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The Best of 2013

The Afternoon Circle Jerk Society
by Amanda Earl

Beating the Gothic Out of Her
by Amanda Earl

Real Irish
by Amanda Earl

Mercy and the Man. . .
by Amanda Earl

The Revenant
by Amanda Earl

The Vessel
by Amanda Earl

The Too Beautiful Boy
by Arthur Chappell

The Accidental Fetish
by Corvidae

Never For Punishment
by Daddy X

Like a Brother
by Big Ed Magusson

Old Dogs
by Big Ed Magusson

Goodbye Roger
by Huck Pilgrim

He Sends His Regrets
by Huck Pilgrim

A Small Favor
by Huck Pilgrim

Ava's Honey
by john e

LOX
by john e

Eclipse Sex
by Oxartes

Adam and Eve on a Raft
by Robert Buckley

Dead Man's Switch
by Robert Buckley

Does Immortality come with a Pension?
by Robert Buckley

Embraceable Ewe
by Robert Buckley

A Fragile Desire
by Robert Buckley

Surviving Winter
by Robert Buckley

You're the Only One
by Robert Buckley

Dissolve
by Sybil Rush

Bing Cherry Silk
by Valentine Bonnaire

Colony, Collapsed
by Valentine Bonnaire

Have a Nice Day
by Valentine Bonnaire

l'heure bleue
by Valentine Bonnaire

Once Upon A Time . . .
by Valentine Bonnaire

Red Suede
by Valentine Bonnaire

Yellow, like the daffodils
by Valentine Bonnaire

Novelette

Invisible Lines
by Raziel Moore



Archives

By Alan
Curtain
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By Alice Gray
Slick 50
The Fourth Veda
Stolen Hour


By Amanda Earl
Daddy Complex
The Graffiti Artist
Sex With An Old Woman
The Vampire Responds


By Ann Regentin
What Never Dies
Newborn
Remembering
Surrender


By Big Ed Magusson
The Fix
Methadone


By Brady Sutton
Girls for Leash
The Peculiar Case of...


by C. Sanchez-Garcia
An Early Winter Train
The Doll
The Lady and The Unicorn
Riding the Dog
Fidelis


By Cervo
An Evening At...
Readiness Is All
Chinchilla Lace
Fridays At The Benoit
Cruising On A Sea...
Bitsy Takes a Test
Touring Persephone
Are You Kidding?
Quigley’s Harvest
Mr. Merridawn's Hum
Angels’ Spawn


By Cherry Black
Mrs. Priestly
Face Down
Just A Simple Black Dress


By Chris Bridges
Second-hand
Fast-forwarding
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Passing Notes


By Daddy X
Nikki Didn't Like It
Overscratch
A Woman in My Position


By Dominic Santi
Drillers
Kiss of Peace


By G. E. Russell
Judgement Day
Nebulous
First Love, Last Romance
Snow White
This Desolate Eden
The Glass Cage
You Like It Like That...


By Helen E. H. Madden
When The Angels Fall
Husbands and Wives
The Fifth Horseman
The Monster Beneath...
Neighbor of the Beast
Over the Rainbow
Going Viral
Virtual Love


By Helena Settimana
Balance
Highway 69
Amadou
The Space Between


By J.T. Benjamin
The Question
Thornburg Sex Survey
Alternating Weekend
Secret Lives and Lusts
What are Friends For
Olivia's Ulterior Motive
Advice From Miss Millicent
The Baby Doll
The Journals of Chastity
Use Me
Zachary's Perfect Date


By Jill
Kidnapped
Sheila Discusses ...
It's About Sex
A House On Fire?
Maureen and Sheila...


By john e
I Wish My Dick...
johnny's jackoff journal
Saturday Morning


By Julius
In Praise of Pussy
Tight, Tighter, Tightest
You Rang Madam?
The Newcomer


By Juniper Maclay
Lunch Break
The Scientist
Public Transportation


By Keziah Hill
Laying Down the Law
Strawberry Flavoured Joy
The Second Coming
Angel
Dutch Masters


By L.A. Smith
Missionary Position
Both Hands


By Lara Nickles
Almost
Hero


By Lilie Berlin
Naughty Little Girl
Color Less Ordinary


By Mike Kimera
Kneading
Soft Option
At the Adult Bookstore
Postcard
Playing With Barney
Deserving Ruth
Till Death Do Us Part
Happy Anniversary
Mating Calls
It May Not be Art...
Living With It...
The Last Taboo
Hand-Jobs
Fucking Ugly
Paying For It
Sex with Owen
Ask Alice
The Sisters
Bar Snack

Excess Of Light
by Robert Buckley © 2007



1873

He stood in the midst of the prairie, the vast plain expanding without feature toward the horizons, beyond the limits of sight. In such a place a man—no matter how small he made himself—could not escape the eye of God.

A sensation, familiar, nauseating—like a needle boring into his brain, brought him hurtling back along a dark tunnel toward wakefulness. It was his uncanny ability to know he was being watched, bracketed within someone's frame of sight. A gift? It had preserved his life many times, and inevitably ensured the taking of another.

Fully awake now, but continuing to feign sleep, he lifted the lid of one eye. Once he assessed the intruder, he released a long, relaxed sigh, and greeted the rat standing on its hind legs in the corner of the room, its forepaws held out in a gesture of supplication.

"Nothing here for you, bub. The cupboard's bare."

The rat twitched its nose, then disappeared through a slot between the floor and the wall.

He rolled over on the flimsy cot, and tried to go back to sleep, resigned to return to his dream of the prairie, but it was not to be.

A hard rap at the door was followed by Flannery's high, gravelly whine. "Fitz! Fitz, ya sleeping beauty, ya. Get up and get yourself to work. The bar's in Sweeney's hands—God help us. He'll drink me bankrupt if he's left by himself for long."

Flannery was in the room before Fitz flung his legs over the cot and sat up.

"Why in hell did you leave Sweeney by himself?"

"You've slept through the entire day—it's past time to begin your shift."

"Damn—I'm sleeping too much."

"Escaping into your dreams, are you, bucko? Perhaps you've availed yourself of the chinaman's pipe?"

"My dreams aren't anything to escape to. I'd gladly trade them for pure oblivion."

"Soon enough, boyo—soon enough for all of us."

Fitz stood and splashed water onto his face from a bowl set on a rude stand in the corner.

"I need to visit the necessary."

"You'll take your relief along the way—in the alley if you need to. Sweeney's apt to have drowned himself draining a keg by now."

Fitz pushed his bowler onto his head and lifted his jacket over his shoulder. He followed Flannery to the door, but the old man stopped at the threshold.

"Well, it's about time you boys showed up," he bellowed into the hallway. "A good thing it's still winter or she'd be gone ripe by now."

"Aw, don't be crushing my stones," a voice gargled back. "We're full up as it is. We'll have the devil's time trying to wedge her in—good thing she's a skinny thing."

Fitz stepped around Flannery to regard the city employees earning their bread. They leaned precariously on the narrow stairs looking about to topple their charge out of the stretcher they bore. A blaze of orange-red curls emerged from the top of the dirty gray blanket covering her. A tiny pale hand hung lifeless from the edge.

Fitz reached for the hem and began to pull it down, hesitated, then left the face covered.

"Who ... who is it?"

"The lass that lived on the top floor," Flannery said, with just enough pity in his voice as was warranted. "I found her hanging from the rafter this morning."

Fitz took the lifeless hand in his own and delicately placed it under the blanket.

"Was she anything to ya, Fitz?"

"Huh? Uh, no. Didn't know her at all, save to nod hello."

"Ah, well, I expected it—after the diphtheria took the two kids. She owed me three weeks rent, she did."

"And I'm sure you searched for it before you cut her down."

