Copyright© 2001-2003 by DB.
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Author's Note: This story was written in Lady Sally's universe - a fascinating subset of Callahan's Bar's universe - as created by Spider Robinson. I strongly recommend buying and enjoying his books about this "House of Incredible Repute[tm]" including Callahan's Lady and Lady Slings the Booze. They will also fill in a great deal of background material that I haven't included here.
I note that the cover art of one of his books shows a robot, though no robot appears in any of the stories. I decided this oversight needed to be rectified.
I always hoped there'd be a follow-on collection of stories by other authors where this might appear, but that doesn't seem to be happening.
A special (and belated) thanks to Gorgo for his excellent and much appreciated proofreading. All remaining mistakes are mine.
Concurrent with the United States Supreme Court decision regarding Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc (1994) and the copyright laws of the United States, this is a work of parody. This work is posted freely without any request for remuneration; its only purpose is social commentary presented in an entertaining fashion.
Lady Sally's house lay under siege. I had first become aware of it nearly a week ago. A furtive movement across the street as the light became iffy near sunset. A tiny rustle, like leaves in the wind, except that there were no leaves, and no wind. The sound of footsteps, yet no one was there.
These past nights it steadily increased. Now in nooks and doorways across the street, there appeared to be glimpses of figures in black, wispy cloaks over shadow, possessing neon-orange glowing eyes. They kept their distance, and seemed to fade away when looked at directly, but they were on all sides of the house now.
So far, Lady Sally's domicile and place of business stood firm against this assault, as it had against all previous ones. The multi-floor house occupies an entire block of a quiet neighborhood in New York City. It was built nearly a hundred years ago, when people built such mansions, and looked ready to stand another thousand, provided the melting polar ice caps didn't inundate it first. Even if they did, it would probably still be standing proudly on the sea floor. Rumor was that Lady Sally has party plans for every eventuality, including one for when the first wave laps against the front door. My name is Maureen. Should that day arrive during my lifetime, I can think of nowhere else I would rather be than here.
The house has entrances on all four sides, each serving a different purpose for different clientele. In the past two nights, I'd peeked out of all of them to confirm that the house was indeed surrounded, although not yet breached. The strangest part of it was that nobody else noticed - or at least mentioned - seeing anything unusual. This assault seemed invisible and unnoticed. I kept hoping Lady Sally herself would say something about it without being asked outright, but so far she'd held her silence. Until Lady Sally chooses to speak, I was ready to hold my tongue as well. But I kept my eyes and ears open when going around every corner in the house, alert for the sight of glowing eyes, or the sound of leaves inside these walls.
Inside though, it continued to appear as business as usual. Lady Sally's Whorehouse of Incredible Repute[tm] always seemes oblivious to the changing world outside, as if it exists in its own little island of reality - separate from any other. In the two years since I had gone full time with the professional staff (and they are all true professionals), nothing has halted the business-as-usual attitude for more than a few hours at best. And those were always events so strange that nobody could have ever expected, or anticipated, them anyway.
It is not clear why Lady Sally's house hosts so many events so strange that nobody could have ever expected, or anticipated, them. Somehow it just does. Yet despite all the strange things that have happened inside the house, it still always feels much safer than outside. For now, I'm making sure I'm safely inside before the last rays of sun depart the street outside. I feel protected here, and that's a luxury you have to live without for a few years to properly appreciate.
All the action here starts in the Parlor. This is where the majority of the clients enter, after going through the cloakroom and divesting themselves of their umbrella, coat, and any lethal hardware. Lady Sally has a strict policy on that. You can take it with you when you leave, but you can't bring it inside.
The Parlor is a long room with chairs, couches, a gigantic fireplace at one end, a concert grand piano, and two bars opposite each other. It's where most everyone hangs out until they decide what they want next, and make arrangements with the appropriate person(s). Some people, including the house's favorite clergyman, never go beyond the Parlor. But most do. What kind of a house would we be otherwise?
Overall, it's like a big party that never quite ends. Its tempos and rhythms wax and wane with both the cycles of the day, and those of the moon. But only when the remaining diehards are pushed into the corner for an hour's worth of cleaning in the early streaks of dawn's light, do they threaten to stop. Before they can flicker out entirely however they are fanned again, and rise like the Phoenix while the cycle starts over again.
It's always the new things that I like most about living and working here. The surprises each day seems to bring. Today I got a double dose. One of them was an impossible request from a client. The other was a new, young man I was hoping to see again tonight.
