1st time

“You’ll be paid five dollars a week, with room and board.” The Lord of the House led him down a maze of dirty corridors. They passed doors lying off their hinges, and some barely affixed. The plaster was falling from the walls in places, oil lamps left carbon stains on the low ceiling. In short, the place was a dump. But that wasn’t to say it was beyond repair. The foundation was good. He’d noted that the moment he set foot inside. The floors were surprisingly solid, and it was a start. As they rounded a corner an unshaven man lay across the floor, a sprawling obstacle. His trousers were down, hugging his knees and based on the profound odor hanging over him, he had to be drunk, and must have been for some time. A young woman was trying fruitlessly to get him pulled up against the wall and out of the way. His inebriation proved daunting to the task.

“Take it to a room!” ordered the Lord of the House. She delivered a swift kick to the man’s exposed rump. It was enough to wake him, and with the girl’s coaxing he managed to drag himself into an adjacent room. The Lord of the House growled. She was a stout woman, albeit small, standing at a height of no more than five feet. Her hair was pinned up so tightly it pulled all her features up toward her forehead. As a result her eyebrows were perched high and menacing.

“The former proprietor lost his mind, so to speak. Consequently, when he left the establishment suffered the dilapidation you see now. I intend to resurrect it.” The man took it all in. His broad shoulders bespoke of a man of means, and his large blue eyes, a man of diligence. The Lord of the House had hired him on the spot and he was thankful. The war had been hard on his hometown and many of the tradesman had taken to the roads in the years following to get work. A whorehouse wasn’t orchard pickings, but it meant survival. It was all he could hope for.

“Here is your room.” She reached into her sleeve. “This is the key.” He glanced over his shoulder. The door was nowhere to be seen. In fact, the hinges must have themselves taken flight with it. The frame looked as if someone had taken a battering ram to the timber that had formerly stood in its embrace. The Lord of the House followed his gaze.

“Yes, well. You shall have to ratify that. There is a mill one mile from here. You are to purchase whatever you shall need, and bring me legible copies of all invoices. I shall advance you this week’s pay, provided you start as early as tomorrow morning.” He nodded. “Will you require one of the ladies to do your laundry?” Another nod. “That amounts to a dollar a month. Fresh linens, a dollar a month. The well is out back. And from the looks of your stove, you may desire using the one down the hall to heat your water. At least, until you’ve made repairs.

“For all other needs,” she began, inclining her head toward his crotch, “whilst you reside under this roof, you are not to engage the ladies. You may eat in the dining parlor. The matron, a woman named Lua usually cooks, but if you eat with the ladies you may be expected to cook occasionally.” She clasped her hands behind her back and inclined her head slightly. “I thank you for joining us. Will there be anything else at the moment?” The young man’s blue eyes glowed briefly then faded. He shook his head.

“Very well,” said the Lord of the House. She turned and began to walk out the room. “If you should require my attention, send for me through the house matron. Oh, and Mr. Thompson?” At this, she turned swiftly and peered into his face. “Do smile occasionally, yes?” Without waiting for a reply, she turned on her heels and darted down the corridor.

He stood there a while, looking on in her wake. Then he turned and set the burlap bag carrying his life’s possessions, near the rusted cot. The very next thing he did was to sit down. The old cot stretched and creaked, but didn’t live up to its threat of collapse. He exhaled. It was the exhale of a man who had seen more than his share of hardships at such a young age. War and starvation had borrowed his precious memories without permission, and returned them battered, broken, when at all. He ran his fingers through the two months whiskers that had accumulated on his face. Had it been that long since he’d had a shave? He stared at his hands, studying the lines, the veins, the creases. All the while, he took in the sounds, the smells. The mold and the perfume romanced lazily through the whole of the House. There were ratty groans, despairing shrieks, the occasional nervous laugh. Yet, none of it entered him. The emotions a place like this might typically draw from a person, were all externalized, dead to him. If not dead, very much asleep.

He noticed a fractured mirror hanging on the wall close to the room’s only window. He stood with some difficulty and walked to it. As he gazed in upon his reflection his mind asked, Who Is This Man Where Once Stood A Boy? The question bespoke of a painful truth. Hair matted, lips split, face sunburnt, dirty. The eighteen year old was nowhere to be seen. He thought back to his mother, and what she might have said gazing on him now. Probably cry with arms outstretched, he thought. He took one last look. Let the boy die with those memories, his mind said. Only men survive.

Despite the near constant soundtrack of the whorehouse, he sleep solidly awaking refreshed. It was still dark. He stretched and forced himself up from the cot. Being a man didn’t mean rising was any easier. The urge to roll over and wait for the sun was still with him, however subdued. He’d slept fully clothed so there wasn’t much in preparation for the morning. He grabbed his overcoat and started toward the corridor. Something at the edge of his vision caught his attention. Upon the chair by the stove was an object that couldn’t have been there the night before. He drew near to discover it to be a half loaf of bread. He thumbed his chin and shrugged, then leaned down to pick it up. He broke off a chunk of the bread and ate it, grateful to whomever he owed his breakfast.

The sky had turned from dark black to a faded gray hue as morning made its approach, and by the time he reached the mill the newest dawn was creeping over the horizon. He gathered all the supplies he could carry and waited for the foreman. When the foreman showed, he explained to the man that he was working for the Lord of the House at Downey Street and the foreman was all too eager to draw up an invoice. Business had been pretty slow, he explained, what with the depression and all. The foreman, seeing his customer didn’t have a cart, offered to expedite the journey by offering one of his own.

“Free of charge,” he said. He even helped load up the cart and readied it to go. There was something about the mill’s foreman that didn’t sit right.

“Name’s Evers. Casper Evers.” He stuck his hand out.

“Guy Thompson.” The two men shook hands. Evers had a nervous air about him.

“S-so…you working at the whorehouse, is that right?” Guy nodded. The last thing he desired was small talk.

“Yeah. Yeah. So, you living there, too?” Guy exhaled deliberately.

“Oh, hey. No harm meant. I just, well you know, gotta girl lives in there. M-my girl, you know what I mean.” Guy didn’t know, didn’t care to know and found himself becoming annoyed.

“Look,” he said. “I didn’t come around here for the scenery, if you gather my meaning. I came to find work. That’s all.” Evers tempo came full-circle. His shoulders relaxed and he patted the lumber resting on the cart.

“Oh, yeah, no, no, no. See, I’s just saying maybe I’ll be seeing you when I come around s’all. T-to look after my girl and all. Might give you a hand with the repairs, that sort of thing.” Guy lifted the yoke and started to pull the cart.

“Won’t be necessary,” came his reply. “Got it taken care of. Besides, I’m not doing it for free.” Casper Evers laughed. Too loud, Guy thought. Evers walked along a ways. When Guy didn’t speak, the man went on.

“But, that’s the thing, ya know. I got this girl in there, and damned if they won’t let me see her.” Guy lowered his eyes, his muscles burning under the strain of the load. Despite the foreman’s chatter buzzing in his ears, the work felt good.

“Shame,” he replied. Less said the better, came his father’s voice in his mind. It was the only thing his father ever said, in fact. Unfortunately, Evers didn’t need much to go on.

“Damn shame, yah right! See, how’s about you talking to the Lord of the House? See about him letting me back in there. Well, ya know. I gotta see my girl, and all.”

“The Lord’s a woman, and I am not involving myself.” Then he added, “I’m sorry.” Evers wasn’t listening. His mind raced a mile a minute.

“Ah-a-a woman, you say. Nah, ain’t right. That ain’t right. I’s throwed-er let go by the Lord of the House. Name of Mewton. Yeah, that’s right, Casey Mewton. Real hard ass.”

“Nobody goes by that name. New Lord is a lady by the name of Charlotte Powers.” The consequent silence and dumbstruck look on Casper’s face was too much.

“That right?” The gears of Casper’s mind few as they were, were almost audible. Guy could but hear the thoughts slam into place.

“Maybe your banishment left with him,” Guy offered. CLICK! He heard the thought hit home. Evers whooped.

“Boy, I’ll tell you what. You may just be right about that! Say, well I gotta get back to the mill. Goddamn sakes alive!” He spun around and began trotting back in the direction he came. At the mill’s gates he called down the path to Guy. “Be seeing you fella! Be seeing you!”

Guy pulled the cart up to the front steps of the House and let down the yoke. His chest was heaving and his shirt stuck to his back. The first order of business was to rebuild all the door frames. It occurred to Guy that if he were running a whorehouse, God help him, he would want his customers to have their privacy. He strode up the steps, pushed open the double doors and set to taking them off their hinges. There was activity in the parlor but he didn’t pay it any mind. He used a crowbar and a hammer from his own set of tools and within twenty minutes he had the old frame down and the new stuff cut, and put into place. The nails from the old frame were salvageable so he used them to tack the new one into place. He replaced the hinges and hung the doors. He gave them a try and they swung without complaint. A call from the parlor startled him.

