Fiction and Drama
The Exchange Rate Between Lust and Money
December 2007, and Intergalactic Capital LLP, having concluded a string of big-time real estate deals, has sent Khan Kerensky to Amsterdam, Holland, with instructions to whitemail the city. The deals adhering to Intergalactic’s usual formula, commercial properties with rents that can be raised with just a little sprucing. Preference for professional tenants, as these were felt to be most price-elastic. And these tenants were certainly from a well-established profession: the oldest.
Dusk and branches of bare plane trees are sunlit against a winter sky, vast and Protestant blue. Khan Kerensky wanders the red-light district, happy to be back, smoking vaguely. It’s been a harsh winter, the canals have iced over for the first time in a generation, and now tourists take turns skidding laughing along them, swerving around decrepit rowboats stuck listing in the ice, frozen puddles inside holding frozen empties of Heineken.
His first commitment is a meeting with the managing agents for a block of eighteen properties, comprising fifty-one windows in total, to bring them up to speed about the forthcoming whitemail. “Window” in this instance having a more nuanced meaning than usual: these being full-length plateglass ones from which partly nude figures, often young and slim but sometimes spectacularly neither, attract clients who approach the door, chat, set terms, and, once behind drawn curtains, transact.
“Fifty-one windows?”—Bill Heavenly, Khan Kerensky’s boss, had been in Amsterdam in August for the funeral of a friend. “Fifty-one windows in eighteen properties,” shaking his head, leafing through the architectural plans. “Shit is bananas. How have they survived.”
Yes, the gearing was unacceptably slack. He called trusty Khan Kerensky on the satellite phone, who at that time was kite-skiing across Antarctica, and said why didn’t he drop in on him in Amsterdam, Holland. Twenty-eight hours and $12,000 later, Khan was back in slacks and promenading down the Oudezijds Achterburgwal with his boss. Early evening, fairylights just coming on in the trees, wrens going in to roost and Brits coming out to swarm.
“No reason they can’t rationalize like any other business, Khan. Look at this building: One window. One!” Bill Heavenly sucking on a pomegranate smoothie and absently inspecting the construction. “We could get four in here no problem.” He wandered up to the plate glass, peering at an angle to establish wall thickness, load-bearing structure, et cetera. He nodded. Less than a foot away, the most beautiful woman Khan had ever seen was threatening to remove an already insubstantial top, and her eyebrows were asking the two men if she should proceed. “Oh man check it out,” Bill rapped the glass with a knuckle, “double plexi.”
To Khan, it was all achingly beautiful: the vertical and slim vernacular of the city finding expression in its windows, houses, girls. The most beautiful girls he’d ever seen bicycled past in military coats, redcheeked and laughing into cell phones.
“So the Dutch have windows just on the first floor, see Khan? And sometimes the second. Total cottage industry. We’ll show em how to do business. We are going to buy up this crummy little town, and put windows up to the sixth floor. You hear? I want these buildings looking like a woman vending machine! You hear me, Khan?”
“But aren’t there zoning laws?” Khan asked.
“Good one, good one,” Bill said, when they’d finished laughing.
Well. The zoning laws allowed only a set number of windows altogether. So over the fall Intergalactic rapidly accumulated properties across the redlight district, representing by early December nearly three-quarters of the total, purchased through agents and subsidiaries. Because Intergalactic had recently part-floated in New York, disclosures were made there in accordance with Sarbanes-Oxley. Though not to the Amsterdam authorities, who, despite widespread rumors at street level, knew nothing of the takeover of their main tourist attraction until Intergalactic, in the form of point man Khan Kerensky, told them so at a meeting.
“We can shut down the city’s entire tourist dollar,” Khan said. “Either you let us put in more windows, or we’ll board up the ones we have.”
On the other side of the table, municipal officers flustered among contracts and deeds, verifying the situation.
“You wouldn’t!” said the Chief Planning Officer.
“I’m afraid we would.”
“But you will lose money!”
Khan Kerensky nodded. “At first,” he agreed.
Khan didn’t enjoy such moments. In New York it was fine; screwing the other guy was what America was all about, and even as you screwed him you could tell he kind of enjoyed it. Over here it was all socialists and cobblestones, old-timers wearing ties for the fun of it and cities that said no to skyscrapers in order not to spoil the view. Honestly it was no fair. He felt like a GI moving slopes out of grass huts. Not totally what he signed up for.
And besides there’s never a need to board up windows. Prices work like planks. The strategy is clear: the girls who work the windows are self-employed; they rent the windows themselves and keep everything they make. No pimps. Or just the one big pimp, who takes 19 percent as sales tax and another 30 percent on income.
Oh, the girls have panic buttons all right, and if one of them gets pushed it won’t be cops who’ll come running. That falls under “security,” provided by the landlord and included in the rent. Khan has instructions from the partners to keep putting up the rent, which either the girls will swallow whole, because there’s always the possibility of breaking into the paradise of Luxury Economics, where in direct contradiction of classical economics, higher prices generate higher demand. In which case, amazing. Demand Slope Inversion. Seen in rare and wonderful markets, like jewelry, supercars, eye surgery. Every retailer’s giddy fantasy. Or the girls won’t swallow it, in which case Khan will just bring the fucking city to its knees, and force through approval for more windows. Classically hedged.
