The nightclub was the apotheosis of all nightclubs. Dark. Crowded. Smoky. And, most of all, noisy. The music thumped and rattled against the walls: an enormous animal clawing at its cage and trying to break out into the night. The bodies pressed against one another on the dance floor under the flashing multicolored lights. The alcohol and hormones flowed.
The redheaded woman sat with her back to the bar, her bare legs elegantly crossed as she stared out across the scene. She had erected an invisible but unbreakable social forcefield around herself; one or two men managed to penetrate its outer layers, but immediately bounced away when she shot a penis-withering glance at them from behind her trendy pair of glasses.
Her blue gaze was cool and unemotional, and, when not flicking away unwanted attention, remained locked on a particular couple on the dance floor. A man and a woman, both blonde; the man standing almost a head taller then his partner, the woman’s hair wound into a tight bun at the back of her head. As they moved to the monotonous music, it was clear that they would be pressed as tightly together even if they had been the only people in the entire club.
The woman at the bar watched in silence.
Finally, a voice spoke to her, not from the room, but down under her curls, inside her ear.
“Thank you, Millie. I’ve seen what I need to see. You have done well, and as a reward, you may enjoy yourself now. Within established parameters, of course.”
Millie did not reply, but immediately reached up and removed the glasses. She carefully folded them and placed them in her slim red purse, which she snapped shut and slung back in position over one shoulder. Only then did she give a little shake, the red fabric of her dress shimmering. She turned off the force field, her face coming to life and her mouth smiling at a man who lounged further down the bar.
He smiled back, and was standing beside her as if teleported there.
The couple continued to dance.
The car cruised through the rainy night, ghosting over the slick pavement. More than a luxury car, not quite a limousine. Painted a color that if used in a box of crayons, would be labelled “Bland Grey”. All as if the owner was striking a careful balance between comfort and avoiding the attraction of unwanted attention.
The man in the back of the car turned off the small TV that was mounted before him, killing the unenlightening view of the interior of a slim red purse. He flicked off the microphone that was also there, and looked down at the sundress-clad woman who was crouched on the carpeted floor between his legs. He studied her blonde head as it bobbed slowly, rapturously, up and down, up and down, again and again. An effect that was almost hypnotic. His face remained expressionless, but his voice smiled, slightly, as he spoke.
“You, too, have done very well, my dear. They were exactly where you said they would be... Now that I’ve had a chance to study the situation first-hand, I see this may be a bit trickier than some of my cases, but with your continued help, I think we can succeed.” The woman did not reply, or break off her rhythm even for an instant. His dark gaze rose, and fastened itself on the small, black-haired woman who sat opposite him, her hands carefully folded in the lap of her soft grey business skirt.
“And I’ll need your help as well, Maria.”
“Of course, Master.” She spoke softly and earnestly.
He almost smiled again, and punched the intercom button beside him.
“You can head for home now, Susan.”
A voice answered him, professional but tinged with just a hint of sultry desire.
The car rolled on into the darkness.
“...And she told me this right to my face! Like she expected me to be happy about it, or something! Can you believe the gall of some people? I swear...”
Surfacing from the steady verbal flow washing over her, Sandra realized what she was doing and snapped her hand away from her mouth. Not that it really mattered. The nail was already ragged, like all of the rest.
“...And so I told her that if she thought I was going to let someone get away with crap like that, then she had...”
Kendra broke off as she clattered the teapot and cups down on the barren, highly polished, coffee table between them. Looking at Sandra, she picked up a new train of thought.
“You still having trouble with that? The nail biting?”
Sandra made a wretched sound, and twisted next week’s lesson plan in her hands.
“You know I’ve tried everything. Snapping a rubber band on my wrist when I find myself doing it. Wearing gloves when old Moron isn’t around breathing down my neck. I even went to a hypnotherapist. Nothing’s worked.”
Her lighter-haired sister looked about as sour as she capable of, and curled up in the other armchair, tucking her nicely tanned legs under her body. She absently smoothed her short sundress as she did so.
“I told you what you should do.”
“And I told you, hypnosis didn’t help.” Sandra slid her palm down the top of her leg, steamrollering the lesson plan’s crumpled sheets between her hand and the fabric of her slacks. She wondered irritably how Kendra could keep from freezing to death in that outfit she wore.
“There are other methods. I swear, Fred’s not a hypnotherapist, he’s a miracle worker. You have to at least give him a try. Just one lousy session. It’s free, and what can it hurt? You know how much trouble I was having with my weight, and he helped me. I haven’t been on one of my damn cycles for months now.”
Sandra looked at her younger sister in exasperation and curled her nails tightly into her palms. She transferred her gaze to one of the resulting fists. A little more pressure, a little more available nail, and she’d be breaking skin. She sighed, and raised her head again, her blue eyes resigned.
“If I go once, will you promise to just shut up about Mr. Miracle Worker?”
Kendra’s matching eyes stared back, radiating sincerity.
“Absolutely. Totally. Forever. On the other hand, I’m warning you this very instant, if you don’t agree to go, I’ll keep after you day and night until you crack.”
Sandra lowered her eyelids coolly for a moment, then sighed again.
“All right, what’s his number? I’ll call in the morning.”
“I have his card in my purse. I think I left it by the front door. Don’t you go anywhere. I’ll get it while you pour...” Kendra uncurled, popped up, and flitted out of the room.
With slow deliberation, Sandra uncurled her fingers and grasped the pot’s handle. At least going would shut up Kendra.
Not that anything ever really shut up Kendra.
She just hoped no one ever found about this, especially not at work...
The reception room was tasteful and understated, with just enough splashes of color sloshed around to give it a cheerful edge. A Hispanic woman sat behind a wide oak desk, her fingers efficiently tapping away at a late-model computer. As Sandra stepped into the room from the hallway, the pretty, compact, woman looked up and flashed an impersonal secretary-smile. More efficiency. Something that Sandra appreciated, since she normally dealt day in and day out with the aggravating chaos and disruption that swirled inside the walls a third-grade classroom. Even so, she spoke somewhat flatly.
“Hello. My name is Sandra Larrick. I have an appointment.”
Another bland smile from the vicinity of the desk.
“Of course, Ms. Larrick. Your complimentary session? You can go right in. Mr. Mabuse is expecting you.” After dealing with some of the parents of her charges, Sandra vaguely expected the receptionist to be sporting an accent, but none was immediately evident.
Although the inner door gave a noticeable squeak when she opened it, the office behind it continued the theme of quiet elegance, possibly amplified upon it just enough to establish who the employer was here. There was another desk, a couple of comfortable-looking chairs, a bank of filing cabinets, and a leather couch. A ceiling fan spun silently overhead, and a clock ticked softly on one wall.
The man sitting behind the desk rose as she entered. He was tall and thin, almost as dark as his receptionist, and immaculately dressed. He possessed a face whose edges were a little too jagged to be considered truly handsome, but not so much as to be overtly menacing. He came around the desk, stopped a careful distance away, and extended a hand.
“Ms. Larrick, I assume? I’m Frederick Mabuse.”
“Yes.” Sandra spoke tightly, and retrieved her hand and its well-gnawed nails from his grasp as quickly as possible. She didn’t want to be here, and something about Mr. Mabuse immediately made her somehow nervous. Something intangible, an aura that seemed to cling to him. But his eyes were thoughtful, and his manners explicitly correct. Those eyes studied her silently for a long moment, and he carefully shifted backwards.
“You don’t really want to be here, do you, Ms. Larrick?”
“Uh...” The abrupt comment, as if coming from her own thoughts, startled her.
“It’s not like it’s an uncommon reaction from people who find themselves here. And, even if it wasn’t, after the time I’ve spent in this line of work, I think I can tell. I can also understand.” He retreated back behind his desk, and sat down. Pulled in his chair. Carefully folded his hands before him before continuing:
“Our society has an unfortunate habit of... looking down on people who are perceived as having mental problems. Admitting that you are seeking professional help in the area of personal behavior, even with something comparatively trivial as nail-biting, is often a... dangerous thing to do. When they learn you are doing something along these lines, far too often people start tip-toeing around you mentally and physically, as if your affliction was set on a hair-trigger, or was somehow contagious. But you’ve taken that chance, Ms. Larrick, which is all that is required. I hope that together, we can solve your problem. Do you want to give it a try?”
Still standing near the door, Sandra again looked at her nails, or at least what was left of them. She said nothing. The man behind the desk continued after another pause.
“I can only reiterate, any sessions we have will be done in strictest confidence. No one in your personal or professional life will know about your time here, unless you personally choose to tell them. We both know that your sister will never tell anyone about this, and neither will I.” He hesitated, a space of silence somehow different than the ones before. “If you’re willing to give me a chance, please have a seat.” He waved at the chair nearest the desk.
