Bryan Vale is a professional writer and editor based in San Francisco, California. By day he is a corporate sellout; by night he is an aspiring novelist. You can follow him on Facebook for more fiction, and you can download his ebook Memorial Day on Amazon.
Maybe it was curiosity. Maybe it was boredom. Maybe it was an experiment. Or maybe I was actually feeling lustful.
Naw, it couldn’t have been that.
Snap, snap, snap went the little cards as the short man slapped them against each other. He wore a black baseball cap with no logo on it, a large green T-shirt, and baggy pants. He stood on the corner of an intersection aggressively handing his cards, one by one, to the drunken passersby. Most of them either ignored him or grabbed the proffered card and immediately let it fall to the sidewalk. For this reason the sidewalk around the man with the cards was very nearly papered over.
If you’ve been to Las Vegas—specifically to the Strip, the New Strip, the gaudy one with the meandering sidewalks and the hangover-recovery medical vehicles zooming by on the street—you recognize this scene. You know that men and women stand on every street corner handing out these strange little cards, slapping them together to get your attention but never saying a word. You can see the crowded sidewalks, hear the drunken laughter and the omnipresent background music, smell the alcohol. You know how the lights blasting out of every orifice of the casinos look, and you know how they look after you’ve had a few cocktails.
You also know what’s on the cards: pictures of naked women, and numbers you can call so that you can have sex with these naked women, for money, natch.
I passed the man in the black hat and green shirt. He handed me a card. I absentmindedly put it into my pocket without looking at it. It was only several steps later that it occurred to me that I actually wanted to call a prostitute.
On this particular evening the air was warm—Vegas-warm, which is “very hot and very dry” by the standards of more temperate cities. I walked down the sidewalk slowly, letting people pass me by on either side, sipping the lukewarm dregs of a Bud Light Lime. I felt dizzy and dehydrated. My brain was slow and stupid. It was only 9 in the evening, but I had been drinking all day. My friends had gone on to the next casino without me, because I, in my foggy state, had insisted on remaining at my “lucky” roulette table. With all my chips gone, I took to the streets, and to wandering. I brought the beer with me more to follow proper Vegas etiquette than to actually get drunk—it’s actually rude not to drink while you’re walking down the Strip sidewalk.
I can’t totally explain where the impulse to call the mysterious number on the card came from; I suppose I was lonely, naturally. But really I suspect that Vegas wore me down. I was worn out, and my defenses were lowered. I’m no prude, but ordinarily I would have objected to calling a prostitute for all the obvious reasons: fear of disease, high prices, the ego blow from “paying for it,” good old-fashioned awkwardness, and so forth. These were not ordinary times, however. This was Vegas on a hot day after losing too much money and drinking too much alcohol. This was Vegas when my friends had deserted me. This was Vegas. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, right?
Or maybe it was just the snap, snap, snap of the cards, or the bold green of the man’s shirt, or some other little detail that triggered something in my subconscious. Who can explain why anyone makes any decision?
When I got to my hotel room at a casino on the far end of the Strip, I was still alone. I flopped onto the bed and lay on my back. I pulled the card out of the pocket and flipped it onto the slip cover. I stared at the ceiling and twiddled my thumbs. I already knew I was going to do it. I was just putting it off.
Eventually I entered the numbers into my phone one by one. I pressed the button to call.
The phone rang for a long time.
Finally somebody answered. “Hello?” It was a woman’s voice. She sounded very confused.
“Hello,” I said, not sure how to initiate this sort of conversation.
“How did you get this number?” asked the voice.
I paused. How could she not know? “It was on the card,” I said.
“Yeah, the one that the guy on the corner—” I stopped talking because I was sure she could feel my awkwardness through the phone. I was about to hang up, but then she said something else.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” she said.
“What?” I asked uneasily.
“So, uh, you were calling about, uh, ordering a companion for the evening?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Or I guess, um, an escort.”
Then followed further awkward conversation in which I explained where I was staying and she explained what the price would be. The conversation seemed to last for hours. Finally it ended, and I resumed lying on the bed and staring at the ceiling.
Thirty minutes passed. Then an hour. I started to worry about my friends returning. Two of them were staying in the same room as me. What if they walked in on me with a prostitute?
Finally there was a knock at the door. I opened it. “Hey,” said the woman standing at the door. She wore an ill-fitting dress, and it looked like her makeup (she had a lot of makeup on) had been hurriedly applied. She was a head shorter than me. She had one hand on her hip. The fingers of her other hand were tapping against her thigh. “I’m Cheryl,” she said.
I introduced myself. “Uh, come in,” I said. She did, and I shut the door behind her.
“So,” she said in what was clearly meant to be a sultry voice, “what do you . . . what do you want?”
“I mean I guess we could just,” I shrugged my shoulders, “we could just . . . do it?”
She nodded unsteadily. “Yeah,” she said. “We could just do it. So do you have the, ah . . .”
“Condom?” I asked.
