In the first few months of starting her own business, Katherine Alexander learned far more than she had ever wanted to know about hostels.
When you search in New York City for hotel rooms on travel websites, and you order the search results ascending by price, the first results you see are so absurdly cheap that even a fifth-grader would assume they were not real. Thirty dollars a night, seventy dollars a night, stuff like that. These locations are apartment buildings, mostly, that have been converted into hostels by owners with varying levels of scruples. They are literally designed to be at the top of search results sorted by price, thus drawing in tourist business from thrifty vacationers in Europe who do not understand how cheap they are paying, and that they are getting what they pay for.
The cheapest ones house several people per room, on cots or bunk beds; that would not serve Kat’s purposes at all. For eighty-five dollars a night, she’d been able to find a hostel on the Upper East Side that was basically a poor man’s Motel 6. Each floor shared exactly one bathroom. There was a bullet hole in the closet wall of one of the rooms Kat reserved. But the price was right, and that was important, because Kat had known from the beginning they would have to buy out multiple rooms. That was the only way to keep people from calling the cops.
“Where is my mother?!” Stacy Kellner shouted. She was standing in the middle of the room, next to the television. Kat had checked the television the day before, ensuring that it was bolted to the floor, and thus Stacy would not be able to throw it at them.
Too late, Kat realized that the floor and ceiling were probably just as thin as the walls. If there were people upstairs, or downstairs, they might call the police also. Maybe the carpeting would muffle the sound. But, just to be safe, priority one was getting the shouting to stop.
“Calm down, Stacy,” Kat said, showing the palms of her hands in a placating gesture. She was sitting on the bed, next to her business partner, Marisa Ivan. They had decided upon this position, as the least threatening one possible. “She’ll be coming by this afternoon.”
“You’re not friends of my mother! I know all of my mother’s friends!”
That statement was probably not true. The Kellner family was old money from way back. In the newborn years of television, they had originally owned several studio spaces where many shows filmed in New York City, and had since stuck their fingers into a great many other pies around the entertainment industry. People with their fingers in that many pies had a lot of friends. Friends who would gossip if the eldest Kellner daughter gave away her trust fund to a sex cult less than a year after turning eighteen.
“Everything’s fine, Stacy,” Marisa said. Marisa and Kat were also partners in the Biblical sense, but the Kellners didn’t know that. And, in Kat’s ideal image of how this session would play out, they didn’t need to know. “Your mother asked us to pick you up at the train station yesterday, and she asked us to talk to you today.”
“She didn’t say anything about that to me!” Stacy Kellner shouted. “When she asked me to come to New York, I thought I was going to stay in a real hotel, and I would get a chance to explain to her how the Church has changed my life!”
“We’ve been studying the Church of Divine Passion,” Kat said. “And other churches like it. It’s what we do for a living.”
“We’d like to talk to you about that, if we could,” Marisa added.
“Where is my mother?!”
“She’s on her way,” Kat said quietly. This was maybe the most important statement she would make during the entire conversation. As long as Stacy did not demand to leave, and Kat and Marisa did not order her to stay, then they were not technically committing kidnapping. So statements such as this needed to be convincing. “She had a lot of meetings today.”
“God, my mother and all of her fucking meetings,” Stacy said. Her voice was laden with disgust, but she had stopped shouting, which Kat took as a positive sign.
“I know, right?” Marisa said. “She can be kind of a bitch about scheduling.”
Stacy looked at her, her lips contorting, as though she couldn’t decide whether she wanted to stay angry or not. “It’s so weird,” she said. “Part of me totally knows you’re right about that, and part of me still wants to scream at you to not call my mother a bitch.”
“Mothers can be like that,” Marisa said, keeping the sympathy in her voice. “I still don’t want to admit all of the bitchy ways my mom can drive me crazy.“
Stacy opened her mouth, perhaps about to continue on that path, then visibly caught herself. She looked at the two other women suspiciously. “Who are you people?”
Again, as long as the heiress wasn’t shouting, Kat took anything she said as a win. “Like I said before,” she answered, “We study churches like the one you’ve joined. We’d like to talk to you about it.”
“And talk me out of it,” Stacy said darkly. “My mother thinks it’s a cult, so she hired a couple of cult deprogrammers to talk me out of it.”
“No,” Kat said. “We’re not deprogrammers. That’s not what we do.”
“Bullshit,” Stacy Kellner said. “You’re not friends with my mother. My mother doesn’t have any friends under the age of forty.”
“We’re not lifelong friends of your mother, it’s true,” Marisa said. They alternated speaking on purpose. It was a pacing technique that Kat had learned during her hypnosis certification. “But I think she would call us friends. We got to know her pretty well, in the last few months.“
“You can’t deprogram me, because I haven’t been programmed,” Stacy said, folding her arms. “I’ve made a choice, and my mother can’t undo that choice just by throwing money at it.”
“We told her the same thing,” Kat said. This was true. The conversation with Margot Kellner had actually been much more painful than any arguments they expected from Stacy. “And like I said before, we’re not deprogrammers. Here’s our card.”
Kat produced a business card from one of the front pockets of her flannel shirt. She held it out, but did not rise from the bed, forcing Stacy to come forward to take it. She moved gingerly, as though she expected Marisa or Kat to grab her if she got too close. Reading the card, Stacy said, “’Self Alertness Consultants’? What the hell does that mean?”
