Can't Buy Me LovebyJukeboxEMCSA©
Ronald walked up to the woman behind the desk, wishing he could wipe the sweat from his palms but not wanting to wreck his suit. He'd dressed in his nicest outfit for this; it seemed somehow appropriate to look good for Elsie, given how long it had been since they'd last seen each other. Would she even remember the time she'd spent here? Or would she just open her eyes, smile at him, and wonder why he looked three years older? (Or perhaps more than three years. He felt like he'd aged a decade since the last time he'd walked into this building.) He'd find out soon. Ronald glanced at the mirror behind the receptionist, trying to unobtrusively check his thinning brown hair to make sure it covered his bald spot reasonably well before remembering that it wasn't like his wife didn't know it was there. He almost wiped his palms on the suit again, caught himself, and finally set the small piece of paper on the desk with an anxious finality.
"Ronald Mercer," he said, just a trifle nervously. "I'm here to pick up my wife."
The receptionist smiled a plastic smile at him. Her eyes had a dreamy vacancy to them. "Of course, Mr. Mercer," she said in a cheerful tone. "And do you have your claim ticket with you?"
Ronald slid the piece of paper in front of the woman. "Yes, it's...it's right here." He'd had nightmares the last two weeks running, dreams in which the ticket was missing, or lost in a fire, or caught by the wind and dropped in the river...in one dream, David Beckham had stolen it and claimed his wife instead. That had been a weird one. But the ticket was still there this morning, safe in the file cabinet where he kept all his important papers. Even if it hadn't been, Ronald thought that he would probably have been able to get her back. It wasn't like Ms. Graves didn't keep records of her own. She'd remember Ronald, even after three years. She wouldn't pretend that she didn't know him, just so that she could keep Elsie all to herself...would she? Ronald was suddenly grateful he didn't have to find out.
The receptionist took the claim ticket and glanced it over. "Everything seems to be in order," she said. "I'll just page Mistress Marissa now." She pressed a button on the telephone, and spoke into the little grill. "Mistress?" she said. "I'm afraid the claim ticket has come in for Elsie." Ronald looked down at his shoes. He didn't even rate a name, not here.
The voice from the grill sounded sad and perhaps a little tired. "Alright," it said. Ronald recognized it as Ms. Graves. "We'll be down presently."
The receptionist looked back up at Ronald. "The Mistress will be down presently," she said. "If you could just wait over there?" She pointed to a small waiting area with a few chairs, and Ronald nodded. Even before he'd fully turned, her expression had returned to that same placid, empty look she'd possessed before he started talking to her. She seemed utterly content to wait at the desk forever, not even thinking about boredom or distractions. Right now, Ronald envied her.
The seconds ticked by with agonizing slowness, but his watch told him it was only a couple of minutes before Ms. Graves came out of the elevator with Elsie following close behind like an adoring pet. Elsie was in the same dress she'd worn the day they came here, but Ms. Graves was wearing a silk robe, and it was pretty obvious she had nothing on underneath it. Both of them seemed to glisten just slightly with sweat, and Ms. Graves was still gently patting her dark hair back into position as they crossed the room. Elsie's blonde hair was anything but neat; it looked like someone had just been running their fingers through it, tugging it, pulling on it and gasping...
Even before they got close enough that Ronald could smell the scent of sex on them, he knew what they must have been doing. He tried not to picture it in his mind, but the scent made it all too immediate not to imagine.
"My apologies," Ms. Graves said, "I was just saying good-bye to Elsie." She sat down, but Elsie remained standing. Ronald saw that same look in her eyes that he'd seen in the receptionist's...that blank, placid, dreamy emptiness that suggested nothing but sleepy bliss. She looked happy, nothing like the haunted expression she'd worn when he last saw her. "To be honest, Mr. Mercer, I was rather hoping you wouldn't come. I've grown quite fond of your wife."
Ronald frowned. "Do people actually...do that?" he asked, fascinated horror in his voice.
"Every so often, yes," Ms. Graves said. "Some men do consider me a profitable alternative to a divorce attorney. They convince their wives of the absolute necessity of a short time in my service, then crumple up their claim ticket and throw it away."
"What do you do? I mean, with...with the women?"