“No,” she said, shaking her head awkwardly and forcing a giggle. “The money.”
“Oh yeah,” I said. “Here.” I handed her some bills I’d carefully counted out before she arrived.
“That looks good,” she said. She took the bills. She didn’t count them. It seemed like she wasn’t sure what to do with them—she made a move like she was going to put them in her purse, but then she realized she didn’t have one. She uncertainly shoved them into her bra.
“Aren’t you . . . going to take your bra off?” I asked, confused.
“Oh,” she said, forcing another giggle. She waved her hand. “It’s just, um, this is just what I do. Okay.” She turned her back to me and reached down. She grabbed the bottom of her dress, but when she was about to pull it up, she paused. She turned around and shook her head, and in a different voice, she said, “I’m sorry, I can’t do this.”
The situation was quickly getting out of hand. I had expected her to be the confident one and make up for my awkwardness. Instead she was making the situation even more awkward, and I felt my cheeks turn red on her behalf. Hell, I had expected me to say something like that, but to hear her say it? What was wrong with me, then?
“What?” I said.
“I can’t—I can’t go through with this,” she said. She sighed, sat down on the foot of the bed, pulled out my money, and threw it towards the pillows. She sighed again.
I sat down next to her. “I’m sorry to hear that,” I said, although truthfully I was starting to feel relieved. “What’s wrong?”
She shook her head. “I can’t tell you,” she said.
“You in trouble or something?”
She turned and looked me full in the face for the first time. “I’m not a prostitute,” she said. “I’m the niece of a city council member.”
I paused for a moment to process this information, but after some consideration it still made no sense. “What?”
“You called the number, and they needed to send somebody, so they called around and eventually called me—and I said I would do it.”
“Pretend to be a prostitute. For the good of the city.”
I stood up. “Wait a minute. Nothing you’re saying makes any sense. What the fuck are you talking about? You’re a city council person’s niece? You’re pretending to be a prostitute? What—”
“Okay, I might as well tell you,” she said, collapsing back onto the bed. “You’re the first person who’s ever called that number. That number on the card. The administrative assistant didn’t know what to do, so she panicked and started calling everybody.”
“What administrative assistant?”
“She works in the mayor’s office.”
“I still don’t get it.”
“The cards are fake, don’t you see? Those aren’t the real numbers for whorehouses or prostitution agencies or whatever. The people who really want a hooker know where to get them. Those cards are for the tourists. The people handing them out are for the tourists too.”
I felt tingles going up and down my spine. Things that didn’t make sense were falling into place. The truth—no, it couldn’t be—
I asked, “So who hires those guys who stand on street corners handing out those hooker cards?”
“They work for the city, obviously,” she said patronizingly. “Everybody thinks of Las Vegas as the ‘city of sin.’ ‘What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas’ and all that. What’s more sinful than people literally hawking prostitutes on all the major thoroughfares? If Vegas didn’t have things like that going on, people would be disappointed by it. Even the Christians. They want an example of a city-gone-bad for them to point at and judge, and the city encourages that. It makes all the ‘fun’ people” (she actually made air quotes when she said the word “fun”) “who don’t mind a little sin want to go to Vegas. The more religious judgment we get, the better.”
“What, does the city hire the street preachers too?” I was referring to the preachers with megaphones who occupy various street corners on the Strip, also a common sight in Vegas.
“Of course they do. They’re part of the scenery too. They’re for the tourists. They help the tourists get a real sense of sinfulness.”
“So, these cards . . .” I pulled the card I’d gotten the number off of and showed it to her.
“Totally fake,” she said. “You’ve seen how everybody throws those cards away. That would be a shitty way to get a prostitute. No one has ever actually tried to use one of these cards before. The city thought no one ever would. They had no contingency plan.”
“And they sent you. To keep up the illusion.”
“Yes,” she said, nodding.
I sat back down on the bed. “Don’t I feel stupid,” I said.
She sat up straight. “Well, don’t feel too stupid. I mean, we’re fucked now. You called our bluff. Literally. We’re screwed if you tell anyone about this. You won’t, will you?”
For a moment I was indecisive as the possible responses to her plea crossed through my brain. I thought about what a great Buzzfeed article this whole affair would make. If I contacted the right journalist, I could be a viral sensation! I was somewhat angry and embarrassed because I’d fallen for the city’s ruse, like a sucker, and breaking the story would be solid revenge.
Of course, I would sure come out of it looking like a doofus. A viral doofus, no less. Maybe instead, I could try to blackmail the city . . . but no, that wouldn’t work either. What if they called my bluff and just prosecuted me for blackmail? What would I get for that? 10 years? 20 years?
I had to do something. How could I get out of this with my dignity and freedom intact, and without being a total jerk?
Then the perfect solution crashed into my muddled brain. It was a phrase, a saying, almost a koan, and it neatly wrapped up everything that had happened to me. Plus it was the perfect answer to Cheryl’s question. I grinned and patted the woman on the back.
“What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” I assured her.