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Venus Infers

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March 15:

 

I was tired. I was weary. I could have slept for a thousand years. I was at the end of my rope, and doubtless in someone’s sights with every move. My last desperate gambit had gone tits-up, and soon, so would I. I should never have allowed myself into such a position, but the dominoes had run down end-to-end in their inexorable chain reaction. There was nothing that could save me, when the credit was called in--and only some of it was my own fault; I had held up my end of the bargain. But when the Swiss attaché went down that Swiss waterfall, my Swiss bank account went with her.

I had once commanded top kroner and top euro and top yen for my services, but the value of my life was declining rapidly, although the quality of my work was not - yet. It would soon. Honestly, my heart wasn’t in it anymore. But now, with my financial troubles were at crisis level. - My attempts to call in some favors at the gambling dens had only dug me in deeper. I now no longer had any real hope of buying silence, or another identity. So, looking at the ruins of my last desperate gambit, I realized I had no choice but to return to London, the scene of my disaster. For there was my truly last last desperate gambit; one who also commanded top currency for her services. One who was almost an economy unto herself, if the tales I’d heard were to be believed.

To the world, she was The Woman, but to me, she was an old classmate from the school of hard knocks and covert ops, and she ought to remember how I curried her favor from a distance, back in the day when I was wet behind the ears and still only had a single digit number of kills to my name.

Her knockout receptionist (if that’s the word) - Kate? - remembered me at least, stepping aside with a nod as I pushed my way in. I was looking around me a little frantically as though I were being hunted, which I was; I just didn’t know how closely. I could see the lights and register the full-body scanners, and Kate’s eyes were just as keen. She didn’t even pat me down, which was a little disappointing.

And then there she was, Irene Adler, standing there in her burgundy silk smoking jacket. The night’s breeze from a low-cracked window ruffled her wavy black hair, which was taking a rest and relaxation session from the elaborate braids I’d seen in her beautiful promo pictures. “A-” she started to say. I shook my head. “G-?” I shook my head more emphatically, eyes darting about me as though Irene had no security of her own. Even if she had enemies as dangerous as mine, which was possible, she almost certainly didn’t have debts of that kind. Her credit was probably as flawless as her creamy thighs. “R-?” she began again in exasperation. “Or have you cycled back to A-?”

Oh, that name from our youth. No. “Mary,” I said quickly. “Mary Morstan, and you said you remembered me, and you obviously really do, so will you listen to me? Please? Just two minutes?”

“Of course,” she said. “Come with me.” She turned her flawless back and let me admire the view, two perfect ice-cream scoop shapes moving beneath the black cherry color of her silk. Her rooms were much as I’d imagined them, and yet more so - the elegant mahogany curves of her bed - with posts of course, though I couldn’t see anything so crude as eyehooks mounted in them to mar the finish. The wallpaper was designed to set off the parquet floors and bedding and couches made of fabrics so luxurious I didn’t even know the words for them. She glided to the sideboard and reached for the heavy decanter full of amber spirit. “Won’t you have a drink?”

“I won’t, not now,” I said, although my mouth watered and my flagging courage cried out for the booster. I would need all my wits about me. “And you might not want to drink with me when you hear what I’m asking.”

She raised an exquisitely sculpted eyebrow. “And you know this how?” she said, clearly a bit put out that I had insulted her hospitality somehow. “I’m certain you haven’t had a chance to poison it.”

Maybe she has tasters, I thought. She can probably afford it.

It was a ridiculous idea. A ridiculous, terrible, humiliating, degrading idea, for me to barge into The Woman’s luxurious parlor and beg for - not her attention, not a chance to kiss her feet or feel her whip (although I wouldn’t have turned that chance down) - but to be bailed out of my debts like a spoiled student who’d blown her whole stipend on coke.

Any hope of getting out of my line of work and way of life was long since dashed now, except by only one method. Watching her poker face as I abased myself, I steeled myself to that route. I’ve never believed in gods or in Fate, but it’s impossible to survive in my line of work for very long without developing some strain of superstition whether you want to or not, and I was now convinced that Irene’s inexcusable security lapse in allowing me to keep my SIG P239 had happened for a reason.

So I put an exclamation point on my tale of woe and self-loathing: the click and cock of the deadly handgun, and the kiss of its muzzle against my own temple. I had always assumed there was a bullet in the world with my name on it - any of my names - but only in that moment did I decide that it must be one that I’d carried myself. To this day I’m not sure why I didn’t carry it out, for I could have chosen no better witness to my death than the glorious, glamorous Irene Adler. She must be the reason, of course - her expression that showed no fear or pity or contempt, but a rapturous admiration that took me utterly by surprise.

“Oh, Mary,” she said, glowing.

“Do you want me to do it?”

“Why on earth would you think that?” she said. “Now I know what a terrible waste that would be.”

