THE MIND GAME
The Steinhardt house turned out to be a walled compound within the private community of Bel Air. Only the parking lot close by the main gate was outside the perimeter, and the gate itself was a massive steel affair overlooked by a closed-circuit television camera.
It was open as Weller arrived, but it was guarded by two big bozos in incongruous red carhop uniforms with pistols holstered to their waists. Nine thirty and there were already twenty or thirty cars in the lot and a minor jam on the street outside. Weller gratefully gave the Triumph to a real carhop and walked up to the gate fingering his printed invitation somewhat uneasily. There were half a dozen people at the gate ahead of him -- no one whom he recognized personally or famewise -- and the guards were collecting their invitations and passing them inside with a cold and intense scrutiny that gave Weller the impression that they were really Monitors.
Weller gave his invitation to one of the guards, endured a professionally suspicious eyeballing, and entered the grounds of the estate. The house itself was a big two-story pseudo-Spanish job, all white stucco and red tile, set back from the wall across a wide expanse of well-manicured lawn studded with an eclectic selection of palms, oaks, and evergreens, and hedged with bright red and overpoweringly fragrant bougainvillea. Everyone was walking straight down the flagstone path to the entrance; a "Keep-Off-The-Grass" sign would have been superfluous.
Inside, the ground floor was a series of large, airy parlors opening onto a central Spanish-style courtyard, with a low central fountain, short shade trees, bright beds of flowers, a maze of marble pathways, and a sprinkling of pseudo-Greek statuary. A second-story balcony ran all the way around the courtyard, dripping ivy. There were about a dozen people in the courtyard, and two or three dozen more scattered throughout the ground-floor rooms. These were all furnished as sitting rooms, with plush couches and chairs, brocaded or lavishly papered walls, nondescript representational paintings of landscapes, still lives, and figures, and endless little tables and wall shelves all stuffed with figurines, floral arrangements, and assorted bric-a-brac. The upper story of the house seemed to be off limits.
There was a buffet set up in each room. With a single waiter serving the usual conspicuous-consumption items: caviar, assorted hot hors d'oeuvres, smoked salmon, sliced beef, turkey, ham, endless salads, and pickles. There were six parlors, and in the largest two, which took up entire sides of the first floor, full bars had been set up. Quiet, indeed almost subliminal, Muzak murmured everywhere.
Weller got a Wild Turkey and water at one of the bars and wandered aimlessly from room to room, feeling at once alienated from his surroundings and peculiarly at home. He had certainly been to parties like this before, if never quite in a place on this scale or reeking quite this much of money. The sort of Hollywood party that was usually put on by a hot shot new director or producer rolling in bread but short of connections. Every celebrity in town would be invited, but if half a dozen real heavies showed up, it would be a smashing success. So the house was papered with invitations off every PR, freebie, and agent list in town, filled with unknown people who usually didn't even know each other, extras to create a crowd scene.
Here, however, celebrity spotting seemed a futile game. There were a few faces that Weller recognized from TV commercials or long strings of bit parts, but nothing that he could even connect a name to. There were some striking-looking Plasticine women in gold lame silk pants suits, plunging necklines, and bare backs, but they seemed to be window dressing for older men who might be minor-league producers, or just as easily successful Beverly Hills realtors. There were some lavishly dressed older women with clean-cut beachboy-type consorts in tow, but there were no rich hippie types, no conspicuous displays of tailored denim, beads, or feathers, and what few younger men he saw were, with the exception of the gigolos of the rich bitches, random loners like himself.
As far as Weller was concerned, it was instant boredom, so much so that after about half an hour, he found himself actually longing for the Changes Productions people to show up already and at least give him someone to talk to.
He was getting his third drink when he finally spotted a familiar face. It was Harry Lazlo, resplendent in a royal blue suit, white shirt, and red ascot, elbowing his way to the bar with a honey-blond young starlet type on his arm, luscious dark eyes, and a totally vacuous expression on her face.
As Lazlo ordered drinks, Weller maneuvered himself into position so that they would come face-to-face, hoping that Lazlo would recognize him; much more couth under the circumstances than forthrightly reintroducing himself. Lazlo's gaze intersected his; there was a flicker of recognition, and that would have to do.
"Jack Weller, Mr. Lazlo."
Lazlo smiled a broad Hollywood smile. "Oh yeah, our pro TV director," he said. "How's it going? What do you think of this little bash?"
