This one started as a short story. it’s around 40 thousand words now, and complete. It’s off to a couple of horror magazines.
There was someone following her.
It was a bad day and this would not improve it.
It wasn’t just that the day was dark and rainy. It wasn’t just missing her connection. It wasn’t getting evicted. It wasn’t that her landlord gave her a week’s extension for a blowjob, reneging afterward, and tossing her into the street. Okay, maybe it was some of that. That was in the past, however. The man was now.
He was tall and he was dark. Not dark skinned. He seemed to be in shadow even under the harsh glare of a streetlight. He was following her. It almost made her forget her landlord. Greasy, slimy, rotten son of a bitch. Sure, he hadn’t agreed to anything. His exact words, repeated back to her with a prissy smile, were “We’ll see.”
He threw her out anyhow. She had other problems, of which he was not a part. It was getting colder. She needed to find some shelter. Her arms shook. Her blonde hair hung in dark wet snakes plastered to her face with grime, sweat, and the rain. She scurried from doorway to awning to kiosk trying to keep dry.
The man followed.
She didn’t know she was crying. She was rubbing her arms and shaking. She stopped in front of a bookstore, using the reflection to watch behind her.
The man was still following.
Maybe he thought she was a hooker. It wouldn’t be the first time. It wouldn’t be the first time she considered it. Getting paid to rent her body wasn’t by far the worst thing in the world. She was philosophical about it, or so she thought. When you worked at a job, you got paid for the labor you did. When you built things, you got paid for your effort. No matter the job, you were renting yourself to someone. Well, why not be paid for sex? Men needed it, she had it, it was a simple transaction in theory. She had to be careful, sure, but that wasn’t so hard. There were places that would help her be careful. They would even provide her protection for free. Some of those places were the same places she got her needles from. That would be handy.
The man followed.
She quickened her pace as she tried to think of a place she could stay for the night. Casey was twenty years old. She had run away from home a year before. A man she met at a party upstate had lured her to the city. He’d promised a wild time, jobs simply everywhere, concerts, museums, and a little apartment where they could live, and share their dope.
Unlike many of the girls she knew, and thousands she didn’t, her dream was real. Ritchie, a skinny, seedy looking kid with a pencil moustache and muscles like an action star, did love her, as strange as that seemed. He had turned out to be a pretty stand-up guy. He worked hard, cleaning up in a local garage. He’d gotten a second job to help out with the rent and the food, and she tried to get a job, too. She waitressed, and temped, but none of her jobs were ever permanent. It was a time she wouldn’t ever forget. Youth made intolerable distractions like a broken futon to sleep on, and mice in the cupboard seem like an adventure. They worked too hard for low wages, they ate skimpy meals of pizza and noodles, they had run around like scared hens trying to cover their possessions with garbage bags the day a pipe in the ceiling burst. Just life, average, unremarkable, common.
Things were ok. She was happy. Until the night Ritchie had been killed while trying to score. Ritchie had been desperate. Not blind with it, just desperate. Their regular connection had been busted days before, and Ritchie didn’t know the name of the one that popped up to take his place. There always was one, of course. But the information was slow in getting around. And so Ritchie had walked into an untenable situation.
He was killed in a shootout with the police. The worst of it was that he hadn’t been a part of the deal. He just happened to choose that moment to round the corner, hoping to buy a twenty dollar bag of the stuff. That was the moment the cops chose to go ahead and land like a bomb. That was the moment the new guy, a three-strike dealer with more hair than brains, and his enforcers decided to try and shoot it out with the police instead of taking the fall, doing six months, and gearing back up when they got out. Ritchie had still been licking his lips in anticipation of punching the spike home. Likely he never even knew what hit him.
So there Casey was, all alone in the big city. New York isn’t so bad if you live there, isn’t so terrible if you know one or two people, and have a steady income. It was a little rougher if you have no job references, no support from home, no friends, and a drug habit besides. The dirty gray streets are cold and hard when you have to live in them. Casey had tried to make it work. She carried a sandwich board for a deli; she worked day jobs from the temp agencies. She might have made it by, but one day she decided that she could afford a small bag and the rent. It was a mistake. She was depressed and angry, alone, and upset. She couldn’t stop at a small bag. She wanted more. With Ritchie dead, she didn’t even have his temperance. While chastising herself and telling herself that she couldn’t do it, she also convinced herself that one or two more dollars wouldn’t matter. Pretty soon, she had one hell of a heroine hangover, and an empty kitty.
The streets were indeed cold and wet and hard. She knew of a few people who might be willing to let her stay. She knew it might mean more demeaning sex, but she was close to the end of her rope, and there isn’t a whole lot you can do to a desperate junkie to demean them any more than they already are, but she’d been turned away.
The man was still following her.
Casting a glance over her shoulder, she hurried to cross the street. She was almost run down by that natural predator, the New York taxicab. Cursing, she stumbled when the sheet of puddle-water was thrown over her, soaking her most thoroughly.
She sobbed to herself as she tried to thread her way through the unforgiving crowd. One man pushed her so hard she slammed against a parked car, setting off the alarm. The driver, who was just coming out of a porn theatre, slapped her hard, shouting in a language she had never heard. The side of her face was red and angry, her hip throbbed where the mirror on the expensive car had gouged her, and the man following behind her. She leaned against the dirty wall of the theater to composer herself, and looked him in the eye. There was a crowd. She should be safe in a crowd.
