken to the shapely blonde as well. Carol doubted that Ellie had said anything that might make Mrs Bowen suspicious that Stephanie wasn’t what she appeared to be, but that still left a lot of possibilities. From the look in the madam’s eyes Carol was certain blonde had said something that Carol was going to wish Mrs Bowen hadn’t heard.
The madam paused for a moment, then seemed to realise that Carol wasn’t going to say anything. She smiled, but it was cold and Carol knew this wasn’t going anywhere she wanted it to. “Ellie said the weekend went well, but you weren’t too keen on some of the play in the pool. But then she said you seemed like a good swimmer, so I doubt it was that.” Mrs Bowen drew her brows together in look of confusion, but Carol knew it was a put-on.
The young woman knew that she had to say something, “Well, I don’t know, the guys seemed happy enough.”
“Yes,” Mrs Bowen smiled, the frown gone but her expression lacking any warmth. “No complaints from that end. You girls must have kept them satisfied. But there was something about what Ellie told me. She’s not the brightest spark, but she pays attention and she has a good memory. Didn’t work it out herself though. That’s why I’m the madam.”
Carol squirmed in her seat, they both might have been sitting on one of the lounges, but she knew their positions weren’t equal. Mrs Bowen lounged, like an old time movie star, legs elegantly bent beneath her and left arm draped along the back of the lounge. She might have been older than Carol, but she was still attractive. Carol sat, hands clasped in her lap, legs together and tight against the seat, like an errant student in front of a decadent headmistress. It wasn’t just the way they sat. Carol’s clothes revealed so much more of her body. There was an elegance to the madam that Carol had never quite mastered. Undercover work had left her practiced at so many things, but elegance was rarely called for. Carol knew that anyone watching would have easily spotted who was in control here.
The policewoman turned whore swallowed, words hard to find. “Sorry?” was all she could manage.
“Don’t be sorry dear,” Mrs Bowen sighed. “Be better. You didn’t like it, did you, when those men tried to get you naked in front of all of them, did you? It’s different, isn’t it, a group instead of one man?”
Carol nodded, she knew there was no use denying it. She hadn’t liked the idea of losing what little protection her bikini had offered. Having nothing, in front of so many men, she hadn’t been able to handle the idea, still couldn’t. It was too much of a loss of control, it left her too vulnerable, it didn’t matter if she was a whore or a policewoman, one playing at being the other. A naked woman in front of that many men was too much for her, whoever she was.
“A girl needs every skill she can get, Stephanie, be able to handle anything. You need to learn that.” Carol was caught again by the image of Mrs Bowen as headmistress, herself as a student, although she shuddered to think of the school that would teach the things she was supposed to learn here.
“I, I’m sorry, I just,” the words catching as Carol spoke.
Mrs Bowen regarded her, not unkindly, some of the coldness melting away. “You need to loosen up Stephanie. You’re a good girl. You could go a long way. I remember … Never mind.” Carol wondered if the madam had been about to make a comparison between the two of them.
“There’s this place called Angels, down on Columbus Avenue. Near Broadway. You know it?”
Carol knew it, she’d never been there, but she knew it. One of the best, or worst depending on your point of view, strip joints in the city. Undercover cops picked up these things, knew everything about the underbelly of their city. If they wanted to they could be the best guides to anything illegal, guns, betting, drugs, strip joints. And whores of course, but for Carol that now went without saying. But Stephanie wouldn’t know these things. Stephanie would never have gone near a place like Angel’s, or even heard of it. Stephanie was an ex-college student who knew a bit about illegal poker parlours and a lot about whoring. Strip joints were outside her experience. So Carol shook her head.
“That’s okay, Frank will give you the address. I want you there on Tuesday night, maybe a couple of nights after that.”
Carol felt her eyes go wide, Mrs Bowen couldn’t be serious. She couldn’t expect Stephanie to just go there and strip. There’d be who knew how many men, dozens, maybe hundreds, far more than at the party and Carol just couldn’t, she felt herself freezing. The only reassurance she had was that it would be no surprise Stephanie looking that way, so at least her expression was genuine. But she couldn’t do what Mrs Bowen wanted, she couldn’t. Her mind flailed, spun, whirred like a car out of gear, all roar and no traction. She needed to keep the madam on side, just a little longer, just to get to Conti’s and help find the missing girls. She had to find some way, something, anything but what the madam wanted of her now.