Weller let a little grimace flicker across his face. Lazlo laughed, held up a palm. "Don't answer that," he said. Then, sotto voce. "Have you ever seen such a collection of phonies?"
"Upon occasion," Weller said dryly.
Lazlo laughed again, and then began walking away from the bar as he spoke, indicating that for the moment Weller was invited to join his little entourage. "Maria is quite a little star collector, would-be star collector, right? Every few months she throws one of these things and invites everyone from Charlton Heston to Jackie Kennedy, and what she gets is what you see -- a few TV producers, high-priced hair dressers, the old girls from Palm Springs, the bottom end of the freebie lists, tired old agents and PR men, and like that. Plus all the Transformationalist heavies in town." He shook his head ruefully. "Some people never learn. Hope springs eternal, right?"
''I've met the type," Weller said, as they reached breathing space in the middle of the room. He was somewhat surprised that Lazlo had betrayed such open disdain for Steinhardt's wife to someone like him; but he was pleased to go along with it.
"Have you met Maria?" Lazlo asked.
Weller shook his head.
"Well then, come on, let me do the honors, such as they are," Lazlo said, grabbing Weller's elbow and tugging him toward the courtyard. ''I'm sure the old buzzard wants to meet you."
"Huh? I'm sure she doesn't even know my name."
Lazlo laughed. "Who said she knew your name? You underestimate yourself, kid. Or you overestimate Maria. You've actually directed network TV, and that's more than you can say for ninety-nine percent of the people here. As far as Maria's concerned. there's no business like show business. Why do you think she invited everyone from Changes Productions in the first place?"
"I don't know -- why did she invite everyone from Changes Productions in the first place?"
Lazlo grimaced wryly. "Because Changes is owned by Transformationalism, and Transformationalism is owned by John, and she's John's wife, and that's the closest sniffing distance she can get to show-biz people. And you're something special, right, because you've actually worked in the major leagues.
"Huh?" Weller grunted dubiously, with a certain queasy feeling developing in his stomach.
"Don't worry about it," Lazlo said, dragging him out into the courtyard. "Maria will make it perfectly clear, like the man says. Now lessee...."
By now the courtyard was quite crowded; the benches were mostly filled and a couple of dozen people were milling around with drinks in their hands and platters of food. Lazlo scouted around; finally a look of recognition dawned on his face, and he led Weller and the silent girl toward a small group of people gathered around a woman seated alone in queenly state on a marble bench just in front of the gurgling fountain.
The woman on the bench was in her middle forties or so, with a smooth, once-stunning face that was just starting to sag slightly, and big dark eyes that still flashed fire and brimstone. Her dark brown hair was lightly streaked with gray, and she wore a reasonably tight green silk pants suit. The total effect said that she knew her age, and also knew that she still looked good enough not to have to hide it.
The court gathered around her included a gray-haired woman in a flowing caftan festooned with astrological signs, two older men in dark suits, a hard-looking tough who seemed to be a bodyguard, a good-looking younger woman in a midnight-blue dress, and a balding old weirdie in a white yoga suit. They fell back as Lazlo approached as if they knew that they were extras.
"Hello, Harry," Maria Steinhardt said in a deep throaty voice that seemed edged with habitual sardonicism. She looked at Weller appraisingly, without meeting his eyes. "Who's your friend?"
Lazlo brought forth the blond on his arm. ''This is Bridget," he said, also with a sarcastic twist.
"Not her, him," Maria Steinhardt snapped.
Lazlo laughed, and it really seemed to bug her. "This is Jack Weller," he said, "One of our directors at Changes."
"Really?" Maria said, looking at Weller again, but this time staring straight into his eyes for a long moment. "And what were you before Harry scooped you up into his clutches, Mr. Weller?"
"Jack's one of my prize acquisitions," Lazlo said. "About the only director we've got with network TV credits."
"Don't be so rude, Harry, I was talking to Jack," Maria said. She smiled at Weller, cocking her head to one side and leaning it on her hand. "Do you like being a prize acquisition," she asked.
"Depends on who's doing the acquiring," Weller said instantly. The vibes she was putting out toward him seemed rather obvious; indeed, they seemed intended to be obvious. Well, if that were the game, he might as well go along with it for a bit.
Maria laughed, mugging at him with an exaggerated lecherous smirk. "The obvious question," she said, "is what's a nice boy like you doing in a place like that?" Sycophant laughter gurgled briefly in the background.
"Serving the movement," Weller said uncertainly, realizing immediately how fatuous that sounded as Maria made a moue of distaste.