She moved like a sleek jungle cat - trite as that is, it was accurate - and had the gun out of my hand and in hers before my tongue could move. “Such spirit,” she said, popping the magazine out with smooth precision. “Of course I’ll help you.”

I should have been afraid to be disarmed so easily. Very few of my profession have ever managed to leave it, and survive the leaving of it for very long; the usual exit route funnels into an unmarked grave. Telling someone, asking for help - always was the most dangerous time for anyone attempting it. That was the moment when I should give up my weapons no more easily than I would my hands.

But I also knew that my life meant very little even to me; outside this room it would have an even deeper negative balance than my finances. So what was it to me if that thing of little worth was now in Irene’s delicate, lovely hands?

“Then--” I said as I stared at her hands - their smooth even skin, the play of her tendons over her fine, straight bones (the only parts of her that could be called straight, or so I’d heard. It wouldn’t be good for me to dwell on that, to hope for anything more than a chance of further survival tonight.) “You have - if I may ask - I’m not sure of the currency specs for the demands on my life. Is there a banker you can trust at this hour?”

“Oh, it’s not a matter of my bank,” Irene said. “As you can see, I live quite well, and my public profession is lucrative. But most of my . . . assets . . . that are liquid are not entrusted to a bank.”

“Cash under the mattress?” I asked.

She laughed, her beautiful shoulders relaxing and flexing. The crimson silk of her jacket parted and showed me her sternum on the inhales. Lead would sail right through those bones; she was so birdlike. It made me want to warn her of how fragile she looked, ideally in between licks. “I have drawn some income on a mattress of course,” she said. “But I really live by my wits. Have you really not looked around you? Have you really not observed?”

Stung, I gazed around me again. There was something that she wanted me to see.. The walls of her inner parlour were dressed in dazzling antique wallpaper and with paintings that were just on the edge of tasteful, with their erotic suggestion; clearly high-value. But now, looking more closely at her command, I could see some of the tells that hinted at hidden spaces beneath. Password pads and booby-traps galore, of course. Irene’s fail-safes for her treasures wouldn’t be self-destructive - they’d be other-destructive. I could almost feel or see or smell the guns and the poisons the traps must contain, and my curiosity was starting to get the better of me.

What would a woman like Irene keep in such virtually invisible safes? At least one of them would hold a phone or laptop or jump drive filled with wildly incriminating information, of course. But why would she need so many? And this was only her outer inner sanctum. Her private bedroom must be absolutely riddled with secret stash-spots.

“I live by my wits,” she’d said. “My public profession,” she’d said. What must Irene Adler, The Woman really do in private, when the public profession she was willing to admit to upfront was that of a dominatrix? Espionage? Sure, there was probably a good deal of, shall we say, internationally sensitive material in the weapon-rigged Venus Flytraps in her walls, but I doubted it was her main line. It often pays much more poorly than you’d think considering the risks involved. It’s not reliable work.

I looked at Irene’s hands again, thinking of the way she had taken apart my gun: as expertly as she could dismantle what was left of my soul if she wished it. I looked at little points of wear, calluses, one infinitesimal chip in her perfect manicure. I looked at the way she was so steady, so good with fine detail work. I thought of her skill in moving silently, and how well her slim form would fit into all-over black catsuits, how lightly her small feet could wear climbing boots. I thought of one picture from her website, of a woman’s neck and shoulders from the back, slender sinewed arm wielding a flogger. The emphasis was on the whip (tails of deerskin?), not the woman, but there was one cool greenish glint of truly high-end stones over her clavicle.

Irene watched my face as my mind worked.

If I’d been in a better position I’d have asked her to give me time to think, to confirm my suspicions. However, I was a supplicant. She had the upper hand and she was going to keep it.

“I see that you think you’ve observed something,” Irene said with a smile. “You’re probably right. I hope you’re right. I like my accomplices loyal but not stupid.”

“So those are your terms,” I said, my mouth going dry. “That’s your price for helping me?”

“Oh no,” Irene said. “I’m not charging a price, merely thinking in pragmatic terms. You require a large sum, and it makes sense for me to use the opportunity to have some assistance to pull off a rather delicate job. It will be worth both our whiles.”

“So I’m right. You are a--” jewel thief, I thought but couldn’t yet bring myself to say, though I knew I was right.

“Oh don’t be judgmental about it, dear,” Irene said. “Think of the stealth and subtle artistry involved! The acting I must undertake to present myself as an innocent - and how skillfully I can make people want to believe that. How I insinuate myself! My two careers are not so different from each other.”

“I’d rather - I’d really rather not get involved,” I said, though even as the words came out of my mouth they felt flat and false.

“Oh come now. It can’t be because of your scruples,” said she, and then I knew that as gratefully as I responded to her friendship, it was her contempt that stirred my blood. I wanted her in both her capacities, and any others that she might demonstrate.

“It isn’t that, it’s just that . . . “

“Or else what stops you from taking on another assignment? Surely all your contacts can’t have dried up. There is always a market for your skills, isn’t there? Though maybe not always in glamorous locations. Maybe you don’t get to be choosy about your targets.”

