STEPPING from her taxi in an elegant black trouser suit, Claire is confidently relaxed. The epitome of the modern businesswoman, in fact. Polite, friendly and strikingly good-looking, the old saying "First impressions count" has never been more appropriate.
But first impressions can be deceptive. Although Claire is indeed a professional woman, she is in fact a member of the oldest profession in the world.
Claire is an escort, and in Edinburgh’s booming sex trade industry that makes her one of an elite group who can expect to earn up to 160 an hour.
"Hi, I’m Claire" she says, shaking my hand and immediately asking to call me by my first name as it’s "much friendlier", before we descend into Haldanes - one of the Capital’s most exclusive restaurants - for dinner.
But booking Claire for the evening wasn’t as easy at you might imagine, even though there are 13 escort agencies listed in the Edinburgh Yellow Pages - 12 if you exclude Edinburgh Gay Escorts.
The numbers drop when you start phoning around. Two of the lines are "temporarily out of order", while the number for another is "not recognised".
Despite that, agency bosses say that business is "jumping", and competition is fierce with about 150 girls currently working as escorts in the city - and many of those, unlike Claire as I later discover, are also working in the sauna business.
Of course, not all escorts offer sex, and Claire admits that there are many times when if she does not click with a client, company is all they get.
Whether sex is involved or not, the escort game is a lucrative business in Edinburgh. Claire works three days a week, and although she won’t say exactly how much she earns, she later reveals: "Business is okay, but it can be slow sometimes. I might have four clients in the one day and then nothing for two days, or I might have one each day. It just depends."
Claire charges 160 an hour, and after calling round a number of agencies, this seems to be the going rate.
She is from the last agency on my list. I find myself speaking to the 29-year-old, who describes herself as 5ft 10ins tall with a B-size bust and long blonde hair.
Having agreed her fee, she asked for my name and telephone number. Within seconds she had called me back to confirm my identity. Half an hour later she called again to ask how I wanted her to dress. "I can wear knee-high boots, a mini-skirt and long coat . . ."
Something more discreet, more businesslike perhaps, would be more appropriate I suggest. "No problem," she replies.
Then, half an hour before we’re due to meet, I receive a text message: "How many people will be dining?" I reply: "Just you and I."
A further message arrives: "Okay sweetie. See you at six . . . Claire."
Which is why I was standing on the corner of Albany Street and York Lane on a cold October evening armed with an envelope stuffed with 160 in crisp fresh notes, waiting nervously to discover just what you get when you hire an escort.
I’m pleasantly surprised when she arrives in a taxi, and inside, as we enjoy an aperitif and look at the menu, she takes her suit jacket off to reveal a high-necked burnished gold top. There’s no flesh on show at all.
I admit to being nervous. "I’ve never done this before," I explain - a line I’m sure she has heard a million times before. "So, do I pay you now?"
She just smiles: "Calm down. Just relax. We have plenty of time." Obviously relaxed, Claire is very attentive. Listening intently to my small talk, nodding and smiling as she keeps eye contact. When I ask what she would like to eat, she says: "I eat anything. I’ll have what you have."
That sets the pattern for the evening, as Claire appears to go out of her way to make me feel that I am in control.
As we talk about holidays, the weather and the marvellous food, I’m only too aware that time is ticking away. She mistakes this concern for apprehension.
"Don’t worry. I’m not going to bite . . . unless you want me to," she laughs knowingly, which gives me my cue to ask her what happens after the meal.
"Well, we just see how we get on. If we like each other we can go on somewhere else." Her meaning is obvious and I ask her if everyone automatically expects that as part of the deal.
Her answer surprises me. "I get angry and upset when people think that I am just a high-class prostitute. What I offer initially is company, but if I like a person and we get on, then we can do more," she says.
I later find out that does indeed include everything up to full sex and even domination - all for the fixed price of 160 an hour. Which is perhaps why she keeps insisting that there’s no hurry. After all, the meter’s running.
Her clients, she tells me, span the generations. Most book her for dinner or to accompany them to business or family events. "The people I meet tend to be very nice. Most are married and prefer me to be smartly dressed. Not a lot of them ask for sex outright. That is something that happens naturally if we get on," she says.
Asked if that happens often, she says: "Yes. But it’s my decision. If they want to and I don’t, I tell them I don’t do it."
This is also what she tells her boyfriend. He knows she is an escort but doesn’t realise that she still offers sex as part of her escorting duties.
"It’s just a job, nothing else," she says simply. "I have my boyfriend and everything else in my life. But I want to have a child, so this is just a job that allows me to save up to buy a house that I can leave them when I die."
And she confides: "My boyfriend found it difficult when he first discovered what I did, but now he thinks that when I go out on a job it’s like this . . . dinner. He doesn’t know that sometimes I have sex with the client. If he did, we would be finished."
The owner of one of Edinburgh’s more discreet agencies, which has 30 female escorts (and a similar number of male escorts), agrees: "Some escorts do both, but there are a lot who will only do escorting.
