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Prologue: Null and Void
Edward Davis stood in front of the three-pane floor-to-ceiling mirrors, examining his reflection in the minute detail as he had been taught. His now well-trained eyes could find nothing wrong with his appearance. More importantly, neither did he see anything that his keepers might find faulty in his appearance.
He laughed, humorlessly, at his use of the personal pronoun 'he' and the possessive adjective 'his' in his mental ruminations. In truth, nothing about the young, attractive professional-woman peering back at him from the mirror's other-worldly dimension was in any way masculine. It was only sheer determination and pure cussedness on Edward's part that he even tried to cling to the masculine tense.
After - what had it been? Days? Weeks? He really had no idea how long he'd been here for the simple reason that he hadn't seen a clock, let alone the sun or the moon since the night he'd been captured.
However, despite the length of his unwilling tenancy in this hell-hole, and despite the best efforts of his captors, he'd managed to maintain the rebellion that he was still male.
And most of all, despite the many stories told by that damnable mirror.
The tall, almost-pretty blonde woman in the tailored blue business suit staring back at him would have been welcome in any boardroom, any executive office. She was even quite shapely, thanks to a rib-crushing corset and a pair of very realistic glued-on prosthetic breasts.
Resignation furrowed the forehead above finely arched brows. After some of the personas imposed on him during his captivity, this one was almost pleasant. At least this pair of heels wouldn't be an open invitation to a broken ankle, nor would this manicure require registration with the local constabulary as potentially lethal weapons.
Which was fortunate, he thought, as he brought one of those girl-clawed hands up to stifle a jaw-cracking yawn. Edward recognized that his mind was beginning to play tricks on him, and he also knew why - he was just so bloody tired. Before being captured and brought to where ever 'here' was, his job had often forced him to work long hours with minimal sleep, so he knew sleep deprivation when it hit him. He had all the classic symptoms - slowed reaction times, eye fixation on any handy object - like that bloody mirror - and shortened attention span. Fatigue - thick and heavy - bore down on him, and bid fare to overwhelm him. Clearly, the naps he'd been allowed between sessions had been just as short as they felt.
He was tired and he was depressed.
It was, he mused, the very gentle manner of this outfitting that was at the heart of this bout of depression. For it brought home to him the saddest aspect of this whole mess - the death of a long-held dream.
Ever since Edward had first discovered that girls were so wonderfully different than boys, along with the purpose behind those delightful differences, he'd always entertained fantasies about female domination - of strong, beautiful women worthy of his service and adoration.
The very idea of submitting himself - body and soul - to such a woman called to some darkly romantic part of him - like some fairy tale dream in which he was a knight and she was both the 'lady faire' and the dragon whose fiery breath he must endure to be judged worthy of her favor. Well, he thought, that bit of childish delusion had certainly died during his little sojourn in this pit. This experience had very effectively - very forcefully - transformed those never-realized, youthful dreams into his darkest nightmares.
"Your stay with us is drawing to an end, Edie," a musical voice said behind him, causing him to jerk about in surprise, nearly falling down in the process. "We hope your experience has been everything you dared dream it would be."
"What did you say?" Edward replied, so dumbfounded that he forgot to use the light feminine alto so harshly learned at the insistence of his overseers.
The speaker was the masked woman to whom all his other female overseers deferred. Except she wasn't masked this time.
Standing on the other side of the steel-barred cell door, she remained, as always, just beyond his reach. Her name was 'La Marquesa' - Edward had learned THAT the hard way, too. His first and only failure to use that honorific in the hearing of one of the overseers had led to a most painfully memorable session, conducted in a very real and very dark dungeon. The posterior portions of his anatomy still burned from that correction.
Her fine brows knitted, almost in surprise. "Come, come now, Edie. Certainly, there isn't any further need for pretense between us," she chided, but still using the feminized version of his name. "Your contracted program of events has been completed in all details save the one you are about to embark upon - your graduation trip home dressed as you are. So, can we not dispense with the 'resisting submissive' roleplay? At least for these last few moments together? You are the first client we've entertained here who requested so comprehensive and demanding an experience. Not only that, but you never once used the agreed-upon mercy codeword. I would like your feedback on how things went for you. More to the point, I *need* your feedback so that I can improve upon our, well, our services to our future clientele."
Edward stared at the smiling woman, trying to make sense of her words. Finally, he shook his head. "I have no idea what you are talking about. What program? What game? What mercy? You and your. . ." only hard-learned self preservation stayed his tongue, "your band have no concept of the word. Not from what I've seen and felt in this dam. . .darn pit of yours."
The Marquesa's eyes went black, but surprisingly, she didn't lash out at him. Instead, she just sighed - somewhat sadly. "Really, Edie, there is no point in continuing the dramatics. Your contract is complete. In a few moments, you will again be drugged and when you wake up, you will find yourself at home, well, almost home, in any case. I believe we have accomplished everything you wanted out of this experience, but your personal insights will help us deal more effectively with any future clients who wish to play out such stringent scenarios. Surely that is not too much to ask after all the effort we've expended on your behalf."
