Mac lingered outside the front door of the gym, smoking a cigarette and trying to look less like he was about to step inside a brothel. To work there. Having sex with people. For money.
It shouldn’t really be that hard to project, since he didn’t usually spend his time waiting outside a brothel to have sex with people for money, but somehow he still felt like he was wearing a big neon sign on his forehead.
He almost jumped out of his skin when the door pushed open.
“Hey there. You must be the new guy. I’m Jem.”
Jem was about six feet tall with pale skin, black hair, black eyeliner, black nail polish. He held out a hand, which Mac took.
“You gonna tell me your name?”
“Sorry. I’m Mac.”
“Uh huh. Come on in. Welcome to the gym.” Only the way Jem said it sounded more like Welcome to The Gym. If you could hear capital letters, which was probably ridiculous.
Mac stubbed out his cigarette.
“You should shower before you meet Coach. He hates smoking. Like, if he smells it on you when you’re on the floor, he’ll send you home.”
The hell? “Seriously?”
Jem shrugged, leading him past the darkened front desk and down a hallway. “He and the Professor both have their quirks. She’s the one who hired you, right?”
“Is that Ms Tebow?”
“Uh, yeah, but here everyone calls her the Professor. If she hired you, you’ll be training with him tonight.” Jem tossed a glance back over his shoulder. “He’s gonna eat you up. You have that damaged tough guy thing going for you. She probably hired you for him.” At Mac’s expression (which he tried to clear as quickly as he could), Jem flapped a hand at him. “Not like that. You can trust Coach. He’s a good guy.”
“Fine.” If the money was anything close to what Ms Tebow had said, he could have sex with anyone. Even some asshole who went by the name “Coach.”
“Here we are.” Jem swiped a card and a door unlatched, leading into a stairwell. “Our locker room is on the second floor. The day crew has a totally different locker room. And no kitchen.”
“There’s a kitchen?” Even the thought of a kitchen made Mac’s stomach grumble.
“Yeah. And the showers are amazing. Did I mention you should shower before you meet Coach? Even though smoke’s probably all over your clothes.”
Jem shoved open the first door on the right at the top of the stairs and whistled low. “Too late. Hey, Coach. I already told him off for smoking, so you can save the healthy lungs lecture.”
The guy who cuffed Jem in the back of the head was tall and broad, with a shaved head and a scar on the side of his neck. “Thanks, Shorty.”
“As if! You gonna give him the rest of the tour, or—?”
“Yeah. Go eat dinner.”
“’Kay. Be nice.”
Coach raised a hand and Jem pretended to flinch, but it was obviously a game.
Shit. Mac didn’t do well with macho assholes who thought punching was something to laugh at. Mac didn’t have a “play fighting” setting. He tried to focus on the money he’d make if he got through this training shit, but he tensed up the second Jem pushed through a doorway across the locker room (the sounds of people eating and laughing on the other side definitely got Mac’s attention).
“I’m Coach. Good to meet you.”
He shook hands, careful to keep his side of it firm-but-not-challenging. The last thing he needed was to butt heads with the guy in charge in his first ten minutes.
“Come on. I’ll take you on the rest of the tour.” The guy held up a card like Jem’s. “Tonight you’ll have someone with you pretty much all the time. If you decide to join the team, we’ll get you a key for tomorrow. Clear?”
“Yeah,” Mac said.
Mac couldn’t tell if the guy was mocking him, or what. He definitely looked amused, as if Mac was a little comedy show just for him. The money, the money, the money. Think about the money.
“Locker room. It’s co-ed, and so is the bathroom, but the bathroom has dressing areas. Most of the folks around here wouldn’t recognize modesty if it was a semi about to smash them, but everyone who’s shy just uses the dressing rooms. The showers are also co-ed, and the stalls in there are roomy.” As they walked, Coach pushed open doors, demonstrating the location of towels, snacks, an entire closet full of water bottles, spare socks. (“I honestly don’t know what the hell is up with you kids and socks, but we decided we’d just buy our own and supply them since your generation appears to have some kind of vendetta against white cotton crew socks.”) He waved at the kitchen (“Feel free to help yourself to as much as you like, but come in before your shift so you’re not eating on my dime, capisce?”). He actually took Mac into the laundry room and turned to look at him.
Being still took most of Mac’s effort; every other scrap of energy he had went into trying to appear unthreatening. He’d screwed up a lot of jobs by accidentally pushing macho guys like this one.
“We want all of you out there in clean clothes, with clean skin, and clean hair. This isn’t a strip joint, it’s a themed private club. I can train you to do everything anyone out there will ask of you, but I’m not gonna wash your shorts for you. Got it?”
Mac frowned. “Yeah.”
“Listen.” Coach leaned back against one of the dryers, which was running. “You want to bring your laundry here and wash it, go ahead. But get here early to do it so I don’t have to catch you back here when you’re supposed to be out there.”
“Fine.” Then, the words tasting like ash, Mac forced himself to add, “Thank you.”
