By popular demand (and thank you so much for letting me say that truthfully!) here is another little tale with a prostitute protagonist. Happy Halloween, dear readers…
Every once in a while, things slow down for one reason or another; we are, after all, a luxury, and if the gentlemen have pressing things they must spend their money on, why then they haven’t got as much for things they might like to spend it on. Every girl who’s been in this business for a couple of years learns the seasonal variations and comes to expect the periodic unpredictable ones; one develops a philosophical attitude toward it. “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven,” as Ecclesiastes put it. “A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing…” that’s certainly the verse that applies here. But one might wish they wouldn’t refrain for quite so long. Because it has been a long dry spell indeed, probably the longest one I’ve ever seen.
Oh, I knew it would be when we heard about the stock market crashing on the radio; all the girls sat around listening, and though most of the younger ones didn’t really understand what was happening Madam Theresa tried to explain it to them. I didn’t understand it all as well as Madam did, but I knew enough to know that we were in trouble. Though she tried to hide it Madam was plenty worried; enough of her money was tied up in stocks that her financial future (and with it ours) was in considerable doubt, and since most of our clients were businessmen even the ones who weren’t ruined were not going to have any money to spend on good-time girls for quite a while.
I wish I had been wrong, but I wasn’t. Madam put on a brave face: We were all set for the “holiday slump” anyhow, she reminded us; it’s just starting a few weeks early this year is all. Why, by mid-January things will start to pick up just like they always do. And though this made the young ones feel better, one doesn’t get to be top girl in a first-class bordello without knowing how to read people; I knew that Madam didn’t believe a word she was saying. She told me in secret that she was determined to ride this thing out and support all the girls for as long as need be; no girl of hers was going to be turned out on the street, she said. And I knew she meant it, but I also knew that good intentions don’t put bread on the table.
And as the weeks became months, what was on the table gradually dwindled to not much more than bread. Fortunately Madam owned her house outright, but there were taxes to be paid and bills for electricity and telephone service and gas and water, and unlike us the staff were on salary; all that left precious little for meat and extras. But since we had recently taken a big shipment of imported liquor drink was not in short supply, and it pained me to see that by springtime Madam was rarely without a glass in her hand.
We still had a few faithful regulars; some were rich men who passed the crisis unscathed, others had spread their wealth more carefully than most and so were still doing all right, and a few were in professions or owned businesses which people always need no matter what. But even they did not spend as freely as they once did, and though I was not privy to Madam’s business affairs I can do sums well enough to know that she was falling behind every month. Before too long Madam was no longer wearing some of her more expensive jewelry, and original paintings and antique furniture were quietly and gradually replaced by prints and modern furniture. The less popular girls went back to their families or took whatever menial work they could get, and even a few of the popular girls decided they were better off being kept by bankers or bootleggers than having to go without nice clothes and perfume. By summertime things seemed to stabilize, though at a much lower level than before; there was enough business to support the girls who were left, and though Madam couldn’t have been making much I don’t believe she was losing money, either. If things had stayed that way I think it would have eventually been OK, but apparently Fate had decreed otherwise.
See, up until the Crash we had a good relationship with the local mob; Madam bought their liquor and provided the bigwigs with hospitality and everyone was happy. But I guess they were hurting like most people, so they gradually started getting a lot more demanding than in the old days. Madam didn’t like to air her dirty laundry in front of the girls, but I’m not deaf and gangsters aren’t known for their discretion. First they took issue with our smaller liquor orders, then they wanted girls to “service” some of the lower echelons, and then they actually started demanding a cut of her nearly-nonexistent profits. Eventually things degenerated completely, and the boss left in a huff one night, yelling that Madam would soon wish she had “been smart.”
Later that night I awoke to the smell of smoke and shouts of “Fire!” from downstairs; I ran down and joined our cook, Tillie, in beating it with blankets while her husband Jake, our handyman, got the water hose. It seemed to take Jake forever, and I wondered if the gangsters who had set the fire (an “accident” so soon after that warning was just too convenient to be believable) had also stolen or cut the hose. By the time he got there the whole kitchen was full of smoke and I couldn’t see a thing, but eventually we did get it out (though the kitchen was utterly ruined).
Madam had wisely continued our fire insurance even through the hard times, so it was soon repaired, yet nothing was ever the same again. It was as though the fire had burned out Madam’s spirit; she started drinking again as she had right after the crash, and cried a great deal. And though she still talked to me as much as she ever had, it seemed as though she would not listen to my answers; she was lost in her own little world. While I had previously been the most popular girl in the house, now it seemed as though the clients were suddenly uninterested in me; they just passed me by, and none even wanted to talk to me. Sometimes they even got up and moved to a different part of the room when I sat down next to them; it’s enough to cause a girl to seriously doubt herself. But I won’t, I won’t…it’s just a dry spell, and it will end; they always do. To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and…and…
“So you think this is the one?” David asked, examining the old photograph and then glancing at the typed pages in the folder. “Beatrice Elaine Becket, August 16th, 1901 to October 13th, 1931. Why her? Nobody’s ever seen her clearly, after all.”
“Just an educated guess,” said Dr. Wayne. “Of all the former residents of this house, she’s the only one known to have actually died on the premises, and the disturbances began only a few months later.”
The graduate student was still leafing through the papers in the file. “So this was a whorehouse, right? And this chick was one of the whores?”
The older man frowned. “A little respect for the dead if you please, David. Yes, it was a brothel, the finest in the city in its day. But after the Crash of ’29 its fortunes dwindled, and after Beatrice’s death the Madam became an alcoholic and the place really ran down until it was closed after a police raid in 1936.”
“She was really attached to the girl, huh?”
“Yes, and blamed herself for her death. The local crime boss was putting considerable pressure on her and she was resisting, so they lit a fire as a warning. It was probably just intended to scare her into capitulating but it got out of control, and when Beatrice tried to help put it out she was overcome by the smoke. The cook, Matilda Johnson, is still alive; I interviewed her last week and she still cries when she talks about that night.”
“So, Doc, what do you think she wants? Revenge on the guys who lit the fire?”
“You’ve been reading too many ghost stories. Look at the facts; this is a very gentle sort of manifestation, not like a vengeance-driven haunting at all. She usually appears as nothing more than a warm spot or a scent of jasmine, but some witnesses have reported a sense of physical proximity as well.”
“In other words, they feel as though someone’s standing or sitting next to them.”
“Exactly. Maybe we’ll make a parapsychologist out of you yet.”
David smirked, and then asked “So, are we going to bring Maria in on this one?”
“No, not this time,” said Dr. Wayne. “In 44 years this apparition has never appeared in the immediate presence of a woman; whatever her motivation may be, it seems both benign and entirely focused on adult men.”