Sandra ran her thumb across the remnants that she was examining, and walked to the seat. She sat down, carefully cradled her purse between her feet. She forced a strained smile, and flipped her tight blonde ponytail back over her shoulder. She wondered how good a therapist he was if he didn’t know about Kendra the Amazing Human Mouth, but she pushed the thought aside.
“So... what are you going to do? Show me inkblots? Hypnotize me?”
“Well, I can have Maria- my receptionist- make some inkblots for us if you’d really like. I’d have to send her out for the ink, though.”
“Maybe... maybe later.” Sandra forced a smile, and gripped the arms of the chair. As she had thought from her initial survey near the door, they were soft and nicely padded. “Seriously, though. What... do you do? Exactly?”
“You asked about hypnotism. I can see right now that will not be an option with your case, even though I do use it some of the time.” He seemed to come to a decision. “Ms. Larrick I shall let you in on a great secret. 90% of what I do in this office is just... talk. No tricks. No gimmicks. And that’s all I want to do right now. Perhaps all that we will ever do. So... today... to start with... let’s get to know each other a little. Tell me about yourself. Just read me your resume, if you feel uncomfortable with giving out anything more personal.”
“My resume? I didn’t bring...”
“Not literally. Where do you work? Where did you go to school? Things like that. At the moment, I don’t know much more then the fact that Kendra is your sister, and that she is worried about your problem, and cares enough about you to convince you to come and talk with me.”
Sandra shrugged uncomfortably.
“I teach third grade at Dupray Elementary. I went to school up at Western. I have a degree in Education.”
“Ah. Teaching is a very noble profession, one that is sadly undervalued in this day and age. I suppose it’s rather arrogant of me to say so, but in many ways, it’s what I do as well.”
“Do you enjoy your work?”
He studied her for a moment as if making a careful mental note, then continued.
“That’s good. Too many people do work that makes them miserable, and leaves them unfulfilled, just because its the only way to put food on the table...”
Just then there was a tap at the door. He looked at it, and then Sandra.
“Do you mind?”
“No. No, of course not.”
“Thank you. Yes, Maria?”
The door squealed open again; the sound was even louder here in the inner office. The receptionist stuck her head inside. Sandra looked at her warily from over one shoulder.
“I’m very sorry to interrupt, sir, but you said that you wanted these as soon as they were ready.” The woman in the doorway held up a stack of papers. “I’m going out for a while now.”
“Yes, Maria. Thank you. That will be fine. Leave them over there, and switch over to the answering service before you go.” The intruder dropped the papers on a nearby surface, and slipped out, the door noisily following her back into position. In the following silence, Mabuse turned back to Sandra.
“I’m very sorry about that. We were talking about your job; how about your personal life? You aren’t married?”
“No. Of course not.”
“And you and Kendra don’t have any other siblings?”
“No. Just the two of us. And Mom and Dad are both gone.” She hesitated, still feeling suspicious. She shot another glance at the door, half-expecting it to suddenly burst open. “Did... Kendra talk about... other things?”
He didn’t answer her question, but asked one in return.
“Would you be more comfortable if we locked the door? Some of my clients prefer it, others, I believe it makes them feel as if they are trapped in here with me.”
“No. No, that’s fine.” She faced forward again.
“To answer your question, my sessions with your sister are as confidential as yours, Ms. Larrick, so I can’t go into any detail. If Kendra wishes to discuss them with you, please feel free to ask her. I can say that we did discuss your family history to some extent. She didn’t tell me anything scandalous or intimate. It sounds like you both had average childhoods.”
“Do you feel that you and she get along well?”
“That’s good, too. I’ve seen the damage that a sibling rivalry can do to a family.” He paused in a calculated sort of way. “But even at first glance, I can say that the two of you are very different, though, aren’t you?”
“Yes.” Maybe he wasn’t totally unobservant...
Fred smiled sardonically.
“Although I can also already see that you have one shared trait: you’re not going to make this easy for me, are you?”
She looked at him silently. He looked back, then seemed to come to another decision. He leaned back in his chair, and folded his arms over his chest. He said nothing. For a long moment, there was silence. The moment spun out. Finally, Sandra was the one who spoke:
“Is that it?”
He said nothing.
“So I can go?”
He finally replied.
“If you want, you can of course leave at any time. But... do you remember, I just said that 90% of what I do is talk? Maybe your case falls into that other 10%. Maybe we shouldn’t talk. Maybe, today, we should just wait a while. Do nothing. Nothing at all.”
“This... this is silly.”
“When was the last time you did nothing, Ms. Larrick? Really nothing?”
“I don’t understand.”
“For a while. Maybe for the rest of your session. Let’s just sit here. Sit here, and do nothing. Make it a little challenge for yourself.” He leaned forward, and spoke. “See if you can do nothing.”
They sat, and Sandra fidgeted.
The clock ticked.
Sandra emerged out onto the sidewalk, which was currently drowned in the blocky shadow of the ugly structure she had just escaped. She looked up at the Bloy building, trying for an idle moment to pick out the window of Mabuse’s office. Finally, she shook her head and started off towards the nearby parking garage.
As she did so, a wino shambled by, looking like some fairy-tale troll in the shadow, and she turned her face away slightly in distaste. Everywhere she turned, more dirt...
“So. How did it go? Tell me everything. Spill it, girl.” Kendra leaned forward, arched her eyebrows. Unlike Sandra’s clinically neat apartment, hers was extravagantly messy and disordered, with stacks of paperwork and newspapers and clothing everywhere. Although, Sandra noted with grudging approval, no more empty pizza boxes or Chinese takeout cartons. Maybe there could be something worthwhile at the end of this torture after all.
Thinking about Kendra’s question, she gave an exasperated sigh. As her time with this Mabuse character had just reminded her, ever since they had been growing up together, Kendra had possessed a talent for provoking those.
“It’s none of your business.”
Kendra smiled smugly.
“I know. But you’re going to tell me all about it anyway. You just can’t help yourself.”
“It was... weird. But not in a bad way, exactly. We just talked for a while, and then... we... did nothing...”
“You are going back?”
Sandra opened her mouth, closed it. Shot an automatic glance at her nails.
“I’ll go back. One more time anyway. If only to see what else he’ll do. I have to do something about this.”
“Great!” For a split second, Kendra looked odd, almost flushed. Then it was gone. If she hadn’t known better, Sandra would swear her sister had been... She dismissed the thought as Kendra continued. “So, enough of that. Let’s get down to the juicy important stuff. You and Johnny boy have another hot date tonight, huh?”
“Yes. John and I have a date.” Sandra shot off an arch look. “You know, if you hadn’t broken up with... whatisface...”
“Not whatisface. Jerkface, since you’re so hung up on using people’s proper names.”
“Jerkface. Right. Whatever. If you hadn’t broken up with him, you wouldn’t have to keep coming to me all of the time for vicarious satisfaction.”
“Seriously, though.” Sandra leaned forward herself for a moment. “You’re not seeing anyone, are you? What happened to that slut of a sister that I used to know and love? You were burning through them like a wildfire for a while.”
“You’d rather I go back to do doing that?”
“Actually, I’ve recently come to the realization that all men are slime. I’m not going to date for a while.”
“While you’re essentially correct, you’ll last a week. Maybe.”
Kendra smiled innocently. It almost looked sincere; Sandra had always thought her sister should have become an actress. “We’ll see. Anyway, enough about me. Are you and...” a roll of the eyes... “John... gonna go to that club again?”
“Yes. Say... seriously. Why don’t you come with us? John wouldn’t mind having two dates. It would be fun.”
“No, no thanks. I have plans.”
“And they don’t involve a man?”
“Nope. It is possible to have fun without one, occasionally.”
Responding to the knock, the pudgy, balding, man opened the door to the hotel unit. There was a blonde-haired woman standing in the hallway, wearing a long conservative coat and carrying a briefcase. She smiled, the movement of muscles quick and professional.
“Hello. Mr. Selar?”
“Yes.” He swallowed nervously.
“You made an appointment with the Doctor for tonight?”
“Yes... Uh.. Yes. I haven’t been feeling well.” He hesitated, then stepped back from the door.
She smiled, dazzling now, and entered the room.
Her second session.
Fred rubbed his thumbs together, then spoke.
“And this is the hardest part, the most difficult question, but one that has to be asked. Do you currently have any... romantic attachments?”
“I really don’t want to talk about that.”
“All right. I understand. But it is something that we’ll have to face, someday. Are you willing to answer that question, and nothing more for the moment?”
“Yes. I mean, yes I have them.” A hesitation. “One.” A longer pause. “His name is John Orr.”
“Thank you, Ms. Larrick. That’s enough of that for now. When you’re not... um... spending time with Mr. Orr, I assume you’re at work, at Dupray, wasn’t it? Do you get along well with your co-workers?”
“Yes. The other teachers are all great. And the kids, too. Most of the time.”
“That sums up childhood as whole, I would think.”
“I suppose.” Sandra sighed. “But there are times when I just...” She broke off and sighed again.
