You can tell the difference between the “happy end” massage parlors and the brothels by the hours they keep. If it closes at 9 or 10 at night, then you’re not getting laid and you’re probably going to spend too much money to get your body covered in oil and then jerked off by a woman with the enthusiasm of a teenager at a Lawrence Welk review. If it stays open later your odds improve and if it stays open past midnight then you’re going to get lucky.
Although I suppose you can’t call it “lucky” if you’ve spent $200 to fuck a stranger. It appeals to the “I’m going to have sex tonight come hell or high water” crowd, and it does to me as well.
There are exceptions to the rules though, and that was how my night began. I wanted to try a new place and there are well over a hundred massage parlors in San Francisco; from the one-room converted offices that pop up all over the place to the grand 30-room brothels in the Tenderloin and Chinatown.
I suppose I’m a bit jaded. I’ve been working my way through every massage parlor in the city for about a decade now, and even though there are a few places I hope to never set foot in I no longer feel the need to get my courage up with a drink or two. I have found that if you walk into the place like this is the most ordinary thing in the world then no one ever pays any attention. There are protocols though; turn off your phone, keep your sunglasses on until you’re inside if you wear them, remove them and any hat once you’re inside so that you can be seen.
There are certain faux pas to avoid too; never negotiate the price with the first person you meet – always just pay the house fee and negotiate the rest later. Never negotiate price up front – it’s just rude. Tip well – especially if you want to repeat your custom. The ladies tend to remember you and in my case I have a couple of distinctive markings on me that can be hard to ignore. I’ve been shot on three separate occasions and the scars aren’t as attractive as they tell you.
Don’t fall in love. Don’t try to make one of the ladies your mistress. Don’t try to rescue them. Don’t try to find out your masseuse’s real name. You can cultivate a favorite and try to work with that same woman every time but don’t push your luck. More often than not they will have a boyfriend or husband already. Never say that you’ve never been there before – just say that it’s been a long time since you were last there. And finally, never pay less than the negotiated price or try to stiff your custom; that can get you killed.
It’s a fairly simple set of rules, and we regulars follow them like wearing a suit. It gets easy pretty quickly. For the most part the police leave these businesses alone, so getting arrested is actually only a minor concern.
As I said, that night I was trying a new place; one that advertised tubs you could soak in either before or after. Having spent some time in Japan I can tell you that having that option for after can be wonderful. I’d even be willing to pay for an extra half hour or so for that – I have the money, so I can, and the existence of tubs suggested that this was more than a rub-and-tug operation.
Oh, one last faux pas – never make eye contact or look very closely at the other customers, should you happen to meet one. It’s pretty rare that this happens for as a rule these places are careful not to let the clientele cross paths, but when you first arrive or when you leave there is always a risk of coming across someone going in the other direction. Tonight there was someone coming out just as I was going in and we both used the same courtesy – not even looking at the other – which is how I missed identifying a serial killer.
My phone was off, my hat was at home, and I don’t wear sunglasses at night. He looked to his left and I did the same as we passed each other on the stairs up to the second floor where the massage parlor/probable brothel was. He was about my height and build with probably shorter hair. He had a hat. That was all I got before we were behind each other and growing apart quickly. He was out on the street and gone before I made it to the top step.
This was one of those places where they just hang a bell on the door that rings when you open it; you don’t have to be buzzed in by some protective mama-san or papa-san with a loaded revolver just under their desk. I walked in and paused just inside the door. That’s another unwritten rule; let them take you in and see that you’re not a threat.
I waited a few seconds and looked around. There was no one to greet me but this isn’t so uncommon. If the place is staffed light sometimes the greeter is also one of the working girls. I know I made plenty of noise as I came in, so they knew I was there. At least they should have – I waited the requisite amount of time and no one showed up.
There was a small bell on the counter, so I rang it. Again, nothing. I gave it a minute and then began to really notice my surroundings.
There was a long hallway past the front desk/reception area, with multiple doors on either side. These would be the rooms where the clients would be getting their money’s worth. At the end of the hall it looked like there was a larger room, so I walked towards it, making certain that my footsteps could be heard. I didn’t want to surprise anyone and this was my first time there. It seemed to take an eternity to reach the far end of the hallway and when I got there I found a larger room with a shower room to the right, washing machines against the back wall, and a sauna to the left, which was turned off.
I didn’t meet a single person.
Everyone has a warning system in their minds; something that lets them know that something is very wrong. With proper training you will notice when the warning system goes off, and I had that training. Something was wrong and I was now right in the middle of it.
I looked back down the hallway with better eyes this time. All the doors were closed. There was no light escaping from under any of them. That meant no one had their lights on, which never happens in these places. That’s for the protection of the working girls. The lights might be dim but they are never out, and I know one such working girl who earned her college degree studying under those dim lights.
I took a deep breath, through my nose. Gunpowder. It’s faint enough that you wouldn’t notice it if you weren’t trying to notice, but now that I was trying I could tell that unmistakable burnt powder smell that meant someone had recently been firing a weapon.
I raced through my memory trying to remember what that man looked like I had passed coming down the stairs and got nothing more than I’ve already told you.
I slowly walked over to the washing machine and found a towel that seemed dry and clean. I wrapped my right hand in it was about to use it to open door handles when I realized that I would be wiping away any fingerprints if I did so. I looked down the hallway and every door was closed. I walked back toward the front of the establishment, and I knocked on each door through the towel and asked, “You all right in there?” There wasn’t a sound from any of them. Not even a moan.
From under the bottom of the next to last door on the right as I was heading towards the front, a blackish-red, viscous fluid slowly pooled.
I reached into my pocket and turned my phone back on.