Veiled Girl With Lute

**This story contains themes that could be triggering for some readers**

Standing at her door in the grey-green evening light, he smells of ozone and sweat. Rain has plastered his hair to his face, his t-shirt and his pants to his body. He blinks the drops from his eyelashes.

Nathaniel arrives burdened with rage and desire in equal measure. The combustible mixture plays in iridescent patterns across his rain-slicked face.

How many miles has he run in an effort to expend the need that is consuming him? She knows the torturous route he’s taken in a conscious effort not to end up here, at her door.

Were she a truly good woman she’d send him home to blaze in a solitary conflagration. Because, no matter how unbearable he believes it to be in this moment, it will burn itself out in his airless solitude. If she lets him in he will, despite her complicity, leave convinced he has added to the mountain of trespasses he already carries.

She steps aside and motions him in, feels the heat coming off his skin as he brushes past her. This is no measured thing, no barbarous pastime made harmless by consent.

His hand flashes out to seize the hair at the nape of her neck with uncanny precision. He drags her to him. Kisses her with a deliberate brutality. Her lip splits on the corner of his tooth. Livid and instinctual fear pumps billows of adrenalin into her bloodstream. The most primitive part of her brain urges her to either fight or fly but the gravity well of his desire makes flight unthinkable, and experience has taught her that fighting leads to darker places.

None of those things, however, are the reasons she lets him in or allows him do the things he does to her. To her shame and incomprehension, it is the ugly ache between her legs. The rush squeezes her throat closed. She cannot bring herself to ask him to come to her, but when he does, she cannot turn him away.

* * * * *

The first time they’d met it was here, at her door. He arrived as an expert in something quite different.

The small porcelain figure of a veiled woman playing a lute stood on her deep windowsill; it seemed the safest place to keep the arcane and, to her eyes, gaudy piece of antique frippery. Bequeathed to her by a recently deceased and not particularly beloved uncle, the solicitor representing the executors had suggested that, should she not care to keep it, they could arrange for someone to come and give her a valuation for auction. Having no tolerance at all for knickknacks, she accepted their offer.

She had expected someone small and delicate in a hand knitted sweater with wire-rimmed glasses. The man who arrived three days later was much bigger, dark, and suited.

“Nathaniel Bennett. I’m here on behalf of Taylor and Lyons,” he said. He had a worn sort of grammar school accent, with a hint of Belfast in it.

When she led him into the living room and showed him the figure, he picked it up confidently but with focused care in one enormous hand. These weren’t the hands of a porcelain expert. They would have looked more at home on a builder or a gardener. He upended the piece, and examined the blue marks on the base: a pair of crossed swords and single blurred dot. He ran his thumbnail over the rough outer edge of the base and made a soft noise in his throat.

“You have a very nice piece of porcelain here, Ms…”

“Gennie.”

He turned the figure upright and, stepping a little closer to the recessed window, examined the form in the natural light. Made another small noise, and put the piece back on the sill but did not release it.

“You don’t have any pets, do you?”

“A cat, why?”

“Then I wouldn’t leave it here in the open,” he said, withdrawing his hand and stepping back in a manner that seemed curiously formal.

She eyed the figure again and shrugged.

“Can we sit?” he asked.

“Sure. Of course,” she said, shoving a pile of books off the sofa and onto the floor.

Despite his size, he was fastidious in the way he sat down, pinching the thighs of his suit trousers and hitching them a fraction to save the crease at the knee. The armchair was similarly piled with books so Gennie took a seat on the floor. Then, suddenly remembering her manners, offered him some tea.

“That’s not necessary.” He regarded her in silence for a while.

“Okay, so… give me the news,” she said, unaccountably nervous.

“It’s a piece of Meissen. Very fine. Modeled by Kandler. In about 1743, I believe.”

“That means very little to me, Mr. Bennett.”

“So I see. Don’t leave it where your cat can knock it over. That would be a great pity.”

She looked up at the figure and the around the room, thinking of somewhere else she could store it for the present. In a drawer, somewhere, perhaps. The sideboard cabinet?

“Alright. So… Do you think anyone would want it?”

He sat back, interlaced his hands in his lap and peered up at the ceiling. “I imagine there would be many people who want it. It’s rare. In perfect condition. Museum quality. German 18th Century porcelain is not fetching as much as it used to at auction these days, but there’s always a market for the best pieces.”

“Oh,” she said, unable to think of what else to say.

“I think it would fetch about £5,000 at auction. But if you were to keep it, I’d insure it for a good deal more than that.”

Gennie was stunned. “£5,000?” That was no small sum to her. She wasn’t impoverished. Her work at the institute paid her some and the odd editing job brought in a little more, but this was an unexpected windfall. “I had no idea.”

“There are, of course, private collectors. That would save you the auction fees.” He hesitated for a moment. “I could ask around, if you like.”

“Would it make much of a difference?”

He shrugged. It was a tense, irritable gesture and showed up the tendons that stretched from his jaw down his neck. Handsome man, thought Gennie. Too bad he’s such an asshole.

“Perhaps.”

“Look, as I said, I know nothing about stuff like this. So, what do you suggest?”

“It’s not ‘stuff’, Ms…”

“Gennie.”

“Ms. Gennie.”

“Just Gennie, actually.” Meeting his gaze, there was irritation and weariness in his eyes. She stared back, willing him to thaw a little. What a shame he was so patronizing. He had wonderful eyes. In the slanting light of the afternoon, they were a rich olive colour—not like the usual watery green. The dark hair at his temples was receding and he had beautifully sharp, high cheekbones. There was a thin, pale scar that joined his upper lip to his nostril—a well repaired cleft palate— and another, more recent one just above his right eyebrow that dented the skin and interrupted the developing worry lines on his forehead.

He gave her a curt, dismissive shake of the head and stood up. It was like a dismissal. His great frame loomed over her in the small room. Gennie scrambled to her feet, and then felt vaguely annoyed at herself for letting the prat intimidate her in her own house.

“If you’re not in a hurry, I will see what I can do.”

Standing up didn’t help. “I’m not in a hurry,” she said, more defensively than she intended. “Just let me know.”

At the door, she watched him walk back up the path to his car. It was an immaculately preserved e-type Jaguar. She watched him fold his massive body into the low-slung car and drive away.

* * * * *

A week later, as she was rushing to get out the door and catch the train into London, he phoned her.

“It’s Nathaniel Bennett.”

No hello, no how are you. Prat.

“Hi, what’s up Nathaniel?”

“I’ve found a buyer for your beautiful little lute player.”

The last of the sentence was said with such affection that Gennie realised she was speaking to a man who hated people but loved porcelain. Again, it struck her as ironic that he had been, in his physical presence, and most especially in his manner, the perfect bull in a china shop.

“That’s wonderful. Thank you.”

“May I come ’round?”

“I’m sorry. I’m just headed out to work. But I’ll be back around five, if that suits you.”

“It does.”

* * * * *

He was waiting for her under the overhang of her porch when she let herself in at her gate, soaked from the rain, at five fifteen.

“I’m sorry I’m late. Fucking trains,” she said, hurrying up the path. But she wasn’t truly sorry. She was angry for being late and looking like a flake. She was irritated that he was perfectly dry; his massive black umbrella leaned up against the porch trellis. She was especially irked with herself for giving a shit, even as she made an attempt to push the rat-tails of wet hair off her face.

Gennie looked back over the gate, at the lane. “Where’s your lovely Jag?”

“I walked.”

She fumbled in her purse until she found her keys, slid the right one in the lock and then struggled a bit with the old, warped door. She gave it a tug and an unnecessarily sharp kick to open it.

“Come in,” she muttered, without looking back as she let her satchel slide off her shoulder and shrugged out of her sodden coat, draping it over the banister in the hall. “Want some tea?”

“No.”

Walking into her decrepit kitchen, she glanced back at him and flicked on the kettle. “Wine?”

He stood in the doorway, plastic bag dangling from his meaty fingers. “No.”

Clearly, he just wanted to get on with this and leave. “You’re busy. Of course,” she said, snatching the dishtowel from its hook. She rubbed it through her sodden hair, trying to squeeze out the excess. “Let’s go through to the living room and we’ll get this sorted.”

She paused at the kitchen threshold, waited for him to move, unable to get by him. “Shall we?”

“I’m not busy,” he said, in a soft, absent way. But he didn’t move.

It brought her up short, physically close to him, and she stepped back. The body rush came on so fast and so acutely, it shocked her. She smelled something on him: an acrid, chemical scent, like the smoke after fireworks. Her nipples, already peaked from the rain and the chill of the under-heated house, seized and stung. Suddenly, she couldn’t look him in the eye. Gennie was inexplicably convinced he was going to touch her, kiss her, and for a fraction of a second, she saw it vividly in her head.

“You’re the torture woman, aren’t you?” he said, and stepped back into the hall to let her through.

It was over. Just like that.

She took her a moment to process the question, and laughed. “That’s not a very flattering way to put it,” she said, leading him into the living room.

“You write about it. I saw an article in the paper.”

