Loren wasn't sure how he had arrived at Mount Olympus.
The entire day had been full of unexpected twists and turns: Arriving at the Black and Blue Club a few minutes late, only to discover, like a sharp blow to the solar plexus, that Ken wasn't there. Listening with fitful inattention as Melody gave a lecture on birth control; three out of every four weeks of the month, the club offered talks aimed at the ordinary folk of Mayhill, partly to adhere to the club's ostensible mission of providing sexual education, but partly also as the keystone of Melody's devious plan to hunt out potential ems and Esses who might be too scared to attend a meeting specifically on S&M. Loren, who normally enjoyed the sly manner in which Melody managed to slip references to S&M into her regular lectures, had found himself twisting round in his chair every few minutes to see whether any latecomers had arrived. None did.
Skipping the social time after the talk and turning his steps in the direction of the bridge leading to the Lonesquare district. Trying to ignore the voice in his head, urging him to turn round and go to Ken's place. Realizing belatedly that Ken was walking beside him.
They had proceeded back to Ken's apartment in a leisurely manner, Ken making his apologies and explanation: a decision not to risk being recognized by any undercover cops who might attend the club's future meetings. And then, unexpectedly, Ken had asked Loren to explain what Aristotle's views were on drama.
They had just reached Ken's living room, and Loren was about to explain how Aristotle believed that the depiction of evil deeds on the stage could create catharsis for the theatergoers, when Ken shoved Loren down onto the floor and tore his clothes off.
A clichéd move; Loren had undergone it more times than he could remember. There was no reason, therefore – none at all – why he should have ejaculated five minutes later, spurred on by no greater image of pain than hard kisses interspersed with the friction of his circumcised cock against Ken's slacks.
Being bound to the showerhead afterwards was also a cliché. So was the too-hot water, though admittedly Loren wasn't used to a fully clothed Ess joining him in his discomfort. All that followed after that was Ken standing with his body pressed against Loren's as the water soaked them both and Ken whispered vile little threats in his ear. Why this tame play should have left Loren with a raging hard-on was a mystery to him.
He was not allowed to come. Instead he was released from his bonds, jerked out of the shower, barely permitted to dry himself, and then dragged into the coat closet in the living room. There he was forced to his knees, bound hand to foot, and left in the darkness, along with his erection.
At that point, Loren had to admit to himself that Ken had a certain amount of imagination.
Outside the closet came sounds of thumping; apparently some preparation was taking place. Loren, his back arched due to the binding, spent the time examining Ken's knots. The policeman had evidently never belonged to the Boy Scouts; Loren discovered the way to untie himself within two minutes. Sighing, he left the knots as they were and waited impatiently for the next portion of the scene.
Ken returned finally, unbinding him before blindfolding him, then leading him into what Loren guessed must be the bedroom – at any rate, they ended up sitting on a bed, Loren positioned between Ken's boxer-clad thighs, Ken running his hands over Loren's body. Which would have bored Loren to tears if it had not been the fact that Ken's whispers revealed that Loren now sat imprisoned within the arms of the Lord of Lightning, Zeus.
He wondered what role he was supposed to play. He hoped it was Ganymede. With Loren's luck, he'd be told to play Io.
"I want your secret," Ken murmured, his fingers sliding lightly across Loren's balls.
"What secret, my lord?" Loren replied, trying to reach into his mind for a fantasy that could make his present indignity bearable. He had always liked the fact that Mayhill, with a certain charming eccentricity, bestowed military ranks upon its police officers. The fact that Ken ranked as a private held possibilities for Loren's fantasy life.
"You know which secret I mean. You stole the secret that I placed in care of Heephaystus. You gave it to the mortals."
Loren would normally have been screaming in agony at Ken's mangled pronunciation of the name of the blacksmith god. As it was, his breath caught short. "Fire, my lord?"
"Yes, fire. I want you to teach me its power." There followed a rasping sound that Loren recognized.
He felt sweat begin to form on his skin. "My lord, fire is a powerful element. It is dangerous if it has not been tamed properly." He hoped Ken would take the hint.
"I know," Ken whispered in his ear. "I want you to teach me to tame it."
Intelligent boy. Loren felt his interest quicken, but not enough to overcome the sweat beginning to pour down his body. "My lord . . . It is my very great regret . . . I love fire, but it is too powerful for me to endure its touch. Forgive me."
