Prologue: Just Past

 

Alexandra squatted in the squalor of an alley that ran between a dry goods store and a tailoring shop.  She hung her head and sobbed, pushing her back harder against rough brick.  In worn sneakers, torn jeans and ripped tee shirt, she shivered as the night grew damp.  Her hair hung in unravelled braids to her shoulder blades, wisps of it obscuring her left eye and right cheek.  Her stomach growled, a sound like a soul going down an inner drain.

When footsteps echoed Alexandra pulled her knees up to her chin and huddled deeper into the shadows.  Crawling things skittered around and over her but she neither shrieked nor moved.   She shut her eyes, though, and bit her lower lip.

The footsteps entered the alley.  It was a measured tread, neither the scurrying of a giddy teenager nor the trudge of a dutiful beat-cop, the sort of pace a comfortable local would use to stroll unhurriedly home after a long day at profitable employment.

When the sounds stopped directly in front of her, Alexandra opened her eyes.  Her lower lip slipped from between her small white teeth.  Her face showed no fear but her posture tensed.

“Well, well.  What have we here?”

His voice both soothed and excited.  It held confidence and control in a resonant baritone.  His manner of speech spoke of education and refined tastes.

“Are you hurt?”

She gazed at the man’s silhouette as the gathering darkness robbed him of specific features.  Her body quivered slightly.

His voice dropped half an octave.  “It’s okay, I won’t hurt you.  Are you homeless?”

She shuddered at the warmth in his tone.  “Yes.”

“You haven’t been attacked, have you?”

“No.”  She had nearly added a Sir to her answer and wasn’t sure why it arose, or why she bit it off just then.

He took half a step closer and reached out a hand.  “Here, let me help you up.  There’s no need to hide anymore.  My name is Martin Halstead, what’s yours?”

She knew there was a chain of bookshops called Halstead’s Attic; was it connected to this man, or he to it?  “I’m Alexandra Menning.”  She reached up and took his hand, surprised to find he was wearing soft cotton gloves, dove grey and dusty.

“I’ve been sorting a shipment of books.”  He said this as he backed away to give her room to step free of the trash she’d been huddling in.  He removed the gloves.  “No offence.  I left them on to keep my hands warm and forgot about them.  There, you seem fine.  Here.”  He shrugged out of his overcoat and, before she could protest, draped it over her.

She inhaled its scent and wobbled, suddenly dizzy.

“You’re okay, aren’t you?”

“Hungry.”  She said it without thinking, at once embarrassed at how quickly she’d learned to beg.

“How old are you, Alexandra?”

She hung her head as if ashamed of her age. “Nineteen.”

He gestured for her to walk with him and began strolling down the alley as if it were a fine boulevard.  She noticed he wore a suit and again enjoyed the scent of his warm coat, which spoke of baths, colognes and comfortable skin not pestered by itches and scratches from vermin, bugs, and exposure.

Thrusting her hands into the coat pockets, she found she had keys in her right fist.  She could run from him, maybe find his car and steal it.  She could, but she knew she wouldn’t.

“Going to college?”

“I was.”  She started to cry again, choking a little.

He paused as they reached the end of the alley.  Placing a hand lightly on her shoulder, he gestured with his other hand across the street.  “I live in that brownstone.”  He paused, watching her swallow a surge of emotions.  “You have a choice right now, Alexandra.  You can come inside and share some supper with me, have yourself a bath or shower and be warm for the night, or you can let me call you a cab and send you home.”

Her crying worsened for an instant, then she clenched her teeth and stood straighter.  Taking a shaky breath she said, “I don’t have anywhere to go.”

“Then come with me. You’ll be fine.”

She looked at the older man.  He appeared to be in his forties and held himself tall and straight.  His hair, with a touch of grey beginning just over his ears, was combed back all over and cut short.  It looked old-fashioned but timeless.  His gaze held hers, steady and open but with a touch of amusement twinkling.  His strong nose and chin gave him a commanding look.

She wanted very much to please him.

“Good,” he said, as if reading her thoughts and he led her across the street and up the stairs to the brownstone.  The window set into the carved oak door was of bevelled and etched glass.  A small bronze plaque above the ivory doorbell button to the right of the door, set into the frame under a tiny awning, read HALSTEAD.  The handle on the door sparkled as if polished today.

He held out his right hand.  “Keys?”

She blushed and dug them from his coat pocket, realising he’d known all along what choices he’d actually given her.

They entered a mosaic-tiled foyer.  Stairs rose along the right wall.  The left wall offered a door.  “We’ll go upstairs, shall we?”  He gestured for her to go first.

She walked up the stairs, worrying that she might smell bad.  To stink up such a nice place bothered her.  She noticed that the steps had diamond-shaped black inlays in their centre.  Was the whole place hand-built?

