Penetration testing isn't what you think.
The pen testing that I do ensures that computer systems don't get hacked.
It's a formal process carried out by respectable men and a few women using network diagrams and tables of computer vulnerabilities. The pen test team produces thick reports and holds boring meetings with the clients who in turn have to do a lot of painful rework before the systems can go live.
Despite the myths, it isn't done by penitent virus writers working alone in darkened rooms late at night typing arcane commands on their laptop computers.
Except that I was doing just that.
I was alone because I'd offered to stay behind and finish off. The rest of the team had better things to do and Marc was away, so for the first time in months I had no reason to hurry home. He'd had to rush off to Algiers to sort out some family business with his sister. It had been a confused scramble after the telephone call and helping him pack had taken priority over explanations. I was worried about him being back in Algeria so I was anxious to hear from him.
It was late because the client had screwed up. They had worked through our first tree-unfriendly report on the shortcomings of their system. They'd fixed the problems and we had re-tested. Alas, there had been a server re-build and they'd forgotten to apply the fixes. After an acrimonious five o'clock meeting, client staff had been forced to work late to repair the omissions and I'd agreed to stay on and recheck the repairs - at a price. To compound the bad temper we had a row about internal security. A very secret report about a new drug had found its way to a major competitor. I knew how much these pharmaceuticals were worth in worldwide business but I resented the suggestion that my team had anything to do with the theft. I was annoyed enough to ask the client if one of his spies had informed him of the arrival of the report. I had the satisfaction of seeing that shot strike home.
Still irritated, I was waiting for them to repair their omissions. I had nothing to do but daydream about Marc and stare at my engagement ring that was still a novelty after four weeks.
Marc was my miracle. We'd met in an adult education class, both doing the same local history course. We'd been paired for the fieldwork and there had been a couple of weekends working together to do the assignment - walking the streets of the town classifying buildings; working in the library to see what other people thought.
Although we were both coy about revealing our ages, I knew that his was little more than half mine. I was surprised when our liking for each other blossomed and the assignment progressed to a concert together, then a meal and a film. The men I worked with were in their late twenties like Marc but my experience and my reluctance to tolerate fools kept a barrier between them and me.
With Marc it was different. We were comfortable together and he was no fool. He cooked a meal at his place and a few days later I made dinner for us at mine.
That night we touched for the first time and until then I hadn't realised that I could still be melted. Marc offered to massage my feet when I complained that they were painful after our walk. He worked gently from my toes until his fingers had caressed the whole of my body. It was well after midnight before our consummation astonished us both.
"Maria. Are you angry with me?" He always pronounced my name with a long 'i'. His slight French accent and the awkward twist of his scarred lips gave it an endearing inflection.
I had turned away from him to let my skin cool and to gather my scattered wits. I couldn't do either while I was pressed against his hard body. I had not expected this. Menopause had left me dried out and unresponsive. Marc's fingers had triumphed over that and I certainly wasn't angry.
"I'm surprised." I reached out to touch his face and he flinched away, hiding the scars from me. "That hasn't happened to me for a long time."
"Why not? You're an attractive woman. You work with lots of people. There must have been many opportunities."
"Opportunities, yes. I've tried some but they didn't work. None of them had the effect on me that you just did and I don't want someone around the house simply to keep me company."
"Do you want to tell? Why you don't want a man around the house. You were married, weren't you?"
I hesitated. That was my private Hell and I wanted it to stay dead and buried. But Marc's private Hell was with him whenever he looked in the mirror or when people stared at his face.
"I was glad when the drink killed him. It took him ten years. Ten years out of my life."
"Why did you stay?"
"I suppose I loved him once. He stayed with me when things were bad. He pitied me so I stayed with him out of gratitude. I had an ectopic pregnancy. You know what that is?"
I felt him nod. I'd moved back against him for comfort.
"After that I couldn't have children. He wanted a family, but he stayed with me. Things were never the same."
I turned on the bedside light although it made him nervous. I looked at his smooth brown skin and his strong limbs.
"You think I'm attractive?" I challenged him. I knelt above him and my breasts sagged.
