He couldn't remember later why he began talking about bondage.
The fact that he was in the bar at all was weird enough. After all, a leaflet in the mail, advertising a local bar with the words, "Free drinks after 10 p.m. for customers with tattoos," was surely not incentive enough to break from his usual routine. The bar was beyond his normal bus route home from work, and the Lonesquare district certainly wasn't the sort of place to be walking late at night. Sinister people gathered there.
They all seemed to be sitting in this bar. If the bar really did give out free drinks to tattooed customers every night, it must be going broke, because half the guys here were wearing tattoos. And studs. And black leather. Stan thought this was just a fashion statement till he saw one of the men groping another man's crotch.
Okay, he was definitely in the wrong place. When he did groping, it was girls he groped. Well, except for that guy with the collar. But he really didn't count.
Stan wasn't sure what sort of odd crowd he'd stumbled upon. Gay bikers, he supposed. He hadn't even known that Mayhill had a gay bar. This town was the home of Mom and Pop and Apple Pie. Not the sort of place where guys hung handcuffs from their belts.
Except for himself. But that was different.
He had taken a booth in the corner of the barroom when he first arrived, which he now regretted because it meant that he would have to walk through that crowd of burly men again to reach the door. He was just calculating the safest way to do so when up swished a five-foot-five queen with hair that looked as though it was curled in a beauty parlor. Who asked to sit with him.
Unfortunately, the guy turned out to be the bar's owner. How could Stan say no, when he was just finishing up a free drink from the bar?
"I hope you don't mind my asking," the man said in a shy, high voice as he stared at Stan's arm, "but does it hurt to be tattooed?"
Stan remembered then why he had been tempted to come to this bar tonight. His work uniform had long sleeves; he rarely had the opportunity to show off his treasure. He rolled up his sleeve further to fully reveal the tattoo he had bought for himself earlier that year, on his twenty-first birthday: a bull lowering its horns in preparation for attack. "It hurt a bit, yeah."
The bar owner – who vaunted the effeminate name of Loren – cast down his eyes and shook his head. "I'd never have the courage to get one, then. I hate pain. Someone stuck a needle in me once and I screeched to high heaven."
"It's just a matter of training," Stan assured him. "With the right lessons, you can get the nerve up to do anything hard."
Loren ran his eyes over Stan's uniform appreciatively. "I guess you've had those lessons. Are you a policeman?"
Normally, being sized up by a queen wouldn't have been Stan's idea of a good time, but the man's admiration of his tattoo kept Stan in a warm glow. He hadn't felt this good since . . . Well, since he'd shown off his tattoo in a storage closet the previous week. "No, I'm a security guard at the Mayhill Mall."
"Oh!" said Loren. "I thought . . ." His voice trailed off.
"You thought what?"
"Oh, nothing. You have your handcuffs on the left side of your belt, that's all."
Stan looked round the bar again. Only a few men were wearing handcuffs at their belts, but now that he looked closer he could see that other men were dangling keys from their belts. Some on the left side, some on the right.
"Does the left side mean something special here?" he asked.
"Uh . . . yeah." Loren suddenly busied himself with scraping a bit of dirt off the table with his fingernail. "It means you're on top."
That's how the conversation started. Two hours later, with the bar beginning to empty, they had reached the point of talking about bondage.
"You like the idea of tie-up games?" Stan asked cautiously. He still couldn't believe he was having this conversation. I mean, sure, he'd fantasized a few times about tying up a girlfriend in bed. But the idea that there were actually whole groups devoted to this . . . Of course, these were gays. That figured. Gays did all the kinky stuff.
"Oh, yes!" Loren gave a broad smile. "I love bondage. Of course" – he stared down at the table again – "it would have to be with the right partner."
He couldn't remember later why he told Loren about the guy with the collar.
"No, I don't know who he was," he said in response to Loren's question. "I'd seen him a few times at the mall; he caught my eye because he always wears turtlenecks. Big guy, several inches taller than me, lots of muscle. One of the other guards pointed him out last week and said, 'You know, that guy's a slave.'"
Loren stared open-mouthed. "In this day and age? I don't believe it."
"That's what I said. But the other guard insisted it was true. He said, 'You just give him an order, and see if he doesn't follow it. Man, he'll do anything his master tells him to do.'"