First, the new young man. It's strange for me to have called him young, since I'm only twenty and he is certainly in his early thirties. Yet I felt that way about him when I met him. While I'm a veteran of some hard years on the street before I came to Lady Sally's two-and-a-half years ago (I don't talk about those days anymore), he was clearly new to this scene. Last night had been his very first visit.
All the customers have house names, and these house names usually reflect some particular aspect of the customer's personality. House names preserve one's anonymity, yet also seem to free the person of their inhibitions and hang-ups. It's as if, by becoming another person, one can step out of their limitations for a while. Lady Sally has created a safe zone for this to happen, and that's why her house is the best.
When he had attempted to offer me his name the previous night, I had stopped him and explained that, for his own privacy, he would get a new name here. House rules. And no one can use your house name outside the house either.
"And is Sherry your real name?" he asked me.
That stumped me for a moment. No one else had ever asked me that so quickly and directly.
"It's one I've used here for awhile now," I finally replied. "One I choose for myself, rather than had chosen for me." I didn't mention that length of time I'd used "Sherry" coincided within a couple weeks of officially becoming an "artist" here at the House. I considered myself "official" when I had gotten my first salary check for the art. Lady Sally's is not like any other House you've ever hear of.
"Sherry," he said, rolling it over his tongue as if taking a delicate sip and tasting both its sweet, and tart - not that kind of "tart" - nature. "I've never chosen a new name for myself," he finally replied. "I guess you'll have to help me," he said, with a bit of a smile.
With that, I looked him over carefully, really for the first time. He was handsome enough, and came across as intelligent - much like my good friend, The Professor. But he didn't seem a con man, and I'm very good at spotting con men.
Yet he also seemed restless. Like he wanted this phase of our interaction to get over soon, so he could get on to the next one. But it wasn't just that he wanted to get on to having sex with me. While I don't flatter myself unnecessarily, I am quite good at what I do, and have a long list of regular customers to attest to it. This was more like he knew he was at the beginning of a long journey, and was antsy to get started. To find something important.
That was it. I cocked my head and finally said to him, "I'm going to call you 'Hunter', since it makes a better name than 'Searcher.' 'Searcher' is more of a title, while 'Hunter' is a name I know at least one woman uses, even though it seems more masculine than feminine."
I paused for his reaction. For a long moment, he didn't react at all. Could I have guessed to wrong about him? Then a slow smile creased his face. Hunter was obviously a careful thinker. That improved my opinion of him another couple of notches.
Hunter also proved to be a careful and considerate lover. He had as much concern for my enjoyment of our time together as he had for his own, and didn't rush anything, including a good session of cuddling at the end. Nothing exotic, just straight sex. But the kind that leaves you feeling really good afterwards.
Being more than pleased to be his first date here, I kept watching to see if he returned again tonight.
As for the impossible request, we say that nothing is impossible in this house. But I have to admit that this request is the closest thing yet I've seen come to testing that rule.
Lady Sally's house is a house built on puns. Now puns are the lowest form of humor, yet seem to be engaged in by the most creative of people. I don't understand it, but have come to accept, and even enjoy them. But in this house, you have to be quick - and good!
Out of one ear I heard a group gathered in tight circle here in the Parlor discussing how one's profession might relate to their desired manner of sexual congress.
"I say the taxidermist has it best of all," a relative newcomer said.
"How's that?" came the chorus back.
"Well, he spends all day stuffing and mounting..."
"And all night," they all roared back, "mounting and stuffing."
I noticed an English diplomat friend in the group to whom I had been meaning to explain how a "bird" in the hand is not nearly as much fun as two hands in the bush. I might have actually gotten it out to him, except my other ear had just finished hearing the most impossible request ever made in this house.
Their voices were low, and it appeared no one else had noticed.
An earnest young man I recognized as "Harry" (since he always seemed harried) had just told Mistress Cynthia how he would like to tie her up naked to her rack, torture her until she broke free in an expression of female strength and rage, and then have her make love to him on the dungeon floor in some Stockholm Syndrome fantasy.
Mistress Cynthia is a small, petite woman of indeterminate age whom nobody crosses. A lot of pain and humiliation go on in her dungeon (for those who like that sort of thing), and she expertly inflicts all of it. In a hundred years I couldn't learn what she already knows about pain. And nobody tells her what to do in her dungeon, or out of it.
I was wondering how quickly I could get out of the blast radius of her reply.
But she just looked at Harry, then replied in her soft, wispy voice, "I'm sorry, Harry, but you don't know enough about applying pain properly."