"Aye, I did that. But there wasn't a penny to be found, and nothing worth selling, even to the rag man. I'm too charitable, I tell ya. It'll be me undoing one day."

"Ah, for sure, you're a genuine saint, Flannery."

"Get her out of here, boys," Flannery exhorted the dead wagon crew. "The city will give her a proper burial out in the potter's field."

They gingerly made their way down to the door and out onto the stoop.

Flannery turned to Fitz. "Now, get the hell over to the bar. Sweeney will be the one who'll be sainted; he'll be so pickled he'll never corrupt and the Vatican'll have no choice but to induct him into the ranks of Augustine."

Fitz stepped out into the gray March twilight as the dead wagon pulled away. His thoughts turned to the small red-haired girl, and he nearly stumbled over a child playing beside a mud puddle. Something that resembled a long-dead pig lay a few feet from her. A freight wagon passed in front of him, its pair of draught horses discharged their own cargo of shit into the stew of mud and swill.

His bladder was bursting. He could have made his water right in the street and no one would have objected, but he ducked into the alley, leaned up against the side of the tavern and released his cock from its confines. He sighed in relief as steam rose from the place where his stream christened the wall.

"Let me coddle that fine pecker in me mouth for ya, darlin'"

Fitz recognized the voice and grinned. "No thanks, Mother. It's drained well enough for now."

The woman shrugged and stepped behind him as he fixed his trousers. He smiled again. Old Mother Gummer—making a fair living on giving toothless sucks—seemed to appear like a magician whenever and wherever a cock needed attention. She charged two bits.

He'd never availed himself, but he had to admit he was curious what it felt like.

He kicked the mire from his shoes and entered the barroom. Sweeney's head popped up, his eyes wide and guilty.

"How much did you drink, shite gobbeen?"

Sweeney looked ancient; his stiff nest of gray hair coiled and fell over his bushy eyebrows. His cheeks caved in around a mouth that was mostly toothless. He was only 30.

"The bung come loose—honest. I just caught the spillage in me mouth."

"What—were you planning to put it back?"

Sweeney shrugged.

"Get out of the way."

Sweeney positioned himself at the end of the bar, set to collect glasses and wipe up the occasional pool of puke or blood. Fitz assayed the patrons. There were eight souls, barely conscious, nursing beers. They would be crowded out soon enough by tradesmen finishing up their day, and sailors.

Fitz kept an eye out for trouble. Flannery kept a stout club behind the bar, along with a leather sap. A double-shot derringer was also hidden within reach.

Men piled in and scuffed their muddy feet on the floor strewn with sawdust. Cards and games of chance were played and voices raised. The players waved off the cadgers like so many flies.

The bar became louder as hands were won and lost. The reek of cheap liquor rose with the smell of unwashed men.

Fitz felt the needle. He scanned the room like an owl and found his man. He was dressed too well for this dump. His face was darkly bearded; the brim of a burgundy velvet bowler shaded his eyes. But Fitz saw their glint. He wore a three-quarter gambler's coat of the same shade as the bowler.

The stranger took a half step toward the bar.

"Holy Christ—watch out!"

Fitz's eyes shifted from the man to a solitary sailor sitting at a table against the far wall. The man was making some kind of speech and waving a pistol in a circle above his head.

Fitz didn't understand his words.

"He's a Swede!" someone shouted.

Fitz hopped over the bar and stepped toward the sailor. The man held a piece of paper under one hand as he aimlessly swung the gun in the other.

"All right, sailor. Nobody wants trouble—put the pistol down and I'll buy you a drink."

The sailor looked straight into Fitz's eyes. He said something—a question perhaps. Fitz couldn't understand.

Then he put the pistol to his temple and fired.

"Christ!"

The room went silent, but just for a moment. Fitz had to kick away the cadgers before they rifled the man's pockets.

"Anyone know this man?" Fitz demanded. No one answered.

He turned to Sweeney. "Get ahold of the night watch copper."

Blood pooled over the floor.

"Give a hand—carry him into the closet. Damned dead wagon won't pick him up 'til morning." Four men stepped forward to carry the body to a side room.

A negro boy appeared out of nowhere and sopped up the blood with handfuls of rags. Fitz tossed him a five-cent piece.

Sweeney brought the cop back with him. He went through the man's pockets. Fitz gave him the letter the man had held.

The cop shrugged. "I don't know what it says."

The tavern had already returned to life with the corpse stowed away out of sight. Fitz found the man with the velvet bowler leaning on the bar.

"What can I get you?"

"You are Fitz? Mr. Henry Fitz?" His voice was lightly accented, but Fitz couldn't place it.

"Who wants to know?"

"I am to take you to meet Major Foster."

Could he mean Horace Foster? What the hell was this about?

Fitz feigned disinterest. He turned his back to the man to replace a bottle.

"And why should I want to meet Major Foster?"

"You could earn a great deal of money."

Fitz looked over the man and noted his expensive shoes. "Do you work for him?"

"Yes."

"Uh-huh. What does Major Foster want with me?"

"I am not at liberty to discuss. You will come now?"

"I'm working—won't be free until maybe 2 in the morning."

The man nodded stiffly. "I will wait."

"Suit yourself. Drink?"

"Whiskey."

*                *                *


Flannery came by before closing to collect the nights' take.

Fitz apprised him of the nameless Swedish sailor who temporarily resided in the closet. But Flannery's curiosity centered on the man with the velvet bowler.

"Don't know who he is," Fitz said. "He wants me to meet Major Foster this morning."

"Horace Foster? Since when are swells inviting the likes of you to breakfast?"

Fitz shrugged. "You keep up with the society pages, what can you tell me about Foster?"

"He's rich—what else is there to know?"

Fitz folded his arms, cocked one brow and waited. Flannery loved gossip.

"Awright, then. He's got one kid—son and heir, and from what I hear, a nancy. His old man has had to bail him out of quite a few peccadilloes involving other young men. So the major made him marry. I think the girl was a Pickman. Somebody got her with child."

"Somebody?"

"They said the child died soon after birth, but the dirt is, the major didn't think it was his own grandchild, meaning, it wasn't his son's child. Of course, since the boy's a nance ..." Flannery shrugged.

"Doesn't explain why he wants to talk to me."

"Like it or not, boy, you have a reputation ... in some circles."

"Not in the kinds of circles Foster moves in."

"Sometimes, boyo, stars cross and circles overlap."

"Truly, Flannery, you're a proper sage, you are."

Flannery grinned. "And you're like the son I never wanted."

"Christ help me."

Fitz signaled to the man with the velvet bowler. "Let's be off."

*                *                *


Fitz left Flannery to close up and followed his well-dressed companion outside. A small carriage appeared out of the shadows. The man entered it and gestured to Fitz to join him.

They rode in silence as the smells of the city receded. Clean air—it made Fitz uneasy.

Fitz thought they had traveled an hour when he heard the driver call out. Another voice answered and he heard a gate open with a metallic groan. Fitz ventured a peek outside the carriage. A mansion, in the new French style, loomed in the early morning gloom. The footfalls of the horse gnashed against crushed stone, then the carriage stopped.

A footman opened the door for Fitz and he stepped out. His mute companion followed and gestured to him.

They entered a grand hall, all gilded curtains and tapestry, and rich dark wood. Fitz stopped to take in the luxury, then followed his guide into a study.

A tall, gaunt man with a shock of white hair and wearing a long black evening coat stood with his back half turned to them. He held something that looked like a ledger book.

"Mr. Fitz, sir," the velvet bowler said.

The Major turned. "Good morning, Mr. Fitz. Have you had breakfast?"

"No, sir. I'm not usually awake at dawn."

"Hmm. A coffee?"

"I'd like that."

A colored maid suddenly appeared as if by a magician's command. She handed Fitz a cup, and the Major gestured for him to sit down. The Major continued to stand.