"How tiresome," she said.
"We all serve John in our own ways, don't we?" Weller said, putting an edge on his voice. He nodded briefly over his shoulder. "And we all reap our own rewards."
There was a subliminal ooh, and Lazlo did not look especially pleased. Maria Steinhardt glared at him with what seemed like a sudden flash of anger. Weller glared back -- not the old Transformationalist Stare, but a challenging dose of masculine libido. Maria's intensity didn't fade, but it seemed to transform itself from anger to something else.
"Touche," she said toothily. "Very interesting. Perhaps we can have a little chat later on, when things mellow out a bit." She turned to regard her entourage, a gesture of dismissal.
"Perhaps," Weller said bitchily, determined to have the last word. Then Lazlo eased him out of the little group and took him to one side.
"Beginning to get the idea, kid?" he said.
"It seems fairly obvious," Weller said. "A bit too obvious. I mean, John's wife...."
Lazlo laughed. "There once was a woman from Thames, who was found of unusual games," he recited enigmatically. "Don't worry about the Great Man, kid. Maria has carte blanche, and John is too smart to try screwing around with her. Whereas Maria...."
He laughed again. "Whereas Maria does little else," he said. "Well, I've gotta go see a man about a dog." And he moved off with the blond on his arm, leaving Weller wondering what the hell was going on between him and Maria, between Maria and Steinhardt, wondering what kind of game he was getting involved in, and what the percentages might be.
Weller drifted aimlessly around the party for another hour or so. Lazlo seemed to have disappeared, and by now the house was choked with guests, to the point where there were dozens of people balancing plates of food and looking fruitlessly for a place to sit down, to the point where the noise level began to make extended conversation almost impossible, to the point where Weller was beginning to consider getting the hell out of this boring mob scene. He had made his obligatory appearance, he had met Maria Steinhardt, and surely no one would notice anyone's early departure in this mess.
But an idea taking from in the back of his mind kept him from leaving. Maria Steinhardt. Had she just been flirting, playing a little game that she would play with a dozen young men tonight, or was there something more to it? If she really does have the hots for me, Weller thought, I should play it for all it's worth. Because it could be worth a lot. Maria was John's wife, and as such, she was a pipeline directly to the heart of Transformationalism. If she wanted to -- if he could make her want to -- she could easily find out where Annie was, and maybe even more. From what he had seen, from what he sensed, there was little that Maria could not have her way within the world of Transformationalism. Only Steinhardt himself could say no to her, and he had a feeling that even Steinhardt couldn't exactly defy her will with impunity. Screwing around with John Steinhardt's wife was about the most dangerous game he could conceive of, but the potential rewards --
"Jack! There you are!"
Sara English had appeared at his side, flanked by Shano Moore and Georgie Prinz. She was wearing a stunning low-cut red dress, but the way the three of them were huddling together, like white faces in a ghetto (or black faces at a country club), made her seem quite pathetic to Weller, a sad contrast to the powerful and charismatic Maria.
"Quite a show, isn't it?" Georgie said, looking around like a little kid allowed to attend an adult party.
"Yeah," Weller grunted, "A real mob scene." He felt himself being swept up into their little group for want of anything else to do, but he immediately wanted to ditch them. They weren't where this was at, and he certainly wasn't where they were at.
"See anyone you know?" Sara asked, meaning, no doubt, anyone from the great world of Hollywood out there, a connection that he could make for them.
"Just Harry Lazlo," Weller said, irked both at her, and at the fraudulent show-biz aura that the three of them were trying to suck up. At the same time it amused him to think that Maria Steinhardt was essentially coming from the same silly place.
"Shall we move around and see what's happening?" Shano suggested.
So the four of them wandered around the house for what seemed to Weller like forever. It was painfully obvious to him that he was expected to point out the non-existent luminaries, as if he were one of those characters standing on Sunset Boulevard hawking maps to the Homes of the Stars.
Instead Sara, Shano, and Georgie ended up somewhat forlornly pointing out some of the Transformationalist heavies to Weller. Benson Allen's second-in-command. Allen himself. The head of the San Francisco Transformation Center. Someone or other from Narcon. Executives from various Transformationalist companies. Apparently anyone who was anyone in the local chapters of the movement was constrained to appear at Maria Steinhardt's parties. Except for the insight it gave him into just how powerful Maria really was within the movement, Weller found the whole thing stupifyingly boring and somewhat pathetic. All this, and Maria still couldn't corral even a major name off a theater marquee; the whole thing must be an exercise in total frustration for her.