A pause, and then the blindfold was tugged off Loren's eyes. The first thing he saw was his own lighter, bright with flame, resting within Ken's hand.
Behind him, Ken said, "Teach me through touching me, then. My body will endure it better than yours."
Well. That might even be true. And whether or not it was . . . Loren could feel his breath begin to increase. Fire. He'd never been permitted to play with fire. His master had taught him the secrets of fire, and he had passed on that knowledge to others, offering demonstrations. But never during a scene. This would be the first time.
Gods, he wanted this so much that the longing was like nectar to his lips.
"My lord," he said, "this will require preparations."
A blanket, set aside in case it should be needed to smother the flame. A bucket of water, for the same purpose. Scornful comments from a big-city Ess on the pathetic safety measures taken by Mayhill's edgeplayers had left Loren with the impression that big-city Esses never entered into fire play with anything less than a bathtub full of water, a room full of fire extinguishers, and a medivac unit on call. Life was simpler in Mayhill.
Loren had been told that big-city fire play was equally complex, involving props such as alcohol and glass cups. Mayhill's fire-players, all trained by Loren, made use of a single device: flame.
Candles were nice, because one could use hot wax at appropriate pauses in the play. But a cigarette lighter would do in a pinch. The main precaution Loren always took was to make sure that the em remained utterly still. His own hand was always steady as a rock during fire play; he had received the proper training and never allowed himself to drink during such play. But ems could be unpredictable. An Ess undergoing pain was even more likely to be unpredictable.
Loren took no chances: he bound Ken's arm firmly to the handles of the false dresser drawers. Ken offered him a variety of bindings; the only bondage item that seemed to be missing from his dresser drawers was rope made of the fur of llamas from the Andes. Loren chose plastic fishing line; cloth might burn, and metal was likely to grow too hot.
Ken watched with apparent interest as Loren bound his arm. The policeman had no body fat; his tendons and blood vessels sprung out clearly. Loren traced a line with his finger, saying, "Fire, water, earth, air. . . . We have water and earth." He touched the bucket and Ken's arm. "Air, though, we do not want. Air is our enemy." He stood up, then began prowling the room. He detected no drafts at the windows, a tug of the latch closed the room's vent, and a shirt under the door closed out all air from the hallway. These were measures the big-city Ess would have gaped in awe at, but Loren had been taught the power of fire on a windy night in Lonesquare Park. He still bore the scars.
"Now," he said, sitting down next to Ken, and holding the lighter flame up toward the other man's face. "We begin."
The flame danced in Ken's eyes.
The boy asked for the chariot – control, for one day, over the winged horses. Too late to take the oath back, but Sun repented having sworn it. "It is not easy to hold these horses, hot with fire, and snorting from mouth and nostrils. I can hardly hold them when they warm up for the work and fight the bridle. Beware, my son! I do not want to give you the gift of death . . ."
He worked his way slowly along the inner forearm, following the curved line above one of the veins, his thoughts fully concentrated on bringing the flame as close to the skin as was possible without irreparably scorching it. He did not feel like the foolish boy Phaethon, who lost control of Sun's chariot; he felt like the Sun God, brilliantly shining.
Under his feet the boy feels the chariot glowing white-hot; he cannot bear the sparks, the ashes, the soot, the smoke, the blindness.
He reached the end of the fiery trail and drew the flame back. Only then did he raised his eyes to look at Ken. Ken's breath was shallow and rapid; his pupils had grown wide. He was staring at the flame, and the corners of his lips were turned up very slightly. Loren's eyes narrowed; then he looked down at Ken's lap. Ken was wearing nothing but his boxers, the same ones he must have worn in the shower. The boxers were still wet, and Loren could see clearly the outline of Ken's body under them.
Well. This boy was full of surprises.
Loren sat back, contemplating the red path of the fire-line. Loren had never before met an Ess who enjoyed receiving pain as much as he enjoyed inflicting it, but Loren wasn't particularly surprised to encounter such a creature. He knew one em who enjoyed inflicting pain. "Versatile" was what the em called himself, but to Loren the em's tastes were simply proof that the essence of being an em or an Ess did not lie in masochism or sadism. It lay in mastery. He who had the power to master others was an Ess; he who wished to be mastered was an em.