“Well, that’s a handy man if I ever seen one.” Sun in his eyes, Guy made out the silhouettes of a cluster of women sitting at a long table. They fell to a fit of laughter seeing him squint into the dark parlor.

“What’s your name?” called one of the women. His eyes focused. The woman who spoke was draped in a light tattered gown. The House was only a few degrees warmer than outside, but the cool April morning didn’t seem to bother her. Her hair was piled atop her head and fixed in place with a long pin. If not for her attire, she might have appeared somewhat dignified.

“Guy,” he replied, turning back to his work. The other women repeated his name, elongating the end.

“Guy, what?” It was the voice of another woman, but Guy didn’t look back. He started to answer when he heard a third voice, its tone commanding.

“Leave him be. You start in and he never get any work done.” Guy glanced over his shoulder. The woman was a spitting image of the Lord, Charlotte. Must be the House matron. The women immediately quieted and returned to their eating. Guy stepped out onto the font steps and looked out over the town. The sun was shining directly in and for the first time in too long it felt wondrous.

By nightfall of the first day, Guy had completely replaced every doorframe and door in the House, with the exception of one. Guy stood at one end of the U-shaped corridor. Before him stood a door that appeared to be very thick. It looked as if it had been painted not too long ago. Guy leaned in close. He could barely make out some lettering that was barely visible beyond the latest coat of paint. It read: Senior Officer. Guy shook his head curiously. Maybe not, he thought.

Lua had been the one to supply Guy with new hinges. She’d picked them up at the hardware store that afternoon. He could immediately tell they were of better quality. Lua turned out to be quite the opposite of Charlotte. She was a joker by nature.

“With your hammer and my hinges,” she joked, “maybe they will have a tougher time breaking down our doors, eh!” She was prone to slapping Guy on the back when she passed. When she came around to light the lamps that evening, she found him removing a shudder that had been nailed over a window on the inside. She slapped his shoulder.

“You let anymore light in here, and people are going to go renting rooms like it’s a hotel!” Guy chuckled in spite of himself.

“THAT won’t be so terrible, will it?” he asked. Lua roared and grabbed her gut as if she were in danger of bursting.

“Thompson a funny, funny character! But shoooo, he stink!” Guy felt his cheeks redden.

“Lua made you a very nice bath outside.” Guy looked at the tiny woman, surprised.

“You did?”

“Go see for yourself!” She led the way through the corridor, down the staircase and out the font door. She lifted her dress slightly as she descended the stone steps. Guy had trouble keeping up as she rounded the House.

“Come, come,” she urged. They came to a stone building, no bigger than his own room. Lua turned and waved her arm.

“Like Turkish bath. Though I never have seen one.” She laughed at her own joke. Guy approached and pulled open the heavy wooden door. Steam billowed out and struck them both.

“Nice and hot!” proclaimed Lua. “While you fix House, I fix bath. For hard worker.” Guy couldn’t believe it. Just inside sat a huge porcelain tub next to a smaller tub. Both were filled with water. One was steaming. Aside from the two tubs there was only enough space in the room near the entrance for a small bench. A box of soap powder lay on the stone floor.

“So,” began Lua. “You get inside now. Undress. Then hand me clothes. I no peeky. I know you nervous types. Give me clothes. I bring back clean when you clean!” Guy could feel his skin come alive. All the dirt that had imbedded itself in his hair, his ears, under his fingers, everywhere, began itch. He could hardly stand still, let alone refuse. He stepped into the steaming room, and Lua pushed the heavy door closed behind him. It was pitch black inside, and Guy felt for his boots, then unfastened his pants. When he was completely naked, he cracked the door, making sure to stand at the side, embarrassed at his nakedness. He handed Lua his clothing.

“Boots, too!” Lua demanded. “Worst stink of all. My NOSE knows.” He complied. She pushed the door closed quickly and yelled at him from outside.

“You know how to use soap?” Before he could reply, she cackled and raced off.

It had taken Guy a full ten minutes to fully submerge. The water was unbelievably hot. He felt as if the steam alone were boiling him to the bone. He soaped and scrubbed and lay back in the darkness, head just above the water. He had just started to doze when there came a knock at the door. It was Lua.

“OK, Thomp-SON! Time for you get into other tub.” Guy leaned forward in the dark and reached the lip of the tub next to the one he occupied. His fingertips dipped into the water. It was cool. He pulled himself over the lips between the two tubs and slipped in. The water was much cooler and it woke him up. When his head broke the surface he called out.

“Uh, now what?”

“What? I don’t hear through thick wall!” Guy raised his voice.

“Now what?” Lua’s cheery voice came back.

“Now, you done! Open door. I no peeky. Get you clothes. I bring you slippers. Your boots not quite dry. Come, come!” Guy slipped from the water and stood on the stone floor near the bench and entrance. He gave the door a heave and then leaned back out of the light. The cool night air made him shiver almost immediately. A hand shot in, and he grabbed his clothing. The door was pushed shut again. He dressed in the dark and then pushed the door open and fell into the brisk April night. It was nearly dark.

“How you feel?” Lua looked up at him.

“Years washed away,” came his reply through chattering teeth. Lua looked at Guy curiously and then grinned. Her teeth seemed to glow in the pale light.

“OK. How about a shave and then you go night-night?” Guy’s eyes widened. Wonders had not ceased. He nodded without a word, and let himself be led back to the House.

Lua brought Guy into a parlor beneath the stairs. It was just off the dining parlor and a few women milled around finishing their dinner. The sight of Guy, clean and smelling fresh awakened their lazy senses.

“Hello Mister,” said one.

“Look what Lua the cat dragged in,” said another. Guy felt his cheeks redden. Lua hissed at them and pulled Guy into the parlor and shut the door. She beckoned him to sit in a chair. Lua rummaged through a cabinet.

“You know, you have good head for your shoulders.” Guy wasn’t sure how the compliment was meant. Or for that matter, to where it was directed.

“Those girls very, very good making men nervous. You must have lots of girls when little boy. Seem so calm around them.” She found what she was looking for, a straight-edge razor. She then walked to where a small pale of water was heating on the stove. She used a towel to move the pale and then placed it on a stool near Guy. She handed him the towel.

“Put under you neck. Your clothes are clean now. Wanna keep that way?” She pulled a box of soap powder from a cabinet and scooped out a small handful. Lua dipped her hand into the water and the soap foamed. She then rubbed her hands together spreading the foam over her palms. She dabbed Guy’s face until it was covered in a thin layer.

“So, I was a-thinking,” she said as she crossed around and stood in front of Guy. “How about I leave you a nice trimmed beard. Shave neck, shave moustache, but leave beard.” Guy shrugged. Lua continued.

“See, this way you don’t look, mmm…eighteen.” Lua grinned as Guy’s eyes grew wide.

Lua put a finger to her lips.

“Sshhh. Pretty good, huh?” She grunted and lowered her finger. “You can’t have three chid’ren and not know the age of another one. Not when you see him in the face.” She drew close with the blade. “No matter how much hair covering he cheeks, or how deep he voice!” Guy leaned away as she reached out.

“But, wait. I thought…” Lua grinned mischievously.

“It true. Charlotte think you much older. So smart, she think she is. That why I say nothing, makes me laugh. But she realize she hire you so young, she not be so happy. Fire you, right quick!” She snapped her fingers, then sighed. “But you good boy. You need job, right?” Guy nodded slowly.

“Well, that’s that. Charlotte don’t know. She never have chid’ren. You keep secret. I keep secret. Don’t let girls know, neither! Some young girls here, but not so young. They eat you for break’fis. Spit you out at dinner. Better be good boy!” She thought a minute then brought the blade down on his neck.

“Maybe we leave the moustache, too.” She cackled and slowly drew the blade through the thick brown whiskers.

Guy woke up to the sound of steady thumping against the wall at his head. It was late, how late he couldn’t say, but his heavy eyelids told him it must be sometime after midnight. He lay there listening to the thumping. The day before the Lord of the House, Charlotte, had told him how they would stay open through renovation but on an appointment-only basis. Once they were ready for regular business things would get hectic and if Guy had to make different living arrangements that was fine. For his part, Guy didn’t think it would be a problem. For one, he didn’t require much sleep. For another, the noises were nothing too troubling. He’d lived his youngest years next to an asylum. During the fallout with the government, enemies of state found their final residence a horror not unlike a terrible nightmare. All hours of the night, trucks came and went. And Guy heard it all. A few lusty cries and a bed frame smacking the wall was nothing by comparison.