Ms. Graves flashed a tiny smirk. "Depends on the woman. If I like her enough, I keep her; Miranda, there, has been in my service for seven years now." She gestured to the receptionist, who shivered pleasantly at being acknowledged. "But for the most part, I simply release them after it becomes apparent that their husband isn't returning, and make sure to mention that little fact to them. Most judges tend to be very favourable in their divorce settlements when it comes up in court that the husband sold the wife into slavery." She smiled thinly in a way that made Ronald's blood run cold. "Not that anyone brings up the specifics of the arrangement, of course."
"Of, of course," Ronald stammered out, trying to convey his discretion through tone and body language. He was uncomfortably aware that all he probably gave off was fear, but perhaps that was all Ms. Graves wanted. Ronald didn't care, really. He just wanted to get his Elsie back and get out of here, and forget he'd ever seen this woman. He wanted to forget the picture in his head of Elsie, dreamy and blissful, kneeling between Ms. Graves' thighs and licking with the docile patience of a mindless slave... "So how, I mean, how does this work? Do you just snap your fingers, or...or..." Ms. Graves fixed him with a penetrating stare, and he trailed off into silence.
"She's very beautiful, Mr. Mercer," Ms. Graves said. She made no move to release the other woman. She seemed contemplative, almost melancholy. "I expect it must have been difficult, spending three years apart from her."
Ronald nodded. "Of course it was," he said, perhaps a bit more sharply than he'd intended. Had she really thought that just because they'd been driven to...to this...that he didn't love his wife?
Ms. Graves frowned. "Tell me, Mr. Mercer, did you sleep with another woman while Elsie was away?"
"I..." Ronald tried not to sound defensive. "I don't have to put up with these questions. Just--"
"Just what? I don't think you appreciate the position you're in, Mr. Mercer. What exactly do you think you'd do if I decided not to release Elsie, hmm? Complain to the Office of Trading Standards?"
"I'd...I'd go to the police." Ronald hoped he sounded braver than he felt.
"Even knowing that you'd be implicating yourself by admitting it all?" Ms. Graves asked with decadent amusement in her tone.
"If I had to, yes. If that's what it took to make you set her free." Ronald was almost surprised to find out that he meant it. He hadn't really thought of himself as anything other than timid, but as soon as the words escaped his lips, he realized he was sincerely willing to go to jail if that was what it took.
Ms. Graves' next words sank his momentary bravado. "It wouldn't really matter, Mr. Mercer. It's been a long time since I've had anything to fear from the police. I might only accept female clients, but the ring works on men just as well as women." She held up her right hand, wiggling her fingers so that Ronald could get a clear view of the ring she wore. It seemed to gleam with an unnatural light. "So many people have left a tiny spark of their free will in its depths--not much, you understand, not nearly as much as Elsie right now, but enough that they'd laugh off any complaint you made about me."
She leaned back in her seat, brushing her fingers against Elsie's arm with a familiarity that made Ronald's guts churn. "And before you even mention it, if you attempted any violence upon my person, Elsie would quite happily tear you limb from limb to defend me right now. So if you wish to show any courage, Mr. Mercer, I suggest you exhibit it by answering my question truthfully. Any other women?"
Ronald looked down at his shoes again. "I visited a prostitute," he said after a moment. "Eighteen months after I left Elsie here. I told her not to speak, I kept my eyes closed, and I imagined she was my wife. Is that what you wanted to hear, Ms. Graves?"
"How many times?" Ms. Graves' voice was filled with cruel satisfaction. Ronald couldn't even speak, he just held up four fingers. "Not bad, Mr. Mercer," she said. "Not the best that's ever been in here, but you certainly beat the average. Perhaps it's unfair of me, but I weigh it a bit heavier against you if you actually have an affair instead of visiting a professional. After all, I'm the last person who can sit in judgement over someone for needing to release their...physical urges."
Ronald wasn't sure if she was being genuinely sincere, or simply baiting him. He didn't care. "Are we done now?" he asked. "Can I have her back?"
"She's yours for the taking right now," Ms. Graves responded. "If I tell her to, she'll happily serve you just as well as me. She can even seem to be normal, if commanded. You can show her off in public, have her act like the good little wife, but in private, she'll do anything you ask, anything at all--"
"That's enough!" Ronald snapped, glaring at Ms. Graves. "I want her back to normal. Back to herself."
"Are you sure that's what she wants?" Ms. Graves asked. The question hung in the air for a long moment.
"Just...please. Put her back the way she was."
"Oh, alright," Ms. Graves said, a touch of petulance in her voice. She leaned up, and silently beckoned Elsie down towards her. Elsie bent over as Ms. Graves gave her a long, passionate kiss on the lips.