They were drifting out into the courtyard for the fourth or fifth time when Weller's eye was caught by a man sitting alone on one of the benches, sipping a drink, and leering quite unpleasantly at the passing throngs. He was wearing a black suit with a black turtleneck; his slick black hair was cut short in an almost military style, his swarthy face was hard and rather brutal-looking, but his dark eyes gleamed with an intense, sardonic intelligence. Although many people were obviously looking for a place to sit down, no one approached the bench where the isolated figure sat. The whole effect was quite sinister and, disquieting.
"Who the hell is that?" Weller asked, nodding his head toward the man in black as they passed close by his bench.
Sara, Georgie, and Shano all seemed quite disturbed by his question, and they hustled Weller far out of earshot before anyone answered. Even then, Sara spoke in a surreptitious half whisper.
"That's Fred Torrez."
"The Director of the Monitors," Georgie added.
Weller laughed. "I thought he was some kind of Mafia hit man," he said.
'''That's not funny, man," Shano said, looking uneasily over his shoulder. "Shit, the way he looks at people...."
"What's the matter?" Weller insinuated. "Does he scare you?"
"He's just not a dude you want to have notice you ..."
"Ah, there you are!" Maria Steinhardt suddenly appeared from around a bend in the path and grabbed Weller ever so lightly by the elbow.
"Come, let's have our little talk," she said, looking deep into his eyes and touching the rim of her upper teeth casually with the tip of her tongue. "If you'll excuse us," she said to Sara, Georgie, and Shano in a negligently commanding tone. And she whisked Weller off to a relatively secluded corner of the courtyard where a small tree cordoned off a little private alcove.
Still holding onto Weller's elbow, Maria leaned up against the bole of the tree, arching her breasts against the green silk of her suit, as if daring him to notice by stepping back. Or by moving forward.
She nodded toward the crowd but kept her eyes fixed on his. "Well, do you like what you see?" she said.
Weller half laughed. "Some of it," he said. "Do you like what you see?"
Maria slowly and deliberately lowered her gaze to stare forthrightly at Weller's crotch. "Some of it," she said. "I could like some of it. To tell you the truth, I find most of the people I invite to these parties pretty boring myself. Lord, Transformationalism and Transformationalists bore my ass off!"
"Then why do you throw these parties?"
Maria slowly swayed upright, away from the tree trunk, so that her body was now only inches from Weller's, so that he could all but feel the heat of her. She looked up into his eyes.
"For some of it," she said. "Sometimes I do meet someone who interests me." She shifted her weight back and forth from foot to foot, left, right, left, right, moving her pelvis subtly closer to his. "You, for instance," she said. "You don't seem like one of John's usual little patsies." She smiled. "Yes, I do believe I would really like some of it."
Still looking directly into Weller's eyes, she suddenly reached out her hand and unexpectedly grabbed his cock. Electricity shot through Weller's body, and he twitched involuntarily backward. She looked at him as if nothing were happening and began to knead his loins with her palm and fingers. Weller suppressed a groan, and then arched his pelvis toward her, moving into it, offering himself.
"You can have as much as you can take," he said.
"You'd be surprised what this old lady can take," Maria said, removing her hand and grinding her pelvis slowly against the front of his pants, once, twice, thrice. Weller groaned, reached out his arms toward her --
And she glided away nimbly to the side. "Now that we understand each other," she said conversationally, "I must be getting back to my guests."
Weller stood there, his flesh inflamed, feeling like a perfect ass.
Maria laughed. "Don't pout," she said. "In a couple of hours people will start leaving, and then we can continue our little chat in private. Upstairs. See you later." And then she danced away from him, back toward the crowd.
Weller stood there for long moments, trying to collect himself. I'm going to fuck Maria Steinhardt tonight, he thought. It's what I wanted, isn't it? But what he hadn't expected was that he really did want it. It was supposed to be just his way to Annie, but that old lady had really turned him on. He felt his body throbbing for her. And that was something he hadn't counted on at all. There was something treasonous about it. Somehow, he had counted on more control. God, it's been such a long time....
He sighed, readjusted his pants, and headed back in the general direction of where he had left Sara, Shano, and Georgie.
But he hadn't taken half a dozen steps before Fred Torrez crossed his trajectory. Without stopping or pausing, Torrez stared at him for a long hard moment, pinning him like a rabbit with those bright reptilian eyes. Then he was gone, leaving Weller quivering with a flash of unreasoning, paranoid dread, as if the Director of the Monitors really were omniscient, as if Torrez had heard and seen all and was even now plotting something sinister and unfathomable.
