The radio came on. Joanna opened her eyes and immediately regretted it as the light of the mid-morning shot spikes into her head. She started to sit up but realised she would have to settle for rolling. Cheap cotton pyjamas, a ten year old boy would wear, hung loosely off her hips. She checked herself in the mirror. Bed hair; smudge mascara; and some kind of antibiotic resilient fuss was growing on her tongue. She ran the exercise, her mind still cloudy. Banker, father of two children, both under ten, and married to a woman who four years ago gave up on her looks: ‘He would want a conquest to take him back to his college days’. She pulled her shirt down so her small, but pretty breasts showed. She had a ballet dancer’s body, save her skinny legs, a doll like head and Pretty Russian features. ‘Interest in taking risks with other peoples security – have to play it dumb. Most crucial part; I would still be in his bed in the morning so he would feel in control, like he could call me if he wanted, or I was obedient and would call him when it was safe’. It was an exercise she did every morning with a different male persona. It kept her imagination on the job. She combed her fingers through her dead straight dirty blond hair and tried to get rid of the hair lick that was her short bangs from last night. ‘Coffee then shower’ she took her first steps letting the clock radio play out some modern folk song and nearly tripped on a pair of red satin nickers. She had nice things for bad boys, but she only dress up when she was on the prowl. As she left her bedroom and headed to the bathroom she found Cheryl asleep in the tub, the bottle of vodka that had totalled them still in her lap. Joanna thought about turning the water on and waking her up. She passed on the idea. She headed to the sink and cupped a handful of water into her mouth. With a couple of swishes and a gurgle she dislodged most of the life form that had taken up habitation on her tongue. She headed down the hall into the kitchen.
They lived in a shambles. An abandoned house in a fifties factory district that had shut down. The lead in the soil stopped anyone from redeveloping the area so it had been left like one of those villages from the nuclear tests. They had wallpapered over holes in the walls and bought fabric of folk vintage and decorated the place into a style halfway between Goth and gypsy. It worked. Joanna stepped over a cockroach with no fear of the infestation. They were the only other thing that could survive the lead other than Joanna and Cheryl. All of the furniture came to them from scavenging. A case of beer had seen an electrician stealing copper wire had hooked them up to the mains. No one came to read the metre, but they had no gas and the water was brown. Joanna replaced the filter in the percolator with a peace of toilet paper (clean) and relaxed back into the kitchen bench.
Cheryl woke up screaming in the bathtub. Joanna just poured her a coffee. Something had scrambled Cheryl, something buried under five kinds of crazy and another corpse… so anyone digging for it would stop when they reached the first one. Counsellors, Social workers, therapists, psychiatrists, boyfriends, girlfriends and someone between gender assignments had all at some point delved into the crazy of Cheryl. Joanna, being naturally inclined to figure people out on account of being a con artist, quickly learnt that Cheryl opened up to these people so they would pick things out of her past and bring them to the surface where they could hurt her afresh and she could actually feel. The aim of the helpful breed was to let Cheryl move on, but Cheryl just buried the corpse again, deeper, so the next person had to bring them out again - warped and a steadily getting more decayed. The concept of diminishing returns was prevalent and Cheryl sought growing extremes to bring any real emotions to the surface. A nympho amphetamine junkie or violent alcoholic gave her what she needed, but meant she always had to be rescued. Joanna picked up the coffee and head back down the hall to where Cheryl was crawling out of the tub.
“He’s meeting his partner at the airport in a couple (of hours) Cher baby.” Joanna handed Cheryl the coffee. As Cheryl reached up from the cracked tiles on the floor she spilt half of it before getting it to her mouth. After a moment of temporary alertness Cheryl leant against the bathroom wall and stared up at herself in the mirror. She was between blond and red with freckles she bred in the sun. She joked how she was trying to get them to all join together. She was slender, but graced with large hanging breasts and legs which would be shapely if she walked or jogged. She took another sip of her coffee then put the cup down on the tiles. She raised her chin and looked at the bruises in the mirror. Black and blue in the shape of Mark’s strong hands. She hadn’t washed since the ploy and Mark’s seed had turned sticky and smelly inside her. Good thing she was infertile. She wasn’t distressed about the bruising if anything she liked it, and it would help when they met up with Mark at the airport.
Joanna looked at Cheryl, not with concern, but with investment. This game would get Cheryl killed. “One more and we stop.” Joanna said. Sooner or later one of the sicko’s Cheryl hooked up with would go too far.
“A couple more.” Cheryl said and squeezed her own neck to bring back the tender sensation. She liked the pain, coming so close to death was the only thing that made her feel alive.
