Push that button, she thought, and your life is changed forever.
The tall, slender, shapely girl with the black hair down past her waist stepped back to look again at the button and the sign on the gate. Anger and tears had carried her for the two days it took to fly from Michigan in Magic Carpet; routine had carried her through the landing here and the tie down of her little Cessna 150. But here it was – now or never.
She glanced up at the fence surrounding the building; it was low and fairly well kept, a broad strip of AstroTurf sidewalk led from the gate where she was standing, up to the front door. Oh, dear Christ that I don’t believe in anymore, she thought, this is scary. Second thoughts lasted for only a moment, just long enough to remember her father’s parting words. "All right, Mommy and Daddy," she said softly to herself. "If that’s what you think I am, I’m not going to disappoint you."
Before she could ruminate about it anymore, she forced herself to reach out her hand and push the button next to the sign that said, Welcome to Mustang Ranch – Ring Bell – Push Gate.
She couldn’t hear the bell ring, but there was the snap of an electric latch. No turning back, she thought as she pushed back the gate and walked up the AstroTurf toward the front door, with no idea of what to expect.
The door opened before she could get to it, and an older woman appeared, fortyish, dressed nicely – knee length skirt, with matching jacket over a blouse. "Can I help you, miss?" she said in a businesslike tone.
"Yes," the girl replied uneasily. "I want to see about getting a job."
"Thought that might be it," the woman replied with a smile. "I saw you standing there thinking about it. Do you have any experience?"
"Not professionally, but a fair amount of amateur experience the past two years."
"How’d you decide to come here?" the woman grinned.
"I knew a girl who worked here the last couple years, I guess. Mary Herman."
The woman frowned for an instant, then her smile returned. "Oh, yes, Miss Mona," she grinned. "I tend to remember people by their work names. I have to stop and think about their real ones. I half expected to see her back this summer."
"She wanted to come but she got an internship at JPL. She said it was too good a deal for her career to pass up."
"Do you go to Caltech, too?" the woman smiled.
"Yes, I’ll be a junior in the fall."
"You know," the woman nodded, "We get a lot of girls coming here looking for work, but this is the first time I’ve ever seen one fly her own airplane in here. It’s yours, right?"
"As long as I can keep the payments up," she replied distantly. "That’s part of the reason I’m here."
"Are you over eighteen?" the woman asked.
"I’ll be turning twenty-one in a couple months," she replied hopefully, remembering Mary saying that this was one of the few places like this in Nevada where a girl could work under the age of twenty-one.
"Do you drink, or use drugs?"
"No," she shook her head. "Not ever."
The woman looked at her for a moment, obviously turning it over in her mind. "What would your parents say if they knew you were here?" she asked finally.
"They seem to think I’m a prostitute already," the tall girl snorted, a corner of the anger and hurt she’d experienced showing through. "There’s no reason to prove them wrong."
The woman let out a sigh. "All right," she said. "Let’s go inside, have a cup of coffee, and talk about it some. I’m not saying yes until I know that you understand what’s involved, but that doesn’t mean I’m saying no, either."
* * *
It was dark inside, so dark that she could barely see after the brightness of the Nevada morning sun under the clear blue sky. They went through a room that looked something like a small lobby, into a room that looked pretty much like a barroom anywhere, and the woman led her the length of the bar to an office that looked pretty much like an office anywhere. Other than the woman, there was no one to be seen. "How do you take your coffee?" she asked.
"Black. I’d just as soon have a Diet Coke if I could."
"I can do that," the woman smiled. "Be back in a minute. Have a seat. By the way, I’m Eileen."
"Jennlynn Swift," she replied uncomfortably, not quite willing to admit it, as she sat down in a comfortable chair next to the desk, nerves rising in her again. She glanced out the window – it was smoked glass, but the gate and the parking lot could be seen clearly as well as Magic Carpet sitting on the airstrip beyond. She never figured, ever, that she’d wind up here, or that the little green and white Cessna would be the one to bring her here. She was tired, she was hungry, and she was dispirited. For two days, she’d been thinking that the scene with her parents was the lowest point of her life, but now realized that she’d been wrong. This was it.