He stood under a street lamp. His hair was dark and slicked back by the rain. He smiled at her. His overcoat kept the water off the rest of his body, and she wished she could be as dry. Despite the relative safety of the crowd, she lost her nerve. She turned her back on the handsome stranger and hurried on.
The crowds on 142nd Street were thinning as she ran as fast as her feet would carry her. She was heading into the bad neighborhoods, but she didn’t care. She could only think of getting away from this man who was following her. She stopped by a set of stairs, leading down into an underground club; she felt the pulse of the bass through her feet. She gasped for breath as she looked back.
He was gone.
She sobbed in quiet desperation as the rain worsened. She knew she should just turn around. Maybe try to make it to Karla’s place. Just the floor, but at least it would be warm and dry, and well away from this place.
A hand brushed the hair from her cheek, and she screamed.
He stood next to her. He didn’t look dangerous. He looked a hale forty, maybe. He looked like an uncle she remembered from her happier life, before she’d grown up, gone to parties, and started smoking dope. Her voice stuck in her throat, caught on the sickness hooks that the rain and cold had planted there.
“Be at ease, child. I’m not going to harm you,” he said, in a soft voice. His accent was light and she couldn’t place it.
“W-what do you want?” She stammered, and backed up as far as she could, against the rail. He smiled at her again.
“Not much, to be sure. You are cold, and wet, and I thought I might be able to help.”
“Excuse me?” He seemed surprised.
“I’m not a hooker, mister, so forget it.”
He laughed. “You misunderstand me. I have a niece about your age, and I haven’t seen her for many years. I thought I might be able to help you, and thereby remember her.”
She’d heard stories before. You develop a high tolerance for bullshit in the city, especially when you were a single mistake away from the streets. You got all sorts of propositions, all sorts of crazy, disgusting men trying to get you to… do things. This sounded like a set-up.
“Look, just leave me alone, ok?” She looked around. There were no people on the street now. It was a bad place to be. The rain was getting heavier, and the streets were empty of everyone who had somewhere else to go. There wasn’t even a single smoker from the underground club hanging out near the bottom of the stairs.
“I assure you, I do wish to help. You’re cold, and wet, and hungry, no? We can go just up the street. There’s a small restaurant. We can get you warm and dry, and have a small meal. Would you like that?”
Casey was not stupid. Well, maybe she wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, but she was street smart, and prided herself on being so. But the lure of food and warmth were too much for her. The alternative was a twenty-mile hike through the rain-soaked city, because she didn’t have cab or bus fare.
“Well… okay. But don’t touch me. You try and I’ll scream and run. Got it?” She leveled what she hoped was a mean and threatening gaze at the man. He smiled, ducked his head to her and said, “I accept your terms. Shall we?” He gestured for her to follow, and led the way. She waited until he was two or three feet away and followed, trying to hug the buildings where the rain fell partway.
They made it to a small all-night cafeteria. He opened the door for her, but she did not want him behind her, and so she made him enter first. He smiled at her and went in. He took a booth by the window. She followed and sat across from him, tucking her legs well back from his legs, making sure they would not touch.
A waitress came over, limping. Casey looked down. She had one leg. She was walking on a peg leg with a shoe nailed to it. It did not look comfortable. She had stopped being amazed, frightened, or fascinated with the ways her fellow city dwellers suffered. She didn’t notice any more. She had developed that quintessential New York attitude: “Tough. I have my own problems.”
“We’ll have…” He looked at the young woman, shivering. “Any vegetable soup you might have, as well as a pot of coffee?” He looked at Casey, and she nodded. “Also, a pot of strong mint tea, please.” The waitress wrote it down, and waddled off.
“I don’t drink tea, mister,” Casey said. He laughed. “Perhaps not. However, I cannot drink coffee. I have a delicate stomach.”
“Oh,” she said, and looked at the table.
“What is your name?”
“Casey. Casey Henshaw.”
He gazed at her with a gentle smile and said nothing. She twitched around the eyes, and looked away, at the table.
A gloved hand, held out to her, broke her gaze. She looked up at him.
“My name is Merchant,” he said, pronouncing it in the traditional French. She shook with him. He let her go and folded his hands in front of him.
“Is that short for Cassandra?”
The girl nodded.
“How pleasing. Cassandra,” he said. “What brought you to such a state?” He gestured at her clothes and body beginning to steam as the warmth of the diner’s air enveloped her.
“Nobody calls me Cassandra. Everyone calls me Casey.”
“Is this the same everyone who isn’t here helping you right now?”
“Why do you care?”
“As I said, I have a niece, about your age, who looks in many ways similar to your own self, except that her hair was red and shorter. Nevertheless, you have similar facial structures. She moved here many years ago, and we have not heard from her in all that time. I despair of her. So I know what a dangerous place this city can be.”
Casey snorted through her nose. “You don’t look much like you have any of the same problems I do, Mister.”
“Okay, Merchant. You look like you have money, and you look like you have a nice place to live. When’s the last time you spent all night on the streets?”
Merchant nodded. “What you say is true. I am doing quite well. However, I do spend many nights on the streets. I like to walk. I like to see the life that fills this city. I like to hunt among the denizens of this blighted town…” He trailed off, lost in his own thoughts. His head cocked as though he were listening to something. “I sometimes look for her. I know it’s a futile gesture, but I cannot help myself.”
The soup came, and the coffee and tea. Thick mugs came with all three. Casey looked at Merchant with eyebrows raised. He smiled and said, “Help yourself, child. You look starved, and the warmth will do you good.”