Joanna looked down at the floor. Cheryl was perfect for this. None of the guys they targeted would dare go to the cops because of the videos they had of them strangling and fucking Cheryl. If they paid the money like they ask, they left them alone. “One more.” Joanna tried and looked away. It was role reversal. She should have asked for more than a couple but didn’t want to graduate to euthanasia. Cheryl would be dead in a year from her self-neglect, Joanna just didn’t want to set up the situation where it happened. Cheryl didn’t know after the next job she was going to disappear with the hundred k they had made from this set-up – find a guy online with a breathe play fetish; find one with an act to hide his power issues and something to lose, and then send Cheryl in and get it on videotape.
Mark was the most recent of about a dozen. Cheryl had thought it funny their mark was called Mark. A little weeding around and Joanna had found out his very vanilla girlfriend was going out of town and the online flirtation between him and Cheryl could be taken up a notch. Cheryl had had dinner with him, then invited him to a motel room – their motel room. There Mark got to live out his fetish of strangling and having total control over Cheryl. All that Mark needed to do now was pay Joanna the ten k and she would give him the tapes. They were going to do it at the airport, nice and secure with lots of cameras, right before his girlfriend came back from her vacation. Simple.
Joanna watched as Mark handed Cheryl the white envelope with the money inside it. Cheryl was wearing faded jeans slashed to shit and a white singlet. As Mark extended the envelope and looked around nervously Cheryl was beaming a smile and rubbing her neck, highlighting the assault that had accrued during consensual and invited sex. “Douche.” Joanna said in reference to Mark’s centre parted long hair. He wore slacks and a light blue polo, amazingly by Polo, and brown loafers. He was a sicko, the girlfriend he was meeting at the airport in half an hour would see it in him sooner or later. Joanna has no sympathy for him or the anxious look on his face. She knew he was anxious, not about the money, but about the pretty college girl who kept saying ‘I love you’ on his Facebook page. She was richer than he, and Mark was the kind that wanted the car that came with a very rich father in law. Before meeting Cheryl and turning the trouble she got herself into, Joanna had acted a clairvoyant to middleclass house wives. Looking Russian and heavy mascara they had seen her as a young prodigy and she had acted the inexperience but gifted psychic. All she really did was look at their tweets and Facebook posts and tell them what they failed to see from Social media. It was charity really. As long as they paid she generally steered them right.
Cheryl wasn’t coming straight back with the money.
From across the arrival lounge Joanna sat at a café having ordered a glass of water. She stared across at Cheryl. She was twisting at her hips and the pensive Mark was being bought to fight or flee response. It would be fight. Cheryl still hadn’t given him the USB they called the ‘tapes’. “Just give him the tapes”, Joanna said and reached for her phone. Blackmail could get messy. If people thought it would continue they would try intimidation. Joanna was swift coming at them that night after the initial rush of release from their shells permitted terror at the realisation they would be held accountable for what they had done. She had Cheryl on her home screen. She saw Cheryl answer the phone as Mark grew more physically ready.
The second the phone was to Cheryl’s ear Joanna asserted. “Give it to him now.”
Cheryl started to turn to Joanna position.
“Don’t look at me. Give it to him.”
Cheryl took the phone away from her ear. Whatever fun she was having surrendered to Joanna’s order. She reached into the pocket of her jeans and handed Mark the USB. Mark didn’t say anything but put held it in a clinched fist. Cheryl seemed to be smiling at him and gave him a wave with her spirit fingers before heading to the airport exit. Joanna got up and left the café heading in the same direction. They met at the exit, Joanna annoyed, Cheryl excited by the mild thrill of Mark’s anger.
Joanna held out her hand for the envelope. Cheryl past it over not at all suspicious she would never see her hard earned money again.
From the white sterile airport to the Starbucks where people thought the coffee was good Cheryl sat opposite Joanna drinking her caramel mocha and trying to get the young man taking orders to look at her. Joanna loved free Wi-Fi despite having ten-thousand dollars of Marks money in her purse. She both loved and hated Social media. Loved it, because people felt protected and gave away everything she needed to get an in. Hated it, because anyone of their marks could post about the two enterprising young ladies latest scam. Joanna wouldn’t admit it, but this is really why the scam had to end. “Oh the unity of deviants.” Joanna said out loud. The long thread of accounts of their little sting operations kept popping up with comments. This fetish was bust.
Cheryl gave up on the server at the counter. “I want my bruises for the next guy Jo Jo.” Cheryl always called her that. It was some playback to an old friend from her confused high school days.
Joanna knew she could just leave. They’d spaced out engagements about a month apart and by living cheap Joanna had almost made her bankroll. She looked at the crazy girl she’d been living with. Joanna knew she wouldn’t tell her straight she was leaving and finding a new game. Cheryl would want to come and was a liability. Cheryl was at the crash end of a downward spiral. Cheryl would just come home from buying coffee or ice-cream to find Joanna gone with any stuff worth money. “We can’t do the choke thing again Cher sweaty.” Joanna said with no trace of her thought process.
“How come?” Cheryl actually looked upset. It wasn’t just the fun of the sex, it was having a company that made Cheryl want to continue.