Fitz sipped the coffee as the Major frowned into the ledger book.

"Henry Patrick Fitz ... born in Gloucester, Massachusetts. The year is not recorded, but upon your enlistment in 1861 you gave your age as 18."

Fitz continued to sip the coffee.

"You gave your occupation as cordwainer and ... morocco dresser. Not a fisherman?"

Fitz didn't answer.

"Hmm. You enlisted with Andrews Sharpshooters at Lynnfield. Wounded at Antietam, wounded again at Petersburg. After the war you joined up with the 4th Cavalry. Spent two years in Texas, when you were discharged for disability. Wounded again?"

"They said I went crazy."

"Did they? What, sir, after surviving that horrible war, made you crazy in Texas?"

"Wide open spaces."

"Wasn't there a matter of an officer being beaten to a pulp—by you, sir?"

"There was to be no record of that."

"Indeed ... it seems the Army wanted to avoid a court martial, so they made a deal, and you agreed to be crazy."

"You seem to know an extraordinary amount about me—am I a hobby of yours?"

"I paid an extraordinary amount for the information, sir—I'm not satisfied with official records. There was a woman involved—the officer's wife?"

"Draw your own conclusions."

"No need to. There was no affair—you beat the man because ... he beat his wife. In fact, he was in the habit of beating her. Intruding in a domestic situation isn't done. Why did you do it if you weren't ... intimate with the lady?"

Fitz's face froze into stone. He put his cup down.

"You have a soft spot for women, sir. Which is why your next employment puzzles me."

Fitz stiffened as the Major consulted his ledger.

"Angus Rand."

"What about him?"

"He's a white slaver—he deals in human cargo. He's a pimp! A destroyer of innocence. And you were his chief of security. You guarded his shipments of unfortunate girls bound for lives of carnal servitude. I will allow as your unique skills and experience made you a perfect choice for the job, but why did you do it, Mr. Fitz?"

"He paid well. And work was scarce—and I wasn't ever going back to the tanneries."

"Hmm, but perhaps your conscience got the better of you, sir?"

Fitz stood. The velvet bowler also stood to block his exit.

"Please, Mr. Fitz," Foster said, his voice mild. "Sit down."

Fitz sat.

"Your employment with Rand ended abruptly. I do not have the details—but I understand it concerned a Chinese girl. I can imagine what provoked the rupture."

"Major, what do you want of me?"

"Mr. Fitz, you—we—fought a war to end human chattel, did we not? You bear scars—I left my foot in the trenches around Petersburg. Yet, this man Rand—does he not enslave—young women?"

"Major, what do you have against Rand?"

The Major's face darkened. Fitz waited.

"He has my daughter-in-law."

"What do you mean—he has her?"

"He has seduced her—to a life of depravity. He's stolen her soul."

"Angus Rand has no interest in souls. What of her husband—your son?"

"My son ..." He practically spit the words onto the expensive carpet. "My son is bent. My only surviving child is a curse to me and an abomination in the eyes of God. It was he who introduced my daughter-in-law to Rand, gave her to him, in exchange for Rand's protection."

"Protection?"

"He's provided him a haven to practice his sickness. He is provided with ... young boys. And my daughter-in-law ... she ... she ..."

"No one puts in with Rand unwillingly, Major."

He slammed the ledger onto his desk. "She was innocent, sir. Innocent as the child just born. The man has her in some ... some thrall."

"All right, if you say so. But I know Rand is no mesmerist. In any case, what do you want me to do?"

"I want you to bring my daughter-in-law back to my home, and her child."

"Child?"

"My daughter-in-law was pregnant when she fell into Rand's grasp."

"Major, if you think your daughter-in-law is being held against her will, why have you not employed the police?"

"They say there is no crime here—can you believe it? It's a crime against morality itself."

The major sat down stiffly in a high-backed chair set against the wall. "Mr. Fitz, I am a wealthy man, and my wealth affords me some influence in this city, in this state. But I am powerless in this regard. Rand is protected—I am sure of it. That is why I need a man—a man who can enter Rand's world."

"Major, if your daughter-in-law does not want to come home, I can't very well force her."

"I only ask that you try your best to persuade her. Tell Judith she will be loved and welcomed with open arms, but even if she will not, please—please—bring me my grandchild. I'm told it was a boy."

"I can't imagine Rand having much use for a squalling infant."

"Unless he wants to taunt me—the devil."

"Why ... why would he ...?"

"I begged him to send the child to me. He sent me a child all right; he said it was hers."

"And ..."

"It was a mulatto! Now, do you see what an evil bastard he is?"

Fitz read the rage and desperation in Foster's eyes.

"Sir, I don't know if I can help you."

Foster stood and walked to the desk where the ledger book lay. He took up a pen and wrote out a draft. Then he crossed the room, his left leg dragging a false foot.

He held the check up to Fitz. "This is yours, no matter what you can do. If only you would try. There will be more, of course, if you succeed. And, if you would do one other thing ... then, sir, you would only need name your fee and I will pay it."

"And what would that be, Major?"

"Kill Angus Rand."

Fitz took the check. "I'll not take money for killing, but I'll see what I can find out."

"Very well, then. Here."

Foster slipped a card into his hand.

"It is my tailor. Have yourself a decent suit made, on my account."

Fitz slipped the card into his pocket.

"Eisen will see you to the coach. The driver will take you wherever you want to go."

So, the velvet bowler had a name—Eisen.

*                *                *


"Well, aren't you the dandy." Flannery stepped back and beheld Fitz, dressed like he owned a bank, except for the felt hat with a brim rakishly turned down over one eye.

"You like the new duds, then?"

"They're much too fine for tending bar—in this bucket of blood anyways."

"I'm glad you see it that way. I'll be preoccupied for maybe the next few days at least."

"Sure I can see that. What's old Foster paying you, and what for?"

Fitz tossed his hat on the bar and signaled Sweeney to pour him a whiskey.

"What's Angus up to these days?"

"Angus? Far as I know, he's in the same business he was when you quit him—running women. But ..."

"But what?"

"He has himself a fine mansion across the river. There's talk—rumors ..."

"Of what?"

"That he's Kublai Khan himself—with his own grand pleasure dome."

"What say?"

"Oh, maybe not as grand as the Khan's—but fancier than the likes of us are used to."

"A whorehouse—he's running a top-shelf whorehouse, is that your meaning?"

"It's all just talk, mind you; but, that talk is it's much more than a whorehouse—more like an orgy palace for swanks and high-steppers."

Fitz tugged his chin. "Foster wants me to find his daughter-in-law. He says Angus has her—I took him to mean Angus is fucking her. He thinks he's turned her into a whore. I suppose, if she is with him, she'll be kept at his ... whatever it is."

"Never knew Angus to affiliate himself with any particular female—not when he has so many to select from. Do you suppose the sod has fallen in love?"

"With Foster's daughter-in-law? I suppose all things are possible."

Fitz knocked back his drink. "Where the hell is it? You said across the river."

"Nobody knows for sure."

"What? You'll not be telling me it's some fairyland palace, will you?""

"Follow the swells—they'll be bringing their buggies across on the late ferry."

"By the way—Foster told me about the child. It didn't die—but I wonder if it exists at all."

"Oh?"

"He said Angus sent him an infant he said was his grandchild—but it was colored."

"Ha! That must have put a splintery board up the old major's arse."

"It doesn't make sense. Why would Angus taunt the man like that—I know what Angus does and what he is—but I've never known him to be a cruel man."

"Sounds personal."

"Maybe. I'll need a horse."

Flannery nodded. "Sweeney, get down to the livery, reserve a fine steed for our knight errant. Nothing save winged Pegasus will do."

"Peg ... peg? He's got a mare named Peggy. Will it do?"