As Intergalactic’s fourteen managing agencies relayed the news that week, the girls almost didn’t understand what was happening. Rents jumped from €18 an hour to €25. Confusion, then anger. By week’s end, they’d appointed a sort of tribune, one Maja van Zeeping, who came to Khan’s office on the Prinsengracht to protest.
Maja was the most beautiful woman Khan had ever seen. But he was sympathy itself, asked her to pass over that legal pad, so he could explain it all very clearly.
“From the numbers you’ve given me, right Maja? you’re paying a hundred and fifty euro for a window, for a shift of eight hours. And you charge at least fifty euro per customer, sometimes more, so after three customers, max, you’ve washed your face. Right?”
Maja nodded at the pad. “Not just the face.”
“You say on average fifteen minutes each customer, five minutes in between to freshen up, that’s one hour to pay off your overheads, leaving you with seven hours’ clear profit. Yes?” “Yes.” “Okay. Which means you’re making a 700 percent return on investment every time you take a window. See?”
Maja frowned, shook her head. “Not everyone . . .”
“Seven hundred percent, Maja!”
“Maybe the pretty ones yes. But no one becomes rich.”
“Seven hundred percent, every day! In New York, no one’s ever made that kind of money!”
“Not even the prostitutes?”
“We don’t have em.” Then, in response to her look, “Different business model. Frankly, the bottom line is we think a daily seven-times profit is excessive, and at Intergalactic Capital, we’re an old-fashioned company, we don’t approve of excessive profit-taking.”
A period of tense eye contact during which Khan finds the strength, god knows from where, not to laugh.
Eventually she looks away. “It’s not profit,” distantly, “it’s just a wage.”
“Well hang on, you’re self-employed, right? By definition if you’re the owners, it’s a profit.” Smiling not unkindly. “Look, our improvements will be worth it. It’ll help your business, you can go for ‘massclusivity,’ market yourself as luxury prostitutes. No seriously,” in answer to her eyes, “you can drive in a wedge at the top of any market. You name it. Just keep adding bells and whistles. You can make luxury anything. Freaking gumboots, look at Le Chameau. But even if you don’t do that, at the new rents, you’ll still be left with 600 percent profit, and that’s still mad good. Got to move with the times, Maja.”
Khan wore a smile as he saw her off the premises, her fingers at her lips and troubles across her forehead. The girls dug deep and paid. But he needed plenty of self-medication on the flight back to New York.
“Celebrating?” said the foxy Italian-American woman in the seat next to him, as he bit a chunk out of his sixth mini-Macallan.
“Absolutely.” Khan turned to give her the full megawattage. She was the most beautiful woman Khan had ever seen. “Specially when I get back to the city, at that new nightclub, Ng! Want to come?”
A slow blink of extravagantly decorated eyes. “Always.”
By the time Khan and the foxy Italian-American woman arrived at Ng!, a high-concept Southeast-Asian arrangement, there was something of a deal-closing party in full swing. “Kerensky!” went the rest of the Intergalactic team, locking their arms around his neck and rubbing his flat-top. “You pimp!” Khan was a hero that night, and the girls at Ng! were biting, hard. He had a great time despite the sinister presence of three partners, standing in a tight circle in the corner, playing with their keys in their pockets, and discussing coefficients.
“Don’t sweat it, seriously,” said the foxy Italian-American, when she heard what Khan had been up to. “All the world’s a brothel.” Turned out she was the Milan Head of Office for a boutique fund out of Greenwich. Khan looked at her quizzically, tried to get a read. “Say what?”
“Don’t feel bad about the prostitutes, honey,” fingers like serpents on his arm. “They’re just workers, like anyone. And they get to lie down.”
“No, what you said before that.”
“About the world,” direct eye contact, “being a brothel?”
“The whole world?” Khan not breaking eye contact.
A smile. “For most men, there are the street girls, the girls in your windows, that scene. For the wealthy, there are special clubs, high-class call girls, and so on. For the very very wealthy, where do you go?”
Khan had no idea. “Bungalow Eight?”
“More or less. Everyone has their price. Ask the Sulzbergers.”
Khan liked her style. “So what do you say to . . . a sneaky thousand?”
“Deal.” The foxy Italian-American threw her head back to down her martini, which processed down her neck with a gynecological writhing of throat-parts. Then she took out her wallet, removed ten C-notes, and pressed them into Khan’s hand.
“No wait,” Khan began.
“Now come with me, bitch.”
But soon after his departure the latest piece of turbulence hit Ng! with a buzzing of cell phones. The three partners went into the VVIP section, had some actors kicked off a table, and sat down to discuss it. An article had appeared in Business Week a few days ago describing Intergalactic’s Amsterdam move—bad enough, but it then percolated through the rest of the publishing industry, and had just reached its apex or nadir with tomorrow’s edition of the Post, page four: i-bankers screw ho’s.
“It’s defamatory, Bill. I say we sic Leonard onto them.”
“It’s not defamatory. Leave Leonard out of it.”
