All the windows of the brownstone were sealed tight by metal curtains, insuring privacy. It was a premium brothel in a neighborhood of such places—it was close to the United Nations and Midtown’s centers of corporate wealth. A connected realtor most likely rented it to the Russian or Italian mob, the two largest purveyors of high-end prostitution, which sometimes included the sale of underage girls, for which there was more than enough demand.
In New York City there were nearly 700,000 millionaires who were men. There were 250,000 each in Chicago and Los Angeles, and plenty more in the other large to midsize cities. If 0.5 percent—half a percentage point—of these men throughout the country were sexually and socially deviant in their desire for young girls, which would be a conservative estimate, then there was abundant incentive in the marketplace to provide what they wanted. One hour with a pretty twelve-, thirteen-, or fourteen-year-old white female cost anywhere from five to ten thousand dollars, and the more that was charged, the more the men wanted it, which was basic economics. It was a highly risky but very lucrative business.
Generally, at the top places, if they offered young girls, there were usually only one or two who had been properly Stockholmed. It wasn’t an easy process to get these girls functional and productive, and a brothel that offered them—mixing them in with legal-aged women—was known on the street as a “playground.” To avoid exposure and capture, the young girls were moved from city to city, working a network of playgrounds for a week or two at a time. These children usually lasted about two years before they were killed and thrown away, insuring their silence, but during their twenty-four months of work, if they were properly run, they could bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Joe had become very good at exfiltrating some of these girls, once he tracked them down, using methods that the police couldn’t get away with. Normally, Joe had time to plan his approach and tactics, but this Votto case was of the moment and required him to fly more blind than he liked. Still, at his core, Joe was a Marine, and he had been well trained, as their motto went, to adapt, improvise, and overcome.
After a few hours of circling and occasionally double-parking, he got a spot fifteen yards from the brothel with excellent sight lines. There had been nothing for him to act on—he saw black town cars and SUVs drop men off and pick them up, and he saw one slender twenty-something girl in sweatpants and a pink ski jacket leave the brownstone, done for the night, but he didn’t tail her. He was waiting for something better to work with, and it was still too early. He needed fewer people on the streets. So he sat in his car and went into a fugue state of sorts—simultaneously alert and peaceful.
Goulden was right, Joe thought. Work was good for him, relaxing. It was five years ago that he had first come undone. He found the thirty dead Chinese girls—poisoned by carbon monoxide—in the back of a refrigerated meat truck. If he had gotten there fifteen minutes sooner, just fifteen, they would have lived. What he saw was a holocaust pile of lifeless young women, frozen in their terror, huddled as they were in the back of the truck, trying to hide from the hose that had been lodged at the front. Their captors, knowing the FBI was closing in, had made sure there would be no survivors, no evidence that could talk.
It was then that the gears in his mind had turned on themselves—his limit for trauma, a very high limit, had finally been reached—and he went AWOL. He followed his usual pattern for hiding, and on the outskirts of Milwaukee, he holed up in a motel for two weeks in a state of deep paranoia, until he came up with a plan, a solution, a way to live, which was to get very small and very quiet and leave no wake. So he had to be pure. He had to be holy. He had to be contained.
He had come to believe that he was the recurring element—the deciding element—in all the tragedies experienced by the people he encountered. So if he could minimize his impact and his responsibility, then there was the chance, the slight chance, that there would be no more suffering for others. It was a negative grandiose delusion—narcissism inverted into self-hatred, a kind of autoimmune disorder of his psyche—but there was an undeniable element of truth to Joe’s paranoiac state: where he went, pain and punishment followed.
To accomplish his goal of containment and purity, he couldn’t let anyone near him. He had to abandon all friendships and give up on women. Women had always broken against him anyway, hidden as he was, especially from himself. They thought they could get near him, but it had never been possible. Still, he had tried for years, hoping each time that he might be capable of love. Then, after finding the girls in the truck, it was clear to him that everything had to stop. No more women, no more sex, no more companionship of any kind. He would speak as little as possible to the outside world, and so he went to his mother, the only person he could be trusted not to hurt. He returned to the house where he had grown up in Queens. His father could still be felt in every room, and Joe got worse, not better.
The FBI jettisoned him for going AWOL, and for three years he and his mother lived in near silence and isolation. She didn’t ask him why he had come home in his forties or what had happened; she knew it must not be good, but mostly she was just happy to have her Joseph back in the house.
Then, two years ago, Goulden came and found him and sent him to McCleary, hoping it would rehabilitate Joe. Goulden had always outranked him—first in the Marines and then in the FBI—so Joe did what his friend said. He went back to work. He found that he could still function exceedingly well as a weapon, and he had never stopped living as if he was still undercover. It had become a permanent state.
So it was a seamless return, and he didn’t question things anymore if it was related to the job. He now thought of it as a level playing field. Everyone shared responsibility—on both sides of the moral axis—and he was of use. A hammer doesn’t ask why it strikes.
Preview more of Jonathan Ames's You Were Never Really Here.