The madam’s throaty laughter cut across her thoughts. “Oh, the look on your face.” Carol could see Mrs Bowen composing herself, her normal seriousness returning with an obvious effort. “Don’t worry dear, you’re not going to be there as entertainment. You’ll just be a waitress. I’ll even make up the difference in what you earn.”
Carol heaved a sigh of relief. Waitress. She could do that. Then her blood ran cold as the madam continued.
Mrs Bowen was all seriousness now, all hint of levity gone. “But I want you to watch the girls, and think about it. I like you Stephanie, I really do, but sometimes I can’t afford to give my girls choices.”
Carol shivered, then told herself it would be okay. In a couple of weeks the raid would go down and then it wouldn’t matter what the madam wanted out of her. She nodded. She could go to the strip joint, watch the girls, watch them take their clothes off, think about it, think about how much she didn’t want to be the one stripping in public.
She’s the madam, she says what goes. The words from a few days before were still in Carol’s head. She couldn’t refuse what Mrs. Bowen was asking of her.
The madam smiled at her. “It’s worth it you know. A stripper doesn’t make the kind of money you do, but they’ve got their own skills. It’s amazing what watching you take off a few bits of cloth can do to a man. If you do it the right way that is.” Carol was sure the madam was growing wistful. “So even if you never have to work like that it’s worth knowing. Your body’s all you have girl, you need to know everything you can get it to do. Being the best isn’t just about looks, it’s how you can use what you’ve got.”
Carol stared at the madam. She was sure that Mrs Bowen thought she was doing Stephanie a favour. Helping her be a better whore.
I want to be a prostitute. I’m happy to be a prostitute. I love it when men use me. I want to be used sexually.
The words echoed in Carol’s head, chased themselves around and around her mind. She tried to stop them, tried not to listen. She could sense the danger. Carol knew herself, knew how she always pushed herself to be the best she could at whatever role she had to play. So if Mrs Bowen was showing her a way to be a better prostitute…
No, no, I won’t I can’t not that, no. Find the girls, I just have to hold on until I find them, then it’s over. Carol kept telling herself that, wishing she could believe it.
Angel’s wasn’t hard to find. The great glowing neon sign, flashing into the night, was visible a block away. Carol’s first instinct was to use the front entrance, but then she realised that would be a mistake. She was here to work, not watch. Well, she was supposed to watch, but it wasn’t her idea. Summoning her courage she headed down an alley by the side of the building, carefully avoiding stepping in any of the refuse of the city, old newspapers, rotten food and pools of water so dirty she couldn’t see what lurked in the shallow murk. She screwed her nose up at the smells wafting from the overflowing bins.
The back wall of the club, or at least what Carol assumed was its back wall, loomed on her right, a naked blub illuminating a single door, the light weak and flickering. Biting her lip Carol rapped on the door, the peeling paint flaking off under her knuckles. The place may have looked flash from the front, but obviously that care didn’t extend to the worker’s entrance. Carol blinked in the harsh light spilling from inside as the door opened. Framed in the doorway she could see a man, tall and lean, dressed in jeans and a tight black shirt.
“Who’re you?” he asked, frowning in confusion.
“Umm, I-I’m Stephanie,” Carol stammered, “M-Mrs Bowen sent me.” Carol fought an urge to run.
“Oh yeah,” the man said, throwing an easy smile at Carol. “The temporary waitress?”
“That’s right,” the brunette nodded, happy that waitressing was all that was expected of her.
“Come on in,” the man waved, stepping aside to make room for her. “I’m Ted, the barman.”
“Hi,” Carol smiled back.
Ted was already heading into the building. “Just need to let Edgar know you’re here,” he called over his shoulder.
Carol guessed that she was supposed to follow. “Edgar?” she queried.
“Yeah, the manager,” Ted replied. “C’mon.”
Carol could see a group of people up ahead, mostly girls, but there was one man in amongst them. Carol guessed that they were probably strippers, but you couldn’t have told from their clothes, bell-bottomed jeans and casual sweaters or simple dresses, nothing to set them apart from the girls she’d met at the college. In her jeans and tight top Carol thought she would fit right in, her undercover instincts to blend into the crowd taking hold. She recoiled from the thought, not wanting to have anything to do with the girls who provided the entertainment.