“Is your Blackberry even on? Every retirement fund we’ve got is threatening to pull!”
“Really?” Bill Heavenly’s eyes darted. “Why, because it’s—? It’s all perfectly legal in Europe.”
“But not moral! I mean what was Kerensky thinking? Does he even know what’s been happening in US politics?”
“I say we throw Kerensky to the wolves now, call him rogue, divest, draw a line.”
Bill Heavenly inspected his ice cubes. “Let’s see how it plays, Sandy. Investor Relations are wizards. You know? Wizards.”
It played all right. Investor Relations bundled it through behind the gambit “I’d rather work in a brothel than a slaughterhouse.” Which, when reporters and analysts heard that, you could see them disappear into their heads to simulate it a little, and when they came back, a lot of the vigor had drained from their questioning. Wizards. Khan never knew.
But by December 15 word has come through from the managing agents in Amsterdam that rent yield is tanking, 40 percent and falling. The girls are refusing to pay the new prices. So Khan is dispatched again, New Amsterdam back to Old, to bust heads. Bill Heavenly shook him warmly by the hand as he left for the airport. “You can’t get the better of some working girls Khan, don’t come back. Happy Christmas.”
Khan goes red-eyed straight to the Prinsengracht office, where his nine o’clock is already waiting, the top of a swarm of platinum hair just visible behind spread-eagled pages of the Financial Times. The paper comes down at his approach to reveal the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen: ivory-faced, nude lipgloss and gray irises set in cruel eyes, hair paler than her skin scraped back into severe chopsticks, off-white skirt suit, ice-pink blouse with ruffles that spill from her jacket’s orifices at sleeve and neck. Shoes with red soles, which well he can’t remember what exactly that means, but he knows it means she means business.
“Agnieszka Zerowska,” she says, with a grip.
“Khan. Please come into my office.”
Niceties follow, and a slow acceleration into the matter at hand. Khan tries to ease the rationale of the new rent system into her pretty little head: “The rooms are going to be so much better. Worth every penny.”
Agnieszka’s line is to doubt the girls will ever want to pay for ruched curtains.
“But it’ll generate a lot more business, even if you don’t raise your own prices, which, of course, you’re quite free to do.”
“Though we won’t.”
“Come on, fifty euro for full sex? That’s pretty cheap.”
“That is why we do well.” An angular, Iron Curtain English, like walking in heels too high.
“I think you can afford to go upmarket some.”
“We are happy at this price point.”
“I imagine after ten or twelve beers your clients are pretty what we call price-elastic, no?”
Glacial smile. “Fifty euro is the price at apex of demand-volume curve.”
Yikes. “You don’t want to reduce volume for, you know,” waving a finger, “personal reasons?”
“This way, granularity is too low. We need it more steady. As they say, income is queen.”
Well, if this woman isn’t going to help him spare her feelings, there’s no point arguing. Khan has all the cards. “All right then, Miss Zerowska. You find a window owned by somebody else, you’re welcome to go to them.”
“There are only a few not owned by you. The others are booked for months.”
“Exactly. You and your girls are free to take our windows or not.”
“I am free?”
“Uh,” Khan’s temperature steals half a degree upward. “Well sure, aren’t you one of . . .”
“One of who?”
“Sorry, I’d assumed you were . . .”
“A working girl, yourself?”
“I see,” nodding like it’s an assumption that, while almost criminally stupid, she can just about understand. Silence descends like frost.
Khan finds odd scraps of paper on his desk to be of sudden interest, makes peculiar humming noises as he shuffles them.
Leaving her to euthanize the howling silence: “Actually, we have long wanted the rents to go down.”
“You say down?”
“Your arrival has been impetus here for development. Normally these girls, all being businesswomen, compete against each other or so. But the disgraceful acts of Intergalactic Capital have forced these girls to become economically rational.”
“Well now you’re talking.”
Khan’s entire midsection floods with gastric acid.
“Now you do not deal with individual girls, but with the General Assembly of Amsterdam Prostitutes. I am Secretary. And we will strike for lower rents.”
“Sixteen euro an hour, is what we would like.”
“Aren’t there laws against that kind of thing?”
“Let me make it easy for you. People are not having as much sex as they used to. Everything is down.” “What!” “Everyone is experiencing recession.” “Sex is recession-proof!” “Not for our men. They,” she pursed her lips, “they recede.” “Wait. The vices do well in a recession, I thought?” She shakes her head. “There are many studies,” airily, “it’s Iraq, the bad winter, house prices go down, people are not in this very good mood or so, they do not wish to have sex. Demand is down, and like the big supermarkets we will pass on costs to our supplier.”
“You’ve got it the wrong way round: when the supply price goes up, you have to pass on the costs to the consumer.”
“For supply-led. Sex is demand-led.” Pause. “Or do you think the world will consume as much sex as we produce?”
“Yes!” Khan practically yells. “If there’s one thing there’s an infinite demand for, it’s sex!”
“Infinite yes, constant no.”
Khan’s getting confused. “No wait, say that again?”