She raised her eyebrow and grimaced. “The piece on Jordan in the FT? Not the nicest of topics, is it?”

Unlatching the cabinet door on her second-hand sideboard, she reached in and took out the figurine. It felt poignantly delicate in her hand. She set it down on the stone mantel of her fireplace.

“No.” He didn’t move to pick it up. Instead, he set the bulging shopping bag down on the sofa and pulled out a roll of bubble wrap, a roll of sticky tape, and a sturdy cardboard box.

“Sorry,” she muttered.

“I’ve found a buyer in Germany. The Germans tend to pay the best prices for Meissen. Although there are a few very dedicated Japanese collectors. He’s willing to pay £5,500 for the piece. Is that acceptable to you?”

“Absolutely. That’s wonderful.”

He reached into the inner breast pocket of his overcoat and pulled out an envelope. Opening it, he drew out the contents. “I have a bill of sale here, which will require your signature on one copy, and a bank draft for the amount.”

“Oh, that’s… that’s just great,” she said, taking the proffered papers. It was indeed two copies of a private bill of sale, with her named as seller, and the buyer identified as a Markus G. Verner, and a stern-looking draft from the London branch of Deutsche Bank.

Picking out a pen from the bristling cup on the sideboard, she signed one copy the space provided and dated below it. When she turned back to hand him the letter, he was carefully rolling the piece of porcelain in what seemed like a bizarre amount of bubble wrap. She watched him secure the padding with tape and nestle the bundle into the open box. It fit perfectly. When he was satisfied, he put the box back into the shopping bag, set in on the sofa and turned to her.

“What drew you to that field?” He asked, taking the letter, folding it, and slipping it into his coat pocket.

“Sorry?”

“Torture. Why torture?”

“Oh, I just sort of drifted into it, really,” she said, trying to sound casual. “I took a degree in international law. Human rights issues.”

“Really?” He said it as if he didn’t believe her.

She shivered, felt cold again and remembered the kettle she’d set to boil in the kitchen. Suddenly she just wanted him out of her house. “No. Actually it was prurient fascination,” she snapped.

He was on her in a fraction of a second. She felt the back of her head hit the plaster wall and slide upwards as he hitched his hands under the curve of her buttocks and lifted her off her feet. But the kiss frightened her more. It was nothing like the kiss she had imagined earlier. Not passionate or feral like the rest of his body, it had the eerie quality of a surgeon’s knife. Careful, measured, he kissed her as if he were opening up her brain and tasting what lay inside.

It was manipulative and expert. He didn’t thrust his tongue into her mouth, or devour her face. It was a stepped, concerted pressure on her senses. He sucked at her lips, pressed into them softly, trailed the tip of his tongue across them until she was kissing him back without having ever made the decision to do so. Her body had decided on its own to wrap an arm around his neck, to hook a leg around his hip. The wiser, rational part of her witnessed this with utter disgust.

“Thank you,” he said, pulling away from her mouth.

“For what?”

“For telling the truth.”

Gennie blinked. “What truth?”

“Don’t do that.” He wore the hint of a smile and beneath it a hum of a threat, despite the good humour in his voice.

“Put me down.” She used as calm and firm a tone as she could manage, letting her arm slip from his shoulder. “Now, please.”

“Aw, don’t take it back.” The grip on the back of her thighs tightened. He leaned into her, intentionally crushing her against the wall.

“Take what back?”

“The prurient fascination. That…” he said, grinding his hips into hers, making his arousal plain, “interests me. Tell me about it.”

“What?” Gennie glared at him. Wedging her hands between their chests, she pushed. “Get off me.”

“Shush.” Nathaniel rolled his hips again, and then again, and again. Even through his clothes and hers, the motion was obscene, bruising, arousing. “Don’t lie to me, darlin’,” he said, pressing his lips to her temple. The Irish in his accent leaked through the grammar school veneer. “I fucking hate lies.”

It didn’t matter that the wetness at her crotch made the fabric slip as he dry fucked her against the wall, or that every bruising grind only intensified the arousal, or that the acrid, gunpowder scent of him, now that he was so close, made her salivate. He was sick: sick like the people she’d spent so much of her life studying from a distance. She knew it in her bones. So why wasn’t she kicking and screaming her fucking head off?

“Look,” she said in a studied, steady voice. “I mean it. Stop.”

“Haven’t you ever wondered what it feels like?”

“What *what* feels like?”

“To be tortured? To be the one who tortures?”

Images, phrases, trial transcripts, military manuals, first person accounts all crowded her brain. How long had she lived with this mental archive of atrocities? Disgusted, Gennie shook her head to push the thoughts away. “God, no.”

Quite abruptly, Nathaniel released his grip on her legs and stepped back, easing her to the floor. His tie was askew. The immaculately crisp shirt now creased. “Another expert who has no idea what they’re talking about. Well, that’s not news, is it?”

She was cold again, her pelvic bone ached and unexpectedly very, very angry. “What the fuck would you know about it? You’re a… Porcelain expert?” she sneered.

“Among other things.” His accent was now full on Northern Ireland.

“Let’s wrap this up, shall we? What kind of commission do I owe you?” she asked, turning and stalking towards the kitchen to get the chequebook in her purse. Behind her she heard the rustle as he picked up the shopping bag and heard his steps behind her in the hall.

“You don’t owe me anything.”

She was cool now—in control of herself and itching to be rid of him. A glass of wine and a hot bath was what she needed. “No. I don’t want to owe you any favours. Ten percent? Fifteen? Twenty?”

Fishing out her chequebook and a pen, she clicked it efficiently and dated a blank cheque on her kitchen island.

“Really, I’m not a dealer. I’m just a consultant. The love of porcelain goes back in my family a long way. I’m glad I could find a good home for it.”

Gennie sighed and looked up at him. It was as if she were talking to an entirely different person. “You’re sure?”

“Absolutely.”

She was about to see him to the door, but her curiosity got the better of her. “‘Among other things’. That’s what you said.”

“Yes.”

“What other things?”

He lowered the box in the shopping bag on the floor and leant his large frame on the worn wood top of the island. Then he leveled his gaze at her. “I think you know.”

A curious sensation crept up her spine—hot and cold at the same time. She inclined her head. “Do I?”

“Oh, yes. I think you do.” He reached across the surface and slid his large hand over hers. “But the question is, do you want to know that you know?”

She should have pulled her hand away, but she couldn’t. She should have pulled her eyes away from his, but she didn’t. “I’m not sure.”

“Well, if you ever get sure, phone me.” Nathaniel nodded and stood up, withdrawing his hand. He used it to fish in his coat pocket and pull out a card, which he laid on the table. “And I’m sorry about… before.” Then, without another word, he picked up the package and saw himself out.

It was dark outside and still raining.

* * * * *

The white linen business card remained where he’d left it for three weeks.

Gennie wasn’t much of a cook, but each morning she crawled into the kitchen in search of coffee and, on the numerous occasions she made tea or poured herself a glass of wine, it sat there, disturbing the disorder of her countertop .

By the end of a fortnight, it had acquired a red wine stain on its corner and she was compelled to ask herself why she hadn’t chucked it out or at least shoved it in a drawer somewhere.

Nathaniel H. Bennett
International Security Services

Beneath that was a mobile number and an email address set in smaller type, but the focus of her disquiet lay in the innocuous language under his name.

There had always been something wrong with the original picture. The incongruity of Nathaniel cradling the delicate china figure in the massive meat hook of his hand kept troubling her. There were, she imagined, a few passionate porcelain experts built like brick shit houses in the world but if there was a stereotypical porcelain collector, he didn’t fit the bill. In fact, he didn’t fit at all. Something was missing. It took her a little longer to realise it was the absence of a rank—a retired rank. That’s what it was, she decided; he smelled of military. So, where was the rank? Only a few possible reasons not to include it: either he was reluctant to state—up front—what his rank had been, or he’d been in a part of the service whose members didn’t reveal their rank, or he’d been stripped of it.

At first she told herself her reluctance to be rid of the card was simply that she loved a mystery. True as that was, there was more to it. By the end of the third week, she had to admit to a less morally defensible motivation.

In all the years she’d spent awash in a sea of information of man’s inhumanity to man, of war criminals and the silent, sociopathic men employed by governments to maintain their power by less than fastidious means, she had never come face to face with one.

Her database on governments, individuals and victims of torture was extensive and information rich, but her knowledge of the men—very occasionally women—who perpetrated those atrocities was sterile and impersonal. When she’d finally, tentatively asked herself the question Nathaniel had posed as he ground his cock against her crotch, she had to admit, however unwillingly, to a fascination with the men who did this.

Did they tell themselves comforting patriotic lies? Did they find ways to inure themselves to the screams and the pain of their victims? How did they distance themselves from the humans they were destroying? Or perhaps they didn’t? Perhaps that was the most frightening prospect of all: that they enjoyed doing what they did—took pleasure in their work. These men who did unspeakable things, not in the red rage of battle or from the cockpit of long-range bombers, but in such personal, intimate settings lived with the stench of urine and faeces and blood and the agonies of their subjects so close at hand.