She was right, practically speaking. I ought to take on at least one more assignment, a lucrative one, and insist on keeping control of cold hard cash, so I could at least have a hope of retiring in a position of strength. But there is never just one assignment, and those who broker such deals have ways of keeping their agents in the fold. They aren’t nice people. It’s the wrong kind of life to go looking for nice people in.

Irene was certainly not nice. I would never want her to be, not when she was so very good at being cruel that she made a more than adequate living at it. Her friendliness, her welcome, her ready willingness to help me, to accept my guilt and implicate me in her own - that was woven with a finer, sharper strain of razor wire. She would help me pay my debts, and then I would be in hers, and she would demand her payment in every form but money.

This thrilled me to the core. One more smile, one tap of those manicured fingers upon the mahogany sideboard, and I was hers.

“I know you’re hoping to get out of the rat race you’re in,” Irene said, and she was nearly conciliatory. “Consider this - of course I don’t propose to liberate you from a life of crime, my dear. But mine is a different sort - refined, subtle; it is an art, and a game with shiny prizes. And I won’t want you to kill. That would mean we’ve failed, and I hate to fail more than anything else. I work my trade quietly, I get out clean, and I can’t stand to make a mess. Of course you’re weary of wetwork, dreadful business, terrible weight on the soul for relatively little reward. I can help you line your pockets by far more elegant misbehaviour.”

Her words were eloquent, her beauty riveting, and the joyous shine of her eyes as she described her passion for her work inflamed me. The idea of covert acquisitions stirred me less than the fact of taking on the night and skulking in the shadows by her side. I did have skills, lots of them, and this seemed a much better type of service for them. I spoke quickly, before I could stop myself. “For that sort of crime, Irene, count me in, I’m your girl!”

“Yes,” she said, eyes raking me up and down. Under that gaze, my own at last lowered. “Yes, I believe you are.”

I needed her to understand that I had spoken quickly, but I had not spoken lightly.

She came close to me for just a moment, and lifted my chin. Her scent was expensive - I recognized notes of amber and bergamot and ylang-ylang, I thought, and others designed to be more lunar and elusive.

She smiled at me, and then she turned on her heel, walking with sinuous certainty to a small hallway that led to a large wardrobe - confident in the knowledge that I could no longer choose not to follow.

The inlaid double doors of her immense and elegant wardrobe had a lock - and Irene did not have a key! Or at least she didn’t use one - she drew from her dressing-gown pocket a small box about the size of an old-fashioned cigarette case. She did me the honor of letting me focus entirely on her hands as she undid the lock by a complicated series of actions with tiny tools. I was as rapt as if I studied the hands of a master pianist in a concert hall. She already knew I was developing a passion for watching her work.

“I destroy all the keys for my locks,” she said with a wry quarter-smile. “Keeps even my ‘trusted’ help out, and it keeps me in tip-top form.”

As the doors parted, I gasped - for what had appeared to be an ordinary if large antique wardrobe was vast within; it was the gateway to a secret room that stretched through the wall behind it. I would not have been totally shocked to see a wintry forest landscape with a lamp-post at the end of it.

But what was really there - that was fantasyland enough for me. There was all the gear I expected - the practical form-fitting clothes all in black, balaclava and gloves, mountaineering boots for climbing walls, and soft shoes whose main virtue was silence, all of that - I had those myself and was very familiar with their use. There were uniforms too - some meant to intimidate, some to inspire trust, and some meant to render one invisible. She had a massive collection of makeup and wigs and latex and prosthetics - so many things designed to disguise and alter the self.

“A disguise is always a self-portrait,” she said, her soft voice droll and nearly in my ear. “I have not yet found a way to avoid that completely.”

Sure enough, all these items in her secret closet were but aspects of Irene in her complexity. As I pressed further on, the nature of her collection changed, and my hands reached out in longing to touch. These were the costumes of her other profession - silk and satin, brightly shining PVC, dull matte rubber, and seductively gleaming leather, rich in scent. I could restrain myself no longer - my hand did reach out to touch soft fluttering feathers and thick, dark furs. Images flooded my mind of Irene draped in such feral finery - a sadistic torturer, a predatory forest creature, a barbarian queen.

Her smile was knifelike in the golden light, reflected in an infinite series of mirrors. She saw everything in my reactions, the nature of my tentative touches.

“Oh Mary,” she said. “We are going to have such fun, aren’t we?”

On the polished dark wooden floor, beneath the hems of her suits and coats and gowns, I could see the gleam of an array of shoes to match, if not exceed the rich variety of the other garments.

Both of Irene’s lines of work must be lucrative indeed.

And if I was to be her accomplice in one, might I not also have a role in the other? It seemed almost too much to wish for. But I have never been one to settle for the first and lowest offer. I had to remind myself, I too commanded princely fees for my work, in my heyday. It was not for lack of success that I wanted to lay down my weapons - at Irene Adler’s feet.

