I edge my way closer, maintaining my composed performance so she doesn’t feel like I’m worried about Nora the way I was with Izabel. I’m not really—I know Nora can handle herself, though I hope it doesn’t come to that.
“No one told me anything.” I stop two feet to her left and slide my hands into my pants pockets casually. “At least nothing about your on-the-side business in the sex trade. I figured that out on my own.”
“And how did you do that, exactly?”
I smile, close-lipped. “Are we really here to talk about how resourceful I can be, or shouldn’t we get on with why I came?”
After a few silent seconds Francesca moves the rest of the way over to Nora, circling her in slow, small steps, knife still in her left hand.
“No, Mr. Augustin—”
“Niklas”—she smiles darkly—“I think I’ll have you tell me how you knew; like I said, I still do not trust you, and you will answer my questions.” Her eyes narrow. “Resourceful you certainly are, but also very observant. You knew who my mother was; you knew who I was—no one has ever done that, or cared to do it. Frankly, Niklas, I don’t know whether to admire your skill, or to be even more suspicious of it. The men who come here only ever have one thing on their minds and it rarely has anything to do with me. You’ve done well to put a red flag on your back. So tell me—how did you know?” She puts the blade to Nora’s throat casually as if she were about to spread butter on her toast, and she looks across the short space at me, waiting with an eerie patience.
Retaining my undaunted smile, I give in with an impassive sigh. “If that’s what you want, then I’ll tell you.” I turn my back to her, my way of showing her that I’m not at all concerned about what she might do to Nora, and then I make my way back over to Izabel. I sit down on the oversized chair and lean back comfortably; Izabel remains seated on the edge.
“First you should know why I’m so observant,” I begin. “Just like you, I don’t trust anybody—for all I know you could be undercover. Call me paranoid if you want, but I’ve been busted before, I’ve been in prison before, and I don’t plan on going back to that fucking place, so I make it a point to know who I’m dealing with. In fact, I’ve been this way for a long time, always looking over my shoulder—my own brother betrayed me, so surely you can understand why I’m more…perceptive than the rest of the buyers who come here. And I don’t like to be lied to. I knew Bianca wasn’t really you the second she hesitated to tell me what she liked most about her favorite girls.” I smirk. “You wouldn’t have hesitated, or looked at your mother for the answer; your brother wouldn’t have had to jump in and try to distract me.”
“Yes, Emilio is a devoted brother,” Francesca says with an exasperated sigh. “Overprotective of me to a fault, I admit. But he is a good brother. I trust him more than anyone in my family—I only trust him. But go on and tell me how you knew.”
She’s thrown me off my game a bit, but she’s oblivious to it. Emilio a devoted brother? Emilio overprotective of his superior sister to a fault? Maybe he and I have more in common than I thought. That’s unfortunate.
“It’s simple really,” I say, snapping back into the moment. “I didn’t know anything about the showings until I came here tonight. I’d always known you employed the most prized whores that money can buy. And I wanted one for myself. Not just for a night or a few days. I wanted one and I was confident you’d sell one to me.”
“I see.” Francesca takes the knife away from Nora’s throat and then leaves her standing there as she paces the floor, sliding the flat sides of the tip of the blade between her fingers absently. “Only I never sell my cyprians. They are, in a sense, free women and men. They work for me and are paid generously. I sell their services, not their freedom.”
“You don’t sell them,” I point out, “because they’re whores, and buyers aren’t looking for tainted whores, unless the buyer is like me. Tell me they’d still be free to live their lives if they were still worth selling.”
She smiles darkly right back at me, and it’s the only answer we both know she needs to give.
“Every man,” I go on, “has a preference—mine happens to be whores—and physical flaws, of course.” I look at Nora, indicating her. “Aya worked for an escort service before she became mine.” I glance at Izabel. “Naomi here,” I say, reaching out to touch her butchered hair, combing my fingers through the back, “started selling herself at a young age; I was her last customer; I took her from the streets and then she was nobody’s whore but mine.” I pause and then add as an afterthought, “Of course she grew on me more than I expected or wanted.”