Nathaniel Bennett was not on any list of human rights’ violators, that much Gennie knew. There were thousands who never made those lists, who flew below the radar of international authorities: the lesser demons of the torture world, the officially sanctioned, if usually unacknowledged, executors of state will.

She didn’t consider her interest in the psychological dynamics of these people to be prurient. Understanding why people gave themselves permission to do this was important to finding ways to stop them.

What frightened her, when she finally forced herself to confront her feelings, was that she found Nathaniel Bennett excruciatingly attractive.

It was not his physical beauty, although he was a very handsome man; that had never been the mechanism of her attraction. She could appreciate aesthetic male beauty when she saw it and walk right by without regret. Nor was it his charm, which—on the rare occasions he’d turned it on—was considerable.

There was something at a level far deeper than the visual or the social that called to her in him. Something chemical. Something visceral. Something that both pulled her in and scared the living shit out of her.

After three large glasses of Merlot, on a cold Thursday evening, she went into the kitchen, picked up the card, and dialled his number.

* * * * *

He answered on the second ring. “Good evening, Gennie.”

“How did you know it was me?”

“I’m organized.”

She paused for a moment, then pushed on. “Is everything okay with the figurine? Did the buyer get it?”

“I’m thinking that’s not why you’ve called.”

“No. Not really.” Come on, she thought to herself. Don’t be such a fucking coward. But her mind was racing and she couldn’t think how to formulate what she wanted to say. “I… um…”

“I’d rather not talk on the phone. Are you free now?”

The old kitchen clock stood at ten thirty, but she decided that she’d given him enough mixed messages already. “Yes, I am.”

“Good. Then I’ll be with you in about…let’s see…. five miles…thirty minutes? If you’ll excuse the sweat.”

“Sure. If you’ll excuse the mess.”

* * * * *

Nathaniel was nothing if not punctual; the bell rang at exactly eleven. Gennie had spent the preceding thirty minutes fighting the desire to fix her hair, put on make-up and tidy her living room. She had done none of these, but expended her energy trying to restrain herself from doing it. He was dressed in a black hoodie, white t-shirt and jogging pants and was, as promised, very sweaty. When she motioned him in, he walked past her smelling of musk, bonfires and damp autumn leaves.

“Would you like some wine?”

“I’d prefer water, if you don’t mind.”

“And a towel?”

He grimaced, skin flushed, dark hair plastered to his forehead. “A towel would be good.”

“Go through,” she said. “I’ll be along.”

In the kitchen she fished the pitcher of filtered water out of the fridge and found the one tall glass she knew didn’t have a chip in it. She poured herself another glass of wine and then, rummaging in her drier, pulled out the only towel she was absolutely sure was clean and wedged it under her arm.

Nathaniel sat on the floor, legs bent, arms balanced on his knees, and back propped up against the book and file strewn sofa.

“I’m sorry. Let me make some room there,” Gennie said, dropping the towel beside him and then handing him the jug and the glass.

“No, I’m good here.”

She settled on the floor opposite him, realising with dismay that she was still wearing a ridiculous pair of orange fuzzy socks. Taking them off would look—something, something not good—so she knelt and sat on them instead. She took another deep swig of her Merlot and watched him chug water.

The longer the silence grew, the more unsure she became about how to start the conversation. When he’d finished half the jug of water, he began to towel his hair.

“You’re ex-military, aren’t you?”

“I served in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he muttered, rubbing his head vigorously, “I did some freelance work in Africa and Thailand with the Yanks. I did some of the stuff you’ve written about. Is that what you wanted to know?”

Gennie swallowed. “Yes.”

“Well, that’s sorted then. Is that it?”

“No. I’m curious.” Gennie hesitated. “Call it a professional interest.”

“You want know how, why? That sort of thing?”

“Something like that.”

He gave a bark of a laugh. “Ah, then. You want to know if I liked it.”

She took another sip of the wine and then put it down. Was she sober enough to be having this discussion? “Yes, I guess I do.”

He folded the towel and draped it on one of his knees. Beneath his rolled up pants, his legs were tanned, dark haired, muscled. There was an ugly scar stretching from just below the hem to the top of his sock. When Gennie looked up, he was staring at her.

“That has a more complicated answer. One that would require you getting to know me better,” he said, his smile broadening. “And you aren’t sure you want to do that, are yeh?”

“I…No, I…”

“Don’t lie, Gennie. I fuckin’ hate lies. They bring out the bastard in me.”

“I’m not sure. No,” she said, rushed and definite.

He nodded. “That’s understandable. But here’s the thing. I like you. I like that you know at least a bit of who I am. I’m tired of fucking women I have to lie to. I don’t like the man I am, but trying to be someone else is worse.”

She opened her mouth to speak but he cut her off. “And you could say that those are just the wages of sin,” he went on, “and that might be true enough. But I figure I’d have a go anyway. So, whatever it is I can do to change your mind, I’m gonna do it. Understood?’

There was a tingling, an eerie surge that started at her top of her thighs, just where they met her arse. It crept up her buttocks, then up the sides of her back. Only when it reached her shoulders did she realise her cheeks were flaming. She nodded.

“I’m not going to change your mind with words. So, are you going to come over here and kiss me, or do I have to come to you?”

“No,” she said quickly, laughing, embarrassed. “No. It’s not like that at all.”

He smiled and lay the towel aside. Carefully he moved the glass and the pitcher aside and pulled off his hoodie. “Yeah, darlin’. It is like that.” He said it soft and low. “It is.”

On his hands and knees he moved slowly towards her. It felt like a strange, electric paralysis; she couldn’t move—just watched him close the gap between them.

“Because I can smell you, Gennie. It is exactly like that.”

He kissed her the way he had before. A studied, careful kiss. It pried at her, pulled all her focus down to the inexorable sensation of his mouth on hers. While he kissed her, his hands rounded her hips and covered her ass, pulling her up onto his lap until she was straddling him. And just like before, her body cared nothing for her mind’s hesitations. It would be so easy to just surrender. It frightened her, this strange and unfamiliar war.

When he broke the kiss, cocked his head and engaged her eyes. “Let me offer you the first piece of goodwill.”

His hands slid beneath her jumper and sit it upward, following the contours of her body. Pulling it over her head. He stroked her bare back and curled his fingers around her shoulders, then pushed her down until she could feel the hardness of his cock against her.

“It’s not about pain, Gennie. It’s about fear.”

* * * * *

He kissed her again, and as he did, his hands travelled from her shoulders to enclose her neck. His thumbs edged under her jaw. Not hard but there. Gennie stiffened.

“Hush,” he whispered, and pressed his cheek against hers. “Feel it? Can you feel it?”

“Yes, I can.”

“You’ve such a pretty neck, pretty Gennie. And there,” he said, easing his thumbs until they were poised above her carotid arteries, pressing just enough so she could feel the throb against them, “right there is your pulse. Feel that?”

All the rush of arousal began to knot into fear. Her thoughts were racing. Jesus fucking christ, was she out of her mind? How had she fantasised that she would ever be in control of this? He was twice her size, he could snap her neck with a single hand. She’d be some obit in the papers.

“Yes. Please, stop,” she said softly. Her voice trembled. “I don’t think… I don’t think I can do this.”

“’Course you can, girl.” The thumbs rubbed at her skin, ribbed over the tunnels of blood beneath the surface. “Because you want to know, don’t you?”

“Oh… um… fuck,” she stuttered. “God, I…I…”

“Sh-shush.” It was a soporific sound, hypnotising, which only frightened her more. Nathaniel pushed his hips up, not rough, sinuously. “I could end your life in three minutes. I know it. You know it. And it frightens you. Doesn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Because I like it when you’re frightened.” He pulled back his head, looked straight into her eyes, and gave her a chilling, charming grin. “You can feel that, too.”

His eyes were not the olive of before, but black holes. It wasn’t that he was detached or unengaged, but horrifyingly, monstrously there. He had killed people like this. In that moment, she was sure of it. Her body shivered violently, and although she tensed her muscles to quell it, it wouldn’t stop.

“It’s a good way to die,” said Nathaniel, tilting his head, putting the tiniest bit more pressure on her throat. “A peaceful way. Painless. Would you like to go, Gennie?”

“No!” Her breathing was choppy, snagging on the tremors that shook her frame. “No, no. Please.”

“Well, that’s good. Because you’re no use to me dead.” The grin grew into a wide smile. “So touch me.”

“What?”

“You heard me. Show me you’re of use to me.” Again, he pressed his thumbs a little deeper. “Reach inside and stroke my cock.”

“But… Christ.” The smile was gone. She began to feel slightly dizzy. Her pulse hammered against her inner ears.

“Do it!” His voice was low, brittle, cold.

Gennie scrabbled with the hem of his damp t-shirt. The waistband beneath was soaked with perspiration. It felt wretched as she tugged at the elastic webbing and burrowed her hand inside his hot, humid sweats and curled her fingers around his cock. It was circumcised, viscous with precum, difficult to fully grasp.

“Stroke me. Slowly.”