"Just a good-bye kiss," Ms. Graves said. "You don't mind, I hope?" She locked lips with Elsie again for a long moment. "Or perhaps it's a bit more than that." She kissed Elsie again, her lips lingering for what seemed like ages. "Perhaps you've even wanted to see us together like this." She kissed again, and Ronald saw her tongue dart into Elsie's mouth. "Perhaps you secretly enjoyed the idea of giving your wife away to another woman, the money just an excuse to bring life to your shameful little fantasies of lesbian infidelity..." She kissed Elsie one last time, a deep, searing kiss that left them both panting for breath. "But I'm rambling. Here."
She reached up with her right hand and gently stroked Elsie's cheek. Ronald saw the gleaming light within the ring seem to diminish as awareness returned to his wife's eyes. Elsie looked down at the hand touching her skin, an unreadable expression on her face. "Welcome back, my dear," Ms. Graves said.
Elsie straightened up. Silently, she stepped back, closer to her husband. Ronald stood up and took Elsie's hand. "I think this concludes our bargain," he said coldly, turning towards the door.
"It does conclude this bargain, yes." Ronald couldn't help but notice the subtle change Ms. Graves made. It just made him walk quicker, practically dragging Elsie behind him. "Farewell," she said as they walked out the door.
Parking had been poor, leaving the two of them with a long, silent walk to the car. For a long while, Ronald simply didn't know what to say. Finally, he asked, "What..." He paused for a long moment, the silence between them seeming to have taken on a life of its own. "What was it like?"
Elsie's voice was taut. "I don't want to talk about it," she said.
"And how did you come to hear about my...services?" Ms. Graves asked. Elsie looked down at the floor, over at the woman behind the desk, anywhere but at Ms. Graves' face. Even without seeing it, though, she could feel Ms. Graves' gaze upon her. It felt like the other woman's desire was a physical force pressing up against Elsie's flesh...for what seemed like the hundredth time, Elsie wondered if she could actually go through with this.
"Susan Abercrombie, ma'am," Ronald said in subdued tones. Susan had said it wasn't that bad, but she'd been reluctant to talk about it at all, really. Elsie couldn't blame her. She'd never speak of this once it was over, not if she could help it. But Susan had seen how desperate her old friend was, how badly they needed the money, and she'd broken her silence and had told them both about Marissa Graves. Elsie wasn't sure whether to thank her friend or not.
"Ah, yes, Susan. One of my best advertisers." Ms. Graves' voice was filled with smug pleasure, like she could still taste Susan on her lips. Maybe she could. Susan had said something about...she'd been terribly vague, maddeningly vague, but she'd said that Elsie would spend the time in some sort of trance. Which certainly sounded like a better alternative than months, perhaps even years of degrading service, but how were they to know that she would ever be free of it? If this woman really could control people, what was to stop her from keeping Elsie forever?
Ms. Graves' tone changed, became abruptly businesslike. "You have the papers?" she asked. Wordlessly, Ronald handed them over. "Ah, yes," Ms. Graves said, scanning them. "Disease-free, excellent. Not to imply that I expected anything else, but one simply can't be too careful. You've made your excuses?"
Elsie nodded. "I've explained that I'm tending to a sick friend in Europe." She felt like she could barely raise her voice above a whisper. "One who needs twenty-four hour care, but can't afford a nurse. I've resigned from my job at the hospital, and my friends and family know I'll be away for an indefinite period and won't be able to spare the time to contact them."
"And you told them yourself?" Ms. Graves asked firmly.
Elsie nodded. She understood the implications of the question. If her husband explained it after she'd...gone away, it would sound like an obvious lie. It might raise suspicions, even get the police involved. But if she said it, nobody would think to question it. Unless they thought she was leaving him for another man, but everyone knew they were far too much in love to...to...Elsie fought back a flood of tears. She could do this. She had to do this.
Ms. Graves nodded and took out her checkbook. "The amount is two million pounds, I believe?"
Ronald nodded. "Yes. I...you haven't said how long Elsie will be, er, spending with you."
"Three years," Ms. Graves said in clipped tones.
Elsie couldn't help herself. "Three years?" she blurted out in shock and dismay. She was quietly gratified to see that Ronald seemed just as upset, perhaps even moreso.
"I did warn you that it could be quite some time," Ms. Graves responded primly.