Those few words were the irresistible force of "every guest's request will be satisfied to the limit of the house's ability" crashing against the immovable object of Mistress Cynthia. I held my breath, waiting for the Universe to end.
Anyone else attempting to stand up to Mistress Cynthia would have wilted under those words. I've got to admire Harry for standing his ground. I realized from his next words that this wasn't some casual or frivolous request on his part.
"Then I'll learn," he said back to her just as softly. "From Master Henry, if that will meet your standards."
Mistress Cynthia studied Harry in a way I've never seen her do before. As though she had never taken anyone as seriously in her entire life as she was taking Harry right now. Meanwhile I thought about Master Henry, a big, and much more approachable, man who runs the mirror-image dungeon next to Mistress Cynthia's.
"Do you realize what 'learning about pain' entails?" she finally asked.
"I believe I do," he replied.
She appraised him for another long moment before finally saying, "Tell Master Henry what you want. And come back to me when he says you're ready."
With that, I let out the long breath I hadn't realized I had been holding. I couldn't believe Mistress Cynthia would actually agree to anything remotely like what Harry wanted, so my best guess is that "learning about pain" probably involved experiencing a whole lot of it. Fortunately not my concern, because just now Hunter came in.
But after the huge buildup, and following letdown, I was to be disappointed. Hunter came over with a big smile and hello to me, but then went up the big spiral staircase with Linda, a cute blonde several years older than I am. So Hunter's actions were my second surprise of this evening. I thought I'd given him a better time than that.
The next couple days passed quickly, and I was kept busy enough to not have too much time for thinking on my hands.
Harry had gone off with Master Henry that night, coming out a couple hours later looking very shaken, but still determined. He had returned religiously the next couple of nights, to again spend sessions with Master Henry. I had to admire his resolve, and I think even Mistress Cynthia was ready to give him some grudging respect.
Hunter returned each night as well, and spent his session with a new girl each time. He really was hunting for something, and it obviously wasn't me.
And the weird goings on outside seemed to intensify.
As for Hunter, after the fourth time with a new girl, Lady Sally intervened and took him down to her office. I've seen her do this on occasion, when she feels that somehow a guest just isn't getting what they want. She takes very seriously her aim to please, and is an excellent psychologist. When he returned to the Parlor sometime later, he had Terri by his side. That had to be my surprise for today.
Now Terri is about the nicest person in the whole house, after Lady Sally. She appeared at the door seeking refuge about nine months ago, and has stayed here ever since. But she is not a working girl.
Terri is about five feet eight, with luxurious, cascading dark brunette hair, and a face and apparent figure that would make her one of the most popular women here. But that never seemed to be her interest. Instead she is a wiz with computers and accounting systems. She always wears thick-framed glasses that give her a serious, intelligent, librarian look. She has taken over running Lady Sally's books and payroll, and never seems to make a mistake. All the money was accounted for. Checks come correctly on time. And bills are paid. No one ever complains about computer problems when Terri was around.
I'm acquainted with her in passing, but nothing deep. Most guests never see her at all. So I was more than a little surprised to see her with Hunter. And the moment they spotted me, they came over my direction.
"Hi, Maureen," she said, in her pleasant contralto.
"Hello, Terri. Hi, Hunter."
Hunter rewarded me with a warm smile and a surprising hug that made me forget that I wasn't his only interest in the house. Then he spoke to me for the first time since that second night.
"Maureen, Lady Sally thinks that maybe Terri can help me out."
"But we need your help too," Terri added.
I didn't know if this meant they wanted a three-way encounter, but Terri quickly clarified things. "Can we just go off and talk together for a bit?"
"Sure," I replied.
Up in my private studio, we all got comfortable.
Terri organized the conversation, starting by asking Hunter what he liked about his time with me, and why he hadn't come back to me again. I know that sounds cold, but somehow Terri made it into a warm experience for us all.
We talked about what he had enjoyed with me, and some things he just hadn't felt comfortable in asking for the first time (any of which I would have willingly done). I found out that there had been a lot he did like about me, including my currently bright blonde hair. But there were other things that also interested him, that he was looking for with the other women. Somehow I wasn't hurt by that. I got to know him as a person, instead of just a client, and wanted him to be happy.
I also found out that Hunter was pretty much a computer genius, who hadn't had much time for relationships in the past. He lives alone in a nice house back in the hills upstate, and makes a nice living as a consultant. This intrigued Terri a lot, because of her own computer skills, and they spent a good part of the time comparing notes on operating systems and compilers and just what the limits of computer technology could accomplish. I must confess to being totally lost during that part of their discussion. However they both sounded like they knew what they were talking about.
