But I was clearheaded when I awakened, not in a Candy's chair, but in a plush bed and a room nearly as well appointed as mine. From the weird tribal art on the walls, and the mahogany arm draped over my breasts, I guessed that I was in Keisha's suite. She was still asleep with a faint smile on her face, but I wasn't going to let that last very long. "What the hell did you do to me?" I yelled, shaking her until she awakened.
"Good morning to you too," she said. "Sorry about how we handled you at the start of things yesterday, but you understand that that's how it had to be done. Even though Sarah was resting yesterday, enough people are loyal to her that they would report anything out of the ordinary to her. There are very few places that Sarah can't monitor here, and one of them is the candy tank." With her fierce, bright smile, she added, "Another is my suite. There are advantages to being head of security, after all. And since I'm not much into being watched, I felt it best that we... come back for our reward from you in private." She pointed, and I saw Tamara and Daphne curled up on the floor with some spare pillows and blankets.
It was cute in a weird way, but I realized that there was more to it. Mind controllers don't generally take it upon themselves to sleep on the floor, no matter how small the bed is, but there they were, two of the most powerful women in this business, if not the world. I thought back on all their interactions with me, how they'd always stood by me, helped me out when there was absolutely nothing to be gained from it, and generally been far more friendly than they had any reason to be. My presence had overwhelmed them, and probably right from the beginning. By now, they'd probably walk through fire for me. I decided to test my theory out a little less destructively. "Wakey, wakey, girls!" I called softly, and they both jumped to attention so fast that Daphne's pigtails bounced twice.
"I knew we'd make a real mistress out of you," Daphne said proudly.
"What? As opposed to...?"
"As opposed to..." Keisha stopped like she was looking for a word and didn't like the ones that were coming to mind. "As opposed to belonging to Sarah. More than any of us, your inner desire is to control, not to be controlled. I knew it from the outset, and so did Sarah. She's still your mistress, though barely. At least for now." She reached down for something on the floor- my pants, and the envelope in my back pocket I hadn't had a chance to read.
I opened the envelope. It didn't contain much. The first thing to tumble into my hands was an Indiana driver's license belonging to Anne Michaels, who had been a pretty, unassuming Midwestern blonde. I shook the envelope again and Anne's intake card fell out, listing her as Candy 21 from April to June of 2006, unsold and turned over to Rosa Hernandez for experiment, released June 15th, 2006.
"Experiment? What kind of experiment?" I asked aloud, but something about that shade of blonde made me look closer. If you put some makeup on that face... yes, and brightened the hair a little... a boob job here, a reshaping there... lots of wax and shine... and you would have... "Anya."
"I always suspected, but I never wanted to believe it. At least now I know I'm not completely insane for coming to the same conclusion. There probably wasn't much left of the girl's mind when Rosa was done with her," Keisha said, her words indistinct as she put her dress on.
Tamara walked over to help her, like she was used to the ritual. "I'll bet that no one else would have thought of hiding those scrambled brains behind a foreign accent. But Rosa was so used to people not taking her seriously because she had an accent that she found it to be the perfect disguise," she added.
"And Sarah had to have known about it. She wouldn't have put Anya in the Twelve as a separate person if she didn't. Damn that bitch! She's no better than the ones she fights!" I snapped.
"Um, yeah," Tamara said. "Why do you think we came over to your side?"
"I don't know about you, Tam, but I'm here for the great sex," Daphne said with a devilish smile.
"I'll bet Anya died with Rosa," I concluded. Tamara and Daphne gasped, but while Keisha looked a little sickened, she didn't look surprised. I might have gone further into it, but our phones rang, and it was back to work. But the revelation about Anya gave me an idea to add to the plan.
"Got any Crystals around here?" I asked as soon as I got off the elevator.
"Crystals? You're not Rosa. You're much better than that," Nancy said closely.
"With a K or a C, either is fine," I said to Morgan, ignoring Nancy.
Erica squealed. "Oh, I get it! A hypnotic hottie like Anya!" she exclaimed, clapping her hands. "What a great idea! Oooh, I could do so much with her..."