“Well, we live in a self-aware era,” Marisa said. “TV shows are always playing with your expectations as a viewer. Movies are full of jokes that say, ‘hey, we know you’re watching a movie.’ Deadpool, Fleabag, pro wrestling ... everybody is trying to be self-aware. But nobody is trying to be self-alert.“
“That doesn’t answer my question,” Stacy said, with a certain amount of smugness in her voice. Margot had warned them about this: her daughter was a sharp one, and wasn’t afraid to let other people know about it.
“When everyone is self-aware,” Kat went on, as though Stacy had not spoken, “no one is. In the modern era, it’s not enough for us to be aware of ourselves. We have to be alert about ourselves, as well. Because, if we aren’t, there are people who can use our self-awareness against us.”
“I don’t know what that means,” Stacy said, “and that is not what is happening to me.”
“What we’ve found in our research is,” Marisa said, “there are churches out there which act very self-aware about the promises they make and the things they ask of their members. But at the end of the day, people still end up giving away their life savings to a man who claimed to have a magical power to cure cancer in return.”
“Well, A, I don’t have cancer,” Stacy said. “And, B, nobody at the CDP is claiming to have magical powers. I am self-alert. I went out to that ranch with my eyes wide open, and it changed my life.“
Eyes wide open, Kat thought with a combination of anger and wonder. We’ve only been doing this a few months, but they all say they went in with eyes wide open. They don’t understand that only makes it easier to stare at the pocketwatch.
“We know,” Kat said. “That’s why we aren’t deprogrammers. When we say we want to talk to you about your church, we mean it. We know you’re aware of your situation. All we want to do is make sure you’re alert about it as well.”
“We had a long discussion ... well, argument, really ... with your mother about this,” Marisa added. She spoke quickly, before Stacy could issue another denial. “It’s not about forcing you to leave the church. If we feel you’re sufficiently alert about your decisions, we’re okay with that.”
“Yeah, right,” Stacy said. Her arms were still folded, body language closed off. “My mother always gets what she pays for.“
“We get paid either way,” Kat said. She reached into her bag, producing a few sheets of paper stapled together. Stacy could see that they were dense with small-font text. “Here’s the contract we signed with your mother. You’re welcome to read it, in the interests of full disclosure and all.”
Stacy waved her hand, dismissively. “Whatever,” she said. “My mother hires lawyers so smart, you two are probably the ones who got ripped off.”
As Kat put the papers away, she and Marisa shared a small glance. Marisa had been opposed to sharing the existence of the contract with the subject, but Kat had said, she won’t want to look. And when she doesn’t look, it means we’ve got her in the palm of our hands.
“Look,” Stacy went on. “If that’s why she hired you, then she hired you for nothing. When I heard about the church, I Googled them, found all kinds of articles calling them a cult. But they’re not like that at all.”
Of course not, Kat thought. Legit churches always demand that the preacher’s penis is handled only by virgins. She tried to keep the cynicism out of her face, though; it was still too early for that.
“Well, that’s what we want to talk about,” Marisa said. “How did you find out about the church?”
“What does it matter?” Stacy said. “I just told you, I’m alert.”
“We’re the professionals here,” Kat said evenly. She felt like Stacy was very close to the not-so-magical phrase I’d like to leave, so she tried to keep her tone calm, but firm. “Will you talk to us about it? Let us make that decision?“
“Whatever,” Stacy said. Kat did not mind that she used the same dismissive tone she had used previously. What was important was that she did not ask the problematic question You’re professional WHAT now?
As she gestured towards the room’s only chair, Marisa asked “Will you sit?” It was a high-backed chair that did not look particularly comfortable, but it was clean and smelled fine, because Kat and Marisa had been up half the night scrubbing and Febreze’ing the living hell out of it.
Stacy gave them a defiant look, but she sat, arms still folded.
“So,” Kat said, “How did you find out about the Church of Divine Passion?”
“A girl in my yoga class told me about it,” Stacy said.
Melanie Pursell, Kat thought. She’d interviewed Stacy’s yoga teacher a few days ago, who had told her that Pursell was well into her forties. But the church wanted all of its female members to think of themselves as girls.
Marisa said, “She saw that you were having problems with your mother?”
Stacy shifted in her chair. “My mom told you about that?“
“She didn’t give us the details,” Kat said. “She just said, ‘we were having problems.’ The details are none of our business.”
“You’re damn right they’re not,” Stacy shot back. She then looked away. “But, yeah, I kind of lost it a little during yoga. Mel said she knew a place where I could talk about it with no judgment.”
Kat knew that Pursell had made the same offer a couple of times before, to other women in the same yoga class. The teacher had been considering throwing her out, but then Pursell had stopped coming of her own volition after recruiting Stacy. That was how it worked: frequent a high-end yoga class, find a whale to get on the hook.
“’No judgment’ is nice, right?” Marisa said, keeping her sympathetic tone. Theirs was not a good cop / bad cop situation, but if it were, Marisa would be the good cop. “Most people don’t want to hear that the rich girl has problems.”
Stacy’s lip quivered, just slightly, but Kat and Marisa both saw it. That was why Marisa would be the good cop. She had that tone, the one that could get someone’s lip quivering. Stacy said, “Look, I know that there are a ton of people in the world who have it tougher than me. People losing their jobs, people going hungry ... I get it. But that doesn’t mean my life was easy, you know?”
