When you’re on the run from cold-blooded killers, you need to know who your friends are.
Matt Bugatti has cracked the Internet’s most secure code. Now the NSA and Chinese spies will stop at nothing to learn his secret. Unaware of the danger he faces, Matt meets glamorous Gina, a woman with a secret of her own. Life is good – until the conflict comes to a head and Matt finds himself threatened and alone. Then Matt discovers Gina’s secret and his world turns upside-down. Pursued by two nations, running for his life, Matt takes control – and learns who he can trust in a world where no one is who they seem.
Book #1 in the Matt Bugatti series
★★★★★ This tech thriller is one of the best books I’ve read this year. A. R. Shaw
★★★★ Explore international politics, corporate boardrooms and high technology in this exciting debut novel. Lori Tatar
★★★★ An extremely well written and highly enjoyable thriller. Would recommend to any fan of thrillers. Andy Wormald
★★★★★ Gripping! Page turner! Hope Matt Bugatti continues as a series, since he is such a tenacious and likeable detective. Sheri Fischer
★★★★★ One of the best books I have read in this genre in quite a while. Alex Behounek
★★★★ You will find ‘The Girlfriend Experience’ a fast, fun-filled read that will leave you looking forward to the sequel or next book from O’Donnell. Franc Woods
★★★★ Each new chapter throws a different twist that I didn’t see coming. The characters had so much life to them that it was hard to believe that they don’t really exist somewhere. Ann Livi Andrews
★★★★ O’Donnell has crafted a techno-thriller with enough elements to satisfy the demands of any fan of the genre: nefarious personalities, spy vs. spy, double dealings, temptation, betrayal, trust, and a plot that moves along at a pretty good clip despite a heavy load of deep computer technology that O’Donnell handles masterfully. Joseph Mark Brewer
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The Girlfriend Experience is available on Amazon for Kindle and in paperback.
Chapter 1—The Programmer
A thin beam of orange light broke through the blinds and fell on the opposite wall, moving slowly downward as the sun rose. Before the morning light filtered through the windows the room was dark except for one glowing computer screen; deserted except for a figure leaning forward in his chair; silent except for the sound his fingers made on his keyboard.
Matt Bugatti focused on the lines filling his display. There were a few recognizable words, and some numbers, but mostly they consisted of symbols, some familiar—parentheses, brackets, semicolons, asterisks—and some less so, arcane symbols representing mathematical and logical operations. To one familiar with computer languages they were readable, and a good programmer could understand how a computer would interpret them. To Matt they had a meaning at a level inaccessible to all but three or four people in the world.
As Matt composed his program his thoughts shifted fluidly, beginning with an abstract concept, often indistinct, hardly more than a feeling. Out of this nebulous beginning he invented detailed calculations which he translated into lines of computer code, instructions so precise an unthinking machine could follow them flawlessly. He closed the loop as he mentally tested the code against his original idea, following this spiral path repeatedly from pure intuition to unambiguous commands and back, sometimes completing a dozen cycles in a matter of minutes. It was a feeling he knew well, somewhere between anxiety and exhilaration, when his creativity was at its peak. Matt had a word for it—the vertex.
As Matt finished the last few lines, he dimly perceived the sound of a door opening, followed by the overhead lights flickering on. He blinked at the sudden brightness, putting his elbows on his desk and pressing his palms against his tightly shut eyes.
“You did it again,” said the voice behind him. “You were here all goddamn night. Did you eat anything?”
“Anson, I wonder if you could turn off the lights for a minute,” Matt sighed.
“Sorry, Matt, I’m not like you. I can’t work in the dark. I need to see what I’m doing,” said Anson Polk.
Matt raised his head and looked up at the man next to him through the narrow slits of his eyelids. As his eyes focused he saw the outline of a tall, dark-skinned figure against the blinding ceiling lights. He could just make out his broad grin.
“What have you got?” he asked.
Matt rubbed his eyes with his fingertips. “I was at the vertex,” he replied through his hands. “I think I’m on to something.”
“Jon’s meeting is in one hour. You can tell us all about it.” Anson walked off toward his computer.
Matt turned back to the screen. He clicked a menu on the banner and selected Build – Project Cygnus. A window opened, filling with status messages, scrolling too fast to read. The last message said:
Build Complete. No Errors.
