The fire cracked and hissed in its hearth and two women lay sprawled before it. A boxer dog was watching them over his crossed front paws, his eyes moving from one to the other as they took turns speaking.
Lying on her side, Nancy had assumed a fetal position, wrapping herself around Catherine’s body and Catherine was using Nancy’s thigh and hips as her backrest. Her own legs lay flat on the ground before her.
Strains of thin and poignant oboe drifted on the air, embracing them in currents and eddies of sound.
“God Cath, you look like death girl...!” Nancy’s initial greeting to Catherine on her doorstep hadn’t been intended as an insult, it had been a plain and shocked assessment.
The Catherine that had appeared before her was gaunt and pale.
“...It looks like the life’s been drained out of you.”
Nancy had taken Catherine’s hand and guided her through the door, into her inviting cottage and warm maternal arms.
“I think that it has,” Catherine had agreed.
“Now you relax, I’m about ready to start dishing up. Wine?”
“I couldn’t bare the thought!” Catherine held her hands up in surrender, “You carry on.”
Nancy had shown Catherine her half full glass in response; “What have you been up to my wicked friend; playing truant…? That much I do know. I’ve tried to reach you on Thursday and yesterday.”
“I got your messages, thanks Nance. I’ve been resting, I’ll tell you all about it over dinner,” Catherine had promised.
“I’ll bet it has to do with Ken?” Nancy couldn’t help but fish for clues, she wasn’t a patient gossiper; “...he’s been like a man possessed Cath, on at me all of the time to call you,” Nancy had chuckled.
Catherine had laughed too, but it was shallow and a social conformity only; not driven by a modicum of amusement.
“...It was ridiculous the number of times that I was supposed to phone through but I didn’t bother... I just told him whatever came to mind... ‘She’s in a meeting... She’s on a plane... I left a message’... What did you do to the man?”
Catherine had seen what Nancy was up to, prompting for details, “Wait till dinner Nance, I’m not going to tell you before.”
“You know?” Feigning deafness, Nancy had badgered onward. “...he wanted your home number, and... sheeez... did he blow his stack when I told him I didn’t have it?”
Catherine’s home number was little known beyond family and her closest friends.
Catherine’s unyielding stand for imparting more gossip till she was ready, had been motivation enough for Nancy to dish the meal in record time.
If Catherine looks this tired, she’d assured herself, it has to be a hell of a story!
It was Saturday night, seventy-two hours since Catherine’s cyber-sex episode.
Over dinner Catherine had kept her promise, breaking the news and giving the details.
“I thought that I was going to watch?” Nancy had pouted.
“That was my line,” Catherine had corrected her
It had taken the entire meal for Catherine to describe the delicious build-up to the game.
Nancy had been transfixed, stimulated to distraction. She had continually forgotten to eat until finally she gave up altogether, leaving the bulk of her meager portion untouched.
Her exhaustion forgotten, Catherine had risen to the occasion leaping in and out of her seat to demonstrate every detail.
At the end of the meal they had retired to Nancy’s living room where the fire was raging. With food in her stomach and the excitement invigorating her once more, Catherine had decided to accept a sherry.
Nancy had stretched out and Catherine had taken the invitation to cuddle close beside her. Done with laying out the buildup to the event, the events she’d encountered beyond the cyber-curtain could be told seated.
Nancy was visually aroused, her nipples announcing the fact through her light cotton top. “A Roman orgy—Oh... my... God!” she gasped. “Where on earth did he get that idea from?”
“He said that I gave it to him,” Catherine sipped at her sherry. “That day when I watched the soldier. Ken said that he’d quoted the opening of festivities at Roman circuses and I had looked ‘as if I were reminiscing’.” She framed it with her fingers in the air, as Ken had when he’d said it.
“Could you remember the incident?”
“Clearly. The strange thing is that he is right, although I haven’t the foggiest idea why I feel that way,” she sipped again. “Come to think of it, I’ve always been drawn to anything vaguely Roman. The orgy didn’t help matters,” Catherine huffed.
“You’d better not let Leon get wind of it; he’ll want to regress you.”
“Aaaagh, the visual on that... Not Leon, please, Nance... I like the man... but Leon and sex... No!” She had a minute taste of the sherry. “Anyway, Ken got it into his head that The Lupanar in old Pompeii would be juuuuuust the place for me to strut my stuff.”
“The Lupanar... should I know it?”