Loren's brow crinkled. "But you weren't his master, right?"
"Yeah, I didn't believe any of the tale. But God, it was such an intriguing idea. Someone as strong as that, who would follow any order he was given. So I decided to test him."
Loren, who was pouring beer from the pitcher he had brought to the table toward the beginning of their conversation, nearly spilled the drink in his lap. "You're kidding! Gosh, that must have taken a lot of nerve." His voice was filled with awe.
Stan felt his spine straighten. "You have to have nerve in my sort of job. Some of the people I arrest are dangerous, you know. I can't put up with any nonsense from them. So I go up to this guy, and I say, 'Come with me.' Just that, no explanations. And the guy came with me. Followed me out of the main corridor, and when I waved him into a storage closet, he went!"
"Incredible," murmured Loren. "Absolutely incredible."
Stan shrugged nonchalantly. "So I flipped on the closet light, closed the door, and said, 'Take off your clothes.'"
Loren choked on his drink then. "And he did it?"
"He did! Without saying a word! I mean, we must have been only ten yards from the main corridor. He could have easily yelled for help."
"Maybe he was afraid of your gun," Loren suggested.
Stan shook his head, smiling. "Not a chance. I knew that might mess up the test, so I waited till after the end of my shift, when I'd already handed in my gun at work. And this guy was big – he could easily have taken me in a fight. But he didn't. He just stripped himself and waited. And would you believe it? He was wearing a dog collar! A real dog collar around his neck!"
"And then you screwed him, right?" Loren asked eagerly.
"Um . . ." Suddenly Stan was aware again that he was in a gay bar, talking to a queen. "Not exactly. I . . . Well, I had him kneel down and give me a blow job."
"Jeez!" Loren leaned back in his seat, sighing. "I wish I'd been there. Did you tie him up?"
His voice was wistful now; Stan couldn't help smiling. "Nah, I didn't use my handcuffs or anything like that. I just ordered him."
Loren nodded. "Yes, I guess that was the same thing. I mean, he was bound to follow your orders, right? If he'd been trained to follow people in authority. You know, like a kid is. If you're a guard and you tell a kid to do something, then he does it. You tell him to kneel down and—"
"Wait a minute." Stan didn't like the direction this conversation was taking. "This was totally different. I mean, this guy was taller than me, heavier than me. He could have stopped me if he wanted."
Loren looked puzzled. "But you said he always follows orders. How could he stop you if he always follows orders?"
"Um . . ." It was a question worth considering, he supposed. Some other time. He looked at his watch. Five to midnight; time to go home. Mayhill's bars closed at midnight on weekday nights anyway. "I really need to be—"
"Loren, I'm headed home now. Will I see you and Boy at my place tomorrow?"
The interruption came from a tall man looking down at Loren with a concentrated gaze. He was wearing a plaid flannel shirt and blue jeans, and there weren't any keys or handcuffs at his belt. But Stan somehow had the feeling that, if there had been, they would be on the left side.
Loren smiled at the man briefly before dipping his eyes. "Of course, Master Elia. You know that I'm never late."
The man flicked a glance over at Stan, then quickly returned his gaze to Loren. His hand reached out and he grasped the jaw of Loren, so tightly that Loren winced. The man wrenched Loren's face up.
"Well, don't forget," Master Elia said softly. "Because I don't like to be kept waiting."
"Yes, sir. I won't be late, sir," Loren managed to mumble through the grip.
Master Elia held his gaze a moment longer, then dropped his hand and walked away from the table. Stan let out the breath he hadn't known he was holding. Loren rubbed his jaw, grimacing. "I wish he wouldn't do that," he said in a low voice. "I really hate pain." Then he looked at Stan and his expression brightened. Leaning over the table, he whispered, "Are those real handcuffs?"
He couldn't remember later how he ended up in Loren's apartment.
"Be as noisy as you like," Loren said. "My roommate's staying with his family tonight. And the neighbors are used to hearing strange sounds from this building." He grinned.
The apartment was right above the bar, which was now closed and locked for the night. Stan, feeling distinctly uncomfortable at being alone with a gay man who was still eyeing his handcuffs, turned his gaze toward the dimly lit room he stood in. It was a combined living room and kitchen with a big wooden table dividing the two sections of the room. The table looked as though it had seen lots of wear and tear; it had dozens of scratch marks on it. The rest of the furniture was reassuringly upscale.