After a few more keystrokes the screen flashed and a window appeared containing a short white line against a dark blue background. Matt watched as the line sprouted branches, which themselves sprouted more branches, until it resembled a densely tangled bush. A second window appeared in the right half of the screen: a list of numbers, each number increasing, ticking off like the mileage indicator of a car, as if the car were traveling at the speed of an airliner. He used the computer mouse to change the view of the branching tree, rotating it, magnifying it, watching the structure evolve. Beautiful, he thought. He checked the numbers, nodding very slightly, then allowed himself a thin smile of satisfaction, exhaling heavily as he leaned back in his chair. At that moment he became aware of two sensations: acute pangs of hunger, and an urgent need to use the bathroom.
At twenty-five minutes past eight the first attendees of the weekly program status meeting of the Connectrix Corporation of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, began drifting into the small conference room next to the office of Jon Ames, founder and Chief Technology Officer. Some seated themselves at the small table in the center of the room; others chose one of the shabby chairs lining the walls, in front of white boards that stretched from floor to ceiling. The boards were covered with numbers, equations, and diagrams, some of which resembled the tree-like structure on Matt Bugatti’s computer screen. Within a few minutes eleven people had entered the room. They moved slowly; many had a haggard look. A few spoke but most remained silent. Matt was not among them.
At precisely eight-thirty, Jon Ames entered the room and took the last empty seat at the table opposite the door. It was the same chair he always chose—Jon’s chair. Everyone knew not to occupy Jon’s chair. He laid a bound journal on the table and opened it to a blank page. He wrote the date at the top and underlined it. Beneath the date he wrote Cygnus Project—Status Update.
“Good morning, team,” he said, looking up from the page. His eyes scanned the faces in the room.
“Where’s Matt?” he asked. No one answered.
“Anson, you’re his buddy. Go find him.”
The tall black man lifted himself from his chair and left the room.
“Let’s make good use of the time it takes Mr. Polk to track down Dr. Bugatti, shall we?” Jon said. He picked up his pen and positioned it at the first line of the blank journal page, ready to write.
A husky man seated in the corner of the room spoke up.
“First prototype is on schedule. We’ll have hardware in six weeks. Final draft of the specification is out for review; we should release it on Wednesday. First boards are due in four weeks. That’s sixty-four nodes plus four spares,” he announced in rapid cadence, as if rehearsed.
Jon transcribed the report verbatim. “Two weeks for configuration, Eric?”
“One week for configuration, one more week for debug and shakedown.”
“Let’s spring for eight spares,” Jon instructed. “I don’t want to take any chances. Systems?”
At that moment Anson re-entered the room with Matt close behind, looking disheveled and carrying a large cup of strong black coffee. Jon’s eyes followed them, his face expressionless as they made their way to their seats against the wall.
“Matt, we’re pleased to have you among us at last. And, may I say, you look disgusting.”
Matt looked at Jon with half-closed eyes. “Sorry, Jon.”
“Right. Where were we? Systems?”
A thin woman with long straw-colored hair, wearing a bulky sweater took a step forward.
“Delta release is in simulation now. Burn-down is on track with one week remaining. We’ll be ready for hardware in one week. I don’t want to start Echo release without an honest-to-god hardware test.”
“Kathy, you’ll have to keep going. You’ll have the hardware in six weeks.”
The young woman shifted her weight to her other foot and crossed her arms.
“Jon, if we find any hardware-related issues we’ll have to scrap everything we’ve done on Echo. We’ll lose that time and whatever time it takes to debug Delta.”
“Understood. That’s my decision. It’s a chance we’ll have to take.”
“You’re not taking chances with the hardware,” Kathy protested, pointing at Eric, “but with the software, it’s okay to take chances?”
“Kathy, please. Let’s move on.”
Jon scribbled notes for a few moments before looking to Anson. “Applications?”
Anson stood and took a step in Jon’s direction. “User interface is on schedule, ready for acceptance testing in four weeks. Five more weeks for testing followed by final build. If we can get time on the hardware for a short test that would be great, but if we can’t, no biggie. We could sure use some of the communications functions planned for Echo release. I wonder if we could pull some of those into Delta release as long as we’re waiting for the hardware.”