"Yep, just a little plastic surgery and some silicone and she could be a human focus object. That's why I want her name to be Crystal, get it?" I said, and everyone laughed.
"What a curious notion. I don't believe we've had one of those before," Martha said, but there was something in her voice that made me look closely at her. She caught my eye and winked. Yes, it made sense that the resident hacker would know about a dirty little secret like that. Maybe she'd even been the one to go through the records and pass the information along to Keisha.
"I've got a Krystal Andrews on the fourth floor, will that do?" Morgan asked. I looked at the pictures and nodded. The plan was coming together, but I needed to know who my allies were to start it rolling. I knew I flat-out commanded Keisha, Daphne, and Tamara, and I knew that there was no way I could sway Nancy and Julie. If what had happened in the office was any hint, Morgan, Martha, and Erica seemed intrigued as well, so that was seven out of twelve, including me- no, seven out of ten, since we were still short-handed. Danielle was, as always, a cipher, but she was pretty good friends with Daphne, since Daphne mixed the oils and creams she used during her killer backrubs, so I wasn't too worried about her.
Everyone seemed excited by my "new" idea, so I went along with them, knowing that Sarah would make her return sooner than later and know that I'd cracked some of the secrets she'd kept from me. I knew I was being watched, and not just by Nancy and Julie, but I also knew that I had a lot of allies in the main part of the building. If nothing else, I'd have all of those who realized they'd been held back on the professional floors, because I had Ashley on my side. And having Keisha and her people definitely couldn't hurt. The Crystal crack got things rolling at the top- more than I realized until that evening, when Morgan knocked on my door and handed me a thick manila folder. "I assume this is the blueprint you want to follow for Crystal," she said.
I opened the folder and started skimming its contents. Most of it was in Spanish, but Morgan had thoughtfully provided a translation of Rosa's notes. "Being the resident memory bank has its advantages, I take it?" I asked her with a smile.
"No, just some good old hacking, with a little help from Martha. Rosa was too good at her job- she had us all fooled with this," Morgan replied.
"Or Anya was too good at her job. It's hard to think logically when you've got her all over you," I said with a grin. "So were you able to find out what happened to her?"
"Well, since she's not Russian, she obviously didn't go back to Russia. From some of the penthouse feeds and Rosa's notes, I'm thinking that her programming went haywire, and that's why Sarah still hasn't come out of 'mourning'. Apparently there are some nasty little booby traps in Anya's head set to go off if Sarah ever acted against Rosa."
"Sounds interesting," I said with a wicked smile. Something just seemed right about Sarah fearing for her life at the hands of a crazy fake Russian with a sharpened tennis racket.
"There's a reason 'May you live in interesting times is a curse'," Morgan warned me. "And I think Sarah's managed to calm her down enough that she can leave her alone. So our time's almost up. Be careful, please be careful. I don't want to know what she'll do to us if this doesn't work." With a worried look on her face, she walked away, leaving me to work on the plan and see if there were any more ways I could foolproof it.
Of course, there were other things to do as well, much more pleasant than worrying about crazy blondes or megalomania. After all, I had to make sure that the people Ashley and my other allies were recruiting understood their place- and understood mine. It was an all-nighter in several ways. Even with Keisha helping me, I was exhausted, both physically and mentally. It felt like someone had taken my brain out in the middle of the night and replaced it with a bowling ball. I should have taken a day to step back and recharge myself, but there was no time; I was too far along in the plan to turn back or slow down as morning came.
"Hey, Cara! I found the perfect place for you! Scouted out and everything! I can't wait to get there!" Erica shouted as I got off the elevator.
No, that wouldn't do at all. I leaned into her and whispered, "Be patient, just be patient." I mentally pushed as hard as I could on her, because I couldn't afford loose lips at this stage. Everything was happening too fast, almost spinning out of my control, but I had to roll with everything or it would roll over me.
I followed her back to her suite, where five of her models were waiting in various alluring poses, surrounded by banks of TVs, all playing different movies, TV shows, and advertisements. "I thought you might need something to kick-start the advertising," she said with an odd smile- not quite wicked, not quite knowing, but it was hard to look at her long enough to figure it out when there was so much going on behind her.