Flannery shook his head and rolled his eyes. "Aye, it'll do, ya thick bastard."

*                *                *


Fitz counted the buggies and carriages being loaded onto the ferry. There was just enough room left for him and his mount—a chestnut mare named Peggy. While he had expected to see well-to-do men boarding, he was surprised at the number of couples. Could they truly be on their way to some secret den of debauchery? The fine ladies, bundled up in expensive cloaks, waved, giggled and nodded to each other, their excitement evident.

The ferry docked at the opposite shore and Fitz held back, letting the swells' drivers set up and board their haughty passengers. There would be no return ferry until 8 o'clock the next morning. Wherever they were going, they were planning to spend the night.

The carriages traveled in train. Fitz wondered if position was determined by ... position. He stayed behind them just close enough to keep the trailing carriage's lantern in sight.

He sauntered along a path bordered by dark woods. After about a half hour the woods gave way to grassy fields and gentle hills. The stars and a nearly full moon seemed close enough to touch. Fitz felt the familiar unease—like he was exposed.

The carriages veered down a path, and beyond Fitz counted four elaborately decorated chimney caps rising behind the curve of a hill. He urged the mare on. The carriages had disappeared around a slope. But as Fitz followed, a magnificent mansion came into view. A long stable and carriage houses were set off to the right. The place was as large as a resort.

Fitz held back and watched the swells step out of their conveyances. Groups of men took carriages and animals to the stable area. The swells were escorted inside by uniformed liverymen. Fitz urged the mare onward. A group of four men watched him approach. Sharp, nervous exchanges between them ended when one swaggered to the fore, his hand resting inside a waistcoat. Fitz guessed the man's hand caressed the handle of a pistol.

His own was stashed inside a sash beneath his coat. It was a small, four-shot revolver—a gambler's gun that Flannery had insisted on loaning him. Fitz made no move as the man approached, his swagger becoming more exaggerated as the distance closed.

"Who the hell are you?" he demanded. His voice was strained, accented.

Fitz made no effort to pull up the horse; the man stepped in front of him. Now Fitz could clearly see the needlessly large colt stuffed into his belt.

"You got business here? You don't—you turn around." He tapped his fingers on the Colt's handle.

Fitz let the horse stop of its own accord as his challenger indignantly stepped back.

"I'm here to see Mr. Rand."

"He don't tell me he expecting no one."

"I'm sure there's precious little he confides to you. Now someone tell him Henry Fitz is here."

One of Colt man's companions blurted, "Henry Fitz! Horseshit! You ain't Henry Fitz."

"Mr. Rand is going to be plenty put out when he finds out I am Henry god-damned Fitz, and you all kept me waiting."

The one masturbating his Colt didn't look so sure of himself now.

"Okay—you better be who you say you are."

Fitz dismounted and followed the group toward the house. Colt man practically walked up his back.

"I heard of you—I don't think you so much. I'm Mr. Rand's top man now."

"You're a kid—kid." Fitz didn't bother to turn around to say it.

He was led into a grand hall, large enough for a palace. The swells who had arrived before him were nowhere in sight. Fitz decided a decent horse race could be run the length of the hall.

"Henry! Damn! It is you."

Fitz watched a familiar figure descend a broad staircase. He'd lost nothing off his step. His hair and beard were threaded through with silver, but the body was solid, and as he got closer, he noted his steel gray eyes were just as alert, his cheeks as wide and ruddy as ever.

"Sergeant Fitz himself." He grabbed Fitz's hand and pulled him into a bracing hug. "So, you've come back to kill me, have you?"

Fitz's face must have registered the shock the pit of his stomach felt.

"Aw, hell, Fitz," Rand said, and patted the pistol under his sash. "I've been expecting you. C'mon, let's get a drink."

He started back up the staircase. No one made a move to disarm Fitz. He followed.

Rand led him into a smoking room. A girl—a fragile China doll—puffed on a dope pipe by the fireplace. She wore a flimsy satin sheath, slit up one leg to the hip.

Rand poured a golden liquor into a cut glass and handed it to Fitz.

"I'm not here to kill anyone, Angus."

Angus nodded, gesturing with his hand as if to convey the notion that even if Fitz was on a mission to kill him it was of no great import.

"I know you're here on Horace Foster's business. That whoring hypocrite."

"He says you're keeping his daughter-in-law here."

"Judith Pickman Foster does indeed reside here for the moment, but no one is keeping her here. I tell you, Fitz, the girl is a witch, a vixen—why she's my best draw—a natural performer."

"What? Performer? What the hell kind of place are you running here, Angus? A country theater for crissakes?"

"Something like that," Rand winked.

"What the ..."

"Henry," Rand hung his arm over Fitz's shoulder. "Come see for yourself. She's about to go on. You'll see—I am a theater manager—of the most profitable theater ever. C'mon."

They left the girl with her pipe as Rand guided him along a narrow corridor. A hidden door opened and Rand led him onto a darkened balcony above a small theater-in-the-round. The swells, gentlemen and ladies, occupied the audience seats. There was a tangible excitement among the small, select crowd.

A man—at least Fitz thought it was a man—wearing exaggerated makeup and dark evening suit, stepped onto the stage. Rand nudged Fitz. "Watch."

"Ladies and gentlemen, we present tonight—a tragedy. The subversion of morality, the seduction of innocence, the despoliation of a wholesome, proper maiden. These are no professional actors, my good ladies and gentlemen. You will recognize them as they play out their fall from grace. Now watch, and take heed, and perhaps allow some pity for their surrender to the vices and immoral desires that have become their ruin."

"What sort of malarkey is this ...?" Fitz huffed.

"Shhh."

"The stage lighting turned to a dark amber, then it came up again. The audience buzzed with whispers.

"Ladies and gentleman, I present to you, Mr. William Sayre Foster, and his lovely bride, Judith Pickman Foster."

Fitz focused on the couple, but more intently on the woman. She was tall, willowy, and dressed in a white dress that accentuated the curve of her hips and bosom, her dark hair piled high and adorned with a girlish hat. Young Foster was conventionally dressed in formal attire and top hat. A droopy blond moustache belied his boyish face. He looked to be shorter than her.

The master of ceremonies intoned, "It is said within all of us, dark desires lurk, ready to emerge and overwhelm a child of God. Please, Mr. and Mrs. Foster, so to instruct our guileless guests, that danger lurks around every corner, show us how you came to ruin. It was on a fine day like this, was it not?"

Judith replied, "Oh, yes, a lovely day—lovely, until the brute appeared."

"You there!" An immense negro man stepped onto the stage.

"Are you addressing me?" young Foster replied. Judith had turned; she seemed transfixed by the ebony giant.

"See you that boy?" The giant pointed toward a tall young blond man who had also appeared on stage. Maybe he was 20, fair, but no boy.

"Yes ... yes ... what of him?"

"Is he not beautiful? You want him, don't you?"

"Now, see here. I am out with my wife, I ..."

"You want his cock?"

The young man released his pale rod from his trousers. It curved into an erection as the young man grinned.

"I—I—please ..."

"You want to taste that pretty cock—don't you? And you can ... Eric will let you."

"No ... please ... I mustn't."

Judith trembled. "William ... William?"

"Go on ... taste that pretty cock ... you want to. Just give me your pretty wife."

"William," Judith stood in place. "Please, let's flee."

The young man was waving his cock, masturbating.

"Just say it," the giant intoned.

William turned to Judith. "I—I'm sorry, dear. I—can't help myself."

"William!"

"Yes ... please, take her!"

"To fuck!"

"Yes—fuck her, fuck her!"

A collective gasp hissed from the audience.

"Tell me to fuck your wife!"

"God help me—fuck my wife! Please, fuck my wife!"

The audience was as agitated now as any at a back-alley pit fight.