“Like food.” She tilts her head sideways at him. Khan is having to think, for the first time since Wharton, about an economic problem. “When men feel good,” Agnieszka explains, “they want sex. When bad, alcohol.”
Khan rubs his face. Unionize. Oh nuts oh Jesus, he’ll never make partner.
“You have not read Sexonomics by Pieter van der Kar, or even last year’s filings with SEC?”
“We read all the SEC filings. Which company?” “There’s no company. Amsterdam prostitutes are self-employed.” “So how are you filed with the SEC?” “SEC gets data from tax returns.” Khan squints. “Whose tax returns?” “The girls’. Collated figures for all 2006 sex acts are filed with the SEC.”
“All 2006 what? Under what name?”
“No names,” frowning. “The results from girls’ cashbooks. They pay tax, results are collated into graphs or so,” squinting at him.”You know, I don’t think you have seen these filings.”
Khan and Agnieszka peer at each other for a while.
“Which SEC we talking about here?”
“Sex-workers Economic Council.”
Of course. “Then no, I apologize, I haven’t read those.”
“Well!” Agnieszka sits back. “If you will not do due diligence . . .”
He stands up, goes to the window.
The wide curve of the Prinsengracht opposite, buildings jumbled as a bookshelf and of the same proportions, hazing out at the far end into a golden palette, contre jour against a low winter sun. Dark streetlamps at foreground. Brothels or not, and savagely undervalued compared to London and New York, Intergalactic has acquired some of the most beautiful buildings Khan’s ever seen: early modern brickwork from a spectrum of quarries, smoky reds soot-burnished to brown, semicircular tops of windows; heavy darkwood beams and airy ceilings; disused cargo hooks projecting from gables. They’re worth it, he tells himself, holding on to at least that safety net, each an unimpeachable store of value.
And beauty. He turns back to Agnieszka.
“Can’t do anything for you. Sorry. We’re sticking at twenty-five euro an hour.”
Agnieszka’s puzzled. “But then you have strike.”
Khan claps his hands together. “Fine. We’ll see who starves first.” Khan tries to smile, but it comes out wrong.
Agnieszka sits samurai-still in the chair, gazing out of the window. Khan follows her gaze, but there’s nothing there, just cars parked herringbone up to the frozen canal’s edge.
She leans forward. “I understand you are here in capacity as employee of Intergalactic Capital.” “Right yeah.” “And me as representative of General Assembly of Amsterdam Prostitutes. But on a personal level, Mr. Kerensky, you understand, this is not nice.”
“As a person, you understand, a person with a mother: this is not decent.”
Khan hates it when they do this.
“We are poor girls who must sleep with strangers for money, and you are very rich men, becoming more rich by taking from us.”
“Us?” Khan asks.
“Okay,” says Khan, presently.
“Yes, so there is no doubt, I fuck for money.”
Khan nods it away as quickly as possible. “Yep fine.”
“Economics degree, Mr. Kerensky. It has taught me to take decisions that are economically rational.”
“These are hard decisions. It is a hard life.”
“I have no money. I want just a little,” showing him with finger and thumb. “Just a little of what you have. And you judge me?” She shakes her head at him. “Being prostitute, it is easier to see when we are being fucked.”
Khan gives her a lopsided grin. “Nice.”
A warm smile. “Not even a little.”
The pews of the church of Saint Berzelius are filled with girls in duffle coats and scarves and hats, plumes of breath like speech bubbles drifting to the darkwood rafters as they chat or read aloud from Westward Ho!, a magazine aimed at young ladies from former Warsaw Pact countries, containing tips on lipliner, leathercare, and the importance of salting away money against the inevitable Loss of Face. Condensation runs down the faces of mournful primary-colored saints, two fingers up and blessing each other in gothic windows.
A gavel. An elderly moderator announces the General Assembly of Amsterdam Prostitutes in session, then gives the floor to Agnieszka, who takes them through developments, painting the private equity movement in its usual colors vis-à-vis concern for the little guy, and Intergalactic in particular as being racked with a warped neocon urge to stamp out sex entirely.
The heckles all flow one way. “American morals!” “Make war not love!” “We have bills to pay!”
“We have the deepest sympathy for those who need money,” says Agnieszka. “When I am finished, Katje from Prostitutes Information Centre will talk about other ways of finding customers. There are clubs, private visits, but ah! I do not steal her speech. Also Zoran and his boys will be taking girls out into streets, looking after them for just a small fee.”
“We don’t go back to pimps!”
“All right, all right. It’s just for small time, while this crisis passes. Management strikes, they do not work. Girls of Amsterdam, trust me.” It’s her motif. “Trust me.” Agnieszka works the crowd for a pair of eyes containing doubt, focuses her personality on them. “Trust me,” forcing the reassurance into them, moving on to another knot in the crowd’s acceptance, massaging it down. “Trust me, girls, we can do this. Trust me . . .”