She did, the roll of his hips setting her pace.

He gave her the smallest of nods, and his eyelids fluttered. “Now this… this is going to keep you alive.”

* * * * *

“Will it?” She asked.

His lips parted, he raised his jaw in a small gesture of arousal. On his breath, which was coming slightly faster now, she detected the tang of cloves below the now familiar smell of spent fireworks. Between her legs, her hand made slick, obscene sounds with each stroke of his cock. It would have turned her on had she not been so aware of the pressure at her neck.

“Your hand is trembling, Gennie.” He smirked.

She gave him a stricken look. “I’m … I’m sorry.”

“So you should be,” he said. There was a dry, bored tone to his voice, completely at odds with the cock swelling and sliding in her hand. “You’re not really very good at this, are you?”

Before she could answer, he changed the angle of his hands. His thumbs dug into the underside of her jaw, forcing her head up. She made a miserable sound, one she’d never heard herself make before.

“Is this how you’ve touched your boyfriends, Gennie? Is this why you don’t have one? I’d rather have your cunt. It’s got to be better than your manual efforts. You don’t need a brain to use your cunt, do you Gennie?”

“For god’s sake. That hurts,” she whimpered, trying to pull away from his bruising hands. The fear was bad enough, but there was something about the words—no matter how ridiculous—that cut. It didn’t matter that he was throbbing in her hand and obviously aroused. It didn’t matter that she didn’t pride herself on delivering quality hand-jobs while being threatened with strangulation. He had managed to make her feel like nothing. A terrified, wretched loser.

“Come on. Don’t make me wait.”

Tears prickled at the corners of her eyes. “What the fuck do you want?” she whined.

“You know exactly what I want.”

“I can’t.”

Nathaniel adjusted his grip on her. One hand encircled her throat almost completely. The other fisted the hair at the back of her head. He gave her a short, sharp jerk and forced her to look at him. “Say that again and I’ll snap your neck, you stupid cunt.”

Gennie opened her mouth but there was nothing.

“I want you on my cock. Do I have to explain how?”

“No,” she whispered. She was crying silently, her breath hitching in her chest as she inhaled.

“Good. Don’t make me wait.”

All she could think was how lucky it was she’d worn a skirt. Had she been in trousers, in this position, the logistics would have been harder.

She didn’t realise she’d stopped stroking him, but she released him now and fumbled with her skirt. It was a faded cotton thing—too full to be fashionable—she wore around the house, and she fought to pull it up enough to get the fabric out of the way to reach her panties. Having hooked her thumbs under the hips, she tried to squirm her way out of them with only partial success. She finally got one leg free and heard a seam rip in the process.

Only when she began to tug at the waist of his sweats again did it strike her that, not once, had it occurred to her to refuse him, to tell him she didn’t want to fuck. The fear had completely eclipsed any arousal she had felt at first. As she struggled to get the wadded fabric over his hips without being able to look down and see what she was doing, she started to panic. Not because she was about to have intercourse with someone who was terrifying her, but because he was so obviously amused at her inept attempts to get his pants down.

His face changed. Nathaniel relinquished his grip on her neck and her hair. “Okay. Okay,” he whispered, as if to a child. He wrapped his arms around her shoulders and, bending forward, lowered her onto the floor.

Perhaps it was his tone, or the change of position, but suddenly Gennie was drowning in sorrow and a choking sense of relief. She turned her head to the side and cried.

“Oh, Gennie, Gennie,” he soothed, pressing his mouth to her salt-wet cheek. “It’s over. Done. Finished.”

She fought for breath between monstrous sobs and, for a while, he simply made hushing sounds and stroked her hair. Cupping her face, he kissed her with all the terrible gentleness of a total stranger. Then he entered her.

Her first disembodied thought was that it shouldn’t have been so easy. How could she be wet? Even as she canted her hips in response to that first delicious violation, even as she spread her legs wider, and bent her knees, even as she groaned at the meaty, visceral sensation of his cock head hitting the end of her passage, a drone of self-disgust settled into her spinal column.

He fucked her with the slow deliberation of restrained violence. His sinews were taut, his mouth was open, at her throat his teeth rasped against her skin. And she knew these weren’t two different men. Just one that could switch modes with an ease born of years of practice.

Pausing for a moment, he reached back, tugged his damp t-shirt over his head, and groaned at the meeting of skin as he lowered himself onto her.

“Tell me to fuck you, Gennie.”

That’s when the sense of relief obliterated everything else. When the muscles of her cunt spasmed around him, and she began to come, she begged him to fuck her.

* * * * *

After he’d finished, in the awkward stillness that followed, Gennie felt the bizarre disorientation that comes with having done something she’d never thought herself capable of doing. With it came a swell of revulsion. At herself. At him.

On her back, on the floor, the light from the floor lamp above her burned a painful hole into her brain. The two painful spots under her jaw acted as a mnemonic. She had never been in any danger of dying at all. Now she was sure of that. How had she so thoroughly convinced herself otherwise? She had slipped so easily, so willingly into the mindset of a victim. The shame of it knotted her stomach and she felt the first cramp.

“Off. Get off me,” she said, panicked, pushing him as the first wave of nausea hit her.

Gennie scrambled out from beneath his lethargic body, got to her feet and, clamping one hand to her mouth and an arm across her bare breasts, rushed down the hall. In the small, old-fashioned bathroom, she sank to her knees and retched into the toilet.

It seemed as if there were no end to what she could bring up and, in the weak moonlight through the high window, the regurgitated wine was dark against the white porcelain. Like a monumental act of refusal—one she seemed incapable of only minutes before—her body convulsed and attempted to expel all the fear, the arousal, the sense of self-disgust, the weakness of the previous hour. Between her bare legs, the same convulsions forced the blood-warm sperm out of her and down her inner thighs.

The hand on her head made her flinch.

“No! Don’t,” she croaked into the echo of the toilet bowl.

But Nathaniel did not retreat. He caught a curtain of hair and smoothed it away from her face. “Shush, darlin’. Get it all out. It’s normal.”

He crouched next to her, his t-shirt back on, his face in deep shadow. Reaching above her, he pulled the towel off the rail next to the sink and draped it over her bare shoulders as another volley of retching overtook her.

When she thought it was over, when she was panting into the void and assuring herself that her legs would hold her if she tried to stand, she sat back on her heels and wiped her mouth with a corner of the towel. She couldn’t look at him.

“I think you need to go now.” Her tone was flat.

“That’s the one thing I’m afraid I cannot do, sweet Gennie.”

“Why?” she asked the darkness.

“Because if I go now, you’re going to remember only that other man, and not this one.”

His knees cricked in the shadows as he got to his feet. She felt him slips his hands beneath her arms and pulled her upright. “You want it to be simple, but it’s more complicated than that. I assume you have a bathroom with an actual bath somewhere?”

“At the end of the hall, through my bedroom.”

He lifted her easily, as if she were something entirely portable. And that was, in a way, what she felt like: something that had been taken to atrocious places, into unsolvable mazes, and then been carried back.

She expected him to simply plop her down on the bed, but he carried her through it and into her bathroom instead. He lowered her onto the side of her tub and switched on the light.

“I just want to sleep,” she said miserably.

But he was already turning the creaky taps on, playing his fingers beneath the flow until the old boiler grudgingly gave him a stream of hot water. Satisfied with the temperature, he tugged the little stopper and rerouted the water through to the showerhead.

“Come on. Get in,” he said, stripping off his shirt and stepping out of his sweats.

When she hesitated, he pulled her to her feet again and reached around her waist, hunting for the closure on her skirt. “I can do it,” she said waspishly.

He stepped away from her. “Then do it, Gennie.”

He stood naked, his arms crossed over his chest. There was, she thought, a flurry of tangled things simmering beneath the kindness in his voice. The tendons of his neck were rigid, his shoulders tense. It didn’t show on his face, but she was almost sure, as she stepped out of her skirt and kicked it aside, that he was, perhaps, nervous. She felt pleasure at the thought.

He looked down her legs to the obnoxious, fuzzy orange socks that puddled sadly around her ankles. “Now that… is very sexy.”

“They’re warm.” she snapped, tugging at them furiously to get them off.

Without waiting, he picked her up and stepped over the lip of the tub, lifting her into the shower. The water was far too hot. She yelped and tried to pull away, but he had her.

“I thought you said it was over!” she sobbed, suddenly frantic again.

“It is. It is.”

She was beyond the point of control. There was nothing left to be rational with. “Fuck off. Get out, you bastard.” She was yelling, struggling, her hands skidded over his chest as she tried to push away from him.

Still, he wouldn’t let her go. He locked his arms behind her back and let her rage. When, after several minutes of panicked frenzy, she’d exhausted herself, the water didn’t seem quite so unbearable, and she resorted to weeping against him.

“Stuff like this, Gennie, you have to wash it off. You can’t sleep with all that fear stinking up your dreams. Trust me about this. I really do know. It’s like a ritual.” Nathaniel pressed a kiss to the top of her wet. “Now, if let you go and reach for the soap, do I have to worry about you kicking me in the balls?”

