The house is in the nicest part of town, the historic part, set well back away from the street under old-growth trees. The doorbell is discreet, musical. In a few moments, the impressive oaken door opens, and Daniel is looking into the smiling face of a young lady. She’s about twenty-five, blonde, tip to toe professionalism from her expensive heels to her tiny gold earrings. The only jarring note is the black leather collar with a leash ring fastened around her pale throat.
“You must be Daniel,” she says in a pleasantly modulated voice, “welcome to Philadelphia. Please, won’t you come in?”
He’s ushered into a comfortable library. “Would you like something to drink?”
“A beer, please.”
“Samuel Adams, Tsingtao, or Guinness?” she asks.
“Do ya have to ask, luv?”
The young lady smiles, suitably charmed by Daniel’s Irish brogue, and exits the room. The library is wall-to-wall book spines, everything from the classics to reference works on engineering. Despite the comfort that borders on opulence, the room seems rather– boring to Daniel. He can’t quite put a finger on it, but it’s bland, despite the sheer number of books, which should be tantalizing him, like an itch under the skin. He barely has the urge to get up and look around.
The young lady returns with his Guinness. The ale has a lovely head, a sign that it’s been expertly poured. He takes a sip. Wicked.
A man enters through a different door than the girl used. He’s in his mid-fifties, wearing a very urbane sweater and khakis. His hair is silvered blond, cut short on the sides, sleek watch — not a Rolex, shoes that look handmade. Daniel pulls his sleeve down over his Timex and tries not to fidget. The man strides across the room like he’s working circuits at the gym, and extends his hand. “Russ Derleth. You must be Daniel Sullivan. Thanks for coming.”
They spend the next few minutes in polite small talk, Daniel’s uneventful flight, the weather in Philadelphia, how things are at the Southport House, the innocuous bad habits of their respective Regents. Daniel’s shared this talk with more fellow Knights than he can count, in nearly a hundred Houses across the world. Knights of Saint Christopher travel a lot. But they usually know why they are where they are, and Daniel doesn’t. Not yet.
“So,” he says when he grows too impatient not to ask, “what can I do for ya?”
Russ takes a deep breath, and a deep sadness flickers across his face, but doesn’t settle. “Do you remember Claudia Cross? You met her the last time you were here, oh, seven years ago?”
“Yeah, I remember her. Lovely girl.” Really lovely, truth be told.
“Have you heard from her lately?” Russ asks, leaning forward in his leather armchair.
“No, not for a long time now. I called her a couple of times from the Dublin House, after I went home, but she found another guy, and, well, ya know–”
Russ sighs. “Yes. That was me. We were together until just a few months ago. Then one night she disappeared, I have no idea why–” His voice nearly breaks before he gets it under control. “I haven’t been able to find her.”
“Do ya think she might have had a family emergency? Could she have gone home?”
“No. I called her parents the day after she went missing. They hadn’t seen her. I called again a month ago, and they still didn’t know.” The sadness crosses Russ’s face again, lingers longer this time. “She wasn’t exactly on great terms with her parents. They didn’t approve of our– lifestyle.”
Daniel’s eyes cut to the blonde woman, who has just come in with another Guinness for Daniel, and a glass of orange juice for Russ. He thinks he understands what the problem is with her parents. He reaches for the Guinness, then pauses. He’ll be no help at all if he gets pissed.
“Would you like something else instead, Mr. Sullivan?” the blonde asks discreetly.
“Ahhh, no, this is fine, but may I have a glass of water as well?”
“Sparkling or still?”
Jaysus. “Whatever is fine.” The young lady– Derleth’s slave — leaves to fetch his fancy water, and he turns back to Russ.
Russ shakes his head slowly. “Claudia wouldn’t have gone home to her parents. She was happy here. They gave her nothing but grief, even tried to take her son away from her.”
“She has a child? I didn’t know.” Claudia has a child? “Why would anyone want to take a boy from his mother?”
“They claimed that she wasn’t a proper influence on the child.”
“But, Jaysus, she’s his mother.”
“That’s what the judge said,” Russell agrees. “Of course, that was after our Regent, Mr. Matheson, brought the full weight of our legal team to bear. He felt, as I did, that the child clearly belonged to us, the only family he had known, and not to his grandparents, whom he had never even met. Ridiculous.”
“So she’s not there.” Daniel thinks hard. The Guinness hasn’t properly lubricated his brain quite yet. “Any other family? Any close friends?”
Russ shakes his head. “She didn’t have any friends who weren’t my friends as well. I’ve asked everyone.”
“Maybe she was snatched.” The thought is alarming, but Daniel knows that it happens. Even in feckin’ America.
“There were no signs of forced entry, and my security system is extensive. There were things missing, a few clothes, Claudia’s purse. There were no valuables missing, all of her jewelry was left behind.”
“The kidnappers might have tricked their way in, left the valuables to confuse you–”
Russ’s smile is wry. “We’re here to kidnap you,” he says, pointing his hand at Daniel like a gun. “So pack a bag, get your purse, and let’s go!”