Vice is vicious. Khan tries to bring in strikebreakers, advertising far and wide for anyone to rent the windows. A front of Balkan girls moves in first, but amid shrieks of “Scab!” and graffiti tags likewise, Agnieszka gets the police to check their papers and move them on. Only EU citizens can prostitute in Holland. Windows are broken, injuries sustained. Then there are a few groups of two and three girls who work as teams, who despite drawing large crowds find their returns only moderate; then some male prostitutes, who substitute the red light for blue, but on the whole that does not end well; no, not at all. And otherwise a range of varied and less classifiable attractions, most easily filed under Specialty. Bottom line, Khan discovers that it’s difficult to tough something out when the part of your operation that’s supposed to do the toughing is made of large squares of glass.
“A prostitute strike?” Bill Heavenly’s face is blank. “You’re shitting me.”
“Straight up, it’s in the papers and everything.” “Shit is unprecedented!” “Kind of surprised you haven’t heard about it. It’s been in the news.” Bill frowns. “Which news?” “The Journal, for a start.”
“Oh yeah,” Bill says hurriedly, “I may have seen something . . . ,” a familiar formulation. “But how’s it going, in general? Is the city going to cave?” “I don’t know Bill. Just don’t know.” “What? No crummy little city can stand up to us. How are they holding out?” “The city just doesn’t want any more windows.” “Balderdash. You obviously haven’t offered enough.” “I have Bill, really. Half a mil salary plus bonus.” “And they’re not taking? Why?” “Don’t know what to tell you.” “You’ve offered enough jobs around?” “Bill, we’re going to have to open a whole new office to accommodate all the people I’ve offered jobs to.” “None biting, huh?” “Not really.”
“How do they refuse it?” Bill genuinely mystified. “Inflation must be out of control. When half a million bucks won’t even buy you a planning officer . . .”
Khan nods toward the boardroom. “How bad is it, Bill?”
Bill exhales noisily. “We’re reporting 11 percent, but without the fancy footwork Main Fund’s really at 8. October was not good. We can’t afford to waste anything, Khan. We need those windows operational, and at the target window ratio, and now.”
Khan’s big move: “We could just go back to how it was?”
A silence. Bill shaking his head. “At the price we paid, that’s like a 3 percent return . . .”
“Getting more windows was always going to be a long campaign, Bill, not a flip. You knew it was going to hurt us. Meanwhile the other windows are getting yields of 120, 150, you know?”
“One-fifty? Percent?” “Right.” “How is that even possible?” “Two girls per window, then using the backrooms.” “Golly,” Bill momentarily fazed, “pile em high, eh?” “You’re not wrong.” “They’re wiping the floor.” “Right. Four times an hour.” “Well you’re just going to face em down, Khan. Eliminate their other options.” “There’s too many other options.” “Balderdash.” “No seriously Bill. Thing is, I don’t think you can corner the market in sex, you know? If a girl wants to sleep with someone for money, she doesn’t need a whole lot of infrastructure, you dig? That kind of thing’s pretty hard to stamp out.”
“Find a way.”
“Three percent return’s a lot better than a loss, Bill.”
“Khan, let me explain something to you,” in the tone of voice reserved for his “winners” speeches. “Intergalactic is for winners. I ever hear you talking like that again, no way are you going to make partner, you hear me? No way.”
Khan swallows hard. “Won’t happen again, Bill.”
So Khan brings Agnieszka Zerowska back to the table to talk solutions.
“You’re coming down to sixteen euro?” Agnieszka begins as soon as she has sat down.
“Not just yet.”
“Ah, so,” and gets right back up to go.
Sheer grandstanding, Khan’s seen it all before, but nonetheless it takes a while to “persuade” her to stay. A highly enjoyable while, chipping away at a beautiful woman’s willpower, but Khan’s a pro, he’s there to force a compromise, or at least force her to absorb what he has to say, the gist of which is to propose a revenue-sharing model.
“No.” “Why not?” “Where you take 50 percent of what we earn?” “Well we can talk about the exact percentage, but yeah.” “No one does it like this anymore.” “Except Intergalactic.” “This is the pimp-style.” “We’re old-school that way.” “The girls will never allow it.” “You don’t even want to ask them?” “I know already.” “That bad, huh?”
Agnieszka nods. “Fixed overheads is only way. There is pride in this, the girls are independent, and sometimes I think you forget externalities or so. And when I say you, I mean you men,” with contempt flaring in the nostrils on the m. “The externalities, or internalities, this is better word. You know what it’s like? We are burning capital.” A hand forming a teardrop in front of her stomach, “Emotional capital. We convert emotional value to financial value, woman’s capital into man’s capital.”
“It’s a man’s world.”
“It is. And while we do this work, a relationship is impossible. It’s not so fun for us to be having sex with some guy we don’t like. It’s not fun but it’s okay. But it’s not okay when we get paid once out of two times for every . . . liquidity event, you know?”
Khan laughs. “That’s not what a liquidity event is.” “Yes I think so.” “No no.” “Yes. A liquidity event is when an investor takes out what he put in, yes?”
Khan lets it go. Where did she spring from?
“Psychologically it is important we keep everything the client pays. Even if after overheads we earn less than with pimp, nonetheless,” tapping her forehead in the middle, “it is important. It uses less emotional value.”
“So what if you paid no rent, and we kept 1 percent of everything you made?”
Agnieszka frowns. “We pay nothing to have the room?” “Nothing at all.” “And what money we make, we give you 1 percent?” “Right.” “Yes, that would be excellent.”