The man, Edgar Carol assumed, was older than Ted, probably in his fifties, and shorter than Carol, his greasy died-black hair plastered to his skull, an expensive suit sitting poorly on him, his stance making the jacket slip to one side.
“Who’re you?” the manager demanded curtly, his gaze boring into her over Ted’s shoulder. Carol could see him sizing her up, judging what she looked like under her clothes. She was used to the look, Johns assessing her before deciding to part with their money, wanting to be certain that her body would give them what they wanted. But this was different, Carol knew that the manager was assessing her potential as a stripper. Her stomach lurched.
“Uh, Stephanie,” Carol sputtered.
Edgar leered at her. “Right. New girl, here for a couple of nights, yeah?”
“Yes,” Carol nodded. “Just to waitress.”
“Yeah, whatever,” the manager replied scornfully. Then he added, as Carol hovered behind the barman, “I ain’t got time to waste on a waitress. Tracey, fix her up.”
The woman Edgar addressed was thin-faced, dark-eyed under raven-black hair. Carol assumed she was Tracey. The girl led Carol away from the group, her slim body moving with a dancer’s grace. She ushered Carol into a small room, little more than a closet, then followed her in. The only furnishings were a rack of clothes and a mirror hanging on the wall. The mirror was dirty and cracked, a piece missing from its lower left corner.
“Yeah, I know,” Tracey said as Carol looked around the room. “You get a better room if you’re a stripper.”
“Oh,” Carol replied, still not wanting to believe she was here.
Tracey looked from Carol to the rack. “We should have something in your size.” She pushed through the clothes, all blue skirts and tops, obviously the uniform of the waitresses, before picking out one of each garment and tossing them at Carol.
The brunette caught the clothes and then just stood there, unsure what to do.
Tracey picked out a set for herself then started removing her jeans and billowy floral top. Reaching for the skirt of her uniform she shot a glance in Carol’s direction “Well, come on, it’s opening soon and we need to get you up to speed. Geez, you’ll have to be better than that at getting out of your clothes if you want to get up on stage.”
“I-I don’t,” Carol protested. She started to shed her clothes, realising her earlier hesitation had been about stripping in a strip club. Even if it was in a room out the back. She shook her head at her own silliness. Here it was only in front of another woman. If she’d been worried about that she’d never have gone into the change rooms at school.
“Whata ya mean ya don’t?” the thin-faced girl asked in surprise.
“I’m only here to waitress for a couple of nights,” Carol insisted. “You’re a waitress, right?”
“Only some nights,” Tracey replied, “Edgar likes to rotate us girls, give the crowd some variety, so sometimes I take waitress shifts when I’m not on. All money, ya know? And a lot of girls start as waitresses while they’re waiting for their chance to show what they got. This ain’t no cheap joint where just anyone can get on stage and shake their tits. You gotta have some class here.” The girl’s accent contrasted sharply with her preening.
“Oh.” Carol didn’t know what else to say. The lack of distinction between the waitresses and the strippers bothered her. If the customers knew that some of the girls did both then they might think the same of her. That didn’t promise her an easy time. She wondered if Mrs. Bowen knew of the arrangements. Then chided herself for even asking the question. The madam must have known. She’d know exactly what she was sending one of her girls into. Fear welled up on Carol, dark and skittering. She felt trapped, wondering if there was such thing as just a waitress in this place, was it just assumed she would…
“Are all the waitresses, umm?” Carol managed to say, her breath tight in her chest.
“Nah,” Tracey replied, reassuringly. “Don’t worry honey, no-one’s going to push you up on stage, if that’s what you’re worried about.” Then she added, her eyes running critically over Carol, “Though you should think about it, you got the body for it. Know any dance moves?”
Carol slowly nodded in agreement, she knew how to dance, undercover taught you so many skills you never thought you’d learn. “Yeah, a few.” Then she quickly shook her head in denial, “But, umm, no, I’m just here to help with the drinks.”
Tracey shrugged as she slipped her blouse on. “Suit yourself. You brought some heels, right?”
“Yeah,” Carol replied, pulling a pair of white high heels out of her bag. She doubted her feet would thank her by the end of the shift, but she’d known better than to ignore the instructions she’d been given.
