If you get on the freeway in Los Angeles and drive east into the dead heat of the Mojave Desert, take a left past the red rock spires of the Spring Mountains, then continue down lonely roads, past a string of one-horse towns and barren landscapes and a wide sky that will not quit, you’ll eventually find yourself at the ass-end of a forgotten highway, in the town of Crystal, Nevada, population 100 — no kids. Since this is just about the driest spot in all of America, you’ll be thirsty and wanting refreshment and thus may find yourself sitting in a bar caught in the middle of the state’s slowly burgeoning brothel wars, doing what essentially amounts to espionage with an assortment of cowboys, pimps and hookers. And if you’re like me, or like other people from Hollywood who suddenly find themselves in such a compromising position, you may wonder how things could ever have gotten so precarious. Well, the long answer is what follows, but the short answer is Heidi Fleiss.
Heidi Fleiss, the ex–Hollywood Madam, the woman who used to stash clumps of cash beneath her mattress, the woman who took the fall and didn’t name names, the woman who served three years’ hard time for being, in her own words, “a flesh peddler,” is going legit. Oh, sure, she’s still going to peddle flesh, but she wants to do it legally this time. Her plan is to open a brothel in Crystal, about 80 miles outside of Las Vegas. It isn’t going to be like any other brothel in America, or anywhere else for that matter. Her establishment will cater to women. Only women. Her hookers will be men, gigolos to be exact. Heidi Fleiss is trying to open a stud farm. Technically, she’s trying to become America’s first stud farmer.
I had called Fleiss at her home in Nevada because I wanted to drive out and see her stud farm.
“You know there’s nothing to see,” she told me. “Nothing’s built. I’ve got 60 acres of desert. It’s just cactuses.”
But I was welcome to come see the cactuses. She had only one demand: She hated photo shoots, wanted a photographer who wouldn’t make her pose. I found that photographer, and we agreed to travel on a Tuesday a few weeks later. She told me to make arrangements and call her back on the Monday before, just to make sure.
When I called her back, she said, “Change of plans, I have to be in L.A. I’ve got a photo shoot Wednesday morning.”
I didn’t mention that she hated photo shoots, didn’t mention that she had sworn off photo shoots, just shrugged my shoulders and said, “Why don’t we drive you back to Vegas? We can leave after the photo shoot.”
Somewhere a light bulb went off. Fleiss had a couple of cars in L.A. — a Bronco and an old truck — that she needed to have driven back to Vegas. I would ride in one car with her, and the photographer would drive the other. I told her the photographer wasn’t going to be able to drive one of her cars, but we could certainly drive together in the other one. She said we would take the Bronco, because three people could fit in the Bronco. Not the truck. Three people couldn’t fit in the truck. So we would leave Wednesday, in the Bronco, right after the photo shoot.
But we didn’t leave after the photo shoot, because suddenly she had to have dinner with the widow of a famous dead guy. Wednesday night. Widow dinner. But we’d leave Thursday morning. Right after traffic. She hated traffic, so we would miss the traffic. Be ready, she said, just be ready.
We were ready, but she wasn’t. There were complications. Among them, the fact that she had decided to get new tires put on the truck. For the drive, you understand, new tires for the drive. We would be out of here at noon. But at noon she was taking a friend to see an apartment. She had a good heart, you see, she had to help her friend. “So,” she said, “call me at 1.”
At 1 there were more unspecified errands. So hang on, be patient, she’ll call soon. Five hours later, she called to tell us to walk down to her old shop, the one she used to run on Hollywood Boulevard. I mentioned that the photographer had $25,000 worth of camera equipment and didn’t think lugging it down Hollywood Boulevard was a good idea. She said if she had to come pick us up, it would just take longer. We lugged that equipment down Hollywood Boulevard.
I thought we were taking the Bronco, but she changed her mind. We were taking the truck. The truck was old, very old. There were bullet holes in the door. The driver’s-side window had been shot out and not replaced. She was wearing multiple sweatshirts to protect against the cold. Did we have jackets? We had jackets. The truck’s gauges didn’t work. We would have to be careful not to run out of gas. She told us to stow our gear in the truck and stop worrying, no car she’d driven had ever broken down.