"On my behalf?" he asked, unable to keep the incredulity out of his voice. "What are you TALKING about?!? Your words are making absolutely NO sense! It's like I went to sleep while performing in one movie and woke up in another, but no one gave me either script. What do you mean 'contract'? What contract? Paid for? I sure as shooting have paid for this - the HARD way - at the cost of my skin, dignity and spirit."
Clearly annoyed, she tossed a folder at him. "Oh, give it up, Edie," La Marquesa snapped. "Here's your contract, in case you've conveniently forgotten what services you requested, complete with your signature, and with each agreed-upon scene checked off and signed off as we did them. Surely you remember each one, eh?"
Slowly, wary of some new and devious trap, Edward reached down to pick up the folder. He flipped through the pages, quickly scanning their content. Sure enough, there was page after page, containing detailed descriptions of various scenarios, from French Maid to harem slave, and he remembered suffering through each one of them. Including the full-penetration dildo rapes like the one that had been completed just before he'd been ordered to don this current outfit. He flipped to the last page to look for a signature and found it. Slowly, he raised tear-filled eyes from the papers in his hand. "I don't know what new, vicious game you are playing with me, but I never signed this . . .this. . THING!" he said with quiet finality. "Heavens above, until just now, I never saw this document before."
La Marquesa simply stared at him for a moment, and then shrugged. "Very well. If that is the way you wish this to end, I suppose that is your right. The customer is, as they say, always right. Have a good life, Mr. Davis. We will not meet again."
With that, she raised her hand, pointed the black remote control device directly at him and pressed one of the myriad buttons. The necklace at Edward's throat made a hissing sound, his nose caught the faintest scent of something almost sickly sweet just before the world went black.
Chapter 1: Parties of the First Part
The urge for a wee dram of Jameson's was nearly overwhelming, but Mary Margaret O'Hurley ruthlessly squelched it. She'd overcome that addiction, not without a good deal of pain, just as she had overcome every other weakness, real or perceived, since she'd escaped from a South Boston housing project nearly two decades ago. Weaknesses made a person vulnerable, and she had vowed she would never be vulnerable again in her life.
She shifted uncomfortably in the car seat. The afternoon sun was hot and the humidity had long since wilted anything remotely resembling body from her hair. Well, she thought philosophically, so much for $250.00 worth of Esteban's very precious time.
Mary was checking her watch for what must have been the thousandth time when the office building's revolving door spun. She looked up just in time to see *him* exit. He stopped to look about him, and then turned away to walk up the street, directly away from Mary's parking place. That was as expected. She had parked there so that he would turn away from her on departing that building, and thus, not see her watching for him.
How many times had she played this game of pursuit and capture, she wondered even as she watched her quarry make his way toward the nearby subway entrance? 'Too many times' was the immediate answer that came to mind. If today had been like any of those other times, she'd have let her subject get a block or so ahead of her, then she'd slip out of her car to follow, all the while knowing his habits, and most importantly, knowing his likely destination and direction. Then, somewhere between here and that destination, her 'team' would be waiting in a location carefully selected for security and safety, ready to spring their trap.
However, today wasn't like any of those other times and she had other, less pleasant tasks awaiting her, more was the pity. And if her information was correct, she also had to be much more careful with this subject.
She was just about to pull her car out into the traffic stream when that last caution proved true. Her quarry suddenly reversed direction and began walking back towards her position at a very rapid pace. Maybe he's forgotten something at the office, she thought, only to have that faint hope all too quickly dashed when he turned down a crowded cross street towards another subway station.
*Just as reported,* she thought. *He IS using counter-surveillance tactics. Why? Because of his experiences with me? But it's been months since we freed him!* Mary had fervently wanted that particular comment by her investigator to be an exaggeration - wanted to believe that her usually very competent PI's assessment that the subject had 'made' him on at least three occasions had been erroneous.
For a few moments, she simply sat there in the car, considering the implications. He hadn't possessed nor exhibited such skills and tactics the first time she had pursued him. Clearly, he possessed, and more importantly, used them now.
She restarted her car and pulled out into the rush hour traffic. She had learned all she could here. It didn't really matter what techniques he used to counter any trailers as she didn't intend to trail him any longer.
The desire for alcohol stalked her again, and once again, she squashed it ruthlessly. Apparently, mistakes were as bad as weaknesses.
Edward Davis cautiously opened his apartment door and reached inside to flick on the lights before actually entering. Once, a lifetime ago, he might have felt foolish taking such dramatic precautions before entering his own home and castle, but no longer. Two lost weeks in hell made many apparently eccentric behaviors seem sensible.
Relaxing slightly, he entered his flat and began checking his little 'tell-tales' as he walked through down the entry hall. These were little, almost-invisible traps that, if tripped, would warn him that an intruder had been in the apartment while he'd been at work.
It often occurred to him - especially these days - that he could not continue to live like this. The pressure and stress were adversely affecting the quality of his work - not to mention destroying what could only laughingly be called his quality of life.
Not for the first time, he asked himself if simply moving away to a new place, a new job and a new life might not be easier in the long run? Probably, but not certainly - which was the answer he craved. Besides, running away from his problems would eat at him just as badly as staying. No way could he tolerate letting whoever had been responsible for his kidnaping 'win', whatever 'winning' meant.