The uniform was hardly demure, but Carol hadn’t expected any better, not with this place and not with those heels. The brunette shook her head as she looked in the cracked mirror. The outfit was a parody of that of a diner waitress. The flared skirt, in a shiny light blue satin, was shorter than she remembered any waitress wearing, coming to mid-thigh at best, the built in white calico petticoat peeking out. The top was in a stretch fabric, a blue so dark it was almost black, with white cuffs and collar. That wasn’t unusual, but the silver sequins around the edges weren’t exactly practical and the plunging neckline skimmed the top of Carol’s bra, far too much of her upper chest exposed for her liking. She knew that she’d have to be careful about leaning over in front of anyone. The apron was as impractical as the rest of the outfit, a white stretch fabric, its frilly white edging trimmed in black with more of the silver sequins. A cap, in the same material as the skirt, completed the ensemble, more sequins lining its edge as well.
Humph, Carol thought as she ran her hand over the fabric of the skirt. Not exactly easy clean. She knew the outfit was meant to be eye-catching. And with its home-town imagery distorted by the amount of her flesh it revealed she knew it was something a stripper could wear. She tensed, realising that she’d be parading around in it in front of who knew how many men. Her outfit offered little protection from either their eyes or their hands and absolutely none from their fantasies.
The place may have been part of the sleazy underside of the city but it wasn’t exactly illegal. At least if the girls didn’t go too far and the patrons kept their hands to themselves. Which Carol quickly learnt the men didn’t always do. But no court would worry if a waitress, especially one dressed like her, suffered a few gropes on the arse, not in a place like this. Working here was tantamount to asking for it, or at least that’s what a defence lawyer would say. Carol could imagine the look from the judge, up on the bench, frowning at the poor girl trying to give her testimony, his honour obviously agreeing with the lawyer, even if he couldn’t say it.
She had been in strip joints before, not often, hating them, repulsed by the idea of being naked in public. Undercover work often led places you didn’t want to go, memories rising to choke her, of men leering at her when they spared a glance from the strippers. Crowded places where the men packed in, close to the stage, reaching out to stuff notes in the few pieces of clothing the girls kept on. If they kept any on that was, the men just tossing the money on the stage if a girl went all the way. And any woman in the crowd an oddity, free game unless she was well protected.
Angel’s was almost as bad, but a step or two above the places Carol had been, a few wandering hands the worst she had to contend with. Sure, there was a crowd around the raised stage, baying and hollering as each girl made her appearance. But there were smaller stages as well, where more girls would take their turns dancing for a while, tables arranged around them, furniture that someone had paid real money for, Carol noted, and low-lighting, though whether that was for privacy or some attempt at sophistication Carol wasn’t sure. As far as she was concerned it may have helped for the former but the poor light only made the place feel just as sleazy as any other strip joint she’d been in, however classy this one’s fittings were.
And they weren’t that bad, she grudgingly admitted. The walls were well-kept, red and black wall-paper immaculate (unlike the door and dressing room out back). The lights on the stages were professional, some soft edges to them designed to make the girls look as good as possible, not too dark to see or so bright that every flaw was highlighted. You could almost imagine some torch singer might appear on the stage. Not that any did of course, though one girl started her act in an outfit that had you think she just might be a singer, voice low and husky, a long red dress split so far up the side that you could see the edge of her garter belt. Of course the girl never sang a word, but she was good, and made even Carol think of what she might be. But then girl started her act, clothes dropping away, the roar of the crowd rising as the girl revealed more and more of herself and Carol struggling to concentrate on taking the drinks orders, not think about what the girl was doing.
That was the problem of course, Carol had too much time to think. The work was easy, too easy. Take the drink orders from the tables, bring them back. There was a crowd, more than enough to keep the drinks flowing, the dancers earning money and her from being too idle. But it was a week night and the place was far from full, nothing like Carol imagined it would be on the busy nights, Fridays and Saturdays.
