Linh Tran pulled up in front of the client's house. A single-storied Southwestern with crushed granite for a lawn and a Lexus SUV parked in the drive. Nice, but unremarkable in this neighborhood of tract homes. She tried to estimate the price as she unpacked her masseuse table and tote full of oils from the trunk. She'd always been told she had a good head for numbers.
Her small feet crunched the gravel walkway. Music drifted from an open window, and she detected the random, irritating notes of jazz. What was the deal with upper-end white people and jazz? Some kind of cultural nuance she had yet to understand.
The front door opened before she could set her table down. A man in his early forties stood there, dressed in a dark blue robe, loosely tied, showing a few wisps of white hair on his narrow chest.
"Mr. Strode?" she said.
"Please, call me Phil." He had a high voice that she recognized from their phone conversation. His eyes, behind gold-rimmed lenses, slid up and down her body, though she wore a conservative white smock that emphasized little beyond her slimness.
He helped her carry the table inside. Children's toys cluttered the front room, and he kicked a few out of the way, apologizing. Linh noted the décor. There were the inevitable wine-racks, a painting of a Tuscan sunset, and several floral prints that hinted at a feminine hand. No family pictures, however.
She added this to her calculations. Mr. Strode hadn't mentioned he was married on the phone, though, ostensibly, it wouldn't matter.
"Where would you like to set up?" she asked.
"Ah, the spare bedroom. Just over here." He steered the table down a hallway and made a right-angled turn into a small room. Light spilled through white-lacquered blinds onto a single bed. Strode immediately walked over to the blinds and twisted them shut. He turned to Linh and his eyes flicked from her, to the bed, and back to her again. His face reddened in the dim light. "Ah, for privacy."
"Of course. Is your family . . .?"
"Away," he said. And added with a chuckle: "Thank God."
"I must ask, before we begin, that you please turn down that music." She inclined her head towards the hallway, where the jazz continued to bleat.
"Yes. Yes. Would you prefer something else? I have some lovely Asian flute. Or Yo Yo Ma."
Linh shook her head. "Silence is preferable."
"That's part of this, isn't it? Some kind of Zen Buddhism thing."
He hurried off. Linh set up her table and checked key items in her tote. When Strode reappeared, she was laying out her oils and scrubs next to a clean towel. The house had fallen blessedly silent.
"I, ah, thought maybe I could lie here," he said, patting the bed. A faint smile played across his lips.
Without warning, he heaved off his robe. Linh pretended one of her scrubs required sudden attention, and spared herself the assault of his full frontal. He lowered himself onto the bed. Stomach down, thankfully. From the way he craned his hairy ass in the air, she figured he already had an erection.
"I'm kind of shy about being touched," he said.
"We'll work that out of you."
She draped the towel over his ass. It helped a little. His back was bright pink and spotted with gray-tufted moles. He smelled of talc, like a baby. She'd rather dip her hands in a pot of warm shit than touch him, but work was work. Linh hadn't gotten this far being squeamish.
She squirted warm oil down his spine. As soon as her slender fingers made contact he started to groan, working his hips a little against the mattress. So much for shyness. She crooked both her hands and kneaded his shoulders. His skin felt flabby to the touch, with almost no muscle tone. It reminded her of kneading soft dough for dumplings.
"Oh Christ, that's wonderful," he said.
She moved down to his lower back. Her fingers found tiny spots of resistance, too slight to call them 'knots', that probably came from sitting in a chair all day. She rubbed and grunted with feigned effort.
"You're very tense down there, Mr. Strode," she said. "Your muscles are holding a lot of stress."
"Oh, you don't know. There--yes. My life. It's complicated. All the responsibilities."
She rolled her eyes.
"I'd love to--ahh--harder, please. Simplify things. But my family. Obligations."
He was practically humping the mattress now. Her hands flitted to his thighs and forced them to stop moving. He took a deep breath. Because rubbing a man's thighs was dangerous territory, she continued to work down until she reached his meager calves, and started stroking those.
"You're really good," he said.
"I--I don't usually get touched too much. By my wife. She's a great lady, and I love her, really, but I think sometimes she's lost her spark, you know? Also, she's kind of let herself go. I don't know why women think they can do that, but they do."