“All right, you have a point.” Daniel slumps; they’re back to square one. “Was there anything– unusual about the week they disappeared? Did anyone come to the house, anyone out of the ordinary?” He’s reaching, but he doesn’t know what else to ask.
“No,” Russ answers slowly, “nothing that wasn’t routine.” The young lady has placed his water by Daniel’s elbow and is standing in a corner of the room, near the window. He takes a sip out of the glass. It’s a far cry from tap water. He smiles his thanks to her, and asks Russ, “What’s the lady’s name?”
“Jennifer. She’s a lovely girl, and quite bright.” He lowers his voice, and adds, “It’s not the same as it was with Claudia. I miss her.” If the girl by the window hears him, she gives no sign.
Maybe he does miss her, but for a guy that’s asking for help, he’s not being very forthcoming. “Define routine. Can you remember who all was in the house the night that Claudia disappeared?”
Russ pauses, thinks carefully. “Let me think. Myself, Claudia and her son, of course.”
Daniel tries not to fidget. Of course! Who else?
“My housekeeper and groundskeeper, Mr. and Mrs. Berger, had retired to their room over the garage.” Russ thinks some more. Something doesn’t quite seem right here. If Daniel had been in his place, he would have gone over that night in his mind until every bloody detail came crystal clear. It appears to be the first time Russ has thought of this question. Bloody hell. What’s wrong with this bastard? “The only visitor that day was Stephen Matheson.”
“The Regent of the Philadelphia House.” It’s more of a statement than a question. There aren’t many American chapters of the Knights of Saint Christopher. Any Knight in the country could probably name the Regents of every House.
“Yes.” Russ doesn’t elaborate.
“Have you hired a private detective?”
If Daniel didn’t know better, he’d say Russ has begun to look a bit hostile. He gives Daniel a hard look, and says stiffly, “We thought it best not to get the mundanes involved. There are some in our organization who feel that the prudence and discretion that have served us for centuries are outdated, that the Knights of Saint Christopher should just divulge all of our secrets to the world at large. I am not one of those people.”
He pauses, looks at Daniel sharply. “Would you like to see the pictures I have of Claudia and her son? Perhaps that would help.”
Daniel doesn’t get it. This would help? Actually, more information on whether or not the Regent had noticed anything amiss would help. But Russ goes to a cabinet set into the bookshelves, pulls out a leather folio. It’s a picture album. He opens it to the middle, and slides it across the coffee table to Daniel. The woman in the 5×7 is laughing into the camera, with the large greenish grey eyes and honey brown waves that Daniel remembers. It’s true what they say about never forgetting your first love — he still sees Claudia in his dreams, sometimes. She’s on the beach, one hand resting against a sailboard, the other curled protectively around a sunburnt preschooler. The boy’s ginger hair is ruffled in the breeze, blue-lavender eyes squinted against the sun, freckles showing even through the zinc oxide on his cheeks and nose.
He looks exactly as Daniel did at that age.
“Sweet Jaysus,” Daniel mutters.
“His name is Lucas. Will you help me find them, Daniel?” Russ pleads quietly.
“You love him, dontcha?”
“Yes, I do, even though he’s not mine.” Russ answers.
“Yeah, I know he’s not,” Daniel agrees. “He’s mine.”
It’s difficult for an Irishman to decline hospitality when it’s offered, and so Daniel finds himself following Derleth’s slave as she leads him to the guestroom. Dinner hadn’t been elaborate — Philly cheesesteaks and thick french fries that remind Daniel of the chips back home in Ireland. But it was so good that Russ called Mrs. Berger out of the kitchen to hear Daniel’s compliments. The older woman blushed prettily before heading back to the kitchen to serve dessert. The apple pie had been as tasty as the rest of the meal.
Daniel is glad the evening is over though. The conversation had never lagged; Russ Derleth was an excellent host. But the talk had been excruciatingly polite, generic. It was almost as if the man had an overactive political correctness filter. His after-dinner talk was like his house — bland.
Jennifer shows him where the towels are in the bathroom, where the robe hangs on the back of the door. Daniel expects that she is going to excuse herself with a promise to be near if he needed anything else, but she doesn’t.
Instead, she kneels quietly at his feet. “My Lord has instructed that I am yours for the evening. Anything that you desire,” she dimples, “anything that is in my power to grant you, is yours.”
Daniel is absolutely gobsmacked. “Errrr,” he stutters, “umm, maybe we can talk for a while.” He sits down hard on the side of the bed. Oh, shite. It’s not that he hadn’t been thinking about it, she was lovely, but he was already in a relationship, not exactly free to dally, tempting as it was. Oh, Christ.
She rises and moves to reposition herself at his feet, but he hastily pats the side of the bed next to him, so she sits there instead.
“How long have you lived here with Russ, Jennifer?”
