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Preparations (Edgeplay in Mayhill #2)

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The S&M love relationship is doomed by its very nature. Over a period of time, as the affection of the S becomes deeper and more mature, he is unable to provide the detached humiliation demanded by his partner's craving.

—Larry Townsend: The Leatherman's Handbook (1972). 


CHAPTER ONE

Loren knew, even before he stepped through the doorway of the stairwell, what he would see in the bar. It was what he saw every night at this time. The same crowd, the same predictable crowd.

On weekday evenings, most of the customers here at this time of night would be Mayhill's leather-clad motorcyclists, who grudgingly admitted that, since Mayhill didn't have a proper bar for their sort, this one would have to do. All of those men gave the appearance of being heterosexual; occasionally they brought their wives or girlfriends to the bar. If any gay leathermen showed up at the bar during the weekday leather hours, they kept their presence discreet.

The weekend was another matter.

On weekends, when the motorcyclists were off on excursions and runs, the bar transformed. About two dozen regulars attended the weekend leather hours, plus another dozen or so who turned up at odd times, and almost invariably a visitor or two passing through Mayhill came to Loren's Lashes because it was the only gay bar in town. On a lucky night, the visitors would be from the gay leather community outside Mayhill. On unlucky nights, Loren would be left with the tedious chore of finding an excuse to turn away the unenlightened customers, so that they wouldn't panic when they overheard the conversations inside the bar.

Loren looked at every face, recognized them, looked them over again to be sure that he had not seen them before. He sighed.

"I ought to move to the big city," he murmured. It was a statement he had often made to himself. He knew that he would never obey his own advice. If there had ever been a time to move away from his hometown, it would have been twenty years before, when a leather-clad motorcyclist passing through town cruised a run-down Mayhill park and found there a seventeen-year-old, eager to learn new games.

o—o—o

He never learned more than his master's first name, and he suspected afterwards that the name had been a lie. He didn't need a name. From the start, he addressed the man as "sir," understanding, with some inborn instinct, what the man's leather jacket meant.

The leatherman, being tender toward the teenager, had intended only to take Loren through some basic bondage; he was amused and pleased when he realized how eager a pupil he had on his hands. The one-week visit extended to two, then three. In the end he stayed for four months, meeting each evening with Loren, who hardly bothered to cover up the fact to his parents that he was spending his evenings in bad company. His parents had realized a couple of years before that Loren's rebel-without-a-cause stage was not going to disappear, and they had washed their hands of him.

The leatherman taught Loren everything he knew, or so he told Loren. The secrets were revealed through quiet instruction, or though silent demonstration. Loren learned to speak only when it was required of him. He learned the mysteries, passed down from master to apprentice, known to no outsiders. He learned where his heart burned.

For the final month of the visit, he wore his master's collar. It was the proudest moment of his life when his master removed the collar and declared Loren ready to be part of the brotherhood.

Then the leatherman announced he was leaving.

"But what will I do?" Loren cried.

"Come with me," the leatherman suggested, handing Loren his collar.

Loren thought about this, then shook his head. The nearest big city, where his master had most recently lived, was four hundred miles away; Mayhill's slow busses took a full day to get there. Loren had never been outside his hometown. Moving to Antarctica would be easier.

The leatherman nodded as though he had received an expected answer. "Then search for ems," he said. "And find an apprentice of your own. Teach him what I taught you. But make sure he's worthy of your instruction."

Loren felt the blood rush warm through him at the implied compliment. "Where should I look for him?" he asked. "There isn't anyone like that here, I think."

The leatherman mused on this matter as he pulled off his jacket. It was a deep brown except for his club patch, which was multi-colored. "Not where I've been staying most recently," he said finally. "None of the brotherhood live there – I've looked. There aren't many of us, you know. Maybe a few dozen."

"In the entire state?" Loren said, aghast.

The leatherman gave him a quick, grim smile. "In the entire country. We're an elite breed, apprentice. Not many can survive the training. . . . L.A. or Frisco are your best bets. I've heard rumors that the brotherhood can be found in New York City, but I haven't travelled to the East yet."

The coastal cities were half a continent away; they held no more appeal to Loren than the big city nearby. As he was trying to figure out a way to explain this, the leatherman tossed him his jacket. "Keep this," he said. "Some day you'll find someone to hand your leather down to. Keep searching till you find him."

Loren took his advice. He returned each evening to the cruising grounds – the only place in Mayhill where one could openly admit to being homosexual, and then only at the price of possible arrest if the man you were with turned out to hold a hidden badge. Loren liked the risk. He liked danger, he liked playing on the edge. Unfortunately, none of the other men he met seemed to feel the same way. Most of them were married men, seeking a quick release before slinking home to their wives. Loren bided his time.

In the meantime, he sought information on what he was. Soon he was perusing Plato; unexpectedly, this led to an interest in Plato for his own sake, not just for the dirty passages. He startled his parents by applying for entrance to Mayhill's university. Four years later, he entered the university's graduate program. By 1975, ten years after he met his destiny with the leatherman, Loren was a respected member of the university.

He was beginning to drink heavily. The promised apprentice had never materialized, nor had the ems. Occasionally, in the early years, he had met a man who would agree halfheartedly to be spanked or have his nipples twisted or some equally tame game. But most of the men Loren met considered him too young to play master over them.

These days, his problem was the opposite. Although there were more men now at the cruising grounds than there had been in the past, they were losing interest in Loren as he grew older. They had turned their attention to younger men, and none of those young men showed any inclination to want to play the types of games Loren wanted to play. Loren grew restless and began seeking out more dangerous sport: sex in alleyways, sex with men who carried guns.

That all ended on the Bicentennial night that he was viciously beaten and left for dead. Oddly enough, the beating did nothing to diminish his fantasies, but it taught him not to confuse fantasy with reality. He stopped visiting the cruising grounds. It was hardly worth his while to go there any more, since more and more gay men were moving to the big cities, where exciting events were said to be unfolding. Mayhill, still stuck somewhere circa 1965, had become the hometown for wide-eyed country boys and tired old queens. Loren fit neither profile.

Or so he hoped.

He searched for respectable cruising venues and found the town's first, newly formed homophile organization, the university's Rainbow Alliance. That it called itself "homophile" gave some sense of how far back in the past it was stuck. Loren attended some meetings and found that the alliance's members were ten years younger than him and so nervous at admitting to others what they wanted that they jumped three feet high if you whispered the words "anal sex." Proposing anything stronger than that was clearly impossible, and Loren knew that, as a faculty member, he was in a particularly vulnerable position. The gay rights he was beginning to read about in the newspapers hadn't yet made their way to Mayhill.

He grew bored with the alliance meetings and stopped going to them. His drinking began again, worse than before. One night, in a fit of fury, he threw into Firewater River his master's jacket and the leather collar his master had given him, and watched them carried away by the rolling waters. Afterwards he felt empty, adrift. He tried to bury himself in his work, sending off paper after paper to the academic journals on Plato's concept of perfection. But he couldn't seem to concentrate on the meaning of Being when all meaning had been lost to him.

Then two things happened so rapidly, one after the other, that Loren might have thought he was in a Greek play, a puppet for the gods.

The first act of the gods occurred when he met an old cruising partner, one of the few who had been willing to indulge him in a mild way. "I've met a woman I think you'd like," he said.

Loren didn't bother to rise to this tired old jibe. "Who is she?"

"Her name's Melody." The man smiled. "She shares your interests."

Melody, it turned out, was a dominatrix. The word was new to Loren, as was much of what she said. It had not occurred to him before that the heterosexuals of the world might have their own mysteries, though now that he thought of it, nothing seemed more obvious.

Melody didn't seem much interested in keeping her mysteries secret. A friend of hers had told her that sadism and masochism societies were starting in other parts of the country, she said. She wanted to form one in Mayhill. Would Loren help?

And so the Black and Blue Club was formed under the relatively innocuous name of the Mayhill Sexual Education Society. Just as Melody had predicted, members trickled in slowly but steadily. All of them were straight. No gays.

"Give it time," said Melody. "Your kind will turn up eventually. In the meantime, you can make yourself useful."

Thus it was, one day in late 1977, that Loren stood up in the low-rental basement where the club held its meetings and began to give a talk entitled "Fantasy Versus Reality: How to Tell Them Apart and Keep Them Apart." The title was vanilla enough that Loren had been able to advertise the lecture in the university newspaper, but none of the Rainbow Alliance members had shown up. Only the usual, straight crowd.

Then, ten minutes into the lecture, Loren looked up from his notes to see that a young man had slipped into one of the back-row seats. He wore a lambda pin on his tee-shirt. Loren nearly lost his place in the notes but continued speaking, describing how S&M fantasy could be a fuel for good acts in this world, provided that the fantasy was not mistaken for reality. He could feel the young man's eyes upon him.

Afterwards, Loren brusquely set aside attempts to entangle him in conversation with the regular members of the club. Instead, he stepped into the men's room and waited, his heart pounding.

The young man arrived within seconds. He had steady eyes – eyes that were older than his face.

He said without preliminary, "I need you to teach me, sir."

o—o—o

By the end of 1979, Loren was thirty-one, and the Black and Blue Club had six gay male members besides himself. All of them were students from the Rainbow Alliance, persuaded by his lectures into giving S&M a try. He taught them a few obvious acts, things they would have figured out for themselves in any case. The mysteries he reserved for his apprentice.

To Loren's disappointment, he found that his steady-eyed apprentice did not desire all that Loren had to offer. They fought about it, both men equally quiet, both men equally firm. Finally Loren gave way, recognizing that he couldn't make his apprentice into something the apprentice did not want to be. Loren didn't make the apprentice his slave; neither did he teach his apprentice to be a sadist, in any meaningful sense of the word. Instead, he gave his apprentice the parts of the mystery he would need to know in order to command other men, and to make those men do what they desired most to do but could not achieve alone.

What his apprentice chose to do, he did beautifully. Loren was satisfied in the end.

In all other respects, though, Loren had returned to restlessness. He knew that the outside world was to blame. Every night, it seemed, the evening news held another story about a changing world in which gays could openly speak of their sexuality. Everywhere, men like himself were coming out of the closet and boldly proclaiming to the world what they were.

Except the leathermen. Loren's kind were nowhere to be found in the news or in the few books about homosexuality that were passed around in Mayhill, from hand to hand. Perhaps the leathermen were mentioned in the many other gay books that never made it as far as Mayhill. Mayhill was still a closed world; visitors came and went, restless young gays went and did not return, but no one brought the information Loren desired.

The first time that, with a shock, he encountered another gay man wearing leather, he thought he had found what he was seeking. But it meant nothing; leather, he was told, was fashionable in the gay community these days, that was all.

A couple of the Black and Blue Club's gay members started wearing leather. They looked delicious in it. Until now, Loren had restrained himself, having the vague feeling that faculty members should not take sexual advantage of students, even students who talked loudly of their fondness for being whipped. But he could no longer resist. One night he invited home a gay member of the Black and Blue Club – a former student who had dropped out of the university and who had shown a taste for the heavier games that Loren was fond of. The man seemed startled, but cautiously agreed to play a scene with Loren.

Loren put on his best show that night, borrowing the man's leather jacket and acting toward him as he remembered his master acting toward him. His chest was almost unbearably tight when it came time to whip the man. Then he paused, concerned, as he saw that the man was shaking. With fear? Or anguish? Loren bent closer to see.

Not fear. Not anguish. The man was shaking with suppressed laughter.

Loren sent the man home and spent a long time looking at himself in the mirror. He was wearing what an unkind student had called his John Travolta Lookalike Outfit: bell-bottoms, a wide collar, a partly unbuttoned shirt. Underneath it all was himself: five foot five, scrawny, with hair that persisted in forming girlish curls no matter how much he tried to train it otherwise. He imagined the leather jacket again, with himself underneath.

Then he opened a hidden bottle of whiskey and set out to drink himself unconscious.

His apprentice arrived before he had completed the task. From the look in the apprentice's eyes, Loren could tell that the story of what had happened had spread. His apprentice, though, simply opened a can of lime soda from the refrigerator, sat down cross-legged at Loren's feet, and began talking about the latest man he was serving as master toward. The apprentice spoke of what they had been doing, of how the other man was growing in strength through their work together. The apprentice talked on and on, revealing, with every word, Loren's skill as a mentor, and how his apprentice had put Loren's teachings to good use.

Loren put the unfinished bottle aside finally. "I can't go on like this any more," he said simply.

"No," his apprentice agreed. After a moment he added: "Leather is everywhere. That must mean something."

"It's just a fashion."

"But the fashion must have started somewhere. Maybe someone knows, in the big city."

Loren passed a hand wearily over his face. "None of the brotherhood live there. My master told me."

"Sir, that was fifteen years ago! Don't you think things might have changed since then?"

And in that blinding light of his apprentice's insight, Loren's world altered again.

They began their research, predictably, in an academic fashion. His apprentice, who had reached his senior year of college, started examining the scientific journals on sexuality that he had access to by virtue of his work at the university library. Amongst the many articles that described solemnly the dysfunctional lives of sadists, homosexuals, and other sexual deviants, his apprentice found an article that referred to a homosexual sadomasochistic subculture. No information was given, though, on how to contact this subculture.

Loren, meanwhile, was examining what he regarded as his most prized possession, other than his complete set of the Loeb Classics: a gay porn novel that had been given to him several years before by an out-of-town visitor to the cruising grounds. Loren was the only member of the Black and Blue Club to possess such a treasure, and the novel had been well-thumbed, not only by the homosexual members of the club, but also by the heterosexual members, who had never seen a modern erotica novel other than Melody's equally well-thumbed copy of The Story of O. Loren valued the novel more for its existence than for its subject matter: it was a warm-and-fuzzy coming-of-age tale that put him to sleep more effectively than hot cocoa. But rereading it carefully, he thought he detected signs of a different gay world lurking beyond the lovers' vision: a world where sex was rough and anything might happen.