She filled a mug with coffee and sugar, and sipped between it and the vegetable soup that, although bland, was hot and good. She was beginning to feel more herself than she had in a while.
Merchant filled the empty mug before him with tea. He slipped his gloves, expensive and brown, from his hands. They were narrow and strong, those hands. He wrapped them around the mug and smiled at the heat.
“Tell me the story of you, Cassandra, and leave nothing out.”
Casey sighed. She still wasn’t sure she trusted this guy. He was creepy, and reminded her of an old-time movie star, with his still speech, and careful, over-enunciated words. He was speaking in a low and pleasant voice to calm her and keep her off-guard. He was hypnotizing her.
She ate her soup and began to speak. It was simple, tragic, and avoidable. She had fought with her mother about rules and school, and being like most teens smarter than her elders, decided one afternoon to run off to the city with a boy she met, where life would be fun and there were no rules or parents, and everything went her way. Then things started not going her way. Finally, on the downside of a drug habit, no job, no prospects, she had hit close to bottom. She knew it wasn’t dead bottom, but she was sure if she squinted she was sure she could see bottom, and was eating soup with a creepy old guy maybe entertaining daddy/daughter fantasies.
Merchant laughed. “Dear girl, I can understand your reluctance to accept the kindness and warmth I offer. In your short time you have seen a narrow but accurate cross-section of life in this city. There are predators in every corner waiting to feast.”
“You talk like that guy who hosts those murder mysteries on PBS.”
“I learned diction and speech by private tutors across Europe while my parents traveled. They were very strict in my use of communication, and I’m afraid their exacting methods have been written into my personality. I shall never shed the formalized stylistic speech I learned as a boy.” He smiled at her. “It’s all, you realize, a way of saying I had tough teachers.”
With a full mouth, Casey said, “I never liked school. The teachers, they all hated me, had it out for me.”
Merchant nodded and gestured for her to continue. Sipping from the coffee mug, Casey continued to speak.
“They all wanted me to fail. They kept making me fail. My English teacher, Mrs. Staub, she would lose my papers and claim I never gave it to her…” she stopped. Looking at the table, she sighed.
“Whatever is the matter, my child?”
“N-nothing. It… well.” She looked into Merchant’s somehow caring and expressionless eyes. “It’s not true,” she whispered.
Cocking his head, Merchant said, “What do you mean?”
“I mean it isn’t true. I didn’t turn in my homework. I never did it. I never wanted to.” Casey felt inside a little better at this admission. It meant almost nothing now, years past, but it made her feel a little better to tell the truth even to a stranger.
“I was a brat,” she said. And meant it. Time makes it easier to accept your mistakes. “I always wanted my own way. Mom and dad always tried to give me things, but I always wanted more. Always deserved more. You know?”
Merchant nodded. The waitress limped over, and asked if they needed anything else.
Merchant eyed the young girl, her big brown eyes on the table… or rather on the menu lying to the side. In the faded laminated picture was a cheeseburger and fries, glossy and enticing. Merchant said, “Thank you, yes. She’ll have one of those delightful-looking hamburgers, with everything, and don’t skimp on the French fries, please.”
She was hungry beyond belief. The soup had sharpened the knife in her belly.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
They sat in silence, and once the burger arrived, Merchant raised his eyebrows when she disappeared it. “Do you need another one?”
“Oh… oh no. I wish I could! I mean I wish I could eat another one. It’s not always easy to get food, you know? I mean good food. Not spoiled, or half-eaten. But if I try, I’ll puke.”
“Well, let’s forgo the second helping for now, then. Would you like anything else?”
Casey shook her head. There was silence. Merchant gazed watched the girl, and she watched him right back.
She said, “What do you want?”
“And I don’t believe it, mister. Everyone wants something. Nobody takes nothing for what they give. Even I know that. So, you bought me dinner, which I needed, and you let me get warm, which I needed. Now what do you need?”
Merchant sighed. In a businesslike tone, he said, “You’re right, of course. I have an ulterior motive. You’re an attractive young lady and I want you to come home with me. I’ve paid for that much, at least. One meal; one night. How can you refuse? You’ll be sleeping on the street or worse, if you don’t take my offer. I have a room. Rooms. The Gramercy Park Hotel on Lexington is my home. You’ll never have stayed there, I suspect.”
“I knew it. I knew what you wanted. You think you can just buy the poor little girl with a meal and a smile. You’re sick, mister. Just a sick, dirty old man…”
She stumbled trying to stand. Casey slipped sideways off the seat and fell to the floor. The diner wavered as, exhausted, Casey tried to focus. Merchant was on his knee beside her. The waitress watched with a noted lack of interest from her corner seat, smoke from a cigarette curling around her tired eyes.
“Miss Henshaw, you don’t have much of a choice, do you? You’re tired, cold, broke, and one poor choice away from ending up in a dumpster dead.”
The look in Casey’s eyes made Merchant smile. The smile seemed delighted at her fear.
“No, my dear. I’m not going to kill you.” He cocked his head again like a cat hearing a faint, far-off sound. He shook his head, eyes closed, as though to dismiss errant thoughts. “But you need to realize I offer a much better answer than any you’ll find out there. After all, you’ve demeaned yourself for so long, what will one more night matter? Could I ask of you anything you haven’t already sold? I will take you home and bathe you; I will procure for you clothing and a doctor, should need it. You’re malnourished, I suspect, but a physical will not be amiss. And after I have had my fill of you, I will release you into the wilds of the city far more wealthy than you are now. Is that so terrible a bargain?”