The party dragged on and on. Georgie, Shano, and particularly Sara grilled Weller incessantly about his little scene with Maria Steinhardt, and Weller found himself making up a long intermittent cock-and-bull story, the gist of which was that Maria had been hungry for some show-biz patter and he had simply supplied her with same. As they wandered through the now-diminishing crowds, talking to no one but each other and getting more and more bored, Weller found himself making up imaginary details of the show-biz rap he had supposedly fed Maria -- every silly story that had floated around Hollywood for the past two years.
At least it succeeded in deflecting their attention from the subject of Maria Steinhardt. Already, before anything had even really happened, Weller felt the need to draw a veil of secrecy over any connection between Maria and himself. From time to time Fred Torrez moved across his line of vision, sometimes chancing to look his way, sometimes not. But the mere sight of Torrez was enough to flash him into total paranoia about what he was going to do. According to Sara, Torrez had to be involved in issuing the life directive ordering him to live at the Transformation Center; therefore he was definitely not beneath the man's notice. If the Monitors found out that he had balled Maria Steinhardt....
What? Did Maria really have carte blanche to ball anyone she wanted to, as Lazlo had intimated, or would the long arm of John B. Steinhardt reach out through the Monitors and ... and what? How far would they go? All the way?
Soon the party began to wane, people started to leave, the rooms became less crowded, and the detritus -- the empty glasses, the overflowing ashtrays, the dirty plates, the bits of food scattered on the floor -- began to move into the visual foreground. The pseudo-gala atmosphere swiftly evaporated as the place began to look like the morning after the night before. Once the exodus had begun, it proceeded rapidly, as if by signal or command, and within the hour there were only a couple of dozen people left in the whole house, standing around in isolated little groups, saying their good-byes and making their departures.
"Well, I think we're going to take off now," Sara said as they ambled into the room nearest the main entrance. "You want to come along, Jack? Maybe we can get some coffee or something?"
"Or something?" Weller said archly, giving her a little deliberate significant eye contact, more out of pique than any expectation of a positive response
"Maybe a hamburger," Sara said sullenly, pointedly looking away.
"No, I think I'll hang around here a little longer," Weller said casually.
"I see," Sara said.
"I think so," she said quietly. Then the three of them left together, and Weller went out into the empty courtyard and sat down on a bench. He sensed that he was about to cross another divide. The Transformationalism that he had known thus far was the world of the believers, the soldiers, the suckers. Even the processors and strong-arm boys, even Monitors like Gomez and Karel, belonged to the loyal legions. But the world he was about to penetrate dick first, the world of Lazlo, Maria Steinhardt, and maybe even Fred Torrez, was something else again. Here the denizens weren't the captives of illusion but the captors. He was moving into the center of Transformationalist power, where the dangers were greatest, but where the secrets were known, and where the levers of power that could get him to Annie could be manipulated at whim. By Maria. He was entering the bottom half of the ninth inning one run behind, and it was time to swing for the fences.
'''There you are ...," Maria Steinhardt appeared, looking slightly drunk, her hair disarrayed, a slattern wildness in her eyes. She put her hands on Weller's shoulders, leaned down somewhat woozily, and kissed him open mouthed and deeply, her breath tasting of alcohol, her tongue reaching hungrily down his throat, a hand fumbling in his pants. It only lasted a few moments, and then she was tugging him off the bench by the hands.
"Come on upstairs, my tasty little morsel," she said, and she led him up a flight of outside stairs to the balcony, down a second-story hallway and into the bedroom.
The walls of Maria Steinhardt's bedroom were a deep maroon, the ceiling was a somewhat lighter shade of the same color, the carpet was black, and the dresser, tables, chests, moldings, and bed frame were of heavily oiled wine-dark mahogany. The bed was covered in leopard skin, and the only light was a bloody reddish glow from a frosted overhead fixture. The total effect was of sinister, somber, feral power, reeking of murky S-M scenes. '"You wait here for a moment, and I'll be right back," Maria said, disappearing into a dressing room.
A tremor of uneasiness went through Weller; this was, after all, a woman drenched in power, and her sexual preference might very well turn out to be some ugly domination number. So far, he thought, she's been treating me like pliant raw meat off the rack, Well, to hell with that! he decided, taking off his clothes. You may be the boss lady of Transformationalism, baby, but not in bed with this good old boy. You want to play games, games you'll get, lady!