"Gay magazines," his apprentice suggested. "Someone I met at the cruising grounds told me that there are gay magazines and newspapers now. He said he meets people through the personal ads that are run in them. Maybe somebody like your master is advertising in those magazines. We could see whether any of the ads include the word leather."

"And where would we find such a magazine?" Loren asked grimly. "We can't wait another decade for someone to show up at the cruising grounds who is carrying one."

"The big-city bars," his apprentice responded promptly. "I'll bet that's where they're circulated, sir. People probably hand the issues off to one another, under the tables."

It was a good thought. All of the gay members of the Black and Blue Club had heard, from one out-of-town source or another, that bars for gay men existed in the big cities. Even Loren's master had mentioned that. But Loren shook his head.

"Wherever these places are, they must be underground," he said. "Hidden away off alleys, known only to the men who visit them regularly. No, we need more definite information than that. We need to know where to find our kind."

He returned to the cruising grounds once more, this time with his apprentice. Together they questioned closely every man who came from the outside world. All of the out-of-town cruisers had heard of leather, all of them knew that it was connected in some way with S&M. None of them could say how.

Finally they met a man who claimed to be a regular customer at a so-called leather bar. But even he couldn't tell them much. "Most of us there aren't into sadomasochism," he reported. "We just like to wear leather."

"What about the ones who like sadomasochism?" Loren asked quickly as his apprentice stood nearby – a foot back, deferring to the more experienced Ess, just as he had been taught.

The visitor shrugged. "They talk among themselves. Someone told me they're a closed fraternity, full of their own secrets. They'll only talk to someone who's already been initiated."

Loren turned, and his eyes met his apprentice's.

A week later, in early January 1980, the six gay members of the Black and Blue Club gathered at the town's bus station to bid farewell to Loren on his visit to the big city. Loren could have laughed. Here he was, in the age of satellite television and long-distance phone calls, and he was being sent away like Columbus, to discover the New World.

When he arrived home a week later, at three a.m., only his apprentice was waiting at the bus station. "Well?" said his apprentice as soon as he had taken Loren's bag to carry.

Loren let his face remain expressionless for a minute, long enough to allow the first glimpse of disappointment to appear in his apprentice's face.

Then he smiled. "I found them."

Chapter Text

Zephyra stared at the poster of upcoming attractions, trying to solve a riddle.

Oct. 18: Back to the Future (PG)
Oct. 25: Young Sherlock Holmes (PG)
Nov. 1: Cruising (R)
Nov. 8: Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (PG)
Nov. 15: The Purple Rose of Cairo (PG)
Nov. 22: D.A.R.Y.L. (PG)
Nov. 29: The Black Cauldron (PG)
Dec. 6: Rocky IV (PG)
Dec. 13: Police Academy 2: Their First Adventure (PG-13)
Dec. 20: Clue (PG)
Dec. 27: It's a Wonderful Life (G)

Special New Year's Eve Performance: The Rainbow Alliance Actors perform Harvey Fierstein's play, "The International Stud" (adults only).


Zephyra frowned as she read the list again. Cars passed on the street next to her, but not many; even on a Saturday night, Mayhill was quiet. Zephyra sighed, thinking of the exciting nightlife that had surrounded and permeated Eastside Metropolitan College. Here in Mayhill, the only choices on a Saturday evening were to go to a bar or to watch a family movie.

Footsteps came briskly down the sidewalk, slowed, and paused. She ignored them. She was on her half-hour break between the time the early movie let out and the time the first customers began to arrive for the late movie. She wasn't going to waste her time answering questions about ticket prices.

The pause was brief; almost immediately the steps started up again. Thereby alerted to who the onlooker must be, she whirled and called, "North!"

North was about to step off the sidewalk to cross to the other side of the street; he paused again. As always, there was a balancing moment when it wasn't clear whether he would stay. Then he retraced his steps, his gaze focussed, not on her, but on the list of attractions.

"New announcements, I see," he remarked, scanning the list with an impartial eye.

"I was just trying to make sense of a riddle," she replied. "You're good at sorting out puzzles, aren't you?"

"So my job description claims." North settled his back against the ticket-seller's booth, which jutted out from the front of the cinema. It was the closest he ever came to looking relaxed. His arms were crossed, his posture straight, his eyes cool. "North Pole," he was called by his colleagues. Zephyra, upon learning this shortly after she first met him three years before, had set out to thaw him. It was like trying to thaw a glacier. The only progress she'd made in three years was to persuade him to use first names. Her brother assured her that was a major victory.

She pointed to the poster and said, "One of these movies doesn't fit in with the others. Which one?"

"Are you testing me?" It was typical of North to be suspicious of her motives from the moment she began a conversation.

"I'm trying to figure out whether I'm the oddball or this list is."

North scanned the list again. He still hadn't looked at her. "Well," he said, "they're all films from this year except the Christmas movie and this one." He pointed. "This was issued a few years back."

She nodded. "And it's rated R. On some holidays, we host experimental theater, but we almost never show movies that are rated R. Alfred says he wants to run a movie theater that he could bring his mother to at any time. So why this film?"

"I imagine," North said in a reflective manner, "it's because I recommended the film to him."

Zephyra turned and stared. North was dressed for work in the same bright blue uniform that her brother wore. On his right hip was a gun; on his left hip was a flashlight. She had already seen that his handcuffs were tucked behind his back. His head was bare of its usual logoed cap, since the Mayhill police were currently arguing over whether the police department's motto, "True Men Only," discriminated against the police's female staff. Zephyra thought the fact that the police had to argue over the issue said a great deal about Mayhill.

"You recommended it?" she said. "North, I don't know much about Cruising, but I do know that it's a gay movie!"

"Yes, I know." North's eye stayed fastened on the poster. "There are several scenes in the movie in which homosexual characters are murdered."

"And you recommended that Alfred run the film? Why, so that the homophobic kids around here can take pointers?"

The moment she spoke, she knew she'd made a mistake. North's eye switched to her and lingered there a moment. Then he said, "I'm due at work," and stepped away from the ticket counter.

"North, wait!" She had to catch hold of him to keep him back. "I was just joking. It was a bad joke. Tell me why you want the film to be run."

North looked down at her with such an icy expression that she hastily removed her hand. He didn't move away, though. After a minute he said in a colorless voice, "Your boss asked me to recommend some movies that would fit in with the police's current public education campaign. I told him he really ought to talk to someone in the public education division, but that your brother had mentioned that the police would be running an anti-violence campaign at the end of the year. I gathered that your brother was particularly concerned by the amount of violence that's being aimed at teenagers who are perceived to be homosexual."

Zephyra cocked her head. "North," she said, "this doesn't make any sense. You're anti-gay."

For a moment she thought he would walk away again. But he simply said, "I'm opposed to homosexual acts. That's different."

She sighed aloud. She supposed that, in North's universe, you could jail a man for having sex with another man but defend his right to be gay. North's expression didn't change, but his gaze drifted away from her again, toward the poster. After another minute he said, "I ought to introduce you to Terry."

"Terry?"

"My friend. He's homosexual."

It took her a moment to digest the way he had phrased the first sentence – "my friend," not "one of my friends" – and so she was slow in picking up the meaning of the second sentence. "You have a gay friend? How did you meet him, by arresting him?"

She smiled this time to make clear that she was joking, but North didn't smile back. "Actually, yes."

Zephyra groaned. "This sounds like a made-for-TV movie. Go on."

"I encountered him in a bar four years ago. He was wearing an earring – you know, the way some of the high school boys do, to show they're rebels against their parents. He looked young to me, so I asked to see his ID. I thought the bar owner might be selling drinks to underage persons."

"And he was underage?"

"No, but he panicked and took a swing at me. So I had to bring him down to the station. We had an interesting talk there. I'd been worried about his presence in the bar, because it was the type of place that attracted rough clientele. Terry said he'd heard the same and was checking the bar out to see whether it was as bad as the rumors claimed before he passed judgment. . . . At any rate, we discovered we had more in common than we'd thought. I'd tended to encounter homosexuals only under the worst circumstances, and the same was true for him concerning police. So we educated each other. A couple of years later, he recommended some films to me so that I could see what homosexuals are really like."

"And did you watch the movies?"

"Yes. They turned out to be films about one-night stands, infidelity, and cross-dressing."

Zephyra sighed again. "In other words, you ended up with the same views of homosexuality as before."

North looked at her again, a long look. "Do you know what profiling is?"

She shook her head, reaching into her pocket for gum. She offered a piece to North, who declined it. She thought that, if he had accepted it, it would have been a proclamation that the world was about to end. She popped the mint gum into her mouth as North said, "It's the police practice of questioning someone because he fits a certain profile for what a criminal looks like. For example, you see a man wearing lots of gold rings and standing next to an expensive car, surrounded by scantily dressed women. You know that many procurers fit this profile. So you stop and question the man."

"Let me guess," said Zephyra. "If you want to find a man who has had gay sex, you look for somebody with girlish clothing and a limp wrist, right?"

North nodded. "That was the way I worked for many years. Terry pointed out to me that there are many heterosexual men who are effeminate. He also pointed out that I couldn't assume that every man in Mayhill who found himself to be attracted to men acted on that attraction in an unlawful manner. After watching the movies and seeing the variety of manners in which different homosexuals acted, I had to admit that Terry was right."

Good lord. Had she actually heard North admit he'd been wrong? Zephyra made a note to herself to mark this day in her diary. "And what did you teach Terry?"

North didn't speak for a minute. Then he said, "Not to judge by appearances."

The silence that followed was so awkward that Zephyra had almost despaired of finding a way to break it when she remembered the poster. Hastily she turned and said, "So what's special about this particular movie?"

"Cruising? I haven't seen the film myself, but someone at the station told me that it's about a series of murders that take place in violent homosexual bars."

She groaned aloud. "North," she said in her most patient voice, "being gay doesn't mean you're violent. Most violent crime is committed by straights."

North looked at her, as though wondering whether it was worth his while to answer her. Finally he said, "I didn't state that all homosexuals are violent. I said that there are bars for violent homosexuals."

"North—"

"Zephyra, I don't think you know nearly as much as you think you do about homosexual culture." He folded his arms. "The bar I met Terry in, the one he was so worried about – from the moment it opened, it has attracted the wrong sort of customers. And by 'wrong sort,' I don't mean homosexuals – I mean that the bars attracts homosexual men who are violent. The bar encourages them to commit acts of violence."

She folded her arms too, just to show that she wouldn't be swayed. "If they're that violent, you must have shut the bar down."

"Oh, we've tried, believe me. But the man who runs the bar keeps up a squeaky clean appearance. Any illegal acts that take place, occur off his premises; we can't pin anything on him or his partner or the bar itself. I'm hoping that some of his customers will watch this" – he pointed to the movie title – "and realize the danger in which they're placing themselves and others."

Zephyra ran her hand wearily through her hair. Talking to North was like talking to a glacier. You chipped and chipped and chipped, and at the end you found that you were still sitting on a giant rock of ice. "Maybe that sort of thing takes place in the big cities," she said, trying to concede to North what little was possible. "But here in Mayhill—"

"Zephyra!" Alfred shouted from the door of the movie theater; then he looked at her with disgust. "Oh, there you are. Your break was over ten minutes ago. Why are you gabbing out here?"

North was already turning away. She barely had time to say, "Goodbye," before Alfred pulled her into the lobby. She looked over her shoulder and saw that North had stepped into the street. He didn't look back.

"The popcorn machine needs fixing again," Alfred said. "And I need you to fold some flyers while you're waiting for the customers. And your brother dropped by."

She halted in her tracks. "Ken? When?"

"While you were gabbing. He came through the back entrance and asked where you were. I told him you must be in the ladies' room, so he asked me to give you this."

She snatched the note from Alfred's hands. She had gone to see Ken before work, letting herself into his apartment with her key. He had still been sleeping soundly then, so she had left him a note, reminding him that she would visit after her shift.

The note from Ken was uncharacteristically short.

Hey, Zeph,

I'm afraid I won't be able to get together tonight. I forgot when I talked to you last night that I'd promised to go to a party tonight. I'll see you tomorrow, okay?

Love as always,
Your Ken-Boy


"Oh, no," she whispered. "Not a party. Please, anything but a party."

o—o—o

Loren carefully wiped dust off the jukebox that stood along the middle of the back wall of his bar. The jukebox was hand-painted with flowers, an evocation of Loren's adolescent past, when he had listened to flower-child music in order to irritate his parents; playing music about love and peace had been Mayhill teenagers' way of acting highly radical in the 1960s. Loren's partner had protested the jukebox's flowers at first, claiming they would drive away the leather customers.

"If the customers can survive me, they can survive this," Loren replied with such grimness that Elia kept quiet.

That had been before the bar debuted. Loren surveyed the room now, taking in the small crowd that gathered during the after-hours when the bar was officially closed except to a "private" club meeting. Dick was at the door, checking that no vanilla customers wandered in. Newcomers – leathermen or leather-would-bes – were always welcome during the bar's leather hours, though they had to pay a fee for "membership," which covered the cost of the liquor that Loren could not officially sell after eleven p.m., by local law.

No newcomers were in sight. The regulars, who had begun to drift in early, were mainly gathered around the pool table, watching the game between Tank and another Ess. Felix, perched on a bar stool that he had dragged over to the pool table, was offering Tank unsolicited advice. That he was deliberately trying to provoke the Ess became obvious when Tank growled a threat and Felix responded with a grin.