* * * * *

Gennie was sure she would not sleep with him lying beside her, but exhaustion took her nonetheless. Despite the shower, she dreamed of suffocating and woke up gasping, flailing blindly in the darkness. A large arm surrounded her waist and pulled her tight into the bowed warmth of Nathaniel’s body, and she slept again. When she awoke, it was to an insistent tap on her shoulder.

“I have a day full of shite, and I need to talk to you before I go.” He was crouched by the side of the bed, holding a blurry cup of something in front of her face.

Gennie struggled to sit up and took the mug. It was tea. Insanely strong tea. “I’m not sure I’m conscious enough for this,” she muttered, pulling the sheet around herself. “But, okay.”

Nathaniel prodded her a little to give him room, and sat on the side of the bed. He was wearing the same clothes. The smell of rank, stale sweat. In her hazy morning mental state, all she could think was how disgusting they must have felt to get back into. But, having been in the military, he was probably used to it. He sat with his elbows on his knees, looking away from her, a cracked china cup cradled in his hands.

Those hands. She tensed her jaw, felt the two spots of dull, bruised ache beneath it.

“I know it’s likely you’ll decide you never want to see me again. Fuck all I can do about that. But I’m tired of hiding who I am from almost everyone. I have a few mates, from the old days, who know me well.” He gave a bitter laugh. “It would be easier if I were gay.”

The silence stretched on into the dull light that filtered through the curtains, and Gennie let it. The clock beside her bed blinked 6:40. She pushed the mass of tangled hair off her face.

“Of all the women in the world you could have chosen to…” she hunted for the right word, “reveal yourself to, why me?”

He inhaled and let it out slowly. “After coming to take a look at the Meissen figure, I found out who you are and what you do. It seemed ironic that our paths should cross. I guess I took it for a sign.”

Gennie cocked her head. “But didn’t you think that I, more than most people, would be unsympathetic?”

He turned and looked at her. There was a frightening vulnerability in his face. All of a sudden she realised what he was looking for, and she had no idea if it was possible to give it to him.

“Intelligent, educated people usually get to choose the world they immerse themselves in, Gennie. I think you did.”

It was a cryptic answer but before she could say so he went on.

“I’m sure there is a large part of you that is full of condemnation, and rightly so. But I think there’s a part of you that is fascinated by it, too. That’s usually the way of it. Maybe you just don’t want to admit it.”

He was right. She didn’t. Two sides of the same coin. Two edges of the same knife. But this was an invitation to cut herself on one of them. She’d left objective interest behind last night. Perhaps she’d never get it back.

“I’m willing to be honest about it if you are,” she began, shocked at what she knew was coming out of her mouth. “I’ll admit to an unhealthy interest in torture if you’ll admit to a desire for absolution.”

Nathaniel stroked her cheek with a finger. “I will. But I’ll not get it. And you can’t give it to me.”

“No,” she whispered.

When he kissed her, it was the way she had imagined it might be that first time. There was no precision to it. It was a raw, feral, desperate kiss. All hunger and taking and it tasted of sadness. He pushed her back into the pillows and fed on her.

She let him, not because she was scared, but because it made her blood sing. Because he tasted like everything she’d ever wanted a man to taste like. And for a moment, she didn’t want to think about anything else.

He left her hungry, wet, her cunt aching. When she’d heard her front door close, she curled onto her side, slid her hand between her thighs and masturbated. The images that took her to orgasm were horrific.

* * * * *

In the early afternoon, Gennie worked on tagging the summaries of testimony in the Khmer Rouge tribunals dragging on in Phnom Penh. This was the second co-prosecutor to resign from the post, and it meant that the hearings would stretch on past the end of the year. Her mobile chimed to alert her to a message.

Did you have a wank after I left, sweet Gennie?

Witty? Snarky? Truthful? It took her a minute to decide how to respond.

Yes.
Tell me what you thought about.

She stood up, deliberately putting distance between herself and material at the desk. It was not possible for her to be truthful about that.

I just did it.
You’re a filthy liar. Tell me.
Mind your own business!

She tapped it out with a spurt of anger, then relented.

I can’t put that in a text.
That’s better. Thank you. How are you fixed for Saturday night?

She put down her phone on the counter, switched on the kettle, and filled the teapot. All the images flooded back. They made her queasy. Queasy and aroused.

Finally, thirty minutes later, she texted him back.

Saturday night is fine.

* * * * * * *

Nathaniel arrived looking like a man who’d never perspired in his life: in a charcoal suit, demure silk tie, and his date-smile. Gennie struggled into her only pair of high heels and walked down to the gate with him. The waiting car wasn’t his: a sleek, black sedan with tinted windows.

“What happened to your lovely old jag?” she asked, as she watched a massive man with close-cropped blond hair get out of the driver’s seat and open the rear door.

“This is my mate, Karol. He’s playing chauffer for us.”

Gennie cocked her head at the neat, over-muscled man. “Hello, Karol.”

“Good evening, Madam,” the man replied, smirking, words sludgy with an Eastern European accent. Polish, she thought.

She threw Nathaniel an inquisitive look.

“He’s been practicing that all day,” said Nathaniel, helping her into the car. When he slid in beside her, he grinned. “Took him a while to say ‘madam’ without laughing.”

“This isn’t his usual job, I gather.”

“Not buying the driver persona?”

“Not really, no.”

“You’ve been blown, Karol,” he said, addressing himself to the back of the other man’s round, close-shaved head. The driver shrugged his massive shoulders, grunted and started the car. “What gave him away?”

“Most chauffeurs don’t look like they can bench press the car they’re driving.”

Nathanial shrugged. “Fair enough.”

* * * * *

She’d never been to the restaurant although it was in the small, rather quaint village of Bray, less than twenty minutes from her house. They ate and drank and talked of things in the news. Looking around at the other guests, Gennie felt underdressed in her plain black silk shift, but it was the only evening wear she had, purchased in an emergency from a store in Kowloon on a trip for the Institute.

Nathaniel noticed and furrowed his brow. “You look very sexy,” he said, swirling burgundy in an oversized wine glass. “Elegant.”

“Thank you for the lie.” She tucked inanely at a stray wisp of hair. “Kind of you.”

His smile was bland. “I’m not a kind man, Gennie. Believe me.”

Sitting back as the waiter took away her plate, she considered for a moment. “Yes, strange as it sounds, I think you are.”

He turned his head, as if easing the muscles in his neck. “And that’s hard to process?”

“No, not really.”

“Ah, I forgot. You have files on people like me.” He reached across the table and wound another stray strand of her hair around his finger. “They’re nice to their children. Faithful to their wives. Attached to their pets.”

To the restaurant’s guests, it looked like an affectionate gesture, but Gennie could feel just how firmly he had the curl anchored around his digit. There was no sitting back without a painful tug of war.

“That’s not what I said,” she hissed.

“Yes, essentially it was.” He offered her his most boyish, winning smile. “I forgive you, since it’s true.”

“Then let go of my hair.”

Nathaniel leaned in closer and whispered: “Beg me. Quietly.”

At first she thought he was joking, but she saw his pupils dilate in the subdued lighting and reconsidered.

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

He licked his lips, quickly, unconsciously. The smile went from open to teasing. “Beg me, darlin’.”

“I’m not going to beg you.”

“Oh, you will. Now, later, but you will.”

Gennie glanced around the restaurant, exhaled, swallowed and muttered, “Please let go of my hair.”

“Mmm. Again. Try sayin’ it like you mean it.”

Then it struck her–the sheer simplicity of it. All it took was her reluctance to make a fuss in a public place to have control over her. How pathetic. And yet she still couldn’t pull herself to even raise her voice.

“Please,” she said and took another breath, “Please let go of my hair.”

The smile, far more of a threat than an expression of benevolence, disappeared. “You’re so easy, Gennie,” he replied, unwinding the tendril on his finger. “You make me hard.”

She sat back and took an unladylike gulp of her wine. “You’re an evil bastard.”

“Undeniably. But I do believe your knickers are wet anyway.”

They were. As if him saying it made it true. “Fuck you.” she mouthed silently.

* * * * *

Karol was leaning against the car, smoking, when they walked out into the parking court. He rushed around to open her side door, but not, Gennie thought with quite the efficiency he’d managed earlier. In the darkness of the car, the smell of new leather was intense. The chill made Gennie shiver and she pulled her velvet wrap tighter.

Nathaniel settled in next to her and snaked an arm around her shoulders. “Cold?”

“I’m fine.”

As the car began to move, and without ceremony, Nathaniel slid his free hand between her wrap and her dress and palmed her right breast. Gennie stiffened.

“Don’t,” she whispered, clutching his wrist and pushing his hand off her. The idea having a stranger glance in the rear view mirror and see her like this didn’t feature in any of her sexual fantasies.

Nathaniel curled his arm tighter, pulling her ear to his mouth. “If you make a fuss, he’ll look and he’ll see. I’m guessing you don’t want that. So don’t make a fuss.”