As he lay there, Guy’s mind drifted back toward sleep. As sometimes happens specifically at times like those, the thoughts hardest to suppress float innocently to the surface.

She had been working at the labor office when Guy picked that particular day to visit. He still couldn’t understand why it was that day. Maybe because school had let out early. The teachers hadn’t explained, just turned them loose. Maybe because he just wanted to see her. Or maybe, a thought nudged him, maybe he knew. Deep down, maybe he knew it would be the last time he would see her.

The labor office was housed in the enormous government building. Its marble facade made it the most intimidating fixture in town. She had spoken of many visits by high ranking state officials as of late, her voice nearly always edged with a certain anxiety. Guy found her in the staff office. She was furiously pounding away at a typewriter. When she saw him, it was as if she didn’t recognize him. She didn’t say hello, she only lowered her eyes and continued typing. Guy was used to her manner. She was intense by nature, but he wasn’t prepared for what had happened next.

‘Mother. Are you well?’ he had asked.

‘Guy! You must go.’ Her eyes had darted up for only a moment. She typed a few more lines, then grabbed the sheet of paper and tore it from the machine. As she crossed around to the front of her desk, she grabbed Guy by the shirt. He had turned ten the day before.

‘Guy! Now! I want you to go home. Grab one change of clothing. Then go to Nana’s. Get Nana to bring Seraph. Then I want you three to meet me back here.’ Nana was his aunt. She had been looking after Guy and his sister while their mother worked her recently extended hours.

‘Why?’ Guy had asked. His mother was nearly out the door. She wheeled about, holding the paper in her hands.

‘East has declared war!’ she screamed. Guy hadn’t understood what that meant entirely, but her fury, her anxiety, her fear, had propelled him to stand. He ran passed her, descending the steps and had just set foot on the pavement when there came a loud whine he had never heard before. As he looked up to locate the source, there was a sharp buzzing of a straining airplane engine. A second later he saw the plane soaring almost straight up into the heavens, the cry of its engine fierce.

Then the air caught fire.

Guy was thrown across the street into a column of bushes encircling a fountain. Bits of brick and marble rained from the heavens and struck his head and back. He covered his head with his hands, shielding himself from the debris. An awkward sensation in his stomach caused him to heave. As if an invisible string he only recognized the moment when it was being severed. His head was throbbing. He felt an urge to look over his shoulder. When he did, he understood. The entire government headquarters lay in a smoldering ruin.

A climactic whack issued against the wall, and then there was silence. Guy rolled over and fell asleep, damning all nightmares past, present and future.

When Guy awoke, his eyes were fixed on the chair in the corner. There was another half loaf of bread there. This time with a purple ribbon around it. He rubbed his eyes and looked at his locked door. Someone had come in during the night. Someone with their own key.

He dressed and went downstairs. The House was already bustling. He was surprised. It was barely seven. The sun had scarcely peeped over the horizon, and yet as he descended to the landing, ladies were racing about willy nilly. Just then, Charlotte appeared from the proprietor’s office.

“Mr. Thompson, so nice of you to grace us with your…groggy presence.” She hardly acknowledged him at first, but then did a double take. “And my, don’t you clean up nice.” The hint of a smile crossed her lips. As if that were an unacceptable sign of some weakness, she made certain to squash it.

“Ladies! Back to work.” She pointed at the woman who had yesterday asked Guy his name. “Eyes on the dirt!” As she exited toward the dining parlor she called out,

“We shall be ready to entertain guests in one week!” Guy had to admit, aside from the work he had yet to do, the place was looking pretty good. There was hardly any dust to speak of, the floors were clean and even the carbon stains had all but disappeared from the walls above the oil lamps. His eye fell on the caking plaster. That would be his chore for the day.

At noon, Lua came through, slapped Guy on the shoulder and made him come in for lunch. When he had seated himself at the long table, the women filtered in around him. He was surrounded by nine of them, each in what he thought were probably the most ratty clothes he had ever laid eyes on. Lua served eggs and bacon for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Today was no different. The women groaned and began prodding their food. For his part, Guy had not yet had a chance to tire of the lack of choice and hungrily dug in, content enough to be eating at all. Lua noted it, addressing the ladies.

“Should be like Thomp-SON. Now, he know good protein-rich meal when he eat it!” This brought a few moans from the women, but they otherwise ate quietly. A woman on the end finished and rose hastily. She addressed Lua.

“I will take The Jewel her food now.” The women looked up and waited for Lua’s response. Lua nodded. Guy glanced about himself. The Jewel? Was that another name for the Lord of the House? He went back to eating.

As Guy ate he couldn’t help but steal occasional looks at the women around him. If not simply because there was nothing else to look at. He noticed that although their dresses were horrendously sloppy and ragged, the women who occupied them all appeared quite cleanly. Their hair had begun to shine, no longer appeared rat chewed, falling straight or sitting in tight, neat buns atop their heads. He looked down to spoon up the last of his eggs, and noticed the two women’s hands on either side of him. Their fingers were spotless, and aside from the day’s doings, even their fingernails appeared manicured, albeit closely trimmed.

“Deception is an important business piece before one opens her doors to the public, Mr. Thompson.” Guy looked up to see Charlotte standing in the entry way between the parlor and the lobby.

“I see you have noticed some subtle changes in our ladies’ appearance.” It was plain to Guy this woman missed nothing. “Lua had the bathhouse operating much sooner than I anticipated, as I see you yourself have discovered.” Lua looked at Guy and grinned. “You are not the only one who benefits from its renovation.” At this a few of the women giggled.

“Quiet!” ordered Charlotte.

“As I was saying, you will do well to say nothing of what goes on in here. I will be ready to open the doors soon enough. Until that time, it is long-standing customer appointment only. The girls will wear their uglies until then. We do not wish to have the hordes tearing down our doors prematurely, do we now?” Guy had to hand it to her cleverness. Just then the young woman who had left earlier, returned. She was empty-handed. She was examined closely. When the Lord spoke, her voice was low.

“Has she taken lunch, or thrown it out again? Do not lie to me.” The young woman blushed fiercely, obviously intimidated.

“She ate it, madam.” The young woman’s eyes shot quickly at Guy, as if a strong notion had beckoned them. His eyes shone. The woman suppressed a gasp. Charlotte reached out and took the girl’s chin, holding her face close.

“Since she has chosen to refuse me admittance to her room, the responsibility for her preparedness rests squarely on you. Do you understand?” The young woman nodded, turning quickly a deeper shade of crimson. Guy watched through the top of his eyes, becoming more intrigued by this ‘Jewel’, by the minute. He was careful to look like he was eating, not eavesdropping. “That means if she is not healthy, prepared and vastly rested, you will suffer. And my dear, I assure you my wrath is not kind. Understand?” A timid nod answered.

“See that the water you bring for her bath is hot.” Another nod, the young woman’s eye downcast now.

If Charlotte were speaking to anyone else she might have grinned, knowing how much fear this woman held for her, but because of the gravity of the situation, her manner was quite serious. In fact, beneath the facade it was the Lord of the House who appeared terrified. She must have some investment holed up in that mysterious room at the end of the hall. For his part, Guy had an inherent quality he didn’t even fully recognize in himself. He could see in people, the true emotions hidden behind their deceptive veils. He saw with ease Charlotte’s trepidation. Her anxiety. His head lifted involuntarily toward the ceiling, as if he might see through the floor to that forbidden room. A feeling he had not had in many years surfaced. It was wonder. And the wonder was burgeoning.

Soon after, Charlotte left. Guy was beginning to stand when the woman next to him dumped her eggs onto his plate. He looked at her and she grinned sheepishly, biting her newly manicured index nail.

“I can’t,” he began, but she interrupted him.

“Miss Lua, I think Mr. Thompson is going to get up without finishing his eggs.” Lua’s head shot up from her food. She pointed at Guy with her spoon.

“I made for you. You eat!”

“But, I…”

“Tut-tut! You need be big, strong for work all day. One week. You hear Charlotte. Eat!” Guy sighed and gave a sharp look at the grinning woman beside him. He spooned up some more eggs. Truth of the matter, he was still hungry, so he ate. Ironically, just as he finished the girl to his left immediately dumped her eggs onto his plate. The plate had hardly been touched. So once again his plate was brimming with scrambled yellows and whites. Guy looked up quickly, sure Lua had noticed. But, she had her chin fastened to her neck, pecking at her own food like a chicken pecks at the dirt. Guy looked between the two women. They were grinning with teeth bared. He tried to smile, but didn’t understand their game. He started to stand, but Lua looked up.