Ken was an Ess. There was no doubt about that, from the authority with which he had controlled Loren, from the instinctive manner in which he had taken the reins of power from the moment they first met. But Ken was, it seemed, an Ess who enjoyed receiving pain.
The possibilities this offered made Loren's body tingle. If he could just persuade Ken that ordering Loren to hurt him was a form of power . . . Then, perhaps, Loren could subtly begin to take hold of those reins, begin to move himself into the driver's seat. . . .
Loren traced the fire-line with his finger and then with his
He heard Ken's voice catch. Loren murmured aloud, "The mountains of
catch fire, the prairies crack, the rivers dry up, the meadows are
. . ."
Zeus, furious at the boy Phaethon for taking the reins of Sun's chariot and misusing his power, threw a bolt of lightning. The boy fell, was broken, died of fire.
"Presumption," Loren's master had once said, "is the greatest crime a slave can commit. For a slave to presume to take on the rights and privileges of a master is to turn the world upside down. Even if the master is foolish enough to offer to give up his power, the slave must refuse. He must show true service by remaining what he is: an em, one who serves. Not one who leads."
Loren closed his eyes. It took him a moment, as it always did, to accept the hard truths his master had taught him. Then he opened his eyes again.
"My lord," he said in a steady voice, "I will explain to you how you too may wield the power of fire. And once that is done, will you honor me by using that fire upon me?"
Ken's pupils remained wide as the policeman looked at him for a long moment. Then Ken said, "I havfe another fate for you, fire-thief."
With Ken released, Loren was blindfolded again and his wrists were bound in front of his body by a chain. A belt, Loren noticed with amusement as the buckle brushed over his hands. Then he was led by the chain from the bedroom. He wondered idly where the preparations for the next portion of the scene had been placed. His guess was the bathroom; Ken hadn't allowed Loren to fetch the bucket of water himself.
Idle thoughts. They were an effective way of keeping at bay the memory of lost opportunities.
Yes, it was the bathroom; Loren recognized the cool tile under his feet. He tried to remember what the room had been like before, when he had been summarily deposited into the shower. Ken's apartment was in one of the older townhouses in the town, so the shower consisted, not of a stall, but of a bathtub with claw-legs, above which hung a frame that held a shower curtain and a hook for the shower-hose. The bathtub was made of slippery porcelain, hard and cold. Loren teased this thought in his mind, trying to create a scene out of it.
The blindfold was removed. Loren looked for the bathtub and saw only rocks.
Hundreds of rocks, placed tight together upon a wooden board that lay atop the rim of the bathtub. The shower curtain and hose were gone; hanging in their place was a spotlight, as piercing as the sun, shining down upon the white rocks. The rocks glittered with the fire of the light above.
Loren moved slowly forward. The rocks covered the entire board except for a band where the board was empty. To protect the organs in his lower back, he guessed. He made a quick calculation in his mind, based on the placement of the empty band; yes, his head would hang over the end of the board. Leaving his mouth to the mercy of his captor. His legs . . . He glanced down at the other end of the bathtub and saw a long chain attached to one of the claw-feet, just long enough to reach his left ankle if his legs were spread apart. No doubt there was another ankle-chain on the other side of the tub. He took hold of one of the rocks. It was a real rock, firmly attached to the board in an upright position.
It was exquisite. It was the most beautiful scene preparation Loren had ever witnessed. He felt like a man who has spent his life in a repertory company, and who then visits the set of a Broadway theater for the first time. He ran his finger over the top of the rock he had been touching. It was keen to the touch, like a knife pointed to the sky.
Time to stop the scene.
"No, sir," he said firmly and stepped back.
"No?" Ken was still behind Loren; Loren could not tell his reaction from his tone of voice.
"Ken, this won't work for me. I've been placed on a bed of nails before, and I know I can't take it. If you put me on that, I'll scream so loud that your colleagues at the police headquarters will be able to hear me."
Ken said nothing. He simply reached round and released the chain from Loren's wrists. Then he walked out of the bathroom, turning off the spotlight as he went.
Loren followed him back into the bedroom. He noticed, as he had not noticed before, small signs that work had taken place here before his arrival: Extra-strength glue atop the dresser. A small handsaw poking out from under the bed. A duffel bag in the corner with a few extra rocks in its bottom. A receipt on the night-stand for an expensive spotlight.