Orville was more properly behaved, standing against the wall with his hands behind his back and his eyes lowered. He was watching Tank beneath his lashes, Loren noticed. The young man was dressed in a white tee-shirt, button-fly levis, and engineer boots, while Felix, who thought costumes were silly, had tossed a leather jacket over a dress shirt, slacks, and loafers. On Felix, this actually looked good.

Loren forced his gaze away from the ems. Felix was one of the former Black and Blue Club members; Orville was a recent recruit who had turned eighteen the previous winter and had immediately gone in search of men who could help him fulfill his longtime dream of being held captive. Loren had happened across Orville at the cruising grounds, trying to convince an out-of-town visitor to tie him up. Loren had quickly persuaded the young man to move his games to safer quarters.

Most of the rest of the customers had either found the bar during the past five years or, like Tank and Dick, were part of the original contingent of leathermen who had descended upon Loren's Lashes on its opening night.

They had been living in Mayhill all along, it turned out. They didn't visit the cruising grounds because they had been smart enough to figure out that far more interesting activities were taking place elsewhere in the country. They travelled as often as their finances would permit, to the big city and beyond, seeking out all that was available to interested gays who left Mayhill: leather bars, leather bathhouses, leather clubs, leather sex stores, and even bookstores that sold leather books and leather magazines.

Some of these institutions had existed for years. The leather bar that Loren went to on his first visit to the big city had been open for two decades. It had existed at the time that his master lived in the city, and it was world-famous. But to avoid problems with the city police, the bar hadn't advertised itself locally, so his master had never known about it.

All that had changed long ago. Leathermen in the big cities no longer hid themselves; leather magazines weren't passed from hand to hand, as they would have to be in Mayhill. Big-city leathermen openly proclaimed themselves for what they were. Loren could have found them any time in the past decade, if he had bothered to look.

He would have time later to curse himself at length for his stupidity. His immediate task, on that opening night, was to deal with the unexpected arrival of a dozen men clad in leather and studs and chains.

It had been a long shot to expect that even one leatherman would show up at their doorway. He and Elia had discussed the matter before spending a goodly amount of their remaining savings on a full-page ad in Mayhill's newspaper, proclaiming the opening of a new bar in the Lonesquare district. The bar's hours were eleven a.m. to nine p.m., closing two hours earlier than Mayhill law required, which gave them an air of respectability.

At the bottom of the ad, written in smaller print as though as an afterthought, they had stated, "10 p.m.: Meeting of the Mayhill Leather Club. New members welcome. Half-price memberships for those wearing leather/levis." Then they had waited to see whether they would be inundated by college kids who wanted to look like Fonzie.

When the gay leathermen showed up instead, Loren had retreated to the storage room, leaving Elia to welcome them. Elia had always possessed an air of secure manliness; he was the type of man who didn't make a show of his masculinity, because he had no need to. The leathermen had looked suspiciously at the jukebox and at the gay Black and Blue Club members, who were huddled in a corner of the room, staring at the real leathermen with awe. Then the leathermen had looked again at Elia in his black tee-shirt and levis, had shrugged, and had ordered drinks.

Only to lower their bottles hastily when Loren walked into the room and announced who he was.

It would have been the quickest exodus in Mayhill's business history had Elia not had the wits to ask Loren, in a loud voice, what the name was of the club that his old master had belonged to. Loren's reply did the same magic as the club's name had done at the big-city leather bar, when Loren found himself barred from entrance due to his eccentric outfit. Loren's master, it turned out, had belonged to an early gay motorcycle club whose name was now legendary among leathermen. For this reason, and for this reason alone, Mayhill's leathermen grudgingly accepted that Loren had the right to run a leather bar.

They also assumed that Loren was an em. But Loren was used to that by now.

"So a shudder runs through the masochist chained to the wall," Felix was saying as Tank lined up his shot. "The em cranes his head around so he can see the Ess standing behind him with the bull-whip, and he says, 'Hey, are you going to beat me with that thing?' And with a gleam in his eye, the Sadist says, 'No.'"

Several of the men groaned. Tank didn't even bother to groan. He carefully hit a ball into a side-pocket, then nodded to his rival, who studied the remaining balls, ignoring the pesky em.

Evidently trying to save Felix from complete humiliation, Bill said, "It's an old joke, but it relates a problem any Ess faces. How do you punish an em who enjoys pain?" He cast a significant look at Felix, who merely laughed.

Tank waited until his rival had made his shot before saying, "Not a problem. If the em is worth anything, your real displeasure at his misconduct will be punishment enough. If not . . . Well, then, he isn't worth playing with." He didn't bother to look at Felix while he spoke.

His rival, picking up a glass proffered to him by an em, said, "What about the type of em who even gets turned on by real pain and humiliation? Not play pain and humiliation, but the genuine article."

"I haven't met him," Tank said tersely.

"He's right, though," Bill interjected. "Such a man could exist. I used to meet some guys at the cruising grounds . . . Well, that's why I don't go to the cruising grounds any more."

"You don't go to the cruising grounds because you're married," Felix said with a laugh.

Bill – who was monogamously tied to a male lover in the big city – merely rapped Felix lightly on the head and said, "Shut up, Felix. I know that you haven't paid any attention when I said that the last five hundred times, but I'll try again: Shut up. You might imitate Orville for a change."

Orville, who was still busy staring at Tank while pretending to stare at the floor, looked exceedingly uncomfortable at becoming the center of everyone's attention. Loren decided that the least he could do was direct his own gaze elsewhere.

There wasn't much else to see in the bar. This place had been a Western-style bar before Loren and his partner bought it, and they had done little except to paint the walls a neutral color and take down the gaudier of the Western decorations. The rough-planed wooden tables and high-backed benches they had kept, as appropriate for the bar's new rough-and-ready atmosphere. They had also kept the four-sided island bar in the middle of the room, where drinks were mixed and served. In the dimness of the after-hours lighting – with everything in dusk-light except the pool table and the bar – the one figure who stood out brightly in the rest of the room was Elia, leaning over the bar counter to read a magazine.

He was dressed this evening in his usual jeans, but his ubiquitous black tee-shirt had been replaced by a white tee-shirt with a picture of a Rubik's Cube on it. On his head was a baseball cap with the word "Homeboy" written across it.

Some people, who had not known Elia for long, thought he had no sense of humor. Actually, he had quite a lively sense of humor; it was just that the humor tended only to surface when he was angry or nervous. Loren could guess which Elia was tonight.

Loren made his way up to the bar, ducked under the counter to make his way into the island, and then straightened up, reaching for a clean glass as he did so. He scanned the room, wondering whether he had missed anyone sitting in the shadows.

Without looking up, Elia said, "He isn't here yet."

Loren decided not to pretend innocence. That never worked with Elia. Instead he said, "You don't know what he looks like."

"I know that no one's here who hasn't been here for months or years. Maybe he decided that dungeons aren't his thing." He carefully turned a page of the magazine.

Looking over Elia's shoulder as he poured himself a rum and coke, Loren saw that Elia was reading one of the national newsweeklies, which had an article headlined, "Hudson's Death Spurs Call for More AIDS Funding." Elia seemed to be perusing a sidebar giving the latest, vaguely worded advice concerning how to keep from catching the plague. Not for his own sake, Loren could be sure. More likely it was for the sake of his straight.

Loren asked, "How is Reggie?"

"Middling." Elia turned the page again. "He has a job interview tomorrow. I'm probably going to need to call him some time tonight."

Whenever Loren began to think he had the bleakest sex life of any leatherman in the universe, he reminded himself that Elia's idea of a really rousing S&M session was to listen to a straight guy whine about his unemployment problems. "You'll have plenty of time for that," Loren responded. "I doubt there'll be many customers left in here once the party starts. We have new equipment—"

"Loren," Elia said softly, "I'd like to finish this article."

Some people didn't pay attention to Elia when he spoke softly. Some people were fools. Loren didn't even respond; he took his glass and ducked back under the counter.

Bill caught sight of him as he moved away from the counter. Bill raised his eyebrows, obviously asking whether they should open the dungeon. Loren glanced at his watch, but it was still only half past nine. People tended to arrive early on the bar's monthly dungeon nights; there had been times when Loren had barely gotten rid of his regular bar customers before the town's leathermen emerged from various shadows on the street and made their way to the door. They never lined up by the door before the bar reopened for the leather hours. No one at the bar, not even Loren and Elia, was sure whether the sodomy squad knew the exact purpose of the leather club's meetings. But the sodomy squad had long since figured out that Loren's Lashes was a gay bar masquerading as a regular bar. Standing outside the bar in an obvious manner was a sure incentive for being questioned by one of the squad's patrolmen.

Loren shook his head at Bill and made his way over to the booth nearest the door, deliberately seating himself with his back to the door so that he could survey the remainder of the room. Behind him, he heard Dick admit their newest member: Grover, a thirty-year-old parking lot attendant who was out of the closet as a gay man, though not as a leatherman. Grover was wearing only denim, for he hadn't yet saved enough money to buy leather. He would never be given his leather, Loren knew, and felt himself undergo a moment of nostalgia. He turned his gaze again toward Elia, who had abandoned his magazine long enough to pour a drink for Grover. One of these days, Loren thought, he must give Elia his leather. It had been too long.

He let his eye drift over his business partner, taking in his appearance. At twenty-eight, Elia still looked like the college student he had been when Loren first met him, and he still had the same steady eye and manner. Loren couldn't remember the exact moment, during the months of planning before their bar opened, when Elia had stopped calling him sir. The transition had seemed natural at the time. Loren had already been forced to admit to himself that he was no longer the more experienced of the two of them. Elia had far more experience by then than Loren did, though he seemed determined to waste that experience on ungrateful straight men who didn't want to bother to spend money on the professional counselling they needed.

The apprentice was more experienced than his master, and Elia had done more than Loren had ever been permitted to do. Yet he still treated Loren, from time to time, with a deference that Loren found uncommonly touching. If nothing else, Loren thought as he sipped from his drink, he would die knowing that he had passed on the mysteries of leather to a man who deserved them.

Not that most of those mysteries were mysterious any more. Loren turned his attention back to the pool table, where Grover had joined the crowd and was loudly quizzing an experienced em on various aspects of S&M that he had not yet learned. Loren winced, though it was hypocritical for him to do so. He had given S&M demonstrations himself in this bar, stating in stark daylight the secrets that had been entrusted to him in darkness.

Except that these had never really been secret. He knew that now – he knew that many of the traditions that his master had guarded as mysteries had been spoken about openly by others, even at the time when he and his master had first met. His master had known only a small part of the leather world; Loren had learned of the rest through books and through conversations with some of the older leathermen. Everything Loren had taught the leathermen of this community was spoken of elsewhere. Loren had merely passed on his own techniques for accomplishing the tasks.

Nearly everything was known now; secrets were no longer secret, and even the tradition of closed memberships within leather clubs was dying. Loren could not fully regret the loss of the old world. If leather had been more visible in Mayhill, he would not have had to search for it for so long. He welcomed a world where nearly everything about the wonders of gay S&M could be spoken aloud.

Nearly everything. A few secrets that his master had taught him he had not heard anyone else speak. He had not spoken them himself. Except to Elia, who would keep those secrets until he found an apprentice of his own.

Loren's mind was so absorbed in thoughts of Elia that he didn't hear Dick welcome the newcomer. Nor did he see the newcomer until the man had already passed Loren's booth.

The newcomer didn't see Loren either. He went straight up to the bar counter, halting about a yard away. Elia didn't look up from his magazine; the bill of his cap covered his eyes. He was slouched in a pose that made him look even younger than usual.

Loren became aware that the conversation in the barroom had stopped. The ems were all looking hopefully at the newcomer; the Esses were pretending to be more blasé, but even they cast occasional glances. Tank, pausing to chalk his stick, looked the newcomer frankly up and down, though it was unclear whether he was sizing the man up as a rival or wondering whether the man's keys might hang from both sides of his belt.

The newcomer appeared not to notice any of this. He said to Elia, "Sir, I was wondering whether you could tell me where I might find Loren Ba—"

"I'm busy." Elia slurred out the words, the perfect imitation of a bored college student who has taken a part-time job he hates. Several of the customers smiled in anticipation. The onlookers were the ones who always received the chance to reveal to newcomers, on such occasions, that they'd been played the fool. Elia never revealed the joke himself; he would simply accept whatever reproof the new Ess gave him concerning the proper behavior for an em and would silently follow whatever orders he was given concerning the drink. Elia's humor was subtle, and it cut deep. Which in itself would be warning enough to the newcomer to tread carefully in Elia's presence in the future.

Loren couldn't see Ken's face, but he could see the stiffness enter his back. Loren held his breath. One new Ess, more of a fool than the others, had responded to Elia's insolence by dragging him over the counter by his collar. That had resulted in a trip to the emergency room and a mess with the police, though the Ess had possessed just enough intelligence to tell the police he had gotten into a drunken brawl.

Despite the previous evening's fiasco, Loren really didn't want Ken to start the evening with a visit to the emergency room. He waited as Felix covered his mouth to hold back a snigger. Even Bill was smiling as he watched.

Then Ken said, in the quietest of voices, "Sir, I hope you will forgive me, but I'm new here. Should I have waited for you to speak to me first?"

The Esses who had been pretending indifference suddenly swivelled their heads in Ken's direction. Loren nearly dropped his drink in his lap. Elia didn't look up, but a hint of a smile appeared on his face.

"That's not necessary," he replied. "The dungeon party is through that curtain there. Mr. Baker will be along shortly."

"Thank you, sir," Ken said and made his way to the curtained door next to the jukebox, apparently oblivious to the fact that every eye in the bar was now fixed upon him. He paused at the small table by the doorway, staring down at a plastic container marked with the words, "Metropolitan AIDS Clinic Fund." He carefully took out his wallet, removed a handful of bills from it, and stuffed them into the container. Then he disappeared through the curtain.

