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Chapter 1

Roy Orbison's "Pretty Woman" played over the thin Echoflex speakers sunk into the black ceiling joists. Coming out onto the runway from behind purple curtains, a bit hesitantly, was the next pretty thing, dressed as a secretary, or at least some tired-old-man's idea of one from when they still called them that, when the song was still young.

"She isn't a woman, but isn't she pretty?" the MC said. Only his eyes were visible in the inch slit in the painted-out window of the DJ booth.

The club had a name but it kept changing so nobody bothered to remember it anymore. The space last had been a theater, before regular people stopped going out to the movies. The re-constructors had ripped out the seats and flattened the floor and converted the black hole into a "gentlemen's club." It could hold a hundred people but this Tuesday night there were just eight or nine men in the joint. And one woman, who stayed in the deeper shadows at a table for one.

"Call her... Jane," the MC said.

Two men clapped in response. Two or three others set down their drinks and joined in, thinking the secretary would like it, that somehow it would buy them something with her. She walked that one-foot-in-front-of-the-other walk out to the end of the runway, stopped as the music faded, replaced by ambient tones from a machine. She just stood there. It was like a fashion show only she wasn't selling anything. Yet. She wore "business attire", 60s vintage, a tight gray skirt that ended below her knees, a white blouse and gray jacket over the skirt. Hose, heels, probably a garter belt. She took a step forward, went right up to the edge of the stage, and looked out into the red and white glare, projecting alone. It was as if she was looking out her office window before she started work, as if it was morning and she was the first one in and already needed to see what she was missing, cooped up inside like this. She was good at her job. She let them get a long look at her — let them start filling in the blanks in their own heads, let them make her theirs — before she turned her back on them. As she walked toward the purple curtain, an old-style curved-corner gray metal desk, a roll-around armless chair and a black obelisk of a file cabinet glided out to meet her, as soundless as any dream, a slick bit of stagecraft. The desk came to an at-rest position just as she reached it.

She took off her suit jacket, folded it and put it over her chair, smoothed out her skirt and sat down. She straightened a stack of papers in the Out Basket, whipped away the gray cover for the IBM Selectric, folded it and slid it into the top drawer of the desk. The set was on the diagonal so they could see the leading edge of her shape as she sat there. But this wasn't about her legs or her hips or her breasts, though her body was exhibition quality. They'd all already seen as much skin as they were going to see, a V of flesh at the collar, her bare arms, her knees and calves. And that beautiful unsatisfied face. There wasn't a sound — there weren't any sound effects — but the phone "rang" and lit up. She looked down at it and sighed and waited another long second and then picked it up, pretending to answer. She smiled ever-so-slightly.

Who was calling? You.

It was a story bar. Some called them "fiction clubs" or "vignette joints." They'd come along in L.A. in 2018 or '19, the next thing after the last bleak permutation of the strip bar had been exhausted, after women had offered every inch of themselves and skin — just skin — had grown hard to market. What do you sell of a woman when you have sold every inch of her? Her story. A secretary, a nurse, a waitress. A check-out girl at the grocery store. A bank teller. A teacher in a classroom between classes, looking out the window. (Why were they always looking out windows?) What was her story? What was she thinking of? You. Coming home to you, running away from it all with you, counting the slow minutes until she could be in your arms. Most men weren't good enough at lying to themselves to buy into the story if these little dramas had been set in the here and now, in the present. Things being the way they were now, there was no place to find this kind of fantasy but The Past. Fantasy was probably too pretty a word. Whatever you wanted to call it.

Human hunger. That's what Nate Cole called it, with a mixture of his own longing and a general disgust at the ways of Man. He was something of an expert on the subject of what men wanted, what drove them to do what they do, what fires burned inside men, burned them right down to the ground sometimes. He was a cop.

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