"Yeah, probably. I was thinking that once I got my share of the money, I'd find a business for sale that we could take over the headquarters of. It'd make a good base. You're right, these would be very useful," I said. Something was bothering me, and after a few moments, I realized what it was. Everyone was in their brightest, tightest, and most blinding orange.
"I would think more than useful. These are my very best, the sexiest, the most appealing. You might say they're the kind of girls that make you never want to leave," she continued. My focus was drifting to the models and their perfect bodies, and I had to snap myself out of it.
"You miss Anya more than I thought," I teased her. In answer, the beat behind the blasting noise of the televisions got louder. Okay, this was not going as I would have liked. I turned to run, but there was someone in the doorway, blocking my escape- Sarah, in a brilliant orange evening gown and high heels, looking refreshed and ready to take back control.
"Did you miss me, darling?" she asked coyly, looking me right in the eye.
It took everything I had to focus on defending myself against her, because it didn't feel natural to be fighting her. It felt wrong to resist her, but I realized that was her programming talking, and I had to be on guard against my own weaknesses.
"I know everything. Your most loyal gave it to me," I said, every word a struggle.
But all she did was laugh. "Oh, dearie, I'm not upset. Do you think this is the first time I've dealt with this kind of insubordination? Anyone with your kind of talent tries it sometime. But they always realize the same thing. This is your home. Look behind you- six of the hottest supermodels in the world, yours to command. If you're feeling a bit more heterosexual, I can order you some boys as well. That's one secret I don't mind sharing with you- I much prefer men to women, and have much more... fun with my gardeners, but I prefer to deal with women for professional purposes. With men, you'll either have them nipping at your heels for control or baying at the moon from lust. But if that's what it takes to keep you here, then I'll gladly let you use my stable. Though I should remind you that there are fewer risks when it's just us girls." She finished with a wink that only underlined the subtext.
She'd taken too much time. I had to fire back quickly. "You rule by hypocrisy! I don't think one thing I was told on the lower floors was true! Aside from keeping our personalities, what else do you offer? We're still slaves, even more so at the top than at the bottom," I fired back, airing my grievances to give myself breathing room. Maybe I could even shake Erica up enough that she'd help me out.
"I rule... but for how long? I'm almost 55 years old. For a group this size, that's ancient. I could use an heiress, someone with the power to control this entire operation and the ambition to grow it even further," she purred. I could feel myself weakening, and out of the corner of my eye I saw Erica guiding her models around me, like a pack of hyenas waiting for the lioness to make her kill- well, if hyenas were drop-dead gorgeous and did sexy stripteases.
When in doubt, use sarcasm. "Sorry. Not big on the huge sunglasses and skimpy outfit look. It's a bit cheap. Besides, there are more words in the English language than 'that's hot'," I shot back.
"For all that she never came out of Candy state, she's been very useful. It's been eight years since I've paid for a hotel room on our little trips thanks to her," Sarah said smugly.
"And she's one of my most effective icons," Erica chipped in.
"It doesn't matter. There's more to trade than just slaves. There's so much more we can do with our powers!" I protested, and though my eyes were growing heavy, my thoughts were as clear as day.
"Oh, Cara. Have you already forgotten what the world's oldest profession is? And what the second oldest profession must have been?" Sarah asked with a smirk. "What's it going to be? Will you be a mad pauper?" She walked slowly around me until she stood in front of Erica's icons. "Or will you be my princess and have your own court to serve you?"
I was fading fast, but I had an ace in the hole. Sneaking my hand into my pocket, I hit a number on my speed dial and hoped I'd reached for the right one. "For me to be a princess, you would have to be a queen, and can you really say you are?" I tried to sound defiant, but my words were slurred. This wasn't a fair fight, two on one- no, seven on one, including Erica's icons. If my ace got trumped, I would be bound even more tightly to Sarah and left completely at her mercy. If I was lucky, I might get served up on a dessert plate as punishment before being tortured into a shell of what I once was. Only thoughts of my fate kept me from falling to my knees in submission.