“I understand.” She looked at him, and saw a slightly wry expression on his face.
“I suppose you will not be happy hearing this, but it’s painfully obvious that you’re holding something back.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You said that the other teachers and the children are great. But there are other people at the school, aren’t there?”
“And they are a problem?”
She continued to look at him until he offered a sigh of his own and continued:
“Very well, we’ll drop this for now. Let’s just do nothing now. For a while.”
Sandra sat, but she didn’t do nothing.
She thought about...
Sandra ground her teeth at the prissy voice. She turned from the small refrigerator, letting the door swing shut.
Moron stood in the center of the teacher staffroom, his bald head and rimless glasses both giving off a sallow gleam in the lights. His suit was as clean and tightly-arranged as Mabuse’s had been, but with the man before her, the effect was somehow the exact opposite of Mabuse’s elegance. Even more than the wino outside of the Bloy building, Moron was coated in a thin persistent layer of gritty dirt that no amount of frantic scrubbing with wire brushes could ever scrape off.
Scrape. An appropriate word. Everything about him grated on her. Rubbed her the wrong way. His dirt, his attitude, his looks. He was a walking, talking, canker sore. One day, she’d snap, and kill him, run him through with a pair of scissors. (Of course, she’d have to sharpen it first...) She doubted the jury would convict, once all of the facts were laid before it. She spoke, her voice carefully controlled.
“I just wanted to remind you again, Miss Larrick, that it is almost time for your yearly evaluation meeting. I hope that you’re ready.”
“Of course, Phil. I’ll be there with bells on.”
He looked at her suspiciously.
“Is that a joke?”
Sandra somehow resisted the urge to bury ten gnawed-off nails deep in his puffy throat, shake him violently, and scream ‘YES! YES, IT’S A JOKE, YOU WEASEL-FACED ANAL-RETENTIVE LITTLE IDIOT!”
“Never mind. I’ll be there.”
“Good. Good.” He departed, leaving the usual shimmer of ugliness behind him. Sandra gave a controlled shudder, and turned back to fishing her tightly-packed lunch out of the refrigerator.
There was a knock at the door. Sandra hopped out of her chair, and went to open it.
“Hey, it’s the teacher chick.”
“Hey, it’s the stud muffin.” Sandra smiled in an anticipatory way at the well-muscled blonde-haired man standing in her doorway. He loomed over her, and they kissed for a long moment.
“Ready to hit the town?”
“You bet. Let me just get my coat...”
“Ah c’mon. You don’t need that. I’ll keep you warm.”
Sandra giggled. Some days it seemed that, apart from bitching with and at Kendra, going out and blowing off steam with John in those seedy clubs was the only thing keeping her going.
A few days later:
“But that’s not the real problem, is it, Sandra?” It was gloomy and raining outside the window, and Mabuse had turned up the lights brighter than usual. He occupied his usual place in the office.
“I don’t understand. What... what do you mean?” Sandra looked at him, her feelings matching the color of the day’s sky. Things didn’t seem to be really going anywhere. She realized that she liked it a lot better when they just sat quietly.
“We’ve been talking for a while now, when we’re not... doing nothing... and I think I now see the problem. Yes, the immediate situation is that you bite your nails. But I’ve thought all along that behavior like yours is just a symptom. Not the real problem.”
“What? You’re saying I’m crazy?” She snapped, rising up out of her chair. Some corner of her mind realized that she wanted to get him angry, make him kick her out of the office, so that she didn’t have to keep facing this. Keep having to root around in feelings she wanted to keep buried. Causing disorder.
“No.” He made a soothing gesture and then re-clasped his hands. She forced herself to sink back. “That is not what I am saying at all. I am saying that you are a perfectly healthy woman who happens to be under a great deal of stress. During our last session, you told me a little more about your job, and your boyfriend... Mr. Orr... and this... What is the name of the man at Dupray Elementary School who isn’t ‘great’, Ms. Larrick?”
Sandra ground her teeth for a moment.
“Principal Moran. I see. Getting back to my main point, you’re piling on too much. Pushing yourself too far.”
“And what? I should give up my job? Or my boyfriend?”
“Again, of course not. What you need to give up is the stress. It’s eating you alive, and you in turn are eating your nails. You, Sandra, can handle all of this, but when you’re not doing it, you need to learn to relax.”
“I relax. I know how to relax.”
He gave off one of his almost imperceptible sighs.
“No. No, you don’t. I’ve been watching you while we do nothing. You can’t really do it, which is what I suspected when I first suggested the idea. You are constantly knotted up, and tense, and jumpy. Your mind is always running at high speed. I saw that the moment you walked in here, and our time together since then has merely confirmed it. I thought maybe at first it was just because you feel you’ve been forced to see me, but I’m sure now that it’s more than that. And it is how I can really help you. I can teach you to relax. Really do nothing for a time, and relax. If you want me to.” He leaned forward. “Do you want my help? There are two things we can do. We can start talking, really talking, if you want. I can become your... toxic waste disposal site, which will help in the short term with your problem. But the... ah... reactor inside of you will continue to churn out replacement waste. If you want that problem to go away for good, we need to do something else. Something more.”
Sandra thought, then looked down at her own hands. They were clenching the arms of her chair again, the sleeves of her blouse almost merged with the fabric. She reluctantly turned her gaze back to Mabuse... Fred. Although with less reluctance than when she had started seeing him.
“What do you think I have to do?”
Fred shifted back and tapped his thumbs together, his expression grave.
“Not you. We. Together. And we have to start at the beginning. In this case, in everyone’s case, the beginning is with your breathing. If you want to learn to relax and do nothing, you need to learn to breathe.” He held up a tired hand, cutting off her reply. “Spare me the witty retort, Ms. Larrick. I’ve heard them all. You already know how to breathe. You’ve been doing it for years. Yes. But you don’t. You don’t know how to breathe, anymore than a man thrust on the dance floor for the first time without any training knows how to...” a vague wave... “...rumba. He can flail his arms and legs around, and call it dancing, but that doesn’t make it right. What we need to do is start your dance lessons, so to speak.”
“I... actually think I understand. Sort of.”
“Good. And you’ll see before long how easy it is. All I want you to do today is, while we are doing nothing, imagine that you are asleep. Close your eyes, and get comfortable.”
Sandra released her grip on the chair, and took a deep breath. Let it out. Closed her eyes. She felt like she was teetering at the edge of some vast precipice overlooking a bottomless pit of slime. But who was pushing her, and who was trying to pull her back to safety...
“That’s right. Now, imagine that you are home in bed. Or wherever you would most like to be in bed. Wherever you are, it is safe and warm and relaxed. You are curled up under the covers, doing nothing. Take a breath, and hold it for a moment. Just a moment, then let it out. Good. Take another, the same way. In and out. With a pause between each. Listen...” He spun a moment of silence. “...listen to the clock. Can you hear it ticking?”
“Yes.” Sandra nodded tightly, swallowed.
“Good. You’re always fighting the clock, racing to keep ahead of it, no? For a few minutes at least, here in this office, let’s try to make the clock your friend. Make the noise a pleasant one. Listen to the clock, and match your breaths to it. Tick... in. Tock... out. Tick. And Tock. Tick. And tock. Shut out everything but the clock. Even my voice. Just listen to the clock...” He fell silent, and the clock ticked... and tocked... in the empty space left behind. Sandra sat and listened, and breathed, and did nothing. The sound was very soothing, and seemed to take longer than usual for a clock. Tick.... Tock... Tick... Tock...
For once, it was almost easy to do something. It was almost easy to let her breath slip into the rhythm.
Fred remained at his desk, not speaking, but smiling slightly. He unfolded his hands, and smoothly flipped up a small wooden panel on the top of his desk, which swung on well-oiled hinges to reveal a row of controls. One was a large knob, which he twisted gently.
The rhythm of the clock on the wall staggered out a beat, adding a space between the tick.... and the tock... He let the cycle repeat a couple of times, then gave the knob another slight twist.
Slower now. Tick... Tock....
He kept his eyes on Sandra, watching her breathing, watching her pulse.
And then another.
Throughout the procedure, he never uttered a word, even when the ticks were coming almost five seconds apart...
And even farther...
Sandra gave a small surprised jerk and opened her eyes. She blinked two or three times. It took a moment to bring the world back into focus. A dark fuzzy blob resolved itself into Fred, seated at his desk. He smiled at her encouragingly. The clock ticked normally.
“What... what happened?”
“You were relaxed. You were really doing nothing for the first time since you came here. How did it feel?”
“I... it felt good.” She stretched, cautiously, like a person testing a sprained limb. “Really good.”
“And do you feel better?”
“Yes. Actually, yes. A little anyway.”
“Good. I think we’re doing very well. We’re just about done for today. We can pick this up next time.”
“Oh... OK.” She squirmed, suddenly reluctant to leave. “Aren’t you going to tell me to do this breathing thing on my own?”