At the top of the staircase she came to a landing.  Two doors opened off it.  Halstead went to the door farther from the stairs and unlocked it.  Pushing it open, he smiled.  “Be welcome, Alexandra.”

She entered in front of him and for a split second wondered if he would hit her from behind with a hammer or something.  That feeling fled when she saw the rich carpeting, the pair of simple wingback chairs and the mantled fireplace.  The living room was lined with barrister bookshelves their glass fronts leaded crystal as if plucked from a Tudor cottage.  A three seater sofa, low coffee table and indirect lighting made the room cosy.

“No TV, I’m afraid, but then, I do have this.”  He touched a switch on the wall and Baroque music filled the apartment.

To the high, light, bright, clear music Alexandra’s spirits danced. For a moment she forgot the misery of her body, her fate.  She stood transfixed, wanting such things for herself and knowing that could never be.

Turning to Halstead, she took off the coat.  She didn’t want to dirty it any more than she already had. 

He took it and hung it on a coat rack just inside the door.  “May I offer you a small tour?”

“Sure.”

He showed her the galley kitchen, enhanced with modern conveniences.  He showed her the art room, as he called it, where he painted; it was the only room one might call a mess.  He showed her the guest bedroom suite, which included a private bath.  And he showed her a door at the end of the hall.  “This is my private room.”  He tapped the door with his knuckle, lightly.  “I’m the only one who goes in here.”

She smiled and nodded as if she understood.

He smiled into her eyes.  “You’ll find soap, shampoo and towels in the guest bathroom and a robe and probably some clothes you can use, too.  Go ahead and get yourself clean while I make supper for us.”

“I really appreciate this.”  She thought, in the back of her mind, that she’d probably have to fend off his sexual advances eventually or, if her despair surfaced, give in to them in exchange for his kindness, but just then it seemed a fair trade.  She so craved fine things and a bath in this luxury apartment would be heavenly just then.

“You’re wrong about me, you know.”  He said this with a small smile.  “I’m not what you think.”

She didn’t know how to answer that. 

He smiled wider.  “Go ahead, come out when you’re ready.  Do you like Italian?”

“Yes. Thank you.”  She felt odd inside, as if his approval would be important before long. 

She cried during her shower, thinking of all she’d lost and where her life had so cruelly taken her.  Then she perked up as she found skin lotions and even a delicate perfume.  Maybe the cold, harsh lesson of life was to be short for her.

She wondered idly if Mr. Halstead might be seduced.  The thought made her blush.  She was not a virgin but not much past it, in truth, and wasn’t entirely sure she could vamp a man his age without giggling.

Her body, not itchy anymore and soft from the shower, glowed with renewed vigour.  She dried her breasts and found her nipples responding.  For a moment she caressed them, eyes half shut.  Her body relaxed, a tingle that could bring warm wetness beginning in her.  With a sigh she left off the temptation and went to the guest bedroom to look through the clothes there.

In a bureau she found underwear in several sizes, all women’s.  Some was plain, some was fancy and some looked to be antique lace and silk.  She chose something from the plain and found it fitted her fine.  There were bras in the draw below again a wide range.  She again chose something familiar and plain.

In the bottom drawer she found tee shirts and blouses.  She chose a tee shirt with Sylvester the Cat.

In the closet hung jeans, slacks, skirts and dresses, again in a range of sizes and styles.  Jeans won out almost without thinking, although Alexandra lingered amidst the dresses.  Some might be bridesmaid worthy and some dared her to attend some Hollywood cocktail party.

Along the back wall on the floor of the closet she found shoes in pigeonholes.  The sizes were marked discreetly on the wooden slots.  She found a pair of moccasins and slipped them onto her bare feet. 

Feeling much more human now, she returned to the bathroom.  The steam was cleared and she brushed her hair.  It hung straight to the middle of her back, a shining cascade of mahogany shot with ripples of honey blonde.  She opened a crystal box and found barrettes; one clipped her hair back.

She gazed at her face for a moment then scowled.  She’d never worn make-up, so she skipped the array offered by the sink.

It was only as she walked across the room again, past the four-poster queen-sized bed, that she started thinking.  She stopped mid-stride.  Halstead kept this room for women, but not for any particular woman.  That meant maybe he picked up strays all the time.  And if so, Alexandra wondered, where are they now?

A new wariness informed her actions as she came out of the guest room and walked down the hall, but the scent of marinara sauce simmering had her stomach growling by the time she reached the kitchen.  Once again body won out over mind.

She would soon learn to change that.

 

During the meal Martin -- he insisted she call him that and kept adding, “for now” -- asked Alexandra many questions.  He learned she’d been going to college locally until her father had been caught embezzling.  In a fit of despair that Alexandra empathised with, her father had burned the family home to the ground, killing himself and her mother.  Alexandra had escaped with minor burns.