Sarah must have seen how hard I fought and guessed why, because she said, "Oh, dearie, I don't intend on punishing you. I was weakened and you took the opportunity to show your skill and seize power. As good as you are, I would have been disappointed if you didn't. If you stay with me, I promise you'll rule the world. Without me, you'll just starve for control and end up a hermit with a tiny following, just enough to keep you hungering for more, unable to move forward, always second-guessing yourself. I think you met who I speak of in New York."
The offer sounded tempting, and I could always consolidate my power under her nose. Erica's icons circled closer, and so did Erica, and Sarah watched me with a smoldering look on her face that made me think she'd been lying about the straight thing. Unbearable heat bloomed inside me as I melted against the elevator door. It was too much for me to take, and as I undid my blouse, every button drew me deeper, drew me back under Sarah's spell...
And then the elevator door opened and I collapsed inside. Someone was holding a cell phone up to my face, and as I focused on the center of the swirling pattern on its tiny screen, I snapped back to reality and knew who to thank. "You called?" Tamara said with a smile.
"You have no idea how close that was. I think you just saved the whole plan," I said gratefully. "Now where are we going?"
"Right now? Assistants' floor. Fortunately, Erica's assistant doubles as a supermodel, so she's still upstairs. We'll fall back in one of the other girls' rooms, though." The elevator stopped with a ding, and Keisha was waiting for us, her high tower of hair slightly askew and a hairpin hanging between her teeth like a toothpick.
"Never trust a gangbanger with a simple lock," she said with a mysterious smile. "No time to regroup. She set the alarm off faster than I thought." She led us to the main elevator, where Daphne, Martha, and Morgan were waiting. I could hear a siren wailing in the background- the alarm Keisha had mentioned.
"I have a bus waiting on the sixth floor. We'll have to leave those who aren't fully loyal- we can't risk them betraying us from the inside. There's also another bus for those who just want out. But I think you'll be pleasantly surprised," Keisha said as our elevator stopped at the sixth floor. Evelyn was waiting for us, holding a gun and with a really nasty looking knife on her belt, to provide us cover. I got on and was floored- every seat was full, and there were a couple of occupied laps that could get us in trouble with the cops if we got pulled over.
"Can I call you Mistress?" I heard a familiarly distant voice ask from the front row.
I grinned at Ashley and sat down in the seat she'd managed to save for me with her bag. "Cara will do just fine, at least for now," I said with a laugh, kissing her as the bus took off. I let her go, thinking of something and moving to avoid the problem before it could start. "Get everyone's phone- don't want them falling back under and causing a riot," I ordered. I made the mistake of projecting my voice, and a blizzard of phones came flying at me. I ducked for cover, and Ashley and Keisha laughed.
"Told you they were yours," Keisha said, but her face quickly turned serious. "There were others we had to leave behind, but Sarah will take them back."
"They'll serve as a distraction, though. That's why Danielle stayed behind, to provide some cover for us. As long as Sarah's working on them, she can't come after us," Tamara said.
"In the meantime, we get to hit the ATM," Daphne piped up with a devilish grin.
"We were able to open new bank accounts, or even restore our old ones, with the money we made in sales," Ashley explained.
Beautiful- the money angle was coming together perfectly. "And that would be?"
"Enough for you to get a new headquarters, and for us to go on a shopping spree. I mean, who here wants to spend another minute in these orange clothes?" Ashley asked, quickly distracting me from asking for specifics as a stripfest nearly broke out.
"Single focus, Ash? Really? Now, now, girls, there'll be time for that later. As for location- Evelyn, point us towards Chicago. I have an old recruiting chore there."
"An excellent choice," Keisha said. "The Kaiser chain is for sale. It's a very good investment and would make an excellent headquarters. It's not the kind of place one would think of as the home of a mind controlling organization. Ah- Evelyn, turn here," she added as we approached the exit to a nearby mall. "By the way, to answer your earlier question, enough is $500 million in both cash and stock options, all money that we had earned but that Sarah was keeping from us. But she made the mistake of keeping the accounts in our names in order to keep the IRS away, but that meant that one series of phone calls to our favorite orange bank got out money back in our hands."