Bill was already moving toward the same door, though he had the excuse of being on duty tonight. The other Esses were trying to pretend that they had plenty of time left in which to finish the pool game. The ems looked crestfallen. "Blast," Felix muttered. Then, more hopefully, "Two key-chains, perhaps?"

Loren didn't wait to hear what the assessment was of the rest of the crowd. Elia had lifted his eyes from the magazine; Loren walked over to join him. As Loren reached the bar counter, Elia said, "You didn't tell me he was so good at reading people."

"I didn't know," Loren said ruefully.

Elia fingered the magazine for a moment before adding, "You didn't tell me he was an em."

Loren looked toward the doorway that Ken had walked through. The curtain blocked what little light was inside. Some of the Esses were beginning to make their way to the doorway now, casually talking to one another, as though not keenly aware that they would shortly be competing to attract the interest of the newcomer.

Loren felt a weight upon his chest. He said, "I thought he was an Ess who enjoyed pain."

"Well," said Elia, "I suppose that's one way of putting it."

Loren waited. Elia's judgments were always worth waiting for. After a while, Elia said, "I think he's a chameleon. He figures out what other people are and what they want him to be, and he responds accordingly."

"Bottoming from the top," Loren said in a colorless voice.

"Yeah," Elia replied. He turned his gaze from the door to Loren. "It seems," he said slowly, "that he isn't good enough at reading people to have guessed what you are."

Loren gave a helpless gesture, avoiding Elia's eyes. "Or perhaps he knows me better than I know myself."

Elia's gaze didn't waver. "No," he contradicted softly.

Loren met his eyes then. Everyone had disappeared into the dungeon now except for a trio of ems who couldn't find play partners, as well as Tank, who was evidently so disgruntled by the thought of Esses contending for the right to receive the favor of an em that he had withdrawn himself from the competition. The street outside was silent; no one except the brave or the desperate ventured into Lonesquare at this time of night.

After a minute, Elia said, "I could serve as dungeon master this evening, if you want."

A widow's mite, Loren thought. He knew how much that offer must cost Elia. He forced himself to give a grimace of a smile and responded, "You're not trained for that. No, it's too late to change things." He took a deep breath. "I'm going for a walk. I'll be back in a bit."

Elia nodded and pretended to turn his attention back to the magazine. Dick silently let Loren out onto the street. The night air had turned chill.

Chapter Text

Zephyra knew far more about Ken now than she had ever wanted to know. She knew about the drawer with the first-aid equipment, she knew about the shoebox under the bed holding the knives and matches and candles, she knew about the other drawer with the ropes and fishing line and chain and neatly wrapped needles, and she had even begun to guess the reason for the many belts.

But she still hadn't been able to find the answer to where Ken was tonight. She looked around his bedroom again, her heart pumping in a quick, unsteady rhythm. Nothing in the kitchen, nothing in the living room, nothing in the bathroom other than the rocky scenery background they had both worked to create, which was propped against the wall. In the bathroom wastebasket she'd found the foil wrapper for the sleeping pills – only two pills, as Ken had said. There was nothing in his bedroom wastebasket other than an overflow of crumpled Kleenex. No condom wrapper this time.

He had to have left a clue of where he had gone. A party invitation, a name scribbled down – anything. He just couldn't have gone out to spend an evening with a group of strangers without letting anyone know where he was.

She had already called his friends from work; none of them had heard of a party tonight. She had been forced to question her father more carefully, since she had told him she would be staying overnight with Ken; he would grow alarmed if he knew that Ken was nowhere to be found. But her father seemed as ignorant of Ken's secrets as he had always been. Apparently she was the only person that Ken had told. She wasn't surprised, but she felt again the weight of her brother's bond to her, like the weight of a iron ball chained to the ankle.

She thrust aside this unpleasant image and looked again. Nothing was out of place in the bedroom; Ken was always neat with his belongings. The duffel bag in which he had carried the rocks sat in the corner of the room, his work shoes lay next to the bed, his police uniform hung neatly in the closet—

Her thoughts stopped suddenly. Ken had been about to shower when she visited him eight days ago. He had opened the door to his closet to change. Had his uniform been hanging in the closet then? No, she was sure she would have remembered it and would have made her usual joke about how it made him look like Little Boy Blue.

If the uniform wasn't hanging in the closet that evening, Ken must have changed out of it only recently. Yes, of course; he had been wearing his uniform when she first saw him that evening. That meant he had worn his uniform when he met the man with the switchblade—

She tore the nail on her right index finger while wrenching open the closet door. The first thing she saw was Ken's robe, turned inside out to reveal the dark stain inside. She had panicked when she saw that earlier, then had remembered that this had occurred last night. The stain wasn't bad in any case. Not as bad as it could have been.

With this thought in mind, she yanked the uniform off its hangers, threw the slacks and jacket onto the bed, and began rifling through the uniform's many pockets. She found the card almost immediately; it was tucked into the inner pocket of the jacket, where Ken usually carried his wallet. A white business card, with no fancy decorations or florid lettering. The first three lines of the card said:

Loren Baker
Loren's Lashes
123 Lonesquare Street


She stared at the card a moment, her eyes lingering on the word "Lonesquare." Then she looked again at the name. Loren Baker. The man with the switchblade who had bedded and then abandoned her brother had carried a silver cigarette case with the initials LB.

The torn nail made her finger ache as she dialed the number on the card; Ken's apartment was so old-fashioned that the bedroom phone had a rotary dial. Three rings passed before a voice said, "Loren's Lashes."

She hesitated. The voice didn't belong to the man with the switchblade; she was sure she would have recognized his high, airy voice. The voice was deeper, a pleasant baritone. Behind the voice, not far away, was the sound of conversation and laughter and the Village People singing "San Francisco."

She thought of the out-of-date clothing that the man with the switchblade had worn, and she took a chance. "Is this the disco?" she asked in the falsetto voice she used when imitating some of the sillier girls she had attended high school with.

"Excuse me?" The voice was so neutral that she couldn't tell whether she had hit near the mark.

"Is this the disco? Loren's Lashes?"

"No, ma'am, we're a bar." Again the voice was neutral, like that of a store clerk telling the time to a passing customer.

"Oh, of course!" She emitted a high-pitched giggle, wincing as she did so. "A bar. That's what Dora said. Has the party begun?"

"Excuse me?" There wasn't even the slightest pause to tell her whether she had hit the mark this time.

"The party. I'm supposed to meet Dora there. I was wondering whether the party had begun yet and I was late."

"I'm sorry, ma'am, but the bar is closed for the night." The voice was firm. "There are no public functions here tonight."

No public functions. Only a private party. She could still hear the voices and music in the background. "Oh, I'm sorry. I must have gotten the name of where we were supposed to meet mixed up with something else she said. Maybe we're supposed to meet at your place for lunch tomorrow."

"We aren't open at lunchtime on Sundays, ma'am." The man at the other end of the phone was firmer now; he was onto her trail.

She said hastily, "Oh, okay. Sorry to have taken up your time. Bye." She hung up quickly.

She took a deep breath, staring down at the card on the night-stand beside her. She could call a taxi, go to the most dangerous part of town at ten o'clock at night, demand to be allowed into an invitation-only party, and find out whether the man running the party would make good with his threat to her concerning the switchblade.

She liked to think that she had at least as much intelligence as her brother. She picked up the phone and dialed.

An answering machine responded. "Pollacco here."

o—o—o

The Town of Mayhill, population 32,000, was founded in 1886 and was the county seat. Mayhill was known throughout the state (though nowhere else) for its respectable university, its Beaux-Arts town hall and Neo-Gothic bridge, and its lively riverside cafés and bars.

It was also known, among those who kept their ears close to the ground, for its disreputable Lonesquare district. None of the businesses there were actually illegal, but they drew the sort of clientele that were regarded by pure-minded Mayhill citizens as having a high potential for criminal activities: A bus station where outsiders came. A pawn shop where poor people sought money, reputedly for drugs. A fast food restaurant frequented by the town's rowdy teenagers. A bar that attracted an abnormally high number of men during its evening hours.

The vice squad's patrol area was almost entirely confined to Lonesquare. Lonesquare Park, also known as the cruising grounds, was the squad's favorite patrol area, followed by the bus stop, where people from the disreputable big cities would wait between bus transfers. Some out-of-town visitors would wander off to Lonesquare Park during their hour-long wait; others found the bus station itself to be more attractive.

Loren, walking down the dark street at 10:30 p.m., glanced over at the station lot and saw that Corporal Pollacco, head of the sodomy squad, was interviewing a young woman who was angrily denying that she was at the station this evening for any reason other than to make use of its cigarette vending machines. Loren wished her well with her argument; the lady in question had been jailed twice before for prostitution. Corporal Pollacco, keeping the regulation distance between himself and his female prisoner, glanced over her head and gave Loren an abrupt nod of greeting as the bar owner passed.

Loren didn't nod back. He didn't greet vipers either.

The vice squad's interest in Loren's Lashes had started from the moment that Corporal Pollacco realized that the new bar would be run by a man who had been arrested twice for sodomy and who often gave lectures at the Mayhill Sexual Education Society, an organization that the police had been trying to find an excuse to shut down for three years. From the moment that Loren's Lashes opened, the squad did everything it could to take the bar out of business. The patrolmen stationed themselves outside the bar each evening and arrested the departing customers on charges ranging from drunk-and-disorderly to running stop signs. If the customers declined to give their names – knowing that their names would be printed in the local newspaper, along with the location where they were arrested – the police would delightedly press higher charges. When the majority of the customers obstinately refused to do anything illegal, the sodomy squad took to holding raids on the bar, searching the bar for illegal materials and activities and arresting anyone who showed the slightest sign of being gay.

An out-of-town visitor, unfortunate enough to be present at the bar on the night of one of these raids, stared open-mouthed as Corporal Pollacco handcuffed a young man who had been arrested on suspicion of sodomy because he was wearing an earring in the wrong ear. "My God," the visitor muttered, "you're still living in the sixties here."

"Not quite," Loren replied grimly. "If this were the sixties, our customers would be strip-searched."

Some of the customers took to fleeing out the side entrance whenever the police arrived. This proved to be a mistake, because the alley next to the bar technically belonged to the business next door. After a dozen customers had been arrested for trespassing in the alley, Loren and Elia hid the storage-room door to the alleyway under shelving. Within a day, the fire inspectors had arrived, accusing them of violating fire codes. The health inspectors were next, claiming to find fault with the cleanliness of the counters that had passed inspection dozens of times before, when the bar was under previous ownership. When the building inspectors started to complain loudly about alterations that Loren and Elia were making to provide private booths for their shyer clients, Loren and Elia began counting down the days that they would be able to stay in business.

What saved them was not mercy from the town authorities but budget cuts. A declining budget for the crime prevention unit required the vice squad to cut back on its members. At the same time, juvenile delinquency rocketed, making arrests of kissing bar customers seem less urgent by comparison. The police chief, no friend to Loren's Lashes, made a practical decision: arrests for vice would take place henceforth only if the vice was publicly enacted or spoken of. If two gays met at a bar and went home and broke the law in so quiet a manner that no neighbors complained, and if the couple remained mute afterwards about what had happened, the police would turn a blind eye.

The squad's visits to the bar grew infrequent thereafter; the patrolmen turned their backs on Loren's Lashes and concentrated their energies on the bus station and on the cruising grounds.

The light on the sidewalk that Loren walked down began to grow more dim. Until now, Lonesquare Street had emitted the faint pretense of being a civilized neighborhood, in the form of street-lamps at regular intervals. But this was where the street-lamps ceased to function. They had been smashed so many times over the years by rocks that the town had finally given up replacing them. Delinquent teenagers were the official explanation for the destruction of property. Loren, who had once been a delinquent teenager himself, knew better.

Only the red light of a neon sign across the street lit the edge of the park. Loren slowed his steps as he came near the low iron fence guarding the park. There had been talk of putting in a new fence some years ago; barbed wire would not have been too strong a measure, from the viewpoint of some of Mayhill's policemen. The Mayhill Historical Preservation Society had thrown a fuss, and the plan had been dropped. The park had been designed at the beginning of the century by a landscape designer with ambitions to be the region's Olmsted. Since the designer did not have Olmsted's instinct for balance, the park was filled to the gills with bushes, evergreen trees, and hedges, creating a maze that looked as though it had been thrown together by a madman.

It was a cruiser's wet dream. Loren, slipping over the fence between the spikes, did not need the dim red light to guide him; he could find his way by ear alone. A slight rustle to the left – that was the space behind the first hedge, the most dangerous one, since it was closest to the street. Only innocent out-of-town visitors picked that spot. Moans to the right – that was the bushy pine, its broad branches hiding any number of sins. Stifled laughter to the left – the park was busy tonight, its visitors taking advantage of the last lingering warmth of summer. Loren passed one of the pick-up points and saw that a shadowy figure was standing there, but he did not pause. He turned to the right and plunged into the embrace of the weeping willow.

It wept tears of leaves that completely enclosed the area within it. Its predecessor had died several years before, much to the relief of the vice squad. The Mayhill Horticultural Association, with refreshing naiveté, had promptly planted a replacement. This one was still a young tree, as young as the first weeping willow had been on the day that Loren ducked under its leaves and saw a match lighting a cigarette, and behind that match a man who wore a bikers' cap.

The willow's womb was pitch black now. Loren paused a moment to ascertain by sound that no one had claimed this spot tonight; then he slowly made his way over to the trunk of the tree. He had carved his initials on the earlier willow's trunk the first time he ever came here at night; it had seemed a sign to him as a boy that the leatherman had chosen to stand right next to his initials. In actual fact, Loren had come to realize in later years, it was pure chance. If Loren had come a half hour before or a half hour later, he would have missed the leatherman, and he would never have been initiated into the mysteries. So much depended on chance, and on catching chance when it came your way.