Seeking refuge in chit-chat, Stan said, "You were awfully polite to that guy, the one who grabbed you. He didn't deserve such politeness, treating you that way."
"Oh, it's always necessary to be polite to a top," Loren replied. He was pulling place-mats off the table and stacking them in an orderly fashion on a counter nearby. "'Sir,' 'please,' 'thank you,' 'I'm sorry' – you have to say things like that to anyone you do scenes with. That was the first lesson I received from my master."
Stan felt his heart give a sudden thud. "You mean, like a slave-master?"
Loren looked up from the place-mats; his smile was broad. "Yes, I was trained as a slave. Of course, that was many years ago. These days . . . Well, Master Elia could tell you what I do these days."
"I suppose," said Stan, feeling his way carefully, "that handcuffs enter into it."
Loren's smile grew brighter. "Not always. Just on special occasions. Do you mind if I look at yours?"
He fumbled, getting them off his belt. All he could think was: Two blow jobs in one week. That was twice as much as he usually got in a month. Heck, these gays must be as horny as rabbits. Or maybe only the slaves were like that. Eager to obey. He remembered the moment when the collared man had sunk down onto his knees and begun undoing Stan's belt. If the man had been wearing handcuffs too . . .
Loren was frowning now as he stared at the handcuffs Stan held. "These are too small. They'll crush my wrists."
Stan laughed. "Nonsense. They're more likely to slip over your hands. They're made for an average-sized man."
Loren looked skeptical. Stan sighed and opened them. "See, there's plenty of room for—"
"No, wait!" Suddenly Loren was tugging at his clothes, pulling them off. Stan gaped as the purple polyester shirt and orange bell-bottoms and yellow sneakers were dropped onto the table, followed by the underwear. Loren smiled and asked, "Aren't you going to take off your clothes?"
"Um . . ." Stan was tempted to say, "Not now that I've seen what you look like." I mean, there was nothing remotely appealing about the guy, even taking into account that he was a guy rather than a girl. He had pale skin, patchy chest hair, and lord, Master Elia must pick his slaves for something other than cock size. But Loren was looking wistfully at the handcuffs again. Maybe when Loren had those on, he would look better. Stan sighed and put the handcuffs down on the table.
By the time he was undressed – and was beginning to wonder whether he measured up to whatever standards Loren held for his masters – Loren had picked up the handcuffs and was examining them carefully. "I still think they're too small. I told you, I don't like pain."
Stan sighed. "Look, they're the right size, I promise you."
"But they wouldn't fit your wrists!" Loren pulled up Stan's hands and held the open handcuffs under them, frowning.
"Sure, they would," Stan said patiently. "And even if they didn't, it wouldn't matter, because your wrists are smaller, and you'll be the one to—"
The cuffs clicked shut. Stan raised his eyes to Loren's smile and felt coldness enter his belly.
"Oh, shit" was all he had a chance to say, because one hand of Loren's was holding the chain between his manacles and the other had reached past him to grab something from the pocket of the orange pants on the table, and oh Christ, was that what he thought it was? Yes, it was, and now the switchblade was biting his throat.
"Step back," Loren said, still smiling. "Slowly."
He took three tiny steps, the knife following him the whole way, before his backside bumped into the table.
"Climb onto it," Loren ordered, his smile unwavering.
"I can't," Stan whispered. He could feel the table against his ass and the blade against his throat; he had no room in which to move further.
The blade bit harder. "I think you'll find that you can."
He remembered later that the table had ropes just waiting to tie to his manacle-chain and his spread legs. What he couldn't figure out was how he had failed to notice this when he walked into the apartment.
"You can't get away with this," he said. His teeth were gritted, not to show defiance, but to keep them from chattering. "Good lord, man, this is Mayhill, not a big-city alleyway."
Loren, checking that the bonds held Stan's arms taut above his head, merely smiled. "Well, you could scream for the police, of course. The neighbors are used to hearing screams from here, but you could try. And then, when the police arrived, we could explain what you did in the mall storage closet. But that might be a bit awkward. Awkward for you, and for me, and for Boy."
"Boy?" he said, and then he remembered where he'd heard the nickname that evening, and his stomach turned from chilled to arctic cold.