Stow our gear in the truck? In the bed of the truck were three motorcycles and heaps of other junk. The motorcycles were tied down, sort of. The junk — tools and duct tape and old car batteries and an assortment of indeterminate shit — was not. This was free-floating junk. Wasn’t she worried about the junk flying out and killing someone? I didn’t ask. I didn’t want to know.
We squished everything we could into the bed of the truck and kept the camera gear on our laps. It would be tight, but we squeezed inside and got on the road. We talked film. She liked the movie Excalibur. She liked Merlin’s line, “There’s always something more clever than you are.” She offered us a vegan cookie. She was a vegetarian. She believed in taking care of her body. She told us she’d been clean for 47 days.
We got off the road not five minutes after we got on to top off the gas tank. She had filled up not too long ago, but with broken gauges, she wanted to make sure. At the gas station, she gave the photographer a hundred-dollar bill to pay for gas. He walked it up to the window. The clerk stared at the bill, glanced at the photographer, glanced over at Fleiss, then stared at the bill some more. He laid it on the counter and shook his head. He said, “This ain’t no good.” The photographer nearly shit himself. Then the clerk took the bill back and started laughing.
“Just kidding, man.”
Apparently, this is just how things go in Fleiss Land.
I once asked Fleiss what she liked about the sex business. “I don’t like anything about the sex business,” she said, “but it’s all I know how to do.” For doing what she knows how to do and otherwise, she has a motto: “Maximize and capitalize.” One of the ways she’s been maximizing and capitalizing lately involves HBO. See, Fleiss filed for bankruptcy a few years back. She told me the government got every penny of her madam money, that those secret Swiss bank accounts weren’t all that secret once Uncle Sam got involved. Originally, for her stud farm, she’d planned on getting investors, but then she changed her mind. “I’m Heidi Fleiss,” she said. “I don’t need investors.”
Nope, but she needed HBO. She needed them because they agreed to pay her for the rights to make a documentary about her attempt to open a stud farm. Rumors were they’d put up a hundred grand. “No,” she said, “it’s a little more than that.” But they’d paid up-front, and Fleiss said she was sinking the money into her new establishment. What interested me was that Time Warner owns HBO, which meant that one way or another, Time Warner was helping to pay for the nation’s first stud farm. I called HBO to confirm this, and while they would admit to making a documentary about the stud farm (it will air next fall), they wouldn’t discuss finances.
The problems Fleiss has with her stud farm are significant. She wants to open a brothel in Nye County, Nevada, but the Nye County brothel code states, among many other things, that the brothel licensing board may refuse to grant a license to any applicant who is “financially insolvent” or who has undergone “a prior bankruptcy” or who has a history of “financial instability.” Plus, while there have previously been convicted criminals who owned brothels in Nevada, the law also states that the board may refuse to grant a license if the prospective owner has ever been convicted of a felony; specifically mentioned is the crime of “moral turpitude.” Fleiss has been convicted of the felony crime of moral turpitude, specifically for being a madam in California, which, somehow, according to the brothel code, renders her morally unfit to be a madam in Nevada.
And this is only the beginning of her problems. The Nye County brothel code refers to all prostitutes as “she” and requires cervical STD tests for all such “she”s, meaning Fleiss will have to have this language rewritten to cover her studs. In regard to this, the Hollywood Madam has been public with her “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander” remarks, just as she’s been public about her willingness to use the court system to battle against “sexual discrimination” if there is a problem changing that language.
Then there’s the fact that the granting of permission is the sole dominion of the Nevada brothel licensing board, of which both the chairwoman, Candice Trummell, and the Nye County sheriff, Tony DeMeo, are fundamentalist Christians and, as such, not big fans of prostitution in general and definitely not of the innovative and well-publicized kind that Fleiss has planned.