“Right so,” Khan sitting forward, “we’ve established you have no objection to revenue sharing in principle . . .”
Agnieszka sees what he’s done and throws her head back, playfully exasperated. It’s the first girly, non-professional gesture she’s made in front of him, and there’s more grace and beauty in it than in Khan’s whole life. So a period of haggling over the cut is inevitable.
“Ten percent, then!” “I think 45 is reasonable.” “Talent agents take 10 or 15. The work of creation is respected. Procreation should have the same respect.” “But painters are also respected, and gallerys take 50 percent from them.” “Because they have no union.” “Artists can’t unionize. It’s not a commodity.” “Art is not a commodity?” “It’s all different. You can’t unionize when everything’s different.” “Like our bodies?” “Right! You can’t unionize prostitutes, you’re all different!” She frowns, shaking her head at him. “But we have.”
“Look. Essentially, I think of you as artists.”
She toasts her glass of water at him. “You gentleman.” “And like artists, you’re self-employed. We, Intergalactic, are the gallery. Galleries show artists’ works in their windows, and they sell them, with a 50-percent cut.” “Artists have a bad deal.” “No! It’s a good deal! It’s got to be that way when it’s an art form with one buyer, like a painting, and not a mass medium with many buyers, like music. Finding that one buyer becomes much more difficult, it’s a specialized service, you need to pay more.”
“You think we don’t have many buyers?”
“One buyer at a time.”
Agnieszka takes this. “Buyers in series you mean, not parallel.” “Exactly.” “A luxury product, like a painting, or a house.” “You got it.” “OK.” But it was only a reculer pour mieux sauter. “And how much do house agents take?”
Khan tries to fire an answer, but his mouth jams.
“Two percent, I think?”
“Okay well that’s anomalous . . . It’s not the percentage of the commission that matters, it’s the absolute value, which in the case of real estate is very large . . . Bottom line, you’ve got to make it worth your agent’s while to find you clients, right?”
“So then. I think paying your agents 50 percent is fair.”
Agnieszka leans forward, takes the lapels of her suit jacket and holds them slightly apart. “These are my agents.”
The argument continues for hours and days, an endless circling round the lush wood-and-shag conference room, Khan zooming in to the methods by which girls can ensure speedier transactions, Agnieszka zooming out to the global problem of Unionized Wealth. Khan’s all say what?, Agnieszka assures him that, yes, wealth has also been unionized, private force collected into billion-dollar funds, a radical development on a par with the invention of gunpowder, and in whose face the threadbare decencies of the Old World collapse. Public service, Calvinism, universal health. Castles versus missiles.
Khan loves this kind of talk, he’s heard fairystories about them but never actually met a Marxist, specially one with eyes as pale as that . . . He listens, glazed, fascinated. “The only way to stop it is to unify against it.” She lived in a Communist country until she was 7. “The workers will always seize the means of production. Or—”
“Reproduction,” he says.
Her smile is his first inkling that she doesn’t absolutely hate him. But it’s both their duties to spend their time in fake friendship and reasonableness, smother each other in pretend human emotions, “not unlike prostitution,” as Agnieszka wasn’t slow to point out, and generally wear each other down. So by 7 pm Thursday Agnieszka observes that since there’s just the two of them, there’s not much point being in this stuffy conference room when they could equally well be in “a coffeeshop, for instance?”
Khan likes her style. They go. Agnieszka buys a joint. He sticks to the cocktails and refuses all hits, wise to that attempted foxing maneuver, but the air’s pretty thick in here and the demon of passive smoking gets him anyway. By midnight his eyebrows have to confer to remember what the plan is, and where the conversation is heading.
“How are you for money?” he was asking her. “Personally?”
“I have savings.”
“You still working?” “Some.” “As?”
Agnieszka cocks an eyebrow. “Prostitute.”
Khan breathes deep, rubs his palms, blinks into the middle distance. Agneiszka watches him coolly.
“Are you ah, um,” Khan begins. “Yes?” “Taking new clients?” “Yes.” “Now?”
Her chin goes down, a sharpening of presence. Suddenly unblinking. One arm crossed under her sweatered breasts, the other vertical, holding the joint that bleeds smoke across her eyes in hieroglyphic swirls, a stock ticker written in alien. “Always.”
“And how much may I ask is it, for, um . . .” “It depends on the customer.” “Well, for, let’s say . . .” “You?” “For instance.”
She drags, eyes never leaving his. “What would you like?”
“Hypothetically you understand . . .” “To sleep with me?” “Uh sure why not.”
Agnieszka’s spine needs slow and pronounced stretching. “You want to know how much it costs to fuck me?”
“I mean I see it’s kind of weird, given we’re all, you know, negotiating and stuff.”
“Five thousand euro,” she whispers.
Khan laughs. “That’s not a fuck, that’s a fuck-you!”
“Well put.” Two straight fingers bringing roach to lipgloss, wondering how he’ll play this one.
Eventually, “How’s five hundred euro sound?”