"Yes, but...three years?" Elsie pleaded. "Isn't there some way you could...take pity on us, perhaps--"
"My rates are non-negotiable," Ms. Graves replied. "You may spend three years in my service, or find some other way to raise two million pounds in a matter of a week." She finished making out the check, and held it out to the two of them. "Three years, Mrs. Mercer. Take it or leave it."
Elsie was torn for a moment between hoping that Ronald would take the check, and with it the responsibility for the decision, and praying that he wouldn't, because she didn't know if she could ever look at him again if he was the one to take the money and hand her over to Ms. Graves. But Ronald seemed paralysed by the whole situation, and it was finally Elsie who snatched the check from Ms. Graves' hand and handed it over to her husband.
"Excellent," Ms. Graves said. "Now, Elsie, it's time to come with me. Mr. Mercer, you can go and get a claim ticket from Miranda, it'll tell you when Elsie's time is up. And don't worry, Mr. Mercer...like many people with few morals, I tend to cling tightly to those I still possess. I promise you that no matter what, Elsie will have complete control of her own will once her term of service ends." She reached out a hand to Elsie. "Come along, dear."
Elsie looked over at Ronald. "But...don't I get a moment to say good-bye?"
"I'm afraid your service began the moment you accepted the money, Elsie." Ms. Graves' expression brooked no discussion. "You really should have taken care of such things before you walked in here."
She looked helplessly at Ronald and the check in his possession that meant everything in the world to them, the difference between salvation and despair. "Go on, dear," he said, patting her gently on the shoulder. "It'll be alright."
She stood up and took Ms. Graves' hand, trying not to think about what the gesture meant. The two of them headed to the elevator in silence, and rode it up without exchanging so much as a glance. Elsie felt as though she was about to be sick.
The elevator opened into a short hallway that led into an enormous bedroom. Ms. Graves led her to the bed (which was, itself, large enough to sleep five or six comfortably) and wordlessly gestured to it. Elsie nodded hesitantly and began to slip her dress off.
"Oh, no, my dear!" Ms. Graves' voice was warm, pleasant, a stark contrast to her demeanor in the lobby below. "I merely wanted you to sit down. There'll be time enough for such things later."
Grateful for the brief reprieve, Elsie sat down on the edge of the bed. She still couldn't bring herself to meet Ms. Graves' eyes.
Ms. Graves sat down next to her. "You're very beautiful, my dear," she said, touching Elsie's hair gently. "The dress is lovely. I suppose you wore it for me?"
Elsie nodded. "I...I thought I should," she said shyly. "I didn't want you to...to turn us away."
Ms. Graves chuckled. "Oh, I couldn't imagine turning a gorgeous creature like you away!" She touched Elsie's bare shoulder where Elsie had begun to remove the dress, and Elsie couldn't help it. She flinched.
"I'm sorry!" she said. "I didn't mean to, I...I'll do it. Whatever you ask of me, I'll do it. I'm just nervous, that's all."
"I understand," Ms. Graves said. "You've never been with another woman before; you've probably never wanted to. You're nervous, perhaps even frightened, but you can't leave. Not without losing the money you need so badly." She paused. "Tell me, my dear, haven't you wondered why I do this?"
"I..." Elsie paused, trying to find words that wouldn't offend Ms. Graves (she still wasn't willing to think of the other woman as her owner.) "I thought perhaps you were lonely."
Ms. Graves laughed. "Oh, no, my dear. With my talents, I could have any woman I wanted. And sometimes, I do. But there's a very particular fantasy of mine, one I like to indulge from time to time. One of a woman like you, one who is trembling and frightened and never even thought of indulging in female pleasures, but who nonetheless feels she has to bear my caresses..." Ms. Graves paused, her voice losing its dreamy quality for a moment. "You don't, by the way. If you really wish to leave, just say so and I'll recover the money and make sure your husband never bothers you again."
"Oh, no," Elsie said, "I could never do that! We need this money so desperately, we thought the restaurant was just beginning to turn a profit, and then this lawsuit came, and no bank would possibly lend that sum to us, even a profitable restaurant could never pay it back..." She practically sobbed out the words, even though she knew that Ms. Graves had solved all their money problems. "I can't just leave. I can't."
Ms. Graves sighed happily. "And that's what I dream of, my dear. A woman just like you, one who prepares for my touch with all the stoicism of a martyr...and then finds herself blossoming under my fingers."