"Oh, William!"

"Go ahead, boy, you earned your cock."

William stepped like a man in a trance toward the young man, kneeled, and took his cock into his mouth. The audience reacted with groan of disgust.

"Come to me, little girl," the giant cajoled.

"No ... no, please. You've made my husband defile himself—for mercy's sake, do not molest me."

"I will not molest you, little girl, but can you resist this?"

The man revealed a thick, heavy cock.

"Oh please, I beg of you ..."

"Beg me for what, little girl? You can't take your eyes off my Big Meaty, can you?"

"Don't ... don't talk to me in such a fashion ... you make me feel ... so ... unclean."

"Come little girl—your husband is a cock lover. Look at him."

William responded by slurping loudly as the young man pumped his face.

"And you are no lady, are you? ... You're a whore ... you want this fine big monster. Here, come get it."

"No ... no ... don't make me." But even as she protested, she staggered a step at a time toward the giant, until she stood before him.

"Show me those fine, creamy tits." He grabbed her bodice and shred it in one motion. The crowd groaned, a woman shrieked.

Judith stood naked from her hips, her shredded dress hanging in tatters.

"Kiss my big dick—go ahead, you know you want to, whore."

"Please ... don't call me ..."

"Whore!"

Judith took the man's cock in both hands, and then, like a woman starved, she licked, sucked and slathered it with her tongue.

"You filthy bitch!" someone yelled from the audience.

"Tramp!" "Slut!" "Slattern!"

Every epithet imaginable was flung toward the stage as the crowd began to roil into a frenzy.

Two girls had entered the stage and quickly erected a bed that was not much more than a mattress flung over some crates.

"I'll have your cunt now, whore!"

The giant lifted Judith into his arms and tossed her onto the mattress. He tore away the remainder of her dress. She was entirely naked except for a pair of knee stockings with deep blue ribbon bows, her legs flailing, and her pink quim exposed beneath a thatch of dark hair. Her body shone ethereally white under the stage lighting.

"Do it!—Do it!" the audience chanted.

"Fuck the whore!"

"No—No," Judith pleaded. "You'll split me in two."

The giant was unrelenting.

"Her arse! Fuck the whore's arse!" It was a woman's voice, followed by harsh laughter.

The giant laughed, then he flipped Judith over as if she were a doll. A slight, Oriental girl appeared and slathered his cock with thick shiny balm.

Judith did not resist as he lifted her by the hips, but only whimpered pleas for mercy. Her dark hair had come free and hung like a veil over her face as if to hide her shame. The giant turned momentarily to the audience and waggled his cock.

"Pig grease to fuck a pig!" The audience roared in response.

Fitz watched as the man's dark meat plunged into Judith's anus. The girl trembled as if in seizure and shrieked. Cheers and applause erupted from the audience.

For his part, William gulped and gagged as the young man discharged his seed into his throat. But, by then the audience was riveted to the violation of Judith. She moaned, her arms hanging limp. The man plundered her body until he groaned and withdrew his cock spurting a geyser of cream onto her buttocks.

"Show us! Show us!" the crowd demanded.

The giant stepped aside and held her cheeks apart so they could see her hole oozing fluid. The crowd rose in applause. The giant scooped his victim into his arms and carried her offstage, implying further ravishment.

The young man yoked William with a noose and dragged him from the stage on hands and knees, as the men cried, "Nancy! Poof! Cuckold bitch!"

The audience had hardly calmed when the master of ceremonies reappeared with several young girls to introduce "A Sapphic Idyll."

Rand took Fitz's arm. "C'mon."

They stepped through the wall door and back into the corridor.

"What the hell!" Fitz sputtered. "I ... I don't understand. She's one of them! One of their class!"

"Yes ... yes they are. And that's what draws them."

"What?"

"Come along, Fitz. As the Bard told us, 'there are far stranger things ...'"

*                *                *


Fitz's ears felt like they were on fire. Rand pushed a drink into his hand.

"As I said, Henry, Judith Foster is not being kept here against her will. Not by any stretch."

"Angus ... those people in the audience. She must know them, know all of them. It isn't like they were watching some anonymous little Bridie getting pummeled. She's ... well, they're her peers."

"True enough. Listen, Henry, it was her idea."

"But ... why?"

"I could have shown the same act with some anonymous Irish Bridie, or a delicate little Oriental flower. But, the kick for them, the thing what makes 'em go wild, is watching one of their own: A fine lady they grew up with perhaps, had tea with ... getting her cunt stretched by a huge buck like Jupiter."

"But why ... why would they? I don't get it."

"Do you want to talk to her?"

"Yes ... I'll need to do that."

"C'mon, I'll take you."

Fitz followed Rand again, barely heeding the little China girl who had passed out next to her pipe.

This time they walked the wider main corridor. Rand stopped at a door and knocked.

"Judith, you have a visitor. Are you decent, dear?"

"Never again."

Rand laughed and turned the knob.

Judith Foster lay across a sofa brushing her hair, her back propped by lush satin pillows. She wore a kimono that fell open revealing most of her long, pale legs.

"Dear, this is Henry Fitz."

"Ah, yes, daddy-in-law's hired dog."

Fitz stepped around Rand. "Your father-in-law is very concerned for you, Mrs. Foster."

"Not all of me, Mr. Fitz. Just my womb."

Rand cleared his throat. "Henry, I'll leave you two to talk. You can find your way back to my suite."

Rand left and Judith gestured to Fitz to have a seat.

"That was quite a performance, Mrs. Foster."

"Were you shocked?"

"Surprised ... Yes, and shocked."

"What affected you most, Mr. Fitz? That I allowed a huge black brute to violate my lily-white body?"

"Not hardly."

"Ah, that I did not conceal my identity—my pedigree?"

"How could you degrade yourself in front of people you know? People of ..."

"Class ... breeding?"

"Yes ... you come from a privileged life, Mrs. Foster."

"Yes, I was privileged to be bored to the point of insanity, my marriage arranged, allowed no control, no decision over my own life and fate."

"Where I come from, people die on account of not having two pennies to rub together."

"I know that. The people I grew up around—they're parasites, sir. They suck up wealth like a sponge. I loathe them."

"It still doesn't explain ..."

"My deliberate debauchery? They so loved watching, didn't they? They even brought their wives and sweethearts to witness it. Why? Because they can well imagine those wives and sweethearts submitting as I did. Oh, it puts a fire in their loins, the men and the women, sir. The women all imagined themselves in my place; the men imagined themselves in William's. And why?"

"Yes, why? It doesn't make sense to me."

"I don't truly know, sir. But I surmise because it takes so much effort to be correct, to be proper society—I tell you from experience, sir, it is exhausting. Perhaps they haven't the courage to submit to their own humiliation, so they live mine vicariously."

She let her legs slide over the edge of the sofa and sat up, her eyes boring unwaveringly into his.

"You can't ever return to what you call a proper life," Fitz said.

"Why not, assuming I wanted to? Those same men and women who called me whore and watched my rape, if we were to pass in the park they would nod politely, and carry on as if there were nothing untoward about it."

"What?"

"When I was about twelve or thirteen I happened upon some literature in my father's study. It was entirely about young virgins being ravished. How could such ... filth ..."—she smiled with one brow cocked—"... have come into my father's study? Of course, I concluded it was his.

"Thereafter, every chance I had, I would secret my way into Daddy's study, and read his stories. They spoke to me, as lurid as they were, they excited me. One time I was so immersed in my reading I did not notice my father enter. He ripped it out of my hands and ordered me to leave. He never spoke of this to me. You see, that is how indelicate matters are handled in proper society. One pretends it never happened. Because, to acknowledge my perversion, he would have to confess to his."

"You are here of your own free will."

"Most assuredly, Mr. Fitz."