“You try to insult me? Sit down!” She shook her head and went back to pecking. Guy’s jaw dropped. He didn’t want to upset Lua, but didn’t she see what they were doing? He sighed once more and slowly scooped up an egg. It was beginning to look less like the delicacy it started as. The woman to his right leaned over slightly.

“Now, you know what it’s like to eat eggs all the time,” she whispered. Guy smiled. Now it made sense. He looked at the woman. She grinned at him, her face young. Almost, beautiful. He looked around himself more freely. He suddenly began to see them all in a new light. They were all looking at him, some smiling shyly, others grinning openly, waiting for him to eat another plate of their amply dreaded feast. He chuckled in spite of himself. Lua looked up.

“Good.” She looked down. Guy returned their gaze, one by one. Beyond the rags, they each held a subtle charm. Yes, that was the word. Charm. Some were plainly beautiful, but Charlotte had done such a job of covering it up, Guy had not noticed until that moment. He finished his food and this time jumped up plate in hand, so abruptly the entire table broke into laughter, Lua guffawing the loudest. Guy gaped at her.

“You were in on it!” Lua rocked back and forth, her white teeth gleaming as she grinned.

“Time for work, Mr. Thomp-SON!”

The plastering was easy work, but it was tedious. The compound had to be kept wet but not so wet that it slid down the walls. There was a fine line between the two. It took Guy a while to get the hang of it, winging it, but soon he was in a steady rhythm. He finished patching three hours later. Charlotte was behind him as he stood, admiring his work.

“Good. This shall do nicely.” Guy took pride in her compliments, as hard a woman as she. In that way, she reminded him of his mother. He decided to see if she would converse.

“Say, I noticed some strange patterns on the walls, in the places where the plaster had fallen away. And over there,” he pointed, “there were some interesting designs where the papering had peeled off. Was this always a…whorehouse?” Charlotte shot him a quick look.

“Don’t mind that!” Guy sensed something in her manner. He quickly changed the subject.

“I think I’ll head into town and get some papering to cover the plaster,” he said. “Trouble is going to be finding something to match the paper that’s already on the walls.” Charlotte waved him off.

“That will not be necessary. Leave things of the decorative nature to me. What I would like you to do is install the new beds I had delivered.” He nodded, still curious as he descended the staircase.

The beds were a big step up from the rusted metal cots. For one, they were aluminum framed, and the boxes were of lacquered pine. Guy picked up a frame and started up the steps. A familiar voice stopped him.

“Hey you, fella,” came the voice, followed by an awful snort. Guy turned to see Casper Evers standing at the edge of the lot. He seemed hesitant about coming any closer. Guy frowned inwardly, then nodded.

“Afternoon, Mr. Evers,” he said, kindly enough. Casper seemed disarmed by Guy’s amiable greeting. After a moment though, the gears clicked and he recovered.

“Yeah. Uh, so you believe I can get in there see my girl?” Guy sighed to himself. He set the frame down, and not wanting to make an enemy, turned to face Evers.

“I don’t know, Mr. Evers. You gotta ask the Lord.” At this point, Charlotte appeared high on the steps. She called out to Guy.

“Mr. Thompson. I haven’t all day.” Guy noted a distinct change in Casper’s posture. As if a large, winged creature were descending on him.

“And if it ain’t the bitch who says so,” he cried. Guy glanced over his shoulder at the Lord of the House. She had her hands on her hips. Guy reached down and picked up the frame and started toward the House.

“Well, fuck it,” Casper groaned as he turned and stomped away. As he climbed the steps, Guy found Charlotte glaring distantly.

“You’d do well to ignore that beast,” she stated flatly. She looked out past Guy, over the town. “When this establishment re-opens, it will no longer cater to the underbelly of this town. It will maintain a certain class.” She looked back at Guy, her eyes piercing. “Both, of its staff as well as its clientele.” With that, she stepped inside and disappeared into the proprietor’s office.

It was nearly done and Guy was exhausted. The beds had been a chore; lugging the frames and boxes up the steps, up the staircase and into each room to assemble, then removing the corroded cots, each twice as heavy as the replacements. It was well into the evening that he was laboring away on the last frame, when a young woman entered the room. Guy glanced up at she entered. She sat down on the stool near him and watched. She was silent a while before finally speaking.

“How old are you?” Guy heard Lua’s words echo around in his head. He continued working, acting as if he hadn’t heard the question. The young woman fidgeted and from the corner of his eye Guy could see her dress had bunched under her upon the stool. He could see a good deal of her thigh. His mind went to a place where thoughts of this nature were meant to be harbored, to cultivate. But in Guy’s mind, those thoughts quickly discovered the place abandoned. The notion slipped from him just as quickly. He worked.

“We got to try on our new dresses today!” Her voice was merry. “They’re so lovely. Mine is pink with ribbons and butterscotch lace.” Her voice trailed as she rose. She trounced about the room.

“I’m Ani, by the way.” Guy smiled quickly, but didn’t speak.

“Oh! It’s been so long since we got to be beautiful! It shall be such a joy to receive the men like that.” It occurred to Guy she was in her own world, parading around in the rags, as if she had fallen out of a fairy tale and didn’t realize she where she was. The image of Guy’s young sister tore into his mind and for a moment he couldn’t see the frame, his tools, the room, anything. Only her. He had shared a birthday with her the day before chaos descended on their world. Had shared his birthdays with her for each of ten years he had been alive. And that was where she was fixed in his mind. She had been eleven. It was the last time he had seen her.

Guy overcame his reverie and stood. Misery was yet another emotion that slipped furtively through his mind, unable latch hold. He slid the box onto the frame and left the room. The young woman looked after him curiously.

The week passed, the doors to be thrown open the following day. The mood of the House was feverish. There seemed to be a never-ending line of women leading from the bathhouse, and Guy had had to repair the stove in his room just to get a bath. Charlotte had made good on her decorative promises. The walls were now doused in cascading volumes of billowing fabrics, laces and ribbons. It was a striking change. One that Guy felt completed the effect of a House of Pleasure. Someone else’s pleasure, of course.

Guy sealed himself in his room for the evening and took a quick bath. Standing in the tiny wash basin, he found himself missing the bathhouse greatly. When he had finished he shivered into his freshly laundered johns. He drew a breath. The air smelled richly of perfume, all traces of mold either masked or displaced. He walked to the oil lamp to extinguish the flame bathing the room in darkness, but for the window. He walked to it and peered out. It was difficult to discern much through the thick layer of dirt that clung to the glass, but a room across from his in the U-shaped House had its curtains pulled aside. What drew his attention was the intensity of the light cast off from inside the room. While he gazed down, he saw familiar figures pass the window. They seemed to be dancing, tossing face powder into the air.

Suddenly, a figure appeared at the window. Guy felt the air being sucked from his lungs. His knees began shaking violently, nearly buckling. His cheeks flushed hotly, a tingling sweat coursed down his chin to his neck then consumed his body. His mind was at a loss to keep up. His eyes could not comprehend the vision. A face seemingly so unhindered by time…by anything. The chin lifted and the eyes sought contact with his. The piercing emerald orbs stared into him and possessed him. Guy felt a vibration, the trembling of lips on his soul. The vibration transformed into a whisper. We Must. We Shall. Guy fell back from the window onto his bed as if shoved by an unseen force. His arms, fingers, legs shook but not from the cold. It was something else. Something infinitely more mysterious and powerful. He could sleep a thousand years, but never be so awake. The face had breathed life into his dusty, forgotten spirit. Guy struggled to his feet and gazed once more out the window. The room across from his was dark.

He woke. Had he slept? The night was a myriad of bent, inverted images all facing one another, reflecting themselves back, in an endless game of confused tag. Like a diamond surrounded by other diamonds. Dreams, fractures of memories. His mother. His sister. His home. Suddenly, a fountain of emotion welled from within. Tears leapt into his eyes and danced off his cheeks. He had not cried in so long, the man had nearly forgotten the very sensation and it surprised him. The pain of loss came in all its glaring perfection. Pristine, intrusive, and strangely welcome. Like a diamond. A jewel. Out of the glittering darkness his vision slowly cleared. His skin drank the moisture of pain and tears. In their wake wandered in a craving. A desperate hunger that demanded new satisfaction.

When Guy came to, the daylight shone through his window. Out of reflex he looked there first, not surprised at the late hour but at what he might see. What he saw was a typical day going through its motions of dawning. His eyes fell upon the chair. It was unoccupied.