He had to find out who had done this to him, so that he could then learn the answer to the more important question.
That question was still stumping him when his eyes went wide at a sight he had hoped never to find - a sprung trap. A gossamer thread that he had strung across his study's doorway just above floor level lay broken in two pieces. An icy frisson of dread scurried down his spine even as he reached inside his coat pocket to retrieve the small caliber, unregistered semi-automatic pistol he now habitually carried. Edward thumbed off the safety and gathered himself. For just a moment, he leaned against the wall adjacent to the door, his heart racing, his breathing ragged. Not again, he told himself, not ever again.
Then, a voice from his darkest nightmares called out to him from that lightless room. "Edward? It's me. You know I'm here because I intentionally broke your trip-cord. Come in here. We need to talk."
Reaching around the door, he flicked on the room light and spun into the doorway, his gun held in front of him at the ready.
There she was - calmly seated in his favorite armchair as if it were her throne.
HIS favorite armchair!
If the sight of his gun aimed at her surprised her, no such emotion showed on her face. "I am here alone, Edward, just to talk. I am unarmed and you have nothing to fear from me. I swear it," she said in that soft, powerful voice that he would immediately recognize for the rest of his life.
A nearly overwhelming sensation of deja vu swept over him, and his mind slipped back, more than six months to when he'd last seen this woman . . . her reflection in the mirror next to a tall, blond, fashionably dressed businesswoman.
Chapter 2: Informal Discussions
"You've been looking for me," she accused sharply, breaking through the suddenly churning maelstrom of his mind.
"What are you doing here, Marquesa?" he asked coldly.
"Same reasons as you, I suspect. Looking for answers," she replied. "You may as well put that gun away, Edward. I am alone and unarmed. When we are finished here, you will still be here and I will be gone. Nothing is going to happen to you unless you make a foolish mistake with that gun, so why don't you do us both a favor and just put . . it . . away!"
"R. .I . .I . .ght," Edward snorted derisively. "Like I have any reason to believe anything you say, particularly when I finally have some advantage with you."
"I have done many things with you and to you, but I have never lied to you."
Edward thought about that, and something in her demeanor reached him. "You're behind that guy who has been following me the past couple of weeks, aren't you?" he accused, even as he lowered the gun and clicked on the safety.
She shrugged. "As I just pointed out. *You* had someone looking for me. Word got back to me. That was a violation of our contracted agreement. I want to know why."
"You and I have no agreement to violate, contracted or otherwise," he snapped back at her, "I told you that six months ago."
She was ready to believe him on that score now, but this wasn't the time to admit that so she changed the subject. "You've had training since then. The man I hired to put you under surveillance is very skilled. I have used him in the past setting up my little programs and he's never been spotted while undercover before."
"Amazing what motivation being kidnaped, brutalized, stripped of dignity and manhood gives a fellow," Edward retorted snidely. "You tend to look for ways to ensure it never happens again."
"And yet, you kept the last ensemble," she said quietly. "Preserved and protected it, if the recent dry cleaning ticket pinned to the collar label is any indication. Mind telling me why?"
"You've gone through my things?" he sputtered.
"It's not the first time," she shrugged. "The first time I was here was before your little sabbatical with my ladies and me."
"You were here before? Why?"
"To verify that you were what the contract purported you to be - a male submissive. Contrary to what you so obviously believe, perhaps with justification I'm sorry to say, I insist on informed consent from all my. . . guests - to ALL the activities I conduct with them. In your case, I especially needed to ensure that you were truly the novice your application indicated, albeit a novice who wanted a particularly deep immersion experience. So I checked you out. Here in your apartment, and other places, using a variety of methods. In the course of those checks, my colleagues and I found what we thought was sufficient evidence. There were fetish-related books and magazines, and there were files and Internet bookmarks of a similar nature on your computer - back then," she added quietly. "Now, none of those materials are here anymore. The only thing in this apartment that still connects you to the person in those earlier reports are the dress and accessories you wore when we brought you home. Why?"
"Why keep the dress or why destroy the rest of it?" he laughed bitterly.
"Either or both answers will serve," she replied, her eyes steady on his.
"That damned dress was - *is* the only evidence I have of what had happened to me. I needed SOMEthing to hold on to, to preserve my sometimes fragile hold on my sanity."
"It isn't evidence, Edward," she corrected him, "At least, not in the legal sense. There is nothing about that dress or any of the other clothing items you've kept that can be connected to me or to my operation."
"I know that," he muttered angrily. "Hell, I knew couldn't prove anything, even assuming I could ever find you again, but there have been times in the past six months. . ." his voice broke and he turned away to regain control of wild-running emotions. He did, and turned back to face her, his eyes hot and his lashes wet. "Times that I woke up shaking in the night, times that *I* needed some proof that it wasn't just some god-awful nightmare." He paused yet again, struggling to retain his self control. "Proof that I wasn't going insane."
"I can assure you that it all happened, whether it was a dream come true or a nightmare, Edward. Don't doubt your sanity on that score," she offered, surprising him with the caring he heard in her voice.