“Oh man. The Professor swore you wouldn’t find me charming. I told her everyone finds me charming.”
The money, the money, the money. Mac stood there, not speaking, until Coach straightened up.
“All right. It was only a twenty dollar bet, anyway. Let’s head out on the floor so I can show you around before we open doors.”
The gym floor, accessed through a huge archway, looked like every gym Mac had ever seen on TV: weights machines, treadmills, ellipticals.
“You’ll do your gym training out here next week. This week you’ll do your personal attention training. Both are actual parts of your job.” Coach gestured to the room, and the two beyond it, all sporting additional gym-type things. “Believe it or not, people actually rely on us for fitness, go figure. Some of our regulars come in here three times a week to workout and never even ask for a back rub.”
Mac shook his head. “Why?”
“Some like to watch. Some take things slowly at first. Some—” Coach started moving again, and Mac followed. “The world is a pretty closed place, Mac. It doesn’t look kindly on the freaks and fuck-ups. Some of our clients pay our utterly appalling fees just for the relief of being among us for a few hours. No one judges here. You know?”
I know that’s a bunch of bullshit. He decided not to say anything.
“Heated pool, sauna, spa. There is absolutely no sex in the pool or the spa, and everyone knows it. If anyone tries to give you grief, you find one of the gold stars to smack them for you.”
“Me, the Professor, Jem, a few of the others. Anyone with a star on their badge has the authority to kick out clients, though it hardly ever comes to that. The Professor’s screening process for clients is even more grueling than her screening process for staff.” The guy offered a smile, but Mac ignored it. “The sauna used to be off-limits, but now we have specific sauna nights where anything goes. The clients are mostly well-behaved, but some of them will be bratty, and all of them know the rules better than you do, so don’t hesitate to come to one of us.”
“You might end up doing some maintenance shifts as well. You’ll get the maintenance training next week, but if it’s not your thing, it’s not your thing.”
“Some people like maintenance?”
Coach appeared to weigh his words before saying, “Some of the staff are here for the same reason as those clients I told you about. Anyway, we’ll talk about that next week. These are the offices, come on in.”
The door at the far end of the gym led to another stairwell, and back up to what he assumed was the same hallway as before. He followed Coach into a spacious office with a couple of couches in different seating areas, one of those fancy gas fireplaces with the rocks, and a desk shoved into a corner, covered in papers.
There was a conspicuous padded area in the far corner that looked like it was ready for a wrestling match. Mac tried not to think about the kind of wrestling this guy probably got off on.
“The answer to the question you’re not asking is yes, by the way,” Coach called over his shoulder. He tapped the computer keyboard so the monitor would turn on and inputted a code.
For a moment Coach seemed fascinated by whatever he was looking at. Then he looked back at Mac and said, “Yes. You will be having sex with me tonight. Part of the training. You’ll get the Professor tomorrow, so good luck.”
Mac clenched his jaw and looked away.
“She didn’t tell you, did she? She can be so funny about information dispersal. Come sit. Tell me what my sadistic wife said to you about this job.”
Wife? “You and Ms—the Professor are married?”
“She didn’t tell you that, either? Interesting.” Coach gestured to one of his little two-seater sofas. “Sit. Not really a request, Mac.”
He could leave. The guy wasn’t going to actually force him to stay here. He’d heard a lot of crazy shit, but he hadn’t seen anything illegal yet. Plus, maybe Coach was a jock, but there was no way he was married to Ms Tebow (the Professor) if he actually held people hostage in his office. Something about that made even less sense than having a sex gym.
“What did she tell you? She cycles through five or so stories, with variations, and the one she told you will tell me the way she thinks I should play you.”
“Yeah. I’ll explain once you’ve answered my question.”
Mac minutely unlocked his jaw. “She said she could find a place for me if I didn’t mind having sex for cash, and that it’d be as safe as it could be.” He paused before adding, “She said it’d be a lot of money, way more than I could make doing anything else.”
Coach nodded. “Did she let you think she was gay?”
“She didn’t say she had a husband,” Mac muttered, more uncomfortable than ever.
“It is a lot of money. There are a few jobs where you could make more, probably, but that’s why we offer perks. And there are no jobs that include sex with others that you could do more safely than here. Which reminds me—one of the rules is that you not see clients outside The Gym.”
There were those invisible capital letters again.
“Why?” Mac asked, mostly to be argumentative.
“Because when you’re in this building I have video footage of what happens between you and the clients, and all of them know it. When you leave this building I can’t protect you.”
The money, the money, the money. “Can we just get this over with?”
“Don’t you want to know what the Professor thinks about you?”
“She thinks you grew up with more money than you have now, and that’s why she emphasized it. People who have always been poor have a hunger for money; she thinks you’re frantically scrabbling for something you think you should have. She thinks you’re detached enough from your body that you’re willing to do sex work, even if it doesn’t suit you, and detached enough from your morals that you aren’t actually ethically opposed to it.”