In only a few seconds, the older woman set a fizzing glass of ice and Diet Coke down in front of her and a coffee cup on the far side of the desk. "What are you studying at Caltech?" she asked conversationally.
"Electrical engineering," Jennlynn said vacantly. "Aviation minor."
"That accounts for the plane, I take it," the woman smiled.
"Yeah," she nodded. "Rentals are ninety bucks an hour, and I’ll be looking at about 300 hours over the next two years. The plane only cost me about a third of that. I should be able to operate it for fifteen or twenty bucks an hour and sell it for pretty much what I’ve got in it when I get done with it." She shook her head, and continued, "That’s assuming I get to continue in the program."
"You think you might not?" the woman said.
"I can’t if I don’t have the money," Jennlynn shrugged. "I had a job lined up at home this summer, and my folks were helping me out some. But . . . but . . . when they threw me out a couple days ago there was no way I could stay around there."
Eileen nodded, obviously realizing that there was a story there and wondering if she wanted to get into it. She’d heard a lot of stories over the years, most of them sad. This was obviously another one. If it was bad enough for the girl to be here, it was all she needed to know. "You don’t really want to work here, do you?" she asked.
"Want to, no," Jennlynn replied honestly. "I really wish it didn’t have to be this way. But I need the money. I like sex, and it seems like under the circumstances I might as well make it pay."
"Look, Jennlynn," Eileen said gently. "You know this isn’t the easiest thing in the world. It’s a hard life and some of the men who come through here scare the hell out of me. It can be dirty, uncomfortable, and scary, and when you’re working here, your life is not really your own. Worse, while we will work to keep you anonymous as best we can, and it’ll be hard for someone to find out that you’ve worked here, you’ll know that you have. You’ll have to live with that."
"I realize that," she said flatly. "Mary told me a lot about what it was like to be a prostitute here, and I haven’t thought about much else for two days. It just comes down to the fact that I’ll do what I have to do and do the best job I can. If I have to live with it afterwards, I’ll be the one who has to live with it. I’ll have my degree in two years, and I’ll remember what I had to do to get it."
"Did Mary tell you about how you have to stay on the premises here while you’re on shift? You can’t even go into town unless you’re accompanied."
"I know about that," Jennlynn nodded. "I’d hoped to get some flying in this summer, but Mary says that you normally work three weeks and then have off one. I’ll just have to do it on my off week."
Eileen looked at her for a moment. "Well, all right," she sighed. "I always figured a new turnout is either going to hack it or she isn’t. I’ll take the chance, but if you can’t hack it, feel free to leave. Just don’t figure on coming back if you do."
"Thanks, Eileen," Jennlynn nodded. "I’ll do my best to see that you’re not sorry."
* * *
A little to Jennlynn’s surprise, it was a while before she could actually go on duty, since there were a number of things to accomplish. Eileen had a worker at the ranch named Wilbur, a quiet older guy, take her into town later in the day, where she had a list of personal items to buy. Then Wilbur took her for her medical checkup, and then by the sheriff’s office to get her background check going. It would take three days for those to come back, and in the interim, Jennlynn had to stay on the property, in a room toward the back of the building. During that time, she got some good sleep, did some eating – she’d only had a candy bar over the two days of her flight westward – and watched the action. Early on, Eileen assigned an older woman by the name of Belle to take her under her wing and teach her some of the tricks of the trade. Along in there, one of Belle’s suggestions was that Jennlynn take a work name in case she wanted to be a little more anonymous later, and she settled on Rebecca Ann – her mother’s name, just to rub it in.
The three days gave her some time to get her mind around things, so when Wilbur came back from the sheriff’s office with her approved background check and license, she was actually eager to be done with the waiting. Not long afterwards, she was wearing a very short Spandex dress, standing in a lineup with several other girls – and got picked out for the first time. She led the guy to her room in the back, they worked out a reasonable price, and she headed back up to the office to close out the cash before she went back to service him. "Not a bad price," Eileen smiled as she stamped the credit card. "Give him his money’s worth."
She headed back to her room where the guy was waiting. She’d never met him before, had no idea what his name was. He was not a dream boat; he was fortyish, balding, overweight and not very good looking. My God, she thought, in a couple minutes that guy is going to be fucking me for money. She paused at the door. This really was the last chance. But the pause was only for an instant; she’d already had this thought out. She opened the door and smiled at the guy sitting on her bed, "All right, guy, are you ready to party?"