"Don't you understand? How could I NOT doubt it?!? Hell, I couldn't even prove to anyone that I had gone missing during that hellish two weeks. I was supposed to be gone - supposed to be on vacation. Everyone thought I was camping in the Blue Ridge Mountains. And there is evidence to support that story, too. A man fitting my description drove up there in my car, checked in with the park rangers, disappeared into the woods for twelve days, then came back out and left."
"Just in time for you to 'return' from your vacation. I know. My investigator was able to develop those facts in his more recent inquiries. Unfortunately, that trail was too old for him to find out who actually impersonated you, or more importantly, who paid him to do so."
"I figured you did it, or rather, someone who worked for you did it - as a way of covering your tracks."
The voluptuously-figured woman's eyes closed, almost making him think she actually felt some pain over what she'd done to him. Then she shook her head. When she opened them again, she seemed to pull her emotions back from her face, leaving only the coldly controlled visage he remembered with both fear and loathing from his time in her keeping. "What about the rest - your magazines and so forth?" she asked, returning to her original question.
"I seem to have lost my taste for that type of fantasy," he said flatly. "It was burned out of me about six months ago so I burned them, one by one - page by bloody page in that very fireplace."
"I thought something like that might be the case," she told him. "Consuella and Tamiqua both had bad feelings about your time with us."
"Conseu. . .Who?"
"Two of the women on my team," she answered, briskly. "Both of them spent a good deal of time working directly with you during your stay on my island," she replied. "Consuella is the black-haired Latina with the preference for electric-blue latex. Tamiqua is the tall, black girl with the Carribean accent. You may recall her as Lady Shamarra."
Edward nodded in recognition. They had both been utterly gorgeous - the stuff of fantasy made strong feminine flesh - and both had stalked his fear-darkened dreams ever since.
"They each came to me several times during your second week with us," La Marquesa continued soberly, "expressing their belief that something was wrong. That no one, especially no one so inexperienced in scene-dynamics, could play the confused, outraged and abused prisoner that well. Tamiqua went so far as to refuse to participate in any more of your supposedly contracted scenes."
"Nice of her," he put in sarcastically.
"Since she badly needed the money she was to have been paid for her continued participation - to pay for her college tuition, by the way - I would say it was a rather impressive display of ethics on her part," La Marquesa snapped, furious for her young friend.
He didn't want to hear good things about ANY of those people, he really didn't. "So, what do you want?" he demanded wearily. "What will it take to get you out of here?"
"The truth - once and for all. Look me in the eye and tell me the absolute, unvarnished truth. Were you really an unwilling participant in those scenes?"
She watched him carefully, looking for the hints of body language that would verify his words, seeking some small sign that he was being truthful or evasive. For several long moments he considered the question, and finally decided to answer her.
What Mary saw in his face appalled her. He was emotionally and mentally spent - the tension and stress of the past six months had finally beaten him and he had nothing left to fight with or for.
"Completely unwilling," he said with absolute if quiet conviction. "I thought, right up until you came to me that last time - heck - even until I woke up still rigged out like a woman in my own office at the agency, that every bit of it from the threats of torture to the promises of a life of slavery was real. A nightmare, but real."
She could hear the truth in his words and the softness with which they'd been spoken did nothing to gentle the crushing blow they delivered to her most basic self image. La Marquesa closed her eyes to staunch the moist heat she felt begin to well up and let her head fall backwards against the chair. "Damn," she murmured, before lifting her head again and fixing her gaze on Edward Davis. "I believe you."
"Well, whoopie," the man opposite her snorted derisively. "I can't tell you how much your faith lightens my heart."
She rose, more than a little unsteadily, and reached to collect her purse. Instantly, the gun was back out. "Whoa!" he ordered as he aimed the weapon at her heart. "Where do you think you are going?"
She stared at him coldly. "I have things to do, now," La Marquesa told him. "And as you said, you cannot prove anything. The only thing you can do to me is use that gun, and while I cannot stop you, killing me will finish the job of destroying your life that you feel that I started six months ago."
For a few tense moments, Mary Margaret O'Hurley steeled herself for the shot, for the fiery insult of metal boring into flesh, but then the hand wavered and finally lowered. Edward looked at the gun and shook his head. "Forgot to take it off safe anyway," he muttered to himself before looking up at the woman again. "What things?"
"Someone used me to hurt you," she said, with quiet malice. "I kidnaped you, abused you, demeaned you, and yes, even raped you. Had you really wanted those experiences, had they truly been consensual, had you but known you could have stopped us at any time by just uttering a simple three-syllable word, none of what happened between us would have been in any way wrong, at least according to my personal code of ethics. However, I now believe. . .I now KNOW that you did not request any of that. I don't know how I'm going to live with what I did to you, but step one is to make sure that whoever did this to you, and by extension, whoever did it to me and my friends, never does anything like it again."
She again started to leave, but Edward moved to intercept her. "How are you going to do that?" he asked intensely.
Dark eyes flashed at him. "I have ways," she said in clipped, tight-lipped tones.
"I've been looking for the same person or persons. If you find out anything, let me know." La Marquesa did not respond to that, her eyes having gone momentarily vacant, searching. "Marquesa? Did you hear what I said?"