He closed his eyes and pressed his cheek against the trunk, cool from the evening. They had come here again, himself and his master, on the night that he was collared. By that time, they had been meeting for several weeks in the shabby hotel room where his master stayed in Mayhill, but they had both thought it appropriate that he should undergo the collaring rite here, where they had first met. He remembered the feeling of resentment that had overcome him when his master placed the collar upon him. He knew that this must have been reflected in his face, for his master had promptly slapped him. Then the leatherman had told him calmly, "This is for a reason. One day you will collar your own slave, and you need to know what it's like for him. You need to know it from the inside."

Loren, who had been slapped to the ground, pulled himself back onto his knees and glared at his master, but said nothing. His master gave the quirk of a smile that always escaped him when he approved of something Loren had done. "It won't be forever," he said in a gentler voice. "Just remember that, while you wear this collar. All of this is so that you can train a slave of your own."

Loren hit the tree with his fist. His fist landed where the initials had been on the first tree; the tree rustled its leaves in protest. Nearby laughter abruptly stopped, as did nearby moans. There was a long pause as the park's inhabitants held their breaths. Then a wind sighed through the park, rustling the willow leaves again. Reassured, the cruisers returned to their business.

Loren sighed and leaned back against the trunk, his mind's eye fixed on the three Fates: What Has Been, What Is, and What Is Going To Be – or rather, what could have been.

What Has Been he could easily recall: Himself catching Ken's eye at the Black and Blue Club. Ken, obedient to the signal, coming forward. Why? Perhaps because Loren had not crowded Ken the way the others had, but had left him free to make his choice.

Ken's voice from the past said, "Excuse me, sir." The same words he had used to the barkeeper whom he knew to be an Ess. Loren turned—

Time hung on that turning. What if he had followed his instincts and said, "Am I what you want, boy?" What would have happened then? Would Ken have laughed? Or would he have played the chameleon, turning his skin to its natural color in order to give Loren what he wanted?

Loren would never know. His edge had been blunted by years of indifference from ems; he had lost the willingness to take the chance at being laughed at. And because of that, he had lost Ken.

Some other Ess, perhaps, could have found a way to mend this matter. He could have turned what had happened into a joke, or into a test of Ken's loyalty. But not Loren. What little chance Loren had of convincing Ken that he was an Ess had been lost in that moment. Ken would never be able to take Loren seriously now, having witnessed him pleading and screaming and crying. And even if that hadn't been the case, Ken had heard Loren state quite clearly his repugnance for any further contact between them. By now, Ken's mind would be on the other Esses available to him, and once he had his first taste of them, he would forget the limp-wristed man who had shown such scorn for him.

It ought not to matter. After Ken had lost control in the bedroom, Loren had told Ken that he wouldn't play with him again, and though he had thought then that Ken was a careless Ess rather than an em in need of mastering, there still remained the fact that Ken had come near to raping Loren. By all logic, Ken should not be worrying at Loren's mind now.

But logic had been broken already. Even before tonight's revelation, Loren knew, he had been thinking about Ken, hoping that he would come to the party – perhaps even hoping that matters could be mended between them. Something had bound him to Ken, though he hadn't known what it was until the moment that Ken revealed the truth about himself.

Now he knew. Loren had finally found his em. And had thrown him away.

The grief and the fury were so sharp within Loren that he didn't hear the footsteps. The first warning came from a bright light that shone upon his face and blinded him. He put his hand up, trying to shield his expression and see who stood behind the light.

"The park closes at sunset. Move along." It was Corporal Pollacco's flat voice, low in order to avoid alerting the other cruisers he planned to surprise. Loren resisted the impulse to shout to warn them; Corporal Pollacco possessed the ability to arrest him for trespassing on town property after hours. But the policeman didn't even wait for an answer. He turned off his flashlight and ducked back under the leaves. As he did so, Loren caught a dim impression of another man standing just outside the leaves, holding the flaccid branches back as though they were a curtain.

"Who is that?" asked the other man in a voice so loud that every cruiser in the park grew instantly still. "And how did you know he was there? He didn't make any noise."

"Keep your voice down, Private." Corporal Pollacco's voice remained as flat as it had been when he spoke to Loren.

"But how did you—" The other policeman's voice ended on a gasp.

"Watch your step," Corporal Pollacco's voice was bland. "It's easy to knock into branches here. . . . The regulars here have favorite hiding spots. You'll get to know them over time."

The private's voice was swallowed up by the sound of a dozen cruisers rapidly scattering, alerted by the novice policeman of the danger they were in. Loren was among them; he wouldn't put it past the head of the vice squad to return and arrest him anyway.

He noticed that Corporal Pollacco hadn't answered the private's first question. One of the more remarkable facts about the sodomy squad's leader was that, in their seventeen years of acquaintance, he had never once demonstrated by look or word that he had first met Loren when he discovered the twenty-year-old young man under this willow tree, bound and naked.

If the corporal had been anyone else, Loren would have attributed this to poor memory of past arrests, or perhaps even to professional honor. As it was, Loren was sure that Corporal Pollacco was simply waiting for the appropriate moment at which to start his blackmail.

Loren reached the edge of the park and stared at the building across the street. Just below the wall-length window on the second floor, the red neon light spelled out, in swirling handwriting, the name of the establishment: Loren's Lashes.

What Is: After two decades of waiting, Loren had carelessly lost his chance to act as an Ess. What Is Going to Be: He was still owner of Mayhill's only leather bar. That meant he couldn't spend the night as he would like to do, namely drinking himself into oblivion.

He stood for another few minutes outside the park railing, smoking a cigarette to settle his nerves. He would have preferred something stronger, but he had been forced to live a model life during the past few years. His apartment had been inspected by the vice squad three times, each time without a warrant. After the third inspection, he and Elia had consulted together and then used their remaining savings to hire a lawyer, who submitted a complaint to the police department against Corporal Pollacco. The complaint had been quickly killed, of course, and Loren went on the assumption that he would receive another knock on the apartment door one of these days. Corporal Pollacco always seemed to know when Loren brought a play partner home; the policeman timed his visits accordingly. Loren figured it was only a matter of time before he was arrested again for sodomy.

He extinguished these depressing thoughts with his cigarette, then stood a minute more, staring at the dark building across the street. It had been built at the turn of the century and originally served as a firehouse. Some mid-century entrepreneur had torn out the entire second-story wall facing the street and replaced it with glass. For unaccountable reasons, the building hadn't collapsed. Yet. Loren and Elia had been able to buy the building cheap because of its uncertain construction and its undesirable location. Its location was perfect for their purposes.

The street-side shades on the ground floor were drawn now. The shades were black, but even so, Loren could see light spilling out from underneath the door. A young patrolman – the same one Loren had heard speaking before, he guessed – emerged from the park, saw the light, and frowned. He began to cross the street.

Corporal Pollacco emerged from nowhere. Loren supposed that he had been in his usual residence in the shadows of hell. The corporal grabbed hold of the patrolman, who winced at the grip on his arm, and a short conversation followed. Then the patrolman nodded, and he and Corporal Pollacco went their separate ways, the patrolman walking away from the bar.

Loren felt a smile tug at the side of his mouth. His apartment had been raided three times, but the bar had been raided no less than six times during the leather hours. The first time it had happened, the vice cops had burst in just as the leader of Mayhill's Christian Motorcycle Club was beginning a prayer to God to save Mayhill from loose and licentious behavior. Most of the patrolmen had stared blankly; a couple had gone down on their knees. Corporal Pollacco had simply stared hard at Loren, as though Loren had hired the Christian bikers as actors to hide his nefarious activities.

The remainder of the raids had been more subdued. On four occasions, the vice squad had encountered the same gathering of Christian bikers. They had checked to see that no alcohol was being sold after hours, then had quietly slipped away, leaving the bikers to pray and to exchange social chit-chat.

All of these raids had occurred during the weekdays. The sixth raid came on a weekend. Elia, whose mind travelled twice as fast as anyone else that Loren knew, had led the gay leathermen in an impromptu sing-along of "Jesus Loves Me." Everyone present knew the words; nearly all of the men there had been raised in one of Mayhill's churches, and a few, like Elia, maintained their allegiance. The patrolmen looked around, saw only the familiar mixture of Christianity and biking gear, and had left without a word, never noticing that Tank was singing, "Jesus Fucks You."

Corporal Pollacco would have noticed. He would also have noticed the tell-tale keys and handkerchiefs and would have investigated their meaning. But by then the head of the sodomy squad had tired of being played the fool and had turned his attention back to the cruising grounds.

The corporal's path crossed with Loren's. This time the head of the sodomy squad didn't nod his greeting. Loren waited until he had passed, then glanced at his watch. He had been in the park longer than he had thought; the glowing dial of the watch showed that it was a quarter to midnight. No doubt the other leathermen were thinking up suitable punishments for him now. He sighed and crossed the street.

Chapter Text

Zephyra slammed down the phone in disgust. She should have known that Vance would be of no help. He should have been of help; he was Ken's closest friend, and he had the right sort of job training for hunting down people. But as soon as she had said the words "Loren's Lashes," Vance had said that he couldn't help her search for her brother.

Typical of him. Ken didn't have the sort of friends he deserved. Vance was the only one who might have even halfway understood the sort of mess Ken had gotten himself into this time.

She played with the tassels of the quilt on Ken's bed, toying with the idea of calling her father. He wouldn't hesitate to accompany her to Lonesquare. But his temper was unpredictable; if he discovered Ken in the arms of another man, what would happen? And her own friends . . . Nice guys and girls, all of them, but if she'd been able to share Ken's secret with them without fearing they'd spread gossip all over town, she should have done so before now.

No, she was better off waiting for her white knight to appear. She stared at the ceiling, trying to tell herself that tonight wouldn't be a repeat of what had happened when she and Ken were sixteen.

o—o—o

Loren opened the bar door with his key and found that the barroom was deserted except for Tank, who had all three of the extra ems at his feet, staring open-mouthed as Tank recounted the glorious old days of leather in San Francisco, before the plague arrived and the bathhouses and clubs were shut down. Since the "old days" had existed until the previous year, Loren wasn't impressed. He went over to where Elia stood, leaning against the wall beside the doorway to the dungeon, with the curtain open a crack. From inside the dungeon came the sound of hammering and laughter.

"What's up?" Loren asked.

"The St. Andrew's cross fell apart without warning," Elia replied, his eyes glued to the scene. "Fortunately, no one was on or near it at the time. The boys did a raid on our basement and managed to hunt up the proper tools to fix the cross."

Loren glanced briefly at the crowd gathered around the cross, which lay on the ground as one of the Esses straddled a beam, pounding nails in and making crucifixion jokes, to the delight of the onlookers.

"Where's Bill?" Loren asked as he pulled back.

"Upstairs. He had to make a call, so I told him I'd keep on eye on things." Elia's voice was even, but his arms were folded and pressed hard against his chest. He was bareheaded now and was wearing his black tee-shirt again, which matched the darkness of his expression.

"I'm sorry I was gone for so long," Loren said quietly.

Elia shrugged but didn't remove his gaze from the scene until Loren pulled him bodily away. The younger man had an expression in his eyes that Loren would have taken to be mere hurt if he hadn't known that it was equal parts anger.

To calm him, Loren said, "Did we get any calls?"

Elia didn't reply for a moment; then he let out his breath slowly and started toward the bar counter. "Just one. A crank call. Someone trying to wangle an invitation to the party for themselves and a friend."

Loren rolled his eyes as Elia slipped behind the counter. Loren had been largely successful in changing his speech pattern out of the tones of a screaming queen, mainly because he had never used that voice in the classroom. But he knew that his body refused to relinquish certain long-practiced gestures. He wondered how many of those gestures had been noticed by Ken.

"Maybe you should have invited them," he said to Elia. "We could use new blood here."

From the look Elia gave him, it was clear that Elia knew what he had in mind. "You wouldn't have been interested in them. They're women."

"Oh?" Loren was momentarily caught off-guard. He wondered what the other leathermen would think if a couple of lesbians turned up at the dungeon. Tank would hate it, which was reason enough to give the idea serious consideration.

"If she calls again, let me talk to her," he told Elia. "I'll see whether they're better suited for the Black and Blue Club or for here."

Elia nodded before adding, "I meant what I said before, you know. I can master the dungeon tonight, in your place."

Loren wondered what had happened in his absence to make Elia so insistent on this matter. "Dear, that's not necessary." Loren kept his voice low, but he heard a sudden pause in Tank's monologue, and he knew that the Ess must have overheard him. He could imagine the face that Tank was making now. Loren didn't care. His old master had called him "dear" once, when Loren was in very great pain, and Loren had never seen any reason to treat his own apprentice differently.

Elia looked ready to argue, so Loren added quickly, "You're not trained for this. Monitoring without training is as dangerous as mastering without training."

There was a pause, and then Elia said, "All right. But keep your eye peeled for trouble tonight."

Something had definitely happened while he was gone. Or perhaps the warning was simply Elia's innate sense of rising trouble, which allowed him to step in and quell quarrels in the bar before anyone had so much as raised his voice. Loren thought of quizzing him further, but the hammering had stopped in the dungeon, which meant that he really needed to be at his work. He nodded in reply.

Elia turned his attention to the magazine in front of him. It was a Baptist publication, Loren saw, and it was open to an article about the martyrdom of the apostle Andrew. Very bad timing; it was a wonder that Elia hadn't taken out his temper on Loren. But then, that was Elia: always in control, never letting himself hurt anyone without need.