Oh, that was a dangerous line of thought. Her rows of shoes and boots gleamed in the corners of my eyes. I wanted so badly to examine them closely, to touch them, to imagine her pristine feet animating them. To see them properly, I would have to kneel.

My legs were already starting to begin that process before my mind kicked in and stopped them, just for a moment.

“It’s all right,” she said, amusement shining in her eyes. “You can touch them if you’d like.”

I would like, very much. I couldn’t hold her gaze as my legs slowly folded. I was acutely aware of the smooth wood beneath my hands as I lowered myself down and gazed at the rows of footwear.

Anyone who works for a living cannot help but make calculations when they come close to such luxuries. There were shoes here that more than matched the monetary worth of high-velocity perforations of politically high-value skulls - sometimes per shoe, not even per pair.

But expense is not the ultimate measure. Beauty alone isn’t either. Irene’s shoes and boots were lovely to look at, and delightful to touch - but what made my hand tremble with desire was the effect they had on my imagination. I could not help but glance at Irene’s slender, smooth, fair bare feet, with the high arches and the artfully cared-for nails painted the exact reddish-black of a deep pool of fresh blood. I thought about each pair of shoes filled with those feet, given shape by them, supporting and adorning and caressing them. I thought of Irene’s ankles flexing and her calf muscles sliding as she pointed her toes.

She watched me so closely. I couldn’t guard myself from those sharp grey-blue eyes, glittering like jewels. Soon, she would show me her literal jewels too - her ill-gotten gains, the trophies of her secret art. I looked forward to seeing them, but I was in no hurry. I scrabbled on the floor of her wardrobe among her shoes, touching them gingerly in lieu of what my hands really wanted to caress.

And I froze. I was pinned there. There was a weight on my back, between my shoulderblades. A steady, measured weight - not too much to bear, not yet. I felt its shape and its form and divined its meaning, and I moaned suddenly, unable to hold back the sound. My thigh muscles trembled as I was pushed just a little further down, and between my thighs I felt the first prickles of a sweeter, wetter burn.

She had deemed me worthy of stepping on. She held me down with care but firmness.

I gazed at the wooden floor, trembling, my chest pressed down almost all the way to it. If she held me here for long, the position would grow awkward very quickly. I imagined I could feel the graceful shape of the sole of her foot along my back. I even dared to turn my head, just a little, so I could see the fair lines of its mate, white upon the reddish-blond hardwood, tiny nails polished blood-red-black.

No dustbunnies along the baseboards. I saw military-style gear lockers underneath Irene’s sumptuous bed, and I didn’t dare to let my imagination take much time to consider the treasures and torments she might keep there. I saw the barely-visible wires of a highly sophisticated security system, and a discarded wine-cork that had rolled and come to rest at the curved feet of a little antique table - so incongruous in the spotless room that I was certain it concealed some variety of nanocamera.

With a high little hum, she pressed her weight down on me sharply so my cheek came to rest on the floor and my eyes could wander no more.

“Oh Mary,” Irene said. “Look how greedy your eyes are. You have to see at all times, don’t you? I wish we had more time! There is a window of opportunity that will open at 0200 that we just can’t afford to miss, since you need your money so soon. I’ll need you bright-eyed and sharp for the job, not so badly distracted by thoughts of my floor and my feet. What should we do about that?”

I thought as clearly and quickly as I could with a beautiful woman stepping on my back and her beautiful shoes right in front of the only eye I could see from. “If . . . I could just have a small indulgence, it would help to take the edge off. You could consider it an advance that I’d repay. If you had any reason to trust me. You know I do good work once committed.”

Irene laughed, warm and dark, and the slight movements of her foot upon my spine filled me with a rush of heat. “I offer you a yard and you ask for a mile. Well, fair enough, since we haven’t accomplished anything yet. I must dress for this job, after all, I hardly scrabble through reinforced vaults in my lingerie.”

That was a delicious mental image, I had to say, for I had barely begun to explore the erotic fantasy material of Irene’s wardrobe. I wanted to ask her what she was going to wear - I wanted to ask her what I was going to wear, for I was hardly dressed for the sort of job I was used to. But if she spoke true - well, I would have to trust to her knowledge of her art and forego the Kevlar.

She made no move to release me, and she barely trembled although my back was not supporting half her weight.

I wanted it to. I wanted her to walk on me. I wanted to feel the dull points of her more extreme fetish boots digging into my back. I wanted to feel that thrill of danger, trusting her burglar’s balance and dancer’s grace to keep her heels out of vital organs.

“We have time if you work quickly,” Irene said suddenly and harshly, apropos of nothing that was obvious to me. “Your desperation will make you distracted. What is it you crave . . . oh, don’t answer that, I’m not really asking you. I am asking myself, for it’s a point of pride for me to know what you like. Oh. I believe I see just the thing. It is not what you were staring at directly. It is what you saw, glanced away, and then keep coming back to.”