"The slave with the collar." Loren's smile was just as cold as Stan's body. The bar owner was dressed again – not in purple and orange and yellow but in black, and he wore sleek leather gloves. "It's always polite to learn the name of the man you rape." He shifted his hand, and the flat of the switchblade touched Stan's throat, cool against the heat of his sweat. "And it's both polite and wise to learn the name of his master."
Stan struggled to speak. All he could manage was, "Oh, God."
"Yes, if you're guarded by a Higher Power, now is the time to call for succor." Loren moved the blade down Stan's chest, his leather-covered hand catching the chest hair and holding it till the knife tugged and bit through it. Raising his head, Stan saw that the blade was actually shaving him as it went. The tip scraped over a nipple, and he groaned.
"I thought . . ." he gasped. "I thought you didn't like pain."
"Oh, I hate pain," Loren replied. "As long as it's mine. Someone else's pain, on the other hand . . ."
The blade travelled toward the groin, scything as it went. It was headed straight in the direction of a hillock of flesh. "Loren," Stan gasped.
"'Sir,'" Loren replied, his eye on the moving blade. "I told you, the first lesson is to be polite."
"Sir!" The word emerged as a shriek. The blade paused, half an inch from Stan's cock.
Loren smiled. "That wasn't so hard, was it? I think you'll be easy to train. You wanted to know about sadomasochism."
"Bondage," Stan said in a strangled voice; every breath was a gasp now. "I wanted to know about bondage."
"Oh, it's the same set of principles. SSC is the basis of it all." The blade slid forward again, turning on the flesh, pivoting around to the side of the hillock. Loren reached down and took hold of a handful of hair next to the switchblade. Stan's breath whistled in as the groin hairs jerked upwards.
"C is for Consensual," Loren said reflectively, like a schoolmaster deep in thought. "Consent is the foundation, you see. It's a shame you didn't think to ask to speak to the slave's master. Boy being marched into a closet within earshot of a public crowd, being ordered down onto his knees and forced to suck a stranger's cock . . . That sort of scene Boy would have enjoyed playing a great deal. I could have arranged it for you. As rape fantasy, of course; not as real rape."
Suddenly the blade jerked sideways. Stan screamed. Then he realized that the blade had moved in the opposite direction of his cock, shearing off the groin hair that Loren had been holding. Loren, serenely ignoring the scream, began moving the blade toward the space between Stan's legs.
"S is for Safe," the bar owner said. "Did you use a condom, by the way?"
Stan hesitated, considering whether to lie. But no, the slave named Boy would have told the whole story. "I thought about it," he said. "I mean, I usually play it safe with my girlfriends. But I figured I wasn't likely to catch anything just from being sucked—"
Too late, he realized the dangerous wrongness of his reply. Loren gave a smile as bitter as poison. "A pity," he said. "If Boy tests positive after this, I'll be very angry indeed."
And this was what Loren was like when he wasn't angry? Stan felt the blade begin to slide over his balls. More shaving, he supposed, but he couldn't bear to look. He laid his head back and closed his eyes, trying to think through the hammer of his heart and the screams inside him.
"Safety is important," Loren murmured. "You must be . . . very careful . . . of the person to whom you give orders." The blade turned along a curve, barely brushing the skin. Stan began to shake.
"You see, if you're in a position of power," Loren said in a matter-of-fact manner, "then it doesn't matter whether you hold a weapon against someone, does it? There's always the danger that, if you give the wrong order, you'll be obeyed. And if that happens . . . someone could be badly hurt." The blade stopped, turned on its edge, poised itself at the top of Stan's ball sac.
"Don't." Stan could hear the tears in his voice even before he felt the hot moisture on his face. "Oh God, don't."
"'Sir,'" Loren said in his light, high voice. "You're forgetting to be polite."
"Sir, I—" He struggled for words, anything that would delay the inevitable. "You said . . . SSC. What's the other S for?"
The blade moved, sliding around to the other side of his cock. He felt the groin hairs raised; the blade jerked as the hair was cut.
"S is for Sane," Loren said. He waited until Stan had opened his eyes and raised his head to see what came next; then the bar owner gave a smile that outshone all the others he had given. "Well, I won't say much about that. Sanity has never been my top priority." He pushed the blade over until it dug into the side of Stan's cock.