Darn, but it was hard watching your apprentice surpass you.

Loren turned round and walked toward the curtained doorway, pausing only to glance at the sign that hung on the wall beside the doorway on dungeon nights. Once, in a moment of carelessness, he had left the sign hanging the following day and had not realized it was there until one of his regular daytime customers – a matronly old woman who worked at the charity clothing shop further down the street – asked him what the sign meant. By then, the sign must have been read by most of his Sunday afternoon customers, but nobody had been able to decipher its meaning. Which, Loren thought, epitomized Mayhill.

The meaning of the sign was clear enough to any leatherman.

House Rules

NO drugs.
NO nudity.
NO touching of clothed parts except with toys (see Management for specifics).
NO sharing of toys.
NO wax.
NO fire.
NO electricity.
NO breath play.
NO scat.
NO water sports.


And then, in smaller letters:

A restroom is provided for your convenience. The above rules may be modified, with prior permission of the Management, for the purpose of rites.

Dress code: Leather optional. White sneakers encouraged.


The last was a friendly jab at the dungeon master's daily attire. At least, Loren hoped it was friendly. Elia had a habit of finding little ways to prick Loren for his decision to open a dungeon.

Loren often suspected that Elia had composed the house rules simply by compiling a list of some of Loren's favorite activities. They had argued over the list, especially about the fifth rule; Loren had furiously pointed out that even the Black and Blue Club members didn't shy away from using hot wax. Elia had simply shown Loren a copy of the Mayhill fire code and reminded him of how easy it would be for the town to shut the bar down if they deviated in the smallest way from what was legal.

In the end, they had compromised: Loren had accepted Elia's rules, but they had added a restroom to the dungeon for the sake of an activity that, while technically legal in Mayhill, was best not practiced in public.

All of which left the dungeon a very dull place, from Loren's perspective. On the other hand, it was the only dungeon in Mayhill. Beggars couldn't be choosers. He swept back the folds of the curtain and stepped through the doorway.

It took him a minute to adjust his eyes to the dim red lights of the dungeon, and as he did so, he depended on his ears to tell him what was taking place. Talk and laughter could be heard on both sides of him – so much laughter that he guessed that most of the players were still setting up their equipment. He could hear clangs and cracks and thuds, as though this were a construction site. Overlying it all was the sound of a scratchy record in which Bette Midler belted out "My Knight in Black Leather." Loren winced, but he left Bill to choose the music, and Bill varied the records in accordance with the community's differing tastes.

Loren's pupils had now widened so that he could see the stalls extending along the wall in front of him for the full length of the building. Back when this building was first built, horses were still used to draw fire engines, and these had been the stalls for the horses and engines. The building's layout had fit well with the Western image, so the previous bar had kept the stalls, using them as private dining areas. Loren and Elia had planned to do the same, but after the fiasco with the building inspectors, they had turned the stall area into a dungeon.

Loren smiled as he remembered the final inspection. The building inspector had been there, and the fire code inspector and the health inspector and the liquor license board chairman and a patrolman from the vice squad. Loren had explained how he and Elia planned to use the scenery in each stall as a backdrop to their customers' role-playing games. Then he had solemnly listened to the building inspector explain the societal dangers of Dungeons & Dragons. Loren had mollified that inspector by vowing that he would not allow minors to take part in the games, a promise he had kept.

The other members of the inspection team seemed inclined to treat the area as a sort of haunted house, a play area for adults who weren't fully satisfied by the costume parties that took place in Mayhill each year on New Year's Eve. This was very near to the truth. At the end of the tour, Loren let drop the remark that some of the more enthusiastic players liked to horse around with the dungeon's props.

The liquor license board chairman, who was examining a ping-pong paddle, let it fall with a chuckle. "Paddling games, eh? Well, I have no problems with that. The fraternity boys get up to worse hijinks."

The vice cop's only comment came when they passed the sling. "That hammock's sort of small," he said.

Corporal Pollacco, mercifully, had been on vacation at the time Loren arranged the tour. That had been no coincidence.

The leathermen indeed enjoyed "horsing around with the props." At the moment, in the stall directly in front of Loren, Art was binding his em to the great X of the St. Andrew's cross. Loren halted the proceedings with a word; then, as Art pulled his em off the cross, Loren came forward and inspected the repair-work.

"This looks solid," he said to Art.

Art, a burly man who ran Mayhill's largest hardware store, gave a dissatisfied grunt. "It will hold for now. But if you're going to have carpentry in this dungeon, you really ought to have it done with proper jointwork."

"Are you volunteering?" Loren asked, raising an eyebrow.

Art thought about this, then shrugged. "I'll teach your partner what to do. Then he can do it himself, whenever the need rises."

Loren felt a momentary stab of irritation that he was excluded from this training exercise. Then he reminded himself that Elia was the man who was gifted with his hands. Whether or not that was Art's motive for picking him, Elia was better suited for this task than Loren.

Art's attention had already drifted away from the dungeon master. "Mind you," he said in a hard voice, "I can't guarantee that the cross won't come tumbling down again, mid-scene. And if that happens . . . Well, I'll just have to do a bit more hammering. To keep everything in place." He stared pointedly at his em's body.

Judging from the em's expression, this fantasy threat went a long way in making up for the delay. Loren laughed – his first laughter of the evening – and left Art making idle threats about which parts of the body he intended to hammer.

Bill was standing in front of the curtained doorway now, shrugging himself into his leather vest as he reached forward to change the album on the record player upon the table there. He looked up as Loren approached and said, "Sorry to have nipped out on you like that. I suddenly remembered I had a call to make before tomorrow morning. Business."

"No problem." Loren left the matter at that. He had never known what kept Bill so deeply in the closet that the other man wouldn't wear leather anywhere except in the dungeon, though Felix had hinted once that Bill's job would go up in immediate flames if anyone outside the leather community learned that he was gay, much less a leatherman. Bill never visited the bar during the daytime and early evening, and the presence of new members to the leather club always made him freeze up. Loren wondered whether he was unnerved by Ken's presence.

Bill raised the subject himself, saying, "We have a new one tonight."

Loren nodded. "I met him at the Black and Blue Club. Melody checked him out."

Bill relaxed visibly. "The others should be sending you thank-you notes for luring him here. That was the most competitive scramble for an em that I've seen in a long time."

"Who won?" Loren tried to keep his voice light.

"Grover. The new man talked to the ems first, oddly enough. I gather he wanted to get pointers from them on how to behave properly. I think he initially mistook Grover for an em. Grover has that air of versatility sometimes."

"Galdarn switches. They complicate life." It was easier to channel his anger into sarcasm than to let it surface. He told himself that he simply felt concern for Ken. Grover was not the Ess that Loren would have advised Ken to take. Perhaps it had been a mistake to go on the walk; he should have stayed to give Ken any advice he needed on picking an Ess.

Bill simply laughed, unoffended. "Which side do you want?"

There was no way to know which was the correct side. "I'll take right tonight." He turned away and began walking down the right-hand line of stalls before he could tell from Bill's face whether he had chosen correctly.

He had already begun to regret the crack he had made. He owed Bill a great deal, and not only because his old cruising partner had been the one to introduce Melody to him.

Bill was an incurable romantic who had never used cruising as anything but a way by which to "court" men in a town where brief affairs were the norm among the gays. For a while, he and Felix had been an item; then they had broken up and Bill had searched for another long-term partner. While he was playing the field, he had done another scene with Loren, letting Loren take the top role again. But they had agreed midway through the scene that this part of their friendship wouldn't work out, and they had switched places. Bill called himself versatile, which Loren translated to mean that Bill was an em with delusions of grandeur. Yet even Bill couldn't imagine Loren as an Ess.

No matter; Bill's fidelity to his big-city lover had brought benefits to Loren, allowing Bill to serve as assistant dungeon master during the monthly dungeon nights. Loren enjoyed their friendship and tried to ignore the failure that lay behind it.

Behind him, Bill had begun playing Thus Spake Zarathustra, no doubt as a nod to Loren's musical tastes. The boom of the drum was overlaid by a quicker rhythm in the first stall on the right-hand side of the dungeon. Loren paused to look, then reflected that it was just as well that the chairman of the liquor license board had never witnessed one of the dungeon's "paddling games."

The em looked as though he was enjoying himself, though. He was tied to a blanket-swathed sawhorse, wearing the minimum that Mayhill's anti-nudity laws required, which in his case meant a pair of black briefs. The Ess was whacking him with a riding crop; like most of the Esses in the dungeon, he was still fully dressed. In this case, "fully dressed" meant 501 Blues with the top two buttons of the fly unfastened, and a chest that was bare except for the harness that crossed it in an X. The "harness" consisted of two ordinary belts; like most of the leathermen in Mayhill, the Ess couldn't afford to buy special clothing for the weekend leather hours.

The Ess was proceeding in the manner prescribed by the Black and Blue Club, slowly increasing the blows in frequency and strength in order to give the em time to build up his tolerance as the endorphins began to flow. Loren found himself yawning. There was no doubt, though, that the two men made a striking picture against the red-brick back of the stall, where one of the fire station's original archways had been closed up by a previous owner.

Loren quickly glanced at the em's ankles and wrists to ascertain that they were properly tied, then moved on to the next stall, which contained the cage. He had never possessed much money to furnish the dungeon, so he had yelped with delight on the morning that he read in the Mayhill Weekly Chronicle that one of the local vets was selling a cage that had formerly housed Dobermans. Elia, who had spilled his orange juice when Loren yelped, enquired as to the news, then frowned and went into the bathroom with the excuse that he needed to change out of his juice-stained jeans. He hadn't bothered to ask Loren what the cage would be used for.

It was being used, at the moment, to keep captive a middle-aged em who was undergoing some very nasty tit torture, much to the delight of himself and his Ess. Loren didn't bother to linger here; this Ess had experience enough not to let a light scene go awry.

Loren was growing bored again. Some dungeon masters, he supposed, would delight in this opportunity to goggle at the sights. Indeed, in the big city, where leathermen were less desperate to find fellow players, some leathermen simply served as spectators at dungeon parties, wandering from scene to scene like feasters sampling different dishes.

Loren could usually work himself into the right frame of mind to enjoy an S&M porn video, on the rare occasions that he accepted the danger of allowing such videos to pass briefly through his apartment. Otherwise, he found watching a bore. For him, the essence of leather lay not in pain but in power. His power. If he couldn't place himself in the mind-set where he was imagining himself with the power to issue orders or pain upon another person – and he couldn't allow himself to daydream like that when he was monitoring – then S&M became just a bunch of bodies interacting with one another in odd ways. He found that no more exciting than watching a car accident.

Felix was alone in the third stall. He was still in the preparation stage, crouching down with his back to Loren as he carefully spread out on the floor the toys he had brought with him. Loren spent a minute reading the line of toys before saying, "You're wasting your time. Tank isn't playing tonight."

Felix spun round on his heels, moving toys rapidly as he did so. Loren sighed, walked over, and used the tip of his sneaker to turn over the belt that Felix had moved. Then he raised his eyebrows. Kneeling down, Loren picked up the three wrapped condoms, attached to one another by their wrappers, and held them toward the red light above. Their foil sparkled like blood.

"I know that you're planning to use these after the party," Loren said, addressing the condoms. "Because I know you know there's nothing you could do with these here that wouldn't break the house rules."

He looked over at Felix and saw that the young man was grinning. "What can I say?" replied Felix. "I'm a safe sex fiend."

"Then I'm sure you have plenty more of these at home." Loren stood up, pocketing the rubbers as he did so.

Felix's smile disappeared. "Oh, come on, Lori . . ."

Loren resisted an impulse to slap him. "Felix," he said carefully, "you are not an idiot, so try to use your brain for once. What if an undercover cop were in the dungeon tonight? That new em, for example. What if he walked along here just as your Ess was plunging into you? What would happen to you? Or your Ess? Or this bar?"

Felix licked his lips. For a moment, Loren thought he was going to perform his contriteness act, which Loren never had the patience to witness. Then Felix said in a soft voice, "Well, you know, I thought of that. And that's what made me think: Wouldn't that be the ultimate edgeplay? Having sex in a dungeon where a plainclothesman might be lurking?"

Loren felt his breath catch. It was only a momentary break in his will-power – in the next moment he would have remembered the bad old days at the cruising grounds. But Felix heard the catch in the throat, and a smile slipped across his face. "Care to take charge of this scene, sir?"

Loren had to walk away then. He was too close to losing control, even leaving aside the mocking "sir" that no one in the leather community had ever granted him, other than Elia. He could hear Felix laughing behind him, and he had to resist the desire to go back and kick the em in the groin until he learned the meaning of "ultimate edgeplay."

Loren forced himself to take long, deep breaths. If there were ever an appropriate time to kill Felix, he thought, it had been five years ago, when he discovered the young man laughing at him because of how Loren looked when wearing Felix's leather jacket. Felix was a gadfly who had never let Loren forget that episode, but Mayhill's leather brotherhood was too small to allow Loren to throw Felix out of his bar. The leathermen needed to stick together, for the gods knew that what lay prowling outside this bar was far worse than anything Felix had to offer.

He had passed the fourth and fifth stalls by now without noticing what was taking place in them. He stifled the impulse to backtrack to see whether he had missed Ken. Behind him, Bill, rightly concluding that The Blue Danube was not the proper atmosphere music for a dungeon, had switched to Kiss singing "Prisoner of Love." This seemed to be the night for saccharine lyrics. Loren reached the last stall, which was enclosed behind a wall with a door labelled "Men's." A sign hung on the door, saying, "This restroom is under repairs. Please use the main restroom in the barroom."