“No. I realize you can’t push the thought entirely out of your mind, but making a overt effort would be counter-productive at the moment. It would just cause more stress. I think you’ll find, that after a few more sessions, it will start coming without conscious effort. Just go home, and when you go to bed tonight, try to get a good night’s sleep.” He clapped his hands briskly together, and she started slightly in surprise. “So. I see we actually still have a few minutes. Why don’t you tell me a little more about this boyfriend of yours?”
“John? He’s great.” Sandra blinked, and smiled.
“What attracted you to him?”
“Well...” She shrugged and almost smiled. “His body. At first. But now... I really think that we’re connecting a deeper way. He might be the one. Really the one. And we have a lot of fun together, at least.” She made a self-annoyed whuffing noise. “Why am I telling you all of this?”
“Because that’s what I’m here for.”
“I just wanted to remind you, that today is the day for your special therapy. Are you ready?”
“Yeah, OK. I’m ready. I’ll be leaving here in just a little while.”
“Good. You should do some third-level meditations while you wait. Just do them in your mind, today.”
“OK.” Her voice remained calm as she said this word, but there was a tiny edge, almost undetectable. Excitement. Gratitute. Arousal.
“So you going to have another session with Fred today?” Kendra’s voice was scratchy and fuzzed on the phone; she must have been calling from her car again. Sandra wished she wouldn’t do that; the little dingbat was an erratic enough driver as it was.
“Yes. I have to leave here in just a little while.”
“How’s it going?”
“Great. Really great. Better then I could have hoped. Fred’s really helping me to relax. You know... I’m actually looking forward to these stupid things now. He’s teaching me how to do nothing.”
“Sounds like something right up Fred’s alley. I knew that you’d get something out of this. I’ll see you later, ‘kay? After you get done with Fred today?”
“Sounds good. You’re in your car? Where are you going, anyway?”
“My aerobics class.” Kendra’s voice was swallowed for a moment by static, as she evidently passed under a bridge or something.
Sandra snorted, which Kendra somehow heard through the interference.
“Yeah, yeah. I know the drill. ‘Invented by a male sexist pig so that he could watch women bounce around in tight clothes.’ I keep telling you that you should try it. You’d like it...”
Sandra sat in the chair, the ticks coming further and further apart. Her breaths coming further and further apart. Fred sat behind his desk. He waited, and waited, then finally pushed a different button on his desk. After a long moment, the door to the office noiselessly swung open (a certain small wooden shim having been carefully inserted into the proper hole). The two women slipped into the room, one in athletic socks, one in pantyhose, noiseless on the carpet. In perfect unison they paused, looking at Fred expectantly. He nodded a fraction and gestured them closer with a couple of fingers. Still moving silently, the blonde and the dark-haired woman slipped up next Sandra’s chair and knelt down on either side of its occupant, positioning themselves so their smiling mouths were each near one of Sandra’s ears. Kendra spoke first, softly, sweetly, her voice barely a whisper, then Maria joined her from the other side, sometimes saying the same words in chorus, sometimes alternating back and forth.
“Do nothing. Sleep. Do nothing but sleep. Sleep, Sandra... deep... deep... sleep... down... down into sleep... deep, bottomless... sleep... Sleep... empty your mind... do nothing... do nothing all the way down... let everything go...
“all of your thoughts...”
“all of your tensions....”
“all of your fears... nothing.... nothing but sleep... sleep... sleep... sleeeep.... sleeeep.... ”
Now they timed their soothing mantra so that the words came in the spaces between the long slow ticks of the clock:
“All of your memories...”
“All of your thoughts...”
“All your fears...”
“Deep sleep... nothing but sleep...”
Nothing at all.
Sandra opened her eyes, and looked around. Fred smiled back.
“How was it this time?”
“Mmmmm.” She stretched long and slowly. “Even better. Wonderful. I think I actually went to sleep there for a moment.” She again looked around the empty office, a vaguely puzzled expression on her face, then covered her mouth and yawned.
“Good. That shows that your mind is truly learning how to relax. We’ll get back to that later. For now let’s talk a little more, shall we? First of all, I’d like to hear more about this.. ah... employer... of yours...”
“Principal Moron.” She immediately slapped her hand back over her mouth. “Oh, crap.”
“Ah. You have a pet name for him. I’m not surprised, seeing how you tense up even more than usual when we discuss him. Is that what you always call him, in your mind?”
“Does he deserve it?”
Sandra hesitated for a very long time. When she finally spoke, her voice was flat.
“A pity. But there are people like that in the world, and we must learn to deal with them. Tell me more about him.”
“He’s... he’s dirty. Not... physically, like a wino... or... ethically or anything. He’s a moralistic little prude. But... spiritually, or something.”
“And that bothers you.”
“I... I hate dirt.” She looked at him, almost defiantly, as if she had just admitted she enjoyed having sex with barnyard animals.
“I see.” He looked back, his face mild and thoughtful.
On her way out, Sandra paused for a moment by Maria’s desk. The receptionist looked up from her usual computer work and raised her eyebrows.
“Yes, Ms. Larrick? Can help you with anything?” Non-sarcastic. Professional. Efficient.
Sandra listened to the woman’s voice, then shook herself and listened to her words.
“No. No, I’m fine. Thanks, Maria.”
She hurried from the office.
Sitting in her favorite chair with a stack of math papers, Sandra heard the door to her apartment burst open. There was a brief moment of concern, then she heard a familiar voice.
“Hi! So how did it go?”
Sandra, her expression sour, looked at her sister as Kendra hove into view.
“You know, I really despise people who burst in without knocking. Have I ever mentioned that?”
Kendra dropped her crumpled gym bag, disrupting the fibers of the spotless rug. Looking fresh and perky, she bounced into the kitchen on her white sneakers, opened the fridge and deftly swiped a soda.
“So lock the door and buy a guard dog. How did it go?”
Sandra looked at the ceiling for a moment, but replied seriously.
“Even better than before. Like I said, I’m actually looking forward to these things now.”
Sandra stepped into Fred’s office, and walked to her usual chair. Fred said nothing, but opened the panel, and began twisting the knob.
“What are you doing?” Sandra asked, shifting in the chair.
“Listen to the clock, Sandra. Do nothing else. Just listen to the clock.”
She closed her eyes and took a long, slow, breath. The clock ticked slower and slower.
A button was pushed.
A door silently opened.
“Sleeep... sleeep... listen to my voice...”
“Listen to our voices...”
“Listen to the clock...”
“..Listen to my voice...”
“..and sleep... listen... and sleep...”
“...and sleep... forget...”
“...and sleep... and trust...”
“...and listen to Fred... and sleep... ”
“... trust Fred...”
“...tell him everything...”
“And do nothing.”
A long, very long, pause.
“Can you hear me, Sandra?”
“Yes.” She frowned, slightly. There was a prompting, a chorus, an echo, one voice on either side of her mind..
“Are you asleep?”
“Yes.” (“yes... yes...") She nodded, once.
“Yes. You are asleep. But you can hear my voice, can’t you?”
“Yes. I can... hear your voice.”
“Very good. I want you to listen to my voice, Sandra. Do nothing else, nothing at all, except listen very carefully to my voice. How do you feel about my voice?”
“I... trust?” (“I trust...")
“Yes. You can trust my voice, Sandra. We are alone, no one can hear us. No one will ever know, need to know, that I am helping you.”
“...helping me...” (“Helping me.")
“Yes. My voice wants to help you. And as part of your therapy, my voice can help you. If you let it. If you do nothing, and let my voice help you, it can clean everything. Take all of the dirt away, forever. Forever. That’s what you want, isn’t it?”
A small series of nods, on more than one head.
“Yes... no dirt...”
“Good. Sleep. Do nothing, but go deeper into sleep. And listen to my voice. Listen to it clean away the dirt.”
“Now, about your boyfriend...”
“You can open your eyes now, Sandra.”
“Mmmm.” She stretched briefly and looked at Fred. “What were we talking about?”
“We were discussing your boyfriend, Mr. Orr. Do you remember?”
“Oh, right. Johnny boy.” She looked at her nails and frowned. They were all ragged and uneven. She really had to do something about that.
“What is your opinion of him?”
“Who? Oh. Johnny boy. He’s...” Sandra trailed off. “He’s OK, I guess. We have fun. Sometimes.”
“Really? Is that all? Before, I got the distinct impression that you were quite fond of him.”
“I... I am fond of him. I like him a lot.” She shook her head. “Why didn’t I say that? I like Johnny b... John... a lot.” She frowned, petulantly. “You’ve got me all mixed up, Fred. Sometimes, I don’t know why I keep coming to see you.”
He smiled, calmly. “You come to me, because you enjoy our sessions. Especially the parts where I tell you to do nothing. And to sleep.”
There was a knock at the door.
Sandra got up, slowly walked to it and opened it, all with an strange unfocussed reluctance.