Ken sat down on the bed, with his back against the headboard. He was staring straight ahead now, not looking at Loren. After a moment's consideration, Loren picked up his clothes from where Ken had placed them on a chair, put them on the spare pillow, and lay down on the bed, resting his head against the clothes. The room was dim, with only the lamp on the night-stand shedding light upon Ken. The policeman's expression had shut down abruptly, like a teller's stand at the end of a long workday.
Loren finally asked, "When did you come up with that idea?"
Ken took a while in answering. "Fifteen years ago. When I was ten, my mom gave me a book of myths as a going— As a present. It had a picture of Prometheus chained to a rock, awaiting Zeus's punishment for stealing fire. I really liked that picture."
Ah, that long ago? Loren wasn't surprised. He had known a female em who had first begun to realize what she was at age four, because she got more excited than the other children did when they played Cowboys and Indians.
Fifteen years, waiting to put his dream into action.
Ken said, "I hope your bruises from last time have been healing all right. I realized later that I should have given you ice as soon as possible. I'm sorry about that. I still don't have much experience in this, I'm afraid."
So I've screwed up again. That was the unspoken text of the message. Loren frowned at the ceiling. This was becoming intolerable. Two scenes in a row in which his play partner had felt compelled to apologize for something that was entirely Loren's fault. Loren was usually able to do a better job than this at hiding his distaste of pain.
Probably because he rarely ran across an Ess who played as close to the edge as he did. It was time for a confession – or at least, for what would pass as a confession.
"I'm afraid that I haven't been entirely truthful with you," Loren said to the ceiling. Out of the corner of the eye, he saw Ken's head snap over to look at him. He went on, "I led you to believe that I enjoy playing hard. I do – when it's in my mind. But when somebody's putting me through pain— Well, that's a different matter. I'm afraid I can only enjoy it in retrospect. I should have told you, but I was afraid you wouldn't do any scenes with me if you knew."
A silence. Ken continued to gaze at Loren, as though waiting to see whether the other man would speak further. When Loren didn't, Ken's face fell, as though he had hoped Loren would add more. Loren reflected sourly that Ken was probably expecting him to say, "But you've transformed me so that I now enjoy being pierced and adore submitting myself to you." It was always that way in porn stories; the reluctant victim transformed himself into an eager masochist.
Well, this was reality. If Ken hadn't realized that yet, it was time he did.
Ken turned his gaze back to boring a hole into the quilt. After a couple of minutes in which Loren reminded himself that it really wouldn't be tactful to get up and leave at this point, Ken raised his eyes and said, "I could tell you what I was going to do. Not do it, just describe it."
Loren was tempted to reply that, if he wanted to hear dirty talk, he knew all the appropriate phone numbers. But he forced himself to pause and think. Half the times so far that Ken had gotten him hard, it had been through speech. Well, why not try this? At worse, it would only mean that Loren came once tonight rather than twice. And Ken – Loren realized with a belatedness that would have earned him a smack across the head from his old master – had not yet come even once.
Loren smiled at the Ess. "That sounds delightful."
It turned out there were props even for this. Loren watched with dubiousness as Ken carried a bowl of water into the bedroom and set it onto the night-stand. The water bubbled. Loren also didn't much care for being made to lie down with his head placed in the crook of Ken's arm, a reminder that Loren was not the lead actor in this play.
His mind spun away from these grievances, though, as Ken launched into his tale of a prisoner bound naked to a rock, tormented by thirst and heat and the cutting edge of the stones. The flies bit him, the birds pecked at him and pulled his hair. At night, the prisoner shook from the icy wind. Then, in the morning, came the worst of all: Zeus's bird, swooping down to tear at his skin and eat his liver . . .
"How did you plan to do that?" Loren asked. He hated to break into his own vision of Ken screaming as the vulture's beak bit into him, but curiosity overcame him.
Ken hesitated, then said, "With a knife. I'd have been very careful."
A good thing, then, that Loren had halted the scene from the start. It took more than care to cut the skin over the abdomen; it took experience. "And then?" Loren prompted.
"And then . . . Well, I'll show you." Ken reached for the bowl.
The water had cooled to blood temperature. To blood temperature – yes, that was the idea. Loren, now lying free of Ken's embrace, watched with interest as the policeman carefully smeared water over his em's abdomen. Then, without warning, Ken leaned down and bit gently.