“The comms functions are all there is in Echo,” Kathy said loudly. “They’ll delay Delta release by eight weeks, maybe more. That’ll put me on the critical path.”
“I don’t think you have to worry about the critical path,” Anson countered, sounding amused. “Matt owns the critical path.”
He turned back to Jon. “The application is on schedule, but without Matt’s algorithm, Cygnus won’t fly.”
Jon summarized Anson’s report in his journal. “Matt?” he said, without looking up.
Matt lowered his cup from his lips and paused a moment to swallow.
“I’m still behind but I made up some ground last night. I had an idea on how to predict a search point based on previous results. The algorithm breaks off the search tree to a promising point in factor space with no intervening search path. I started a test run this morning.”
Jon’s pen hand froze in mid-stroke. “That’s…that’s not…” he stammered. “…possible.” He paused, cocking his head. “Is it?”
“We’ll see. The test run looks promising. Extrapolating the results so far, it looks like it could solve in twelve hundred to twenty-four hundred hours.”
There were murmurs in the room as Matt’s report sank in. Few in the room had even a vague understanding of Matt’s algorithm. What they did know were two numbers: the goal, and the best time. At the prior week’s meeting, Matt reported the best time as four thousand hours. The goal was eight hours.
Anson turned toward Matt with eyebrows raised. “You mean on the hardware, right?”
Matt paused for another sip of coffee. “No—on my workstation.”
The room broke into a buzz. They all knew the significance of Matt’s accomplishment, even if they didn’t understand exactly how he did it. To cut the best time from four thousand hours to twelve hundred, or even twenty-four hundred, in one week was unexpected. But they all knew what best time meant. It was the time needed to solve a well-defined problem on the hardware under development. That hardware consisted of sixty-four powerful computers, communicating at high speed, all working together in one system. To achieve a time of between twelve hundred and twenty four hundred hours on a single computer was a thunderbolt.
“People!” Jon shouted. “One conversation!” The buzz trailed off.
Jon stared at Matt. “A two-thousand bit key?”
“Of course. It’s the standard benchmark.”
“When can you confirm your estimate?”
“I can’t say for sure until we actually find a solution. The algorithm is not deterministic. We can’t know for sure if it’ll ever finish. But everything I’ve learned about factoring large numbers tells me that there is a better than ninety-five percent chance that there will be a solution in twelve hundred to twenty-four hundred hours. I can refine that estimate in a few days, but I doubt it’ll change much.”
Jon lowered his eyes slightly for a moment before continuing. “If you’re right, how long will it take on the hardware?”
“On the sixty-four node prototype I expect the algorithm to run about thirty times faster. The nodes aren’t as powerful as my workstation, and there’s some overhead in the parallel algorithm that will hurt our efficiency. That puts solution time on the hardware at forty hours best case, but eighty is more likely.”
The droning in the room returned, more intensely than before, but a stern look from Jon quieted them.
“Matt, I have to remind you that we proposed a system that could break a two thousand forty-eight bit encryption key in eight hours or less. We’ve got a long way to go.”
The room erupted in derisive laughter. Jon was unable to restore order. Anson spoke above the noise.
“Jesus Christ, Jon, did you hear what Matt said? This is big! Ten years ago nobody thought you could break a two thousand bit key in less than an eon. Not long ago we had no reason to believe it could be done in less than a year, no matter how much computing power we threw at it. Yesterday our best case was six months. Matt pulled an all-nighter and got it down to three days!”
“We can’t lose sight of the goal,” Jon answered, in the low, even voice he reserved for his stock phrases.
Anson smiled and shook his head as the commotion continued. “No one is losing sight of the goal, Jon. Just the opposite. Until this moment, none of us was sure the goal was even possible.”
The room sounded like a crowd at a rally. Some shouted “That’s right!” and “Way to go!” Those close to Matt leaned toward him and touched his shoulder or shook his hand.
“Jon, it’s major,” Anson said. “For once, just enjoy it, okay?”
The noise in the room rapidly died away as one by one they noticed a man standing in the doorway. He was considerably younger-looking than his seventy-three years, slightly less than six feet tall, wearing a tweed jacket over a colorful sweater. Josef Hofbauer, Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of Connectrix, stepped into the room. He looked around a moment before speaking.
“Something has happened, no? Something good, no? Ja?”