As she expected, it was John.
“Oh. Hi, John! Is it time to go already?”
They exchanged a quick kiss.
“Yup. Let’s go paint the town red.”
“What did the town ever do to you?”
Sandra shook herself, and had to fight a sudden, almost overwhelming, urge to wipe her lips with the back of her hand.
“Nothing. Forget it. Be with you in a moment.”
She walked back to get her coat, feeling no enthusiasm for the evening’s coming events. She could just beg off, but he’d probably want to stay.
...somehow that was even more unappealing.
She was just eager to get this over with, take a long, hot, shower, and go have...
They seemed to be coming more and more often all of a sudden.
She slid into the chair, and looked at Fred.
“What are we going to do today?”
“Do you trust me, Sandra?”
“Yes.” Only a slight hesitation before saying the word. Fred smiled, a trifle sadly, but continued.
“What I want you to do is close your eyes. Listen to the clock. Feel your breaths, your heartbeat, slowing now. Slowing. Listen to my voice. Doing nothing else.”
A long pause.
“Can you hear me, Sandra?”
“What are you doing?”
“I’m doing nothing. Nothing at all.”
“Listening to your voice. Continuing my therapy.”
“Good. Now, do you remember your boyfriend?”
“What is his name?”
“Very good. My voice is going to talk about him now, and about your employer, Mr. Moran. I want you to go deeper now. Deeper as my voice talks about them. You will do nothing. Do nothing but go deeper, and see them, see them in your mind, as my voice describes them both to you. Describes every last detail.”
“I’m afraid I have to beg off on our date tonight, John.”
“Oh? What’s wrong, babe?”
“Something’s come up. I do have a life of my own, you know. I have to leave town for the weekend. I’ll call you... sometime when I get back.”
“Uh... OK... Talk to you later.”
Sandra hung up the phone, and stared at the staffroom wall for a long moment, suddenly confused.
-Why did I just do that? I don’t have any plans for the weekend. Why...?—
Something seemed to click inside her mind as she walked to the sink and washed her hands. Holding the phone while talking to Johnny boy had left an odd, grimy, residue on them.
-I don’t have any plans for this weekend. Since my date with Johnny boy fell through. Why don’t I go do a therapy session with Fred?—
It was a wonderful idea. As soon as the school day was over...
Phil- Mr. Moran- came in, disrupting her train of thought for a moment.
She glanced at him, absently.
“Oh, hi, Phil.”
Her thoughts resumed, a record needle returned to the proper groove. As soon as the school day was over, and she was free, she’d go have another therapy session with Fred.
Some days now, it seemed that the time she spent with Fred was the only thing keeping her going.
“So, do you think it will work?”
“Yes, Master.” Clinical and decisive. “Based on what I saw before, it shouldn’t be any trouble at all.”
“Excellent. I will leave that part of Sandra’s therapy in your capable hands. We’ll do it tonight.”
She looked up at him from her position on the floor and smiled. “Yes, Master. Thank you.”
“Open your eyes, Sandra.”
She did so, and smiled at the man behind the desk.
“Now, then, we were talking about your boyfriend. Do you remember?”
“Yes... sir. We were talking about Johnny boy.”
“What did we decide?”
Sandra’s upper body wavered for a moment.
“That... I had to be careful around him. That he’s dirty. And that he... He... Why am I saying these things?” She looked at him, a desperate look crawling across her face. “You have to help me, Fred! You have to make sense of all of this!” She broke down into sobs, buried her face in her hands.
Instantly her face came up.
“Do you really want my help?”
“All right. I will help you. For the moment, the best thing for you to do is sleep.”
A long silence. Finally...
“Can you hear me, Sandra?”
“What are you doing?”
“I’m doing nothing. Nothing at all. Except listen to your voice.”
“Good. Now, do you remember your boyfriend, Mr. Orr.”
“Yes. Johnny boy.”
“Very good. Let’s talk about him some more. You asked for my help about him. Do you remember?”
“Yes, Mr. Mabuse.”
“Good. I have a suggestion for what you should do about this situation. Something that will clear away all of this confusion and uncertainty. All of this dirt. Is what you want?”
“Yes. Please, Mr. Mabuse.”
“Good. This thing you should do right away. This very night in fact...”
John Orr stood at the bar, clutching the glass tightly, staring at the glob of amber liquid sloshing within. What was going on with Sandra? They seemed to have had a good thing going. They had been having a lot of fun. Lots of excitement. Maybe it would have become something more serious, before long. But now, they had gone beyond excitement. Now, it was like everything he said or did set off a string of mousetraps in her mind, driving her away from him. The last couple of dates, she’d been at best distant and distracted. And now. ‘Something came up’. Sure.
Something flickered in the corner of his eye, and he glanced in that direction. A woman had joined him at the bar. Well... maybe ‘joined’ was a little strong a word. But there was no one standing between them. The newcomer was a slender redhead, wearing an elegant dress that matched her curls. She ordered something equally slender and elegant from the bartender, and sipped at it.
She glanced at him from behind a pair of oddly prim glasses, seemingly with cool disinterest.
But John had played this game before, and played it well. It was how he had met Sandra, after all. She wasn’t disinterested. She...
Why was he wasting his time like this. Sandra...
The woman glanced at him again.
He spun the glass in his hand. Why not? Sandra was out of town, and even if she hadn’t been... the way things had been going...
...and he liked those glasses.
He turned, and flashed a well-practiced grin.
They entered his apartment.
“Thanks.” He shuffled uncertainly for a moment. “I’ll just get us some of that wine, OK?”
“Mmm. That sounds wonderful. I’ll be right here.”
He vanished into the kitchen.
As soon as he was out of sight, she efficiently opened her purse and extracted a cellphone. Punched a single button. A number dialled itself, and someone answered on the first ring.
“It’s a go.” She whispered the words. Listened to the equally brief reply, and disconnected.
By the time he returned carrying two glasses of wine, she had navigated the controls on his stereo and was lounging on his sofa, smiling at him under the soft, tinkling, music.
The tall, dark-haired woman clicked shut the slim cellphone with a practiced flip. After stowing the phone in its slot beside her, she sat silent and still for quite some time. Her red claw-like fingertips rested lightly on the steering wheel before her and her mind watched the blue and white seconds and minutes tick by behind her eyes. Eyes which were open but didn’t see anything except those numbers. Finally, one of the digits flashed up and blinked and strobed in a color that exactly matched her nails. She turned to the blonde woman who sat in the leather seat beside her, her back straight, her chin up, her eyes closed. The driver spoke with a faintly imperious tone.
“Mr. Mabuse says that you can wake up now, Sandra.”
Sandra instantly opened her eyes, and looked brightly at her seat-mate. She unbuckled her seat-belt.
“Oh! Thanks for the ride, Constance. It was very nice of you to swing by and pick me up.”
“Of course. Now run along.”
“Bye.” Sandra smiled, and slid out onto the sidewalk, carefully closing the door behind her.
Constance started the engine and pulled back into traffic, smiling as well, riding the warmth down inside her.
She loved being at her Master’s beck and call, loved running menial little errands like this for him, whenever it struck his fancy. She loved being meek and submissive.
But now it was over, and it was time to get back to work. The warmth faded, a little. She gave a tiny internal sigh as she again flipped open the cellphone and whirred the speed-dialer into life. The sleek, powerful, car continued smoothly down the street under her one-handed grip. She of course also enjoyed making lots and lots of money for her Master, but somehow it just wasn’t the same. Somehow, it was faintly blasphemous for any of the Master’s slaves to be doing such aggressive things...
Nevertheless, her mouth and brain sprang into instant action when someone answered the phone.
“Pat? Constance. Listen, about that Gianelli deal, I’ve had another idea about how we can really nail that little weasel’s balls to the wall...”
Sandra paused for a moment in the gathering dusk, then looked around her, up and down the sidewalk. She was standing outside the proper apartment building. She wasn’t quite sure how she had gotten here, but that didn’t matter now. There was something important that she had to do right away. Something that some wise person had suggested to her. A brilliant idea.
She hurried inside, and took the elevator up to the proper floor...
The apartment. She didn’t bother knocking, just fished out the key he’d given her and slipped right in. This had to be done quickly and quietly. And cleanly.
There was no one in the semi-darkened living room, although the stereo was still playing. She only registered this fact in one corner of her mind, moving directly towards the bedroom. No longer moving stealthily, she pushed the bedroom door open so hard it slammed against the wall. Something fell off his dresser and shattered.
The two people entangled together in the bed looked up at her, one with shock and surprise, the other...
There was a moment of silence, then John spoke:
“Sand... Sandra? What.. I thought you... you said...”
Sandra’s eyes shifted to the bed’s other occupant. A red-haired woman stared back, her expression cool, calm. John spoke again, his voice sounding cracked and weak.
“Sandra! Baby! This... this isn’t...”