The best part of all for me was in really talking with Terri for the first time. Up close she is even more beautiful than I had realized. Too often in the past she seemed to have shyly hidden behind her hair and glasses, quiet demeanor, and concealing clothes. Most people just accepted her that way, and gave her some space. And while most of us might be found at any given time in any state of dress or undress, she was always fully covered with long sleeves and a full-length skirt. Now that I got to know her a bit, I realized she is bright, articulate, and very friendly. I like her a lot.
I realized that Lady Sally had understand that Hunter wasn't being satisfied by her house, and had asked Terri to spend some time with him to help him work out what he really wanted. Terri's qualification to do this is unique in one special regard. Since Terri isn't a working girl, it keeps their relationship on a social level.
Before I realized it, they were both getting up to go. I stood up too and gave each a big hug, since I realized I now had gained two new friends.
For the next few days I enjoyed watching the various dramas play out in our house. Who needs television, when we have real-life here? Strange life sometimes, to be sure - but real.
Harry seemed to be standing up under Master Henry's ministrations surprisingly well. Mistress Cynthia was somehow always present and watching them like a hawk each time their sessions ended. I'm sure she has never paid so much attention to any customer before. And I'll swear I saw an occasional smile momentarily crease her lips.
Terri and Hunter casually "interviewed" the other women that Hunter had already visited. Nobody seemed the least bit ruffled by their questions. After they'd finished with everyone Hunter had visited so far, you could find them sitting together in the Parlor, apparently comparing notes and commenting about things they liked concerning the other people there. I would have thought them a budding couple, except that they never went off alone together. Heck, they never so much as held hands in public.
I started going over and sitting with Terri during common meal breaks down below in the employee's private dining area. We soon talked about everything except Hunter, and computers. The house rules are strict. Private business remains private business. I like it that way too. As for computers, I just don't understand them.
I found out that my first impressions of Terri were correct. She is a wonderful, warm, and friendly person. However, she did seem to have some other secret that we never discussed. And when I mentioned the eerie goings on outside, she quickly glanced over her shoulder and seemed to shiver. I didn't mention them again.
Outside, the level of strange activity was rising to such a level that I was expecting to see it being covered on the evening news any moment now. While Lady Sally seemed to remain oblivious to it all, others were definitely picking up on hints of it now. For myself, I refused to leave the house before 10am, and was always back by 2pm. Bright daylight and busy streets seem the best defense.
Everything came to a head Friday night.
Now what follows is a bit scrambled. I'm going to tell you what I know, what I witnessed and may or may not have understood, and what I have guessed logically had to have happened. I was never in the room with Hunter and Terri, so my guesses as to what happened there come from the tape afterwards. This is not the only time things in Lady Sally's house seem to have happened with no regard at all for the proper orderly flow of time, so I have nothing to apologize for here.
As best I can reconstruct events, this is what may have happened.
At 6pm Friday evening Hunter hadn't yet arrived. He'd stayed late talking with Terri the night before, and I hadn't seen her today either. In fact, I was having dinner downstairs when she rushed up to me, one towel around her body, another completely covering her hair.
"Maureen, you're my best friend, and next to Lady Sally, the only one I completely trust. I need you to give this envelope to Hunter when he arrives, and absolutely no one else."
I barely managed to nod my assent before she rushed off. I had never seen Terri in such an emotional flurry before.
At 6:45 I finished dinner, primped myself, and went up to the Parlor - Terri's envelope safely hidden where no one would dare look.
One of my regulars showed up unexpectedly. We had just gone up the spiral staircase and were heading down the hall his favorite scenario studio when I heard it: that rustle of dry leaves, followed by a footstep, and the sound of an in-drawn breath. I spun around on my heels just in time to see a shadow, and pair of orange neon eyes ten feet down the hall, fade out like the Cheshire Cat.
I gave an involuntary shriek, and ran back down the hall the way we'd come, completely forgetting my client.
As I ran down the spiral staircase, I noticed that Master Henry and Harry had just come into the Parlor from their longest session yet. Though Harry looked as white as ever from their time in session, the two of them were actually laughing together for the first time, and Master Henry had his arm around Harry's shoulder.
No time to reflect on that as I ran past them, around the counter at the end of the room, and straight down the stairs to Lady Sally's office. Fortunately she was in.
"Lady Sally!" I blurted, nearly out of breath. "They're in here! I saw them!"
"Calm down, dear," she replied, as unperturbed as usual. "What is in here?"