A single tear wound down her cheek, leaving a clean track in the dirt around her eye. It was just another day. Casey felt the grit of the floor beneath her hands. Now she knew what the bottom felt like. The despair she felt was nothing to the realization that she was ready to sell herself. It is saddening to discover that we have a price, and that the price low.
She allowed Merchant to help her to her feet. She watched him remove a gold money clip from inside his coat. There were oa few small bills in it, most of them were hundreds. He took a ten from the outside of the bankroll and laid it on the table. He looked in the direction of the waitress who’d heard every word of Merchant’s speech. What she thought of it was on her face plain as day, but she said nothing. It was just another day in the city and it was none of her business.
Outside the diner, Merchant hailed a cab and gave the address. The cabbie refused to budge until Merchant showed him the money. Merchant wasn’t offended. Traveling all the way uptown was out of most of the local means.
Casey looked out the window and cried as the cab sped on its way.
Casey had expected him to press her for sex, and she had prepared herself to not argue, to make him believe she was eager and enjoying it. She had made up her mind to do so even as the cab was slowing in front of the old hotel. There were beautiful people dressed in gorgeous clothing entering and exiting the double doors held by doormen when the cab arrived that first night. She had held her breath as they approached.
They wouldn’t let her in, not looking so out of place. Not looking like a street girl. The men tipped their hats, murmured, “Evening, Mr. Merchant, miss.” They entered the lobby, which was a finer place than any she had ever seen. Everywhere; red velvet and brass and wood polished to a mirror gloss and satin finish. It was wonderful. There was an elevator man, a young man with a small cap on his head, and that young man tipped his cap.
“Sir, miss. Penthouse, Mr. Merchant?” Merchant nodded.
There were two rooms of suites at the top of the hotel. One to each side of the building: each comprised of seven rooms. A lavish kitchen and dining area, a sitting room, a dressing room for each bedroom, and two bedrooms: master and guest. Each bedroom also had a full bathroom, complete with a large tub.
Merchant had shown Casey to the smaller room, which was larger than any she had lived in, even at home. She undressed. She tried to make it sexy and provocative, but she was still a skinny, dirty girl with matted hair. When she was naked, she turned. Merchant was gone.
She found her way back to the sitting room, still naked. In the corner, by the window, sitting in the dark was Merchant, fingers folded before his chin. He didn’t seem to see her. He was looking out of the window at the city. She was embarrassed and all of her sexual provocateur brass fled. She stood with one hand over her breasts and one between her legs, in a parody of modesty. She stood that way for a long time, watching him not notice her.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Every night, I spend time at this window, just sitting. I like to contemplate the darkness. I like to watch the city. But whatever are you doing, dear girl?”
“I-I thought…” She didn’t know how to say it without sounding cheap.
“You thought what?”
“I have given you food, and drink, and a room to occupy. Take advantage of them, Miss Henshaw. You must be tired. Go to sleep.”
Casey was blushing, a deep red. She was confused and mortified. She started to turn, stopped, and backed out of the room. As she rounded the corner, Merchant’s smooth, dry voice followed her.
“Sleep well, Cassandra.”
And she did. She looked at her bed from the doorway, ran at it and rolled into it, pulling to top blanket over herself and was asleep in seconds.
Casey awoke at two in the afternoon, sunlight streaming into the room.
She smiled up at the ceiling. Stretching like a cat, She rolled over and over across the king-sized bed. Naked still, clad in a silk sheet, she padded around the suite. It was very large and very beautiful. There were heavy velvet drapes on the windows, and when drawn, all light was blocked. She opened them and stood on the iron and marble balcony, the breeze whipping the sheet around her body.
Impulsively, she dropped the sheet over the side and watched it sail away. At thirteen floors the hotel wasn’t very tall, but it was tall enough. She watched the sheet twirl over in the wind until it drifted out of sight. She imagined it sailing out to sea, puzzling the sea birds there.
Naked, she stood looking out at the park, a gash of green that bled into the city like an infected wound. She turned to go inside, but a flash of light caught her gaze. She squinted at the window of an adjacent building, and caught the eye of the man with binoculars staring at her.
Smiling, she waved gaily at the man, her small breasts bouncing. Turning on her heel, she reentered the suite and closed the glass door behind her. She drew the drapes over it. Her bathroom was enormous! She looked at the shower, and then the tub. She smiled in anticipation. She hadn’t had a bath in… oh… a year? Just showers, the tiny cubicles of cheap hotels, and terrible economy apartments. She let the tub fill, adding generous portions of bath salts and bubbles. Both were lined up with a dozen other bottles along the side of the tub, all new and unopened.
She washed the grime and bad feeling off her skin. Merchant hadn’t said so, but she’d been pretty ripe. That was probably why he hadn’t wanted her last night. She scrubbed and scrubbed. It felt so good to be clean again! She spent more than an hour, just soaking in the hot water. With a wistful sigh she drained the tub, turned on the shower, and rinsed off the remnants of the bath salts. She’d used too much, for it hadn’t dissolved. With luck, Merchant would let her try again before she left. She washed herself all over again, reveling in that curious freedom that a long-awaited shower imparts. Prepared and ready for the next step of the day. She dried herself off, brushed out her hair. She debated, took a deep breath, and then left her suite naked. May as well jump in with both feet.
He didn’t seem to be awake yet. She knocked on the door to his room, and there was no answer. She didn’t try the handle. Her stomach growled. She hesitated, and then padded into the kitchen. There was more than one way into a man’s bed.