“’Cause we’re famous honey dew.” Joanna turned the laptop screen around to the post warning of their con.”
Cheryl read through it once, twice and looked sad. The reality that they were playing these guys hit home. Cheryl was so far gone she didn’t identify them as deviants who deserved it like Joanna did. To her they were just guys and like all the others. I had enough sense to know it was her crazy frustrated them, and made them angry. “What are we gonna do Jo Jo?” She looked at Joanna expectantly.
“We hunt a different animal?” Joanna moved the screen back and clicked on a death fetish forum. Strangling was out, but males were sick and there were plenty of diseases to find. “How does necrophilia strike you?”
An elderly woman at the table behind them looked shocked at overhearing the conversation.
Cheryl sipped her coffee, but Joanna turned around a faced her, staring her straight in the eyes. “Problem grandma Yentl?” It was a dig at the woman’s obvious Jewish heritage. After the lady was suitably offended Joanna turned back.
“What would I have to do?” Cheryl was game. Joanna wasn’t trying to sell the idea, she knew Cheryl’s brain like to receive a tease before hearing the details.
“You lay in a bath of ice water until you’re body temperature drops and then you get out and lie still on a bed whilst the guy fucks you.”
The old woman finally heard enough and stormed out almost forgetting her handbag. She head straight to the counter and pushed in line. Joanna turned in time to see her point at them to the man behind the counter. He looked militant, like this shitty business and their shitty coffee were a nation to be patriotic about. Joanna waved and Cheryl winked at him.
The line was too long for them to be kicked out straight away which meant they had a couple minutes more free internet. “Hmmm, like it. Bet he’d just roll me over and go at it.” Cheryl allowed her hand to touch her breast and still cupping it sipped her mocha.
“Or”, and this was the real pitch (necrophilia was just foreplay for Cheryl), “we could send your picture to this Sade guy.” Joanna flicked the laptop around and showed Cheryl a picture of a near handsome southern European man with neat, thick black hair. He was mid to late twenties and had listed a full profile. He was cute, not like most of the losers Cheryl let fuck her up.
“What’s his diagnosis Doctor?” Cheryl was on the hook.
“He wants to act out eating someone. Seriously the whole nine yards of the process.”
“What does that mean anyway – the whole nine yards?” Cheryl completely missed the point that this guy had a seriously twisted brain. Sex and food shared the same pathway.
“Something to do with planes and bullets. If you gave them the whole nine yards you shot all your bullets at them.” Joanna knew exactly what the phrase meant, but didn’t want to sound like an encyclopaedia.
Joanna was typing, but Cheryl saw the counter boy leave his station and come towards them. She instinctively drank the rest of her mocha. “Send him my photo; my payday photo Jo Jo.”
“Tell him he can have the whole nine yards.” Cheryl was into it, her stamp of approval stating it was sufficiently deviant to excite her. She thought Joanna was magical, but Joanna had a spreadsheet with sicko’s like Sade on it. IP addresses, a trail to linked email accounts till she got one with their real names on it and links to Facebook, or Google+ pages that gave away the fabricated life’s they created and would pay to protect. Her list was her bedtime reading
Joanna finished typing. “Done.” She hit send.
“Excuse me.” The Starbucks soldier boy had made an appearance armed with common decency.
Cheryl took point. “Jesus, did you just grope me on purpose!” She yelled at the innocent server and startled back out of her chair.
‘Immediately defensive. What an amateur.’ Joanna followed up. “You pervert.” As she rose she slapped the young man across the face blowing the scene into a full blown production. No one had been paying attention before Cheryl took the lords name in vain. “Come on Cher baby, we’re going to the police.” The duo collected there things and stormed out. The righteous young man, so eager to protect an old woman’s sensibilities, stood gosh in the centre of the store vilified by everyone’s glares of disapproval, his only crime was attempting to protect Starbucks internet usage policy.
At the end of a day of hopping from coffee shop to coffee shop on the Wi-Fi junkies trail they had wound up back home. Joanna sat on a splintery chair by the bathtub checking Cheryl’s emails for Sade to write back. He posted every day after work so it was just a matter of time. It was very important for Joanna to create the vibe that Cheryl was very excited and eager to meet Sade, therefore the reply had to be sent immediately to show how eager she was. Cheryl was in the tub submerged under the bubbles. She did this over and over again – forced herself under holding her breathe until two minutes later Joanna would reach down and grab her hair and pull her up for air. Joanna knew Cheryl would always fight the urge to come up. Being pulled painfully up was what she wanted. Cheryl required constant and exhausting proof that someone cared about her and wanted her to be safe. This was most likely why Cheryl put herself in Joanna’s cons over and over again. It was most assuredly also confused when guys pretended to care about her so they could put her in peril. Both extremes delighted the mixed up redhead. Joanna looked at the clock and reached down to grab the matted and tangled hair. Viciously, because violence worked best, she tugged at Cheryl’s hair until her mouth came to the surface. Cheryl gasped for air. Joanna knew her fingers were at work on her sex the whole time.
