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Preparations (Edgeplay in Mayhill #2)

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Zephyra took three paces toward the phone, reached for it, and then drew her hand back. She tried again; this time she managed to pick up the receiver. With her blood thrumming beneath her skin, she dialed the number.

The phone rang and rang and rang. "Come on," she said through gritted teeth. "Answer."

As though in response, the ring cut off, to be replaced by a voice. "Loren's Lashes. We're closed now; please call again tomorrow."

It was the same voice as before, but this time there was no music in the background. Only one voice was talking in the background, too faintly for her to hear. Quickly she said in her normal voice, "I'm looking for a man named Ken – I was wondering whether you've seen him there. He's six foot seven and he has brown hair, darkish skin . . ."

"We're closed for the night, ma'am."

She heard again the silence behind him. She chewed on her tongue for a moment, then said, "Can I speak to Loren Baker?"

"Mr. Baker isn't available tonight. Would you like to leave a message?"

She crammed the telephone line into her fist. "No, thanks, I'll call tomorrow. When do you open?"

"Our door opens at three on Sundays, ma'am."

"Okay, thanks."

"That's quite all right. I'm sorry I couldn't help."

Was there a sound of genuine regret in the man's voice as he hung up? She couldn't tell. She let the receiver return to its resting place as she looked blankly at Ken's bedside clock. Three o'clock, the barman had said. Fourteen hours from now.

"Blast!" cried Zephyra and flung herself onto Ken's bed, stomach-down. She hugged his pillow, burying her face in it. What an idiot she'd been, waiting for her white knight to arrive and rescue Ken. She should have gone to Lonesquare herself, the moment she knew where Ken was.

She turned her face to keep from smothering and tried to think. It was no good attempting to track down Loren Baker's residence; she'd already checked with operator assistance, and his home number was unlisted. She should have asked the uncooperative barman if he'd noticed any disturbance at the party. If something had happened to Ken, surely the barman would have answered her more hesitantly when she enquired about Ken?

So maybe nothing had happened. At the party. Now all she had to do was wait fourteen hours to see how Ken survived the night with a man holding a switchblade. A man Ken loved.

She buried her face in the pillow once more.

o—o—o

Loren headed, not for the curtained doorway, but for the emergency exit, which was nearer. In accordance with fire regulations, it was unlocked. He slammed the door open, then ran through the dark, feeling the shelves looming over him on both sides. His eye was on a lighted green sign, barely visible above a high shelf holding bags of potato chips. He reached the sign and put his hand out, groping for the doorknob. A can fell off the shelf and thudded to the ground, then rolled.

The door was open from the inside, also in accordance with fire regulations. He banged his shoulder while wrenching back the door and everything that lay in front of it, then charged into the alleyway.

He slipped almost immediately on something soft and squishy. Cursing, he pulled himself up; his hands, which had caught his fall, felt as though they were bleeding. He ignored them. The alley was brighter than the storage room had been, since their neighbor had installed a large spotlight in it to discourage cruisers from wandering across the street to this place. Loren ran to the street end of the alley, caught the left corner of the alley with his hand as he swung round, and began running down the length of the bar front, where the black shades hid Loren's Lashes from the world.

He could see no one on the sidewalks or street and was tempted to look back to see whether anyone was walking behind him, in the opposite direction. But he couldn't afford the time that would take. He reached the door to the bar and skidded to a halt, just as Grover opened it.

Grover was looking over his shoulder, finishing a sentence to Ken. The Ess had made his way down the first of the stoop steps and was on the second when he turned and saw Loren standing in front of him. He stopped abruptly. Then he looked over his shoulder again, as though trying to ascertain how the bar owner could be in two places at one time.

Loren waited until the other man had turned round again before giving one of his blade-sharp smiles. "Going somewhere, gentlemen?"

It was not the most imaginative line Loren had ever spoken during a scene, and it was delivered panting, but Grover seemed too taken aback by Loren's arrival to notice. "Uh, yeah," he said. "We're leaving. Sorry to split the party so early." He took the final step down, and Ken passed the threshold of the doorway, following behind him.

Loren didn't budge from where he stood, blocking their way. "So that you can continue the scene elsewhere?"

Grover hesitated. Loren didn't dare take his eye off the Ess, but he could sense Ken just behind Grover, listening silently.

Grover shrugged in a casually indifferent manner. "It's nothing that would interest you."

"No?" Loren's smile remained unfaded. "Oh, I think you're wrong. It would interest me a great deal if your em stripped himself naked at his workplace."

Grover looked for a moment as though the St. Andrew's cross had dropped upon him. Then his lips went thin. "That's our private business. You have no right to—"

"I have every right to interfere. I'm the dungeon master; it's my job to stop dangerous scenes."

Suddenly Grover looked amused. "Give it up, Loren. I know that you like throwing your weight around, but nothing's going on here that you need to worry about. It's one o'clock in the morning, so—"

"—so it won't matter if your em strips naked at work? Had you bothered to ask him what type of work he does?"

There was a small sound from behind Grover: the whistle of Ken's breath rushing in. Grover's eyes narrowed. "What the hell do you mean?"

Loren suddenly became aware of the crowd that was gathering in front of the curtained doorway in the bar. They had heard Loren's shout, he supposed, and had emerged from their stalls to see what was happening. No doubt this scene was much more interesting to them than anything they had been undertaking themselves. Loren could see Bill at the front of the crowd, holding back Felix, who looked delighted, as though he wanted to join the fracas. Tank and Orville had disappeared from the bar, but Art was standing at the doorway with his arm around his em. Even Dick had emerged from the tub, though from the looks of his shirt, he had been forced to wash himself hastily, without time to towel himself dry.