It was well-stocked. She managed to make a decent meal of eggs and bacon, toast and cereal. Despite the good smells of a late breakfast permeating the air, Merchant never appeared. She ate by herself, both portions, and began to clear. As she cleaned up and did the dishes, she wondered about the unopened food. Every package in the kitchen was brand-new, just like everything in her bathroom, as if it purchased that morning.
She knew Merchant had snubbed her last night because of her appearance. Well, now she was bathed and glowing. She was clean and ready. She smiled to herself. She was naked, and she knew how she looked. She was skinny, but she was still pretty. No, she thought to herself. More than that! She was a girl and a half in every direction. Whatever he wanted, he had paid for and then some. A fleeting unwelcome thought presented itself, asking why she had accepted so low a price. He was clearly rich, he could afford what she asked. Something more substantial than a cheap dinner, bath, and clean bed. She pushed the thought from her mind. A deal was a deal. She’d accepted. Besides, although she felt wonderful this particular morning, she hadn’t quite managed to forget how low she had been the night before. It was a fair price he had offered, and she had accepted. Whatever else she might have become, she was a woman of her word, even now.
The entrance door of the suite opening interrupted her thoughts. He must have gone out somewhere! That’s why he didn’t come out this afternoon, or answer her knocks. He must have had somewhere to go. But he was back now. She relaxed against the counter, crossing her legs and thrusting her chest out. Merchant was sure to be ready this morning, and she was not going to disappoint. The view from the balcony alone was worth everything she had!
In strode a smallish woman, dark-skinned and old. Her huge glasses reflected light as she looked over at Casey. The woman nodded, said in a matronly voice, “Miss,” and took off her coat. She went to the closet and hung her coat. She reentered the kitchen and looked Casey up and down, from blush to toes, lowering her glasses to the end of her button nose. Muttering in a foreign language, she stepped closer. Casey, riveted to the spot, met the older woman’s amused stare.
Smiling, the woman patted Casey on the cheek. “You will want to go get changed, I suspect, dear,” she said. “When the Master rises for the night, he’ll want to go out. You’d best be ready. Did you not find the clothes I picked out for you?” She brushed past Casey, and gave her a little swat on the bottom. “Off now! I have work to do!”
With a tiny yelp, Casey moved like a horse spooked. The old woman chuckled, and said, “If you need anything, just call. My name is Lettie. I’m Master Merchant’s housekeeper.”
“Oh!” Casey said. “I’m…” And she stopped.
She realized that she wanted to introduce herself to this nice old woman with her proper name. It seemed the polite thing to do. As Merchant was a formal, mannered man, and his housekeeper seemed just as mannered, in an informal way. So she said, “Casey Henshaw. Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Lettie.”
Lettie smiled at her. “Just Lettie. Likewise, I’m sure. Off you go. I’ve chores.”
She went back to her room. After closing the door she stood, still naked, before the mirror. The dirty, stiff clothing she had been wearing for days awaited her on the floor of the bathroom. She felt so clean and smooth, so nice that she did not want to put them back on. However, she couldn’t walk around naked all day and night, especially if they went out. Oh, well. Nothing for it. She started for the bathroom.
She could not find her clothes. Her purse was still on the dresser, but the clothes were gone. She spun in place, noticed and tried the closet door. She went to it, and let in light on a selection of very beautiful dresses. Winter dresses in winter colors. She oohed to herself. Lettie chose that moment to bustle into the room, her arms full of towels. She stopped to appraise Casey again.
“Have you a personal grudge against dress, young lady?” she said with a hint of a smile, and broad suggestion of disapproval.
Casey gritted her teeth and resisted an urge to cover herself. Brass got her through tough situations and she fell back on it now. She even threw a hand on her hip, threw that hip toward the door, and grinned.
“Well, maybe Mr. Merchant will like me better this way.”
All the fun drained from Lettie’s face. Shaking her head, she pointed at the closet, and headed into the bathroom. Casey dropped the hand and stood where she was. Lettie seemed nice and Casey had just made her angry. She resolved to shut up.
Lettie cleaned up the bathroom while Casey looked at each dress. There were eight of them. The old woman came out of the bathroom, and looked at her. She clicked her tongue. “Well, don’t just admire them, child, dresses are meant to be worn.”
“Are they my size?”
“How are you going to wear clothes that aren’t your size, dear?” It seemed a reasonable question, as though this were a reasonable situation.
Lettie shook her head. “I’m very good with sizes. It wasn’t hard. The hard part was finding proper dresses for a proper young lady. Today’s fashions…” Another tongue click.
“I… I’m not sure which one I should wear. They’re all so beautiful.” She was out of sorts, and it wouldn’t occur to her until later to wonder when Lettie would have had time to shop for her, with her sizes.
“Well, start at the beginning. Work your way through.”
“How many times can I change in one day?”
Lettie looked over her glasses at Casey again. “One day?”
Casey just looked back at her. Lettie smiled a knowing smile.
“I see… the Master didn’t explain anything to you, did he?”
“We call him that. It’s a touch of English one of the butlers brought with him and it stuck. In England, butlers often call their bosses ‘master’. It’s a term of respect and affection. There was a man… what was his name?” Lettie stared at the ceiling for a second. “That’s it. Delaney. Can’t think how I forgot. Had this cat…” She shook herself from the reverie.
“Another time for stories. First, let’s get you dressed. You must be cold.”
Casey reached for a dress, but Lettie clucked.