Irritation flashed across the woman's face. She gave him a dismissive shake of her head. "Look, I don't have time to take care of you while I am pursuing this. Just trust that I will see this matter dealt with and leave it at that."
"I don't need to be taken care of," Ed rebutted. "I just want to know what you find out. I think that's only fair. Regardless of what insult you are feeling right now because of this mess, surely I have suffered far worse from whoever did this. I have the right to know who did it and why!"
Mary gave him a hard stare that sent a frisson of tension running up his spine. Finally, she nodded. "I'll . . . think about it.
"I need closure, Marquesa. Surely, you see the fairness of that."
"Mary," she corrected instantly, "My real name is Mary. Maybe someday, I will tell you all of it. Look, Edward, I'm not sure that is such a good idea. I understand your motivations, but you may not fully understand and accept mine. Look, let's sleep on it. We can meet tomorrow for lunch and discuss it then."
Edward nodded and walked her to the door of his apartment. He stood there staring for long minutes after she'd left, wondering if she would in fact be there when he arrived for their luncheon appointment.
Chapter 3: Just Business
Edward stifled a sigh and moved his right hand over to rest on his left wrist - so that he would not be tempted to look at his watch again. Time, and this meeting, were both dragging.
"Ed? We really could use your input here," a sharp, feminine voice said with the heavy emphasis of someone talking to a day-dreamer. "Your team and I have been talking about this perfume account proposal for two hours already, and we've yet to come up with a single viable campaign concept."
"Surely it isn't that bad, Helen," Ed replied, even as he realized that he couldn't recall even discussing the perfume account. *Better get your head back in the game, boy,* he chided himself as he looked around the table.
Helen Martin was ostensibly his peer in the organization, in charge of administering the campaigns that his team created and designed. A former model, she had realized that, while she had made it to the top of the 'second tier' of that profession, she didn't have what it took to have the title 'super-model' tacked onto her name. So she had invested her earnings carefully, built up a tidy little fortune and gone to business school. Upon graduation, she'd applied her degree and her work experience to the business side of the advertizing game.
And she was, Ed admitted privately, damned good at what she did. Helen was the one who got the ads on TV and radio, and into the newspapers and magazines once Ed gave the concepts and story boards to her. It was a shame, he thought, that she'd gone and cut that glorious mane of long blond hair last year, but he guessed that the sassy new shoulder-length cut still suited her. Besides, it was more in keeping with the image of the young, upwardly-mobile professional she worked so hard at cultivating these days.
Hadn't Ed learned, the hard way, just how difficult it could be to keep really long hair well-groomed and presentable at all times?
Forcing himself to lose that image, Ed looked around the table. Also at the meeting were Ed's two key assistants, Ken Aljerson and Delores (Didi) Conners, along with Helen's principal deputy, Derrick Tolivar. Ed gave his team an encouraging smile, but saw that they were just as down on the outcome of the meeting as Helen. *Didn't pull your weight here, old son. Too busy being distracted by questions that have nothing to do with your job.*
"Oh, come now, Ed," Derrick put in. "I mean, the only idea I heard that got more than two minutes of discussion was what that we rip off the old Miller Light commercials? I mean, can't you see it? We get Brandi Chastain and her pal Mimi, or maybe Kari Webb and Annika Sorenstam and they can argue whether they like the perfume because it is Less Cloying or because it Smells Great?"
"That's not fair, Derrick," Ed defended. "That was only a joke, and since you two sprung this account on us just this morning at 8:30, I think we can be forgiven for not having a Clio Award winning concept at, what time is it now? 11:30? Two thirds of that time has been spent in this meeting, and if it hasn't been productive, then maybe we should try something else."
"And you know that's the way this business is, Ed," Derrick replied, his tones all gentle reproof. "There's never enough time for the big ones, and this account has huge upscale potential, doesn't it, Helen?" At her nod, the deputy turned his oh-so-very agreeable stare to Ed. "I mean, this should be big, very big, like in terms of millions of dollars in advertising and for other spinoff products. You guys have to come up with a campaign for this because no other team can be spared from existing accounts. Look, we're sorry this is a little tight, time-wise, but you're just going to have to get it done."
"Derrick, we *know* the potential for this account. Why don't you focus on helping us solve the problem, not on restating the obvious?" Ed said tiredly.
"Hey, you're the creative guy here, Ed. Don't look on it as a hassle. Look at it like it's another opportunity to show how great you are."
The grin that accompanied that last remark set Ed's teeth hard. "I think you've said enough, Derrick," Ed replied coldly. "We don't need fatuous motivational bull.. gumdrops. Last time I checked, I don't work for you and neither does my team. Helen, if you have a problem with that, then we, you and I, can go down to Veronica and discuss it. Otherwise, stop wasting my time."
Derrick started to splutter in his own defense, "Now wait just a minute, there . . . "
Helen put up a hand to her deputy. "Settle down, Derrick."
"But, Helen, . ."