"Half a billion dollars? Holy crap, we were busy bees," I said with a low whistle.
Evelyn pulled the bus up right in front of the department store- as it happened, a Kaiser's. "What'll it be, Mistress?" she asked in a deliberate tone. I wasn't sure what she meant, but it sunk in pretty quickly.
Nothing like making your clean break obvious. "Navy blue and silver. Knock yourselves out, girls!" I snapped, letting my anger at all of Sarah's lies and destruction come through in my voice. The intensity must have sunk into everyone's head, because they practically tripped over each other in their hurry to get off the bus and into their new duds. "Whatever you want, it's on me. Evelyn, gas up the bus. We're going to need as much time as we can get- I know in my gut Sarah sent someone after us."
Maybe it was too soon, maybe we were too close, but I was too pissed to care. I wanted Sarah's stupid color off me as soon as I could, and I could tell that everyone else agreed. My people raided the racks like an invading army, everyone looking for something that was just perfect. There was something to be said for Keisha's array of silver and navy gowns and Tamara's collection of pantsuits, but I kinda liked Daphne's robot techno look. This place was really well stocked; they even had soccer gear in the colors I wanted, so Mandy and I wouldn't have to give up our little game. For now, I bought a silver t-shirt and dark blue jeans for myself, then bought everyone lunch at the food court.
When, inevitably, I had to run to the bathroom, a familiar pair of eyes met mine as I turned away from the sink. "Georgetown colors? Oh, that'll get you a double dose of ice cream when you bring them home. I'll make sure of it." Nancy's voice was as warm as her ice blue eyes were cold, boring into my mind, trying to either lure me back to Sarah or stun me and force me to submit. She ran her fingers down my cheek soothingly, but I wasn't having any of it. It didn't take me long to gather my thoughts and strike back the old-fashioned way with a right hook to the jaw. She went down like a ton of bricks, and I propped her up in the nearest stall to get her out of the way.
"Okay, guys, we're taking this to go!" I yelled as I stalked back out to the food court. The few people who were still eating immediately packed up their lunch and got on the bus. Evelyn hit the gas, and we took off towards Chicago.
But we weren't going to get there in one night, so we stopped at the nearest hotel. Keisha insisted that I get the honeymoon suite for me and Mandy- it felt a little odd, but I wasn't going to fight it, because it had been a really long day. I showered, changed for bed, and got ready to turn in when I heard a loud knock on my door. Just in case there was trouble, I prepared to go on the attack. But when I opened the door, instead of trouble, I found a hallway full of silver and navy blue. "What is a queen without her coronation?" Keisha, at the head of the group, asked. "We're grateful for what you've done, and happy to serve you wherever you go... and however you want."
Oh. Oh. Well, that was sweet, but that kind of devotion all at once might actually kill me, and if I was going to go out with a bang, that wasn't the one I had in mind. "What is a queen without her court? You've earned this as much as I have. Join me. Ashley, Tamara, Daphne, Morgan, Martha, you too. I think there's enough here for everyone."
I still have no idea how the hell we got everyone in there, and I think someone ended up setting up shop in the bathroom. But I learned an important lesson about command and control: if you have someone in your power, it's just as cruel to make them not serve you as it is to force someone to serve you unwillingly. They came to pleasure me of their own free will. I certainly wasn't going to stop them. And those who had helped me realize my potential and escape Sarah's claws deserved a reward as well; it would only bind them closer to me.
So they cycled through all night, four or five at a time to serve and pleasure each of us. I came with each wanting tongue worshipping me, and truly understood the joy of being a mistress. I could see how it could go to someone's head, but I did my best to make sure it didn't go to mine. As night became day, and we had to head out again, I reached for my t-shirt and jeans, only to find them gone, replaced with a shimmering silver gown with matching boots that Mandy helped me put on. Now I looked like the ruler I was.
Ashley wisely let me catch up on my sleep as we resumed our trek to Chicago.