Kat nodded. She wondered if Stacy even realized that she was proving Kat’s point from before: because she was self-aware about being a poor little rich girl, and the church was self-aware about being a cult, it had been easy for them to get into her head.
There was a brief, slightly awkward pause. Then Marisa said, “So is that when you went to the farm upstate?” Too late, Kat realized that Marisa had been waiting for Kat to say something, to keep up the alternating pace.
“No,” Stacy said. “Mel took me to their meditation class. She said it worked much better than yoga.”
“And what was different about the meditation?” Kat said. Realizing the vagueness of that question, she quickly added, “You know, compared to yoga.”
Stacy shifted in her chair a second time. She still had not uncrossed her arms. “I’m not sure I’m comfortable talking about that.”
“That’s totally fine,” Marisa said. “We’re just trying to figure out what the CDP offered you, that you weren’t getting before. Whatever you want to tell us about.”
Stacy sighed. “It was just really impersonal, you know? Yoga in the city is like a factory, or a McDonald’s. Get the students in, get their fees, get them out so another class can go. I was looking for something that made me feel more ... valued.”
“Of course,” Kat said, feeling the old familiar sensation on the back of her neck: she was getting right to the heart of the story. Stacy joined the church to feel valued; showing her how much they had actually devalued her during her time there would be the key.
“I suppose that doesn’t make any sense to you,” Stacy said, her tone once again defensive.
“It totally makes sense,” Marisa said. “There are lots of aspects of life in the big city that are really dehumanizing, no matter how much money you have. And there’s no question that the CDP attracts people by making them feel valued.”
Stacy had a funny look on her face, a look which said I was expecting to have to argue here. It was a look that Kat and Marisa knew well, even though they had only been in the self-alertness business a short time. “Don’t try to both-sides me here,” Stacy said. “It’s not a cult.“
There was another awkward pause, then Marisa said, “Apologies.” Missed my turn again, Kat thought.
Marisa went on, “When you study churches like we do, you actually run into a lot of organizations that hostile people call cults, but really aren’t.”
This was a line that they had repeated in every one of the handful of cult-departures that they had handled to date. It was specifically designed to create doubt in the subject’s mind: if there could be an unusual church which was not a cult, there could also be a cult which was not an unusual church. If the subject was willing to entertain that possibility, then she would say...
“What’s the difference?” Stacy Kellner said.
Kat stood up. “I have to use the bathroom,” she said. “Marisa will be happy to tell you all about it.”
With Kat’s body between Marisa and the subject, Marisa gave her a concerned look. Are you okay? Kat gave a small nod in response.
Kat did not have to use the bathroom. She went up the hall, two doors down, turned the key as quietly as she could manage, and entered.
Inside there were two people. One was David Cates, a deputy United States Marshal who had searched out Kat and Marisa based off of the work they had done with a kidnapping victim for the FBI. The other was Margot Kellner.
The pair were watching a computer screen that showed the output of a button-sized camera Cates had supplied, which was attached to the headboard of the bed in Stacy’s room.
Margot looked at Kat as she entered. The matriarch was fidgeting with both hands, wringing them together just above her belly button. “Do you need me to come in?” she said.
“Not yet,” Kat said. “I’ll let you know.”
“Are you sure?” said Margot. “I thought you were going to hypnotize her, make her see the truth.”
“Hypnosis doesn’t work that way,” Kat said. She dropped into an armchair, massaging her brow with her fingertips.
“But what is the point if you don’t hypnotize her?” Margot advanced on Kat. She had not raised her voice, but only because Kat and Marisa had both lectured her about how thin the walls were. A stressful shout might be heard down the hall, even though Kat had been sure to put multiple rooms between them. “Your whole selling point was that you’re a certified hypnotist!”
“My selling point,” Kat said, putting an edge in her voice, “was that we have dealt with mind-control fanatics before. And we have.“
“But you’re not hypnotizing her—”
Kat stood up. At her full height, she was still three or four inches shorter than the Kellner matriarch, but Margot fell back a step anyway. “I’m not hypnotizing her because we don’t have to,” Kat hissed. “We got to her early enough, she still has a lot of doubts. Marisa can handle this on her own.“
“Are you sure?” Margot said again, looking nervously back at the screen. “She seems too polite. Stacy will take her apart.”
“Marisa talked a New York City landlord out of a thousand dollars a month,” Kat said. “She talked Gotham University out of a seven-figure settlement. She can handle your daughter with her eyes closed.”
Margot said nothing, turning back toward the screen. In the silence, over the tinny speakers of the cheap laptop, Kat heard Marisa say, “Let’s talk about fulfillment. How does the church make you feel fulfilled?”
Kat looked over at Cates. “How much more do you need?”
Cates picked up an iPad and flipped it around until the screen faced Kat. The screen displayed what looked like a police file. A mug shot on the right side of the screen showed a woman, her brown hair an utter mess, scowling at the camera.
“Melanie Pursell is in the system,” he said. “Bad checks, con artistry, every fraud you can think of. Looks like she joined the church to evade active warrants in Virginia for credit card fraud. I’ll pick her up on her next yoga trip, lean on her hard. She’ll flip.”
Cates only cared about breaking up the Church of Divine Passion. He’d missed a chance at them last year, when a beer heiress had taken her life upon leaving the cult. Cates had taken the suicide personally, and become obsessed with bringing the CDP down. When Stacy Kellner had joined up, he’d seen his next chance.