He sat down at the long table, barely able to fit himself at the end, the ladies’ billowing dresses increasing their girths considerably. Lua entered with the giant wok of eggs and set them in the middle. She wedged herself in at the end across from Guy. It was clear by the look in her eyes, he was in for trouble.

“Wakey, wakey! Mr. Thomp-SON, you sleep so soundly, you not hear Charlotte calling for you.” Guy’s eyes shot up from his plate.

“Oh no. Really?” The table was suddenly racked with guffaws. Lua choked on her eggs, not expecting her victim to take so easily.

“Nope,” she replied simply, then broke down in another fit of giggles. Guy slumped in his seat. He was drained. The alarm, however false, swept his appetite away. Then again, had he been hungry? He pushed his plate forward a few inches and stared down.

“Not gonna eat?” Lua had flecks of yellow at the corners of her mouth. Guy shook his head. It ached.

We Shall.

The whisper seemed to rise from the table. Guy looked at the young woman sitting beside him.

“What?” She looked at him curiously, her mouth working. She cocked her head.


“Did you say something?” A mischievous grin formed itself on her lips.

“Me? No.” She went back to eating, the grin never dissipating. Guy’s eyes darted about himself, around the table. They all wore the same grin, all except Lua. Guy started to rise, but suddenly felt a hand on his leg pressing downward, staying him. He looked at the woman. She immediately looked away. Guy followed her gaze to a youngish girl across the table. She said something with her eyes, was trying to, but Guy shook his head. He had no idea what she wanted. The hand that gripped his leg moved. It curled over his thigh, in between his legs near his crotch. Guy caught his breath and stared hard with surprise. The pounding in Guy’s head gained tension momentarily, then suddenly it was gone. The creases at the edges of his eyes softened. He felt strange. Reborn. The woman ventured farther with her hand. Her eyes she kept on her plate. She resumed eating but it was clear where her focus was as she slowly worked her hand down into and through Guy’s pants. He stiffened instantly at her touch. The hand made a further push, now firmly grasping his cock. Strangely, the embarrassment, the nervousness, the apprehension were without. Guy drew a long breath and exhaled slowly. A mysterious heat emanated from the woman’s hand and seemed to seep into his glans. Guy felt his stomach tighten and his testicles shift and tingle.

A sudden shiver took Guy by surprise and he bit his lip. The hand quickly enveloped the head of his swelling penis, and just like that, he came. Guy grabbed the side of the table and clenched it until the throes of orgasm faded. He thought he could hear a crackling noise inside his head, like the sound of soap bubbles popping. And then his mind was clear. All reservation returned and Guy looked down just as the young woman was removing her hand from within his trousers. His eyes were wide with shock and embarrassment as he gazed upon a large pool of semen resting in her palm.

Guy stared in confusion as the woman passed her hand until the table and poured the contents of her palm into the waiting hand of the woman next to her! The ritual continued all the way around the table, ceasing when all of the women save Lua had wet their hand with his ejaculate.

Their eyes were aglow. Each of the women looked serenely at Guy, expressions betraying a curious look of self-satisfaction. Of triumph.

Suddenly, The Lord, Charlotte entered the room and all faces were promptly cast down. Even Guy, afraid for the mask of embarrassment he wore, dropped his eyes to the untouched plate before him. Charlotte was dressed in a stunning, tight red blouse with ornate orange and yellow flowers woven into the fabric. Her dress pants matched, the light material swaying as she moved. Aside from her hard features, she appeared solemn.

“Ladies. It is time. Finish eating, and be ready to receive the men. Mr. Thompson, if you are finished, please accompany me to the landing.” Guy rose to his feet and numbly followed. She opened the door slightly. Already a dozen men were lined up, some with hats in-hand and fists full of hard-earned cash, eagerly awaiting the grand opening. Guy then noticed two rather large men standing at the door.

“These gentlemen are to see that procedure is followed. This is Charles and this is…I’m sorry, your name?”

“Sligh,” came the brusque baritone.

“There you have it,” said Charlotte. Guy shook hands with the two men.

“I have already explained to them your duties so as to allow you unimpeded comings and goings, Mr. Thompson.” She paused a moment gazing out over the crowd before continuing.

“It is possible, Mr. Thompson, that I have taken a liking to you. You seem to me a moral man. A man who prides himself on resisting the foolish temptations of immoral men.” Guy swallowed hard.

“Someone worthy of my trust. With the start of regular business, Lua will be busy with the ladies full-time. I will need someone to keep an eye on,” a sweeping gesture, “everything else. I would like to offer you the position of House Manager. You will still be responsible for maintenance and upkeep, of course.” Guy must have been silent too long for Charlotte’s liking.

“The pay increase is the incentive, you realize?” Guy took a deep breath. He couldn’t focus on the importance of this offer. Point of fact, he could not focus at all. His mind swirled amid a cloudy daze. The word survival kept bobbing at the surface, but its meaning could not be found. He shrugged.

“OK.” Charlotte was taken aback by his indifference, but she recovered.

“Have I been mistaken in offering you my trust?” Guy’s reply was crisp.

“I shan’t think so,” he said flatly. Charlotte decided the sun must be getting to one or the other of them. She concluded the meeting with a clap of her hands.

“Now, your first order of business is to observe.” With that she raised her hands and addressed the sizable gathering at the foot of the steps.

“Gentlemen! Is that what we shall call you?” There was an excited chorus of laughter from her audience below.

“Good. For those of you new to The Diamond Mine, welcome.” Guy woke from his reverie. He slid from the passenger side of the stagecoach in his mind to the driver’s. At last, he regained control of the reins.

The Diamond Mine.

Had he heard that name before…hadn’t he dreamt of a jewel of some sort? Charlotte went on. “For those of you who were guests of the Jade Palace, you shall find our new establishment far more welcoming. I am Charlotte Powers, Lord of the House. Before we open I will quickly tell you how this operation will be conducted.” A man in overalls spat on the first step and interrupted Charlotte.

“Just let us in for ‘em girls!” His bellow was met with a few grunts of agreement. Guy watched as Charlotte leaned over and spoke quietly to the doormen.

“See that he does not get in until he has learned some manners.” The two men nodded, fixing their gaze on the man, who now stood anxiously.

“As I was saying, there are a few ground rules. First of all, and most importantly, to gain entry all guests must first visit the bathhouse located at the edge of the lot.” Several groans issued from the crowd. A few cursed in protest. The mood was becoming slightly tense. Guy was amazed by the Lord’s audacity. She continued. “The bath is free gentlemen.

“When you are clean, and that goes for all cracks and crevices, my men will admit you. And do not try to fake your cleanliness. I can smell many of you from here.” A few chuckles arose and the tension was eased, though it was far from dissipated. Guy saw Casper step nervously from the crowd, scratching his jaw uneasily.

“What about The Jewel?” His voice was hoarse. Charlotte thought a moment, then decided to address his query.

“Certainly, I need not explain procedure as relates to possession of The Jewel. Her reputation precedes her. But I shall, so we may avoid confusion.

“The Jewel will be presented at 4 o’clock pm, at which time men may make silent bids to the House Manager, Mr. Thompson.” She touched Guy’s arm. “The highest bidder will have the pleasure of accompanying The Jewel to her private parlor.” A series of whoops lit from the crowd along with a mew guttural expressions.

“And you, sir,” Charlotte said, addressing Casper directly, “are not permitted, now or ever.” Casper’s eyes seemed on the point of leaping from his skull. He flew into a fury, kicking the dirt and shoving men aside. Quite directly, he began stomping up the steps. Guy saw him reach into his pants where a bow knife was tucked.

“Why you bitch, I’ll cut your throat!” He had climbed less than a third of the way when a pair of shotguns leveled at his approach. Guy took a nervous step sideways. He had not noticed the guns resting behind the doormen when they first stepped out onto the porch. Casper raised his hands gingerly and stopped dead in his tracks. Charlotte, in a challenge to her sanity, took five steps down, coming close enough to Casper to have her guts spilled. She spoke slowly to the crowd, though her piercing glare was on Casper.

“Be there no mistake, I am well within my right to have you killed where you stand. You are on my property, and are unwelcome.” She raised her address to the crowd at-large. “If at any time, any one of you overstays his welcome, my men will ask that you expedite your own removal. If you should find difficulty in doing so, they will assist you. If you refuse further, you will removed and consequently barred for a month.

“Further, if any one of my ladies is harmed while in your company, you will be removed and barred for a month. If there are repeated complaints on your person, you will be barred, period. As in the case of Mr. Evers, who has made a rather disgusting reputation for himself. Shall I elaborate, Mr. Evers?” Casper’s eyes turned a bitter gray as his cheeks flushed. “Please remove yourself from this property and do not set foot on it, henceforth.” He was slow to animate, then finally he turned, his body seemingly sunken in upon itself. Casper Evers stumbled down the steps and disappeared into the crowd.