The sign was for the benefit of the building inspector, to save him from having a heart attack at the sight of the number of code violations in this room. Loren checked the door, found that it was properly locked, and rapped his knuckles against the unpainted wood. "It's me," he said, his heart beating a little faster at the speculation that he would find Ken here.

"Oh, yeah?" Dick's voice was understandably cautious. "You and who else?"

"Me and Corporal Pollacco. He needs to take a piss."

"Well, why didn't you say so before?" The bar on the door rasped as it was drawn back. Loren turned the doorknob and entered the room, nearly tripping over one of the pails of water standing at the threshold, placed there for clean-up purposes. Loren quickly closed and barred the door behind him.

The restroom was the same cozy size as the other stalls, leaving just enough room for its furnishings. On the back wall was the only item that had been there when the restroom was first built: a sink the size of a trough. It hadn't worked for decades. On the left wall was an old urinal that Loren had found on a curbside and installed here. It didn't work either, and its drain led nowhere. To the right, attached to a rafter, was a showerhead. It didn't work.

In fact, the only item in the restroom that worked was the great claw-footed tub, much like the one in Ken's apartment. It was placed parallel with the right wall, and it had a properly working drain that led to a bucket in the basement that Loren had the unpleasant task of emptying after parties.

Unlike the other stalls, the restroom had white lights, making the enamel tub sparkle. Lying there, with his feet crossed on the far rim of the tub, was Dick. He was wearing a cowboy hat, cowboy boots, and a white cotton jockstrap. The hat and boots were authentic; Dick had worked on a Texas ranch as a young man, and he still wore his Western clothes whenever he wasn't at work. The only additional decoration he donned on leather nights was the yellow handkerchief tied to his right arm.

Loren ran his eyes over Dick's torso, taking care not to let his gaze linger upon Dick's jockstrap, though at the moment there was a great deal to see there. Dick's stomach was as flat as the graph-line showing the profits for Loren's Lashes. The tall em was at least a quarter of a century older than Loren, but he kept his body in shape through his work as a welder for a construction company. Loren had always thought it was shame that Dick's tastes didn't run to fire play – indeed, the shame of it was that, while Dick had been trained to do anything, his own interests were quite narrowly focussed on one activity.

The hair on Dick's chest was dark and dry. Loren said, "No visitors yet?"

"Nope," Dick replied. "Not till now." His arms were resting along the rim of the tub that he barely fit into, and his gaze remained level with Loren's.

Loren would have been flattered if he hadn't known that Dick was too well trained to look an Ess straight in the eye under such circumstances. The truth was that Dick's sexual tastes were quite mainstream by the standards of urban leathermen, but here in Mayhill he was an exotic flower that was rarely pollinated. As a result, Dick was willing to accept the attention of anyone who walked through the restroom door, Ess or em.

"I'm on duty," Loren said, trying to keep his voice brisk.

"Yup, I figured." There was a long pause, as there often was in conversations with Dick; Loren waited to see whether the em had anything to add. Then Dick said, "Saw you earlier tonight. Drinking. Guess it must be pressing you by now." He gave a vague wave of the hand in the direction of the nonfunctional urinal. "Don't mind me. Go right ahead."

Two minutes later, Loren emerged from the restroom, one hand pulling up the zipper on his slacks. He felt a small but warm buzz. Dungeon nights were usually mere drudge-work for him, and opportunities like this didn't pass his way very often. He savored them when they did.

He paused at the door to check to make sure that Dick remembered to bar the entrance again. By an unaccountable oversight on the part of the state legislature, what had just occurred was perfectly legal. Loren and Elia had agreed, though, that new members of the leather club should not be told that this restroom was highly functional, nor should established players linger here. Unless, of course, they had claimed the tub.

What Dick did while he was alone was his own business, and Loren didn't grudge him the opportunity denied to all other leathermen here tonight. It must take a certain strength of mind to compose a scene in one's thoughts with only a minute's notice. But then, Dick had been trained in the old days, shortly before Loren was. The newer generation just didn't know what sort of miracles that strict training could produce.

The music had changed again, to the Cruising soundtrack: "I want to hurt someone, I want to love someone, I want to be someone— Why do I need someone?" Loren closed his ears to the singer. He skimmed quickly the scenes taking place in the two remaining stalls on the right-hand side of the dungeon: abrasion of the thighs with a file, and bondage. A dull night, overall. There really wasn't much you could do when denied access to an em's groin, though Loren supposed that he ought to consider the matter a challenge. He walked slowly back down to the center of the dungeon, meeting Bill at the record player.

"All's quiet on my end," Bill reported. "How are things on the wild side?"

"About as exciting as a kindergarten paddling," Loren replied, which caused Bill to laugh as he slipped a new record out from its sleeve.

"How's Felix?" Bill asked, his voice conveying the same mixture of affection and frustration with which he always addressed his ex.

"Twiddling his thumbs. We're short a player tonight." Loren raised his eyebrow slightly.

Bill's lips twitched into a reluctant smile. "Don't tempt me. But Felix is likely to get up to mischief if he's left on his own. If you'd like to switch sides, I can try to place him in a threesome."

Loren hesitated, then said, "Are you sure you want to switch sides?"

Bill had lowered his gaze to the record he was sweeping free of dust as it turned silently on the turntable. Now his eyes snapped up, and he smiled again. "Certainly," he replied. "I wouldn't want to deprive you of the sight in the last stall. It's quite a scene."

Loren grimaced, wondering whether he was as obvious as that, then nodded and stepped away. Bill plopped the needle down onto the record, and the sound of the stormtroopers' theme filled the air.

Loren passed the first three stalls on the left-hand side quickly, telling himself that Bill had just inspected these. In any case, there was little to see: yet more tit torture, a spanking with the flat of a hairbrush, and an Ess sitting on a wooden crate and using his em as a footstool as he chugged beer. Even the em looked bored. Loren found himself wondering why he'd bothered to form a separate organization from the Black and Blue Club. Was he the only leatherman in this dungeon with any imagination?

Well, no. His step quickened.

He slowed, though, as he reached the eleventh of the twelve stalls. Orville was lying in the sling, which hung from four chains attached to four strong hooks on the rafters. Tank had had caustic remarks to make about the presence of a sling in a dungeon where handballing was forbidden, but many of the younger leathermen, who had never travelled to city dungeons, had chosen this as their favorite stall.

Orville was lying on his back with his head hung over the sling; his chest was receiving attention from the multiple leather strips of a flogger wielded by Reuben. Loren came to a halt, his gaze focussed on Tank's rival in pool. Ems' heads didn't normally hang off the sling in this dungeon; Loren shifted his perspective somewhat to check that there was space between Orville's mouth and Reuben's groin. Invariably on dungeon nights, some leatherman tried to argue that mouths didn't count as part of the rule against touching clothed parts of the body.

Reuben, though, was maintaining a proper distance, and he was taking care not to let the flogger land too near Orville's groin. Satisfied, Loren stepped away. Then he wrinkled his nose.

Reuben didn't notice him until Loren had nearly reached the toolbox lying open on the floor. "Hey!" said Reuben angrily. "Leave my toys alone!"

Loren ignored him. He knelt down next to the toolbox and rummaged swiftly in it until he felt soft cloth in his hand. Then he pulled the red handkerchief out, taking care not to spill its contents. The folds of the cloth fell open to reveal the small, amber bottle there.

He looked up at Reuben, who had belatedly reached his side. Reuben's face remained impassive. "It's prescription."

"Of course it is." Loren rose to his feet. "And I suppose that, if the vice squad pays us a visit, you can offer them proof that you have a heart condition?"

Orville turned his head from left to right, watching the two men. Reuben caught the gesture and looked back at him. Then, without looking Loren's way again, he walked over to Orville. "Go away, Loren," he said in a bored voice. "I'm busy."

Loren had been about to settle the matter with a brief reprimand – anything more than that would be hypocritical, given the number of times he himself had used poppers during a scene. Never in this dungeon, and never while caring for an em, but if there was any rule that a player here might feel he could bend, it was this one.

Now, though, Loren stiffened. He dropped the handkerchief and placed the bottle in his pocket next to the confiscated condoms. "You're banned," he announced.

Reuben turned swiftly. "What?"

"You're banned from the dungeon till the end of the year. You still have bar privileges, but don't screw up again, or I'll throw you out on your ear."

In the next moment, he decided he could have worded the ban more carefully. But Reuben missed the opportunity to laugh in his face. Instead he reached forward and grabbed Loren by the shirt, saying, "You little dickhead, give me my fucking—"

"Bill!" Loren called in an automatic manner. He cursed himself inside. He was the dungeon master; he ought to be able to handle this himself without calling for help from his assistant. But that was why Bill was here, of course: to back him if one of the players became truly violent. Theoretically, Loren was supposed to do the same for Bill. Theoretically.

Bill's shout of acknowledgment came at once. Reuben released Loren, glaring at him. Then he glanced at Orville, who was watching the fight with troubled eyes. "Don't worry," Reuben said. "I'll just talk to the dungeon master. We'll straighten this out." He exited the stall, walking forward to meet Bill, whose racing footsteps slowed at once.

Loren felt heat suffuse him. He tried to think cool thoughts. This sort of episode happened at least once every weekend, he reminded himself: something would occur that reminded him of the scarlet M he wore in this community. But not this many times in one night. The Fates must be hounding him for his poor performance with Ken.

Orville was beginning to look alarmed. Not because he ranked Loren any differently than Reuben did, Loren could be sure. Orville simply hated real-life violence. Loren unclenched his fists and said tersely, "It's over. Nothing for you to worry about."

Orville was silent a moment before saying, "He gave me the poppers. Should I be banned too?" His voice held the uncertainty of someone who must ask a subordinate to make a ruling, because the boss isn't present.

Loren made a note to himself to slap Reuben upside the head the next time they met. To take libido-sparking drugs during a scene was understandable, though Loren's master would never have countenanced such behavior in an Ess who was caring for an em. But to force an em to break the house rules . . . Loren reached over to the sling, saying, "For your honesty, no. But you're finished for tonight."

He helped Orville, as best he could, to scramble out of the sling; then he waited for the young em to dress and guided him out of the stall with a light hand against his back. They were just in time to see Reuben furiously turn away from Bill and storm out of the dungeon. Bill had his arms crossed against his chest in a successful attempt to look like a stubborn Ess. He could back Loren's orders, even if he wasn't the type of man who could have banned a player himself. He caught sight of Loren and slipped out of his masterful stance, giving a rueful smile. Then his smile softened as he saw Orville.

Orville didn't notice him. He was staring at the curtained doorway, as though he expected Reuben to walk through it again. Loren asked, "Were you staying at his place tonight?"

Orville nodded wordlessly.

Loren sighed. He didn't bother to ask whether Orville could simply return to his own home. Like a number of the leathermen, Orville lived in the countryside, a full hour's drive from Mayhill. And he didn't own a car. He depended on the help of friends – or so-called friends – to get to Mayhill on Saturday nights and to give him a place to stay overnight after the leather hours.

Simply calling Orville's parents and asking them to pick up their son was impossible; Orville hadn't told his pious parents that he was gay, much less that he visited a leather bar.

No doubt Reuben would be back eventually to pick up his forgotten toolbox, and perhaps his forgotten em. But Loren had no intention of letting Reuben take Orville as a consolation prize.

Loren tried to decide what to do. Bill was his first thought; at Loren's request, Bill had been the one to gently initiate Orville into S&M the previous winter, shortly before Bill's courtship of his big-city boyfriend grew serious. Bill still treated Orville with the same warm courtesy that he treated all his past play partners, but Bill's gay and non-gay lives were sharply divided from each other. Only Felix had ever received invitations to Bill's home.

Of course, Loren could let Orville sleep on his couch; he had done so before. But something made Loren want to keep the apartment free of visitors tonight. Perhaps it was only that he knew what type of mood Elia got into on dungeon nights.

Bill had disappeared back into Felix's stall. Loren reached his decision. Taking Orville's arm – the most masterful gesture he'd make all night, he knew – he walked Orville back into the barroom.

They both stood a moment outside the curtained doorway as Loren blinked to adjust his sight. On the right-hand side of the barroom, a door was open; Loren could hear Elia shifting objects in the storage room. On the left-hand side, the ems had left. The only person there was Tank, sitting at a table as he gulped down a boilermaker and read a battered copy of Leather Blues.

Loren frowned. This seemed to be the night for bad pairings, and he didn't want to add to the number. But when he looked over at Orville's wistful face, he realized he had better take this course of action. Sooner or later, Orville's adoring stance would attract Tank's attention. If Loren provided the introduction, he could at least have a legitimate excuse for quizzing Orville afterwards on what had happened.

He steered Orville forward, trying to place a protective arm around him. This was difficult, as Orville was several inches taller than himself. Tank caught sight of them and dropped the book onto the table, swinging his legs round so that he was sitting facing them. He looked at Loren reflectively, then yet more reflectively at Orville, who was staring with intense concentration at the Ess's boots.

"Tank," Loren said, "Orville needs a place to stay tonight. Can you help out?"

Tank scrutinized Orville for a long minute, while the em chewed at his bottom lip. Then the Ess's face broke into a grin.

"Loren, I feel like you should put on your chorus-girl costume and sing 'Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match.' I've had my eye on this fucker's gorgeous ass since the moment he first walked into this bar." He reached into his back left pocket and pulled out a black handkerchief, which he tossed into Orville's hands. "Clean my boots, asshole. If you do a decent job, I might let you sleep on the floor of my trailer. If you prove useful."

Since Tank had already made clear his interest in the em, Loren thought this was an unnecessary flourish. Orville, though, reacted as though he'd just been handed the keys to Fort Knox. "Yes, sir!" he cried. "Thank you, sir!" He dipped his knees.