Loren nearly sprang to the ceiling. He had to hold tight to the quilt as Ken carefully and softly nibbled and licked his way across the abdomen, down to the balls, and up the stalk that was straining out of the pubic hair. By the time Ken's tongue reached the cap of the stalk, Loren was gasping for breath.
He supposed that, if he had been merely watching this scene, he would have been frowning by now. A perennially favorite topic for conversation among Mayhill's gay Esses was whether it was acceptable to give your em a blow job. Loren – who was never invited to take part in these discussions – was of the firm opinion that it was not. Didn't the other Esses understand the meaning of the word "top"?
Now, though, all of Loren's disapproval seemed to have drifted away. How long had it been since anyone had done this to him? Years, he was sure – it had last happened back in the days when he had tried to convince himself that he could be satisfied with normal sex, vanilla sex. It had meant nothing to him then. Now, with his mind filled with visions of Ken's suffering, it meant everything. It had been years since he had felt a moist tongue circling under the edge of the head; so long ago it had been that he had not even had to worry in those days about deadly diseases—
He came to himself suddenly, as though cold water had been dashed upon him. He yanked Ken's head back by way of his hair, just as the policeman was opening his mouth so wide that he looked like a pit dug to China. "No!" said Loren, his voice stern though unsteady.
Too late it occurred to him that this was not the right approach to take with an Ess. He quickly released Ken's hair, but the policeman merely looked up at him with puzzlement. Loren explained quickly, "Sir, you used a rubber when you had me go down on you. That means we use a rubber when you do the same to me."
Ken said softly, "I thought you might enjoy it more if we went without."
The temptation made Loren's voice gruffer than it might otherwise have been. "What I enjoy doesn't matter. I told you I play safe. Your safety is more important than my pleasure."
For a moment Ken merely stared, as though the idea of an em sacrificing himself for his Ess had never occurred to him. Then he launched himself at Loren, attacking him with body and mouth.
Loren was too far taken aback to do anything except gasp for the next minute. Ken had landed his body flat atop Loren's, trapping Loren's legs with his powerful thighs, filling Loren's mouth with his tongue. Loren reflected to himself that, if he were an em, this sudden attack would have made him come on the spot. As it was, it wasn't unpleasant to receive another of Ken's hard kisses. The only problem was that Loren was about to die of suffocation due to Ken's weight. He gave Ken a nudge with his hand, but the policeman appeared not to notice it. With an effort, Loren wrenched his mouth away and said, "Ken, I don't want to—"
Ken's hand pushed his face back, and the tongue plunged in once more.
If he had been most people, Loren thought, he wouldn't have recognized what was happening. This was a trope from the type of old-time movies that were popular in Mayhill: the man grabs the woman, ignores her puny efforts to stop him, and gives her a kiss that makes her melt into his arms. Loren, carefully replacing the woman with a man in his mind, enjoyed such movies. As fantasy.
He made another try with his left hand, pushing hard at Ken's shoulder. Pushing a ten-ton boulder would have been easier, and Loren wasn't Theseus. Ken merely grabbed Loren's wrist and pinned his arm to the bed. Well, that left no doubt in the matter. Loren didn't bother to take any action that would result in his right hand being trapped likewise. He didn't need to. He always came to scenes prepared.
The need for preparation had come home to him with vivid sickness on a Bicentennial night when the town fireworks cast red light onto the alleyway where he screamed and screamed. No rescue came. There would be no rescue, he realized on that night; even the vice squad was busy elsewhere in town, for everyone in Mayhill was watching the fireworks that celebrated their country's anniversary. Everyone was watching the sky's fire-play except Loren and the man who was destroying him.
Loren had made sure from that day onwards that he was always prepared. Given that he played on the edge, the chances were high that he would be unable to make use of his preparation – he would be bound or would be wounded too badly to fight for himself. But he had seen no point in increasing the odds that he would kiss death again. And so he had bought himself protection, and he carried it everywhere.
His right hand slid up to the pocket of the slacks under his head.
Ken must have seen the movement of the hand returning, or perhaps he heard the click of metal, for he pulled back suddenly. Then he went still as Loren's switchblade touched his throat. They stared at each other for a moment, Ken's lips puffed up from the harsh kisses he had rained down upon Loren. Then Loren said in a low voice, "Get off me."
