The Picture Business

The Picture Business

by Walter Jon Williams

Illustration by Laurie Harden

Norton had both a gambling problem and a communications problem. The communications problem consisted mainly of Norton’s not listening when Helio told him about his debt problem. Finally Helio sent for Paulie.

“I want you to solve Norton’s problem for me,” he said, which Paulie did.

After Paulie dumped the body in a place he knew about on Saddle Peak, he returned to Norton’s home in Topanga Canyon to make sure he hadn’t accidentally left anything behind. He hadn’t, but he liked the house, which was spacious and filled with hght and had a beautiful view of Saddle Peak, where Norton was resting forever with all his problems solved for him, so Paulie sat down at Norton’s computer, logged on, and did a little credit check.

He found out that Norton owned the place free and clear, having bought it with the profits when his parents, who owned a cheese farm or something in Wisconsin, had died in a boating accident. So Paulie packed all of Norton’s personal stuff into cardboard boxes and heaved it off the redwood deck into the canyon below, and moved his own belongings from his apartment in Glendale. He changed the phone number and the locks, and told the post office that Norton’s new address was “Post Restante, Paris, France.” He sold Norton’s cars and motorbike to a guy that he knew in West Hollywood. When the gardener and maid came by, Paulie told them he was the new tenant, and he’d be paying them from now on.

In Norton’s office he saw the big mediatron console, the Digital DEC M5 with its three huge screens, but he ignored it. It was too big to toss off the deck, and besides it might be worth money if he could find someone to sell it to.

Not a single person ever came looking for Norton. That’s how popular Norton was.

Paulie liked to be alone after orgasm. He liked just to He there for several minutes with his eyes closed, and listen to the sound of his heartbeat as it returned to normal, watch little patches of phosphor light drift on the backs of his eyelids.

Women never seemed to desire this as much as Paulie did. Women liked to be cuddled and petted after sex, or they wanted to talk. Paulie hated talk after sex, he just wanted to float and be alone with himself. So Paulie usually preferred to have sex with women who wanted to leave afterward, because they had to go have sex with someone else.

Paulie knew that the escort service he used in Glendale was going to charge him an arm and a leg for driving all the way out past the Valley, so he looked in the yellow pages for a local service, and called the one in Malibu.

“Welcome to Gentleman’s Paradise,” said a staccato female voice. “If you have a push-button phone, press 1 now.”

Paulie pressed one, and the voice continued.

“If you would like a Model, press 1,” the voice said. “If you would like an Actress-Model, press 2. If you would like a Supermodel, press 3.”

Paulie pressed 1. He knew they were all the same women, but if they had a fancier title they charged more.

“If you want a Latin Lovely, press 1. If you want a Sensational Swede, press 2. If you want a Black Beauty, press 3. If you want a Gorgeous Geisha, press 4.”

Paulie wondered what happened if you wanted a white girl who didn’t happen to be Swedish, but he pressed 2 anyway.

“If you want a blonde, press 1. If you want a brunette, press 2. If you want a redhead, press 3.”

Paulie pressed 3. He knew the answer didn’t matter. He was only picking the color of the wig the woman would 9how up in.

“If you have special needs,” the voice chattered on, “such as French, Greek, two women, or golden showers, please press 1. If you have age requirements, such as Lovely Lolita, Cheerleader, College Girl, or Matronly Vixen, press—”

Paulie hung up. After a few seconds, he called the number again and refused to press anything. Eventually a male voice answered.

“Yeah?” he said.

“Listen,” Paulie said. “I want a white girl. For straight sex. Redhead. Not so young she pops gum in my ear the whole time, not so old she reminds me of my mother. That’s all I want. Got it?”

There was a long silence, and then the man said, “I’ll send you Gloria.”

“Fine,” Paulie said.

“I think she’s just your type.”

And what, Paulie wondered, did that mean?

Gloria was maybe thirty and had a nice woman-shaped body, generous hips and tight abs, and an unhurried manner. Paulie appreciated this last: he didn’t like it when a woman tried to rush him through it, like she was anxious to just punch the clock and leave. He didn’t like to be hurried, not when he was paying two hundred and fifty bucks in advance.