Carol had worked as a bartender for one of her assignments, and it wasn’t as if a waitress needed to know how to mix a Harvey Wallbanger. All she had to do was pass on the orders and remember what table to take them to. She had a good memory, didn’t even really need that to take the orders, as she had a pad to write them down. It hadn’t taken much to convince Ted that she could do the job, that she wasn’t there just as a favour for Mrs Bowen. Carol could do what was asked of her almost without thinking. Sure, she had to listen to the orders as she took them down, watch herself as she threaded her way through the crowd from the tables to the bar and back again, her high heels making that harder than the sensible flats or sneakers that she would have preferred, footwear that a real diner waitress would wear. But it didn’t take all that much of her concentration and that left a lot of her mind free, and that meant the words slipped in.
I’m happy to be a prostitute.
I love it when men use me.
I want to be used sexually.
If a man pays me he can do anything he wants.
Carol shivered, trying to fight the words down, trying to find something else to occupy her mind. She wished that she’d said no to Mrs Bowen, refused to come here. She could have fought harder, not persuaded herself that Stephanie would just give in and say yes. She should have tried to come up with some excuse that Stephanie could have plausibly used to avoid coming here. Stephanie, she reminded herself, was whatever Carol made her. But Carol hadn’t fought very hard, because she didn’t want to upset Mrs Bowen. Even now she couldn’t think of anything she might have said that would have dissuaded the madam. She was here and she’d just have to make the best of it. Which, are as far as she was concerned, meant keeping her clothes on.
Carol tried to relax, not worry so much if her eyes occasionally slipped to the stage. Mrs Bowen was right, Carol allowed, the girls had skills that she could use. Maybe she could learn something here that would make her a better whore. She liked the sound of that. Carol stopped, worried nervously at her lower lip. That shouldn’t matter to her, she shouldn’t care. Next week she’d be at Conti’s, Wainwright’s raid would rescue the last of the girls. Then she’d have to make herself stop, however much she loved selling herself. She couldn’t go on, there was no future in the life of a whore. So there was no point in learning anything new, not if she was this close to stopping. Unless she wasn’t going to stop and all her intentions were just pretty lies that she was telling herself.
Carol shook her head, trying to drive the thought away. She could stop, she was going to stop. She had to. Deciding that she needed something else to think about Carol cautiously scanned the crowd, looking to see if she recognised anyone, any members of the city’s crime families. That’s what an undercover police officer would do. She did see some familiar faces, two of them sitting at a table in the corner, but when she casually wandered closer they weren’t talking about anything useful and one of them slapped her on the arse and sent her on her way after she’d taken their order.
It wasn’t long before she’d checked the whole crowd, she was too good at her job, even new arrivals quickly scanned and dismissed as nothing more than average customers. That only left the girls and Carol really didn’t want to pay too much attention to them anymore. She knew why Mrs Bowen had sent her here, wanting her to learn from the girls as they stripped and exposed themselves on stage, but watching them, as each piece of clothing was removed, sometimes quick, sometimes teasingly, endless variations all leading to the same place, Carol could feel the danger to herself. What the girls were doing was too close to what was running around her head. Sure, the girls weren’t prostitutes, well, maybe some of them were, she knew what happened in the back rooms of places like this, or what the girls might do at other times. She didn’t know whether that happened at Angel’s, hadn’t dared ask. But even if up on the stage the girls weren’t whores what they were doing touched on the words. The men were using the girls, the men were paying them.
If a man pays me he can do anything he wants.
Anything. The word echoed around Carol’s mind. She wished again that there was something else to distract her, anything so that her attention wasn’t so dangerously unoccupied. If a man paid her she should do anything and if that included…
No, I won’t, there are limits. There have to be. She knew there were. There were things she wouldn’t do, no matter how much she was paid. Things too degrading and obscene even to think about. But taking off your clothes? a little voice in her head whispered You do that all the time.
I won’t, I can’t.
Carol wasn’t sure where that voice had come from, maybe it was the policewoman, although she’d thought the whore was in control. Maybe it was the whore, even her not wanting to parade naked in public. Maybe it wasn’t any of the parts of her fractured psyche, maybe it was just her, all of her, rejecting the idea.
“Sorry, what Steph, you okay?” Ted, the barman, asked, as he handed Carol the last of her current order.
“Umm, yeah, I’m fine.” Carol wasn’t, but she wasn’t telling anyone anything, no matter that the concern on Ted’s face appeared genuine.
“Hey, it’s okay,” he said, leaning over towards her to make sure he was heard over the din coming from around the main stage, “it can be a bit much, first night. You never been in a place like this before have you?”