Not that Fleiss is one to back away from a fight. “This is the sex business,” she said, as we pulled out of the gas station and back onto the freeway. “It’s all egos and sharks. For a woman to get up in this world, you have to be ruthless.” About that, as Dennis Hof, owner of the “world famous” Moonlight Bunny Ranch and host of HBO’s top-rated Cathouse, pointed out, “prostitution is the world’s oldest profession, and Heidi Fleiss was the very best anyone’s ever been at it.” Hof also mentioned that about seven years back, he tried to register porn star Zack Adams and his wife with the Nevada brothel board so the two could pair up for ménage-curious clients.
How’d that go for him?
“Oh, my God,” said Hof, “you can never forget that despite the fact that Nevada has a long history as a culture of tolerance, this is still a state that votes red in every election.”
And while Fleiss was keen to tackle all these challenges, first she had to get back to Nevada. Unfortunately, the freeway was bumper-to-bumper all the way through the San Gabriel Valley. Making matters worse, Fleiss didn’t seem to understand that her old truck didn’t really want to drive straight or stop quickly. At least it was dark enough that I could barely see her tailgating ways, though when I asked if she’d checked the brakes recently, she just started to laugh.
“I bought this truck for $400 at a police auction a few days ago,” she told me.
The photographer wanted to know if she has a good mechanic back in Nevada.
“Yeah,” said Fleiss.
“You’re a good mechanic?”
“I’m a great mechanic.”
“Well, you might want to change your hoses, that’s what goes first in the desert.”
“Hoses?” she asked. “What the hell are hoses?”
When we passed the horse track at Santa Anita, I asked her if she liked to gamble. “I love to gamble. Gambling will cure everything. It’ll cure heartbreak. It’ll cure drug addiction. You’ll lose everything. It’s great.” Driving a bullet-riddled, $400 police-auction-purchased truck through the desert seemed a hell of a gamble.
Just a few miles past the racetrack, there was the sound of gunfire, or what sounded like gunfire, accompanied by an orange burst of flame blasting out of our tailpipe.
“Holy shit,” said the photographer.
“Holy shit,” said the journalist.
The flesh peddler kept quiet.
The freeway was still packed, but we were flying along in the middle lane. There was another crazy bang and more flames. In the distance, the screech of tires. Other cars were swerving out of the way. The photographer started shouting for her to pull over. I started shouting for her to pull over. Smoke started pouring out from under the hood. She didn’t want to pull over.
There was another bang, another crescendo of tailpipe fireworks.
“Lady,” shouted the photographer, “pull the fuck over.”
The lady started to pull over. Seconds stretched to hours. The lady kept pulling over. Hours became decades. We finally made it onto the shoulder. There was barely any shoulder. An 18-wheeler whizzed by with inches to spare. Everything not tied down rattled. Not much was tied down. Were we on fire? The photographer jumped out of the car; I jumped out of the car. More smoke poured out from under the hood. Fleiss, the great mechanic, stayed behind the wheel, looking bored and annoyed.
When it was clear we weren’t on fire, she tried the ignition, but the engine wouldn’t catch.
“It’s the fuel line,” explained the photographer. “Old cars, you get shit in the fuel line.”
She was certain it wasn’t the fuel line.
“We’re out of gas,” she said.
“We’re not out of gas.”
“We’re out of gas.”
“Gas is the thing that makes flames. Running out of gas doesn’t make flames.”
She wasn’t listening. The HBO crew was about 15 miles ahead of us. She was already calling them on her cell phone.
“Go get some gas in a can,” she told them. “We ran out.”
As it turned out, we weren’t out of gas; rather, a spark plug had come loose. HBO did show up; they had room for only one more passenger in their vehicle. Fleiss was that passenger. As it turned out, we weren’t going to be in Nevada on Thursday.
So we made another new plan: The photographer and I would head back to L.A. with the photographer’s girlfriend, who luckily happened to be betting the horses at Santa Anita that day, and drive our own car out in the morning. Fleiss would head to Nevada with the film crew. The photographer’s girlfriend arrived to rescue us. There was only one thing I wanted to know before we left.
“Is it always like this?” I asked Fleiss.
She smiled for the first time in a little while. “Chaos, baby. I thrive on chaos.”