The phone screamed. Cheryl had pushed a pin into her thigh and recorded her scream as her ringtone. Joanna reached forward and pulled the plug in the bath.
“No!” Cheryl cried frustrated. As the water subsided the bubbled blanketed her still working hands.
“Play times over. You’ve got to save it up for Sade”, and the screaming meant Sade had just sent a message. Joanna opened the private message through her email account, not the forum. She read it. All that had been sent was an upper-class address and a time with tomorrow’s date. Joanna had expected a game, a test and introduction as Sade teased her in.
“What is it Jo Jo?” Cheryl asked sitting up in the slippery bath.
“He wants us to come to him.” Joanna was troubled. His turf meant no set up cameras to pick up the show.
“Nice.” Cheryl said with a whisper.
“Not nice”, Joanna corrected. Quickly she typed a response. ‘No, no. My place.’ Joanna would work out were her place was after she got him under foot. Joanna waited eagerly. She would drop the pursuit if he didn’t play along.
Cheryl’s scream came from the speaker again. Joanna looked unhappy.
“What he say?” Cheryl asked trying to peer up at the screen.
“It’s a no-go so far.”
Cheryl sounded disappointed. She’d been cheated out of her bath for nothing. “What do we do?” She said.
Joanna rose and handed her a towel. “We ignore him till he writes back. He’ll come around. We have what he wants.” Joanna knew this wasn’t the case. Sade was a typical dom male. His lack of control would frustrate him into abuse, not compromise.
Cheryl took the towel but remained in the tub, secretly hoping to fall and break something. She wrapped it around herself and Joanna handed her back her phone. Joanna never used her own phone. Everything would be traced back to Cheryl. “He was cute. Bet he’s nice.” She had a puppy like interest in most of the marks.
“He wants to eat you.” Joanna said turning and leaving Cheryl to dry and redress. She didn’t see the mischievous grin on Cheryl’s face. Joanna exited to her room. It was the first casual chance she had to hide the money. She went over to her loose floorboard and caught the edge with her nails. The plank lifted and she chucked the envelope with the others. Cheryl had already forgotten about the money, but there was no point in reminding her. Once it was secure she started undressing. As she skimmed out of her tight black jeans she heard Cheryl’s phone ringtone. Her eyes bolted open and pantless she marched out of her bedroom. Cheryl was still in the bathroom smiling at her phone. Cheryl had no friends. There was no one she could text other than… She snatched the phone away from her. Cheryl squealed. Joanna slapped her, but slapping Cheryl was not an act of violence. Cheryl squealed and put her hand to her face, her momentary shock turning to soft eyes and faint smile. She liked the pain. “You do not engage the marks.” Joanna put the phone behind her back out of sight from Cheryl.
Still focusing on the slap Cheryl reached forward and gently placed her hand on Joanna’s arm. At first Joanna thought she was trying to reach for the phone, but then realised it was intimacy. She wanted to be slapped again.
“Cher honey, go to bed.” Cheryl didn’t move. She bit her lower lip. Joanna granted her compassion and slapped her again.
“Oww!” But she was smiling.
“Cher sweaty, honeydew, go to bed.” Joanna reached forward with her free hand and glided it past Cheryl’s fringe as it hung wet down over her face. Forget the horse whisperer, Joanna could speak deeply to masochists. Cheryl dipped her head in submission and Joanna turned her back to leave. When she made it back to her room she checked the phone. It appeared Cheryl has simply told him he was cute. In reply he had sent his address again. Joanna put the phone in her top draw and closed it before completely the process of undressing for bed.
It was such a cheap, pov’ station that they were playing the exact same song when Joanna’s alarm went off. Without the vodka in her blood she merely snorted awake. That fuzz was back on her tongue. She had to start brushing before she went to bed. She curled out of bed and stretched. Again she rose and went to the mirror, looked at herself. She ran her tongue over her teeth and were she would usually visualise a man to ripe off she passed. She thought about Sade. ‘Sexual cannibal: sensualist who likes submissive women; never dated his high school crush; trouble connecting with people; needed to keep desires secret; trouble obtaining arousal led to awkward situations. Likes nice girls who don’t judge. Lots of cuddling.’ “Boring.” His predicted vulnerability meant he would be hurt more by the betrayal than the blackmail and blow to his ego… But so long as she was thinking about Sade she went to the draw to see if he had texted during the night.
The phone wasn’t there so she ruffled around the draw. “Jesus”, she said annoyed. “Cheryl I told you not to text the mark.” She walked out of her room annoyed. Perhaps Cheryl merely wanted to be scolded again. She checked Cheryl’s room, then the bathtub. Neither housed the wreck of a girl. She headed for the kitchen to angry to call her name again. Cheryl’s purse, always kept on the kitchen table was gone. ‘Maybe she just went out for something?’ No. Cheryl never went out unless Joanna sent her.