I closed my eyes and let the floor cool my cheek. Such my life would be from now on, for as long as the bounty on my head remained paid. Irene would hold the bounty on the rest of me.

“Stay,” she said, in precisely the same tone as that dominant woman with the dog-training show. “Close your eyes.”

I heard rustlings and soft susurrations of cloth as her foot was lifted from my back. I heard the tiny silver jingle of buckles, and the distinctive creak of leather, releasing its heady dry scent. I heard the lascivious hum of a zipper. And I heard a light click-clack, and felt the wood around me pressed down. These were not the boots Irene would wear for the sort of job in which I would aid her, they were loud and impractical. These were for her other line.

I kept my position, and dipped down even further until my shoulders nearly touched the floor - I spread out my hands for Irene to crush with her feet if she wished.

I felt the landing of a high heel between my right thumb and index finger. I heard the squeak of sole on wood as she pivoted. I heard the scrape of a chair, and felt the adjustment of the floor as Irene’s weight shifted when she sat. She was setting a stage for me, and she would only bid me look when the tableau was as she wanted it.

I was honoured, and I was desperately turned on, and my back and shoulders were starting to try to kill me, in exactly the same long drawn-out low-key way that none of my actual enemies were likely to kill me.

“Lower now. To the ground. Rest,” Irene commanded softly. Her actual voice speaking was barely audible above her imaginary commands in my head. “Let your back stretch and relax.”

I could have wept for her kindness, and then I could have slapped myself for how little it now took.

“And then keep everything even. No higher.” She tapped my head warningly. “I want a position you can keep for a while. Don’t hurt yourself. Only I can do that.” When I had myself in a less painful state, she finally said the words I’d been waiting for. “You can open your eyes now, Mary.”

The sound of my name was like an alarm waking me from a stupor. When I opened my eyes, the first thing I saw was what I wanted to see - her small feet, hidden from sight now in form-fitting leather boots, one foot raised above the other because her legs were crossed. The higher, closer toe, bounced slowly, imperiously. I wanted to look up higher, up the long enticing mileage of Irene’s legs - but I restrained myself, desperate for her approval.

She would approve of self-restraint. I kept my field of vision low - I could tell that the boots were high, certain to reach at least to her knees if not past. For now, it was the graceful shape of her slender feet encased in leather that entranced me - the pointed toes, the turned, curved arches, the exaggeration caused by the high, high heels. Such skyscraper heels, from my mouse-eye view.

The boots’ shine wasn’t the bright reflectiveness of patent leather, it was the deeper, rich shine of simple, well-polished, well-conditioned black hide. I wasn’t even certain it was cowhide, I’d not have been shocked to learn that it was something more exotic, something wilder - deer or moose or bison, maybe. Irene would not need to resort to expensive exceptionalism, though. Whatever creature had died for the sheathing of her feet, it could consider itself honoured. I longed to touch, and my empty, submissive gun hand drifted forward a little on the wood, signalling how desperately I wanted her permission.

One boot moved. One heel rested on the back of my hand. So perfect was Irene’s balance that I felt no more weight there than she wished me to, and she did not shake in the least. “Do you know what I want you to do, Mary?” she asked, and her voice was as steady as her stance.

It was a complicated question, with so many answers. Nothing at all, that was one possibility. To serve you, that was something I could say. All of these raced through my mind: Kill for you. Die for you. Suffer public humiliation for you the first time an alarm system or surveillance camera outwits us and you vanish like a night-hunter into the shadows and leave me exposed, holding twice my life’s worth in attempted grand larceny.

She pressed down a little harder, impatient and imperious. Fair enough - no matter what the correct answer is, in almost any situation I can always count on dithering and hesitation to be wrong.

I hazarded an educated guess. “I think maybe . . . you want me to ask for what I want.”

She clapped her hands together like a young teacher who’d just heard the right answer from her prize pupil. “Oh, very good, Mary. Very good. I get so weary of submissives expecting me to read their minds all the time. Even though I usually can, I find it tedious. So go on then. Don’t move, but ask.”

“I . . . would like to touch your feet, if I may. Your boots, please. May I touch them?”

“Good girl. Of course you may. We’re only just getting to know each other so I will be generous. One hand only, at first.”

She lifted her foot from my hand, and I heard the bringing round of her chair so she could enjoy my attentions at leisure. I heard a hissing snap in the air around me, and knew she had armed herself with a weapon of pleasurable torment, almost certainly also leather. Not a cat or a flogger, the swoosh was too sharp and tight. Something stiff and stinging, in the family of riding crops.

“Touch me now,” she said. “Slowly.”

Carefully I slid my hand along the polished floor - the hand with most of the blood on it, metaphorically speaking. I put forward my trigger finger at the place where her sole met the wood, and I ran it around the foot-shaped curve. When I reached the place at the ball of her foot where the sole began to curve upward away from the floor, I used more of my hand, caressing the sole of her through it. The underside of her boot was a different tone from the rich black upper - a redder, oxblood shade. I allowed my palm to stretch upward, causing the backs of my knuckles to brush the forward part of the heel, allowed my fingers to curl around her instep in the smooth dark second skin.