He turned towards me and smiled, letting the light fall on both sides of his face. "You'd feel better about yourself if you lost a few pounds and took more exercise. But it's the whole of you that attracts me. I love to be with you - do things with you. Tonight was more than I hoped for. I wasn't expecting it. I haven't been with a woman for six years - since it happened."
I reached out and touched his face with my fingers. He froze and I could feel his whole body trembling. He relaxed slowly - so very slowly - as I ran my fingers across the melted scars that had been half his face. I lay on him and let my lips follow my fingers from twisted lips across the corrugated flesh of his cheek to the eye that saw nothing but still streamed tears.
"Only you," his voice was thick and uneven. "You've never cringed from my face."
"It takes a little getting used to," I held him against me, his face against my breasts, his tears wetting my body. "But it's part of you."
"I've never been able to make love to a woman. They always turned away or pitied me. I couldn't. Even if I paid them it was no good. Only with you."
"Tell me how it happened."
"It doesn't matter. Only if it helps."
Desire was rising in me again as I stroked his smooth body. I'd almost forgotten what it was like to hold someone. I waited for him.
It was several minutes before he sighed and said, "It was my father. He was not a very civilised man. But, if I disapproved he was still my father. He had a motor boat. He took the tourists fishing from Tiemcen. And at night, sometimes, he crossed to Spain, carrying things that the customs shouldn't see."
"You went with him. Smuggling? Smuggling what?" All my instincts were violated.
His body shook against mine and I realised that he was laughing.
"I thought it was best you know. But it was a long time ago. Six years."
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to judge you."
"How can you not? Being as you are and doing what you do. You are a kind of policeman. I did not approve of my father either, but I was his son. When he asked me to help that night I didn't refuse. I don't know what we took - hashish perhaps - but the customs were waiting for us outside the harbour. They came alongside and I think my father fired a flare. He was not a peaceful man. Both boats burned very quickly. We were carrying a lot of petrol. I was the only one who got to the shore. Often since then I've wished I hadn't."
"Your father was killed?"
I was breathing quickly. His casual recital of this horrific story excited me. I let my hand slide over his body to rouse him rather than to comfort.
"Marc, I want you again."
As he rolled on top of me, I found that he wanted me just as badly.
He moved in with me. Little by little he spent more time in my house until at last it seemed foolish for him to keep his flat. He moved into my life in the same gentle way and I became used to him being there. At the end of the day's work I was anxious to be home. Evenings were havens of contentment. We ate and worked and talked and sometimes loved.
"Why are you so interested in English History?" I had just read one of the essays he had written for his diploma. My fierce red pen had little to do.
"It might be for the same reason that you do. I've lost my roots. I can never go back to Algeria safely - or to France. And why would I want to? My mother and my brother blame me for surviving my father. I have no other family. Only you. So I'm making new roots here in England where I feel safe. Local history helps me to get those roots down."
"And me? I was born here."
"Do you have roots here?"
"You're right. I don't. They were lost in Austria. The only relatives I have are my husband's nieces and nephews."
I looked at his essay again. The references were professionally formatted.
"You write English very well. As well as I do. Where did you learn?"
"At university. Oran. I read biochemistry. All the research is in English. I had to learn it well."
Marc saw my surprise and laughed. "I haven't tried to get work in biochemistry. You must know how suspicious the pharmaceutical companies are. An Algerian with a face like mine and a father like mine is not wanted. Besides, I don't need to work. My father had plenty of money hidden away and I knew where it was. That's another reason I don't go home. I'm not sure who else thought that money belonged to them. Do you mind me being idle?"
I gestured with his essay. "Hardly idle. No, I may even join you. I might retire and we could enjoy ourselves."
His crooked smile made me catch my breath. He came to stand behind me, digging his strong fingers into the tense muscles of my neck. It was his invitation to me. If I wanted no more, he would massage me until I was in a trance of relaxation, then carry me to bed and let me sleep. If I did want more, his massage would extend down my body and rouse me to levels of ecstasy that I'd never known before. When he carried me to bed we didn't sleep until exhaustion closed my eyes.