“That is that. “Bathe gentlemen! Then the House is yours!” Men clamored over one another in an all-out scramble for the bathhouse. Charlotte turned and looked at Guy. His eyes were wide, a mix of anxiety and awe shining beyond their pale blue. It must have been a look Charlotte recognized as his return to self.

“Good to have you back with us, Mr. Thompson.” She grinned and led the way back in doors. Guy could not help but ask.

“Pardon my saying so, but won’t you be running yourself out of business, making so many demands of those fellows?” Charlotte laughed. Without turning around she said,

“For pussy, Mr. Thompson, man would climb to the moon if there were a ladder.” Guy could not help but shiver to hear Charlotte utilize that part of a woman’s anatomy is such a turn.

“Make yourself a fly on the wall, Mr. Thompson. I want you to see how things work. Observe Lua. She will show you. Oh, and perhaps if you are around at 4 o’clock, you will have the pleasure of a real show.” On this, she turned back. “But, do not look too close. If the bidders don’t gut you, your emotions may.” With that, she disappeared into the proprietor’s office. A tremor rumbled through Guy’s abdomen. Lua was standing behind the manager’s screen. She beckoned him.

“Come, come. Don’t be nervous. She love the power. Never have the beauty, but she have the next best thing. Maybe the best thing, really. She drunk with the stuff.” Guy slipped behind the screen and latched the door. He looked down at Lua. She was sifting money into the register.

“What power is that?” asked Guy. Lua grinned.

“You too young to understand it. But someday soon you gonna.” She seemed to think a moment. “Hmm. You can call it Pussy Power.” Lua laughed so hard tears leapt to her eyes. Guy did not feel like laughing. He was quite certain he had bitten off more than he could chew. What’s more, something was happening inside him. Something he felt, should it continue unabated, he might not be able to control.

The first day progressed easily enough. Charlotte had been right about the men. They complied with her requests at bathing and passed obediently by the gun-wielding doormen. There were a few attempts to circumvent the bathhouse altogether, but Charlotte’s men were efficient at executing her desires. The ‘Dirties’ as Charlotte called them, were turned away with word or with force, which ever was required. Guy stood behind the screen and watched.

A man made his pick and the woman led him to Lua behind the screen. When he paid, the woman led her guest up to a room to have his desires fulfilled. Guy admired Lua more all the time. She was as clever as they came, and the lessons she taught him were subtle, yet invaluable.

“Always remember your guests. You must recognize every man who walk through door.”

“Why is that?”

“I show you.” Her eyes passed quickly over the room. “OK, OK. See that man talking to Liana? Lua pointed. The man was a redhead with a ghostly complexion. “He look sick. Some kinda man you no want ladies to be doing nothing with, yes?” Guy nodded. He had to admit, the man looked like he was standing at death’s door, his color so pale.

“Truth be,” said Lua, “he work in mine.”

“A lot of the men work the mines, though,” amended Guy.

“Yes. But he certain type of skin that go whiter than others with no sun to tan it. I see him now long time, and he always that color. Talk to man at market, he say he that way years ago, too. So, now I know. I see he just ghost. I no go kicking white ass out of House.” Lua gnashed her teeth and chuckled.

“Must be hard to remember them all,” said Guy.

“Not so hard. Small things, keep note in you head.” Lua tapped her temple with her index and middle fingers. “If you be one of these men, I say to self: ‘Remember young man with deepest blue eyes. Eyes like ocean’.” Guy smiled, his strong white teeth showing.

“OK, I understand.”

Lua also taught him to keep track of how men spent, how often they came in, their personalities. All these were important things the doormen could miss, and could mean danger for the ladies. If a man spent a lot, and showed up often, then all the sudden the money went dry for one reason or another, it did not mean he would stop wanting to quench certain needs. Usually, that sort of man became a problem.

“They think you going to treat them special because they spend much be-FORE. So when the money go bye-bye, they come in trying to get handout. They pay for hand job, when used to buy whole package. Then, take lady upstairs and try to do rest for free. Pretend, they don’t know better! They know better. So you watch out for those things.” Lua was a fountain of knowledge when it came to behavioral patterns. Her observations made her even more comical, too.

“My ladies no need to tell me when man they with into kinks. I know when he walk in door.” She scanned the room as Guy listened, enthralled. “Oh, yes, yes,” she said pointing excitedly. “Purfick, purfick example. See man with Lila?” Guy looked up. He was not sure who Lila was, but then spotted the tiny young woman at the end of Lua’s pointing finger. He nodded.

“Many men pay for her so they can touch virgin woman. She never been with the penis, but today in for crazy time, yes, yes. Watch!” The man had his hand clenched into a fist. He kept touching different places on his fist and telling Lila kiss him there. Then he would take his handkerchief and wipe his lips and do it all over again. Lila wore the same obedient smile, and kissed his fist each time he chose a place. Just then, the man grabbed her by the hand. He suddenly seemed terribly eager. He led her across the room and up the stairs. Lua pulled a timepiece from her sleeve.

“Humm. I say three minute.” Lua pointed out a few more men who she supposed were fetishists, but because they were not making any overt, unusual requests of the ladies who sat with them, Guy was not so sure. Three minutes later a door slammed upstairs and floating down the stairs in great haste, came Lila. Clamoring after her, trying to get his shirt buttoned, was the man who had paid for her. Lila came straight to Lua, who was suppressing her patented grin.

“He tried to shove his whole fist inside me!” Lila shot a glance over her shoulder, and then dashed around the side of the screen trying to avoid her guest. For his part, the man strode directly to Lua.

“I demand a refund. I paid for a woman’s company, and hardly received it. I shall have my money back, immediately.” Guy recognized him as a bank teller from the First Local Bank. The man glanced at Guy. They both quickly averted eyes. Lua was gentle.

“Oh, that is so terrible, sir. But, one big nice fist for such little lady? I’m afraid not too possible. You agree? No refund, but…” She looked beyond him. “Ag-NES!” A large woman lifted herself from a chair and approached. “Here, Mister. Agnes fit one, even two fist if you like.” The man turned and gawked at the hefty Agnes. He seemed to consider the proposal as he looked her up and down. He then turned to Lua and gave a sharp nod. He immediately grabbed the surprised Agnes by the wrist and led her upstairs. Lua sighed.

“Another satisfy customer.” Guy shook his head. Lua turned her attention to the young woman. “It’s OK, now. Go mingle. Find you a smaller man, smaller hand.” She laughed at her joke. The young Lila moved away, but not without making the mistake of retort.

“I ain’t ready to be a damn popsicle.” For all Lua’s gentleness, she was the matron. And that was the point where her pleasant nature had its limits.

“Lila! Get fuck back here!” Guy was startled at the venom in her speech. Lila’s posture sank and turned back obediently, a look of regret firmly planted in the furrow between her brows. Lua’s voice was low, but lacked no power.

“You do what you told, or so help me, tomorrow morning, I put you on mule and sell you to whorehouse on north coast. You know about north coast House? No rule in those Houses. Many sailor, many disease, dying..but ohhh, lot of popsicle sticks! In one month you be with child, while one those virus start eating your ovaries, then gobble up baby, then you! You like sound of that, then act up again! Understand me?!” Lila was as white as the ghostly man from the mine. She nodded, trembling.

“Good,” said Lua.

“Now go receive Mr. uh, Lyles. He wait for nice young woman to talk to.” Lila turned thankfully and rushed away, here eyes all but brimming with tears.

Lua turned to Guy, all semblance of anger vanished.

“You must be tough, Thomp-SON.” She giggled sweetly and turned her attention to a new guest. “Pussy special! All you can eat! Two dolla!”

4 o’clock came and the air was laden with anxiety. Guy sat on a stool, his feet up on a block. Lua had just opened bidding for The Jewel. The entire town’s men, married or not, must have made their way to the House and were now crowded in the lobby. Guy looked on in utter amazement at the vastness of the crowd. The doormen were earning their keep. The mood of the room was calm, all bodies more or less clean, apart from their clothing. As each man stepped up to the screen, Lua pushed forward a slip of paper and a piece of lead to write with. The man scrawled his bid and Lua committed the number and corresponding name to her list. Soon all the men had bid and were eagerly awaiting the announcement. Guy glanced over Lua’s shoulder, as she ran a finger down the list scanning for the highest number.