It was gold miners who brought prostitution to Nevada, and ever since, the sale of sex has been part of the culture. Both Reno and Las Vegas had thriving red-light districts until 1951, when they were declared a public nuisance and shut down. Brothels were allowed to continue — though not in a way that pleased the mostly mobbed-up pimps who ran those joints. Responding to this, in 1970, Joe Conforte, owner of the Mustang Ranch — a man about whom The Economist once wrote “spent time in jail, tried to float the brothel on the stock market, fled charges of money-laundering, racketeering and bribery, and is now rumored to be in Brazil” — successfully lobbied the state for the licensing of brothels and brothel workers, thus providing protection against similar enforced nuisance closures. This law was, however, amended in 1971, when a clause outlawing prostitution in counties with a population over 400,000 was added. At the time, Clark County, home to Las Vegas, was the only one affected. Since then, five other counties have passed antibordello legislation, while the other 11 continue to permit it.
Economically, the brothel business is no small thing. As Jessi Winchester, ex–working girl turned political candidate, and author of From Bordello to Ballot Box (and the phrase, “In the bordellos I worked with professional businesswomen who rented their bodies, in politics I was surrounded by whores who sold their souls”), pointed out, “Brothel taxes literally support whole counties in Nevada.”
Currently, there are roughly 300 licensed Nevada sex workers, 30 cathouses and one prospective Fleiss-run doghouse. The Nevada State Health Division estimates there are 365,000 paid sex acts annually in Nevada, roughly 1,000 a day. According to George Flint, chief lobbyist for the Nevada Brothel Association, the average customer drops about $600 for an amorous adventure, which adds up to a multimillion-dollar industry. It wasn’t too far in the past that the taxes on the Mustang Ranch accounted for one-third of the Storey County budget. These days, Dennis Hof alone contributes $200,000 a year to state coffers. In Nye County, where Fleiss plans on opening her establishment, similar sin taxes pay for the $120,000-a-year EMT service, among other things.
Oddly, the last, and perhaps most formidable, of Fleiss’ hurdles is the lobbyist George Flint himself. It was Joe Conforte who started the Nevada Brothel Association and George Flint whom he hired to run it. Fleiss maintains that Flint’s problem stems from her refusal to join his association, but whatever the reason, Flint has been the most publicly vocal about his dislike for both the stud farm and its owner.
“Who knows what the fuck that girl’s going to do next?” said Flint, when I phoned his office. “She’s not planning on opening anything. All she wants is the publicity. Let me tell you something: We’re not so stable that the business can sustain this kind of an attack. If she tries to open her stud farm, she’s going to get the whole industry outlawed.”
Bob Price, who served 28 years in the Nevada state Legislature and has been a longtime brothel supporter, disagrees. “There’s no such danger,” he said. “Every now and then legislation gets introduced to shut down the brothels, but the bills never make it out of committee. We’re very protective of our old-time traditions here. Like it or not, prostitution is just one of those traditions.”
I was still eager to check out Fleiss’ twist on those traditions. So the morning after the truck debacle, I rang her at home. She told me to get on the road, then — in typical Fleiss fashion — told me to call her back in five minutes. She was always telling people to call her back in five minutes. Usually she answered.
We got on the road, but she didn’t answer. She didn’t answer while we were cruising through California, and she didn’t answer when we reached Nevada. Not knowing where in Nye County she lived, we decided to head to Las Vegas to test an idea.
A few weeks back I had spoken with Nye County Commissioner Candice Trummell, one of the two fundamentalists who now control Fleiss’ fate. She was up-front about her religiosity. “My father is a Southern Baptist minister,” she said, right off the bat. “I’m opposed to legalized prostitution. But as long as Fleiss doesn’t break any laws and as long as the public wants this, I won’t let my personal agenda stand in her way.”
That said, it was Trummell who recently wore the wire that led to the arrest of longtime Nevada brothel owner Joe Richards (the case has yet to go to court, but the state claims that Richards tried to bribe Trummell to ease land restrictions that prevented him from opening another cathouse). Either way, the key here is that Trummell seems to recognize that, at least in part, God put Nevada on this Earth to cater to the public’s desire. One of the big unknowns in Fleiss’ plan is whether or not women desire to pay for sex.