“Dear… you haven’t any undergarments. Honestly. Someone should be given a stern talking-to for neglecting your basic education. Try the top drawer.” While Casey went to see, Lettie took the dress she had selected from the cedar hangar. She laid it on the bed, and then helped Casey with the complicated-looking lingerie. Stockings, underwear, and a small lace belt with little clips to hold up the stockings, which were white.
At last she was in the dress. It was rose, and had complimentary shoes, which accented her feet, encased as they were in the hosiery.
Lettie even helped her with her hair, arranging it in seeming-careless piles upon her head. The effect lent length to her neck, and highlighted her dark eyes. Lettie smiled.
“Now that’s a sight better than being naked, I should say,” she smiled at Casey. “Now I’ve other work to do. If you’ll excuse me, miss.”
Lettie made it all the way out of the room before Casey managed to thank the woman.
“Tut, child, it’s my job.”
Casey roamed from room to room. She discovered a large television in the central living area, disguised by an ornate cabinet, and she amused herself with vapid game shows and vapid talk shows and vapid news reports while she waited for Merchant to rise. Lettie served her a light lunch at one o’clock. After the meal, she was washing her hands in her bathroom sink, when the shakes started. She looked up into her own eyes. The craving. That old ache. She hadn’t scored yesterday. She might not score today. Her throat was dry at the thought of the shakes and the sickness that would follow these minor tremors.
She sat back down on the couch in front of the television, and tried to think. She was sweating as fear over took her. Well, it wasn’t like he didn’t know she was a junkie. Her habit wasn’t big, sure, but it was still a habit. She still wanted that push. He hadn’t given her any money yet. She glanced over at his door often, and her legs began to jitter. Time crawled by.
At five thirty, Lettie was packing up her belongings. She nodded at Casey from the door.
“You’ll be having dinner with the Master, I expect. Enjoy your evening, child. I’ll see you in the morning.
“Goodbye, Mrs. Lettie.”
At six o’clock on the nose, Merchant appeared from his room. He was dressed in a dark grey suit, complete with tie and waistcoat strung with a gold watch chain. Casey hadn’t heard his door. She bounced up from the couch, shutting the television off in the middle of a game show.
“Good evening, Cassandra. You look lovely.” He bent over her hand and kissed it.
“T-thank you, Mr. Merchant.”
He looked up at her.
“No worries, my dear. I trust Lettie attended your needs today?”
“Lettie? Oh! Yes. She was very nice to me.”
“Good.” He looked her up and down. “You do indeed look pleasing, Cassandra.”
Casey acknowledged the compliment with a wan smile. Merchant’s brow furrowed.
“Is there a problem?”
“How come you never come out of your room?”
“But I do, as you can see.”
“No… I mean… you brought me here in the middle of the night, and slept all day. And you did the same thing last night.”
“Ah. I wasn’t sleeping. I was waiting for the sun to set.”
Merchant sat and folded his hands on his knees. He gazed out the window at the city, bathed in the dying light of the day.
“I have a rare condition. It is a skin condition called porphyria. I cannot abide the sunlight upon my skin. It is painful and dangerous to me. I am allergic to the ultraviolet spectrum of sunlight.”
Cassandra looked at him with an expression that seemed to say ‘pull the other one, make it even, at least’.
“It has to do with my bloodline. I inherited the allergy, much like some children inherit blue eyes or a particular anatomical shape.”
“Yes. My room is blacked out, allowing me to rest while the sun is out without fear of the light.”
Cassandra didn’t know whether or not to believe what he said. Merchant saw this.
“Come with me,” he said. She got up to follow, as he led her into the kitchen, which faced to the west. The last few shafts of sunlight played on the far wall from the window at shoulder height. He held out his hand to her. It was smooth, clean, and undamaged.
He approached the window and held up his hand. For a moment, nothing happened. Then, with a suddenness that made her gasp, Cassandra could see the blisters rising on the back of his hand. He held his hand in the light as they grew in size and number, until Cassandra jerked his hand out of the light. She cradled it in her hands, watching as the blisters broke and began leaking clear fluid
“Holy cow! Merchant!”
Merchant pointed to a small cabinet; inside she found gauze and tape and burn ointment. She busied herself trying to dress the wound. Merchant watched, studying her. Soon she’d applied a fair bandage; he could feel the coolness of the ointment on his skin.
“And so, I am a night creature. Now you know why I avoid the sun. For me, the sun is pain and death.”
“I guess so. I’m sorry I doubted you.”
“Worry not, Cassandra. I know how unusual my condition, and how skeptical people are. I would have demanded proof as well. That you didn’t take my word is of more interest to me. You insist on seeing for yourself.”
“Well… yeah. Anyone who takes the word but fails to follow up gets what’s coming to them.”
“I can hear the wisdom of your father in your words.”
“Yes,” she said, smiling. “That’s one of daddy’s. He had a bottomless supply of good sayings.”
“So it would seem.”
They proceeded back into the large main room, whose large heavy curtains made so much more sense to her now. Reseated, Merchant again gazed out upon the city, waiting, is seemed, for full dark.
Cassandra sat across from him, not watching the city, but watching his face.
An hour passed.
In exasperation, Cassandra flung herself up, grunting in relief.
“How do you sit so still?”
Merchant smiled. “Years of practice.” His head twitched in that manner he had. Merchant always seemed to be listening to something. It was as though he were having a conversation she could not see. She thought he was unaware that he was even doing it. Besides, the quirk gave him a little humanity. He was always so distant and so formal with her that it was nice to know he was normal.
She bit her lower lip and decided it was past time to ask him. She started to feel sick. Casey tried hard not to raise her voice.