“I hope not... it was the most famous brothel in the ancient world... which might be a clue to why the volcano blew its stack.”
They laughed heartily.
“I’m jumping ahead there...” Catherine was enjoying drawing the story out by setting the scene, watching Nancy wide eyed with anticipation and burning with curiosity was a treat
“Yes?” Nancy prompted.
“Once I’d put the helmet on, all I could see was that snow that you get on TV when the station goes off the air. There was a hiss billowing in my ears.”
“The bastard had you in that position...? Blind and deaf to the real world?” the idea kind of excited Nancy but she felt she should show outrage.
“It was great,” Catherine confirmed sarcastically; “I felt like a market chicken with all of my glory displayed for Ken’s leisurely inspection.”
Alarm bells suddenly rang loud and clear in Nancy’s head. “He couldn’t have videoed you?” She asked casually.
“SHIT... I didn’t think of that. Shit... SHIT!” Catherine hissed angrily. “How could I have been that stupid... I was so carried away... all the excitement, I didn’t even think about it! SHIT!”
Catherine was stunned into silence, trying to comprehend her own naiveté. Nancy gave her the moment and Catherine brought herself out of it.
“Well, what’s done is done. The consolation is that he could only have filmed me once the helmet was covering my face, which means my reputation is still safe!” She consoled herself with a laugh she didn’t feel.
Nancy thought it best not to point out that CCTV cameras riddled the building, filming from every angle in the operations room; it would be closing the proverbial stable door with the horse long gone.
“On that pleasant note I propose we should draw another vat of sherry,” Catherine upended her empty vessel.
Nancy recharged it along with her own.
“To uhhmm... To no repercussions,” Catherine toasted that, which was foremost on her mind.
“To no repercussions,” Nancy agreed, trying not to look as worried as she felt.
With the silence between them, each was considering the predicament as the fire hissed and cracked with indifference to the world of humanly affairs.
“As I was telling you,” Catherine continued. “The bastard took for ever to turn the damned image on. I could feel him circling me, studying my nether regions.”
Nancy had blindfold fantasies of her own and lived into the moment; “How did it feel?” she asked.
“Spooky... terrifying... but mostly, plain kinky.”
“Eventually I started to feel Cyber Sickness… disorientated and sick, like I couldn’t find my bearings. Total visual and audio deprivation; it was awful to not know which way was up or down, the weirdest sensation, Nance. For the amount of time that the bastard made me wait, it really wasn’t pleasant,” Catherine sneered in distaste. “I don’t know if he could pick up on my irritation, but as I was about to remove the helmet, VOOM—everything burst into life around me. I was in a small winding cobbled street with two and three story buildings crowded in on it.”
Catherine took time out from the story to take a lingering sip.
“Come on, Cath!” Nancy jabbed Catherine in the ribs with her finger.
Catherine spluttered from the tickle, nearly spurting a mouthful of liquid over Nancy. A dribble ran down her chin that they both reached to dab at and the first round of laughter for the evening erupted.
“It’s astonishing,” Catherine marveled, “I remember every detail... I’m talking detail I’d never normally retain; the street names, the graffiti, the names of people I met.”
“That’s how they say it is,” Nancy confirmed. “Everyone on the program says it’s like your brain is in hyper drive... retains everything. That’s why LifeGames certification is essential to get anywhere in life—once you’re certified, you know... really know your stuff.”
“Wow... I’m sitting here now, and I can see it before me—I was in the cobbled street and must have been looking a bit bewildered, and this lovely looking man came over. Not at all threatening. He put his hand on my arm, and I swear I felt it. I startled, he apologized, introduced himself as Aquilinus... Beautiful—chiseled jaw... cut arms. My, oh my... what an accent... Italian. I was thinking; ‘this is nuts... the guy’s a hallucination... he’s only a screen image,’ but he was there, he touched me.”
She looked dreamy, like she was seeing it all over again.
“And...?” Nancy prompted urgently.
“He said I must come with him... we were going to The Lupanar. You see... how would I remember a word like that? Lupanar! I asked him what it was... ‘the brothel district’ he said. So this is Ken’s idea of a turn-on... take his first date to the brothel district.”
Screeches of laughter followed.
“Down these windy streets we went... all cobbled... beautiful. And there, on the corner of Vico del Lupanare and Vico del Balcone Pensile lanes was the strangest building—like that odd corner building onto Times Square... sort of a triangular jut with the roads forking either side; the upper floor bigger than the lower floor... like it was added on, like business maybe got too good so they went up a level without town planning.”