Joanna headed back to Cheryl’s room and checked her draws. Cheryl had black lace underwear she wore when she was taking one for the team. She always wore them when she was going to meet… They were gone. “Cheryl”, Joanna swore. “God damn it Cheryl.” She had taken her phone and gone to meet Sade. Why didn’t she see this coming? She was spiralling down faster and faster. Cheryl’s need to be victim was becoming more rampant, just like her appetite for Xanax had been when they had first met. Joanna had had to find something new to takes its place - the blackmail and violent sex. It had been a profitable solution, but now Cheryl had gone rogue. She had gone to the mark on his terms.
Joanna thought about cutting loose and leaving with the money. She only wanted another job before she was going to do that anyway – right. Right. Joanna shock it off. Cheryl was doomed anyway. ‘Just leave.’ Joanna left Cheryl’s room. She headed back to her own and quickly got dressed into a tight t-shirt and blue jeans. She put on her ‘come hither’ boots and grabbed her purse. Her whole set-up was being able to just leave. She grabbed her laptop, phone and purse and before leaving went to the floorboard with the nine envelopes under it. She reached in and grabbed them before putting them in her purse. She could buy new clothes, new stuff. She liked to be mobile and not let anything own her. She powerwalked to the kitchen and the backdoor. As she reached for the door her ringtone sounded and Joanna knew it would be Cheryl. She wasn’t allowed to text this number. Cheryl was descending, the rules meant nothing to her anymore.
Joanna had to walk almost five miles up the immaculate street with high fences and security gates. Buses didn’t need to go to this neighbourhood. ‘1506 Havier Boulevard and you’ll get your 10K’ was all the text had said. It wasn’t the ten K Joanna was going for, she knew Cheryl hadn’t sent that text. Cheryl had gone to see Sade and once promised love she had told him about Joanna. The distance of ignorance in Cheryl’s inevitable demise would save her the knowledge of knowing she had bought about the damaged girls end. Her going to Sade, a man she had vetted made her an accessory, and that lack of distance meant sleepless nights and looking back. Con artists can’t afford to feel guilty. As she came to a granite brick fence (yes- Joanna knew about Geology) with pointed steel bars at the top, about eight feet high, she realised she was wearing the wrong type of shoes for this. The skinny jeans didn’t exactly permit free movement either. She chanced a pillar along the fence that had bricks sticking out. Slowly she started to climb. So long as a car didn’t pass by the streets security wouldn’t be alerted. She was decidedly out of place and the women with the poodle she had cross paths with earlier held her breath and avoided eye contact as if Joanna had the plague. When she reached high enough to see over the fence what looked like and golf course green lay out in front of her. Perfect laws with intermittent fruit trees stretched out and surrounded a civil war era mansion, complete with marble pillars.
“God damn cannibal lives in the Whitehouse.” She stood on the top of the fence and straddled over the steel spikes sticking out at the top. Her next problem was getting down. Eight feet high and her ‘come hither’ boots had heels. She grabbed the steel spikes and lowered herself down. It was a frantic strategy bought about by her need to be less conspicuous than a woman standing on top of a fence. She’d hoped for a brick or something to get a foot hold on. Finally she gave up and after inhaling let herself fall. She hit the ground tip-toe first and fell backward onto the immaculate lawn. As she lay there staring up as the sky a furry nose crept into her view with a soft growl. ‘Of course they have a fucking guard dog.’ Joanna lay still her died black hair spoiled out around her face. “Nice doggy”, she said and waited for the bark. The dog started to growl again, broke off into a whine and then started to lick Joanna’s face. She didn’t waste time or risk exciting the dog. She rolled over onto her belly and pulled herself up. Her heels dug into the grass and she nearly lost her balance again. The dog jumped up, but didn’t bark. Joanna knew he was demanding payment for safe passage. She leant forward and scratched behind his ears. The dog whined, but with affection easily bought. After a couple of minutes Joanna stopped and started to walk around the fence line at the chance of seeing Cheryl. Knowing Cheryl however she would probably be in a dungeon somewhere giggling between lashes of a whip. The dog walked behind her and ignored Joanna’s efforts to get him to shoe. As Joanna walked around the fence she navigated to the rear of the house. Music could be heard coming from a rear patio. As the music became discernable so too did Cheryl’s voice. She was signing along with the music, her voice cheery and care free.
Joanna had always been with Cheryl when her care-free nature meant she was in, or about to be put in, danger. Joanna closed her eyes. ‘Maybe this guy just wants a pet.’ A pet would be the perfect job for Cheryl, if she ended up with someone who would treat her well. The idea gave Joanna the liberty of walking away. This guy couldn’t track her down if she left town, and she had planned to start up again in a new town anyway. She was still walking around the wall, slowing her pace, getting ready to climb back over the fence when she saw the caldron.