Ken was right. This was too big a crowd in which to announce Ken's career choice. Loren altered his tactics abruptly, saying, "So you don't know that Ken works night shift sometimes? And that all his colleagues would be there to watch? And perhaps to call in the police?"

Grover was beginning to breathe heavily. "Look, this is none of your business—"

"On the contrary," said Loren coldly. "It is very much my business if you use my dungeon to negotiate a scene that will result in your em being arrested, and no doubt being interrogated to see what caused him to undertake such a rash action. What do you think that the vice squad will do to this bar when they discover that this is where the scene started? What do you think they will do to you?"

Ken spoke abruptly. "I wouldn't tell the police—"

"Quiet!" Loren spoke firmly, instinctively. "Ken, get back inside and wait for me. I'll deal with you presently."

Grover turned and grabbed Ken's arm. "Stay here!" the Ess said sharply. "You're mine; you obey my orders."

Ken looked at Loren, then at Grover, then back at Loren. "I'm sorry, sir," he said softly.

Loren shut his eyes momentarily, feeling the burn of the M on his skin. It travelled through to the core of him. He opened his eyes again just in time to see Ken shake off Grover and turn to re-enter the bar.

Loren had to take a large gulp of air then to steady himself. Grover glared at Loren. "Fuck you, boy," he said, clearly and distinctly. "You need someone to take control of you." He stepped past Loren.

Loren turned, grabbed him, and threw him against the wall of the bar. He was moderately surprised to find that he had succeeded in this maneuver, even though he had spent much of the morning taking lessons from Elia, after Elia heard of Loren's near rape the previous night and insisted that Loren learn to protect himself.

Grover looked as though he planned to throw Loren onto the sidewalk. Loren didn't give him a chance to. He lightly ran up the stoop steps, grabbing Grover's collar along the way. Grover's body twisted, and his shins hit the cement steps, causing him to lose balance. Loren dragged the top half of his torso over the threshold, then threw Grover against the doorpost. With his feet still trapped within the corner of the wall and steps, Grover struggled to regain his balance, but Loren had already pushed his chest against Grover's.

With the difference of the two steps, he was now higher than Grover. Loren shoved his face against Grover's, in a maneuver he had witnessed many times in his favorite boot-camp movie. "Fuck me?" he screamed. "Fuck me?"

His voice came out more screechy than he would have liked, but Grover seemed too stunned by the turn of events to take due note of this. From where Loren stood, he could see Elia standing behind the bar counter with his back to the action. He was on the phone. Well, that explained why he hadn't stopped Grover and Ken as they made their way to the door. One of Elia's few faults as an Ess was that he had a one-track mind; when he was at work, his thoughts were solely focussed on the man he was working with. Under such circumstances, he wouldn't have noticed Firewater Bridge falling upon him, unless it also threatened the life of the other man.

It didn't matter. This was Loren's fight, and from the anticipatory expressions of the onlookers, Loren gathered that everyone knew that. Ken was just outside Loren's vision, and he didn't dare to turn his head to see what Ken thought of his performance so far.

"Fuck you, more like," he said, letting his spit spray onto Grover's face. "If you can't tell the difference between fantasy and reality, then you're headed down the path to self-destruction. And I'm not letting you destroy another man's life in the process. The next time you come here, you come with an apology prepared, or you'll get the bar door slammed in your face. This is my bar, my rules, and that man over there is my em, because I'm saving him from your filthy hands and your self-centered soul. Contemplate that thought for a while, boy." He shoved Grover abruptly to the left. Once again taken off-guard, the Ess began to fall. Loren spent the few seconds this gave him to rush into the bar, slam the door behind him, and lock the door. Then he drew the chain for good measure.

Applause broke out behind him. For another minute, Loren simply stared at the door, trying to resettle his nerves. Then he turned to see that all of the leathermen were cheering the scene they had just watched. Loren didn't bother to acknowledge the applause; he knew that he had received it only because everyone there had been sure that he was incapable of defending an em. Instead he turned his eye toward Ken – and discovered he was gone.

Loren's stomach dropped. Elia, his phone call over, emerged from behind the counter. Loren hurried to meet him.

"Where is he?" Loren asked breathlessly under the cover of the applause.

"Upstairs. He was getting upset, so I sent him up there to wait."

Loren was silent a moment, calculating the amount of time it would have taken Elia to hang up the phone, ascertain what was happening, and take momentary charge of Ken. Darn, he had underestimated his apprentice again. Elia must have listened to every word spoken, from the moment that Loren stopped the men in the doorway. But Elia had pretended to remain on the phone, so as to leave Loren at the center of everyone's attention.

He felt the lifting of a weight, as he often did in Elia's presence. Then he looked over at the doorway to the dungeon. People were beginning to drift back inside, now that the outside sport was over. Elia caught the direction of his gaze and said, "I'll take over."

"You're not trained," Loren said mechanically.

"Then I'll shut the dungeon early! Loren, you have an em up there who needs you. That's more important than whether the party goes on for a couple hours more."

Elia had a talent for cutting to the heart of matters. Loren took a deep breath and another; he was staring now at the door to the left of the dungeon, the one that led upstairs. He felt Elia's hand rest lightly upon his shoulder.

"You've been trained," Elia said softly.

He'd been trained. Twenty years ago. Twenty years, waiting for this moment. Oh, gods.

He squeezed Elia's hand in acknowledgment, then pushed it lightly away
and forced himself to walk to the door.