There was a cruel humour in his voice, and the touch that followed, on her thigh, sliding the hem of her dress up her thighs. In that moment, Gennie pledged to never, ever wear stockings again. She felt the warmth of his fingers on the bare skin above the stocking top and squirmed. And this time, when she tried to push his hand away, he simply didn’t respond.

It was the same strange, trapped feeling she’d had in the restaurant. Only worse. When she turned her head to whisper a plea to him to stop, he cupped the back of her head and kissed her.

She had come to understand that he gave two kinds of kisses. This was the deliberate, manipulative type. It was controlling, muting. So that when his fingers curled around the leg of her knickers and pushed between the wet folds of her cunt, all she could do was stifle on the whimper.

God, she was wet. Why was she so wet? Something inside her broke as she heard the slick, liquid noises his moistened fingers made as they moved between the lips of her cunt. All of a sudden, she was complicit. He’d made her complicit because she was wet and he wouldn’t stop, and he was using her shame, her fear, and her arousal against her. His tongue was just like his fingers, probing and prying and forcing her open. Until she had to clench her fists to stop herself from arching her hips and hold her breath to stop herself from moaning. But he was in her: in her mouth, and her cunt and her head. Her muscles fluttered and convulsed. The sounds were loud and lewd and now it didn’t matter anymore who heard them, because she was coming. Her thighs drenched in her fluids, trapping his hand. Having forgotten how to kiss or even whom she was kissing. Her body twitched and arched as if plugged in to a live outlet.

When she thought it was over, and the violence of her spasms had died, he withdrew his fingers, fumbled in his pocket, and, with a kiss on her forehead, pulled a hood over her head.

* * * * *

He let her scream for what seemed like a very long time. In the darkness it was easy to scream. Now Gennie knew why the need for a driver, why not Nathaniel’s car. There was no offer of comfort, physical or otherwise; just the crushing pressure of a single hand around her wrists. Through the fabric of hood, she could smell her spent arousal—a choking, cloying scent. Trapped in the dark with the reek of her own stupidity and a thousand fragmented images she stored in her head.

Two stood out more than all the others: an old black and white photograph taken in Buenos Aires during Argentina’s Dirty War. The precise date was never identified, nor was the hooded woman under a street lamp being pushed into a car. The other was a more recent colour picture of shackled and hooded Afghan prisoners in the back of a cargo plane, bound for Guantanamo Bay.

When she finally quieted down, Nathaniel spoke.

“I figured you’d want to know what this feels like. Taking someone off a battlefield is a hit or miss proposition; their blood’s up, they were all set on dyin’ for the cause. But take them in the middle of the night, from the place they feel the safest—especially if you can get their family screaming, too—and you’ve got a far better chance of success. Disorientation is useful.”

“Don’t you quote from some fucking HUMINT interrogation manual to me!” she roared from inside her darkness. “How fucking could you? You needed to scare me to death to show me this? Why the fuck didn’t you just tell me?”

He laughed. “Oh, you already knew all the facts, Gennie. You’re just a filing cabinet full of facts. But that tells you nothing, really. You’ve got to feel it.”

“Right. I’ve felt it now. So, take the hood off.”

Something pushed against the left side of her head. She flinched. “Not yet, darlin’. The ride’s not over,” he whispered, and pressed a kiss to the side of her covered face.

She heard the high hissing sound of material being drawn out, and felt her wrists released only to have them bound together. Then a clink, and another, softer hiss, and she felt something tighten around her neck, over the hood. It was—she was almost certain—his belt.

* * * * *

Although there are many instructional documents on how to treat and interrogate prisoners, there are very few on how to resist it. The US has put a number of its officers through mock capture and torture scenarios, believing that forewarned is forearmed, but Gennie knew that, to a certain extent, resistance was futile. Eventually, a tortured prisoner will not only tell you everything you want to know, but a great deal of crap, as well. One of the many problems with non-humane interrogation techniques was that it took considerable human resources just sorting out the wheat from the chaff. The civil authorities—police and national intelligence organizations like the FBI—who interrogated people on a daily basis came to this conclusion long ago. Torture is a very poor way of producing actionable intelligence, but it’s an excellent way to terrorize a larger population into meek acquiescence.

Thinking this way calmed Gennie. It was the subject in the abstract. So when the car finally drew to a stop and hands reached in and pulled her from the back of the car and onto her feet on a gravel surface, she did not resist. Nathaniel was right, fear of small things—embarrassment in a public place, sexual exposure—served the purpose of the controller. Fear, in essence, made her complicit.

Not that she wasn’t scared. She was. So as the large hand curled around her upper arm and led her, feet crunching on stone, across an expanse and up the stairs to what she assumed was the entrance to some sort of building, she decided that hiding her fear was the best defence she had. Not because it would enable her to resist anything, but because it would simply make her harder to read.

* * * * *

When he pulled the hood off her head, it was in a plain, bare concrete basement. He’d seated her on a chair, re-secured her hands behind her back and tied her ankles to the chair legs. In some very clear, very analytical part of her brain, she noted that he hadn’t taken her heels off. Men, she thought bitterly, it’s all about the visuals.

“You’re quiet, Gennie. What’s going on in that pretty little head of yours, I wonder?”

The chair-back dug into her spine when she tried to move her arms. “I’m all screamed out,” she said quietly, eyeing him through the strands of her dishevelled hair.

He looked older and tired in the harsh light of the ceiling’s bare fluorescent strip. Stepping towards her, looking down at her, she was shielded from its glare, but it set his expression in shadow. He touched her cheek with the tips of his fingers. “So you’ve decided not to play, have you?”

Gennie’s first instinct was to pull away from the caress, but she resisted the temptation and, instead, leaned her cheek into it. “Is this a game?”

Nathaniel exhaled. “In a way, Gennie, love.” He traced his fingers over her lips, pinching the bottom one with a curious gentleness. “You can learn a lot from games.”

He drew his hand away and, so fast she had no time to see it coming, backhanded her across the face with a force that snapped her head sideways and robbed her of breath and, for a moment, sight.

She saw stars. Until that moment, she’d always thought the expression a bad cliche. But now she knew it was entirely accurate. Her cheek throbbed as the blood rushed into it and she tasted copper in her mouth from where her teeth had cut against the inside of her cheek.

“The danger in not playing the game, sweet Gennie, is that it forces me to up the ante until I have you convinced that I will, without much hesitation, hurt you very badly.”

It took her time to order her thoughts enough to say anything. She tried to remember if she’d ever been hit like this before. Spanked as a child, certainly but, no, no one had every done this to her. The cut inside her mouth was stinging; the side of her face, hot and swelling.

This time, when he extended his hand to touch her lips, she flinched and pulled her head back. He smiled and reached, instead for the loose end of the belt that dangled from the loop around her neck. The smile remained as he slowly wound the leather around his fist.

Gennie gave a high, terrified whine. Even as it escaped, she hated herself for it. She hated her heart for trying to hammer its way out of her chest, hated her muscles for twitching and jerking with fear and the tears that erupted and spilled over her face—all the bastard parts of her that her intellect failed to override. There was no calming herself or controlling instinctive responses as he pulled the strap tighter and tighter.

“Look at me,” Nathaniel said, pulling the shorted end of the belt upwards. “Up, look up!” As if he spoke to some wayward puppy.

In the angle of the light, his eyes were two black holes. His free hand cradled the back of her head, then pulled it to his suited groin, pressing her face into it, against the erection beneath the fabric.

“This,” he said softly, “is truth. Feel it?”

Gennie sobbed once into the wool of his trousers.

“I’m so hard for you now, I could unzip, shove my cock down your throat and come in under a minute.” His hips rolled once, and she felt it twitch against her face.

“There, I’ve just told you something absolutely true.” Threading his fingers into her hair, caressing her head, he went on: “And I want you to tell me something absolutely true. Do you understand?”

The stuff of his trousers felt coarse against her bruised skin. It smelled of steam ironing and the acrid scent of dry cleaning solution, as if the thing she had her faced pressed to was not human. “I… I don’t know what you want me to say.”

“Something true. Like this: when I was Thailand, I attached electrodes to the testicles of some poor bastard from Yemen and sent thousands of volts through him. Not much amperage but it feels like dying.”

“Oh, god,” she gulped air. “I’ve never… never,” she shook her head to stave off panic. “Never done anything like that. No. Never.”

She’d begun to babble, to sob. She couldn’t breath, couldn’t take in enough air. And still the hand cupping her head stroked her hair, pressed her cheek to his groin, rubbed himself against her.

“He screamed like a woman. Screamed and screamed. At first, it made me sick to do it. Then I felt cold, nothing. But after a while…” he paused for a moment, took a breath, “After a while it got me hard. Just like this. And I hated that.”

“Stop it,” she cried. “I don’t want to hear this. Fuck.”

“I hated it, but I did it. Because… that was my job. And good men—real men—do their jobs. Don’t they, Gennie?”

“Shut up!” she yelped. “Fuck, shut up!”

Suddenly, he stepped away and jerked the belt back. The loop slid taut against her throat and cut off her sobs. He bent over her until his face was inches from hers.