The rear of the house had two balconies that came out at the corners. Each balcony had stairs that led down into a lowered patio. In the centre of the patio sat a large caldron over a small fire. Steam hadn’t yet started to rise, but the jerks and bobs of Cheryl’s head could be seem above the rim. Her hair had been put up in a bun. This guy was actually cooking Cheryl… No maybe it’s just elaborate role-play. She’s most likely going to get out when it gets too hot and then they’ll act out him eating her. ‘Sure, you can believe that’, her own brain retorted. Joanna remember only too well their nightly game of pretend drowning. Cheryl would fight him to stay in the caldron. Maybe that would be the nudge this role-player needed to follow through with his fantasies. “Fuck.” Cheryl always guaranteed their marks would go too far. As well as a politician lied, Cheryl seduced sicko’s into following through. ‘New plan. You tell Cheryl you will leave her if she doesn’t get out.’ Joanna frowned. ‘Then you’re stuck with her.’ She could just leave. But this Sade character would murder Cheryl and when the police arrested him the text he, or Cheryl, had sent would be traced back to her - the cons would be exposed and Joanna would go down as accessory before the act. Joanna didn’t have a plan. No one else was insight on the patio so she started to walk towards it. The dog followed.
The closest tree to the caldron was a plum tree. Joanna hid behind it and peered out at the scene. The fire had a small trail of smoke gliding away from it and the stereo, not yet seen, played modern country. Joanna needn’t have hid. The dog standing beside the tree looking at her was a dead giveaway of her presence. The guard dog was as reluctant to do its job, it was to leave. Joanna tried to shoe it, but gave in and called to Cheryl.
“Cher.” No response. She tried louder. “Cher.” Cheryl stopped singing. She looked around and Joanna knew she had alerted her to her presence. “Cher.” She called again. This time Cheryl popped up in the caldron. It must have been heavy because it didn’t shift on the fire. Cheryl turned around and spied Joanna head sticking comically out of the side of the tree. Stealth and infiltration were not in her skill set.
“Jo Jo.” Cheryl questioned, then her face lit up. “Jo Jo come here.” She shouted it and waved her hands for Joanna to come closer. Joanna head disappeared behind the tree.
Cheryl leaned against the edge of the caldron as if it were a hot tub. The top of her breast could be seen. She was quiet comfortably naked in the caldron.
Joanna was panicking standing bolt upright against the tree. To her side the dog turned his head sideways and stepped forward to sniff her boots.
“Jo Jo, Sade’s inside working… but he’ll be back for dinner.” As she spoke her voice became elated. Cheryl had undergone the rapid conversion to wanting to be this guy’s dinner. Joanna still didn’t know if it was a game or not. Cheryl spun around and kicked her legs out of the caldron so the wrought iron spooned her. She dangled them above the fire and went back to singing, not a care in the world.
After two minutes and the dog laying over her feet Joanna finally realised it was safe to come out from her hiding place. The dog finally startled and ran off as she kicked out and ran, as best she could in her heels, towards the patio and the deliriously happy Cheryl. As Joanna lunged behind the caldron, keeping herself invisible from the rear windows of the mansion Cheryl turned again, tucking her legs back into the caldron.
“Cher, honeydew, we got to go.”
“Why? No!” Cheryl looked wounded. She was having fun.
“Cher I don’t know if this guy is playing or not. We have to go before he comes out.” Joanna was scanning the back of the house for a pair of eyes peering out from behind a curtain.
“No Jo Jo he’s nice. He’d like you. He wants to meet you.” Cheryl was pleading with her eyes. Usually Joanna would slap her or let her debase herself, but this setup was too real.
“What did you tell him about me?” Joanna was stern, but not in the way Cheryl liked.
“Cheryl! What did you tell him about me?”
“Everything Jo Jo. He thinks we’re smart. He thought it was funny.” Cheryl let her own mind distract her again. “Did you know there was this artist called Dolcett who identified this whole fetish thing?”
“Cher, I don’t want to hear about porn. I want you to climb out and come with me.”
“No... He wants to pay us.” Cheryl wasn’t getting out. Sade must have done a number on her if he could get control over her so quickly.
“What?” The lure of money caught her, if only for a moment. The con artist in her immediately looked for an angel, and if one existed that involved money and Cheryl getting out the caldron it was very tempting, but also a delay.
“Yeah, ten k. He said that was my standard fee and you’re my pimp.”
“I’m not a pimp.” Joanna had fallen defensive. Cheryl knew if she kept her talking it was more time in the caldron as dinner.
“No, of course not, but guys… guys don’t get us Jo Jo. We’re sisters. We stick together.” Cheryl looked at Joanna with the semblances of affection, trust even.
The Ninety thousand in Joanna’s purse back at their house ready to go created a pang of shame. Suddenly Joanna realised she really would be burying another corpse on the psyche of Cheryl when she left her, making her more desperate for her twisted perception of affection and even more desperate to fall under tread of these deviants. She had educated Cheryl. Even when she was gone, Cheryl would seek them out herself.