Forty-five minutes later, she and the guy – she now knew his name was George – headed back out to the bar. He offered to buy her a drink, but she settled for her typical Diet Coke. Eileen drifted over, and asked both of them, "Well, how did it go?"
"Just fine," "Rebecca" smiled.
"You picked up a good one this time, Eileen," George grinned. "That was about the best ride I’ve ever gotten out of a new turnout in this place. She really puts her full attention into it."
"Why, thanks," "Rebecca" laughed. "George, you say the nicest things. Why don’t you come back and see me again some time?"
"Oh, I might," he laughed. "I’m here often enough."
After George left, Eileen sat down next to Jennlynn and grinned. "I sort of stacked the deck with that one," she laughed. "I caught him before he came in and told him about you, so I could be sure you’d have a good start. He’s a regular here, a really nice guy. He’s from Texas, but he takes a swing through a lot of the houses three, four times a year, so he sees a lot of girls. For him to give you a compliment like that must mean you’re pretty good."
"Well, I hope so," Jennlynn nodded.
"How was it, really?" Eileen asked.
"Not bad," Jennlynn admitted. "I was a little bit scared right at the beginning, but he knows what he’s doing. I have to say I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. I like to give my full attention to what I’m doing, and I think I did. Does that make me a prostitute now?"
* * *
Somewhat to Jennlynn’s surprise, the next three weeks were on the whole rather boring.
Oh, she was busy enough, typically four and five parties a day. Twice she got to pull lucrative all-nighters. But she had to be on duty twelve hours a day, seven days a week, and she was only actually doing something less than half that time. Eileen didn’t like the girls sitting around looking bored when things were slow and there were customers in the building. The majority of the time they had to be in the lounge, but some of the time Eileen allowed the girls to stay in their rooms waiting for the lineup bell to ring. When she was on call like that she could study some of the textbooks she’d brought along in Magic Carpet. She’d thought she had a summer’s worth, but with the extra time available, she went through them faster than she thought she would.
The sex was all right, at least most of the time. Every now and then she’d come up with a customer she just couldn’t stand, and she did have the right to "walk" him after they’d gone back to negotiate the price. She did have to walk a few bad actors and several guys who were really drunk, although she learned early on the guys who were pretty drunk often threw a lot of money around without getting much in return, so she learned to take advantage of them. She learned a lot more, too, from Eileen, some of the other girls, and especially from Belle.
Being "locked down" and having to stay on the premises bothered her more than she thought it would. It was a real pain in the butt to see Magic Carpet sitting out on the airstrip and not being able to use it. One morning, she got Wilbur to ride along with her so she could fly into Fallon, top off the tanks, and just buzz around a little. It was the only time in three weeks she got to use the little plane.
But the money was good. Even with expenses that she’d have to pay the house, she’d be flying out at the end of her shift with something like ten thousand dollars in her pocket. It wasn’t enough to cover her living expenses and the extra costs of her flying lessons over the fall, but close to it, close enough to see the end of the tunnel. Her overall assessment was that, despite the drunks and the bar crowd and the boredom, this was working adequately, and better than she’d expected.
One morning toward the end of her shift, she and Belle were sitting back in her room, drinking coffee and just passing the time. Jennlynn made the comment that while on the whole she’d enjoyed the shift, she’d have enjoyed it a lot more without the bar crowd, and if she’d been able to get out and fly a little.
"You know, you’re probably right," Belle nodded. "Especially since you don’t drink and you’re not old enough to, anyway. Really, if everything were right, you’d probably do better in a small parlor house, rather than in a big bar house like this one. I did a shift at one last winter, Bettye’s Ranch, down south. You don’t have the drinking since there’s no bar, although a drunk does come in once in a while. The prices aren’t as high, and there’s not as much traffic, but it’s a lot more laid back. You might check that out some time, it’s down near Beatty, and there’s an airstrip right at the place like there is here."
"Well, something to think about," Jennlynn shrugged.
A couple days later, on the next to last day before her shift was to end, Eileen called her into her office. "So, how do you think it’s gone so far?"