She announced the names of seven men. These seven had all bid highest, writing the same number, and were now to take part in a bid-off. The remaining men, grumbling and/or quiet, stuck around to catch a glimpse of The Jewel, which was rumored to be an event in itself, and of course, to see the lucky fool who’d be claiming the rights to her.

After the next bid, there were two men left. They bid again, and actually had to bid yet again, before finally, the winner was announced. The man, a tall, gaunt bespectacled fellow, grinned foolishly and stepped to the screen to pay the undisclosed sum. The loser was encouraged to keep his number a secret, as it alluded closely to the winning bid, but word got out. The rumor was The Jewel had been purchased for somewhere around 78 dollars. A sum of money that could feed a single person for almost a year.

At this time, Charlotte appeared at the top of the staircase. She announced the winning bidder, and asked him to come to the foot of the staircase to receive his prize. He sauntered over from the screen near Lua and Guy, a full head taller than any other man. When he stood at the staircase, looking up, mouth hanging open with anticipation, Charlotte made a signal. There was a sound of a door opening to the utter silence below. Soft footsteps. Guy’s heart pounded so loudly, he thought Lua might hear it. A moment later The Jewel appeared at the top of the stairs.

A solitary release of held breath like the wind through an open window, issued from the gallery. It was the face Guy had seen in the window.

Her skin a milky white, hair coiled in a majestically atop the scalp, with one thin strand falling straight down her right cheek, a slight curl at the end. Her eyes, large, brilliantly inquisitive, of a jewel green, deep and nearly translucent. They sparkled against the long, dark lashes, marked in a youthful innocence beneath the sharp, almost mischievous points of her eyebrows. Lips, a deep pink hue, expressing nearly the same ideal shape across a horizontal plane, as the smooth mystique of her face.

Many of her onlookers had trouble enough pulling his eyes from her face, yet to witness her tallish, slender body, like a sculpture of the imagination silhouetted inside see-through, white satin that took to her curves like the sea over the ocean floor. Hardly a dress, the fabric conformed to her delicate curves only insomuch as concept. Her body, visible as though through a blurry dream, ran sinuously, beginning at her delicately pronounced collarbone. Gazing down, the material drew outward where her breasts lifted from her body. Not small, not large, rounding beneath like precious pearls, almost completely visible, yet veiled much like a mirage. The nipples themselves pronounced the draw against the fabric more so, laying as proud beacons of her sexuality. One might gaze upon their shape and suddenly envisage the result of a rain drop that falls on a pool of water. The instantaneous up-spurt, reacting to the raindrop, creating a natural nipple. Such was the perfection of nature, poised atop the Jewel’s breast.

Her stomach fell smooth beneath her breasts, down past her button. The gentle sloping of the navel, her pure, white skin grading serenely down into a thin slash of hair just visible between the two thighs, that pressed together demurely. The V, the triangle, the subtle hint of pouting labia, and then a shadow dipping beneath. Legs curving modestly, slender and long beneath her youthful, very feminine hips, where at last, the satin ended…yet, leaving its observer to wonder, Did It Ever Begin?

“Your prize,” announced Charlotte. Guy struggled to swallow. The many eyes that gazed up upon the Jewel were glazed and lost to dream. But was it a dream? The Jewel felt them. She let them enter her, first her mind then her body, all from where they stood in the House lobby. The room took on a sudden softness as if enveloped in a fog. From the theater in their minds they ravaged her body, filled her, twisted and turned and drove themselves to be satiated by the Jewels’ interminable prowess. She exhaled slowly and a shudder echoed through the House. Guy looked around himself curiously. Far from appearing embarrassed for what could only have been a tremendous united orgasm, the men in the room seemed only partially conscious. It was only Guy who had not come.

“She will now receive you,” came Charlotte’s voice, cutting the stillness. The man climbed the stairs awkwardly. He seemed to be adjusting his pants as he went. It looked to Guy that a wet spot had asserted itself at his crotch. The man met the Jewel, standing head and shoulders over her. She lay her hand in his, sweetly, delicately, smiled shyly, and then led him across the landing and into her parlor. When the door shut, Charlotte turned back to address the crowd.

“Well, gentlemen. Same time, next week. Aside from that lucky fellow, the show is officially over.” There came no disappointed sigh or curse from the gallery. All was silent. The two guards stepped in from the entryway and took a tight grip on their rifles. But the fog had not loosened its grip over the men who had witnessed the Jewel, and they calmly, quietly filed out of the House, down the stairs and like wraiths, disappeared into the village. Guy sat down on the front steps and stared out over the town. He couldn’t get over it.

Like the other men, he had taken that journey in his mind, along the Jewel’s primrose path. And like the other men, he imagined he had ventured alone. A simply fantasy, generated by the vision of such an alluring creature. How could it be helped? Guy’s fantasy had differed slightly from those of the other men. He had seen the Jewel. Saw himself touch her, her touch him. His hands slid over her skin, caressed her, gently held her breasts. He kissed her neck, her chin. His tongue played over her nipples and between her breasts. She smiled at him, so warmly, genuinely, looking inconceivably deep into his eyes. Her fingers slowly wrapped around his cock, her leg curled over his. They were enmeshed. But he could not join himself with her. Something, his mind, something would not allow it. Each time he looked down, she seemed to take his swollen head, place him between her legs, and then the fantasy reset.

Guy was rubbing his eyes just as someone stepped through the door and stumbled passed him. It was the tall man who had won the bid. He’d been the one to take the Jewel upstairs. An urge in Guy’s gut wiggled to the surface and he asked.

“What was it like?” he called to the man who was hurrying away, almost feverish. The man stopped in his tracks. He turned back slowly. His face was gleaming with sweat. His voice quivered as he spoke.

“I jus..I couldn’t…” He looked around to see if anybody was near, then he approached. Guy slipped down a few steps, his curiosity getting the better of him. The man knelt and was on verge of whispering.

“I’m only gonna say this…cause, cause come tomorrow I’m leaving here, moving away.” He shuddered. Guy wondered if the man might begin to cry. “I sold…” now he did whisper. “I sold my hardware store. Everything I have.” Guy looked at him without speaking. The man must have taken it as an accusation.

“OK!” The man rang his hands in desperation.

“I sold it to bid on her, on…on the Jewel.” He peered about, eyes darting suspiciously. “That’s how I won. I wanted her. I heard about her, you know. I even saw her once. From far off. Never…” he paused. “Never seen anything like that in my life. I had to win that bid.

“Thing is…” His voice turned ragged. “Wh-when, I was standing there at the foot of them steps, waiting t-t-to receive her…and then I seen her I…somethin’ happened. I lost it.” You, you know what I mean? Never lost it so hard, never.” His eyes darted about once more and he leaned even closer, his breath reeking with stagnant desperation. “And then, I get in there with her and…an-and, I can’t get it going again. I just looked at her…she’s so…but…well, damn thing was dead to the world.”

He regained his posture standing tall, appearing more broken than before. His gaze fell on the House. “I know she done it to me. Just don’t know how. And all I wanted was to be in there. I mean, really…” He trailed off, standing there a moment longer, before finally stalking away. Guy would never seen him again.

Life for Guy became a routine. The next week he took over the duties as manager and continued his renovation work. After dinner one night, he slowly climbed the stairs and padded down the corridor to his room. Charlotte had gone to the city of Atieca in the south to purchase more ladies, and would not be back until late in the week. When Guy finished his bath, he extinguished the oil lamp and walked to the window. It had become ritual for him, before slipping into bed to gaze down upon the mysterious room where he had first glimpsed her aura. The window he sought was dark. He laid down and tried to fall asleep. Nearly two hours later he was still awake, when there came a soft knock at the door. He rose and pulled on his pants, then answered. It was Lila, the petite young woman who was not a popsicle.

“She wants you to come.” Lila was smiling politely. Her small face and impish features were lit up in the corridor light. For the first time, Guy realized she couldn’t be much older than eighteen. Her dress was tight at the chest, meant to collect her smallish breasts and urge them into a more provocative position. He noted its success.

“Who?” asked Guy.

“Please,” pressed Lila. “She says you are invited.” Guy assumed she meant Lua, but invited to what?

“Alright, just a minute while I get a shirt.” Lila frowned.

“You are wearing a shirt.” Guy shook his head and tugged at the loose material.

“I am not going anywhere in cotton johns.” Lila shrugged. She pushed the door open, letting the light spill in, and took a seat on the chair. Guy hadn’t intended for her to watch him change into a shirt, so instead of taking his johns off, he slipped a shirt on over top. Lila sat in the chair and giggled.