"There is the matter of your child—your father-in-law's grandchild."

"The child was sent to him."

"The child was colored."

A deep resonating laughter echoed from an anteroom. The huge black man from the stage stepped through the door. Judith looked at him and smiled, a sly, knowing smile.

Fitz faced him. "The child was yours?"

"That's right. I paid Major Foster my respects to grow inside the belly of his son's wife."

Fitz turned again to Judith. "The Major said you were pregnant when you arrived here."

"Well, he had hoped so; he made Olympian efforts to see to it."

Fitz pushed his hand back through his hair.

"Poor Mr. Fitz," Judith cooed. "I'm surprised; I thought a man of your reputation would be more ... worldly."

"It would seem I've lived a sheltered life. Perhaps you can enlighten me."

"Very well." She signaled to Jupiter to join her on the couch. He sat and she melted into his immense frame.

"I was married against my will. But I discovered in William a kindred soul. His father loathed him for his predilections. And he, as I, rejected the staid hypocrisy of our upbringings. His father wanted an heir to carry on the Foster name. William, brave soul that he is, refused. Oh, he could have. Yes, he prefers his own sex, but he could have impregnated me. He just refused to do that to me. He stood up to his father."

"But, your father-in-law was sure ..."

"Of course he was. When his son refused, he determined to do the deed himself."

"What?"

"He fucked me, Mr. Fitz. He came to my bed when William was away; he told me I could have anything I wanted, that I was a vessel sent directly to him by God for the purpose and it was a holy act. Then he fucked me. He fucked me as many as three times a day to ensure I would become pregnant with a proper heir. Oh, sir, he huffed and puffed and soldiered on, but, I think, over the years the old soldier's powder had lost its flash. I was never pregnant with his child."

Fitz wished he had a drink. Jupiter watched him, grinning at his discomfiture.

"William knew about this place, because the Major had taken him here in an effort to divert his yearning for men. He forced him to bed with whores here. When he heard what his father had done to me, he appealed to Mr. Rand to take us in. I was never held against my will as daddy-in-law has claimed—this is our sanctuary—mine and William's."

"The child you sent to Foster ..."

"Mine, and Jupiter's. Oh, I wish I could have seen the Major's face."

"But, it was your child."

"I have no use for an infant—do you, Darling?" She looked up into Jupiter's face.

"No," he chuckled. "I expect I left plenty of bastards between here and Georgia."

"Well," Judith said carelessly. "I certainly hope daddy-in-law had the decency to leave the child at the Colored Orphans Home. He is its prime benefactor, after all."

"It doesn't bother either one of you," Fitz said, disgust and resignation in his voice.

"So, you won't be tryin' to bring Judith back to the Major." Jupiter's smile had faded. His face was stone determination.

"Doesn't seem much point, now that she's explained things."

"I know you, Mr. Fitz. I know you from the war. I served under the Major in those days. He said it was his God-given duty to lead us colored troops—teach us to be good soldiers so when we was all shipped back to Africa after the war, we could defends our new countries.

"Meantime, he likes to use us like decoys. Always ordered us out first ahead of the white soldiers, let the Rebs spend their ammunition on us and then lets the white regiments overrun the position and get all the glory. They had to step over many a dead black soldier on their way."

Fitz was transported back to the battlefields.

"One time, a Reb sniper gots to amuse himself by picking off our boys—a couple an hour. I was their sergeant-major. I begged the Major to get us a sharpshooter who could kill the sniper, but he refused. Said us niggers had better learn not to make ourselves such easy targets.

"Then one day along you come strolling into our camp. No one sent for ya, you just heard of our troubles. That Reb sniper was dead and cold an hour after you arrived. My men and me, we never forgot that. That's why, now, I'm glad there ain't gonna be no contention between us."

Fitz stood. Without a word he turned and left the room.

*                *                *


He made his way back to Rand's suite. He didn't bother to knock.

He found Rand sitting on the plush sofa; the little China girl had apparently returned from the land of Morphia and was bouncing on his lap.

"Lickee-suckee-lickee-suckee," she chanted.

"No, not now, Soozie, I have company."

"But am I not Daddy's very good lickee-suckee girl?"

"Oh, you are, my little butterfly, you are, and you will. But I need to talk with Henry now."

The girl turned and smiled at Henry. "Maybe Henry like lickee-suckee."

Her childish sing-song voice at once captivated Fitz and made him cringe.

"I thought you were Daddy's lickee-suckee girl." Rand turned the girl over on his knee and gently paddled her behind as she squealed.

He had her stand on wobbly legs.

"Now, you little minx, get yourself to bed. I'll be along to play soon. Say goodnight to Henry."

She stumbled into a turn, giggled, and said, "Goodnight, Henry."

Fitz smiled and nodded. They watched the tiny girl totter off toward the bedroom.

"Remind you a little of Lin?" Rand asked.

"She's nothing like Lin."

Rand sighed. "No, I don't suppose she is. Are you still angry with me about Lin?"

"Aw, Christ, Angus. I thought I was in love."

"You can't fall in love with the goods, Henry. If it'll make you feel any better, though, she's living like a queen—kept of course, but better off than royalty."

"It doesn't make me feel better, but I appreciate the gesture."

"Sun's coming up. Time for bed. I have a room for you. Still having trouble sleeping?"

"I never had trouble sleeping—I never had trouble dreaming, either."

"Oh, yes, the dreams."

"Angus—you cater to these people, you make your living off their vices. They are the goddamned pillars of society. They live in a realm so far removed from—I don't know—the ugliness of life. I see a woman like Judith Foster—a cold one, she is." He hung his head.

"The other day I watched the corpse of a young woman tossed into the dead wagon—hanged herself after her two kids died of diphtheria. I have no idea who or where her man was—maybe she was a dead soldier's wife."

"Trying to make sense of it, Henry? C'mon, you ought to know better. There will always be the rich and the poor. Even in this grand republic where we're all supposed to be created equal. The rich are above it all, always will be. Churches, morality—that just keeps the hoi polloi in line. And that's just fine with everyone."

"How so?"

"Henry, how do you suppose I can run a place like this? It's a secret shared by a privileged few—a privileged few who pay me a great deal to amuse them. By God, things go on here that could get you hanged, but do you see me fretting?"

Fitz shook his head.

"Because people see what they want to see. The poor aren't able to see what goes on in this world; the rich, they're blind to whatever goes on in the poor man's world. They'll never see because they either can't or don't want to see. Because if they did, they'd be given that horrifying knowledge that they can do something about it, or admit to God they don't want to do anything about it."

"You're making me dizzy, Angus."

"Ever read Plato?"

"Plato? Damn, you're well educated for a whoremaster, Angus."

"I'm no pimp, Henry, I'm a purveyor. But once I was a teacher. Yes, I taught snotty little rich girls the like of Judith Pickman."

"You don't say."

"But, back to Plato—see, he said people lived their lives as if in a cave. They were so comfortable in their darkness they refused to look into the light. Hell, the light would just blind them anyway. And people who lived outside the cave, well, their eyes couldn't penetrate the darkness. See, whether an excess of light, or an excess of darkness, people are going to see what they expect to see."

"That's good for you, I suppose, Angus."

"Aw, hell, every so often some reformer gets a big hairy beetle up his ass. That's when the bastards will turn on me. But I'll have made my money off them by then—move to France, maybe."

"Don't let your guard down, Angus."

"Wouldn't need to fret about that if you were still guarding my back."

"What about the jumpy kid with the big Colt?"

"The gunsel?" The voice was familiar. Fitz turned and grinned at the dwarfish figure with the long gray trailing beard.

"Max! Damn, still keeping the books?"

"Henry, my friend. You're coming back to work for us? May God make it so. All these mishuga kids with big guns, all chutzpah, and no brains."