Jon stood. “Josef, Dr. Bugatti seems to have had a breakthrough. We still need to validate his estimate, but if it holds up, it puts us much closer to our goal.”
“That is good, no? Dr. Bugatti, you have had a brainstorm, no? Ja? What is the best time?”
“Forty hours, maybe. Eighty is more realistic.”
Josef took off his glasses and tapped the earpiece on his lower lip. “This is very good. You are doing well. And the rest, Jon? All the rest is good, too?”
Jon glanced down at his journal. “The algorithm is critical path. Hardware and systems are on schedule.”
Josef replaced his glasses and smiled broadly. “Dr. Bugatti, it seems all our fortunes rest with you, ja? You keep up with the brainstorms and you’ll make us all rich.”
Josef turned in military fashion and exited the room. The team remained silent, but the mood had changed, from anxiety and uncertainty to excitement and determination.
An hour later Anson found Matt at his computer examining the diagram, which by now had evolved into a finely detailed structure.
“Matt, you just gave all of us a shot in the arm. I haven’t seen folks fired up like this in months.”
Matt studied his computer screen as he rubbed one eye, then the other, with the palm of his hand.
“Good to hear. We’re not there yet. Still a long way to go.”
Anson rolled his eyes. “Oh, brother. Jon is the company buzz-kill, not you. Is this a big deal or not?”
Matt turned slightly toward Anson, keeping his eyes on the screen for a moment before looking up at his friend.
“Take a look at the factor space diagram. Can you see what’s going on?”
Anson leaned down, his face just inches from the screen. He scrutinized it for a moment before standing up. He put his hand behind his head, scratched his scalp and smiled.
“It’s not connected. The graph is broken up into isolated subsets. It looks like thousands of disconnected sets.”
Matt smiled back. “That’s right. That’s the breakthrough—a disconnected search path. It’s ten to a hundred times faster. But there’s more. Remember what I said about the algorithm not being deterministic?”
“Yeah, sure. It’s based on probabilities. You pick the best place to look and you take your chances. We’re all betting on you to find the good spots.”
“Well, last night it came to me.” Matt tapped his forehead with his fingertips. “This thing. It’s just a feeling right now. I have to work it out. But it feels right. I think…” He took a deep breath. “I think it is deterministic. I think I can show that the prime factors will always fall in the subset I’m searching.” He spoke softly and shakily, as if saying his conjecture out loud could invalidate it.
Anson’s face went slack. “I’m not sure what that means.”
“It means another ten-times improvement. It means we hit our goal—eight hours.” Matt leaned forward, with his hands clasped between his knees. He lowered his voice, speaking with almost electric intensity. “It means the world of mathematics turns upside-down.”
Anson looked into Matt’s face. His cheeks were dark with two days of stubble. His eyelids drooped. But Matt’s grey eyes, focused intently on Anson’s, hinted at a vision only Matt could see and few others could understand.
“How close are you?”
Matt squeezed his eyes shut. He ran his fingers through his thick black hair, oily and unwashed since the previous morning.
“I could figure it out tomorrow,” he sighed, “or it could take years.”
“We don’t have years.”
Matt grinned and shook his head. “Yeah, tell me. If I ever forget it I’m sure Jon will remind me—and Hofbauer to lay the fate of the free world on my back. I really don’t need that kind of pressure.”
“How can I help?”
“You can’t. I’ve got it.”
Anson put his hands on his knees and stood. He tapped his closed fist on Matt’s shoulder.
“Don’t worry about what Hofbauer says. Christ, you had a major breakthrough today. Everyone in this place is jazzed. You did that. Why punch yourself in the face while others are patting you on the back?”
Matt smiled weakly. “Thanks for the perspective.”
Anson smiled back on Matt, still hunched over.
“Perspective is free, any time. I’ll go one better. Meet me at Stella’s after work and I’ll buy the drinks. You deserve it. All I ask is that you go home, get some sleep, and make yourself presentable. You won’t attract any ladies looking like that.”
Anson patted Matt once more on the shoulder and walked back to his workstation. Matt straightened himself in his chair, closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. He held it in for a moment before exhaling. Then he turned back to his computer.
At six-thirty that evening, Matt arrived at Stella Blues, an Eau Claire landmark and a favorite after-hours venue for Connectrix employees. Matt wore a light jacket zipped up to his chin in the cool mid-September evening. He scanned the room for Anson, spotting him at a table against the wall, holding a bottle over his head in one hand and pointing in Matt’s direction with the other.