“Just over nine weeks,” she replies, smiling.
“Is your room as nice as this one?” He touches her arm, encouraging her.
“Oh, I don’t sleep in a room of my own, I sleep in Master’s room.” She seems mildly surprised by the question.
“So you sleep with Russ, then,” he says, almost to himself. He’s not sure if he’s disappointed or not. So they are that close. That’s almost indecent. After all, Claudia’s only been gone for less than three feckin’ months…
“Well– not exactly. I sleep on a mat at the foot of his bed. Sometimes he chains me to the end of the bed, but not always. Master and I often do demonstrations for BDSM organizations — he’s very well-respected in the community, and he’s very, very good at what he does.” She looks proud. “If he’s done something that’s made me sore, he lets me sleep in bed with him. It’s much warmer there.” The pink in her cheeks and her earnest tone make her look younger than twenty-five. She’s cute.
“Oh, okay. That’s, uhh, considerate of him.” Daniel tries another question. “So, is Russ your first master?”
“No, actually he’s my second. My previous master didn’t allow me to leave the house. After a while, it started to drive me crazy. Master encourages me to get out, and even take classes.”
“What kind of classes?” Daniel asks. Maybe Derleth was her ticket through college or something.
“Whatever he decides would be best. I’m taking a course in accounting so that I can keep the finances, I’ll be taking a night class in flower arranging next semester. Master said we could look at the catalog soon and choose what I’d be learning next.”
“So you’re not working toward a degree.”
“No,” she frowns, “I just want to learn to serve him better, to make him proud.” She laughs. “If I had wanted to work my way through college, I would have become an intern at my father’s company.”
“This sounds more interesting,” Daniel quips.
She smiles. “Much.”
“I like my job, too,” Daniel says. “Working for the Knights of Saint Christopher is fascinating. I’ve never wanted to be anything else, not even when I was a lad. My father and mother were Knights, as well.”
“Really? I don’t really know much about them. Master works a lot, but he never brings work home with him. What do the Knights of Saint Christopher do?”
“Well, we study parapsychology and cryptozoology and most of the other “fringe sciences”. We try to verify or debunk claims of paranormal events.” Daniel smiles wryly at the dubious woman. “We calm a lot of hysterical people, too.”
“Master never talks about his work with me. When the Regent comes to visit, He always excuses me. Their work is confidential, but you already know that.”
Sure, cases are sensitive, but this amount of secrecy is unusual, at least in Daniel’s experience. Wicked strange.
Jennifer looks down at her hands, twists them in her lap. Here comes something interesting, Daniel thinks.
“Sir?” she asks softly, “I do have a favor to ask of you.”
“Umm, well, I’ve been with my Lord for nine weeks now, and, well, we don’t… I mean, I don’t think …” She makes a frustrated sound, and blurts, “I haven’t had sex since I’ve come here.” She looks at him very earnestly. “Master has given me to you for the evening. Would you– have sex with me?”
“Ummm,” Daniel hesitates, his eyes rueful.
“You have a girlfriend,” she guesses.
“Well, yes, kinda. I’m sorry.” And he is sorry. Not even Daniel gets offers this good every day. He pauses, takes in her disappointed slump. “Hang on, let me make a phone call.”
“Excuse me, then.” She leaves for the bathroom.
Daniel calls home. Gordon answers on the second ring. “Hello?” His British public school accent is crisp.
“Daniel! So, how was the flight? Did you have dinner with Derleth?” He makes it sound like the title of a mystery novel.
“I did. But I’ll tell you more about that tomorrow, I promise. Right now, I have a question for ya.”
“Well, doesn’t this sound intriguing?”
It takes a bit of explaining, but Daniel’s lover gets the gist of the situation quickly; he doesn’t even try to hide his amusement. Funny, Daniel thought he’d be put out, even angry. Gordon was the jealous one. When they became a couple he was the one that laid out the rules — no other partners unless they share, 100% latex coverage. Daniel had never come close to breaking his word.
“So, let me get this straight, love,” he laughs. “You’ve been given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play with someone else’s toy and you’re asking me if that’s acceptable.”
“She’s a person, not a toy– but… yeah.”
“Bloody hell, Daniel! I mean, I appreciate the call, but damnation! Perhaps you had best hang up now and give me a scene report in the morning. Carpe noctem and all that.” With that, Gordon chortles “Ciao!” into the phone and disconnects. Cheeky bugger.
Jaysus, Mary and Joseph. He’s going to have to find a way to tell him about Lucas. Suddenly he misses Gordon more than he thought possible, especially given the circumstances. His throat feels tight. Gordon sounded very far away, like there are oceans separating him from his lover, and not just a few states.
“I love you, Gordon. Goodnight,” he whispers to the dial tone.
When Russ’s slave girl returns from double-checking the bathroom’s readiness for guests, Daniel just smiles at her and crooks his finger. She smiles back broadly and comes to him.
It would have been too hard to sleep alone, anyway.