Against the tide of cannabis, Agnieszka’s pupils constrict sharply. But she’s not a Master of Economics for nothing, she knows about Demand Slope Inversion. “Ten thousand euro.”
“No wait, I said five hundred euro.”
“Oh sorry, I didn’t hear,” she smiles apologetically. “Eleven thousand.”
Khan grins, takes a sip of his sidecar. “All right. A moody thousand it is.”
“Twelve thousand.” “Two thousand.” “Thirteen thousand.” “I’m offering you two thousand fucking euro, you dig?” “Fourteen thousand.” “What do you mean, fourteen? You’re going up from there?” “Fifteen thousand.” “No wait just fucking hang on a minute!” “Sixteen.” “Way way wait let me think Jesus, OK, five thousand euro already!” “Seventeen.” “I just offered you, five thousand euro, just to fuck me, once! and I can tell you kind of like me anyway, you know? and you’re turning that down?”
“I’m not turning you down,” a smile, not without warmth. “Twenty thousand.”
“Done! Stop!” Khan cries.
In the dazed silence that follows, she extends a hand. “I take Amex. Zerosum Consultants is what it will say on your bill.”
Khan looks around, no idea what he’s just done, gives his own hand to shake. “Man alive. This better be good.”
Khan goes to the next meeting of the General Assembly of Amsterdam Prostitutes as a guest speaker, to lay out the problem from Intergalactic’s point of view. See if he can’t show them the wider picture, appeal to their sense of progress in the fast-changing world of globalized money. Agniezka has said he’s more than welcome.
“Miss Moderator, Agnieszka, girls of Amsterdam: thanks for having me,” he starts in from the table. “I deeply sympathize with the situation you must be finding yourselves in. It’s a dilemma common to striking workers all over the world. Heartrending stories. No money coming in, no way to feed your kids. Or, as the case may be, your habit.”
“Asshole!” shouts Agnieszka.
“Please,” says the moderator.
“He just called us drug addicts!” Agnieszka turns to the crowd. The crowd, on cue but not really warmed up, halfheartedly boos at Khan.
“Mr. Kerensky,” the moderator shaking a kindly smile.
“Sorry. Just a little joke, a play on public perceptions, it’s normally considered quite correct in meetings like this, to make a little, you know, but I see that it was inappropriate. I apologize.” More jeering. He catches the smile in Agniezska’s eyes, savouring this early ambush. She’s frolicking. He can dish it out too. Oh yeah? You want to play with the boys from Amsterdam 2.0?
“I’ll cut to the point. What I have to say will not be popular, but I feel I have to say it anyway. It’s about your leader, your ah, ‘Secretary,’ Agnieszka Zerowska. In a nutshell, ladies and gen—, ladies, she’s been deceiving you. She’s persuaded you all not to work, that it’s in your interest not to work, and meanwhile she’s been doing lots of business. Behind your back.” A hush. “Girls of Amsterdam, your leader . . . is cheating on you.”
A deep silence. The saints dark in their windows. A glance at Agnieszka. Those empty eyes are feeling nothing for him anymore, nothing at all.
“Because what she’s doing is, she’s making a huge amount of money out of this strike. Keeping all of you on strike,” a hand sweeping over the audience, “is giving her all the work she can handle.”
Even the coughs have stopped.
“I don’t know girls, I don’t want to tell you your business, but if I were one of you, I’d say: You know what? Let’s get rid of that Agnieszka Zerowska, and get back to work! I wouldn’t put up with this profiteering from your leaders.”
“May I say something?” Eyes swivel to Agnieszka.
“Just hang on while I—”
“Mr. Kerensky, please,” says the moderator.
Agnieszka shrugs like it’s of no concern. “We are all taking private clients,” she says. “We are not on strike. We have never been striking. We are only boycotting their windows,” indicating Khan. “Right?” at the audience.
“Right,” someone yells back. A few likewise.
“I mean, really! What he says is only something to make us argue and disagree. Exactly what we think this kind of man will do. No decency.”
“Not just private clients,” Khan leaning into the mike, his voice scraping the highpass volume limit, “but profiteering! Because of the strike, and you watch, she’ll probably say it was from me, or something. I happen to know she earned at least twenty thousand euro last week!”
A gasp from the crowd.
“Deny it!” passionately now, “Agnieszka, deny it! Twenty thousand euro!” Khan leans away from the mike to say it’s all hers.
A cool interception. “No, Mr. Kerensky, I won’t deny it.”
More gasping. A single boo.
“And let me guess, you’re about to say it was all from me!” Khan shakes his head amusedly at the audience. “So lame.”
In return: “Yes, he’s right, I did earn twenty thousand euro for one fuck!”
So much gasping that there’s almost no air left in the hall. A whistle.
“Twenty thousand euro, in fifteen minutes. I think that’s pretty good, no? Girls?”
Some supportive murmuring, a few shouts of encouragement. Someone tries to clap.
“You know what they say, opportunity knocks, but it does not smash your door. I don’t think I’m so beautiful or sexy or amazing that I am worth twenty thousand euro, not at all!”
Watching her wind up for the counterattack now, Khan couldn’t disagree more.
“Twenty thousand euro for one fuck, it’s not even a record in this town, no?”