"No, Ed is right about who we all work for," Helen said in what she probably intended to be a soothing tone, but instead came out condescending. "However, Ed, Derrick is right, too, when he says that we don't have very much time to dither on this one," she added firmly. "Andrushka is the hottest teen pop-star since Britney, and she wants this perfume to be a big deal. She's going to push the button quickly and we will lose out on what I believe will be a very big deal if we can't come up with something damned good, damned quickly!"
"Fine," Edward answered her. "My people and I understand the time-sensitivity. Now, why don't you go do your job and let us do ours."
"Very well. I will tell Veronica that you are . . . working on it," Helen said as she collected her papers and left, a visibly fuming deputy trailing behind her.
"Whew," Didi sighed. "I'm sorry, Ed, but I just can't think with her hovering like that. She's just so. . . tense."
"And *he's* such a sneaky, supercilious son of a bitch," Ken sighed. "That woman may be the greatest deployment specialist in advertising, but she knows more ways to plug up a creative flow than any three other people I've EVER met."
"Don't sweat it, gang. Look, you two go get some lunch and try not to think about this for an hour or so. Meet me in my office at say, 1:30, and we'll take another look at this little challenge."
"Little challenge? We're talking millions a year in revenue, Ed," Ken gawked. "If we don't pull this off, we're toast."
"As in 'So what have you done for me lately', Ken? So what else is new? Go get something to eat and come back ready to work. I've got to meet someone for lunch."
"Guy or girl? Friend or friendlier?" Didi, the ultimate romantic asked.
"Girl, and I'm not sure. Let's just say an acquaintance. Ciao, folks."
Chapter 4: Working Lunch
Edward strove to look 'in-control' as he walked up to the hostess at Archie's Place. He'd gone so far as to take special care with his dress and grooming today - every selection agonized over as he tried to make the most masculine statement possible. The charcoal-grey pinstriped suit with white button-collared shirt and a striped tie (in England it would have been called 'regimental') were the male power-tools of his profession. He had once worn them without thought, and without worry. Once upon a time long ago in a world far, far away.
"Excuse me, ma'am," he said to the attractive young woman guarding Archie's dining room, "I am Edward Davis and I am here to meet someone?" The directions had been left with his secretary earlier that morning with orders 'not to disturb Mr. Davis. He's expecting this, dear.'
The hostess smiled professionally. "Yes, Mr. Davis. The lady has already been seated. She arrived early. Will you please follow me?"
Yet another best laid plan laid to rest, he thought ruefully, for he'd made the effort to arrive early, hoping to gain some small advantage. The hostess led him to the back of the dining room, past the private rooms set aside for 'important business meetings', to a small table next to a window overlooking the park. Then she slipped away without any comments.
La Marquesa was dressed in the feminine equivalent of his own suit, he noted wryly. It would have been hard for the color and pattern of their two suits to be more closely matched. Other than the fact that she wore a skirt and he wore trousers, the only real differences were his tie - she wore a series of gold necklaces - and his lapel pin - she wore a large gold pin. The pin's design was eye-catchingly unique - a triangle pointed down with some type of intricate lettering, Greek perhaps, intertwined with the three sides of the triangle. She rose from her seat as he approached, offering her hand. "Mr. Davis," she said, a polite, professional smile almost reaching her sea-green eyes.
"Marquesa," he rejoined, "and please, I think I would be more comfortable if you called me Ed or Edward."
"And I, Edward, have already asked you to call me by my Christian name, Mary." The pleasantries dispensed with, they took their seats and made small talk until their waiter came for their luncheon orders. Neither ordered the special and were informed that it would be about twenty minutes before their entries were ready.
"That gives us time to speak freely, I think," Edward said after ensuring they were alone.
"I should hope so. We have nothing to gain by playing any further games at this point."
"I have some concerns, Marqu. . Mary, and I need some answers." She merely nodded, and indicated that he should continue. "First, let me say that I never signed that contract. Before you showed it to me that last time we were together, I had no idea what was going on except that it was damned scary and usually very painful."
Sighing, Mary nodded again. "I know that now, Edward. It is a large part of why I am here with you right now. My goal today is to assure that I will, somehow, find a way to make amends to you for that. . . debacle."
"But you have to understand - that is what I don't understand. You are a very careful woman. You've told me that you have access to investigators, that you had me and my home checked out before you took me that night, and yet, you believed I had signed that contract. You never saw me, let alone saw me sign that contract. How could you accept that I had made that kind of commitment?"
"An excellent question - and one which we've already proven I do not have an equally excellent answer. Oh, I still have some physical evidence that I could show you - not with me, but that I can bring to you, perhaps tonight after you get off work - but there were other reasons why I accepted that contract as real. First, there was the simple matter of the money that was involved."
"Money? What money?"
"Edward," she said, with gentle reproof, "You had a very expensive two weeks in my care. . . err. . keeping. You had the full attention, 24/7, of myself and five other women. You were never allowed more than six hours of rest any of those days, never more than two hours of that uninterrupted. At the same time, however, you always under the direct observation of at least one member of my team, and when you weren't sleeping, you were always attended by no fewer than two on-watch Mistresses. That is not inexpensive under any circumstances, and *I* am the best at what I do. I charge accordingly for my services."
"And you were paid? In full?"