"Better than I expected, to tell the truth," Jennlynn said. "Actually, given the choice, I’d just as soon stay here as take off."
"I think you’ve done well," Eileen agreed. "Better than I expected, too. But, the management policy is that you can’t work straight through. You have to take one week off after three weeks. And really, you need the break anyway, just to come up for air. Jennlynn, you especially need it. You get away from this place for a few days. It might not seem as rosy to think about coming back."
"I don’t know," she shook her head. "You might be right at that. The only thing is, I don’t really have any place to go, not even the dorms back at Caltech."
"I hate to say this," Eileen shook her head. "But you’re going to have to take a break anyway. Look, take off out of here in the morning, go find a place to hole up, do some flying. If you want to come back after a few days, give me a call and you can come back."
It was amazingly hard to clear her few things out of her room the next morning and haul them out to Magic Carpet, hard to say good-bye to Belle, to Eileen, and to some of the other girls she’d been friendly with the last few weeks. She gave the plane a good preflight, fired it up, took off and headed south. She was headed for Pasadena, where she thought she might be able to find a friend to stay with for a few days, maybe even Mary if she could find her at JPL. Mary would at least understand some of what she’d learned in the last three weeks. Beyond that, maybe she could hunt up her college roommate, Roseanna MacNamara, and talk her into letting her stay for a few days.
There’s a lot of high country on the direct route between the Reno area and Los Angeles, higher than a low-powered two-seat Cessna 150 trainer is really capable of, and the only alternative is to follow lower routes. She knew she’d have to head south on the east side of the Sierras before she could turn west for Los Angeles, but as she studied the possible route, her eye happened to catch "Bettye’s Ranch" on the map, another unimproved landing strip. Since the day was still young, she thought she might as well check it out.
It was a good two and a half hours flying time before the narrow strip came into view. The place wasn’t large; from the air, she could see one building the size of a good-sized residential house, with a swimming pool behind it, and some smaller buildings, all clustered in a patch of cottonwoods near a dry river bed. None of the buildings had a fence around them, a little to her surprise.
In a few minutes, she was on the ground, taxiing toward what looked like a parking area. She swung Magic Carpet around over some tie downs and shut it down. She got out and looked around; it seemed very quiet, but there was a sign that said Bettye’s Ranch so she knew she’d come to the right spot. Being careful, she started to tie the plane down. "Hello, miss," she heard a woman’s voice say. "Can I help you?"
She looked up to see a thin, wizened older woman with a deeply lined face and gray hair, perhaps about sixty, sitting on a horse.
"Yes," she said. "I’m looking for Bettye, I guess."
"Bettye’s not here," the woman shook her head. "She’s not well. I’m Shirley Hoffman. I’m managing the place for her. And with that plane, I’ll bet you’re Rebecca Ann."
"That was my work name up at the Mustang the last three weeks," she replied. "My real name is Jennlynn Swift. How’d you know?"
"The world of Nevada brothels is a small one," Shirley grinned. "Word gets around, especially when a turnout flies her own plane into the place. I’ve heard about you a little, you’re supposed to be kinda quiet but give a real good party."
"If I have to have a reputation, that’s what I’d like it to be," Jennlynn grinned back. "Anyway, one of the girls up at the Mustang said I ought to check this place out. It’s supposed to be more my kind of place than a bar house."
"It’s pretty different," Shirley laughed. "I’ve been in bar houses, and I much prefer the parlor houses. Your shift’s over, and you can’t go back for a week, right?"
"That’s what she said," Jennlynn nodded.
"I think they’re a little foolish about that, but that’s how they do things up there," Shirley snorted. "Eileen’s OK, but she’s square. She’s never worked, so it makes a difference."
"You’ve worked a little then, I take it," Jennlynn laughed, sensing an interesting lady.
"A little," Shirley laughed. "I stood my first lineup at the age of fourteen back in 1943, and I’ve been in the business one way or another most of the time ever since. Anyway, your reputation precedes you, and if you’re looking to work I’m looking for someone. I’ll just say that you won’t be as busy as you were at the Mustang, but we believe in quality rather than quantity, and giving a fair amount of honey for the money. If you want, I can show you around before we get down to business."
"Let me finish tying this thing down," Jennlynn grinned, feeling comfortable already.