Kat and Marisa had not promised him much—they couldn’t tear apart a cult that big and that isolated by themselves—but they had promised him some evidence. From where Kat was sitting, it looked like they had delivered. “So we’re good?”
“I can’t pay you until we get arrests out of this,” Cates said. “But the church has a paper trail, and Pursell is the key to it. If I get anything at all out of her, you get paid.”
Kat nodded. Margot Kellner was paying them a lot by herself, but if she and Marisa developed a record of being a good contractor for the government, that could mean a lot more future business for them. She dropped back into the chair, rubbing her brow again.
Cates said, “You okay?”
“Yeah,” Kat said. “I just have to keep a lot of self-control in there. It’s stressful.”
Which was true, but it wasn’t the whole truth. The whole truth was that Kat could have built their strategy around hypnotizing Stacy, and had chosen a different way, for reasons that were gnawing at the inside of her skull right now.
“My god,” Margot said quietly.
Kat looked at the screen. She had missed most of the conversation in the other room, as they had been speaking over it. Now she saw Stacy Kellner, her face buried in her hands, her shoulders shaking. “I had sex with him,” Stacy moaned. “He said the only way I would be fulfilled was if I had sex with him...”
On the screen, Marisa gave a half-turn, looking dead in the camera for just a second. It was a signal they had established the day before.
Kat stood up again. “Even faster than I expected,” she said quietly. Marisa never failed to amaze her. “Let’s make a plan to get you in there, Mom.”
Later that evening, Marisa and Kat ate sushi at Irie. David Cates was paying.
“You think they’re gonna be okay?” Marisa said, around a mouthful of California roll.
“If they follow the instructions, they’ve got a shot,” Kat said. Stacy and Margot Kellner had stayed at the hostel, ordering in; Kat had recommended another day or two before Stacy would be okay to go back home (and get a considerable amount of professional therapy afterward).
“Margot wanted to hire you for the therapy,” Marisa said. “She seemed very intense about using hypnosis.”
Kat looked down at her miso soup. “She’s read too many shitty TV scripts,” she said. “She has unrealistic ideas about what hypnosis can do for Stacy.”
Marisa set down her chopsticks. “And you don’t want to do it anyway,” she said.
Kat said nothing, and did not look up from her soup.
Marisa reached out with one hand, brushing Kat’s hair aside gently, to get a good look at her face. She asked, “Are you okay? You were off-rhythm in there...”
Kat did not look up, but she let her lover’s hand caress her cheek. “It doesn’t feel right,” she said. “We keep advertising that I’m certified, but I’m not ready to do it yet.”
“I know, baby,” Marisa said. “It’s just healing. Healing takes time.”
“It’s not just healing,” Kat muttered. “It’s our business. And...“
Kat felt a shiver go up her spine. She had wanted to say, And it’s your pleasure, too, but associating hypnosis with pleasure was still a trip wire in her head, ready to set off a bomb of memories and sensations that were soothing and terrifying to her at the same time.
“I know, baby,” Marisa said again. And Kat felt it: Marisa did know. It wasn’t just a thing she was saying because she had to say something. Marisa had been dangerously close to going to that pleasant/horrifying place in her head, too, and she had the sort of imagination and empathy that allowed her to live in Kat’s shoes when Kat was struggling like this.
Their experience perfectly suited them to help mind-control victims like Stacy Kellner. But Kat wasn’t perfectly suited to the work. Not yet. And they both knew it.
“You’ll get there,” Marisa said. “You helped, with Stacy. You might not think so, but you helped.”
Kat finally looked her lover in the eye. “You broke her defenses down so fast,” she said. “How do you do that? Even if I was one hundred percent, I would’ve needed so much more time.”
Marisa shrugged. “I don’t know,” she said. “It’s just my brain. When I negotiated with our landlord, I knew how much money he really needed and how much of his first offer was just him trying to bullshit us. Well, listening to Stacy, I just knew what she really needed from the cult.”
“You did great, Ris,” Kat said. “You’ve done great since we started this business. You’re carrying me.”
“Shut up,” Marisa said, giving a small smile to show that she intended no malice. “We’re a team. Nobody is carrying anybody. You still do the expense reports, don’t you?”
“Right,” Kat said dryly. They charged their clients a flat fee, plus expenses. It was difficult to figure out what the flat fee should be, because the expenses turned out to be more expensive than they had expected. “I’m doing such a knockout job at that.”
Marisa took her hand. She ran the pad of her thumb over Kat’s knuckles, in the way that Kat often referred to as a handjob-in-public. Kat sighed, feeling a tingle in her spine.
“Let’s call for the check,” Marisa said. “You can do a knockout job on me when we get home.”
They did an admirable job keeping their hands off each other in the subway, and on the walk from the subway. But in the elevator, Kat’s patience ran out. When they saw that the car was empty, Kat kissed Marisa forcefully, driving her against the back wall of the car with a thump.
“They’ve got cameras,” Marisa gasped between kisses. “Mmmmm .... in the elevators ...”
“Then I guess some security guard is super jealous right now,” Kat whispered in Marisa’s ear, and nipped at her earlobe with her teeth. Marisa yipped in the way that she would do, jumping slightly as the pleasure hit her, and Kat nipped her earlobe again.
They stumbled out of the elevator and down the hall, kissing each other all the way. At their apartment door, Kat fumbled for her keys, and Marisa pressed her lips close to her lover’s ear.