"Of course, and up front, as well. Half when I started the deep background checks on you to ensure that you were a viable candidate, and the other half when we. . when whoever arranged the contract and I set the date for your capture. You have no idea how many men try to weasel out of payment after they've had their . . . fun," her brow arched high in challenge, "especially when the . . . arrangements are not cash-and-carry."
"I can just imagine."
"Edward?" she said warningly, not liking his tone of voice, "Don't impugn my skills or my ethics, even in jest. I give value for value, and those who come to me in full knowledge never leave unsatisfied with the experience. Your case is unique in many ways."
"No disrespect intended, ma'am."
"And don't call me 'ma'am'. I prefer Mary, please."
"Yes, Ma'am," he said grinning.
"Well done, Edward. If you can stay that relaxed, we might just accomplish something. So, to continue, the money was a big part of my readiness to accept the contract offer as genuine. Then, when I checked out your supposed references, they seemed genuine as well. You are, or were, a member of the local chapter of Black Rose."
"I was never a participating member," he corrected. "I just went to meetings. I was an embarrassed voyeur at the only play party I ever tried to attend. Closest I came to doing anything even remotely submissive was fetching a glass of wine for one of the Dominas."
"That is not what your references told me, or rather, the people who purported to be your references told me. They had quite a story built up, very consistent, too, the picture was of a committed novice ready to make the next big step. It fit with everything else. Then we checked out your home and there, too, what we found supported the picture we had of you.
"Why didn't you just ask me?"
"Because part of the deal was that you wanted to be captured - taken against your will, as it were."
"And that didn't set off any warning bells?"
Mary shrugged, no longer as comfortable responding to that question as she would have been but twenty four hours earlier. "It's a common enough fantasy, and one we did quite a business in providing."
"Seems damned dangerous to me. Suppose I'd been armed that night?"
"That has recently occurred to us," she said, her voice momentarily chilly. Then, she seemed to relent and continued as if he had not interrupted. "From now on, when we agree to a snatch-and-grab, the 'victim' will be required to go to a place specified by me, and make a signal specified by me before the game starts. It will cut down on the spontaneity and will also dull the sharp edge of dark anticipation for the client, but at the same time, it will limit the possibility of a crime such as this being perpetrated on another unsuspecting innocent."
"Seems like a more sensible way of doing your business, Mary," Edward said, the effort to keep from saying something more biting obvious in his face.
"Hindsight is always 20-20, Edward. For what little it is worth, I am most sincerely sorry that you were so basely used and abused by my hand and at my direction."
"Thank you." He went silent. "I just wish I knew WHY!!! I NEED to know WHY."
"Ed, whoever did this to you is, obviously, very malicious. And that malice has already been directed at you once. I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to stay out of what comes next for your own safety."
Momentarily speechless, Ed stared at the woman seated across the table from him. Finally, he shook his head. "That's not going to happen, Mary. It's my life that has been turned upside down. Cripes, I took those anti-terrorist and self defense courses to protect myself, but even now, I can't even walk into my own home without being on guard. There is no way that I am staying out of this."
Exasperation lined Mary's brow. "Dammit, Edward, think with the head on your shoulders instead of the one in your pants! What would you be able to do? All right, so you've had some training, and from what I saw last night, you've benefitted from it, but that is not the same as being a professional investigator or. . . whatever. And I am perfectly capable of hiring such muscle as I might need so I don't need your manly self for protection in this endeavor."
Edward decided to shift the topic. "What are YOU going to do to this person when you find him?"
"Rap him soundly upon the knuckles, stand him in the corner for a time out and then make him promise not to be naughty again," she snapped. When Edward's only response to that was a single challengingly raised brow, she sighed. "I don't think you want to know that."
"Ah, but I do. That's the point, actually. For all that you thought what you did to me was consensual, and therefore legal by most definitions, we are very likely to do something non-consensual and illegal to this person. I think it is in your best interests to keep the circle of those who know what that something is as small as possible. That includes me by force of circumstance."
"Nonsense. You are too intrinsically honest to do what may need to be done."
"My honesty is exceeded by my need for justice. I don't think I will have any trouble rationalizing any non-lethal action against this person."
"So you say now," she muttered. "Tell me this, then. Are you willing to do what I say, follow my orders? We can't be working at cross purposes in this, Edward, or we will, in all likelihood, lose our quarry. He or she will go to ground and we'll never find out what happened."
A wry grin lit Edward's tense features. "I've certainly demonstrated that I *can* follow your orders."
"Don't prevaricate!" Mary ordered sharply. "My question was on whether you were *willing* to do so."
"Yes," Edward replied calmly. "Insofar as my obedience supports finding and . . . doing something appropriate to my unknown adversary."
"You're already trying to qualify your answer. How far are you willing to go?"
"In the hunt? Or in doing something to him?"
"Does that make a difference?" Mary asked baldly, "And don't forget that this might be a 'her'."
"I am still haunted by nightmares from what I went through because of this person. I will do what it takes to find whoever did this to me. . .to us. Once that is done, how far I'll be willing to go will depend."
"Depend? On what?"
"On the why," he answered simply.
"But under my orders? At least up until we discover the who and the why?"
