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No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without prior written permission from the publisher. For information contact: Pink Flamingo Publications P.O. Box 632 Richland, MI 49083 Cover © Anja Roesnick - Fotolia.com Prologue Ten years in the past… Mei felt their eyes as she passed the old Chinese Telephone Exchange’s three tiered black and red pagoda, firmly propelled by her diminutive grandmother. The tiny old woman, clothed head to toe in black, moved remarkably quickly and determinedly on exaggeratedly bowed bound feet. Normally she provided the girl with protection just short of claustrophobic. At this moment, though, a jolt of unaccountable fear rippled through Mei’s delicate body, spurring her deep under her grandmother’s formidable aura. The Caucasian man towered above Chinatown’s residents as he slowly strolled along the crowded street, so tall, handsome and authoritative. A small, exquisite woman of perhaps 40 years old, clad in a narrow black silk cheongsam dress, the flat raised collar and fitted skirt accentuating her shapely body and long white throat, took many rapid yet graceful steps at his side. It was a gesture so brief Mei wasn’t certain she saw it. For a shameful if unwitting instant her eyes met his. In that instant he gave an almost imperceptible nod and the beautiful woman’s black eyes were upon her, searing her flesh. She’d never actually met the woman but she’d overheard her parents’ and grandmother’s circumspect whispers. Though she hadn’t fully understood, clearly the woman was a force to be avoided … and feared. The last thing Mei remembered before waking to an elegant voice was pushing through the densely milling crowd toward a huge bucket of pink and yellow stargazer lilies sitting near one of the Walter U. Lum marketplace’s many shop entrances. Her brow furrowed with effort to remember and the sensation – rubbing? – startled her. Flowers, the overpowering floral scent, that was her last memory. The female voice spoke Mandarin from an older, more courtly age, rich, florid and meticulously formal. Only the words penetrated the strange black haze. And they filled her with fear so intense she thought her heart would explode. “Be still and silent – and obey – and you will live.” At once painful awareness shook her to her tender core. Something hard yet peculiarly yielding filled her wide-open mouth almost to bursting and bit sharply into her cheeks, making her jaw ache and head hurt. Panicked confusion threatened to again sink her into unconsciousness. Black unconsciousness like the incomprehensible blackness that covered her face, clinging impenetrably over eyes, nose and mouth. She struggled to breathe through the obstruction and the strange, clinging material. A racking lightning bolt of fear shot above her swirling mental sea. She thought she’d suffocate and almost cried out … until she remembered the woman’s words and also, thankfully, realized she could breathe, if with difficulty. The girl so wanted to see, to know what was happening to her, and yet the knowledge terrified her. Marshalling her courage, opening eyes wide, she struggled to see the voice’s owner but could make out only dark shapes. She tried to rub away the encroaching fabric and with a wrenching start realized she couldn’t move her hand. Horribly her mind cleared but not the blackness. Where was she? How had she gotten here? And more frightening, what did they want from her and would they really let her live? She lay on her belly – a hot flush suffused her face – naked on soft, cool fabric. Her legs and arms were spread in a tightly stretched, intensely humiliating X exposing – silent tears rose into her eyes – everything! She gave a tiny twist to her wrist then winced. Metal chains! Though her terror was almost beyond sensibility, she was certain of them when the large, rough links bit harshly into her skin. At the realization her body seemed to collapse in on itself, all dynamism, all will, drained away leaving her utterly limp. And wet! A chill gripped her at awareness of the soaking cold clinging to her face. Or perhaps it was her fear. She didn’t know. Tears gushed into her eyes and were sucked up by the black fabric. She didn’t know anything! Not even if she’d live. The soft click of a latch, once, then again, jerked her to rigid attention. Fear, tangible as a vice, squeezed her heart. A large presence walked quietly toward her, footfalls shushing slightly against carpeting. She felt it circle, circle interminably all the way around her. Unsuccessfully she struggled to see through the thick black. Its first real sound was incomprehensible. Breathing, snuffling, a strange combination of both, like a live boar she’d once seen in the market. Something touched her spine and her body jerked involuntarily, almost wrenching arms and legs from their sockets and cracking slim joints against metal. With insane relief she recognized fingertips – warm, smooth fingertips. Gently they touched her, not stroking but lifting off and returning to some other spot, her spine, upper arm, waist, back of knee. As the fingers moved its agitation seemed to build, she could feel and also hear it. With a snort it touched her behind … … and it was on her, it’s hot breath, thick as treacle, on her back. Then wetness soused her back and moved lower, accompanied by the hideous sniffing noise. Its tongue! With unbearable shame and revulsion she recognized what it was doing. It was licking down the crease between her legs! Everything, even the unclean parts, covering them with warm gooey – vile – saliva. Its breathing had become so laboured it beat against her ears. Even her chest seemed to vibrate with it, punctuated by its moaning slobbering. The pitch intensified to fever. Suddenly something pressed high up on her inner thigh and there was excruciating pain. Her scream, muffled and thin, froze her into manic attention through which the pain vibrated. Would they kill her because of her noise? In dumb terror she waited. And then, to her shocked relief, it lifted off her. The next moment, though, the unimaginable happened. A force, like a fist, pushed against a part she didn’t dare contemplate. It pushed, harder and harder. Abruptly she – and her world – tore apart. Nine and a half years in the past. She’d forgotten so many things. She no longer remembered when she’d last left “her” room – that’s what he called it – nor really when she’d had a “proper” meal, as her mother would have said. A tear started in her eye when she thought of her mother, but she hurriedly repressed it. Had he seen? The thought rose disjointedly into her mind accompanied by an only partially connected surge of anxiety. “Are you feeling well, my dear?” The small table between them, a precious Chippendale piecrust tea table, was clothed with two heavy linen runners crossed perpendicularly at the centre and draped protectively over the fluted edges. Exquisitely detailed chintz china breakfast dishes and delicate silver flatware – so beautiful and refined, like everything in the room – were set before them on the creamy cloth. The tiny bite of egg in her fork’s sculpted tines quivered as she looked across at him. When she tried to steady it, she felt the tight seams of the dress he’d told her to wear pull against her breasts and underarms, even against the skin-like waist cinch’s constrictive ribs. His tone and facial expression were so gentle, so considerate. She could see that his continual assertion of love and concern for her must certainly be the truth. He was only striving to help her fulfil her potential, to attain the perfection of which he said she was capable. For an instant, she felt profoundly grateful to him. His brow furrowed. Her body uncontrollably tensed and her breath stopped in her chest. But the next minute he smiled pleasantly and she breathed again. “I do believe your appearance is improving. Our regimen seems to be working well.” He reached across and tenderly squeezed the hand holding the fork. Her hand seemed to her to have no substance, to be in danger of disappearing all together if he pressed his fingers together. He spoke as if to a child. “Now eat before the delicious food gets cold.” She brought her shaking fingers toward the silver metal bands swathing her mouth and throat and running over her head, now unlocked in front and folded back on steel hinges to leave an inch wide opening across her lips. Where was his other hand? She wanted to look at the dials on the metal box at his side but didn’t dare. She gave an imperceptible sigh. Really, it didn’t matter. She had no choice. As the fork touched her lips, her nerves seemed to turn off – or maybe it was on, she didn’t know – in the corners of her jaw and the sides of her neck and head. From outside herself – or so it seemed – she watched her head loll uselessly forward and felt pain stab through her tongue. His face, smiling benignly over at her, fluoresced neon in the blackness that filled her vision.
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