“Put me under,” Marisa whispered. “Turn me into jelly.”
“Okay,” Kat gasped, as she found the right key.
Their bodies spilled into the apartment, their purses and bags spilling onto the kitchen island in kind, phones and headphones and pocketbooks scattered on the marble surface willy-nilly. Kat spun around—she’d had some sake at the sushi restaurant, but was barely feeling it—and threw her arms around Marisa’s neck.
They shared a kiss so long that they ran out of breath, Kat pressing Marisa up against the refrigerator. Breaking the kiss, gasping for breath, Marisa murmured into Kat’s ear, “Do it. I know you can.”
“Okay,” Kat managed to say, even as she—
(You know all about trance, don’t you?)
—pushed the memories away.
Kat planted her left hand on the fridge, extending the arm, giving herself some room. She held her right hand in the air, about a foot and a half from Marisa’s face, and extended the index finger. “Look here.”
Marisa’s eyes went to the fingertip immediately. She was hungry for it, Kat knew. Although they had done some hypnosis since the event that they both referred to as The Thing, none of it had been for play. It had been to help Kat heal, and Marisa had been the hypnotist every time. Marisa had not been the subject in ... six months? Had it been that long?
(Katherine, when was the last time you hypnotized Marisa?)
Fuck that guy, Kat thought. You can do this.
“Focus on my fingertip,” Kat said. “Study every line on the fingertip, every wrinkle in the knuckle. We’ve done this so many times. You know this finger as well as any part of your own body.”
“Yes,” Marisa murmured, her breathing beginning to slow down.
“Feel the space between the finger and your face,” Kat said. This part of the induction was for her, more than Marisa; if she didn’t do it, she would get too excited and move the finger toward Marisa’s face too quickly. “Imagine the air between the finger and your face is a soft pillow, yielding ... so slowly ...”
Kat felt a twinge in her eyelids, and blinked it away. Although Marisa was not looking at her lover’s eyes, she blinked in response, eyes re-opening slowly.
“Your head resting on a soft pillow of air,” Kat said. Her finger had moved forward, perhaps an inch. “Focused completely on the finger and the sound of my voice.”
Marisa’s head bobbed slightly, eyes rolling upward to stay fixed on the fingertip. She was ready to go, but Kat forced herself to take her time. If she wasn’t patient with Marisa now, she wouldn’t be able to be patient when she tried a serious trance with clients.
“You may find those eyes growing tired and heavy,” Kat said. “Each blink making them heavier and heavier as they focus on the finger.”
Marisa’s eyes blinked, twice. The finger was now hanging in the air about a foot from her face, and her eyes began to flutter as she tried to stay with it. She was ready to go under, to entrust Kat with complete access to her subconscious—
(You did more harm to her than good, didn’t you, Katherine?)
Kat squeezed her eyes together, tightly. Concentrate, she thought. We kicked his ass and threw him in prison. Fuck him.
Kat opened her eyes and looked at Marisa. Her eyes were still fluttering, trying hard to stay focused on the finger as they grew so heavy. She was in a light trance already, waiting for that magic word that would send her deep, and she looked even more beautiful than she had looked by the glow of the candles in the restaurant. Kat wanted her so badly—
(You were already starting to feel aroused, weren’t you, Katherine?)
Please not now, Kat thought.
(It’s hot ... just to go under...)
(I helped you feel wonderful, didn’t I, Katherine?)
(It feels wonderful to submit to me, doesn’t it, Katherine?)
FOCUS, Kat shouted in her head. MARISA NEEDS THIS. She tried to look at Marisa’s fluttering eyes and—
(Marisa is the problem, isn’t she, Katherine?)
(She felt the headphones on her ears, the music cooing to her, telling her brain that YES was the answer, she must say YES, always YES, forever YES)
Kat shouted, “FUCK!” and staggered away, towards the bedroom. She flopped onto the bed, using both hands to cover her head with a pillow, and screamed into the covers, “GOD DAMN IT! FUCK THAT FUCKING GUY! HE’S RED!”
Marisa let her body sag against the fridge, wiping tears away from her eyes. She listened to Kat yelling in the other room; she could not hear the words, muffled as they were by the pillow and the covers, but she did not need to hear them. They were always the same.
She waited until she stopped hearing the muffled shouts coming from the bedroom, then she gave herself another count of sixty. Only then did she go into the bedroom, crawling onto the bed in her clothes, wrapping her arms around Kat’s waist, spooning with her lover as Kat slipped into troubled dreams.
Sunlight pounded on Kat’s eyelids, as it always did when she neglected to close the blinds before bed. She rolled over, groaning, throwing an arm over her eyes.
After a minute or two in that position, Kat heard small sounds through the closed bedroom door. Marisa pouring cereal for herself, with YouTube as background noise. Since they had gone into business for themselves, her routine was the same every morning: Apple-cinnamon Cheerios and Last Week Tonight clips.
Kat hauled herself out of bed and changed into some sweatpants and a sports bra, with a T-shirt of her college alma mater over top. She opened the bedroom door, but just stood there, leaning against the door jamb.
Marisa looked at her from the kitchen island. In the background, John Oliver mocked Donald Trump. Neither of them laughed. Finally, Kat said, “I’m sorry, Ris.”
“I’m not mad,” Marisa said. “But you know what I’m going to say next.”
Kat walked to the refrigerator, pulling out a bottle of orange juice. “I can’t get therapy, babe,” she said, as she poured herself a glass. “You know that.”