“No,” agrees the moderator, smiling.
“No! But every girl has heard the story like this. Once in your life there is the perfect situation. A rich man wants you so much, you can put the price up as high as you want, and he will pay. The higher the price, the more he wants you. You only have this opportunity once! You have one opportunity, and then it is gone. Well girls, it is true I had my situation, my Indecent Proposal like this last week. There is a man who is very attracted to me. He is not so attractive himself, he is not so good with women I think,” quietly. “But he likes me so much that he decided he must have me, he will pay any price to have me, and listen to this girls,” crescendoing, surging into a triumphal roar, “I made him pay twenty thousand euro AND HE PAID!”
The hall bursts into thunderous applause. Agnieszka and Khan eye each other across the moderator as the clapping approaches twenty seconds of strength. Agnieszka then signaling for them to die down:
“And of course it was you, Mr. Kerensky, I have been all week with you! No other man, rich or poor, has seen me! WHO ELSE CAN IT BE?”
Another gigantic round of applause, this one with laughter, shouting, foot-stamping. Khan trying his best to look dignified, to pretend that those aren’t reporters from the International Herald Tribune standing over there by the door. Oh god no . . .
He tries some rejoinders but he’s shouted down, repeatedly. The moderator can’t help him. The meeting has gotten away. Heart pounding in his throat, it takes all his strength of character to get up and head for the exit with broad smooth gestures, trying not to jerk or trip on the floor as the crowd intensifies its cheering at his departure, his face composed and aiming for a sad regret, like he’s tried and failed to talk sense into these savages, but if they insist on their own extinction . . .
“A last question for Mr. Kerensky,” shouts Agnieszka above the clamor. The hall falls silent. Khan is frozen halfway to stage left.
“Yes?” says the moderator, despite Khan now shaking his head vigorously, “please,” gesturing for Agnieszka to proceed.
“Did you expense it?”
Khan stands there eyebrows up, wondering what to say just a split second too long, “Course not!” he shouts, but already a wall of sound has erupted all across the hall, Khan buttons his jacket for the dignity, turns to go again, and that’s when the rubber toy comes sailing through the air . . .
Three days before christmas and still sleeping with her for now actually insane volumes of money, even by private equity standards, leaving them not entirely clear who’s fucking whom, Khan has to admit defeat to Agnieszka. “So how do we move forward,” he says.
“I want a job,” she replies.
Khan’s hands in his hair, aghast. “Holy shit, why didn’t you say so?”
“Not with Intergalactic. With the new company.”
Khan has no idea. “Which new company?”
She sighs. “Pass me that legal pad.”
Naked and tangled in the sheets, she shows him how it’s all going to work: how Intergalactic will spin off all its Amsterdam properties and incorporate Prostitution Hosting & Support to float on London’s AIM. Rooms will rent at €25 an hour, but loyalty points will accrue both on rental and a range of other services, and loyalty points will mature quarterly into stock options.
Khan is dragged along behind her open-mouthed, sometimes losing concentration entirely and just staring at her ear, at the stray curls of whitewhite hair that she absently tucks behind those perfect whorls of skin, recently reddened with excitement, and now fading back to her usual ice-pink.
“It’s a flywheel, Khan. This is problem with prostitutes, all this work and nothing at the end. These girls aren’t smart enough, they need to invest it. This way, the girls will have a residual income. A pension. You see?”
He sees, all right.
Back in New York, Christmas Eve, Bill Heavenly had a fit. “You’re giving them stock?”
And Khan explained it all to him, how Intergalactic will retain ownership of Prostitution Hosting & Support, with all the original targets and ratios still in place, and with only a slow dilution of control in the form of stock options for the girls.
Bill Heavenly sort of understood, but didn’t really like it. “Think we can give em put options?”
“Bill, Bill,” Khan cooed. “Where do you think the property market is headed?”
“And if they’ve got calls,” Bill caught on. “My god, I like it . . .” then a new vigor to the voice: “Khan, I just don’t like it. We can’t be co-owning some company with a bunch of whores.”
“Well you know, morality and all that.”
Khan roared with laughter until he realized Bill hadn’t joined in. “What, seriously?”
“Times have changed, Khan.” “It’s all legal!” “But not good for business. Not in America.” “Screw America, it’s all self-contained in Europe!” “Big picture, Khan.” “And what, weapons companies is fine?” “Not even going to dignify that.” “But seriously, think of the AGM, Bill! You’ll have the best-attended AGM in the world!”
A pause, then “My god I like it . . . But wait the point is to get people not to come to the AGM! You put all these beautiful women in there, every bastard in the world will come!”
“Got to be a shareholder to get into the AGM, Bill.”
A misty film descended across Bill’s corneas. “Shit is lateral . . .” He stood a long time, pondering, before snapping out and clapping a triumphal hand on Khan’s shoulder. “Khan Kerensky, that is some good work. How would you feel about making partner?”
Which, as Khan hustled away down Sixth, was more or less what he was planning to ask Agnieszka Zerowska, just as soon as he got to JFK and then Schiphol and then Herengracht and invested in the world’s biggest bouquet of ice-pink roses.