The insurance company, citing arson, refused to pay her a dime, so Alexandra found herself unable to pay for the next semester of school, despite a few emergency loans the administration tried to arrange.

She’d worked at a pizza joint for a short time but her boss had come onto her and, when she refused to put out, he’d fired her.  She’d been on the street since then.

“How long?”  Martin leaned closer, sipping some merlot.

She shrugged.  “Only a week or so.”

“And you have no friends here?  No one to crash with?”

She shrugged.  “I didn’t want to be that way.”

“I see.”

She wondered exactly what he did see in her, thinking maybe it was more than she could grasp just then.

“Truth is, I didn’t get to know many people and, well. I guess I’m shy.”

“And self-reliant and proud.  Yes.”

She warmed at the compliments and dared a glance at him.  She found him smiling but with an inward look in his eyes.

“You must have wondered about my guest room, why it’s stocked for women that way.”

She put some pasta into her mouth and partly nodded, not knowing what to say.

“You must think I’m a womaniser, hm?”

“No, not at all.”  She sure hoped not.

“Good.  I’m not.”  He leaned back.  “I’m in contact with a wide range of the city’s important people.  The ones whose ideas and decisions affect everyone.”

“I thought you owned bookstores.”

He nodded.  “So I do.  And in the course of building my business I made contacts and, well, proved myself a discreet person when it comes to certain things.”

She felt a frisson; was he about to confess he laundered mob money or handled bribes?

“Many of the men who come to me for rare books enjoy a certain type of literature that isn’t well-known to most.  They pay extra for it, of course.  And inevitably, as they get to know me, they speak of wanting other things.  Living things.”

“Like pets?”

He chuckled.  “Like slaves.  Not the antebellum kind from plantations and the Civil War, mind you.  Another, more enjoyable kind.”

“You mean sex slaves?”

He smiled and held her gaze.  “You’ve heard of this lifestyle, then?”

She shrugged.  “I had a Women’s Studies class and Professor Eldon talked about how women to this day are sometimes kidnapped and flown to like the Middle East where Saudi princes buy them to be in their harems.  Or the sex workers from Russia, poor women forced to prostitution and sent into the Balkans and even West Germany and, well ...”  She ran out of steam.

“And Alexandra, what if I told you there is still another category of slavery?  One that fulfils the women involved and sets them free as they discover their own true natures?”

Her blush embarrassed her.  Looking at her plate she took a sip of lime-water and shook her head.  “I don’t know what you mean.”

“I’m a trainer, on occasion.  I supply a perfect finished product, a woman who is submissive to her Dominant and refined in the ways of pleasing him with complete obedience.”

She wondered what kind of training and didn’t think he meant typing.  She also got nervous and glanced at the door.

He spotted this and chuckled.  “Don’t worry, you’re free to leave at any time.  I’m not a brute.”

“No, I--”

“It’s all right, Alexandra.  You’re not stupid and of course you must be cautious.  You’re young but you’ve already learned that women are too often a commodity in this world.”

Now he sounded as if he were on the women’s side.  Had he not just said he supplies them, like a commodity?

“I’ve never brought a woman here on my own.  This apartment is reserved for training slaves who have already agreed to be trained, in order to please their Dominants.  You, Alexandra, are the first to see this place without understanding its purpose.”

A chill entered her.  She gazed now directly at him, feeling both bold and afraid.  “Why?”

He reached across the table and took her hand.  “Because I sensed you even before I entered the alley.  I felt your presence in a way that puzzles me.  You’re different, Alexandra.  I was drawn to you and that’s not happened before.  Are you special?”

She’d been flattered before by ardent, horny young men full of poetry and beer, so she wasn’t going to let his words sway her but there was something in his tone that was new.  It thrilled and terrified her because something deep inside herself responded to it in ways she couldn’t control or describe.

She almost felt as if she’s been dared.

“You mean you want to train me?”

He heaved a sigh and ran a hand through his thick hair.  “I’m not yet sure, Alexandra.  I’ve never craved a sub of my own and, well, I don’t know if you’d be the one even if I did.”

Her feelings flip-flopped.  She’d felt the heat of his lust and now she felt the slap of his ambiguity, his possible indifference. 

She had nowhere to go and no means of escaping the grind of low-paying jobs, brutal bosses and crass co-workers.  She’d already decided that Mr. Martin Halstead was a sexy older man, she liked being around him, she really liked the way he lived and that she wouldn’t mind if he came on to her. 

Now she found herself out of her depth.  It wasn’t a quick coupling he wanted.

In fact, he wasn’t even sure he wanted her at all.

This made her determined to seduce him, somehow.

 

He saw this in her and smiled without showing it.