“I don’t know that,” Marisa said.
After draining half her glass of juice in one go, Kat said, “There’s no therapy for what I went through. It’s never happened to anyone before. No psychologist would believe The Thing was even possible.”
“It was in the news,” Marisa said. “Gotham University gave us a settlement. A lot of people must have believed it.”
“They believed I was kidnapped and tortured by a psycho,” Kat said. “But as soon as I say, I was hypnotized against my will, the tune will change.“
Marisa said, “That’s just your PTSD talking.”
“It was the basis of my certification, Ris,” Kat protested. “The first two things they teach you are All hypnosis is self-hypnosis and You can’t be hypnotized if you don’t want to be.”
“I know, baby,” Marisa said. “I get it. But I also can tell that you’re hurting, and there’s nothing I can do for you. I’m afraid I did too much already.”
Kat had suffered significant physical injuries as a result of The Thing. During her recovery, she had taught Marisa hypnosis, so that they could work through Kat’s mental injuries as well. There had been some success, but Marisa had hit a wall based upon the fact that Kat had never forgotten her trances. The suggestions that had been given to Kat during The Thing were still rattling around in her head, as was her quiet and willing agreement to them at the time.
“No, baby,” Kat said. “You did great. I wouldn’t be able to function right now, if not for you. But that doesn’t mean a traditional therapist would help.”
“People who are kidnapped and tortured get therapy all the time,” Marisa said.
“You know that’s not the problem, Ris.”
Marisa stood, and went to dump the remains of her cereal into the sink. “I know you’re hurting, Kat,” she said. “You can’t do what we used to do before. And I don’t know how to help you get back to that.”
“You said it yourself,” Kat said. “It’s just time. I just need more time.”
“If you get a bacterial infection, that doesn’t heal with time,” Marisa said. “You have to take an antibiotic. Maybe a therapist would be like antibiotics for—”
“I’ll be fine,” Kat said, sharper than she intended. It was not the first time they’d had this argument, and it always seemed to end more sharply than she intended.
Marisa looked at her for a moment, then said, “I’m going back to work. Can you check on the Kellners?”
“Yeah,” Kat muttered. The cool tone in Marisa’s voice stung her, but she knew that arguing further would only make it worse.
“Fine,” Marisa said. She turned and walked into the living room, shutting off the TV while John Oliver was mid-joke. Kat went to gather her things, without eating breakfast.
Stacy Kellner had stayed in the hostel. Kat and Marisa had approved of this decision, and even planned for it when reserving the rooms; even if Day One was as successful as it had been for Stacy, it was usually far too early for the subject to return home.
The biggest problem with cases like these, Kat had read in her research, was a relapse: the subject returning to the same cult right after departing. Thus, when she called up from the front desk and Stacy answered, that was the biggest victory Kat would have all day.
Kat had brought coffee. The hostel did not have any in the room, and Stacy had thankfully not discovered the unspeakable gruel that inhabited the coffee pot in the lobby. Kat knocked on the door of the room—something she did not have to do, since she was paying and had a key, but it was the respectful thing—and said loud enough to be heard through the door, “Package from the isle of Java?”
Stacy opened the door shyly, only to brighten when she saw the bag in Kat’s hands. “Bless you,” she said, spreading the door wider. As Kat prepared the first pot of coffee, Stacy went on, “I haven’t had a good cup in ... God, I don’t even remember.”
Kat looked at her with a raised eyebrow. “There’s like ten Starbucks within a mile of here, you know.”
Stacy looked down. “Well, yeah, but...”
The silence hung in the air for a long enough time to become awkward. “You can say it,” Kat said quietly. “I already know.”
“But I don’t have any money,” Stacy said, still looking down.
“They wouldn’t let you carry any money into the city,” Kat said. As Kat had said, she already knew this: arranging for Stacy’s train ticket had been quite a chore, since Stacy could not pay for it herself.
“I haven’t carried any since I went to the farm,” Stacy said.
“That’s a common thing,” Kat said. “It’s tough for people to leave if they can’t pay their way.”
“A ‘common thing.’ Common for—” Stacy’s breath caught in her throat as she tried to force the word out. ”Cults.”
“We don’t like to say that word,” Kat said. “It invokes a sort of Hollywood stereotype about these organizations that they often don’t conform to. In fact they often weaponize that stereotype to convince people that they are not dangerous.”
“The church had a whole spiel about how they’re not a cult,” Stacy murmured. “No robes, no Kool-Aid, no fake holy texts...”
Kat shrugged. “There you go.”
Stacy abruptly put her face in her hands. She did not sob, but instead said miserably, “I’m such a fuckup.”
“You’re not,” Kat said. She made no move to physically comfort Stacy. When the girl was ready to hug or be hugged, she would initiate. Until then, the professional move was to leave her untouched. “The shame you’re feeling now, the CDP gave you that. It’s a weapon they use to keep you from leaving in the first place.”
“I gave them so much money,” Stacy moaned into her palms.
“I think your mother’s got a few dollars to spare,” Kat said dryly.
“I left Columbia,” Stacy said. “All my friends in college ... I left them behind.”
“You took a year off to find yourself,” Kat suggested. “And if Columbia doesn’t buy that story, one of the other Ivies will be happy to take your mother’s money. I hear Brown is nice.”
“I’ll never be with another boy in my life,” Stacy said, still with her face in her hands. “I’m damaged goods.”