Stan felt a stillness come over him, as though he had been thrust out of time. Loren waited, his gloved fingers hard upon the hilt of the blade. Stan whispered, "Please, sir . . ."
The smile grew yet brighter. "Good heavens. I think you're actually beginning to pay attention to my lesson." The blade drew back, Stan's head fell back, and he had a moment to consider whether to sigh with relief. Then Loren said, "'Please' what?"
Stan closed his eyes. "Please, sir . . . If you just raped me, couldn't we call it even-steven?"
Three footsteps, and then the blade was hard against his throat, cutting through the skin, making him gasp at a moment when throat movement definitely seemed like a bad idea. He opened his eyes to see that Loren was standing at the head of the table, staring down at him with an expression like that of a hungry carnivore.
"You self-centered fuckhead," the slave-master said in a voice softer than a slithering snake. "Thinking about yourself as usual. Do you truly believe that anything you could do for me would make up for what you did to Boy?"
Stan couldn't swallow, couldn't speak, couldn't even breathe. He stared at the master above him, as Boy had stared at Stan from his knees.
"Two words," Loren said tersely. "Two words will save you. I've given you hints enough of what those two words are."
Stan shut his eyes. In the darkness he could see Boy, his head bowed after he had finished his task for Stan. The slave had said nothing; he had simply followed Stan's orders to dress and leave.
"I'm sorry," Stan whispered. "I mean . . . I don't know what the two words are that you want, but I'm sorry for what I did—"
He stopped abruptly, his mind catching up with his mouth. He felt the blade withdraw. Above him, Loren said, "Politeness will take you far in life, I've found. Now, do I have to rape you to ensure that this doesn't happen again? To anyone else you might be tempted to abuse with your power?"
"God, no!" He could hear the horror in his voice. "I deserve to lose my job. I deserve far worse than that. To do that to anyone else— I'm an idiot, but I'm not that big an idiot."
Loren's fingers slid across his hands, on their way to the cuffs. "Good," said the slave-master. "Because, unlike you, I don't let my fantasies spill over into real life."
The cuffs snapped free.
He would remember till the end of his life his escorted walk to the main door of the bar.
"Here," said Loren as he opened the door. He handed Stan a business card.
Stan stared at the name and phone number on it, then up at Loren.
"I won't invite you here again," Loren said, leaning against the doorpost. "I don't think Boy would care to see you. But if you call that number, the lady in question can arrange for you to attend her meetings for straights and bisexuals. She'll give you any instructions you need on how to do bondage." Suddenly the smile returned, grim as a reaper. "Just be sure to be polite to her. She plays with knives too."
Stan swallowed hard. "Thank you, sir."
Loren's smile bit deeper. "'Sir,' 'please,' 'thank you,' 'I'm sorry.' See, you've managed them all in the space of an hour. I knew that you were a quick learner." With one hand he shoved Stan through the doorway, and with the other he slammed the door shut.
Stan stood motionless for a while on the empty, night-dark sidewalk. He reviewed in his mind what had just happened, then thought of what had caused it all. He passed his hand over his face, but the images wouldn't disappear. They would never disappear, he realized. Not for him, nor for the slave and master who had suffered from what he had done.
A passing van slowed, then came to stop. The door on the passenger's side flew open. "Need a ride?" asked the driver.
Stan took hold of the van door, just in time to keep from falling to his knees. "Boy?" he whispered.
"Yeah." The turtlenecked driver stared directly out the windscreen rather than at Stan. "Master Elia called me and told me I'd better head back here because my master was holding a conversation with a man with a bull tattoo like I'd described. He said that my master was up to his old trick of pretending to be what he isn't. Master Elia figured it could only be because he'd tracked you down, lured you here, and was trapping you. So I came back to make sure my master wouldn't tear you to pieces." He looked at Stan sidelong, not turning his head. "Are you okay?"
Stan let out his breath slowly. The only thing worse than discovering you've committed rape, he thought, is having to apologize to the victim afterwards. And Stan could walk away from this. He could walk away from the van, and Boy wouldn't follow after him. Stan knew that much about the slave.
"I'm okay," he replied. "He didn't hurt me. He gave me a much-needed lesson in politeness. If you'll give me a ride home, I'll demonstrate what I learned."
He climbed into the van.