Sandra silently turned and disappeared from the doorway.
John reached out his hand, as if trying to pull her back into view. No words came, and she was gone. He sagged, ground his teeth, and again looked at the woman beside him. She stared back, coolly, expressionlessly. Finally, he absently waved a hand at her, and collapsed back completely onto the bed, his posture crumpled and defeated.
“Just get out of here.” His voice was tired, flat.
She turned as silently as Sandra, slid from the bed, and started gathering her clothes. Five minutes later, she was gone.
Even though it was late Saturday evening and Maria was nowhere in sight, Fred was in his office. Just like Sandra knew he would be. He was always there, sitting behind his desk, waiting, ready to help her.
Ready to make all of her problems, all of her dirt, go away.
Sandra had left the apartment, hailed a taxi and ridden here in iron control, travelling in glacial ice. But now, seeing him, that control collapsed. She ran to him, ran around the desk, the last of her fears and worries about him burned away along with the ice. He rose to meet her.
She collapsed in his arms, sobbing. He held her gently, carefully. Professionally.
“I went to see him... like you suggested... and the dirty bastard already shacked up with some... some... bitch.” She looked up at him through tear-stained eyes and snuffled. “You... you were right all along. He never loved me. He was just...”
“Sandra.” He raised his eyebrows. “I never said your Mr. Orr didn’t love you. Where did you get that idea?”
“But...” She stared. “I... I was so sure that you...” She buried her face in his chest again and moaned. “I’m so confused. I need to relax. I need to get cleaned up. Tell me what to do. Please just tell me what to do.”
“Sandra. Look at me.” Again she raised her head. “Do you really want my help?”
“Yesss. Please. You’re the only one who can help me. You’re...” Her voice started to break up.
“Shhh. Shhh.” He gently placed his hands on either side of her head, surrounding it and cradling it. “Yes, I will help you, Sandra. If that is what you want. But more importantly, you will help yourself. With your therapy.”
“My therapy...” A smile flickered across her face, her breath still coming in hitches.
“That’s right. Doing a session would be the best thing for you right now. So I want you to listen to the clock, and imagine that you are doing nothing. And falling into sleep. Deep, clean, restful, healing, sleep... feel your thoughts melting away... Do absolutely nothing...”
Her eyes closed, and her body released a single large breath, a breath of relief. A breath of surrender. She sagged into limpness.
The phone on the wall rang. Millie deftly scooped up the receiver, and nestled it into her shoulder as she went back to mixing the bits and pieces in the bowl she was holding.
She stopped stirring.
“Oh, hi, Fred.” Her eyes had changed (along with certain other portions of her anatomy), but her voice remained perky and cheerful. She had very strict instructions about what to say, and how to say it, when speaking on the phone. You never knew who might be listening in.
“I just called to see how your outside therapy session went. I take it our analysis of the situation was correct?”
“Yes. It was just like we thought.”
“Good. And did you get anything out of it?”
“Yes, I enjoyed it a lot.” A microscopic pause, carefully inserted, unnoticeable if you weren’t looking for it. “But I always enjoy my sessions with you much more.”
“Thank you. Millie. But you don’t really need another personal session right away. As a follow-up from your outside session, however, I suggest you do some third-level meditations tonight, before you go to sleep.”
“Oh!” As she mouthed the syllable, her voice almost rose to a squeak, then quickly dropped back into rigid casualness. “OK. If you think that it would be appropriate.”
“Of course. But tonight only.”
“I understand, Fred.”
“I’ll talk to you later, Millie.”
Millie hung up the phone and looked at the clock readout glowing blue-green on her microwave. She wouldn’t be going to bed for hours yet. She smiled, and bit her lower lip for a moment. It was so nice, so thoughtful, of her Master to phone early, and let the anticipation build...
She hadn’t been lying before. (Not that the concept of lying to the Master could even form in her mind.) Sex with the nameless, faceless, man had been quite nice, but since it hadn’t been an official Assignment, she’d of course only given him a fraction of what she could, and only reached Level Four...
She ran a lingering fingertip across one of her own nipples, and went back to stirring the salad ingredients for her dinner, her naked flesh already goosepimpling from the excitement and arousal.
The tall man in the back of the car hung up the cellphone and looked over at the blonde woman who rode beside him, her eyes closed, her mouth smiling. Then his black gaze swivelled like a the sight on a rifle and fastened itself on the sandy-haired woman who sat opposite them, her hands carefully folded in the lap of her white lab coat. He almost smiled.
“We won’t get up to the cabin for another hour, Jillian. Perhaps we should take this chance to work on your therapy.”
She smiled rapturously.
She slid off the seat, onto her knees.
The car rolled on into the darkness.
“Now Sandra, you will do nothing but listen to my voice, and answer my questions. Do you understand?”
“I understand.” Sandra floated in the clean warm water, stared dreamily at the sparkling ball spinning overhead. Endlessly spinning. Filled with sparking, polished, light. Filled with Mr. Mabuse’s words.
“First, about your former boyfriend. What did we decide?”
“We decided he was the cause of all of my problems, sir. And that he was all wrong for me. We decided he was dirty.”
“I will never see him again.”
“Good. What is the likelihood of him coming to see you?”
“I... It’s possible he will, sir. I don’t know for sure.” She tried unsuccessfully to shake her head against the padded grips that held it.
“Hm. Well, if he does come back, he’ll have to be dealt with. Would you like my advice on the subject?”
“Yes, please, sir. Please tell me what to do.” Her voice was no longer pleading, but calm and serene. She smiled.
“I will, if that is what you want. And I have some other suggestions which I think you might find useful, as well. For now, you will continue to do nothing. Nothing but listen to my voice. But later, after this session, before you meet Johnny boy again, this is what you will do...”
Sandra paused outside the shop, and looked at the piece of paper she held in her mind. This was the right place. The word “Brenda’s” was etched across the plate glass window in large, swirling, letters. A row of mannequins stood behind that word, currently modelling a variety of feminine swimwear.
A bell tinkled overhead as she swung the door open and walked inside. Clothing of every imaginable type was on display, from prim schoolmarm dresses (she giggled internally at the thought) to gossamer-thin string bikinis. Somehow, it all swirled together perfectly, not seeming at all cluttered or jumbled. This Brenda person, Sandra thought, must really know her clothes...
She looked down at her own grimy, threadbare blouse and jeans, and gave another little shudder as they clung to her and smeared their dirt on her limbs. How she could have ever allowed herself to even be seen out in public in this collection of filthy rags? It was definitely time for a new look, and this appeared to be just the right place...
“Can I help you?” The voice was soft and polite.
Sandra snapped herself out of her musings and looked at the source of the disruption. A petite Asian woman was standing behind a nearby counter, her long straight black hair spilling down her back. She wore a strange but attractive one-piece garment that appeared to be part sundress, part kimono, and part uniform.
“Hi! Are you Brenda?”
“Yes, that’s me. How may I help you?” The woman waited expectantly, her face poised and perfect.
“My name is Sandra. I was recommended by a mutual friend, who said you might be able to help me pick out a whole new wardrobe?”
“Ah, of course. Please, could tell me what season you are shopping for?”
Sandra wavered slightly, and her eyes fluttered for a moment.
“I’m only in my first season.”
“Ah.” The woman suddenly flushed. Sandra frowned for a moment, trying to remember where she’d recently seen a similar expression. The thought evaporated. “Then you will want to see our collection over here. This way, please, Sandra...”
Brenda came around the counter. In one smooth motion, she flipped the sign around to ‘Closed’, locked the front door, and gently took hold of Sandra’s arm. Her customer did not resist as she was led deeper into the darkness at the rear of the shop.
Sandra emerged back into the street, feeling like she was floating. She looked down at the pretty sundress and matching purse her new friend Brenda had helped pick out for her, after together they had ceremoniously stripped her and tossed her putrid old stuff in the garbage can in the rear of the shop. She had ordered several new dresses, which would be delivered to her apartment later. The one she wore now was so light and clean and airy; she imagined this must be what a butterfly feels like, upon shedding its dull, dirt-grey cocoon and soaring up into a bright spring day, the wide green world spreading out beneath it for the first time. She wanted to twirl down the sidewalk, sing to the city, share her happiness with everyone...
But something stopped her, both physically and mentally. She turned and looked quizzically into the window of a nearby store. Looking at her own reflection. The dress was perfect, yes... but... She frowned, and touched her hair, which wound into the usual tight ponytail.
She snapped her hand away as if she had been shocked. This was all wrong. This had to change as well. It was so tight, so confining. Dirt and grime could get into all of those cracks and crevices and... and fester. She reached up to undo the braid, but again her hand jerked itself away. No. That wasn’t the right way to do it.
Not at all.
From behind the window, Brenda watched the Master’s new slave stare at herself in the glass, then hurry off down the street towards her next assigned stop. Brenda’s calm expression did not change, her posture did not shift, but inside her skull, her mind orgasmed again and again, climbing to Level Three.