It’s a good point. At least until you consider that there are 118 pages of male “entertainers” in the Las Vegas phone book, including Bad Boy Entertainment, US Male, Las Vegas Males, Full Service Male, College Jock Rent and Budget Boys.
Obviously, not every woman out for a sexcapade is finding what she’s looking for in a bar, or can get it if she wants it. What about the discreet, the aged, the overweight, the paralyzed, the infirm, the merely curious or those who might find a controlled setting safer than trolling for strangers? Fleiss points out that all-male revues are increasingly popular. In Las Vegas, these include Thunder From Down Under, advertised as “eye candy for women of all ages everywhere,” and Tabu, which promises “a sea of sensual sophistication” to which “you’re invited; your inhibitions aren’t.” To say nothing of the male strippers at the innumerable Vegas bachelorette parties who — judging from the orgy photos all over the Internet — are a full-contact far cry from the Chippendales of old.
Janet Lever, Cal State Los Angeles sociologist and women’s-sexuality expert, believes there’s definitely a place for a stud farm. “There’s no question there’s a market. It’s really a question of presentation. If it looks like a bordello, then it probably won’t have a lot of appeal, but if it looks like a spa, like a place where women can be pampered and indulge in fantasies, then there are plenty of women who would prefer a professional.”
Fleiss, too, has reached similar conclusions, though what she plans on doing with them remains to be seen. In earlier statements to the press, she told CNN that the building would cost about $1.5 million and be designed to resemble the White House. Perhaps because there would be no end to the Bush jokes, perhaps for other reasons, she has since changed her mind. Her plans now include everything from a spa to peepshow rooms. To design those rooms, she told me, she had hired World Trade Center architect Daniel Libeskind, and they were in “preliminary phases.” Whatever those phases are, when I reached Libeskind’s office, no one there had any idea what I was talking about, nor, they said, had they been in contact with Fleiss.
Still, the notion of a hot-’n’-heavy market for studs on a farm was mostly supposition. We checked into the Hard Rock for further reconnaissance. The plan was to ask a hundred different women if they would be willing to pay to play. I chose the Hard Rock primarily because it caters to a fratster crowd: frat boys with hipster haircuts. I figured the women running around with these guys might be of the more adventurous type. Clearly, these were not my ideal demographic, but how’d you feel about asking an overweight paraplegic if she fancied a fun-filled trip to Fleiss Land?
There were a number of problems with this plan. The first being that wandering around the casinos asking gals if they’d like to pay for sex seemed a sure-fire way to get thrown out of the casinos. We decided to go the discreet route by dropping 30 bucks each to spend the evening at Body English, the Hard Rock’s nightclub, and do our field-testing there.
“Do I want to pay for sex, you fucking asshole?” was how my discretion was first met. She was somewhere around 35, going on chubby. Maybe she took it personally? I decided to ask only hot girls. Asking hot girls didn’t go all that much better. We further amended our plan. We would ask only 10 women and factor up. Sure, it was lame, but I did the math. There are 36.7 million visitors a year to Sin City. If even 1 percent of those were randy enough to gamble on a sure thing, then the Madam was making bank.
We got no drinks thrown at us, three flat-out yeses, one “Yes, if I wasn’t married,” one “Are there girls there? I’d rather pay to be with a girl,” one “I’d try it once just out of curiosity,” one soft no, two hard noes, and one that sounded a lot like the Lord’s Prayer. Factored up, that’s roughly 40 percent in our poor man’s focus group who were in favor, though — as market researchers are quick to point out — there’s a huge difference between what people say they’re going to do and what they actually do. According to Fleiss, the local L.A. television station KTLA conducted a considerably more rigorous and egalitarian poll of their own over five days and got numbers significantly higher than ours, reporting that on one day 88 percent of women asked wanted to check out her stud farm.