Ken moved slowly. Loren's switchblade followed him until the policeman was completely off Loren. Then Loren rolled swiftly, pulling the blade up above his head to avoid cutting himself. He fell off the bed and sprang up as quickly as he could, his blade already pointed outward, at his hip.
Ken was crouched on his knees on the other side of the bed, like a predator about to spring. Loren had no doubts of the outcome if he did. The switchblade was a beautiful instrument that sliced through skin like paper. Loren used it for opening envelopes. He had no training in defending his life; Ken was a policeman and could disarm him easily.
But Ken merely continued to crouch low, his expression dim in the single night-stand light. Finally Loren said, "Do I need to hold this to keep you from attacking me again?"
Ken slowly shook his head.
"Good." Loren briskly closed the blade and placed it on the night-stand, then turned and walked toward where his lighter still lay on the dresser. He felt his shoulderblades draw toward each other, but no attack came.
Returning to the bed, he donned all his clothes, even his shoes, then took a cigarette from his silver case and lit it. He went over to the window next to the night-stand and pulled the shade up. Light from the street-lamps fell onto Loren; the light from his cigarette was brighter, glowing red. Loren drew in the biting taste of the smoke and held it in his mouth for a moment.
He didn't look at Ken; he was very angry. When he was angry, he was dangerous. He knew that much about himself.
If the girl had been sitting across the street again this week, she would have received a good view of Loren. But the street was empty. Loren blew out the smoke and then tapped ash off the end of his cigarette. The ash fell onto the floor; a spark from one of the ashes became a tiny flame, eating at the helmet of one of the bikers on the rug. Loren watched the fire burn, unmoved.
Some fools, he thought, would have been flattered by what had just happened. Loren knew better. He knew that the only thing – the only thing – that separated S&M from real rape and torture was consent. And twice now he had been denied consent. He had not only been denied consent, but he had been promised after the first denial that this would not happen again.
In retrospect, all the signs were there. Ken's ready apologies, his inability to stay in his appointed role as an Ess – even his first, impulsive attack in the stairwell. Ken was an Ess without control. Or rather, he possessed some control, but not enough to carry himself through an entire scene. He was a real rapist, a real torturer, one who had enough conscience to know that he was a danger to society and should seek help, but not enough control to keep from endangering others. Perhaps Ken had never acted on his impulses until now; perhaps he had raped and tortured a dozen victims before now. Loren didn't care.
He might have been willing to help Ken if the Ess had approached him in the proper manner, confessing to his lack of control and asking for assistance. Instead, Ken had forced Loren to use his switchblade to defend himself. That wasn't something that Loren was willing to forgive.
The slow-burning flame had eaten away most of the biker by now. Loren put out the fire with his heel, grinding it underfoot. Ems, he thought to himself, could afford to lack control – indeed, some men took on the role of em precisely because they knew they lacked control and desired a master to control them. But for an Ess to lose control was the ultimate crime. An em's life lay in the hands of an Ess; any Ess who was unsure of his ability to control himself needed to be trained, preferably in the manner that Loren had, by becoming an apprentice. Ken as a slave, training to be a master: that was an image Loren could respect. Ken taking the chance on his em's life in order to learn where his boundaries lay: unforgivable.
Loren reached the end of the cigarette and let it fall to the floor, grinding its ashes into the rug. Then he turned. Ken remained where he had been before, crouched on the bed. Loren waited. After a minute Ken said softly, "Sir, I apologize. I . . . broke my promise to you. I think . . . I think you shouldn't do any more scenes with me."
Loren reached over to the night-stand for his belongings. "Good," he said, his voice as cutting as a single-tail. "I'm glad I don't have to tell you that."
He didn't bother to look at Ken again. He simply slipped the case into his jacket, placed his lighter in his pants pocket, and opened the blade. Then he turned toward the window again and began playing with the knife. Edgeplay: if you flicked the switchblade while holding the correct side of the handle, the blade slid closed in a beautiful arc, then swung open again at a second flick of the wrist, like a lady's fan. If you held the wrong side of the handle, your fingers would be cut off.