Joanna hadn’t heard the footsteps coming down from the house to the patio. “Joanna I presume.” The voice was confident with a hint of the south, not the European of his features. He was casual as if he had just stepped out of a bar where he had closed a deal. Joanna instinct was to crouch down behind the caldron. “There’s no need to hide, we were expecting you, though why you did ring the bell at the gate…” He was dressed like a politician – experience beyond his years perhaps; too well setup to be a poser. Tall, tanned and with thick dark hair, his swagger would charm the rich and cause the powerful to take note of him. Joanna saw a fish too big to lure. It was best to target those without resources.
Joanna slowly rose and exposed herself to the appraisal of the young man in the business suit. His tie was loosened and hung at an angle between his unbuttoned jacket. His hair was dark and immaculate, combed as if he had just come from the salon. He was handsome, but there was a controlled mania in his eyes that came from easy conquests. Joanna sized him up, but not the exercise of her mornings. This time she was reading his stance, body language and the inflection of his voice. ‘Borderline sociopath – banker. Lies all the time and when he doesn’t need to, lies for sport. Sexually experienced, interested in shallow woman. Domineering in bed.’ “You know, Cheryl and I should be going.” Joanna placed her hand of Cheryl shoulder. Cheryl turned and looked up at her disappointed. Already Joanna could feel Cheryl body was warm, very warm.
“Joanna dear, you seem to have the impression that I am a man to be avoided in matters of business as well as interpersonal relations. Can’t you see Cheryl is having a wonderful time?”
“Wonderful.” Cheryl parroted and turned away from Joanna’s touch.
Joanna knew the rules with Sade’s type. Do not buy what they are selling and do not try to argue with them. She had to be intimidated and make him believe she needed time to acquiesce. There was still the problem of Cheryl in the caldron. Listening would take hours and he would make bi-polar shifts in his pitch until he found a nerve he could exploit in her. Arguing or defiance would just make them establish dominance. “Cheryl doesn’t know when to say the safety word.” Joanna was sizing down the elaborate game into a simple sex role play, Sade seemed too comfortable to be a killer.
“She knows when, she just doesn’t want to, but you know that. You know that moment when she was with your marks and she should cry stop, that’s the moment you make your money, and it’s the moment she feels alive.” He swaggered into a casual stance. “You feel alive baby”, he hollered at Cheryl, is common vernacular seemed sinister with his charm.
Cheryl luxuriated into the steadily heating water. Her indulgence was the fact that staying in the water bought a continual gradient of increased peril.
Sade reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a sealed bundle of notes - 10 K. He held it out for Joanna, intending to make her come to him. “She’s fine for now, the water has only started steaming.” He waved the collection of notes.
Joanna revisited her assumptions, moments prior, that this was just a sex game. This was the bi-polar pitch she had feared. Realising getting Cheryl out of the caldron would involve lifting her out took the short reprieve and walked over to Sade. As she neared the halfway mark Sade turned and started to walk to an outdoor setting to the side. Joanna was forced to follow like a cat chasing a piece of string. Sade sat and kicked the second chair out for Joanna. She’d known he would find a way to make her wait, his type was compelled to talk once the speech had been rehearsed in their head.
As Joanna sat the sales pitch started. “I want to offer you a job.” He sat with his hand on the 10 K making sure it was visible but out of reach. “Good money, some questionable behaviour, but we can keep any blood directly of your hands.”
Joanna said nothing.
“Cheryl likes me. You must know she’s doomed.” Cheryl had started singing again, this time softer. The water was getting hotter and it was making her drowsy. “You can pull her out, but she’ll come back. She’ll keep coming back till, no matter how many times you save her, one day, she just won’t get out at all.”
Joanna’s eyes narrowed. This guy might have something on her or he wouldn’t be so bald. She couldn’t directly ask what Cheryl had told him, or what he had gleamed from Cheryl’s stories, but she knew he had found a hook to keep her inline.
“So you can either baby sit Cheryl all day, every day… Wouldn’t that be tiresome? Or you resign yourself to let her go.”
“So… Why wouldn’t I just call the police?” Joanna would find his perceived leverage.
“Think very carefully on what you are saying Joanna.” Was he bluffing?
“My imagination can’t think of a reason not to.”
“Mine can, and you do not know yourself well at all if you can’t. What would motivate someone to take advantage of a damaged angel like Cheryl here? The fondness she describes you with. You live with her, you play with her, and yet you would discard her once you’ve reached your quota.”
‘How the hell does he know this’. Was it that hard to figure out? Joanna keeping all the money. The promise of only one more job. Always making Cheryl the face of the blackmail. ‘No, he could figure it out.’ It was testimony to the type of business this man conducted that he immediately read the situation. Worst was the fact even a dumb policeman could figure it out. Joanna shuddered at the thought of Cheryl in an interrogation suite. The sterner the cop got with her, the more she would tell to keep the interrogation going. Sade was right, Joanna was fucked.