“Bugatti, get your ass over here. We’ve got a bucket of Leinie longnecks and you’re way overdue for a good time,” he shouted.
Anson sat next to Eric, the husky hardware team leader. Kathy, the systems team leader, sat across from Eric. Matt dropped wearily into the chair opposite Anson, his hands still in his jacket pockets.
Anson took a bottle from the ice bucket at the center of the table and popped off the cap.
“Unzip and unwind, my friend. It’s Friday and you’ve had a big week,” he said as he handed the bottle to Matt. Matt took the bottle with one hand and unzipped his jacket with the other.
“Oh, man, look at you,” Anson remarked. “I told you to go home, take a nap and a shower, and try to look like a human being. And you didn’t. You stayed at work all day. I know you did because I could smell you three cubicles away. At least tell me that you ate.”
Matt tipped back the bottle, enjoying the feel of cold beer on his parched throat. After several gulps he set the bottle on the table. Foam welled up and spilled down the sides, puddling on the table. He looked at Anson through half-closed eyes.
“Anson, I have a mother who keeps pretty close tabs on me, and I don’t need a mom substitute when she’s not around.”
“Oh yeah, how is your mother? Does she know you’re slowly dying of exhaustion? Does she know about your pathetic attempt to starve yourself to death?”
The two men looked at each other with mock sternness.
“My mom’s just fine, thanks. And I ate before I left the office.”
“Let’s see if I can guess what you ate…Fritos. Am I right?”
“Fuck you, Polk.”
Anson laughed a low, warm laugh.
Eric and Kathy watched the exchange without a word, their expressions halfway between amusement and boredom.
“Is this the fun evening you promised? Beer and insults?”
“Yeah, mostly. But there’s a waiter headed this way with two orders of sliders. I’ll have to feed you if you won’t feed yourself.”
The waiter arrived at the table with a platter of miniature burgers. “What else can I get you?” he asked dutifully.
“You’ve done all we’ve asked of you and more,” Anson replied ceremoniously. “But when you get back to the bar, see if they have any grappa.”
Matt winced. “Anson, forget the grappa, okay?”
“Nonsense!” Anson waved a hand at Matt. “This man’s drink is grappa—grappa—the drink of his ancestors! Nothing else will serve on this auspicious occasion!”
“I don’t know if we have…whatever you said…grappa? Is that right?”
“Yes, yes, grappa. The national drink of Italy. Good God, man, you work at a bar in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, a center of international culture.” Anson bellowed with indignation. “You must have grappa! You have at least heard of grappa?”
“I’ll go see right away,” the waiter answered as he hurried off.
Kathy had already started on the platter of appetizers. Eric was drinking the last of his beer. Anson took a slider for himself and bit into it.
“Matt, eat up before you pass out,” he mumbled through his half-full mouth.
Matt helped himself as Eric set his empty bottle on the table.
“Gotta go, guys,” Eric said. “I told the wife I’d be home by seven.”
Anson threw his arms in the air, looking as if he were calming a riot.
“No! No! No! We have eight more bottles and a dozen baby burgers. Do your part, Eric.”
Eric stood up and pulled on his jacket. “You’ve never needed my help to drink a bucket of beer, Anson.”
“That’s where you’re wrong, big guy. You’re the anchorman. You’re the cleanup batter. Abandon us now and we’ll leave money on the table.”
Eric grinned. “Sorry, man, you’re on your own. You all have a great weekend.” He turned to leave, but paused and turned back.
“Matt, congratulations. That was some great work you did this week. I finally feel like there’s an end in sight.” He gave Matt a tired but sincere smile, and then walked away, just as the waiter returned with four generous shots of grappa.
“Perfect!” Anson cried. “One for me, one for Kathy, and two for Matt.”
Kathy wrinkled her nose. “Yuck. I can still taste the last one of those you got me to drink. I hate that stuff.”
Matt leaned back and studied the four narrow glasses filled with clear liquid. “This isn’t like the grappa I drank at home,” he said, his voice saturated with weariness and nostalgia. “That was some good grappa. Dad had it sent over from Italy. He gave me my first glass when I was twelve, on Christmas Eve.” He lifted a glass, staring at it, before looking at each of his companions in turn. He grinned.