“I… can I have some money now?”
Merchant sat watching the stars come out.
“What do you need money for, Cassandra?” His voice was world-weary. He seemed tired. What would it be? Family? Friends? Rent? What poor excuse would she use, when he could see her need standing out on her face like new rain on the sidewalk.
She was honest, at least. She surprised him, as she had been doing since he first began watching her. She was unpredictable. He thought of something he’d seen her do. The incident that came to mind was a night months prior. She had been coming out of a seedy club on West Ninth. She had turned on a group of three men, all drunk, who were harassing her. She slapped the first one so hard the gentleman went down. In the confusion, she kicked a second between the legs and jammed her thumb into the third man’s eye. Then, to the amazement of the crowd that had gathered, and the Merchant’s delight, she strolled away instead of running. That kind of moxie made him laugh aloud. It wasn’t her willingness to attack when threatened that impressed him. It was her knowing that form is as important as function. Having laid out three men, she couldn’t then belie her fear by running. That same flash of steel kept her from lying to him.
“Heroin. Twenty or thirty dollars will get me a taste and that’s all I need, just a taste, I promise. I’m not backing out, I’m just-”
He held up a hand. “Calm down, dear. I understand why you need the money. I gave my word to do just that. But I would instead like you to listen to an offer.”
Merchant was somber. “Yes, another one. Please?” He gestured to the chair opposite him, a smaller version of his luxurious one. She sat gracelessly.
Merchant gathered his thoughts for a few moments, and then said to her:
“I understand your need, Cassandra. I understand that burning, desperate desire within you for this drug. I know.” Casey was shaking her head, but his next words pierced her selfish denials.
“Cassandra… I lost everything to my addiction. I lost my family, my friends, and my fortune. I lost my homeland and my love. I lost… everything that made my world worth living. I didn’t care. I didn’t fight it. I leaped into the arms of my drug.” She could see his eyes, empty and sad, and she reflected that his eyes looked like her soul felt when she was high. Hollowed out, scoured of goodness and life.
“I would have done… I did do… anything. Everything. I had no remorse. I had no pity, nor compassion. I hurt people. I was ashamed, and I still did it. I sacrificed everything for it. I lost everything. I almost lost myself. I did lose myself.” He stared into space for a moment. “When I managed to pull myself back from that edge, I was changed. I made myself change. It… it wasn’t easy. And there were… consequences. Things I will have to live with. At any rate, I managed to overcome my addiction. It took time, will, and help. I freed myself of my dreadful need.” He shook his head.
“My offer is this: I will help you. I will keep you safe and help you conquer your addiction. Our original agreement is by no means dependent upon your taking this offer. If you choose not to accept my help, our original contract stands. I shall give you a sum of money and let you on your way when I’ve finished with you. I will not recant my word. My word is a binding contract to me. All I ask is that you try. If you do not think that you can do that, if you’re too far gone, or you don’t want to beat your habit, then leave. I release you of every and any obligation. But if you are to stay, you must be willing to try. Do not tell me you will if you have the slightest intention of reneging your word. I will not tolerate it. I would rather we sever our relationship right now than bother wasting my precious time on someone who is happier on drugs than off. I may be a little melodramatic, but I am very serious, Cassandra. I will help you free yourself, but you must want to try. Do you want to try?”
She swallowed hard.
“It’s a nice offer, Merchant… but really… all I’m giving up is some money and food and a nice place to stay. You make it sound like I’d be giving up… I don’t know what. What are you offering? What can you offer that I can’t get elsewhere? In rehab, or somewhere.”
“A reasonable question. First, I can offer you money. I have millions. Many. If you allow me to help you, I will of course do something to assure your financial future. Not for the rest of your life, but well enough to allow you to decide how you want the rest of your life to go. I will give you money enough to take your time deciding, and enough money to reach whatever goal you desire, be that education or starting a business. Second, I am offering you self respect. Few are the souls who redeem themselves without help, Cassandra. I made a vow, a long time ago, that I would use my second chance to help others. That I would use my resources to lead others to the peace and happiness I have found. Believe me, my dear, I do want to help you for my own sake. Every soul I save is another soul not damned. It is a cause I believe in.”
“There have been others? Other women?” Not sure why, Casey felt an irrational stab of jealousy.
“There have, in fact. Not many. I have extended this offer to a few, and most of them took the arrangement. All but two of those followed through. In you, I have another opportunity to save someone less fortunate than I. And in this case, my dear, I don’t mind saying, I have a somewhat less than altruistic reasoning behind my offer.”
She looked puzzled. “An…”
“Altruistic. It means concern for the welfare of others, and is a notable virtue. My way of stating that I have a selfish motive for offering, not just a selfless one.”
“I am already very fond of you, Cassandra. I do not wish to turn you out of my home. I will, make no mistake… if you give me your word of honor and failed to try to live up to that promise, then we will be through. I would regret it, but I would still turn you out. I can help you change your life. Please accept.”
Casey didn’t say anything. She stared at Merchant until she couldn’t bear to look him in the eyes any longer. She looked at the floor. He didn’t say anything. She couldn’t even hear him breathe.
Almost twenty minutes went by before she looked up at him again. She was crying.
“Yes.” Her voice was a whisper, and it was shaking along with her body, as she began to sob. But she had to say no more, for he was at her side, an arm around her shoulders, cradling him to her. She sobbed. She sobbed for her lost innocence, for her lost time, for everything she had traded for her drugs, for her life. She sobbed and he let her.