Joanna looked at the calm Sade. The only movement he made was to tap the bundle of hundreds with his index finger. “Money for my silence?”
“Silence is a given. The money is for Cheryl. Continuation of the numeration is for the next one.”
“The next who?”
“The next Cheryl.” Sade smiled. “You have the talent set that allowed you to find her… I’m hoping. You searched for what she was because you had a plan and needed a damsel in love with distress. You are a girl who plans ahead aren’t you Joanna.” He slid the money over to Joanna. “I want you to find more Cheryl’s for me. I’ll see to their needs.”
Joanna’s eyes were still for a moment. “You want me to find people for you to eat?”
Sade’s eyes widened and he looked at Joanna in disbelief. “Joanna so crass. I’m just asking you to act as agent. Help put the cannibal and the meal together.” He’d admitted it. Sade was clearly annoyed he had to speak so plainly about his intentions. He prefer innuendo.
‘Jesus, he’s perfectly comfortable with this.’ So Joanna knew he wasn’t playing an elaborate sex game now. Repour had been established, now not to judge and find out what he had on her. “I could scout the forums.”
“I’ve been doing that for years, so hit and miss. Where did you find Cheryl?”
“She was Amish on her Rumspringa when she got caught up on… a drug, or lots of them really.” The easiest way to lie is to tell the truth. “Turned up at a victims of child abuse meeting at a community centre. Her story was all bullshit, she was theatre hopping; AA to rape victims to narcotics anonymous. She just wanted to be around damaged people, but something scrambled her in a way big way.” Joanna looked over at Cheryl. She’d kicked her legs out again and was taking in the heat. “I’d say dysmorphic disorder on top of chastity and unhealthy feeling towards her daddy - or a priest.”
“She’s Amish?” Sade looked over at the reddish hair and freckles growing sleepy in the caldron. Not exactly Dutch genes. Maybe her alien heritage to the closed community told part of her story. Steam was flowing out now and her face was bright red. “What a treat.” Joanna’s lack of protest had relaxed Sade. He was sure Joanna was onside by complacence.
Joanna saw the way to leave with the money and Cheryl. “I can do like her, but not her.”
“I imagine each would be different. Woman are such delightful variations on a theme.”
“No you misunderstood. I’ll get others for you, but you have to let Cheryl leave with me.”
Sade looked unhappy. “Mine is not an indulgence frequently on offer.”
“Birds of a feather flock together. Cheryl is my draw card for others like her.” Joanna would get Cheryl out of this house, they would both get on a bus and in some country town on the other side of the country Joanna would let Cheryl off with enough money to survive for a couple of weeks. Cheryl would still be dead in a year, just not at hers, or Sade’s hands.
Sade was a banker. If he saw the investment, not the con, this would work. “Joanna.” Sade said in the same casual voice. “I appreciate your angle here, but please do not liken me to your usual clientele.”
Joanna poker face faltered and she looked away at Cheryl. Her head was resting against the caldron. She’d stopped singing and her body was relaxed. Joanna knew she was slipping into her fate. Cheryl had finally met the sicko who would see her off.
“You’re going to get up and go home Joanna. With your pay.” Was that all he was trying to do the whole time. Let Joanna work an angel he could see coming till the only way to pull Cheryl out was to through herself in the deep end. An ambulance would call the police. The police would take her in for questioning, and there were so many questions she couldn’t answer. It came down to choosing a disposable friend and jail, or taking the money and walking. “Every swindler knows when to turn tail.”
Joanna started up, paused and sat back down. She was outmatched, she did not know her rival so it came down to a plea. “I don’t want it on my head.” She did not deny it was inevitable, that Cheryl, already dazed would slide down into the caldron and finish cooking.
“You’re scared.” Sade took a serious tone and there was venom on his tongue. Perhaps he was being honest. “Ten thousand a pop for assisting predictable suicide. You are small fry.” His eyes were narrow and piercing and he was hinting at a grander scope of Joanna’s little enterprise. “You want to leave town – just go. Here’s the cash to fill your quota. Be sure and use the gate this time. But if you have ambitions beyond using self-destructing cattle for scamming the sexually dispossessed, then cut the middle man. Men with power seldom get to exercise its purity. Instead of teasing the sexually anaemic and depriving them of their hard earn money, why not go legit and put the suicidal and the thriving carnivores together.” He eyes softened. The casual charm returned to his demeanour. “Have a pleasant day Joanna, I have to tell my dinner date how marvellous she is before she slips away.”
Despite the sun and the lack of a breeze, Joanna felt the chill of goose bumps on her arms. She stared into space for a moment as Sade stepped across his peripheral vision to converse with his meal. She knew walking away meant Cheryl would die, but saving her meant losing everything. Not even a fixture of Sade’s attention, she got up and walked away.