Stephanie never would have, Carol knew that, so she just shook her head.
Ted nodded, “Yeah, seen that a lot when girls start waitressing here, can’t take their eyes off the stage. Don’t mean nothing.”
Had that been her? Carol couldn’t believe it, or maybe it was that she didn’t want to believe it, the idea that she’d spent so much time watching the girls strip that Ted had noticed it making her more than uncomfortable. And now that she thought about it, Carlo realised that she had spent a lot of time looking, more than she’d realised, more than she’d wanted to, sometimes stealing glances, sometimes her eyes glued, as Ted had made up all the drinks in a large order.
Have I been that obvious?, the question dying as she thought it, knowing that she had. Watching, as the hem of a skirt was lifted and allowed to drop back, as a zipper was slowly pulled down, as a top was lifted to reveal the lacy bra underneath, as stockings were rolled down long legs, as hips gyrated to the pounding beat of the disco music. She saw what Tracey meant, these girls were good at what they did, teasing, promising, gripping the crowd’s attention, almost revealing, then backing off a little, keeping the men on edge, eyes glued to the stage.
“It’s all new to you, you ain’t seen it before,” the barman continued. “So it’s okay to look, couldn’t do much else could you? You think, how could they do that?”
Carol gave a start, realised she’d been watching another performer as Ted spoke, as the girl reached behind herself to undo her bra, slipped the straps over her shoulders, held the cups to her breasts, lowering them a little, teasing and pouting, then raising them back up. She danced for a few moments, body moving in time to the music, then, with a flourish, she threw her hands out to her sides, bra held in one of them, her tits free for all to see. The girl twirled the garment around her head, her breasts bouncing up and down, then flung her bra into the crowd to the shouts of the men. Carol could see the little smile on the girl’s lips as notes were thrown at her in return.
I want to be paid for sex.
Carol wished she was being paid for sex. That she was back at Mrs Bowen’s as some man rammed his cock into her pussy. Because that would mean she wasn’t here, wasn’t watching the girls on the stage. And what the girls were doing wasn’t sex, but it was sexual. She knew how much it was turning the men on. And some of the girls too, not all, just a few, she could see the tight, engorged, nipples on some of the dancers, the flush on their faces not just from their exertions.
“Yep,” Ted’s voice penetrated the fog in Carol’s head. “I know you’re not into girls. Well, I guess you’re not. But even so, you just can’t take your eyes off ’em. Not when you never seen anything like that before. Can’t help yourself. Can’t help thinking how they do that, in fronta all these men. Can’t help thinking whether you could do that.”
Carol whispered, “No,” as she shook her head.
“Yeah, so,” Ted continued, “here’s the order, better get ’em to the table.”
Carol shook her head even harder, the fog Ted’s words had been weaving around her lifting. Though not disappearing entirely, changing from mist to a nugget that worried at her consciousness. If she’d found it hard to ignore the girls before now it was impossible. Like pink elephants, those things you can’t help but think of once someone mentions them, no matter how hard you try, and the harder you try the harder it gets. The girls’ skin, shining under the lights, only making it harder for Carol, pink, at least most of them, like the elephants. Some dark, shades of chocolate. But however hard she tried not to think of them, she couldn’t help it. Even if she didn’t look at them she couldn’t blank out the sound of the music, the shouts of the crowd. She knew what the noises meant and that only brought her back to where she started, thinking of the girls on the stage, stripping. Making themselves naked in front of the crowd. The thing that she didn’t want to do. The thing she knew Mrs Bowen wanted her to think about, probably wanted her to do.
It was just as well the place had only been half full and the work easy, Carol thought, as she stumbled out into the darkness after her shift ended. She’d spent half the night in a daze. Trying not to look at the strippers, trying not to think of them, and failing far more often than she liked. Her heart was in her mouth all the way back to the apartment she shared with Janice as she thought of them, thought of herself, up there, on the stage. She felt sick as she imagined a crowd of men looking at her as she shed some flimsy outfit, almost threw up as the imagined outfit morphed into a caricature of a policewoman’s uniform, tight blue shirt and black shorts that clung to her like a second skin. She imagined herself peering at the crowd over dark glasses, her hat the only thing remotely regulation.