She sighed and shifted, and I took this as approval, for what choice did I have? My back was exposed to her whip if I got it wrong.

Balancing on my elbow, I moved my other hand forward to give me leverage. I hadn’t forgotten the weight of her step on my back. I dared to move my torso towards her a few inches - I dared to spread my legs a little and cant my hips towards the floor, angling for a little point of contact there. The closer my nose got to the scent of leather, the closer my vulnerable face got to her sharp toes, the more I had to admit that I was turned on. Admit to myself? No, admit to her. Who of course must already know.

I dared to move my gun hand up the stern curve of her instep. My heart pounding, I took a loose grip around her arched, slender ankle. The texture of the leather on my palm, my inner fingers, was intoxicating.

The other foot, crossed above it, bent down just a bit, and I thought I could read it bidding me closer. Closer I crept, and I felt her sharp toe lightly tap on my head, and come to rest there. There was no weight, no pressure - not yet - only presence.

I took this as a sign that I hadn’t transgressed yet - this was both a great relief and a hint that I needed to sharpen my game. But I had no game now, prone on the floor at Irene’s feet - I had only desire, and my need to control it and shape it so I could savour these sensations as long as she would allow me. The butter-soft leather of her shiny boots shifted in my grasp - I could feel her graceful ankle bending and turning in my hand, and I let out just one shaky moan as I dared to clutch a little tighter, raise my hand a little higher to the beginning of the swell of her strong, slender calf.

The boot on my head moved gently. I imagined her pointed toe stroking my hair. In my peripheral vision I could see the looped tongue of her riding crop rising and falling as she waved her hand idly.

I was beginning to lose my eye discipline - it was trained for long sniper stakeouts, not for awaiting the pleasure of a mistress. I was beginning to suspect she wouldn’t be entirely displeased if I displeased her - that whip seemed to crave an opportunity.

The flexing warmth of her shapely ankle in my hand excited me so much I decided to risk a tiny roll of my hips against the floor. The wood was not kind to my pelvic bone, of course, but just a tiny hint of pressure close to where I wanted it was enough to make me draw breath and clench my hand for an instant. The feel of her muscle and bone beneath the layers of leather enticed me. I so badly wished there was music playing - something she liked, that would entice her to tap her toes so I could feel the flex and slide of her tiniest rhythmic movement. I contented myself with letting my fingers slide up her calf daringly higher, and threatening to look higher still, to see what glories might await in the realm of knees and thighs. I longed to draw her gorgeous legs all over me, rest her sharp and shiny foot in the crook of my neck and shoulder exactly where a rifle butt shouldn’t be.

The crop-tip made a noise in the air like the swatting of a fly. But it didn’t touch me. Yet.

Every inch of skin I possessed seemed to shiver, waiting to see where the sharp strike would fall. Every inch seemed to want to be the one to feel the sting first.

The cruel goddess withheld that reward. As I expected, I suppose. She made a soft sound in her chest, beneath her breath, and she swished the crop through the air again. Of course Irene wanted to strike me, and of course she knew how badly I wanted her to, so what had she to gain by indulging too soon?

So I figured it must fall to me to do something to provoke her. Obeying was my function - and so was disobeying, if it would help both of us get what we wanted faster.

I let my eyes wander upward. I let her see my head move slightly with that gaze. I waited for the light press of her foot on my head to flex and press and change with my cheating. Wantonly, I looked all the way up to the end of her long shiny boot, and gasped hard when I saw what was at the top of the sheath, curling around and below the bend of her knee - rich, soft fur, black and silver-tipped.

Fox? Wolf? Something wild and cunning, and now brought low to adorn a human goddess. Now I had a goal to aspire to - onward and upward. By her leave, I crawled forward and rested on my elbows while I devoted both hands to her foot. Her whip-end licked softly through my hair. I inched a few centimeters further as I’d trained on field missions - but no grass or brush shielded me from her pitiless gaze.

The scent of leather was going to my head, and I was feeling alienated now, so far away from my mistress’s gaze. Now I needed to get closer, I needed to find a way to incite her to strike me, I needed to find an excuse to take off my clothes. I needed so many things - I was an abject bottomless pit of it. Best to keep focus on what was right in front of me. I needed to gain another inch of leather and leg. I needed to gain the use of both hands upon her, I needed to feel leather and fur against my skin in any place where I could get it.

Greedy, I surged forward like a hunting monitor lizard and rubbed my cheek against her leather-coated calf, sighing shamelessly as I lightly humped the floor. What a pathetic picture I must present, and I only worried I was not pathetic enough.

I felt her draw in breath from far up above me - and I heard the crop slice the air with a snapping sigh seconds before it struck my shoulder. I cried out, and for a moment my breath steamed her boot and then faded.