“Well, the old man’s gone, we’re here, and I’ve had a triumph.” He brandished the glass at Kathy. “Anson, I guess we can’t count on this slip of a girl to help us with this round. It’s all ours. Salute!”
“To the genius of our age,” Anson responded as they each downed two shots in rapid succession. Kathy raised her beer and took a sip.
Anson and Matt winced as they set down their glasses, exhaling through pulled-back lips.
“Kathy, what’s your thinking on getting this man a social life?” Anson asked, gesturing toward Matt. “Do you think he’s completely hopeless?”
“Like Eric said, you’re on your own,” she said flatly. “I’ve got my own love life to think about.”
“Kathy,” Anson responded, “you’re a female in a company dominated by males. You can pick and choose. It’s like a smorgasbord.”
Kathy grinned. “First, I don’t fish in the company pond. Second, you guys are males in the technical sense only. Engineers are about as romantic as a textbook—hopeless geeks with no social skills.” She sipped her beer. “Connectrix isn’t so much a smorgasbord as it is a White Castle.”
Anson’s laugh reverberated in the bar, now crowded with Friday-night patrons. A few turned to him with startled looks, then smiled and went back to their conversations. A man with dark, wiry hair, wearing a black hooded sweatshirt, sat alone at a table against the opposite wall. He turned along with the others but did not smile. As the laugh died away, his gaze returned to its former direction toward the door. His expression remained unchanged.
Matt smiled wearily. “Anson, I really could go the whole night without discussing my social life. If I want to hear about how disappointing it is, I’ll call my mother.”
Kathy left the bar before nine. It was another hour before Anson decided that Matt had faded beyond recovery and declared the evening at an end. As they left the bar they pulled the collars of their jackets to their chins against the cold for the walk of a few dozen yards to Anson’s car.
“Matt, when are you going to get your own ride? What are you saving your money for?” Anson said as he opened the door and climbed in. Matt entered from the opposite side.
“Why do I need a car? I live a half mile from the office. I’m within walking distance of the supermarket. And if I need someone to drive me home after beer and grappa you’re right there.”
Anson started the car. “You’ve got no ride and no girlfriend. Do you think these things might be connected?”
“I thought we agreed my love life was off-limits. Besides, I don’t see you fighting off the girls.”
“Fair enough,” Anson said as he pulled away from the curb. He wrinkled his nose and sniffed loudly.
“Wow. I guess I need to change the air freshener in this car. That is really weird. It smelled fine this morning. Now it smells like dirty laundry gone rancid.”
Matt could not suppress a faint smile as he replied, “You’re a funny man, Anson Polk.”
Matt entered his apartment at ten-thirty, a little less than forty hours since he’d left it. He shed his jacket, letting it drop to the floor on his way to the bedroom. The answering machine on the nightstand blinked in the darkness, its display indicating one new message.
Matt sat on the bed, staring at the blinking light. He hesitated, and then slowly reached for the playback button, as if he were completing an unpleasant but necessary chore.
“Ciao, Matteo caro,” the message played. Matt recognized his mother’s voice.
“I left the restaurant early tonight. I told Marie to close for me. I just wanted some time to myself but I got to the house and it seemed so empty. It always seems empty without you and your father. Tonight, though, it seems really big and lonely. Isn’t that strange? After all these years since Giovanni died, I still get lonely. So I thought maybe if you’re lonely too I’ll call you and we can talk.
“But I guess you’re not at home. I hope you’re out with your friends, meeting new people, and not working all night. I think you work too hard. You are so much like your father.
“Well, I’ll call you again soon. Take care, dear. I love you.”
There was a click, followed by the mechanical voice of the answering machine: Received Thursday at nine-twenty p.m.
Twenty-four…no…twenty-five hours ago thought Matt. He leaned forward, cradling his head in his hands, before falling back on the bed, exhausted. He was asleep in seconds, still fully clothed.
In the street, alone in his nondescript car, a man with dark, wiry hair made his report.
From The Girlfriend Experience
Copyright © [2012, 2013, 2014, 2015] by Charles O’Donnell
All Rights Reserved
Buy now on Amazon
The Girlfriend Experience is available on Amazon for Kindle and in paperback.