And, he was sort of surprised to discover, she was a real redhead, and not wearing a wig.

He told her that after he was finished, she should just get dressed and leave.

“You got it, big man,” she said.

He lay alone in bed afterward, floating, while Gloria went into the bathroom. As he slowly rose to consciousness, he became aware of Gloria’s voice coming from another part of the house. Paulie put on a bathrobe and followed the sound of the voice to the office, where he found Gloria standing next to the Digital while she talked on a cellphone.

“You sure you can’t get free?” Her voice was soft, suggestive. She rested a hip against the mediatron while she raised her foot and pulled on a shoe. “Just for a few minutes?” Apparently the answer was negative, because she pressed on with a more straightforward proposition, still in that soft, suggestive voice.

“I know you’ve got company, but if you could get away, we could meet at the Circle K, and I could give you a B.J. in the back seat.”

Apparently the answer was still no, because Gloria said goodbye, then hung up.

“Looking for some business, huh?” Paulie said.

Gloria dropped her seductive tone to answer, and spoke in a normal voice.

“He’s pretty regular, usually, but tonight his nephew is visiting with his family.”

Gloria paged through a digital appointment book, poking repeatedly at the plus key with her thumb. “I don’t have any dates till my 10:30.” She held the speed dialer to the receiver and pressed another button. Paulie heard the book make blipping sounds into the phone handset, and then Paulie heard a dial tone.

She held the handset slightly away from her ear so that Paulie could hear a woman’s voice answering. Gloria gave Paulie a meaningful look, then spoke in a brisk, businesslike voice.

“This is Mr. Steinberg’s secretary. Is Mr. Mason available to speak to Mr. Steinberg?”

Mr. Mason was. As soon as he answered, Gloria’s voice turned soft and seductive again.

“This is your lucky night, sugar,” she said. “Here I am in Topanga Canyon with nothing to do but make you happy.”

While Gloria worked out the details, Paulie went back to the bedroom and pulled on a pair of shorts and a T-shirt. He returned to the office to find Gloria hopping into her other shoe.

“I knew they called it hustling,” Paulie said, “but till now I never knew why.”

“Time is money,” said Gloria. She glanced around the office.

“Are you in the business?” she asked.

Paulie looked at her. “The business?”

“The picture business. I figured you might be, because you’ve got the, you know, the mediatron.”

“No. I’m sort of between jobs right now.”

Gloria pulled on her grey jacket and fluffed the lace around her throat. She wore a conservative business suit to meet her customers, camouflage for hotels and residential neighborhoods. She wore more provocative stuff underneath. She buttoned the jacket, then swung her big shoulder bag onto one lapel. “Shall I call you next time I’m in the neighborhood?”

“If you like.”

Paulie followed her out into the driveway.

“Nice fuchsia,” she said.

“Huh?” Paulie wondered if this was some kind of strange sexual compliment he hadn’t heard before.

“Fuchsia. The plant you’ve got out here.”

“Oh,” Paulie said. “Thanks.”

“The stuff on the deck out back,” Gloria said, “is honeysuckle. And over in the corners, that’s bougainvillea.”

“No kidding.”

Paulie saw that she had driven here in a Toyota pickup with a camper shell. Nice, he figured, for quickies on a mattress in the back.

Entrepreneurship, he thought, imagination, professionalism.

It was what made America great.

Next day Paulie had to fly to Detroit to solve someone’s problems. After he came back, he decided to have a little housewarming celebration, so he asked Helio and Helio’s brother Raimundo, and their associates Leo and Marcio, and had them over for drinks.

“Nice fuchsia,” Helio said as he walked in.

“Thanks.”

Helio stood in the foyer and gave the place the once-over. “Great new place,” Helio said. “I didn’t know you were doing so well.”

“I got a great deal,” Paulie said, “and I just kind of stepped into the place.”

Apparently Helio had never been to the house when Norton owned it, and didn’t know who it really belonged to. That was fine with Paulie, because if Helio learned the place was Norton’s, he might try to make good on Norton’s debt by selling the furniture, burning the place down for the insurance, or turning it into a fuck pad for himself and his girlfriend.

“Great place,” said Raimundo. He was looking at himself in the gilt-edged mirror in the foyer. He ...

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