Linh made sympathetic noises, like she hadn't heard this same fucking story a thousand times.
"Anyways, if she took care of me I don't think I'd have to do this. Pay some stranger to touch me. Well, no, that's not the only reason, I need a message, you understand, but it's nice, having a young attractive woman like yourself paying attention to me. Taking care of my needs. Phil's needs, for once. And I've got to say, though I don't want to sound like your typical male pig here, because I respect women, I do, but I wonder if our society--American society, that is--hasn't lost something, the way men get treated now. I mean, in Asian culture it isn't like that. I'm not trying to make any generalizations or anything, but I'm saying in your world men still get the respect they deserve. And the women, ah--"
"They know their place?" Linh said.
"Exactly. Know their place. Thank you."
She stopped rubbing his calves. "Mr. Strode?"
"Phil, please, like I told you."
"Would you like me to jerk you off now, Phil?"
His breath caught. Every feeble muscle in his back seemed to arch at once. "Oh, God, Linh. Please."
"It'll cost a little extra."
"Please." He rolled over. For a moment, Linh tensed at what she might see. There'd been many occasions when she'd massaged a small, effeminate man--or a guy who didn't look like he had much, limp--only to find a one-eyed brontosaurus bobbing in her face when it came time for the happy ending. Not with Mr. Strode, however. Fully erect, he topped a little over four inches.
"Don't let that thing scare you, honey," he said. "I've heard about Asian men."
"It's true," she said, hiding her smirk by bending to slather more oil on her palm. She encircled Strode with her forefinger and began a slow downward stroke. He roared like a tiger touched by a white-hot branding iron. His eyes rolled up and he slammed his head back against the pillow.
One goddamned stroke.
"Oh, holy mother-fucking Jesus, mother of fucking God . . ."
She waited until the expletives had drained away before removing the digital recorder from her tote. Best to hit them fast, while their brains were still scrambled. Strode didn't seem to recognize the recorder when she waved it in front of his face, so she pressed a button and the last five seconds of his screaming orgasm played back on the tinny speaker.
"I don't get it," he said.
"Two thousand dollars."
"For what? A handjob? That's too damn much--"
"Two thousand dollars or I send this as a wav. file to your wife, vacationing in Mexico. We have her e-mail address."
Color seeped in around his hairline. "You're blackmailing me."
"What if I don't pay?" He propped himself up on the bed. "What's to stop me from grabbing that thing right now and kicking you out of my house?"
She snatched the recorder away, and with her other hand drew a Lady Smith nine millimeter from her tote. A small gun, but at the sight of it Strode froze. He offered no resistance as she jabbed the barrel up between his legs. The metal came to rest against his nutsack. She couldn't hide her smile at the poetic symmetry; small gun, small package.
"You'll pay," she said.
Mr. Nguyen did not allow her to come through the front entrance of Contemporary Nails. He liked to keep the two business lines separate, though in truth one depended on the other. So, after she parked, Linh skirted the front parlor. A glance through the windows showed rows of young South Eastern Asian women, chatting up Anglo clients while they trimmed, painted, and buffed their privileged fingernails.
Mrs. Strode was a frequent customer.
Nguyen waited in the alley behind the shop. He had a cell phone tucked under his chin, a cigarette in his left hand and another cell in his right. As Linh approached, he juggled the cigarette to his lip, spoke something in fluent Tagalog to the first person on the phone, then switched cells and bawled someone else out in Vietnamese. Between the conversations he took deep puffs.
"Ah, Linh," he said, nodding at her. He laid the phones down on a stoop. "How'd it go?"
"Excellent. Excellent work. Get yourself some lunch, then I have another job for you." He fished an index card out of his slacks and squinted at it. "Retired sociology professor. His wife caught him watching porn, so I sense potential there."
She started to object.
He flashed her a hard look, and she stopped. Mr. Nguyen affected the Happy Grandfather with his girls most of the time, but he had a gravitas that came from sharpening punji sticks as a young boy, in another life.
"Remember your work ethic," he said.
She sighed and took the card from his hand.
BIO: Mr. Elliott has had crime-type stories published in Shred of Evidence, Hardluck Stories, Darkest Before the Dawn, Plots With Guns, and Out of the Gutter.