“Now it’s your turn. Tell me something true.”

* * * * *

“Oh, Jesus… I… don’t know what you want.” The words came out like staggered steps. The need to breathe freely and a thousand petty transgressions battled for brainspace.

“Think, Gennie. Think.” He gave her sore face a hard tap for every word.

She remembered a dim hallway, the sensation of fraying carpet under her bare knees, and the rank taste of an unwashed cock that made her gag.

“I… I paid my rent in sex. As a student,” the words rushed out, “a long time ago. I couldn’t come up with the money and he…”

The slap cut her off. Sharp, not as hard as the first, but it still took her breath away.

“Really, Gennie? You tellin’ me you’re a whore?” He crouched in front of her, one huge hand on her stockinged knee. “Cos I already know that. I could have fucked you the first time I met you. I did you on your living room floor, remember? You came so fuckin’ hard. So hard. I felt you.”

The knee beneath his hand began to tremble and she couldn’t stop it. It made her strangely angry with herself. “Not my finest moment,” she muttered.

“Don’t insult the millions of women on this planet who sell their bodies to feed their babies by feeling guilty for sucking off your landlord. It’s a waste of time. We’re all whores, darlin’, one way or another.”

“Then… Then I don’t know what to tell you.”

Nathaniel tilted his head, as if in sympathy, and wrapped another few inches of belt around his fist. The leather slid, the buckle clinked and pinched her skin painfully, the choke tightened again.

“I stole,” she gasped, nodded franticly. “I stole something.”

The belt loosened, the smile widened. “Really? What did ya take?”

“A ring. His dead mother’s ring.”

“Whose?”

“A lover. I took it. Took it.”

A dark eyebrow rose. “Really,” he whispered in mock awe, sliding his hand further up her thigh, pulling the silk with it. “I hadn’t pegged you as a girl who’s overly fond of jewellery.”

“I’m… I’m not. No.” Her leg was shaking so badly now the trembling spread to the other. The heels forced her feet at such an angle to make controlling her muscles almost impossible. “He fucked… he fucked around on me. He hurt me. So….” Gennie’s breath hitched in her chest. “I took the thing I knew would hurt him. It was all he had left of his mother.”

“And it did warm you, your revenge?” His hand gripped the meatiest part of her thigh and began to dig his fingers into the muscle of it.

“It did!” she sobbed. “It fucking did.”

“You bitch,” he whispered. “More.”

“There is no more!” Gennie rasped at him. “There’s no bloody more.”

It was the most curious sensation. Just pressure. Then, in the blink of an eye, she was screaming, trying to lift her body out of the chair to get away from the pain. And then it was gone. Her stomach cramped at the nausea that rose once the pain had stopped.

“Christ, I’m going to be sick.” But she wasn’t. Instead she felt her bladder let go, and the awful warmth of her urine pooled around her ass.

“Breathe, Gennie. Breathe through it.” He was up on his feet, loosening the belt from around her neck. He clasped her face in both hands and looked into her eyes. “Come on, big breath! You can do it.”

She took a huge, wheezing gulp through a throat constricted in panic. She took another, then another.

“Please, Nathaniel. Stop. It’s enough. Please.”

His thumbs caressed her cheeks, wiping away the tears. “But you haven’t told me what I want to know.”

It was in the softest, kindest voice. As if it were breaking his heart to do this to her. As if she needed to be reasonable and understand that all this was only for her own good. He nodded again and kissed her once, gently, on the lips. In that moment, scared as she was, ashamed as she was, she would have given him anything. All she wanted in the world was for him to release her and gather her up in his arms and tell her she was forgiven, and that everything would be all right.

“Tell me, darlin’. Because you know you’re going to tell me anyway. And you’ll feel so much better when you get it out, won’t you?”

She caught her lips between her teeth and clamped down on a sob. Tears streamed down her cheeks and mucous chilled on her upper lip. “Yes.”

“Yes?”

Shaking, weeping, she lowered her eyes and nodded. “Yes.”

He took his hands away from her face and affectionately tucked a tangled lock of hair behind her ear, his eyes locked on hers. “Then get it out and shame the devil, Gennie.”

“I was ten. My sister was—oh, god, maybe eight?—I can’t remember. She had this lovely little Siamese kitten named Annie. What a stupid name for a cat, isn’t it?”

Nathaniel nodded. “Stupid.”

“She got it as a present. Not me. Just her. But I played with it anyway, just to make her angry. And one day… I was playing with it and it scratched me. Hard. It made me bleed. So I grabbed it roughly and shook it. I shook it to teach it, you know?”

His eyes willed her to go on.

“It bit me. With its awful little needle teeth. It bit and it wouldn’t let go. So I hit it. Really hit it. To make it let go. I didn’t mean to hit it so hard. But I did. And I heard something snap, like a twig or a toothpick breaking.”

“You’re doing fine.”

She wasn’t sobbing anymore, but the tears were blinding her. “It just lay limp for a moment. Then it started quivering. Its back legs were moving and it was making the most horrible sound. And I watched it for a while. I thought: serve you right, you nasty little beastly cat. But it didn’t stop, and I got scared that someone would come and hear it, and see it, and know what I’d done.”

There was a terrible, tender warmth in Nathaniel’s eyes. And a hunger there, too. “What did you do?” he whispered.

“I… I put my hand around its little throat. It was warm, I could feel the noises it was making through the skin. So I squeezed.” Gennie was shaking again, as if she were frozen and never thaw. “And I squeezed. And I squeezed. It felt so good to do it; to stop its dreadful noises. Until it stopped making the sound.”

“What happened?”

“I took it to the bottom of the garden, and I hid it. Under a huge pile of leaves. Two days later, they burned the leaves. No one ever found out.”

“And your sister?”

“She thought it had run away. She cried for days.”

“But?”

“But I was glad. We were even again.”

* * * * *

Gennie sat in a docile haze, watching as Nathaniel undid the straps around her ankles. When he untied her wrists, he had to pry her interlaced fingers apart. All she could think about was that evil, demonic little girl she had been. And that that little girl was still inside her somewhere. She’d never be rid of her, because she’d never been punished, and she’d grown into the fabric of who she was like one of those terrible parasites that slowly devours a tree from the inside.

Nathaniel helped her up the stairs from the basement and down a dimly lit hallway. He led her into a very neat, masculine living room, with an old fashion oxblood leather sofa, in front of a large, fireplace. The fire crackled, and the flames licked upwards as he sat down, and pulled her into his lap.

She couldn’t take her eyes off the fire, although she felt his fingers trace the raw abrasion the belt had made around her neck and winced as he drew his hand over the bruise on her cheek.

He made shushing sounds and kissed her, at first gently and then with more and more hunger. Until, at last, he pressed her back into the sofa, pushed up her dress, and fucked her.

As she strained beneath him, arching her hips up to meet his thrusts, every time his cock filled her, it felt like forgiveness. And when it felt like she’d had enough of it, she bowed her back, cried out, and came. Then, with one hard plunge that made her cervix ache, he flooded her.

It wasn’t until she was lying still, feeling his weight on top of her, that she turned her head back to the fire and saw, on the mantelpiece, the figure. The little veiled girl with the lute.

* * * * *

She came awake in a strange bed and could not remember how she got there. Beside her, Nathaniel was still sleeping, on his side with a proprietary arm flung across her chest. Light filtered through a trio of slatted wooden blinds. The room was very plain, as if it were only ever used to sleep in.

Her cheek was tender, the inside of her mouth sore. It tasted of stale blood. When she went to move her legs, her right thigh ached and, edging it out from beneath the neutral coloured sheets, it was banded in a livid, dark red bruise on the cusp of going purple.

Sliding carefully out of bed, she limped to the equally sparse en-suite bathroom. She switched on the light and gasped at her reflection in the mirror above the sink counter. The side of her face was darkened and swollen, as was her bottom lip. Around her neck, a lighter red abrasion and a darker, broader bruise around one upper arm.

She looked, for all the world, like a battered woman. Someone she didn’t recognize—frightening. Not because any of the marks were disfiguring, but because of what each of them meant. Sane women didn’t let people do this to them. A sane woman would be angry. And in her heart, she could find absolutely no anger towards him for the bruises. No, that wasn’t why she was angry. She was angry because she’d told him the truth—her truths, all her terrible truths. But he had lied to her.

“Morning,” said Nathaniel.

Gennie startled and froze. “Where are my clothes?”

He glanced back into the room. “On the chair, over there,” he said, indicating with a toss of his dishevelled head. “Counting your war wounds, were you?”

She gave him a tight, slightly painful smile and pushed passed him into the bedroom, fighting the urge to cover herself. The clothes were draped over the chair. Facing away from him, she grabbed her panties and pulled them on, grimacing at the sensation of the wetness that had dried stiff at the crotch. She did the same with her bra and then pulled the black shift dress over her head.

“Gennie?”

Wadding up her stockings into a ball, she stuffed them into her purse and stepped into her shoes.

“Where’s my wrap?”

“It’s downstairs.”