The use of that phrase, specifically—damaged goods—stopped Kat short. She had lain awake at night after more than a few failed attempts at hypnotizing Marisa, thinking the same thing. She had cursed Quentin Hallam’s name, saying to herself, you son of a bitch, you turned me into damaged goods.
“That’s the church talking,” she said, hoping the words did not sound as artificial as they felt inside. “They want you to feel damaged everywhere except when you’re with them.”
Stacy muttered, “You’ve got an answer for everything, huh?”
“This is my job,” Kat said simply.
“My mother said your job was hypnotizing people,” Stacy said.
“Well, your mother has a lot of wrong ideas about how hypnosis works,” Kat said. “But, yes, I am a certified hypnotist.”
“Was that Plan B?” Stacy said, looking up from her palms. She had not sobbed once, but her eyes were red with rubbed-away tears. “Put me under and convince me that the Church is a fraud?”
“No,” Kat said. “I’m sure your mother thought that was the plan. But like I said, she has a lot of wrong ideas about hypnosis.”
“They hypnotized me, is what you’re saying,” Stacy said, composing herself.
Kat had not seen a response like this yet, but she had read about it: some people, as soon as they leave a mind-control organization, want to be very analytical about what happened to them, as a coping mechanism. “Many organizations like the Church use tactics and techniques that were developed by hypnotists, yes.”
“God,” Stacy said. She looked away, out the window at the brick wall of the neighboring building. “And they were doing that to everyone. All of those people like me from the yoga studio, all of those people who thought they were exploring their past lives...“
With some practice, Kat managed to keep from leaning forward and peppering the younger woman with questions. Trying to stay as casual as she could, she said, “You’re not a believer in the past lives thing, huh?”
“Not really,” Stacy said, indifferent. “Are you?”
Kat said, “I see all sorts of philosophies in my line of work. I have to know where they’re all coming from.”
Kat’s phrasing was itself a hypnotic suggestion, of sorts. She said where they’re coming from with the commonly heard vernacular meaning, what their default state of mind is. What she really meant was, I need to know where I can find this past lives fanatic who recruits for the Church of Divine Passion.
“Yeah, I guess,” Stacy said. “I never met even one person who believes in that stuff before. All of a sudden that psychic in the Village was sending, like, twenty of them.”
They talked for two more hours, and Kat did considerable good for Stacy in that time, offering recommendations for therapy and letting her know what to expect from her mother. But from that moment forward, Kat’s primary focus was somewhere else entirely.
“She calls herself Calliope,” Kat told Marisa, later that day. “She’s in the East Village, the part down by the river that hasn’t been turned into a shopping mall yet.”
Marisa folded her arms, a skeptical look on her face. “What about her?”
“She’s using past-life regression to get in people’s heads and send them to the Church of the Divine Passion.”
Marisa shrugged. “So Cates will roll her up with the rest of the Church.”
“If we can get evidence on her, we can help him make his case.”
“That’s a big if,” Marisa said. “Especially since past-life regression isn’t illegal.“
“Come on, Ris,” Kat said. “The CDP is run by con artists. If she’s manipulating people and driving them into a con, she’s an accessory.”
Marisa said, “No one’s paying us to prove that.” But, in her head, she was starting to warm to the idea. She hadn’t seen righteous anger from Kat since The Thing had happened. It was a welcome sight. Maybe this is what healing looks like.
Kat said, “If we give Cates some more useful information, he’ll pay for it. We’re already giving him a case he’s been trying to make for years.”
“You’re talking about going undercover, right? That could be dangerous. We’ve never done it before, and there’s no way Cates is going to provide backup for something like that.”
Kat shrugged. “So I go undercover. She’s not killing people or anything like that. I can handle it.”
“You can handle it?” Marisa stood and went into the kitchen, ostensibly to get some water, in reality trying to hide the concerned expression on her face. “If we were to do this, shouldn’t I be the one to go?“
“No offense, Ris,” Kat said, coming up behind Marisa and holding her around the waist. “But no one would believe you’re cult material. You’re not a passenger fish, and you’re not a whale. You’re just, like, medium fish.”
“Okay, setting aside that metaphor, you’ve never believed in past lives a day in your life,” Marisa said, before adopting a mockery of Kat’s voice. “’It’s the most bullshit thing you can do with hypnosis.’ Isn’t that what you told me?“
“Ris, that’s the whole point,” Kat said, laying her chin on Marisa’s shoulder. “That’s why I want to take her down.”
“How many times have we read about this in the literature, Kat? It’s a really thin line between pretending to be cult material, and actually getting brainwashed.”
Plus, you nearly had that happen to you once before, Marisa did not say. She did not need to say it. They were both thinking it.
Kat moved around in front of Marisa, holding up one finger in what Marisa thought of as her a-ha pose. “Aha!” Kat said. “Not if you brainwash me first.“
“You’re right about one thing, Ris,” Kat said. “My contempt for past-life regression goes so deep, she would never get results from me. Not unless someone planted a really good past life in my head. And maybe, while she’s at it, she could plant some other useful things there, too.“
“You want me to do the same thing to her, that you tried to do to Hallam,” Marisa said quietly. “Use you as a weapon.”
This was a sensitive point for both of them: Marisa was still unhappy that Kat had tried to use her as bait against the creator of The Thing without her consent, and Kat was still guilty about having done it.