Then the unlocked door to the shop opened again, and she turned to face the new customer, the last echoes of pleasure still lingering in her mind.
“Hi, Brenda! You said that you had those dresses that I ordered in now?” The dark woman smiled as she stepped up to the counter.
“Hello, Ms. Stevens. Yes, I’ll get them.”
As Brenda moved to get the order, she felt the usual pang of sadness, her external smile not fading. Physically, Ms. Stevens would make an excellent slave for the Master, but mentally, the woman was depressingly sensible and well-balanced. Brenda would just have to hope that maybe someday, something would come up...
The styling salon just down the street. Sandra opened the door, and stepped inside, meeting the usual purposeful bustle and noise and smells that filled such places: shampoo, scissors clicking, hairdryers, voices chattering and gossiping.
One of the employees appeared behind the front counter and smiled.
“Can I help you?” The same words as Brenda’s, equally polite, but somehow, something was missing. Something important. Nevertheless...
“I have an appointment.” The words came out of her mouth, even as she realized how true, how right they were. “Sandra Larrick.”
The nameless, faceless, woman looked down at something on the counter, an appointment book presumably.
“Oh, that’s right. Miss Larrick. With Clara, wasn’t it?”
“Right this way...”
She was led down the row of chairs, most of them occupied. Waiting by the last one in the row was a short, cheerful-looking blonde woman. With her wide eyes and pixie cut, the stylist somehow brought to mind Disney’s version of Tinkerbell. Sandra looked more carefully, and suddenly the missing thing fell into place. All was right in the world again.
Once the greeter had introduced them and departed, the two remaining women exchanged a conspiratorial glance and Sandra slid wordlessly into the chair, going limp and surrendering herself to the situation without a word or a second thought. She trusted Clara. Trusted her completely. She gave a happy sigh and closed her eyes as Clara draped the soft, warm, clean, catch-sheet around her, and began picking apart the hideously ugly ponytail in an almost reverent fashion.
Her task finished, Clara watched the Master’s new slave leave, almost skipping her way out of the salon. She mind-orgasmed one last time as she swept the trimmings into a neat pile. Helping to make the Master’s slaves more beautiful was such an important task, and the Master had chosen her to do it. Deemed her worthy. The thought, as always, almost brought on another orgasm all by itself. It was just a shame the other girls in the salon weren’t worthy enough to share in her joy.
But Tina Franklin was coming in for her permanent later, and she had been looking very run-down and tired lately. Maybe today Clara could bring up the idea of therapy in conversation...
John hesitated one last moment, then stepped into the classroom, ducking under one of the many string mobiles that swung and glittered from the ceiling. He had lurked in the hall until the last of the children had departed in a flood of color and noise and waist-high motion, and the usual odd silence had settled. Nothing is emptier, quieter, than an abandoned grade-school classroom.
Nearly abandoned. Sandra stood at the blackboard at the head of the class, wiping it methodically clean with a wide eraser. She was wearing a bright orange and yellow sundress, an outfit he had never seen before. Her hair had been done in a new looser bob that he had to admit was much more attractive than her old pulled-back ponytail look, a style that had made it look like her hair was about to rip itself out by the roots. He hesitated for a long moment, and almost turned and left. Then he screwed up his nerve and spoke:
She turned, seemingly without surprise, and looked at him. Her blue eyes were cool and dispassionate. Something about that expression was naggingly, unpleasantly, familiar...
He stared at her more closely. Dispassionate wasn’t the right word, he now saw. Before, Sandra had always had an air of being slightly frazzled, of snapping and cracking with nervous energy. It had been like being around a ticking bomb. Exploding hair attached to an exploding woman.
He realized now that he’d liked it.
This woman standing before him now... was... somehow serene. Calm.
No, that wasn’t right, either. All of the energy was still there, but it had been muted, softened. It was as if someone had taken a nuclear bomb explosion, and turned it into a warm yellow sun. As much power as before, but smooth now, and regulated. Ticking over like a well-oiled machine.
Whatever he had planned to say melted away, and he gaped.
She smiled, a trifle sadly, and waited. His tongue finally unsnarled itself.
“I was going to... I would have come sooner but I didn’t... " He paused again, regrouped his forces. “I had to try and see you... one last time. To try and explain.”
“You wanted to try and patch it up between us.” She said the words without bitterness or anger, just another tinge of sadness.
“I... yeah, I guess so. Maybe.”
She turned back to the blackboard, resumed her even strokes.
“There’s nothing to explain, John. We just weren’t right for each other. In the long term. I’m actually glad it happened, now.”
“You’re... glad I cheated on you.” Saying the words, he had a vivid flash: a memory of his own days in grade school, standing in front of The Teacher, digging a toe of his sneaker into the carpet and admitting to some stupid little classroom crime.
“No, of course I’ll never be happy about that. But I’m glad it happened when it did, and not later. And I forgive you. We were both spared a lot of pain. And it helped me realize how close I was to coming totally unglued.”
“You... you’ve changed, Sandra.” He felt like a moron saying this, but it had to be said.
Again she turned, and smiled radiantly. Before, that smile would have had his dick standing at attention, but now...
Now it made him think of his mother, and apple pie, and white picket fences.
“Yes. I have. Everything’s much clearer now. I’m happy, both personally and with my job, and my life truly has meaning.”
“You... didn’t find Jesus, or something, did you?” He laughed a trifle feebly.
She laughed, showing white teeth and genuine amusement. “No. No, of course not. But with some help from... Kendra, and some friends, I got my priorities firmly in order. And I’m ready to move on with my life. I hope that you can, too, John.”
He stood in silence for a moment. Then:
“Yes. I think now I can. Because you’ve changed. If you’d changed for the worse... maybe it would have been different. But...” He walked across the drab-carpeted floor, until he stood in front of her. He gently touched the end of her nose with one finger. “We had some good times together, didn’t we?”
“Yes. Yes, we did.”
“Take care of yourself, OK?”
“You, too.” She went up on her toes and kissed him on the cheek, and he smiled. Turned to go. Made it as far as the poster-covered door, and turned back. He grinned more widely.
“Speaking of Kendra... is she seeing anyone? Maybe she’ll take a rebound case out of pity.”
“I’m pretty sure she’s involved with someone. But I’ll ask her the next time I see her. Maybe she’ll dump him for you.”
“Nah. I’ve already broken too many hearts. But say hi to her, would you?”
“I’ll do that.”
Then he was gone.
Sandra stood for a moment, smiling in a slightly vacant fashion, as if her body had been put on pause while her brain calmly rewired itself.
Just as she came back to life, she saw Principal Moran scuttle by in the hallway. With the same slight smile, she watched him go, and wondered why she had ever hated the man so much. Looking at him now, the only emotion she could summon was a vague sense of pity. It wasn’t his fault that he couldn’t clean off that layer of dirt. Some people were just... inferior. Some people weren’t even worth thinking about.
And she was in therapy, which meant none of his dirt would ever rub off on her.
And that was what she had really been afraid of all along.
Sandra walked into the office, and stopped in surprise. Kendra was standing there in front of the desk, looking at her and smiling. Mr. Mabuse occupied his usual position, and he spoke.
“Sandra. Hello. I’ve been giving it some thought, and I’ve decided that it would be best if your sister joined your therapy sessions from now on. Do you have a problem with that?”
“Of course not, Mr. Mabuse. Whatever you think is best.”
“Good. Well, then, if you’ll just close the door and have a seat, we can begin.”
Sandra did as he asked. As she sat down, Kendra walked over, and knelt down beside her. Started whispering words in her ear. Words that Sandra couldn’t quite catch, soft and sweet. Then another voice seemed to join in, from the other side, and she felt as if she was somehow simultaneously floating off into space and sinking deeper into the chair’s warmth. She stopped thinking about the voices.
And while all of this was happening, Mr. Mabuse was asking her questions, questions that she had to answer:
“Now then, Sandra. You said on the phone that Mr. Orr came to see you at work?”
“Yes. He came by the classroom.”
“And how did it go, Sandra?”
“It went exactly as we anticipated, Mr. Mabuse. Johnny boy won’t be a problem anymore.”
“And how do you feel about this fact?”
“I... I feel sad, Mr. Mabuse.” Sandra gave a resigned sigh. Someone brushed a soothing finger lightly against her ear. “I know he was the cause of all my problems, but still...”
“That’s understandable, Sandra. It will take time to scrub away all of the stains that he left behind. But they are growing fainter and fainter with every passing day. Isn’t that right?”
“Yes, Mr. Mabuse.”
“Good. Now then, what would you like to do?”
“I would like to do nothing at all, Mr. Mabuse.”
“Good. You may do that now.”
Sandra closed her eyes.
Voices continued speaking to her.