“You love that one.”
Stunned, my hand stops moving in Izabel’s hair; for a second I’m not sure what to say in response.
“No,” I finally answer, confused by my hesitation, and drop my hand from her hair. I look at Francesca. “I don’t love anyone. But I’m fond of her. Haven’t you ever been fond of someone—aside from your brother, I mean.” I grin. And I hope my attempt to take the spotlight off me works because this shit with Izabel is making me uncomfortable.
“No,” Francesca answers. “I’ve only ever been fond of my brother. I’ve only ever loved him.” She leaves it at that.
“So you’re what they call a hero,” Francesca says with a mock smile. “Rescuing whores from the streets, turning them into respectable whores?” She laughs lightly under her breath.
“Hardly.” I pat Izabel’s head and then rest my hand in my lap. “My girls didn’t want to be taken, they didn’t want to be controlled, or…punished when they disobeyed”—I lick the dryness from my lips—“I didn’t do it to rescue them, I did it because I liked it.”
Francesca glances at Nora. “And what of that one?”
“Aya,” I call out, “tell the Madam why you like being my whore.”
Nora doesn’t raise her eyes when she answers, “Aya’s master made her whole, Madam; her master protects her and provides for her; she is happy to be his whore.”
After a moment, Francesca says, “But why whores?” She moves toward us, setting the knife down on the arm of the sofa on her way. “And I thought you looked for flaws?”
“Because they fight longer, and harder,” I tell her. “Their lifestyle toughens them up long before I get to them; they’re not afraid to fight back, they’re defiant, vulgar—they’re strong and I respect that. But most of all, training them is a challenge. I happen to like a challenge. And there is no challenge in training a girl too afraid to fight for her life and her freedom; nor is there any satisfaction in owning a girl who has already been trained. And is being a whore not a flaw in and of itself?”
Francesca purses her lips thoughtfully.
“Well aren’t you afraid one of them might slit your throat in the night?” Francesca sits down on the arm of the chair next to me; I can smell the faint scent of her shampoo she’s so close. “It’s women like you described who would be the most likely.”
“I’m not afraid at all,” I tell her, looking up at her. “Not because I don’t think they’re capable, but because I don’t fear death.”
“I would never hurt Niklas; I love him,” Izabel says, looking up briefly.
Izzy, what happened to you keeping your mouth shut?
Francesca smiles, regarding ‘Naomi’s’ innocence, but there’s nothing kind about that smile. I feel like she wants to kill Izabel, and her speaking up just then has little to do with why—she wants to kill her because she’s special, beautiful even with her butchered hair; she wants to kill her because I’m fond of her. But she won’t because Izabel isn’t hers to kill. A chill moves up my spine, and that never happens. It takes a helluva lot to set me on edge like I’ve suddenly become. This woman is insane, no doubt about it, she is as twisted as Seraphina Bragado was, maybe even more-so. What is she going to do? It’s what I keep asking myself. What the fuck is she gonna do? Because I know she’s going to do something. Before we leave this mansion, Francesca Moretti is going to unveil the monster that wears her skin.
She stands up slowly, gracefully even.
“So tell me,” she says with her back to me, “what particular kind of flawed whore are you looking to purchase?”
She goes toward the massive desk, her movements like liquid over the floor.
“Preferably hair the color of honey, maybe black hair—I haven’t decided. Twenty-one, twenty-two years of age”—I touch Izabel’s hair again—“same age range as my other girls. Oh, and I don’t expect even your cyprians to have many physical flaws, but if you have one with any scars or birthmarks, the more interested I’ll be in doing business with you.”
“That’s quite a specific list,” she points out suspiciously. “I have to wonder if you’re not looking for a certain kind of girl, so much as a girl in particular who already has a name, who may have once been loved by someone who’s still looking for her.”