Our evenings were often busy. Marc had classes and I frequently worked late so we could have at least one day free at the weekend. We made meals when we were hungry.
So I was surprised to come home one evening to find the table set for an intimate dinner. I looked nervously at glass and linen that still held memories. The flowers were overpowering. Marc shooed me upstairs to bath and change while he returned to the kitchen.
I came down uncertainly, embarrassed by the contrived romantic setting. I thought our relationship was solid enough for us not to need contrivance. Marc sensed my embarrassment and grinned - I had learned to read his face. "It's supposed to be foolish and sentimental," he said. "You can laugh if you like. I've got something to ask you and I wanted to hint."
This foolishness was irresistible and I entered into his fantasy. Our teasing and flirting were so effective that we didn't get beyond the main course. He came behind me to refill my glass, and then my dress was unzipped and his strong hands were kneading my bare shoulders. We made love on the floor between the sideboard and the table without removing a single piece of clothing. It was over in seconds.
"Maria, have I hurt you?" My scream in his ear must have been painful for him.
"Marc, I came! Take me upstairs."
He picked me up and I scattered his buttons and clothes as he carried me to bed. He bent hooks and tore zippers when I begged for him. After each climax, I goaded him for more. For the first time in my life I took control and Marc was my willing servant. When I was too sore to take him any more he used his tongue to finish me, and in return I took him into my mouth. Dawn was near when I made him rape my last virginity.
We had loved to exhaustion before, but this was total satiation. I lay on him, licking blood from his chest where I had torn my fingernails in passion.
"Can you reach my trousers?"
"You don't need them."
He reached over me and dug them from the heap of clothes beside the bed. There was a box in the pocket and he opened it. He touched my bruised lips with his and said, "The evening wasn't meant to go like that. I meant to ask you to marry me before we went to bed."
"I know. You've had your answer."
He slid the ring onto my finger and we lay down to sleep at last.
As I drifted off with his arms round me, I remembered that I would have to tell my masters of my impending marriage. Spouses had to be vetted too. God knows what the bland, pink-shaven men in pin-stripe suits would make of Marc. Maybe retirement was closer than I thought.
My new ring fascinated me and I took it to Karl. We'd met on the local history course and become friends.
"Maria, it's beautiful. Like you," he said.
I smiled as he screwed a glass into his eye. He twisted it and peered and fussed. He stood up and gestured that I follow him. As we went up the narrow stairs behind his shop he said, "I have a microscope upstairs. We can see it properly."
Karl was a route back to my childhood and my parents who had come to England in 1938 as refugees. His Austrian accent created echoes of my mother. I felt he might be a little like the father who had been killed in the war before I ever knew him.
The room upstairs smelt dusty and stale. It was cluttered from floor to ceiling with the gatherings of a lifetime's dealing in antiques. Glass and china, silverware and postcards, books and old musical instruments. It seemed impossible that the space could hold so many things. He cleared chairs and drew the old microscope to the front of the table.
"Ah! I thought so. Look!"
I took his place at the eyepiece and saw the gold band decorated with an intricate chase of dogs and deer. A paler thread of gold elaborated the pattern.
"See?" he said. "The pale thread of gold is a piece of wire. There are thousands of tiny punch marks where it was hammered to flatten it and weld it to the darker gold. And it is old - before the days of lenses." He was searching through the bookcases. "All done by hand and the naked eye. Wonderful! Ah!" He took down a book and blew dust over me.
"Here!" He triumphed after flicking the pages for a while. There was a sepia photograph of a ring very like the one I had. He translated the French caption. "Early sixteenth century. Part of the dowry of Margaret of Angoulême. You see how alike they are? And perhaps more than four hundred and fifty years old."
"But the stones, you see, are not original. Sad." He pointed to the photograph. "These stones were simple - almost polished pebbles. Yours are more precious, old, but newer than the ring."
He pointed to the big square-cut diamond that formed the focus of the ring. "This I think I know. Many were made in India for nabobs - the men who ruled for the East India Company. They brought them back to England after the Mutiny drove them out."
He shook his head and screwed the eyeglass back in. "But these other stones I do not know. Like rubies, but almost brown. A colour I have never seen."