He didn't hear Ken retreat from the room, but he heard the bathroom door shut, and then the sound of water. He wondered what Ken was doing. Cleaning up his tools after his work, he supposed. Then he felt annoyance at himself for phrasing the matter that way. Esses no longer spoke of tools and work; now they spoke of toys and play. And here was the result of such sloppy training: an Ess who shouldn't be allowed near an em – who shouldn't be allowed near anyone who could be easily harmed.
Loren flipped the blade open and closed, his eye on the empty sofa across the street. No old girlfriend watching tonight. At least, he assumed that was what the girl across the street had been. He had debated with himself earlier whether to tell Ken that one of his old lovers was camping at his doorstep, jealously watching whomever Ken brought home. Loren had been worried about reminding Ken that he had other options besides Loren. Well, now the issue was moot.
He closed the switchblade, placed it in his pocket, and turned round to find something else to play with. He was still furious; if he went home in this mood, he'd be likely to shove against the wall the first fellow who made a crack at him. Which wouldn't be a problem except that it would mean that Elia would have to rescue him. What Loren needed, he decided as he scanned the room, was petty revenge.
Eventually he decided that invasion of privacy would do. He shoved back the closet door; the squeak of rollers sliding was obscured by the continued rush of water in the next room. He turned on the closet light to see better, and then, despite himself, he smiled.
Oh, my, what a revealing closet. No doubt it would pass inspection with the relative who made 4-H quilts. But to anyone with an eye for such things . . . He ran his hand down the line of objects on the shelf nearest him, trying to decide which was Ken's favorite toy. Trying to decide which one to destroy. His hand paused as he reached the paper bag; then he spilled the contents onto the shelf.
Inside the bag was nothing but a plastic bag holding a children's ball-and-jacks game. Loren held the jacks up to the light, overcome momentarily by nostalgia. During the month after his old master had left him, Loren had distracted himself from grief by going through his childhood belongings and finding appropriate instruments of torture. He had speculated on the possibilities of jacks, he remembered, then had thrown the jacks into the trash in horrified recognition that they were a girls' game.
Little had changed in twenty years. Mayhill's Esses and ems still browsed through the five-and-dime store and the toy store and other such innocuous places of business for the toys they needed for their play. For the tools they needed for their work.
Loren returned the jacks to the paper bag, sobered. No sentiment clouded his thinking about Ken, only practical considerations. He remembered his desperate desire to seek new partners in those early days. Having experienced a taste of what S&M could be like when practiced with another person, Ken was unlikely to return to solitary experiments. No, he would go searching for new partners. Probably not at the Black and Blue Club, with its undercover police; more likely he would head for the cruising grounds.
And there, sooner or later, he was certain to meet an inexperienced em, willing to let him have his way. . . .
Loren closed the closet door softly. A corpse at the cruising grounds would be bad. Bad for the corpse, bad for Mayhill's S&M community, bad for Mayhill's gay community, and bad for Mayhill itself. Loren was surprised to find that the last consideration was as important to him as the first three. He sighed, wishing himself back in the days when he was responsible for no one but himself – when he did not bear the burden of being a community leader.
But no, he had never been responsible for himself alone. Not since he agreed to be trained as a master.
He found that his steps had carried him as far as the bathroom door. He rapped on it sharply. "I want to talk to you," he said, then walked through the remainder of the hallway into the living room. He took the armchair there and waited.
Ken emerged a minute later. His robe was thrown over his body; sweat covered his face and plastered his hair to his forehead. He said nothing, but at Loren's gesture he seated himself. He chose to sit on the ottoman rather than the couch.
"You need to learn control," Loren said in his grimmest voice.
Ken didn't deny this. He simply nodded, his eyes fastened upon Loren's. Seated, their height difference wasn't as accentuated, but Ken was still the taller of the two.
Loren ignored this fact. "If you're seriously interested in learning control, you can come to a party at my place tomorrow, at ten p.m. It's a leather party."
He could see from Ken's expression that the policeman had no idea what he was talking about. Loren didn't bother to explain. "The party will be monitored. If your scene gets out of control, it will be stopped. If you need advice, there will be experienced players there who can give you advice."
"Will you be there, sir?" Ken's voice was as soft as it had been in the bedroom.
"I'll be one of the monitors." His eyes narrowed as he tried to read Ken's thoughts from his expression. "I won't play with you again. I don't play with men who break their promises."
Ken's gaze fell. After a minute he nodded in acknowledgment of what Loren had said. "Thank you for giving me another chance, sir. I know I don't deserve it."