Fitz shook Max's hand as Angus said, "Sleep on it, Henry. I have a room ready for you, 413."

"I have a client at the moment, Angus. Unfinished business I need to conclude."

"Just sleep on it."

"Sleep—perchance to dream." He sighed.

*                *                *


Max pointed Fitz toward his room. He walked alone, silently, his footfalls absorbed by the thick carpeting. As he passed one room he heard a groan.

"God, no, you're going to kill me. Help! Help me!"

Fitz tried the door. It opened.

Another groan and a plea, then Fitz saw them on the bed. It was not the matter of life and death he had thought. He tried to retreat without them noticing.

William Foster lay across the bed, his ass filled with cock—the gunsel's cock. The kid noticed Fitz before he could slip out. He stood, his cock yanked out of William so suddenly it made him cry out.

"Julio? What—what is it?"

The kid stood, shivering in rage and embarrassment.

"None of my business, kid," Fitz said and took a step back. He watched the kid's eyes dart to his clothes on a chair. The big-handled colt lay on top of the pile.

"Don't, kid. I won't tell anyone, so don't make this worse than it is."

The kid gathered his clothes and stumbled into his trousers. "I'll kill you," he growled.

"Another day."

He ran past Fitz leaving William shivering and forlorn.

"Sorry," Fitz said. "Didn't mean to intrude. I thought you were in trouble."

"You're the man my father sent to kill me."

"No—everyone thinks I'm here to kill someone. Besides, you are the heir to your father's fortune, Mr. Foster. Why should he kill you—his own son?"

"I'm disowned. If I ever tried to go home, my father would see to it that I would die."

"That's—too bad. I'm sorry, Mr. Foster."

"He sent you to reclaim Judith—not me. She won't go with you."

"So she says."

"You'll not try to take her?"

"No."

"Well, then. Good day to you, sir. You must excuse Julio—he just doesn't want anyone to know he's ... well ..."

"Uh-huh. Good day, Mr. Foster."

Fitz backed out and closed the door. He found his room and stepped inside. The bed was just too plush, but he stripped out of his clothes and fell into it. His body melted into the feather mattress. He resigned himself to his dreams.

The prairie skies stretched to the horizons, and proceeding from the horizons, at a slow but resolute pace, gray forms, like troops, making their way toward him and a reckoning.

The needle drove its way into his brain. He was in someone's sights. His hand shot from under the coverlet. His pistol in hand, he aimed between the eyes of the intruder.

"Don't shoot!" the girl cried.

"Dammit, girl, what are you doing here?"

"I'm Kasey. Mr. Rand sent me."

Fitz placed the gun on an end table beside the bed. "Damn, Angus. He thinks a good fuck can cure anything."

"He said you have trouble sleeping?"

"Not sleeping."

"Oh ... yes ... your dreams. You have bad dreams. If you let me, I might help you."

He looked up at her. Her long, coltish legs were dressed in silk stockings to just above the knees. A short silk wrap clung to her nakedness. Ash blond hair draped her shoulders. Her face was mostly in shadow, but her lips were perfect cupid's bows.

"Please," she said. "Let me try."

"Sure ... what the hell ... make yourself at home."

Fitz sighed and she approached, laying long manicured fingers on his shoulder. She sat on the edge of the bed and eased him gently down until his head rested in her lap. She had him turn onto his stomach so one cheek rested on her thigh. Her fingers pressed and prodded, and her thumbs kneaded his neck, and then along his spine between his shoulder blades. Every muscle relaxed at her touch.

"Look, Kasey, I'm not a good bedmate. Any woman I've been with I've left or made her leave before I fell asleep."

"Did you want me to sleep with you?"

"That would be lovely, but ..."

"I will if you want me to. Now, be at peace."

"Peace." He chuckled.

"Tell me about your dreams. Are there monsters?"

"No ..." Her fingers erased all tension. Fitz might have been more amazed at her magical touch if he weren't instantly lulled into a state of careless relaxation.

"What frightens you so?"

"Having no place to hide," he replied, his voice barely a whisper.

"Hide from whom?"

"Vengeful souls, I guess."

"Tell me."

He sighed. "In the war I was a sharpshooter. Our job was to pick off the officers, target any man who seemed to be in command—generals down to sergeants. And artillery crews. But then they culled a few of us out to be counter-snipers.

"Killing didn't bother me during an all-out battle. Everyone was killing. But when you are coldly targeting one man ... well ..." His voice trailed off. He yawned.

"Go to sleep, if you like ... we can talk when you awake."

Fitz's eyelids were so heavy. "No ... no, it's all right. I ... you see, I could always sense when someone was looking at me, ever since I was a kid—I don't mean seeing me in a crowd, but looking right at me. I could sense—know when I was in someone's sights, I could pace his breathing, and I knew precisely when he squeezed the trigger. So I'd make myself an easy target. Get him to take a shot. A sniper concentrates so intently on his target. He knows just where his bullet will strike. All I needed to do was shift my position, just a bit. I would hear the bullet whistle as it passed. But more important, I was able to mark his muzzle flash. I'd adjust my aim just enough, according to how I figured he moved after his shot. They never knew anything because it happened so quick. I'd fire—and, by God, I swear I could hear the thud of the bullet as it tore into their flesh."

The girl stopped kneading his shoulder a moment.

"Any soldier who's been in close combat will tell you he'll never forget the face of the first man he killed. But, what haunts me are faceless ghosts. I never saw their faces, even though I knew I took their lives. They didn't start to haunt me until I served with the Cavalry. There are places in Texas so flat and open; you swear you can see from one end of the world to the other. Out there—no place to hide ... from ghosts."

"You were a soldier. They would have killed you."

Fitz felt the last bit of tension leave his body. "I wish ... I could tell them ..."

"Then tell them."

The gray figures closed around him in a semi-circle. Fitz strained to make out their faces, but they were blurred as if by frosted glass.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I'm sorry you died. You—we were all soldiers in that lousy war—you would have killed me. But, none of us should have been trying to kill the other. The whole country lost its mind."

The mute figures didn't stir.

"I was hoping we could let bygones be. There's a girl ... she's pretty, and sweet ... I barely know her—hell, I don't know her at all—but I know I need to hold her like there's nothing else in the world. I wish you could have gone home and held a girl in your arms like that. I'm sorry—truly sorry—you didn't get the chance."

Their veils began to evaporate, the men's faces revealed: one old, bearded, another barely out of his teens, then the others, thirteen in all. And in their eyes—not forgiveness, because there was no need—but, understanding.

Before the last of them faded forever, he nodded to Fitz.

He woke, his tears staining Kasey's lap. "They're gone."

"Shhh, go back to sleep." She laid her hand on his back to calm his sobs.

"Stay with me."

"I will."

*                *                *


When he woke again, the late afternoon sun had angled its way between the heavy curtains. Kasey lay with him, in his arms, her body flush against his. She felt wonderful, and he had not known such peace in so long.

Her eyes opened. "Hello."

"Thank you—for staying."

She smiled.

"Who are you, Kasey? An angel—a witch?"

"Just a girl."

"From some magical place."

"Just Kansas."

Fitz nodded. "Poor bleeding Kansas."

"My family was killed by Missouri raiders. I mostly grew up in an orphanage."

"How did you come here?"

"A minister—well, he said he was a minister. He took me from the orphanage when I was almost sixteen. Said he would teach me to be God-fearing. They just let him take me."

"He adopted you?"

"No, just took me. He wanted to be sure I hadn't been with boys. Used his fingers to prove to himself I wasn't."

Fitz squeezed her hip. "I'm sorry."

She shrugged. "I guess he was fixing to sell me—a virgin. He took me to Kansas City. He lost me in a poker game."

"Don't tell me—to Angus."