“I can’t. I can’t,” she whispered, shivering as revulsion coursed through her. She leant against a wall for support, head resting on her hands as her fingers splayed against the rough concrete surface.
As she slipped through the door Carol was glad that she saw no sign of her roommate. She didn’t know whether Janice was not home yet or already in bed, but Carol didn’t feel like talking.
Sleep took time to come, Carol tossing and turning, sweat running over her body, the sheets slippery and uncomfortable. She could hear the sounds of the city, cars cruising down the street, a train rumbling along in the distance. Vainly she tried to drive the images of Angel’s out of her head. She knew what Mrs Bowen wanted her to do. Look and think? That was only half of it. Carol was sure the madam wanted her to strip. She’d probably arranged it all with Edgar. If Carol said she wanted to do it she doubt he’d be surprised. Hell, that’s probably where Ted’s spiel had come from. Or maybe the bartender did that to all the waitresses, the joint always on the lookout for new talent. She remembered what Tracey had said about the manager wanting to keep variety in the performances. It didn’t matter, Carol knew that she didn’t want to do it. She thought Stephanie wouldn’t want to either. But Mrs Bowen wouldn’t care what Stephanie wanted, the madam wanted Stephanie to be a better whore.
Maybe I should, the thought creeping into her head as she stared at the wall of her room, barely seen in the darkness. Mrs. Bowen’s right, it’d be useful. Carol could remember the looks on the men’s faces, the raw, naked desire. It was all too obvious how she could use that on the men who came to her, make them want her more. It would make her a better whore.
She’s the madam, she says what goes.
Carol shoved her head under her pillow, willing the images and the words away. The thoughts didn’t want to let go. If this was all she had, if she couldn’t escape the life she had now, and so much of her didn’t want to, then maybe trying to be the best whore she could be was all that she could hope for. It wasn’t much, but Carol wanted to cling onto what little pride, what little self-respect, she still had.
I don’t have to go back. Carol tried to tell herself that she could turn up at the brothel and tell Mrs Bowen she wasn’t going back to Angel’s, wouldn’t strip. But Carol knew she wouldn’t do that. Stephanie never would and getting the madam angry would bring too much attention. Everything told Carol not to do that, her training, her need to whore herself, it was too much of a risk, she might be left with nothing.
Part of her wondered why she even bothered fighting it. She was a whore, she sold herself, she let men fuck her for money. Carol knew that was worse than being a stripper. At least a stripper only got looked at, not touched, not used. In the eyes of society both were the dregs, but whores were even lower than strippers. So why bother fighting it? Maybe it was part of the old Carol. The words Copeland had put in her head had turned her into a whore. Carol knew that she’d never wanted to be a whore or a stripper. Copeland had twisted her, put a deep-seated need in her mind to sell herself. But there’d been nothing about stripping. So maybe her desperate desire not to do it was exactly what the old Carol would have felt.
Which meant if she did strip, it would be losing a part of her that Copeland had never touched. She grasped on to that feeling, held it tight, hoping it might help her find a way through the situation, part wonderful dream, part nightmare, that she found herself in. Another part wanted to let it go. She was a whore, that part didn’t want to be anything but a whore, and if her madam told her that learning how to strip would make her a better whore, then stripping was what she should do. But she could watch the girls, learn from them, without doing what they did, at least in public. She could save it for her johns. That was what Mrs Bowen had said, whether she’d meant it or not, and Stephanie could happily ignore anything beyond the madam’s words.
Carol slipped into fractured dreams, where her clothes would slip away and vanish, and men, all she could make out was eyes in featureless faces, crowded around her as the words flew around her head.
I’m happy to be a prostitute.
I love it when men use me.
If a man pays me I’ll do anything he wants.
Over and over, clothes, skimpy and revealing on her body, at first slowly vanishing by themselves, then her own hands taking them off, again and again, until she woke up screaming.
“You okay Stephanie?” Carol heard Janice calling from outside her room. Even when they were alone Janice was smart enough to use her cover name. Habits, Carol had drilled that into her friend, habits. Always keep the cover in place. Mix it up, and you’ll slip at just the wrong time.
“Yeah,” Carol replied, haltingly. “Just a bad dream.”
As the images still danced before her eyes, as she saw herself half-naked before a crowd of men, Carol wished that she could believe that.