“You really do have the detail!”
“The walls were like that slate flooring... slasto... from the seventies. Anyway, in we went. As we walked he’d been telling me about it, about the Lupanar, the brothel we were going to ... very matter of fact. Now—I must remind you that I had that thing inside... so walking in the gyroscope had me very aware of it...”
“Uh-huh...” Nancy was transfixed, transported two millennia back in time.
“Calidrone, Forunata, Mertis, Fasa, Fabia, Nika... these were the fine ladies I would meet... Januaria specializes in oral sex, he told me. She’s very, very good, he said. Male prostitutes too—one Lubraki... Maratimos was his name, specialized in servicing virgins.”
Nancy let out another “Oh-my-god.”
“I’m not really one... I assured him. Aquilinus smiled wryly, assuring me that today I would be. He could arrange gladiators who turned tricks on the side... they’re sports stars of our day, he told me... The elite Roman women were their clients... satisfaction guaranteed, or your money back.”
“And we thought we’d invented the concept,” Nancy joked.
“So we came in—small rooms off the corridor, dimly lit with lanterns... the sounds of rutting behind doorways screened by curtains. My heart was thundering... but up the stairs he led me. His hands, his touch, soft as a warm breeze.
He stopped to show me some graffiti in Latin, translating it for me; Hic ego puellas multas futui—‘Here I fuck many girls’... Felix bene futuis—‘Lucky guy... you fuck well’... The mans eyes danced like an imp.”
“You’re getting me all hot and bothered, darling,” Nancy admitted.
“Oh, we haven’t begun yet,” Catherine promised.
“I’d better sober up then before I do something unbecoming, coffee?”
“I’m dying for a pee.”
Nancy went off to organize the first, Catherine to resolve the second.
They settled back in.
“So we get upstairs, and it’s palatial—a lot bigger than it looked from outdoors... drapes on the walls, tapestries, mosaics inlaid on the floor, beds and cushions everywhere—reds, golds, royal blue—marble columns, baths with rising steam. A table swaying under a sumptuous feast... and people going at it everywhere... I mean... everywhere—in every position and some they have never written down yet.”
“Ohhhhkay... and Ken’s watching all this on the monitor?”
“Fuck! I forgot about that. I’m telling you, Nance... this is witchcraft, it captures you. It’s a parallel universe you guys have going down there.”
“Some universe you were in.”
“I didn’t want to leave!
“Now suddenly I realize I’m naked. Guess virtual reality’s handy like that... one minute you’ve got a toga on, next... well... I’ve got a towel around my waist. Like... how did that happen? I’m thinking... and then I realize my breasts are very firm.”
“They look it.”
“No silly... yes, they are... for thirty five, fine, they’re not bad. But this set are for an eighteen year old. Great—nice upgrade I’m thinking, but that towel is not hanging like it should. I’m turned on... obviously I’m feeling pretty horny, and then I see the evidence of it...”
Catherine paused, thinking what order to impart details for best shock value.
Nancy poked her in the ribs again, “Come on... just tell it as it happened. What evidence.”
“In a minute... I see someone notice me, he’s wearing a centurion outfit, he starts making his way toward me and I freeze. He’s got a bod like you can’t believe, I mean Godlike; and there I am, staring... gaping. Peeping out the bottom of his kilt is a...”
“You know what.”
“No... no way! How long’s the kilt?”
“And this is attractive?”
“I guess whoever programmed it thinks so... and there might be a clue to this—the man’s face, Mr. Bickus-Dickus’ face...? Who else but Ken-bloody-Torrington.”
The two exploded laughing, Nancy blowing a plume of misted coffee from the mouthful she’d just swigged.
For the next ten minutes, every time Nancy stopped laughing and tried to gather her breath, Catherine would, with Python intonation say it again, “Bickus...” and the carnival of laugher would begin all over.
Finally the joke wore to a chuckle; “What an asshole,” Nancy eventually managed a straight face.
“But you gotta brace y’self Sheila,” Catherine’s eyes twinkled with mischief, “...’cause the next little detail’s reeeeally gonna blow your mind.”
She sipped from the sherry glass again. She loved playing with Nancy’s excitement, building it to a crescendo.
Nancy elbowed her with impatience; “Come-on, girl. Quit stalling!”