“How transparent you are, Mary,” Irene said sternly. “Do you think I can’t deduce exactly what you really want? I hesitate to grant what you want too soon, I think it sets a bad precedent. However, we have another objective this evening, and time runs short, there’s only so long when I can pick the lock on that window of opportunity, so we’ll have to speed this up. Lucky for you.”

With that, she thrust her foot forward with a sudden jerk, nearly forcing the pointed toe up my nose. My hand caught it - instinct kicked in and I couldn’t have done otherwise - and grasped gratefully, nuzzling the graceful slope with eyes closed to lose myself in the smooth slide.

She pressed her toe against my throat.

I caressed it and leaned into it.

She turned up my chin. My grip on her foot was light enough for her to move freely, and her sole rubbed my cheek. I stroked against it like a cat, and let my hands move upward again. I was halfway up her calf, my goal of the gleaming silver fur well in sight, when her whip came down on my back. I yelped, more from surprise than pain.

“What have I done wrong?” I asked.

“Nothing at all,” she said. “I did that because I wanted to.”

“Yes, of course,” I said. “As you wish.”

“That’s an excellent attitude,” she said. I still was not yet daring to look at her face, but I thought I could hear a smile in her voice, calculating and yet warming to me, amused by me, pleased with my service. I curled my hands around the slender but powerful column of her lower leg, and sighed as she pushed her foot against me, seducing me to come closer until she could press her toe between my thighs. It was almost firm enough, all too still - yet enough to make me moan, a ragged, low sound that came as a shock to me. I felt her shift and squirm, and I could almost feel her back lean away from her throne, towards me. Part of her performance, or was she too letting her reflexes loose, just a little?

I pushed my hips back against her foot, and she held her leg stock-still, and her whip tapped with rhythmic menace along my spine.

With a deep breath that may have concealed a hint of a whimper within it, I rose up on my knees and buried my hands and nose in fur.

Both her feet were planted on the floor now, and swiftly she grasped my hair and pressed my face into the fur, letting my nose move up and down the seam between her knees. The scent was intoxicating, and the feel of that heathen finery was indescribable. I closed my eyes and imagined her regaled such from head to toe - a conquering queen who owned me utterly.

One of her boots kicked out and pressed between my thighs again - this time rough and forceful, her foot moving as if she worked a pedal, and I realized at last how wet and pulsing I was there, called back down out of my raptures of the senses of my face and hands and all the way into the rest of my body, where my clit was stiff and throbbing. She knew. If I could smell my own desire, surely her keen nose perceived it long before, knowing my responses even before I did.

Her riding crop came down hard on my arse now, one sharp shock and then two, and then two more, and my eyes watered. She grabbed my hair and pulled my head up, and showed me her face - cruel and triumphant and devious, as I expected. But there was far more to her expression - I dared to imagine a little humour and warmth there, passing over her fine features like a silver cloud before the stern moon. There was mirth in her red lips and sharp white teeth. “Yes, Mary,” she said. “Yes, you’ll do, you’ll do very well.”

I took in the rest of her costume beneath the smoking jacket: her black camisole and butterfly-scalloped knickers, little silken short pants that set off the curves of her hips and the inviting lines of her thighs.

I was close enough to touch, to smell her - she was not entirely unaffected, and I saw a little gleam of sweat on the white v between her small breasts. I reached my hand to the seat of the chair by her hip to steady myself, for I was swaying and close to falling against her, and I didn’t yet dare to take such liberty. She ran her pink tongue over her red lips, and tapped me on the cheek with her crop. “Close your eyes,” she commanded.

I obeyed, and I felt her press her boot back between my thighs, right where I wanted it desperately. With a cant of my hips, the straight hard rise of her leather-cased foot and shin cradled me perfectly.

I gave a little cry, just a little sound - I needed her to hear me. She looked down at me, and she gave me a beneficent gesture as she began to rock her boot against me, in a slow, sing-song, rocking-horse rhythm.

I needed more help. My hand barely hanging on the edge of her throne was not enough to support me; I would fall forward and embarrass myself. She pushed her hips forward. To give my hands more room upon her chair. Bless her.

This also let her use more force with her legs, and soon that rocking-horse rhythm was a gallop.

“Mary,” she crooned, as I saw a fine little sweat trail in her foundation makeup, raining slowly down from her hairline. “Mary, ride harder.”

I did.

“Mary, do you like the fur? Grasp it.”

I did, and she spread her legs so my hands were braced on the leg bands. Lush hairs of a vanquished predator cradled my hands - if I lowered my head I could smell animal musk, leather polish, the trace of the loam of a boreal evergreen forest, intermingled with the scent of Irene, her luxurious perfume and her own arousal, maybe mirroring mine. Was she waxed or did she keep her own fur there? I wanted to know - but what would I have to do to earn that honor? What heroic tasks would she set me to?