“Can you call me a taxi?”

“No need. I’ll drive you.”

She turned to look at him. He’d pulled on a pair of soft grey sweats while she’d been dressing. “Just call me a taxi, okay?”

“Is it the bruises?” he asked, in a soft voice.

Shooting him another tight smile, one that hurt considerably more than the last one, she strode past him, heels clicking on the polished wooden floor.

There was a set of stairs off the corridor, and now she thought she remembered coming up this way. Behind her, the wood creaked under the weight of his bare feet as he followed.

He caught her halfway down the stairs, a hand on her shoulder. “Gennie, come on. Stop.”

“I want to go home. Please call me a taxi or I’ll walk until I find something.”

“Have some tea. Then I’ll call you a taxi. Promise.”

She was right on the edge of losing it, not certain whether she was going to scream or break down and cry again. It didn’t matter; it was the same feeling inside. Like lava setting fire to her insides. Like those people they discover three days later in a chair, totally incinerated with pair of perfectly unblemished feet.

“I don’t drink tea for breakfast! I hate tea for breakfast!”

It came out like a proclamation of war.

“Fine. I’ve got some coffee somewhere. Maybe,” he said, stepping a head of her and trotting down the stairs to the hall below. He stood at the bottom with his hand out. “Come on.”

The tragedy of high heels is that, no matter how fast you can race upstairs in them, you have to descend with a certain amount of fanfare, whether you want to or not. When she reached the last step, she ignored the hand and glared at him. “Promise you will call me a taxi? Fucking promise.”

The kitchen was at the back of the house. It was, like the bedroom, very neat and clean. Terribly modern. Not much in it, though. “So this is what you get paid for doing your country’s dirty work,” she said, knowing just how cruel it was to say so. But she needed to be cruel then.

He had his broad, naked back to her, scooping coffee out of a tin into a french press. The kettle beside it was coming to the boil, and she felt the same. Nowhere to put all the lava that filled her. He poured the scalding liquid into the beaker.

“Are you angry about the bruises, Gennie?” The question was offered in that measured voice used to obscure pain.

“At you? No. I knew what you’d do.”

Silence filled the room as he pushed the filter down through the dark brown liquid, then took two cups from hooks and filled them with the brew.

“Sugar? Milk?”

“No.” He slid her coffee across the central counter. She put down the purse she’d been clutching onto like grim death, and picked up the cup.

“So what is it?”

Gennie took a sip of the coffee, holding it with both hands, letting it warm her fingers. She waited until he looked up to get his answer.

“’I fucking hate lies’,” she spat, in a fair imitation of his unpolished accent. “Isn’t that what you said? Remember? Do you?”

“Yes,” he answered quietly.

“The truth, Gennie, you said. That’s what you said. The truth, the whole fucking ugly, sick unforgiveable truth.” She cut herself off, her cheeks flaming, waiting for a reaction from him.

But he said nothing, simply took a sip of his own coffee and stared at her.

It was as if once she opened her mouth, she’d never be able to stop and there was no violence she would not do with her words. “Nathaniel. Honourable, damaged, loyal Nathaniel. The man who did his job, who let it turn him to shit, who did the things that no one else would do. Poor suffering, tortured Nathaniel the fucking torturer, with his guts all knotted up with rage and his head full of pain.”

She stood back and pitched the cup at him with all the force she had. It hit him full in the chest, the hot liquid splattering all over him. The vessel didn’t break but bounced off and onto the counter, breaking into shards.

He swore as the liquid scalded him, jumping back to dodge the splinters.

“You’re a fucking liar. I trusted you. I trusted you with my life, I trusted you with things I’ve never told anyone. I let you hurt me, humiliate me. I let you terrify me. And you, you twisted cunt, you lied to me!”

Nathaniel stared at her, open mouthed, horrified. He shook the coffee off his arms and with it, shards of pottery tinkled to the stone floor. In several places the shrapnel had ricocheted. There were white flecks and small cuts in his stomach and chest, just starting to bleed.

“What the hell are you talking about,” he demanded.

“The girl!”

“What fucking girl? There is no girl.”

“The piece of Meissen, you prick. The one on your mantelpiece.”

He shut his mouth, flinched as if he’d been struck.

“You didn’t sell it to some German. You bought it for yourself.” Gennie let out her breath and picked up her purse. “Now, call me a taxi.”

His teeth worried at his lower lip for a second, then he straightened. “Sure,” he said, put his own cup down and felt in the pockets of his splattered sweat pants. “My phone’s in the sitting room. Let me get it.”

As he passed her, Gennie closed her eyes, not wanting to look at him, not wanting, if she had to admit it, say goodbye.

The tug at her hair almost pulled her off her feet. She whipped around, despite the pain but he was already in motion, dragging her behind him as he stalked down the hallway towards the front of the house and into the darkened sitting room. It had the charcoal smell of a long-dead fire and leather and polish.

“This,” he said, yanking her in front of him and wrapping his arms around her body so tight she could hardly expand her chest, “this is a beautiful thing. It has survived three hundred years, in perfect condition. It was modelled by a master, painted with loving hands, made to do nothing more than delight the eyes. She’s a pure, pure thing, Gennie. Not like us. Not like any of us. Not corrupted with age, not cracked. Flawless.”

Nathaniel pressed his lips against Gennie’s bruised cheek. “She was stuff to you. You’d have happily chucked her out. But I wanted her. I wanted her, like I wanted you.”

Quiet for a moment, there was only the sound of his agitated breathing. He pressed his cheek against hers and rubbed. She felt the stubble of his unshaven face against her skin.

“So, yes. I lied to you. And I don’t regret it.”

“Why?” It was all she could get out at first. “Why couldn’t you just tell me it was you buying it?”

Gennie heard his swallow, felt it. Then his heart thundering against her back. The arms around her moved, and his hand slid up her stomach, closing over a breast. He cupped it through her dress, squeezed it, caught the nipple between to fingers and pressed. “Let’s play the truth game. All right? You know the rules.”

She knew them now, even as she felt the pressure of the pinch, her eyes began to water before the pinch became the pain that streaked through her breast and up the side of her neck. “Okay,” she gasped.

“Would you have kept my card, would you have phoned me if I had bought it?”

“No.” It was a bleat. A whimper.

And then the pressure was gone. “That’s my girl,” he cooed, rocking her, stroking her breast. He buried his face into the side of her neck and kissed her, speaking against her skin. “That’s my girl.”

“There was something in you, Gennie. That very first time we met.” With one arm, still firmly around her waist, Nathaniel grabbed a handful of her dress, lifting it, sliding his hand over the bare thigh he’d exposed. “Something wrong, deep inside you. They say you can smell your own kind, I know. But I think it’s in the eyes.” Cupping her mound, he squeezed hard once and released, then wedged his fingers beneath her panties.

They slipped into the swollen, wet valley of her cunt so easily, it made her weep. Or perhaps it was something else. He shuffled back, still holding her, still with his hands between her legs, and pulled her down onto the couch with him.

She felt him beneath her, hard and pressing between the cheeks of her ass, through the silk. It was impossible not to move, not to spread her legs, not to grind her ass against him, not to raise her arms and reach back, grasping his head and straining upwards to kiss him. She thrashed and fed on his lips, on his tongue, until he pushed two fingers deep into her cunt and she came, sobbing into his mouth.

Even before her spasms had died, before he pulled his fingers out of her, cupped her jaw and forced her to look at him. “Do you want me to call you a taxi?”

“No.”

“Good, because I can’t send you home like this. You’re filthy.”

* * * * *

The hot water drenched her the moment she entered the shower, and yet she shivered as he stepped in behind her. Gennie didn’t want to analyze what had made her stay, why she had let him touch her. She wanted to believe she’d had no choice, but knew that wasn’t true at all. That she could have told him to stop, then, in front of the little porcelain figurine, and he would have.

It didn’t seem to matter now. He was pulling her to him, bending to kiss her under the flow, and it felt like whatever terrible thing she carried inside her, he could make it better. Perhaps because he carried something so much worse. She knew then, that he would never stop hurting her, and she didn’t want him to, because it was a cycle of light and dark that obscured everything else.

The tile was hot against her back as he lifted her and pinned her to the wall. Wrapping her legs around his waist, he paused, trapping her in that moment of strange breathless possibility before he entered her. Like the wait before the jump, like a hanged man before the drop, like the time you can never take back.

He entered her in one brutal thrust. It made her keen and throw her head back against the wall. The water streamed over her, into her eyes, her mouth, her nose. When she tried to move her head, she felt him bury his face in the crook of her neck. His hand encircled her throat, forcing her to fight for air in the plummeting torrent, struggling in his grip, as he thrust into her again and again until he pressed his teeth into the meat of her shoulder. She screamed as he came.

“Oh, Gennie,” he panted, pushing her wet hair out of her face. “It’s never going to be over.”

He lowered them both to the floor of the shower, and began to weep.

* * * * *

This is what it would always be like for them. Always the terrible rage followed by even more frightening tendernesses. That is why, when he stood at her door and rang her bell, she answered.

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