“Your word, then?”
“Because it is important to me. Because when you give me your word, you’re telling me that on your soul you’ll try to keep it. That you would rather die than break it.”
Cassandra looked at merchant for so long, he thought she was going to take back her whispered word. But instead, she said, “My dad told me once that your word is a check you write for account on your dignity. Breaking your word is the same as bouncing a check at a bank. You do that, the bank won’t trust you, and pretty soon, your checks are worthless. Same with your word. Break your word, and it’s worthless too.”
“I find poetry in that statement. Your father sounds wise.”
“He is. He’s a professor. He’s the smartest man I know.”
“It’s going to be hard?”
“It won’t be easy. Have you never tried to break your habit before?”
“No. I never had a good reason. Until Ritchie, and losing the apartment. I was doing fine.”
He said, “It will not be easy, but I will be here. I have a doctor that I use in such matters, and he will be discrete and careful. He’ll give you a most thorough examination before we begin anything. I will send for him at once.”
“B-but it’s night-time,” she said in a small voice. “What doctor…?”
“You needn’t worry about that, or any other mundane detail. I shall arrange everything. Have you eaten?”
She shook her head. “No. Mrs… Lettie said that you would want to go out.”
“If you feel up to it, I would indeed. It is in your hands. If you feel that you aren’t up to a public outing, I’ll arrange food to be brought here. I myself do not cook. I’ve the time and patience, but not the knack.”
She said, “I’m not sure if I should eat. If I’m going to… if the doctor gives me stuff to help… won’t I sick it up? The drugs they give you to get you off… they make you puke, don’t they? I heard that somewhere.”
“Perhaps. We’ll have to see what he says. Wait here for a moment, while I make a call.” He rose, considered her, and sank again to his knee, bringing their eyes level.
“Cassandra… this is a serious undertaking, and a difficult one. But I know that you can do this. If you didn’t have the steel, you wouldn’t have agreed. I sense that about you. You’ve always kept your word, always kept your promises, haven’t you?”
“That is all the collateral I require.”
“I thought so. It was one of the things that attracted me to you. Be patient, I shall return.”
With that he rose, and it looked to her like a flower unfolding. He pulled his chamber door closed after him. There was no sound from behind it while Casey cried, arms wrapped around her legs, staring out of the window into the heart of the city.
Before long, Merchant emerged from his room, and took his seat beside her again.
“Doctor Allen will be along. He’s got to travel here from the school of medicine. He’s a dean there, and has been a close friend for many years. He works very late on campus. I believe he’s eager for an excuse to slip away. He is also schooled in the most recent techniques and theory concerning drug rehabilitation.” He smiled at her. “He also suggested you not eat until he examines you, but I have taken the liberty of ordering from a local restaurant a selection of light fare. In the eventuality of your being able to dine.”
She nodded at him, eyes still brimming with tears.
“I understand that you’re scared. You have my word, my promise, that it will be all right. I won’t let harm come to you, Cassandra. On that, you can rely.”
“Okay. I-I believe you. I’m just…” She trailed off. It wasn’t something she could explain. Merchant said, “I understand.” She believed him.
They sat in front of the window for almost an hour, until the intercom chimed. Merchant rose, and answered the doorman in a pleasant voice, giving permission for the doctor to be allowed up to the penthouse.
Moments later, the doorbell chimed, and Merchant opened it, letting in a tall, older man with graying hair and glasses. Behind him came the porter, with Merchant’s food orders. He showed the porter to the kitchen while the doctor came to Casey and introduced himself.
“Doctor Paul Allen,” he said in an affable, professional tone. She took his hand and gave a decent smile. After Merchant showed out the porter, He returned to them and sat.
“Okay, I was told to bring a full kit for examinations and blood work, as well as other tests.” He inclined his head at Merchant. “Our friend here was quite emphatic on that point. He wants me to give you a very thorough going-over. First, I’m going to ask you some questions, and get your medical history. Some of the questions are going to be… frank. But I assure you, they go no further than myself. Ethics aside, I’m being well-paid for my services, and one of my standard stipulations is that I couldn’t care less what you’ve done, or with whom, or how legal or illegal it is. My
goal is to get you healthy. Understood?”
“Can you be completely honest with me?”
“I think so. I’ll try.”
“Good girl. Do you want to be in private, or…?”
“No. He’ll find out everything anyhow. He’ll either ask, or I’ll tell him. It’s easier if he’s here.”
“I’m going to do a complete physical, too. Are you shy?”
Casey smiled. “That’s not one of my problems.”
“All right.” Allen clapped his pudgy hands. “Let’s get started, then. Over here, I think,” he said, moving into the center of the room. He put his bag, which Casey was surprised to see was black leather, on the antique coffee table. She thought that was just a television thing.
“Remove your clothing, please. You can do that in your room and get a sheet, if you need to.”
She debated. What would Merchant do? She decided that he would be dignified, in an undignified situation. So she would be, too.
“I’ll return, Doctor. Please excuse me, gentlemen.” She stood up. Merchant stood with her. He looked bemused, but she thought she saw a hint of approval. She walked into her room and closed the door.
Allen looked at Merchant and raised his eyebrows.
“Yes?” Merchant said. his tone was easy, easier than with Casey. He and Allen had been friends since Allen’s residency, at London Charity Hospital.
“Another project, Merchant?”
“Meaning?” Merchant’s eyebrow lifted.
“Nothing. Nothing at all,” Allen said, grinning at the other man. Merchant smiled and said nothing more.