“All right, all right,” Catherine giggled... “Remember I said that the towel round my waist was hanging strangely? That I was terribly horny...? Well... when I took a peek under the towel, what did I see, but... yes... not a pussy at all but a very very large cock.”
“A cock,” Nancy was staring at her with her mouth agape.
“Well it was either a cock or the biggest clitoris in all of creation!”
When Nancy had recovered enough of her ability to talk, she inquired. “Up, or down?”
“Semi... But after I took a look, did it ever react... started looking at me, the thing did...” Catherine bumped one hand from a low angle to the ground to the horizontal in a few staccato twitches.
Nancy collapsed again, gesturing for mercy, pleading for a halt in the story, laughing till she cried. She remained a quivering mass of convulsions for several minutes.
“So there I was, locked and loaded... an ocean of backsides and boobs bobbing and bopping... The positions, oh my, oh my... You wouldn’t believe it possible. Somebody in your programming department owns the Karma Sutra!” Catherine had to wait for Nancy to calm again before she could proceed. “Now what’s an innocent girl with a twelve inch cock to do with the thing? I mean, what do you do with those things? Seriously? I wandered through the sea of banging flesh, and picked out a particularly delicious, well...”
“That has got to be bizarre... I can’t get my head around it. The thing in you... and sticking out of you? Connected?”
“You bet... A gender-bender... it felt like some kind of pneumatic vibrator mimicking every detail that I dished out. Weird! I felt like a guy... I guess?”
“And you were Time Dilated?”
“Ken said it was ten-fold, but it felt a lot more than that... Jeez... I saw two sunsets.”
“How much real time were you on for?”
“Only an hour thirty. There was going to be a midnight run, so we had to quit an hour before the shift arrived.”
“You should have experienced about fifteen hours on the machine, not enough time for two sunsets.”
Nancy pondered what she knew about Time Dilation, deciding but not mentioning that Ken must have run Catherine on much more powerful software than a first timer should be exposed to.
“You sure...? Not fifteen hours? Two sunsets?”
“Nance, if I’m sure of anything then I’m positive that I had more than fifteen hours. Much, much more. I’m not joking when I tell you that I waddled out of there like a cowboy!”
Nancy knew that she would never see a cowboy without thinking of Catherine. “And Ken?” she asked, “I’ve got to know. what had he been up to during the time?”
The look on Catherine’s face told a story.
“Silly question, wasn’t it?”
“Very silly...” Catherine agreed, “Let’s say, I didn’t have too much trouble from him when the game was over. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not that he didn’t try. But not to put too fine a point on it, much to his despair, his mind and body were no longer in agreement.”
“Now that I think of it, he was rather slow on Thursday morning. Looked haggard, like he’d been busy the entire night!”
“Busy-alone,” Catherine assured her. “Once the game was over and Ken unhooked me, it wasn’t such fun anymore. I mean, I’m a big girl, I didn’t expect to feel romantically swept away by my knight in shining armor. But with the lust extinguished, the atmosphere switched to very clinical... ugly, sordid... terribly awkward. Horrible to be naked while he fiddled helping me to carefully undo the hardware from my poor abused, and very disinterested body. I suddenly got slammed with real perspective; that we were strangers and he was my client! Like... faaaaaark... what was I doing? It’s strange how a sex drive can be so strong that it obscures reality.”
“Would you do it a second time?” Nancy wanted to know.
“Not with Ken! But the game was fun. Be honest... who wouldn’t try it, even if they won’t admit to it?”
As Catherine went on and the earlier hilarity gave way to introspection, it became increasingly clear that Catherine was suffering serious regrets. Talking it through was a tonic and a trigger.
Once Catherine had said her piece, they sat in silence for a while, each contemplating the event and its consequences.
When she felt that the timing to be right, Nancy put a question to Catherine;
“Where to, from here?”
“For the first time in my life Nance, I really don’t know.” She looked despaired. “I’ve been a bad girl... okay, that’s nothing new for me... This though,” she huffed, “It’s extreme... insane. A serious error.”
Nancy nodded sagely, not wanting to inflame the discomfort of truth any more than it was agitated. The excitement of the descriptions had been so vivid and stimulating, that she had entered Catherine’s world, living out the scenes. The illusions had raised her own excitement levels to a point that the story had begun to feel normal.
The virtual reality was an illusion, its consequences suddenly all too real.