"The eyes! The shadows! The things from outside!"
"Then it's time," she said mysteriously. "Come back to the Parlor with me. I'll need your help."
I could only nod as she picked up the phone and spoke into it, "Terri? Meet me in the Parlor right now."
Then she brushed past me and I stumbled after her in my effort to keep up.
Lady Sally is a quiet woman, but she has a commanding presence second to none when she needs it.
The Parlor was crowded, even for a Friday night. But Lady Sally had no trouble marching through it until she reached the middle. Terri was already there to meet her, looking hurriedly dressed this time, with the towel still wrapped around her hair.
Lady Sally climbed onto the big table there. In absolute astonishment of this, the room fell dead silent in three seconds.
Lady Sally looked them over for a long moment. Then spoke no more loudly than she ever does, yet the entire room heard every word.
"Gentlemen, and Ladies, I need all your help for my friend and employee, Terri."
That was probably all she needed to say. The unspoken assent was deafening.
But she thought it over, and decided to add some more details.
"Will everyone who wishes to help, please in an orderly, but swift manner, come outside with me. And don't worry if anything strange seems to happen. We'll all be safe as long as we stick together."
With that, she stepped down off the table and marched with the flow as the room emptied in moments.
Outside, a cruel wind had kicked up. And it sounded as if every leaf in the state of New York had fallen, and was rustling to the limit of its ability to rustle.
I had been carried along by the crowd following Lady Sally and Terri. Now, Lady Sally held me tightly by one arm, and Terri by the other.
"Form a chain," she cried out. "A human net to hold us in place."
I grabbed Terri, as other hands quickly grabbed the three of us. More hands grabbed them, working outwards, until we were all tightly held together as a single unit.
As we did this, the wind whipped up to sudden storm force. I saw dozens of swirling black shapes with orange eyes caught up in it, fading in and out as I watched. I felt Terri being pulled upwards, dragging me along, and starting to fade out herself.
"Pull me back!" I shouted against the wind. The hands holding me responded, and the solidity they had passed through me held me down and brought Terri back to solidity as well.
The whirlwind doubled, then redoubled its force again. Somehow we all held firm, rooted in this place and time.
There was one final, frantic doubling again before, with a giant pop, everything went still and silent. And for the first time in days, I felt the space around the house was empty - of everything.
"It's over," Lady Sally finally declared. "Thanks, everyone."
The hands let go, and we all trooped back inside.
The party seemed to restart itself with barely any hesitation. It was as if nobody wanted to say a word about what had just happened. (What had just happened? I don't even know, and I was there!)
I looked around, but both Lady Sally and Terri had disappeared. Harry, who had one of the hands that I'm sure had held me in place, was looking around when I saw Mistress Cynthia come over, whisper something to him, and then hook her arm through his and lead him off.
Now that looked like a fascinating conclusion to recent events, and it reminded me that I had abandoned my own client only minutes - or was it hours - earlier?
Just as I located him, I saw Hunter come into the Parlor.
With a quick muttered apology, and a promise to return in seconds, I quickly retrieved Terri's envelope and gave it to Hunter. He tore it open, read something on an inner envelope, and then headed up the stairs at a trot.
I re-collected my client and went up the stairs as well, just in time to see Hunter enter a normally unused studio. The small, red, do not disturb, peanut light illuminated by the door, leaving me one more small mystery to consider.
I never rush any of my clients. (House rules state that good Art takes as long as it takes.) The recent events left us both in a vulnerable mood. Our sex, while satisfying, was brief. Afterwards, we just held each other close for a long time without talking.
Finally, as we were returning to the Parlor, Terri rushed up behind me.
"Maureen," she called out to me. "Will you be my Maid of Honor?"
I turned to see Terri, her hair a ravishing golden blonde, devoid of her glasses, and absolutely beaming. Behind her, an equally beaming Hunter stood, looking like a man who can't believe the stroke of great fortune that has just descended on him.
"Of course," I replied, stammering a bit from surprise. "When?"
Our house has outfits for every possible fantasy. We didn't even have to look hard to find a perfect wedding dress, bride's maid outfit, and tuxedo for Hunter. Lady Sally stood up for the groom, and Father Newman performed the ceremony right there in the Parlor. Everyone was a witness.
There was barely time to throw rice before they were out the door and off on their honeymoon to a carefully undisclosed location.
Quite a night, all things considered,
Things had mostly calmed down a couple hours later, when I got a call from Terri on the road.
"Maureen. I need a big favor from you."