Loren got to his feet and looked down at the policeman. "No," he said, "you damn well don't."
He left Ken then, still sitting on the ottoman. As the door to the hallway closed behind him, Loren shifted his mind to more important matters: Delivery dates. Inventory. The new equipment which had arrived that afternoon. By the time he reached the outside door to the townhouse he had almost been able to clear his thoughts of what had happened.
On further reflection, he hoped very much that he wouldn't remember Ken in a few years' time.
The popcorn machine was as stubborn as herself. It simply wouldn't pay attention to any of her pleas, nor to her inexpert knowledge of machinery. Zephyra wished she knew someone who had such knowledge. North, perhaps? Not her brother; she had steered Ken away from machinery for the past few years, concerned about the endless possibilities they offered. Perhaps Johnnie would know what to do; she seemed to recall that he was good with cars. Or perhaps Mike or Lennie; she thought she still had their numbers—
Alfred's shout cut into her thoughts. "Zephyra! Your brother's on the line! And tell him to stop calling you during working hours!"
She sighed, trying to decide whether it would be worth the effort to rise from her crouched position behind the refreshments counter. She didn't blame Alfred; she was getting tired of Ken's calls as well.
She was used to the way Ken behaved whenever he fell for someone: lots of phone calls, lots of conversations when they got together, about whatever topic it was that interested his latest date. That meant they'd spent this past week discussing theater. Ken had brought home a pile of books from the public library about classical theater – which was a bad sign in itself, since he wasn't a bookworm. She had been the one who had to listen to all of his excited talk about theater techniques in ancient times. She had actually found herself wishing that the week was over and Ken was with his date again so that she wouldn't have to keep pretending she was interested in how well the performance went.
Suddenly she remembered. It was Friday; tonight was the night. She bounced up and grabbed the receiver.
"Hey, Ken-Boy," she said. "How's it going?" She glanced at the clock. Only nine o'clock. Could the man with the switchblade still be there? She had promised she would come to meet him if he was there at midnight, when the movie theater closed.
"Zeph?" The voice was faint, as though coming from long distance.
Immediately she tensed. "Ken? Is something wrong?"
"Zeph, I really messed up tonight. He doesn't want to do any more scenes with me."
She felt like shouting, "Hurrah!" but she couldn't. She understood now why Ken's voice sounded so muffled. He'd been crying.
She glanced at the clock again. The tickets for the late show would go on sale in ten minutes; she couldn't leave her post now. "Ken," she said, "I'll be right over—"
"No, don't come. I've taken some pills."
"Pills?" In her mind she screamed the words, but her voice emerged sounding calm.
"Sleeping pills. I took a couple of them. So you'd better not come over this evening; I'll be asleep soon."
He'd be asleep for the next twenty-four hours, if past experience held. Drugs did that to him. She heard herself say, "Are you sure you took only two pills?"
"That's all I have in the apartment. I always throw out the rest when I get a new package. Just two pills, in case of an emergency."
She let out her breath slowly. Ken was the bright one of the family, she reminded herself. She shouldn't have worried. "All right," she said. "Just don't do anything foolish, okay?"
A silence. Suddenly her heart was pounding again. She gripped the edge of the counter. "Ken? You didn't do anything, did you?"
"I'm sorry, Zeph."
Oh God oh God oh God. "Ken, don't worry. I'll call for help—"
"No, it's okay. It's nothing. I – was interrupted before I got far."
"I'll come and see—"
"It happened half an hour ago, Zeph." Ken's voice sounded sleepy. "Honestly, it's all right. I would have called you before now if it was anything serious. Really." His voice trailed off; the pills were beginning to take effect.
There was a knock on the glass door of the lobby; a customer outside gestured toward the ticket box. Alfred was gesturing too. "Okay," she said reluctantly. "But I'll stop by to see that you're sleeping all right when I get off work. And I'll come by tomorrow evening, and we can talk."
"Yeah, I'd like that. I'm sorry, Zeph. Thanks for understanding." He hung up before she could say more.
She hung up the receiver and stared at the popcorn machine for a moment, trying to figure out how she could turn it into a machine gun so that she could blast Ken's date into itty-bitty pieces. Then she shook that thought away. It was over. It was all over, and it had been no worse than in the past. She should be grateful.
But God, what about next time?