“It was fun while it lasted,” a hint of forced smile now trembled on Catherine’s lips, “...but I get the distinct feeling Ken isn’t satisfied to leave it at that. I think he wants more and I don’t exactly feel that way. If ever I did fantasize that it would be fun to get it on with him, now that the fantasy has been somewhat lived out, it’s over—fantasy gone. I’m seriously repulsed by him, can’t face seeing him.”
Nancy was in agreement.
“Would it help to add to her woes?”
Nancy knew Ken’s character, and his character dictated that if he desired Catherine, then he would have her at any.
“I don’t think that I’ve jeopardized the account?” Catherine tried to convince herself with words that she really didn’t believe. “We’re both adults, we’ll see past a silly prank like this, hey?”
“You can be sure I’ll update you on anything around the office,” Nancy gave the only weak assurance she could bring herself to give. She stroked Catherine’s leg affectionately.
“Thanks Nance... guess I’ve been very stupid but you know how it is,” Catherine shrugged.
“Girls will be boys,” Nancy managed to raise a light chuckle from the ashes of Catherine’s recent laughter.
“Something else,” Catherine suddenly went serious... troubled. “You can imagine, Wednesday night, actually, Thursday morning, after we’d finished, I went home broken... dead tired.”
“Sure... that many hours in the saddle, it would be rather taxing.” Nancy hoped to once more rescue Catherine’s crashing mood.
Catherine smiled with her mouth, but her eyes couldn’t bluff it.
“Strange... I just couldn’t get a moment’s sleep. Every time I’d doze, I’d jolt awake with the most vivid nightmares, kinda like I was still trying to put Ken off; him trying to do me, me trying to push him away,”
Nancy was silent, inexplicably fearful beyond the story she was hearing.
Catherine shook her head in disbelief of what she had to say;
“Every time I woke, I could swear that I’d smell his after-shave in the bedroom. My conscience playing tricks on me, I guess. I think of myself as sexually liberated, gracious... I act it out, but the old demons of childhood...” she left it unsaid.
She paused, clicking her juice-stick on; the tip glowed to life and a pencil line of cherry aroma joined the smoky tones of Patsy Cline’s voice as it massaged the stumbling piano chords of Crazy, the melody waltzing a pas de deux with the hearth’s crackle and dancing tongues of flame.
“I’ve read all the psychology and jabbering about ‘Suppressing the learned inhibitions from my conscious mind.’ I can even believe that this sort of a fling is bound to scratch away the surface of what I actively want to feel and believe,” Catherine was putting on a brave front, showing pragmatism.
Nancy was silent, unable to add anything, and not trying to. In the absence of consoling words, she offered her touch, running her fingers through Catherine’s hair.
“The odd thing about the smell was that I’d washed thoroughly when I arrived home. I didn’t want any reminder of the memory near me. My clothes went straight into the laundry downstairs, and I went directly to the shower without touching or sitting on anything else. After that, I had a quick snack and a whisky to unwind, soaked myself in a bath of salts for an hour. The whole time in there I had the bubbles going so it really got me as clean as can be.”
Nancy heard “bubbles” and thought “Jacuzzi”. She loved jet-baths and hoped for a try-out some time.
“Nothing, absolutely no smell could have survived that. Hell, I hadn’t even touched Ken... but somehow...” her voice tailed off.
“Foul balms,” Nancy said it absently to herself.
“What? Bombs?” Catherine had only just heard the mummer.
“Balms... sorry Cath, Ken’s after-shave—he uses too much.”
“Dreadful, isn’t it; Yetch... off-putting.”
Catherine had previously enjoyed his scent, but by association, she felt revolted by the thought of it.
“Well at least you’ll be off the hook for the next seven days, he’s in Russia from Tuesday,” Nancy consoled Catherine.
“Good news at last!” Catherine sighed.
Nancy’s diversion had given Catherine a chance to momentarily cast off the shadow of dread that had become her constant companion.
What she’d omitted to tell Nancy was that the reek of Ken was still constant and persistent to her.
Worryingly, she’d realized that it was strongly associated with her recurring nightmare of him. It seemed to manifest during the later hours of the night and on into the early hours of the morning.
What Catherine had also omitted to tell Nancy was that where Ken had meekly accepted his sexual advances turned down in reality, in the nightmare, he was far more insistent. She felt as though he was beginning to possess her.
She cuddled closer to Nancy.
Jacky would be away on a five day international flight and Catherine had no intention of returning home to not sleep... alone.