While Kendra and the other girls warmed up, Sandra looked at her nails proudly. They were smooth and white and nicely rounded. She wasn’t quite sure why, but just seeing her nails look like this sent a surge of pride and happiness washing through her. She pitied people who had trouble keeping their nails in order. Especially those who bit them off. The mere thought of biting at her nails made her shudder in disgust, a sensation of almost physical pain. After all, she had to keep her nails clean and in perfect condition.
Just like her mind, and the rest of her body.
“OK, everybody!” At the front of the room, Millie clapped her hands briskly. Sandra and the rest of the women instantly fell silent, standing in neat rows in the late spring sunshine, each wearing her tight, colorful, Spandex leotard. “Everyone’s here, so let’s get going. We’ll start with a few simple stretches.” Millie bent over lithely and punched the start button on the boom box at her feet. A throbbing, monotonous, pulse poured forth. “Just follow along with me, and let your mind go blank!” Millie began to bend and flex and thrust, and Sandra’s body mirrored her movements.
She had to keep her mind, and her body, and her life, in perfect condition.
Keep them all in perfect condition for her therapy.
And for Mr. Mabuse.
For the man who knew so much more than she.
Who was so much better then she.
Her mind was blank.
She floated above her chair, floated in darkness, waiting. Finally, his voice spoke.
“What are you doing, Sandra?”
“I’m doing nothing, sir. Nothing at all.”
“Listening to your voice, sir.”
“Good. How do you feel about my voice?”
“I love listening to your voice, sir... I need to listen to your voice...”
“You need? What would happen if you stopped listening to my voice?”
“The dirt would start coming back, wouldn’t it, Sandra? All of the dirt.”
“No.” Hurried. “Please, no.”
“So what does that make you, Sandra?”
“I... I don’t understand, sir.”
“I need my voice. You can’t live without my voice, can you?”
“So you are dependant on my voice?”
“You... belong... to my voice?”
Sandra stared at the darkness.
“You belong to something, Sandra? Or to someone? You are someone’s property? What does that make you, Sandra?”
Sandra struggled to comprehend, to make the proper logical leap. A sense of history filled her. This was important. She could never understand as much as Mr. Mabuse, never be as wise as him, but she was dimly aware they had been building to this point, forces far beyond her mental grasp coming together in a hot white focus.
She needed Mr. Mabuse.
She depended on Mr. Mabuse.
She belonged to Mr. Mabuse.
“What does that make you, Sandra?”
The points came together.
The darkness became light.
“It makes me a slave!”
“I’m a slave!”
She almost screamed the words.
Screamed them in joy.
Screamed in ecstasy.
“Whose slave, Sandra?”
“Your slave, sir!”
“Your... your slave... Master!”
“Very good, Sandra.”
Her Master touched her, a brief caress, and she spun further up into the light.
“Very good. Now your therapy can enter a new phase. Are you ready for that, Sandra?”
“Y.. yes, Master!” Somehow she gasped the words. “So ready...”
Bill unloaded the last sack of potatoes from the back of the truck, and absently started brushing the dirt off his hands. The woman stood nearby, holding a clipboard. Printed on the back of the clipboard in block letters were the words ‘Eastside Homeless Services.’ He spoke, fishing around in his pocket for the cigarette package.
“So, Anne. I hear you got yourself a new recruit. How’s she working out?”
“Hm? Oh, Sandra.” Anne paused, and thoughtfully tapped her pen against her teeth. “Really well, actually. As much as I hate to say it, the people who come to the mission for help are... y’know... social lepers. Even the best of our staff... can sometimes seem to think that being homeless and lost and dirty is a contagious affliction. Not Sandra.” She snorted self-deprecatingly. “I sound like a public service announcement, I know. But Sandra... it’s like she’s found a way to scotch-guard herself. She’s just so nice to everyone. I think half of the men who come in have already fallen in love with her.”
Bill gave off a snort of his own, and grinned as tortured a cigarette’s tip into light.
“Maybe we should ask her for her secret...”
Sandra knocked at the door, then carefully shifted her body so she was facing the snout of the security camera mounted overhead. It was time for her nightly therapy session with Kendra, and Maria, and... and...
Someone else. Someone whose name she couldn’t remember. Her thoughts broke around that name now, like river water around an enormous black rock. She was only aware of this fact because she was standing in front of this particular door.
This secret door.
The door unlocked and opened, revealing Maria. She smiled warmly, her short dressing gown almost black in the dim light.
“Sandra. Please come in.”
Sandra returned the smile and walked in. Passing through the door, she could feel the dirt and the grime of the outside world being scrubbed off of her body; the Phase Two office was so much nicer than dingy old Phase One. Soft and warm and clean.
And Kendra was already there, waiting on the rug. Sandra’s clothes fell away, as she remembered everything. It was time for her nightly therapy session with Kendra, and Maria, and the Master. The Master was watching her now from above, making sure that she preformed her therapy properly, making sure that she stayed on the path.
“I’m ready for my therapy, Master.” She spoke the words, even though she could not see him.
“Excellent.” As always, her world exploded fully into light and color at the sound of his voice. More dirt flew away into the darkness at the far fringes of her mind. “Begin, Sandra.”
Sandra knelt down, and began her therapy.
Fred stood watching the two women intertwined on the thick white rug, his expression slightly sour as Kendra and Sandra continued their long, slow, french kiss. From his side, Maria looked up at him, and finally, nervously, spoke:
“Yes, Maria?” He continued to study the scene before him.
“Is... is something wrong?” The words were winched out of her.
“Hmm? Oh. No, Maria. Nothing’s wrong. Nothing at all.” Fred touched her arm lightly for a moment, provoking the usual conditioned response, his fingers and his words erasing even the memory of her nervousness and concern. “Just a personal preference.” He glanced over his shoulder and through the door into the next room, where petite Brenda and tall, leggy, Susan were artfully posed on the wide bed, waiting with dripping cunts and bright, pleading, eyes. Add Maria to the mix, and you had almost all the colors of the rainbow. Perfection. “I just prefer a little variety in my personal encounters. But enough of my clients have expressed interest in certain... incestuous scenarios that it was worth setting Sandra’s therapy in motion. Despite the potentially disruptive presence of Mr. Orr.”
He turned to face Maria and casually began unknotting her gown’s belt.
“And Sandra’s choice of careers has given me an idea or two. Unless you’re one of her students, there’s nothing more harmless then a grade-school teacher...”
The gown fell to the floor, and they moved together towards the bed.
Sandra heard all and none of this, as she continued to cleanse herself with her therapy. Continued to practice and prepare with her fellow slave. Practice and preparation were vital if she were to stay on the path. Soon she would be ready for an Assignment. Soon she would reach the wonderful, shining, place that was...
Another hotel unit.
There was a brisk knock at the door, and the swarthy man in the expensive suit and the buzz-cut moved to answer it.
There were two blonde women in the hall, both wearing long, conservative, coats. The taller of the two, who carried a slim leather briefcase, smiled thinly and spoke:
“You had an appointment with the Doctor tonight?”
“Yeah. I haven’t been feeling well.” He grinned, and the two women smiled back in unison, their matched blue eyes sparkling. They entered the room, and ascended together to Level Two.
She was floating now, in the clean, soft, darkness.
Doing nothing, nothing at all.
Except worshiping and obeying and loving and lusting after her Master, with every particle of her being, with every cell in her body.
“The Master says you can open your eyes now, Sandra.” The voice was soft and gentle.
Sandra did so, and looked up at the fellow slave who stood before her. She smiled. Maria smiled back, and continued.
“Are you ready now to go to Level One, Sandra?”
“Oh, yes.” Sandra shuddered, but not in fear. “So ready. Please... please may I go to Level One now, Maria?”
“Yes. You have completed an Assignment, and travelled successfully to Level Two. You have proven yourself worthy to advance to the final level. He is waiting for you now, in the next room.” Maria gestured towards the open doorway.
Sandra carefully rose from her kneeling position on the thick white carpet, every nerve ending quivering, her heart hammering against her ribcage.
Maria’s smile grew wider, and the two naked women embraced, briefly, chastely. They separated, and Maria spoke one last time.
“Don’t worry, Sandra. You’ll perform perfectly. And then you’ll have the memory of Level One with you always. Always. And after today, you’ll be able to work twice as hard for the Master.”
“Twice as hard...” Sandra looked around at the Master’s other slaves who had gathered here to share in this glorious day: her dearest friends and confidants and sisters, who all stood watching her without envy or spite in her moment of supreme happiness, their mouths and eyes smiling in the flickering candle light. She felt the love and support flowing back and forth between her and them and each other, waves crashing together and building up into a river that swept her forward, through the door, and into the Master’s presence.
He stood there now: the most perfect man in the world, the only man in the world, a god, towering over her in every way, his mind and soul twin beacons of light and purity.
And between his legs, the thick, majestic, key to Level One.
She crawled to him, and as they came together, the last of the dirt was finally washed away.
Her life was finally in order.
Truly and permanently in order.