I wanted to check out the stud farm as well, even if it wasn’t yet built, even if it was nothing more than cactuses, simply because I had come this far. Unfortunately, when I finally got Fleiss on the phone, she informed me that there was another change of plans. When we first spoke, she had told me that her plan was to do polls of her own, to do months more hard research, to make sure all her ducks were in a row. Maybe the KTLA poll was what she’d been waiting for; maybe she’d just grown tired of waiting. Either way, she told me she had decided it was time to submit her brothel application, something that would demand considerable focus (and something that still hasn’t been done as of press time). When I asked if we could still come visit, she said she was too busy, plans change, it’s a fluid situation, there’s a lot at stake. Then she told me she was leaving in the morning to drive back to L.A. with the HBO crew to pick up her truck.
I mentioned that both myself and the photographer had spent a week of our lives trying to take a couple of pictures and get a quick tour of the property, and if she was willing to do that first, we would be happy to drive her back to L.A. to get her truck. She told me if I wanted to see the property, I should just drive to Crystal, walk into the Crystal Springs Bar and ask for directions.
“Everyone knows where it is,” she said. “I’ll call ahead and let them know you’re coming.”
“Why did I waste all this time if you’re just going to flake on me?”
It was about that time she decided to go X-Files on us.
“Look,” she said, “I’m tremendously flawed as a person, but I’m trying to do something here. I’ve got eight days. I’ve got lawyers. A lot of lawyers. I’m paying them a lot of money. There’s a lot going on here you don’t know about. You can try me tomorrow afternoon.”
Then she hung up.
Fleiss’ paranoia is par for the course. She lives in Pahrump, about 60 miles outside of Vegas. The town serves as the back door to Area 51, where “they” may or may not be reverse-engineering alien technology, but where “they” most certainly are testing secret military aircraft. Along similar lines, Pahrump is also the home of Art Bell, the founder and notorious longtime host of the paranormal- and conspiratorial-themed Coast to Coast AM-radio program. Bell, in turn, owns a local oldies station, KNYE, 95.1 on the FM dial, which uses as its slogan “Where things go Pahrump in the night.”
About 25 miles beyond Pahrump, where the valley floor drops away and the view is deep desert and far sky, there is what Tom Waits would call “a wide spot in the road.” This is the town of Crystal, Nevada, the perhaps future home of Fleiss’ stud farm and the current home of the Cherry Patch Ranch and Mabel’s Ranch, both of which are cathouses of the traditional double-wide-trailer variety. Each of these brothels has a bar attached to it, but beyond the brothels and the bars, the town stretches for a few lonely blocks before dead-ending into scrub brush.
We drove those few blocks and spun back around and headed for the Crystal Springs Bar, where, instead of a sign out front, there’s a bomb half-buried in the gravel parking lot with tail fins sticking skyward like some kind of angry weathervane. The bar itself is rickety and ramshackle, with a long wooden porch, blacked-out windows, a flavor that’s pure Old West. Inside, the walls are plastered with the contents of Nevada’s Brothel Art Museum — a human skeleton in a glass case and several hundred newspaper articles and photographs documenting a couple hundred years of local whoredom.
We took seats at the bar and ordered beers. I didn’t think there was a chance in hell that Fleiss had called ahead to tell them we were coming. Still, it didn’t seem to matter. We told them who we were and what we were doing, and after giving us the once-over twice, Barbara the bartender introduced us to a grumpy old guy, whose name no one caught, and to Charlotte LeVar, the chairperson of the Crystal Community Group, and her husband, Dan. Charlotte looked more like a suburban mom than a woman you would expect to find drinking early in the day at a brothel bar, while Dan looked like an aged rodeo star, complete with husky mustache and fancy duds. They lived in nearby Crystal Heights, which, according to Dan, is distinguishable from Crystal proper because “we’ve got better junk in our front yards.”
The LeVars told us that they were in favor of Fleiss’ plan, but there were others who felt differently. In fact, the LeVars said, Fleiss had started something of a local war with her proposal. Barbara handed me a copy of one of two competing petitions now floating around town. This petition was in favor of the stud farm, while the competing one — available down the road at Mabel’s Saloon (conveniently located in front of Mabel's Ranch) — was against.