"I already agreed to that."
Mary regarded Edward somberly for several moments, and then shrugged. "Then, I think we should consider what to do next. For starters, I will arrive at your apartment at 9:00. I will expect to be greeted by Edie."
"What?!? Edie? Are you nuts?"
"No, I am not."
"I am not going back there, Mary. You can forget that right now!"
"I see. So much for your agreement to follow my orders in this endeavor."
"That was a setup and you know it!"
"Very well. I'm sorry for the confusion. I will not, of course, insist that you become Edie again. I will, however, insist that you not interfere with my own plans." She reached beneath the table and brought up her purse. "Good-bye."
"Damn you! You're trying to coerce me into that damnable game of yours again!"
A momentary sadness flitted across Mary's countenance that immediately disappeared behind a steely mask of control. "No, actually, I'm not. I don't think you are suited to what will be required. If you DO stay involved, however, it will be on my terms. You can leave at any time - but as long as you are working with me, it will be in support of my plans. So, make up your mind."
"You can't stop me from pursuing this, with or without you."
"No, short of kidnaping you again, I can't, but as I tried to make clear earlier, your interference will virtually assure that the person who did this to you will escape unscathed."
Just then, the waiter arrived with their meals. Edward allowed him to serve while he considered Mary's words. When they were again alone, he could only shake his head. "I can't not pursue it, Mary. Why are you acting this way?"
"Several reasons," she sighed even as she returned her purse to beneath the table and resettled herself. "Even when you were at your lowest at my island, I knew you to be one of God's gentle people, Edward. You will, without a doubt, feel horribly guilty when what must be done is done." she said, reaching over to put a soothing hand over his own. "It would be better for both of us if you just got out of my way. Secondly, if there is any danger involved in this, I want to know that you will do what you're told when you're told to do it."
"And you think THAT was a fair test of that?"
"You said you had agreed to follow my orders."
"In the context of our search. Edie is something you created to humiliate me, and just now, you were using that humiliation to get what you want, not achieve our mutual goal."
Mary sighed. This encounter was not going the way she'd hoped when she'd agreed to meet him here. As things stood now, she was going to have to deal with either an independently acting Ed or one who would not follow her orders without question. Neither was acceptable. It was time to take a different tact. "All right, Edward. I won't insist that Edie meet me tonight, but that only delays the inevitable. I will insist on it at some point. I have my reasons, and they are valid. If you are really willing to do what I say on this, then perhaps we can work together. If not, let's stop wasting each other's time."
"Do you really have reasons why this is necessary to find our adversary? This is not just an excuse to humiliate me again, or a ploy to get me to back out?
"Ed, if I haven't convinced you by now that I am very, very serious about . . . correcting this situation, then nothing I can say now will change that. Make up your mind whether you can find it in yourself to trust me - whether you need me - or not."
Keeping her own gaze steady and unwavering as Ed regarded her silently took every bit of Mary's will, but she managed. Unfortunately, Ed didn't answer her, denying her the opportunity to turn his own words back on him. "Well?" she demanded, one finely shaped brow rising in challenge.
He shook himself. "I haven't decided how I feel about either issue," he admitted. "I'm going to have to think some more about that. I thought I was ready to trust you, but after that Edie demand, I'm no longer so sure."
Mary was struggling to find a reply to that when a new voice called from behind him "Edward? Is that you?".
"Ms. Johnson," he said as he rose and turned to face the direction of the call. Mary gave the woman a searching look, and for some reason, liked what she saw. She was of slightly less than average height for a woman, although her three inch power-heels helped.
*Red hair and violet eyes,* Mary thought, *and she is concerned for Edward.*
"Mary," Edward offered, "This is my supervisor, Ms. Veronica Johnson. Ms. Johnson, this is an acquaintance of mine, ummm,"
Mary forced herself not to smile at Edward's embarrassment, but knew that she had never told him her full name. She rose and offered her hand to the shorter woman. "Mary O'Hurley, Ms. Johnson. Edward was going to slip and call me by my former married name," she added by way of explanation.
"A pleasure," was the patently insincere reply. Mary felt her chin rise in challenge as the piercingly vivid violent eyes gave her a thorough going-over. "From your tan, I would say you are from warmer climes."
"South," Mary replied as she took her seat.
"Will you be staying?"
Mary arched a single brow at the question. "For a while, in any case. Edward and I are considering doing a project together."
"A possible business customer, Ed?"
"Personal, Ms. Johnson," he replied.
"I see. Well, then I will leave you alone to enjoy your coffee. A pleasure meeting you, Ms. O'Hurley. Oh, nice broach, by the way. I have one very much like it."
A strange look came across Mary's features. "Really, Ms. Johnson? How unusual, and unexpected. And the pleasure was mutual."
Edward and Mary watched in momentary silence as Veronica strode away. "Interesting woman," Mary finally offered.
"She's been very good to me, professionally speaking."
"Has she indeed?" Mary asked mysteriously. *Well, she just put herself on the very short list of possible suspects with that parting shot of hers. And if I had to guess, I would say her interest in Mr. Davis was not merely professional. A VERY interesting woman.*
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