Loren quickly grabbed him by the elbow. Tank had turned round to retrieve his drink; Loren took the opportunity to slip Felix's condoms into Orville's pocket. He whispered in the em's ear, "Make him wear rubbers. He'll respect you more if you do."

This was the biggest whopper Loren had told in a long time, but it was true that Tank would let Orville have his way in this matter if Orville insisted on it during negotiations. Tank hated arguing with ems, unless it was under circumstances where he could make the em pay for his insubordination.

Orville stared at him, then gave a jerk of a nod. Loren looked back at Tank and discovered that the Ess must have caught the tail end of the exchange, for his eyes were narrowed upon Loren. Loren gave him one of his sweet, evil smiles, then stepped back.  Orville was already on his knees, polishing frantically as Tank began a torrent of abuse.

Loren waited until he had turned his back on Tank before rolling his eyes. More than once, Tank had accused him of acquiring his namby-pamby, gentle-as-a-lamb concern for ems' welfare from the heterosexual members of the Black and Blue Club. Girls, Tank had said, and men who hung around with girls, were incapable of either giving out or withstanding the sort of harsh treatment that any decent leatherman could give or endure.

Loren had often been tempted to send Melody over to visit Tank, so that he could learn just how "gentle" she was in the bedroom. As for the accusations against himself, Loren hadn't bothered to explain that some of the mysteries his master had initiated him in would have made Tank's jaw drop in consternation. It was precisely because his master had used his slaves so much harder than Esses of Tank's generation used their ems that his master's ethics had been much stricter. Tank, who considered himself a heavy top, never actually did anything that would endanger his em's life, other than show an aversion to safe sex. Loren's master, on the other hand . . .

The result was that Loren had a very different style than the other Esses in Mayhill, who had all entered into leather at a later date than himself. Tank, for example, liked to humiliate his ems from the moment of introduction, saying that this kept both participants horny and happy. Loren was as taken with the erotic possibilities of play humiliation and abuse as Tank was, but for Tank to give his em a verbal smack-around before he'd even determined the em's limits struck Loren as a dangerous blurring of the line between fantasy and reality.

No, S&M was best kept in its own walled park, separate from the rest of life. It was when leather roles began to drift over into real life that trouble began.

He had reached the curtain when the phone rang behind the bar counter. He turned, but Elia had emerged from the storage room. His partner leaned over the counter, picked up the phone, and said, "Loren's Lash—"

Loren knew at once who the caller was, not only from Elia's truncated sentence, but also from the fact that it took Elia three tries to speak again. Finally Elia said, "Reggie, slow down. Tell me one thing: Have you turned in the application yet? . . . Well, then, if you haven't . . . Reggie, listen to me. Are you listening? I want you to sit down and complete the applica—"

Another pause followed; Loren leaned against the table holding the donations for the party. He glanced at the donations bowl. Many bills, small denominations. That was typical; most everyone tried to donate to the AIDS fund on dungeon nights, but the leathermen in this working-class town rarely had much money to spare. He shifted the bowl, settling its contents into new patterns, then raised his eyebrows as he saw what lay at the bottom of the bowl. Either the town's policemen were better paid than he'd thought, or Ken was exceptionally generous in his gifts. Loren frowned, pursuing this thought.

"No, I'm not joking," Elia was saying. "When have I ever joked when I told you to do something? If you'll— Reggie . . . Reggie, listen . . . Reggie, do I need to remind you of the terms of our agreement?"

Suddenly, without warning, Elia's voice had turned from soothing to cold and hard. It was like watching the Gulf of Mexico suddenly plunge into subarctic temperatures. Even Loren felt a slight chill cover his skin. Tank's cursing, which had remained steady all this time, halted. Out of the corner of his eye, Loren saw Orville twist round to look at Elia, his face gone pale.

For several seconds more, the chill wind continued to blow through the bar, maintained by the rigidity of Elia's stance. Loren could guess, from past experience at watching his apprentice at work, that those seconds represented painful silence at the other end of the phone line. Elia had his back to the other men in the room, which Loren thought was just as well for Orville's sake. Tank put his hand on Orville's shoulder, as though to steady him.

Then Elia said, in a voice as gentle as a loving mother, "Reggie, if you apply for this job, I'll stay with you every step of the way. I'll go with you to the post office when you mail the application; I'll sit outside the office while you're interviewed. You know that you can call me any time you need to talk, day or night. But I can't do any of this if you panic before you've even applied for the job."

Tank's hand tightened on Orville's shoulder; he twisted the em's torso back round, barking an order. Orville quickly leaned over and returned his attention to Tank's boots.

"That's all right, I understand," Elia said into the phone. "I sometimes get frightened too when I'm faced with something I should do. . . . No, I'm not joking. Listen, how long is the . . . What? . . . Oh, yes, that sounds like another good place to apply. They'd be looking for workers with your background. . . . Okay, read both applications to me, and I'll see if I can help you with the wording of your responses."

Loren shook his head slowly in awe. It was like watching the Demiurge create fully formed men out of base elements. Loren was tempted to stay to watch the harmonious spectacle, which outdid in artistry any heavy scene likely to be played in the dungeon tonight. But Elia, reaching over to pick up a pen from the counter, caught sight of Loren and frowned. He gestured with his hand. Loren, taking the hint, slipped back into the dungeon.

The record needle was rasping its way round the final ring of the Star Wars album. Loren returned the arm to its rest and glanced toward the right side of the dungeon. He could hear Bill continuing to argue with his former em; apparently Felix had worked himself into a petulant mood where he would be satisfied with no one except Tank. Loren thought to himself that he really ought to revisit the last stall on the right-hand side, to make sure that nobody was lingering too long in the restroom.

He turned toward the left and began walking in that direction. A momentary lull had fallen upon the dungeon, and he could hear clearly the sounds coming out of the stall that was directly opposite the lit sign that said "Emergency Exit." He smiled.

He had hosted a big-city leatherman that summer who had come to see what sort of mild mischief the country bumpkins got into. After witnessing the "mischief" that took place off the bar's premises, the leatherman was impressed. On the final day of the visit, though, he had told Loren, "I couldn't figure out till now what's weird about this town. I mean, some of you do scenes as heavy as any I've been in back home. But I've just realized what's crazy about you folks. You use Sabbath-school language. You don't fuck, you have sex. No one whips asses, they whip backsides." His voice rose in consternation. "You call your cocks penises!"

Loren had smiled. "Oh, we know the vulgar tongue. We just save that for the appropriate moments."

Now, as he drew closer to the source of the black stream of words pouring out from the final stall, Loren reflected that he had exaggerated the situation somewhat. There were plenty of leathermen in Mayhill who routinely spoke the direct, rough language that the urban leatherman was accustomed to hearing. But it was also true that a goodly percentage of Mayhill's leathermen – Loren among them – used a daily speech which was so pure that they could have talked at length with Elia's minister without having to censor themselves.

"You piss-filthy cocksucker, showing off your fucking ass . . ."

Loren snorted. Grover normally never let so much as a "damn" pass his lips. The big-city leatherman would never know the wondrous shock of hearing someone like Grover emit a torrent of filth during a scene.

Loren had reached the empty sling stall; he slowed his step. Directly ahead, just beyond the green exit sign, was a window with its black shade drawn, although it only looked out onto the final yards of a dead-end alley. To the left was the door leading to the long storage room; to the right, past the unsanded planks of the divider wall, was the final stall. Loren hesitated, then walked resolutely forward until he could see what was taking place inside.

It was, as Bill had promised, quite a scene. This was the interrogation cell, marked by a chair with a spotlight beaming down upon it, but Grover had ignored the chair in favor of placing his prisoner against the rough wood of the stall. Ken's hands were bound above his head, attached to a chain from yet another of the hooks that Art had donated. The em was blindfolded with a mint green handkerchief, a color so obscure that Loren had to run his mind through the list of hanky colors before settling upon the appropriate one. Oh. Well, that explained why Ken had chosen Grover. The scene was clearly as enjoyable for Ken as it was for his Ess, though Loren could barely make out the outline of Ken's full-grown shaft through the thick cloth of his slacks. Above the belt, Ken was naked. Starting with the narrow waist, Ken's body widened and hardened, the sweat-slick skin glistening darkly under the red lights. The black hair on Ken's chest and under his arms was moist too, and his pronounced ribs showed clearly the strain of the pull upon his arms. His head leaned back against the wall, leaving his neck vulnerable, as though to a vampire's bite. His lips were flushed. His breath was hard.

Loren, doing his best to control his own breathing, reflected that vanilla couples had to spend hours to create the type of bodily beauty that a leatherman could create in a manner of seconds. The taut, ecstatic curve of line, the smell of heat, the deep moans that the vanilla gay knew only at the moment of climax were ever-present in a dungeon. But no less lovely for that, especially when they occurred in the form of a man of Ken's perfection.

Grover had his back to Loren; he hadn't noticed the dungeon master, nor did his blindfolded prisoner seem aware that a third party was present. Loren listened for a couple of minutes more as the interrogator continued to break his prisoner through insults, and Ken emitted small moans. Loren's visit was taking longer than he had given to the paddling session, but verbal abuse was playing on the edge, after all. Perhaps the keenest form of playing on the edge: a direct attack on the mind.

But Loren could detect no trouble here; all of the words that spilled out of Grover's mouth were clichés, drawn from the porn he had read. Finally Loren nodded and turned away. Not the most imaginative wording he had witnessed in his time, but it was evidently enough to keep Ken happy. Loren had done his duty here. It was time for him to check on the other players in the dungeon.

He walked slowly, though, unable to drag his thoughts back from what he had seen. Something was bothering him, and it was more than the knowledge that he might have been the interrogator in that cell. He frowned, trying to trace a thought, and then a whisper entered his mind.

Keep your eyes peeled for trouble.

He stopped dead, oblivious to the cries of the em in the stall next to him, who had just had his nipple clamps removed. It was all clear to him now: what Elia had witnessed, what Elia had feared.

An out-of-control em. An inexperienced Ess. Edgeplay.

Gods, it was like throwing a match onto gunpowder. His instinct was to return immediately to the interrogation cell. But Bill had just emerged ahead, holding Felix by the elbow, and Loren could imagine how it would look if he darted back to Ken's side now. And what if Grover noticed him watching and said something to Ken? How would that look? Loren might as well be the girl he had met outside Ken's apartment, a discarded partner lingering at Ken's doorway.

No, this was better handled by Bill. Loren hurried to meet him.

They crossed paths, once more, at the record player. Bill had that grim look on his face that came whenever he tried to talk sense into Felix. Felix, who could have used an intensive training course in protocol, was chatting brightly to the assistant dungeon master about his latest job as a pizza deliverer, and the fringe benefits it offered. Bill, patience itself, merely pushed Felix between the shoulderblades when he saw Loren waiting for him. "Go ahead," he told Felix. "I'll be there in a minute.

Felix turned indignantly, then saw Bill's face. There was a slight pause, and then Felix gave a carefully casual shrug and did as he was told. Bill looked at Loren, and his frown deepened. "Is something wrong?"

"The new member," Loren said, keeping his voice low as Felix ducked into the third stall on the left side. "I'm worried about him. He's paired himself with an inexperienced Ess, and they're playing on the edge. Can you keep your eye on them?"

Bill, blessed man, didn't ask why Loren was refusing to undertake this task himself. "I have to get Felix settled first," Bill replied. "Then I'll see how they're doing." He reached down, quickly changed the record, and put the needle down. The sound of "The Masochism Tango" filled the dungeon.

Groans arose everywhere; all of the leathermen here had heard Felix's favorite song far too many times. As Bill stepped away, Loren aborted the tune, not only because of the groans, but because of the effect this song routinely had on Elia. By the time that the masochist in the song had his sadist's initials burned into him, Elia usually looked as though he were going to build a fire under someone's balls.

The fact that Elia only ever used words as his weapons made him all the more dangerous.

Bill had entered the third stall by now. He was close enough to interfere if any problems arose in the interrogation cell, so Loren crouched down to paw through the records in the milk crate on the floor. He made a face at the country-music offerings and travelled briskly through the rock records. His own favorite pop group was the Bee Gees, a fact that he had confided to no one except Elia.

The classical records were what interested him most, but as usual, they consisted mainly of soundtracks or the Romantics. Nothing with meat here, in Loren's opinion. He paused over a record of Gregorian chants – probably an offering from Orville, since he was their resident Catholic. But no, not even for the sake of those glorious bass tones would Loren put up with a record's full of church liturgy. He went on to the next record, which was Don Giovanni. Perfect.

Bill's footsteps were returning now, accompanied by Felix's, which suggested that the assistant dungeon master had deemed another transfer to be necessary. Loren, pausing in the midst of reading the opera's lyrics – "I shall never be accused of cowardice!" cried Don Giovanni – looked up from the record just in time to discover he had been wrong about the footsteps. Grover swept his way through the curtain, followed by Ken.

Loren dropped the record in his haste to rise. His first instinct was to run after the men. His second instinct was to think of what that would look like. Elia, he reminded himself, was in the barroom; he would stop the men if he sensed anything was amiss. Even so . . .

He turned round in time to see Bill emerging from his stall. Loren hurried down to meet him. "What happened?" he asked sharply.

Bill turned his palms up, looking unconcerned. "An aborted scene, I think. I only caught snatches of what they were saying. They'd paused to discuss a new scene; Grover said something about stripping, so I was going to check that the two of them remembered the 'no nudity' rule. Then the new man, Ken, said something about work, and they left. I guess he had to work tomorrow, so he was heading home early."

Loren stood absolutely still. He could hear Felix laughing at one end of the dungeon, while at the other end an em who had gotten deep into a scene was crying. No sound came from the barroom.

"Fuck!" shouted Loren, and he began to run.

Chapter Text

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.