"He didn't lose well—Mr. Rand had to kill him. Later, Mr. Rand told me he could provide me with a fine life. He told me what I would have to do, but he let it be my decision. I had no place else to go, no family. I went with him. He gave me the name Kasey, cause he said he found me in K.C. Since then, I've ... done things ... learned to do things for men, and women. But mostly, they just want me to touch them, and talk to them."

"Kasey ... I want to kiss you."

"I want you to kiss me."

Their lips barely touched at first. Then he pressed his lips to her cupid's bows. Their mouths opened and their tongues touched. He let has hand slide along her hip and over her belly, and trailed kisses down her neck and around the curve of a breast.

Kasey rolled her body onto his, and kissed him again, long, languid kisses, but each of their hearts beat faster to a growing want.

She reached down and closed her long, slender fingers around his rampant cock, tapped his cockhead with her nails. He felt his fluids roil.

"Please," he said.

She shifted her hips, then sheathed his cock with her body.

His eyes rolled back and a gasp escaped his mouth. She began to fuck him, gently at first, then with increasing fervor. He wanted to give himself up entirely to the sensations that surged through him like electricity.

He thought, 'There is no place else I want to be, no one else I want to be with.'

His hips pumped in answer to her motions until they fell into a rhythm. His hands grasped her hips, pulling her onto him, she resisting, then pounding back into his lap. Leaning forward now, her breasts grazed his face with stiffened nipples.

He felt her cunt clench him, then release, then clench again. He erupted inside her. Their tension escaped in one long shared sigh.

She shifted again and let his spent cock slip from her. As she nuzzled against him, he pulled her into his arms.

A soft knock at the door roused them. The sun was setting.

*                *                *


"She's amazing, isn't she?"

Fitz fixed a quizzical look at Rand. "Kasey?"

"No! The damned mare you rode in with. Yes, Kasey."

Fitz laughed, but then his face fell into a serious frown. "Yes, she's magical."

"I figured, maybe I owed you something, for Lin."

"What are you saying, Angus?"

"Come back to work for me, Henry. You can live here—with Kasey."

"Damned generous of you, Angus, to give me a human being to play with."

"She's a free woman, Henry. She's wonderful, but she's always been an odd ... rather lonely girl. There's something about her ... it's as if she was expecting you. You know—she's had her eye on you since you've been here."

"What? But—I didn't sense. I mean, I didn't ..."

Angus shrugged. "Maybe ... you could be kindred souls. If you believe in that kind of thing. You each have a gift."

"I have to conclude the business with Foster, and settle up with Flannery."

"That old reprobate mick."

"He lent me a hand when I needed it."

"All right. Then what? Will you come back, Henry?"

"I will."

"Good—good. Your horse is saddled. Get out of here—then get your ass back here."

Kasey met him on the porch and took his arm as they walked along the path toward where a groom held the mare.

"You're coming back?" she asked.

"Yes."

She kissed his cheek. He turned to kiss her back.

The needle stabbed into his brain, a heart was beating wildly nearby, he sensed a finger squeezing a trigger. He pushed Kasey away with one arm and wheeled as the bullet whistled past his cheek. He drew his revolver and fired at the flash behind the hedge. There was a cry, and the sound of a body hitting the dirt.

Angus and Max ran from the house and teetered over the porch.

"The gunsel!" Max said. "Poor goose."

Fitz picked Kasey off the ground, relieved she was not hit.

"Go on, Henry," Angus shouted. "We'll clean up around here."

*                *                *


Fitz traveled straight to Foster's from the ferry dock. A servant showed him to the same study where he had met the old man for the first time.

"Mr. Fitz—please, sir, what news do you bring me?"

"Major, there is no child."

"No—no, that can't be."

"But you still have a son."

"No! I want to hear nothing of that—that freak."

"All right, then. The child Rand sent you was Judith's. The father is ... well, he and Judith are ... partners. Neither wanted the child. They expected you would provide for it."

Foster said nothing, but Fitz could sense his impotent rage simmer and rise.

"But, she had to be with child, she ..."

"She said you forced yourself on her. You were that determined to have an heir to your liking. Her marriage to your son was never consummated."

"A-hah! Yes, because he is not a man."

"But you are. You raped the woman."

"It was not rape! She consented; she said she loved me—a real man. She wanted to carry my child, my only chance for a child."

"Then she played you. Do you know what she does at Rand's?"

"That—that's not important."

"You do—don't you? Of course, you have a spy there. Angus knew when I was coming and why. And there was only one other person in this room the morning we met besides you and me. Where the hell is Eisen?"

"That's impossible!"

"You reneged on the deal—why? You say you promised Judith everything. You could forgive her, forgive even her whoring—so long as no one knew. That's it! Eisen told you, she fucks for an audience—an audience of people just like you—your associates, friends, cousins, family. Proper fucking society!"

"No! It's not true!"

"No fortune, and no payoff. For a secret whore, perhaps, but not for a woman who publicly debauches herself."

Foster threw up his hands as if to rage at the heavens. "Can't you understand? I would be a laughingstock. They would make jokes behind my back, about me, about the child. But I still loved her; I could keep her ... in some secret place."

"You people and your damned secrets."

Eisen burst through the door. "Major Foster!"

"Uh-huh and here's the spy. He told you all about Judith, about Jupiter, about their—performances. Well, Major, your spy has two faces. He told Angus all about our meeting."

"No, please, Major, you can't believe ..."

"What's your particular bent?" Fitz accused Eisen. "You like girls to whip you, shit on you? What? What did Angus provide that you couldn't get anywhere else? What did you crave?"

Eisen trembled, his words caught in his throat. He wiped his brow jerkily with a handkerchief.

Foster, hands on his desk and head lowered, said, "He likes girls to dress him like a baby."

"Sir!"

"Damn! Isn't that how I found you? ... Traitor!"

Fitz shook his head. "I'm not that curious—we can draw the curtain of charity right here."

Fitz adjusted his fedora and then saw himself out.

He had traveled only fifteen minutes from the house when he heard a rider overtake him. Eisen pulled up his mount as Fitz drew his revolver.

"He's dead!" the man screamed.

"Foster?"

"Shot himself in the head."

Fitz shrugged.

Tears streamed off Eisen's cheeks. "I betrayed him—he was like a father to me."

"Well, then, consider yourself unique—if not blessed. Did you want to take this further?"

Eisen glared, then wheeled his horse and galloped back toward Foster's mansion.

*                *                *


There were just two rum-dums passed out face down at their tables when Fitz returned to Flannery's bar.

"You're back," Flannery greeted him.

"Not for long."

Flannery nodded. "Going back to work for Angus, are ya?"

"You expected it?"

Flannery shrugged. "You'll miss the grand nuptials."

"Whose?"

"Sweeney ... and Mother Gummer."

"You don't say."

"I do say. Seems one night some hulking oaf denied her her two bits for blowing his skin flute. He slapped her hard enough to put her on her fat old arse."

"And ..."

"Well, wouldn't you know, Sweeney comes to her rescue. Clouted the sod with a sap and lifted Mother off the floor and declared his undying love for her."

"Wonders ... will they never cease?"

"Who'da thought Sweeney had it in him? What a noble sod."

"A hero and a gentleman."

"Well ... I'll give him your regards. Take care, Fitz."

"Take care, Flannery. If I can ever return the favor ..."

"I'll think on it," he said, and slyly tugged his chin.

*                *                *


Fitz waited for the ferry and gazed at the star-sprinkled skies. On the other side of the river Kasey waited—a second chance. That's all Foster wanted; maybe, he thought, that's all William and Judith wanted.

Second chances were rare. He felt blessed.

_______
© 2007 Robert Buckley. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

Bio: Who is Robert Buckley? Read his bio on the Erotica Readers & Writers Association website.


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