“Two shirts now. Nervous?” Guy shot her a frown that had an unintended effect. Lila must have still been reeling from the verbal assault she received from Lua the week before. And of course, Guy had been there. Authority by association. Not to mention his new title. Lila’s shoulders sank and she looked down.

“Now, here,” said Guy as he stepped close to her. “I’m not mad at you, OK?” He paused, then added, “Don’t let me upset you, Miss Popsicle.” He chuckled as she looked up and grinned. Suddenly, she remembered her purpose.

“We have to go now.” She led him to the top of the stairs, then put a finger to her lips. She crept forward and gazed over the balcony. When she was satisfied she beckoned to him.

“Who are we trying to avoid?” asked Guy. Lila spun suddenly and shook her arms wildly.

“Please, ssshh.” Guy rolled his eyes. Lila slipped down the stairs, Guy trailing behind, confused as he could be.

When they reached the landing, Lila shot a quick look toward the parlors, and then she pulled open one of the main doors. Guy was beyond questioning, so when she beckoned he only complied. When the two of them were outside, she pulled the door shut gently.

“OK,” said Lila. “Follow me.” Guy shrugged and followed. She led him around the property to the bathhouse. Lila had trouble getting the door open herself, but finally did.

“Inside, c’mon.” She started in, but Guy interrupted her progress.

“Alright. This is cute, Lila. But I’m not going into the bathhouse with you.” He turned around and took a step in the direction from whence they’d come. Lila zipped around him and put her hands on his chest.

“No, no! Not that. She wants me to show you.” Guy was growing tired of the game.

“Show me what?”

“If you come into the bathhouse, I will.” Guy raised an eyebrow. “Please. I am not trying to lead you astray. I promise. I am only doing what she asked of me.” Guy felt curiosity creep up inside him. In the first place, Lila was sneaking about like she was trying to avoid being seen by someone. That someone, the only authority, meant Lua. So, if Lua was out of the story, it meant the chances of her being the mysterious she, were null. It had to be someone else. It certainly wasn’t Charlotte. Perhaps …

“Alright. Show me,” said Guy with a sigh, only feigning boredom now. Lila squeaked her approval and grabbed him by the arm. She led him into the bathhouse. There was just enough room for the both of them between the door and the tubs, and it was pitch black. Lila still insisted on closing the door and squeezing them in. Guy had to help her this time.

“Now what,” he asked in the darkness, his voice echoing a great deal. Odd, he thought. Why should my voice echo so much, in this tiny room?

“We have to climb over the tubs to the back place.”

“The back place?”

“In that corner over there.” Lila sought Guy’s arm and lifted it, pointing it in the darkness, in the direction she knew by heart. And with that, she began climbing over the lip of the larger tub toward her destination. When she was on the other side of the room, Guy heard the sound of a metal grate and Lila’s labored breathing.

“C’mon,” she whispered. Guy clamored over the lip of the tub, feeling his way around it. Twice he almost slipped and fell in. His booted shoe actually dipped in once, and now his toe was wet. He muttered to himself.

“This is ridiculous.”

“Hurry,” urged Lila, who now sounded farther away. As Guy made his way toward her voice, he noticed a soft light coming up from beyond the tubs. Guy’s eyes immediately adjusted and he made out a blueish glow coming from the corner of the room under the edge of the smaller tub. He crawled over the lip of the tub toward the light. When he got to the edge, he looked down. Lila peered up at him from a square hole in the floor. She clung to the metal rungs of a ladder.

“What in the..”

“Hurry, Guy.” Guy turned himself around and started to climb down. Lila moved down the ladder, and then he heard her drop onto a gravel surface some way below. A moment later Guy stood beside her.

They stood together in an enormous cavern, lit by soft blue light that emanated from the cracks in the rock. Lila looked at Guy.

“The light comes from the rock. It’s phos…phos..” Guy helped her.

“Phosphorous.” Lila snapped her fingers.

“Yeah,” Guy nodded.

“It’s all over the hills where I come from.” He paused. “But I’ve never seen anything like this.” He turned around and gazed down a long straight tunnel. “Where does it lead?” Lila grinned. It was a wicked grin.

“I can show you.” She raced forward and Guy hesitantly followed.

The tunnel seemed to go on interminably, and Guy had a hard time keeping up with the pixie-like girl. Occasionally, she would cast a glance over her shoulder and slow down so he could catch up. Suddenly, the tunnel emptied into a room of sorts. The phosphorous light was brighter here and when Guy set foot inside he exhaled slowly. The rock walls were bathed in red flowing silk, draped ceiling to floor. There were large plush benches of crushed velvet along the walls, and an enormous rectangular slab of marble in the center. Like everything else, it was draped in billowing fabric. It resembled a nest.

“What is this place?” Guy’s voice echoed around the room, causing his ears to ring.

“Not so loud,” whispered Lila. “You have to talk quiet here.” Guy nodded in absolute awe. He repeated his question, softer this time.

“The House wasn’t always the House,” started Lila. “Before Madam Charlotte had it, well, before she was even born, the House was a cathedral.” Guy gaped at her.

“They say it was the most beautiful thing in the world. People came here to worship, but it wasn’t a normal type of church. It was different.” Guy was intrigued.

“Different how?”

“I guess, well…” Lila’s voice trailed off. She gathered her thoughts and went on. “They sort of worshiped women.” Guy stared at Lila. He had never heard anything about this. She had to be making it up. But there was such conviction in the girl’s voice. As if she either believed a great lie, or was actually reciting an incredible true story. Lila continued.

“Many people came. Women, but men too. And they worshiped woman as the creator. They blessed her as the true giver of life, the fountain from where life runs.” Guy noted a turn of sadness in her voice. “Then the war came. A man’s war. It came slowly, I guess, because they built this down here.” She paused a moment, then walked forward. In a lithe movement of grace, she hopped up and sat on the great marble slab amid the nest of fabric. She faced Guy, her feet dangling. When she continued, her demeanor was very somber.

“It is a sanctuary. A place where the most devoted could worship safely underground, while the world above came apart. But the bad people came, the people who brought the war. They condemned the cathedral. They condemned the practice of female worship, and threatened to burn it to the ground. Luckily, some officials decided it would be a good place to house their troops, so they let it stand. They sent their engineers inside to turn it into a boarding house.

But before they could put it to use, the allies struck at the heart of their cities and…well, you know the rest.” Lila’s eyes were downcast, as though she were part of some great tragedy. Considering her youth, Guy did not understand why.

“What’s the matter?” asked Guy moving closer. Lila kicked her feet a little, letting them swing.

“The Jewel protects us. She came right after the war began. They say she crawled here from some far away place. They said her hands and knees were bleeding, and her hair was matted with blood. She survived a terrible fire that swept through her town, and took her entire family.

“Some say it was she who kept the bad people from burning the cathedral. They say the head official went in to inspect his new boarding house. The Jewel was the only one inside. She was standing there at the top of the stairs, just the way you say her. When he saw her, something happened to him. Inside him. She can just look at men and it happens.

“The man stepped outside, his mind suddenly changed. Just like that. He said the building would not do. It was her, you know. She gave him her body within his very own mind. In his imagination. He suddenly felt he had conquered everything that was worth possessing. Right after that, the army collapsed. And the allies came…” The sound of Lila’s voice suddenly struck Guy like a hammer. He staggered back and looked about himself awkwardly. Her voice hung on a whisper. Guy focused his eyes on Lila once more. She smiled sweetly.

“Do you know, she has never been touched? Not physically.” Guy stared bewildered.

“What do you mean?” asked Guy.

“Well. You saw for yourself, didn’t you?” Guy remembered the tall man.

“No man? I just assumed he couldn’t…” He trailed off. Lila shook her head.

“It’s the same every time. The former Lord had to figure that out very fast. He was losing business. He began allotting the men a maximum of fifteen minutes to be with her when they won the bid. He was sort of saving their pride. How could they tell their friends why they left so quickly, after paying so, so much?”

“No man has been strong enough to resist long enough to bed her. To enter her.” Lila shivered.

“She is beautiful,” Guy breathed.

“Her physical beauty is so little of it,” amended Lila.

“On this rock is where they performed the rites for the women they worshiped.” Lila swung her feet again, clicking her heels on the stone slab beneath her. Guy inched closer. He felt a magnetic draw.

“What rites?” Lila went on.

“They fertilized a virgin. A special virgin chosen by the townspeople. She with the greatest prowess. The one they deemed would bring the most favor upon them. To their crops, their families.” Lila smiled shyly. “It is a great honor to be chosen. The special girl might very well save her village from ruin. It must have been thrilling to be part of such an important thing.” She paused and sucked on her lip, lowering her eyes upon Guy.

September 2018
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