"I’d actually say that the escort trade in Edinburgh is jumping at the moment. I can easily expect to provide up to 50 escorts a week, but it’s a very upper-class business. You tend not to get your average Tom, Dick or Harry using escorts."
Around 20 per cent of his clients are local. They’re also usually married, but some are just lonely old men who want to sit and talk. Of course, they don’t all want to do just that.
He says: "My escorts charge 120 per hour, but that price is negotiable. If a client wants two hours, they might agree to 200. The price remains the same whatever you want to do."
And he adds that to be a good escort you often need to be a psychiatrist and marriage guidance councillor all rolled into one.
Claire knows all about that. Often she’s paid just to listen to someone’s troubles - but there have been odder occasions, she admits.
"Once I went to the room of an elderly businessman in a really expensive hotel. When he answered the door, all he was wearing was a pair of stilettos and fishnet tights. He had a dog collar around his neck and asked me to lead him around the room on a leash. I had to keep looking away from him so that he wouldn’t see me laughing."
With ten minutes to go before our hour is up, I reveal that I am a journalist and tell her she’s free to go, or to stay to finish the meal. If she decides on the latter, she won’t be paid for any additional time. Unfazed, she says: "Don’t worry. I’m enjoying your company."
When I ask how safe she feels escorting in Edinburgh, her reply is immediate. "I always carry a screamer with me, a personal alarm, but I’m not afraid. I do a bit of kickboxing, which is why you’ll never see me in high heels. I wear high platform boots, but never high heels. That way I can do everything I need to do to defend myself."
Which is just as well, as she works on her own. "I don’t need anyone else. If you do, you end up paying out more and more of what you earn. Your driver or minder in effect becomes your pimp, and I don’t like pimps.
"I’ve been in the sex business 12 years in all but I like this job best. It’s more exclusive and I only do what I want to do. That makes me feel much better within myself."
And, perhaps to help justify her premium price tag, Claire argues that it is people like her who make Edinburgh a safer place.
She says: "Nobody will ever understand why I do this job, and most people look down at me when they find out that I am an escort. But they don’t understand that if it wasn’t for people like me, and the girls who work in the saunas and the lap-dancing bars, there would be a lot more rapes, attacks, even deaths, because when there are no escorts or prostitutes providing a service, men will turn elsewhere to satisfy their sexual urges."
Mixing business with pleasure
VINCENT Delicato is not a happy man. The neon sign in the window of his new shop is - to give it the technical term - on the blink, when it ought to be flashing in brazen blue that the shop is "open".
He should relax. The sign seems surplus to requirements when the window display - featuring a selection of sheer nightwear, a nurse’s uniform in red and white PVC, and a set of furry handcuffs - easily catch the eye.
His shop has certainly been noticed by the residents of Gorgie. This summer, almost 400 of them felt moved to object to Delicato’s application to open his third branch of Leather and Lace at 368-370 Gorgie Road. Hundreds of other people signed a petition in support of his plans for the shop.
Despite running sex shops in Drummond Street and Easter Road, his application for a licensed sex shop was turned down by the city council. In reality, however, apart from a few restrictions on the type of product he can sell, the shop is now open for business.
He confesses trade has been quiet so far, although few people can walk past the shop without shooting a furtive glance at the window. Delicato argues that his window display is no more offensive than that of a lingerie store.
Those who do dare to venture inside have to buzz to gain access. This is a voluntary precaution, he says, to keep out those who are under 18. Once inside, there’s a spacious and brightly lit store, complete with a polished wood floor.
At first glance it even seems like an underwear shop inside - apart from the PVC French maid’s outfit. The sparse shelves are lined with products that could be found in many high-street stores for stocking fillers at Christmas - chocolate body paint, whisky-flavoured condoms and an inflatable wife (she doesn’t moan or spend your money, says the box - and "she floats").
A small magazine rack catering for fetishes includes titles such as Footsie and Leg Man. But as your eyes adjust, other less mundane products pop into view - a range of gimp masks, an array of paddles, tawses, whips, collars, nipple clamps, "pleasure pearls" and vibrators.
Now on his third shop in the chain, Delicato is clearly becoming a little blase about the protests and objections.
"Basically, because it’s called a ‘sex shop’, people dig their heels in. When I handed in the petition to the council committee, Scottish Women Against Pornography said ‘the views of 300 drunk men in a pub don’t count’."
Whatever the objections, Delicato has clearly found a market in the city, or he wouldn’t have expanded his business. He says new rules on R-18 adult videos, which can only be sold in licensed sex shops, are encouraging more people to "jump on the bandwagon".
In the meantime, he is appealing the council’s decision on the Gorgie licence application - not least because a rival businessman is trying to open a sex shop down the road in Dalry.
Asked what some of his customers’ most outlandish requests have been, Delicato replies: "Cages . . . crosses . . . I have even been asked for a dentist’s chair.
"There is a furniture market as well, but to stock it you would need the room. But they can be ordered. If one wants to buy a bed that has the capacity for strapping you to it, then who are we to say no?"