“Yeah,” Kat said lightly. “The right way, this time. With planning and permission and everything.”
Marisa sighed through her nose, her mouth set in a straight line. Her answer was not in doubt; she knew she was going to say yes. But she realized, in that moment, that she had to set her mind towards doing this to help Kat. If her goal was to bring down the CDP’s regression specialist, or to improve Cates’ case against the CDP overall, she was inviting both personal and professional disaster.
“Planning,” Marisa said. “You’re the one who said the word ‘planning’ first, and I’m not going to let you forget it. Because the only way I am going to do this is if we plan the shit out of it. Like, we’re going to plan so much that you’re going to get sick of it.”
“Not at all,” Kat said, holding up a hand as though pledging allegiance. “I am down to plan. DTP. Scout’s honor.”
Four hours later, she was sick of it, but she did not say so.
Late that night, after so much planning that Kat thought they might as well have run for mayor instead, Marisa finally said the H-word. “Okay,” she said, flapping her hands on her thighs in a let’s-get-down-to-business gesture. “I think we’re ready to do the hypnosis part.”
Kat raised an eyebrow, and said in a cautiously optimistic voice, “Are you sure?”
“Yup. Do I have your permission to hypnotize you like we planned?”
“You got sick of the planning, didn’t you?”
“I decline to answer on the grounds that it might incriminate me.”
“Couch,” Marisa said, pointing. “Arrange it so you’ll be comfortable lying down.”
“Right,” Kat said as she began moving cushions and pillows around. “I guess this is going to take a while.”
When it came to hypnotizing people, Marisa was, to use Kat’s lightly teasing phrase, a basic bitch. Kat loved trying all sorts of inductions, and even inventing her own, but Marisa would not be bothered. She could probably do variants of the Elman induction for the rest of her life and be happy with it. She had done variants of a handshake induction two or three times before, probably to take Kat by surprise, but for the most part it was...
“Kat, just close your eyes,” Marisa said, passing a hand down over Kat’s face. Kat let the eyelids slide down. “Close your eyes and breathe deeply.”
Kat inhaled slowly. Although Kat liked to tease Marisa about doing the same induction every time, she knew why: Marisa was nervous, every time. The Thing had terrified her, and even despite all of the planning, this scheme was complex. A slow induction would calm her down as much as it did Kat.
“We’ve done this so many times, Kat,” Marisa said. “It’s so easy to imagine your eyes relaxing completely. The eyelids becoming so heavy that they just cannot open. Try to open those eyes and they just cannot open.”
Kat let her eyebrows twitch, but the eyelids remained closed.
“That’s right. Take a deep breath in, and as you let it out, allow the heaviness in her eyelids to wash down over your entire body.”
Kat’s exhale was like a heavy sigh. Her head moved loosely, the forehead already beginning to feel heavy.
“Now in a moment, Kat, I’m going to ask you to open your eyes, and you’ll find that you will be able to open them. But as soon as those eyelids open, they’ll close back down as you relax twice as deeply as you are right now. Open your eyes...”
Kat’s eyelids were already heavy as she forced them open. Marisa’s hand was there, a few inches from her face, and it passed back down again as she said, “...and close those eyes back down.”
The feeling of closing her eyes dissipated the last amounts of energy in Kat’s body. Her head began to sink down. Marisa did two more rounds of eye-opening-and-closure, even though they were barely needed. Kat no longer needed to consider how much the ritual mattered to her lover.
“And now I’d like you to feel how relaxed your body has become.” Marisa’s voice floated through Kat’s mind. “As I pick up this hand by the wrist, feel how heavy it has become, as limp and heavy as a wet towel.”
Kat felt her hand being lifted a few inches off of her thigh. She had no control over it.
“And as the hand sinks back down, you sink down, more and more relaxed now.”
As the hand went back down, Kat’s head lolled forward. Her chin stayed on her chest throughout two more arm drops, Marisa completely devoted to the ritual and Kat too entranced to care whether she needed the arm drops or not.
Kat had taught her lover to do the counting-backward part of the induction as well, but Marisa had used it so many times that these days Kat routinely never finished saying “one hundred” out loud, so she skipped it.
Kat’s mind was blank and drifting. Unlike Marisa, Kat was not a somnabulist; she never went so deep that she lost track of herself or forgot the contents of her trances. But prior to The Thing, Kat had never relaxed so completely that her head would loll or she would become nonverbal, and Marisa had observed both of those things in the past few months. It left Marisa little doubt that the trance they had planned would work.
After she had guided Kat’s body into a lying-down position, relaxing her more deeply with gently-murmured suggestions all the while, Marisa said, “Kat, I’d like you to imagine a long hallway, with doors on both sides. This is your Hall of Memories. Behind each door is any memory you would like to bring to the front of your mind. Let yourself walk down the hallway, past more and more doors. As you walk, you see at the end of the hallway there is simply a blank wall. When you are standing in front of the blank wall, give me a little nod of your head.”
Marisa reached a count of four, before Kat’s head bobbed slightly. “That’s right, Kat. You’re doing great. Now I’d like you to imagine a door, where that blank wall used to exist. The door looks different than any other in the hallway, because it leads to a memory that never existed. It leads to the memory of a past life, that I’m going to give you so that you can give it to Calliope. When you’re ready to open that door and find out what is inside, give me a little nod of your head.”
This time Kat’s head bobbed instantly. Marisa raised her notes and took a deep breath.
“Kat, open the door.”