“You know,” mused Dan, “people move out here to get away from all the big-city riffraff, but this is a small town. Everybody knows everybody’s business, and everyone’s got an opinion about that business.”
Then Charlotte asked us about Fleiss’ business, but before I could say anything, Dan whisked me out front of the bar, telling me he had to show me something in the parking lot. There was nothing to see out there; instead, I was warned that the grumpy guy sitting to my left was actually part of the anti-Fleiss camp and that anything said would be quickly repeated down the street at Mabel’s. I couldn’t believe my luck; we had left The X-Files behind and proceeded straight into David Lynch’s follow-up to Twin Peaks: Crystal Heights.
We went back inside the bar, and just to see what would happen — and not mentioning many specifics — I talked a little bit about Fleiss’ truck breaking down. Within three minutes, the grumpy guy disappeared. Ten minutes later, Kathy, the woman who ran Mabel’s and headed up the anti-Fleiss faction, showed up. Rather than risk starting a stud-farm shootout at the Not So Okay Corral, we finished our drinks, asked for directions to the property, and were gone.
The directions were to drive to the end of town, take a left, drive until the road ends and park. We did as we were told and found ourselves staring at a landscape that was exactly as had been described: nothing but cactuses. Just across the state line was Death Valley, and the division seemed ultimately arbitrary. Everywhere we looked was parched earth and impossible dreams. We were spitting distance from one of the hottest places on Earth, where the summer temperatures averaged well over 100 degrees and it rained less than 2 inches a year. Never mind the politics of desire; building here seemed a primal arrogance, an utter disregard for anything close to common sense.
A cold wind started whipping off the mountains in the distance, and dark clouds were heading our way. We tried calling Fleiss. There was no answer. We stared at the cactuses for a bit longer, and then piled into the car and headed back to Pahrump. We tried to reach her along the way, and a couple of times when we got to Pahrump, but still no answer. I had spent five days of my life waiting for this woman to answer her phone and keep her promises; why not wait a little while longer?
There was a corner store on Pahrump’s main drag, directly across from a strip club with a sign in front of the club advertising copies of Heidi Fleiss’ book Pandering, signed by the author. We ignored the strip club and headed inside the corner store to ask for directions to Sheri’s Ranch, known as the nicest bordello in this part of the state, where they offer overpriced drinks and no-contact tours. There were two women working behind the counter and a young girl standing beside it. I waited my turn in line, but when I got to the counter, I couldn’t bring myself to ask for directions to a whorehouse. The photographer just shook his head and took control.
“Excuse me,” he said, “what’s the fastest way back to Los Angeles from here?”
“Had enough?” asked the woman behind the counter.
“Yeah,” I told her, “we’ve had more than enough.”
She glanced at the storm clouds in the sky and told us if we wanted to take the shortcut, we’d have to skirt Death Valley and we’d have to hurry.
“It’s gonna rain something fierce,” she said. “The roads wash out. There are flash floods. You can probably make it, but if you see water coming your way, just get your butt to higher ground.”
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We didn’t need to be told twice.
A few weeks later, I reached Fleiss at her home. She apologized for the craziness and told me she didn’t call me back because, while she had retrieved the old truck, it had broken down again near the edge of Death Valley. This time she paid the tow truck to take the junker all the way to Nevada.
As it turned out, she’s yet to file her brothel application. The problem, this time, was her neighbor. As Fleiss puts it, “Only I would move to the middle of the middle of nowhere and end up living next to the oldest hooker in Nevada.” Her name was Mary Anne. She had 70 parrots and a ton of stories. She liked to keep Fleiss up all night telling her about the good old days and her time with Howard Hughes and the bad old days and her being held captive by the Detroit mob. Mary Anne passed away not too long after the tow truck dropped Fleiss back in Nevada. She hadn’t yet filed her application because she was too upset about the death.
“I don’t understand it,” said Fleiss, “I’m so distraught. It’s just so out of character for me.”