The thought of earning her most intimate favours sent a shivering thrill through me. It matched the thrill that rose from her pressing against me, from her closeness to me - oh, I could almost kiss her, and what would she do to me if I dared?

I pressed my face between her knees, fur and leather surrounding me, and I dared to let my hand slip for just a taste of smooth skin - hers, supple and warm. Her hand tightened in my hair and pressed my face into the silver animal textures, and forced my body to bend wickedly to get the friction I needed as she made me hump her leg like a beast. If I had fur, in that moment I would gladly die so my pelt could adorn her.

I was panting so hard I nearly steamed her leather - it had been a long time since I had come so close to coming, from so little. I’m quick with my own hand and quiet when I’m alone, but I nearly felt that I was cheating Irene somehow to grab ecstasy so quickly.

But we had a time limit for our game, I remembered - Irene wore a watch of extravagant value that announced its extreme expensiveness by its simplicity and perfect balance on her graceful wrist. Its presence asserted itself, and she glanced at it imperiously.

That added to the humiliation of my servitude, surely - not only was I reduced to such abject helplessness, but my mistress was watching the clock. Would she even get off at all? Would I ever be able to experience her throes of ecstasy? Was that a privilege I would have to earn with my service?

Clearly she expected the embarrassment of my own orgasm, witnessed but not shared. “Come, Mary, come,” she ordered as her leg rocked against me and her whip tapped out a Morse code command on my upper back.

With the fur on my cheeks and my eyes trained upon her sneering face just before I closed them and let tears flow, pleasure wracked me as I clutched my thighs together around her ankle, shaking nearly to pieces and moaning into the seam between her knees. My hands grasped at her compulsively, and I felt her graceful hand, the one with the watch, clenched around one of mine, with just a slight rake of her nails, and the aching waves tightened around me until I nearly swooned, hoping to land between her thighs. She petted my hair as I moaned and gasped, and let me rest there for a moment, breathing in her scent and mine.

“Oh, you’ll do,” she breathed, and I could see near rapture in her eyes for just a moment. “That is if you still want to do the work. Here, have a moment’s rest.” She guided my head to lie against her knee and stroked me, and I leaned into her gracefully, shifting my aching loins off her boot, feeling the wetness in my knickers. I still throbbed from the aftershocks of my quick and dirty climax, so I gave myself a little rub through my clothes, and she didn’t even punish me, though her hand on my head stilled long enough to let me know she had seen.

“I’m still with you,” I said, willing my voice to return to normal. “I suppose we have to get ready? Soon?”

“Oh, I’m always ready,” Irene said with a leer in her voice. “But I suppose you’ll forgive me if I have to exchange your favourite boots for a pair with better tread - I don’t fancy a dip in the drink as we crack the sanctum of the Dormer houseboat.”

I’m sure my expression must have given me away, for she laughed easily. “It’s my favourite type of job - easy enough to bring a second party along, difficult enough to entertain me, and far enough from the usual terrain to provide features of interest I can put to use in future projects. We won’t be going in blind, I was part of the party planning for a lady of means on board not quite three months ago.”

Briskly she rose from her chair and strode to her closet, and I realised this was the first time I had seen her walking in those exquisitely cruel boots. She walked as comfortably as an athlete in trainers, though with considerably more sway in her hips and more command of her artificial height.

Still on my knees but recovering quickly, I dared to risk pointing out that leaving my partners orgasmless didn’t sit well with me - though I would not dare to imply that she couldn’t judge her own satisfaction.

“You know my opinions on locks and keys, Mary,” Irene said slyly as she gave me a glimpse of her bare, pert breasts before encasing them in a plain matte black turtleneck. “Imagine a chastity belt on me, and imagine it padlocked. Now you know I have no respect for keys, so I discard them, and I expect everyone of intelligence who has valuables to do the same. Follow me and learn from me, and locks will fall open to your touch when you have mastered the art. Including this one, metaphorically.”

This was nearly too much to bear - though not quite too much - and my face flushed in anger as I picked myself up slowly from the floor, wanting to remind her that I had skills of my own. But as her eyes met mine, and she handed me a pair of close-fitting black trousers that I knew would fit me exactly, I knew that she knew what I was about to say. She would never have taken me on if she didn’t know that I was capable in my own field.

“Bring your gun if you must, these first few jobs with me,” she said. “But don’t let it be a crutch to you. I wouldn’t ever want it used. It’s your eyes and your ears and your stealth that I value.”

“The . . . first few?” I said, wanting to sound reserved, and yet joyous. “You’re assuming a lot.”

“I’m inferring,” she said. “We shall see if I’m right. Now come along. These particular stones have a most remarkable violet shade, almost as marked as the Rosenthall diamonds - which I haven’t touched yet, but with your help, someday I will - and I think would suit you. You’ll let me see you naked soon, won’t you? I’d like to see you wearing those trophies and nothing else. But we have to earn them before we can play with them.”