In normal daily life, Mac would have mocked anyone who implied he had morals; hearing Coach so blithely assume he didn’t rankled for some reason.
“You’re kind of a prick,” he said, looking up for the first time since they entered the office.
Coach grinned. “You have no idea. I’m provoking you a little, but I am also kind of a prick. And I’m only a fraction of the Professor.”
“So what does she think you’re supposed to do with me, then?”
“She only comes off as gay when she thinks she’s dealing with someone who’s queer, Mac. You got a read on why she thinks that if you’re so jumpy around men? Or maybe you’re only jumpy around me.”
Mac gritted his teeth and tried not to clench his fists.
“Are you straight?”
Obviously the correct answer was yes, maybe with a side order of none of your fucking business, but Mac was still seething and the pause went on too long.
“Ah,” Coach said, as if that meant something. “All right. We have no requirements in this area, but we also have no specialists. If you’re on the floor and a client wants your time, you’re expected to give it. At the basic level of service, we don’t generally allow for refusal, and absolutely never based on ‘boys are yucky.’ You got me?”
“So you want me to have sex with men?”
“And women. And whoever else asks. Yes. There are higher levels of service that come with higher levels of pay, but you won’t need to think about those until your probation’s up.” Coach leaned forward, over his knees. “If you can’t make any man in this gym feel like he’s the one you’ve been lusting after all night, Mac, this won’t be a good position for you.”
“How’m I supposed to do that?”
“You act. But it’s not as hard as it may sound. You’ll get to know the clients, get to know what they like. You might be surprised how genuinely you enjoy some of them.”
“I doubt that.”
“Everyone does. It’s why I keep saying it. And training lasts as long as it lasts. You have thirty days before you’re expected to be on your own on the floor, and we can ease you into the things that make you uncomfortable.”
Mac considered it, probably for longer than he was really allowed. He thought about Annabel’s couch (and her bitch of a mother who was always snarking at him about how he should be paying her more for rent, even though he was already paying a third, and all he got was a stinking couch), and hiding out in the discount store until everyone went home so he could catch a few hours of sleep in the break room (the rest of the store was alarmed, but if he hid in the men’s room and got to the break room before the alarm set, he was okay to stay there overnight).
The couch he was sitting on was more comfortable than any place he’d slept since he left home. It was probably more comfortable than his bed had been before that.
Maybe he really didn’t have morals; he definitely didn’t care about having sex with people for money. Or maybe he was just desperate to find some way to claw himself out of this pit of constant hunger and fear.
“I think I can do it. I don’t know how you want me to start.”
“Oh, I’ll take care of tonight’s events, Mac. It’s gonna piss you off and make you even more uncomfortable, but if I do it right, it’ll be good for you, too. Try to relax those tendons in your neck, though. You look like you’re about to get a body cavity search by Nurse Ratched.”
Mac eyed Coach up and down. “Uh. Yeah.”
Coach laughed it off. “Stand up. Let’s see what you’ve got.”
Christ, was he gonna—yeah, obviously he was gonna have to get naked for this guy. Mac stood, arms like lead pipes at his sides, fists tight.
“The Professor doesn’t usually miss her mark. Did she do an in depth survey of your sexual history?”
Unable to speak with Coach looking at him like that, kind and interested, Mac shook his head.
“So fascinating. I can’t wait to see her later.” Coach stood. “I’m taller than you, and stronger than you. I’m coming closer now.”
“Just do it,” Mac said through his teeth.
“We have clients who like to pretend their partner is reluctant, but that’s a much higher pay grade than yours. And a whole different training. My job is to show you how sweet a man like me can be to a man like you.”
The word was a surprise. Mac shot a look at Coach, but again couldn’t read anything sinister beneath his smile.
“You don’t believe that either. I know, I know. No one ever believes me. And I think I’m pretty credible.” He took a step closer, then another, and they were standing close enough so their different masses were almost enough to make Mac step back.
The money. The first few times will be the hardest. Then it’s all downhill. You can do this. Being fucked by some dude is probably only a little more demeaning than cleaning up baby shit on changing tables at the discount store.
He forced himself to stay still, even when Coach reached out.
Damn. The man’s hand was hot and felt like it weighed about five pounds, pressed against Mac’s chest.
“I like everyone. When I was younger than you I used to tell myself that looking at other men was okay because I just admired them. I liked their pecs, or their abs, or their thighs. I didn’t like men, I just liked the pieces they were made of.”
Mac stared at Coach’s forearm—skin, dark like he came from people who’d been in the sun a lot and now the tan was part of his genetic makeup, darker hairs wiry and thick.
“And I liked breasts too, so I figured it would all wash in the end. I’d probably just grow out of the way I’d get preoccupied by a guy’s ass while he walked up a set of bleachers.”
How the fuck did he know? Stop. Don’t think about this. This is just another mind game. These people like mind games.
“Let’s see what pieces you’re made of, Mac. Take your shirt off.”