A few minutes later Maria emerged from the dressing room. She was naked; nipples erect on slightly drooping breasts, hair down around her shoulders, all in all a surprising turn-on. Except for the high black boots she wore and the little golden dagger hung on a chain around her neck. She stood across the room, legs akimbo, hands on hips, arching her body toward him, "Well?" she said challengingly.
Oh really? Weller thought. He felt himself hardening, but in mind no less than body. Meat for the monster? Is that what you think you're getting?
Slowly, silently, he walked across the room toward her, stopping with his chest inches from her breasts, looking down into her eyes with a cold, emotionless expression painted across his face. They stared at each other for a long moment, engaged in some ambiguous psychic contest, the outlines of which were but a dim perception of sexual warfare in Weller's mind. I'm here to put this bitch in my power, not the other way around, Weller thought. So I had better be the director whether she likes it or not. Especially if she doesn't like it.
Silently he took her hands in his, prized them off her hips against sudden resistance, and placed them on his own shoulders. Then he cupped her chin in his hands and pulled her head against his chest. Slowly he forced her face downward pushing her to her knees.
As soon as her knees touched the floor, she moaned, and began kissing and nibbling the flesh of his stomach, moving her mouth teasingly, almost imperceptibly downward, feeling him respond, feeling him anticipating what was to come in her own sweet time. And regaining, so it seemed to Weller, a dominant position, at least in the recesses of her own mind.
Not good enough! he thought coldly. He gripped her around the jaw with his right hand, pulled her head abruptly down, and with his right hand guided his cock between her lips. Then he put both hands behind the nape of her neck and pulled her toward him as he thrust forward from the hips.
She grunted throatily and seemed to give in entirely, sucking at him in a hungry frenzy, grabbing him by the buttocks and stuffing him into her as she began to use her mouth like a willing vagina.
Part of Weller was lost in animal lust and exquisite sensation, but another part was watching the whole thing with grim detachment, viewing it as a political act, a nasty power game that had to be played out to its dialectical conclusion.
When he came, it was in stony, tightly controlled silence, and without missing a beat, he kept her there for a long time afterward, lost in her private frenzy, until he had regained his ability to go on. On and on and on, he thought. I'm going to fuck you till your teeth ache.
He dragged her to the bed, threw her down on it, and entered her. Propping himself up above her on his elbows, touching her only from the waist down, he closed his eyes, and light-years detached from her reality, began to fuck her.
On and on and on he went, eyes closed, moving in an inexorable mechanical rhythm, fire in his body, ice in his mind. She moaned and she groaned and she clawed at him and she screamed and her writhing body spasmed again and again, but it was all taking place over an immense psychic distance. He was sticking it to John Steinhardt's wife. He was fucking Transformationalism itself, and it was the archetypal grudge-fuck. He felt like a medieval battering ram, pounding away at his enemy, as if he could fuck the whole movement into submission, as if by mastering Maria with his cock, he could master Transformationalism with his will.
On and on, until he could hear her breath coming in tired, ragged gasps, and then faster and harder, like a soldier sensing victory, like a shark sniffing blood. He felt as if he could go on all night, until she screamed for him to stop, until she begged for mercy, and then awhile longer. His body was the cold hard instrument of his will, and it felt neither fatigue nor, really, anything like normal sexual lust.
After a long time she began moaning, "Please ... please ... please ...." over and over again.
"More?" he asked harshly. "You want more, bitch?"
"No ... no ... enough ... Jesus ... I want you to come inside me ... please ..."
"Your wish is my command," Weller said sardonically, and he moved harder and harder and faster and faster, listening to her scream in what by now might be genuine raw pain, and finally exploded in a shower of cold metal sparks.
He rolled off her and lay on his back beside her. Maria was breathing hard and deep, her body heavily filmed with sweat. It took her several minutes to fully catch her breath, and when she did, she rolled half over and looked at him with wide eyes and a catlike smile.
"It's been a long time since I've been fucked like that," she said. "What got up your ass, baby?"
"Up my ass?" Weller said archly. "What are you talking about?"
Maria sat up against the nest of pillows at the head of the bed. "Oh, don't be juvenile," she said. "On you, it doesn't look very convincing. You're not one of John's little slavies. I can just imagine one of them having the balls to do what you did. Who the hell are you? What are you doing here?"
"I suppose you're going to report this to the Monitors," Weller said sardonically, all caution to the wind. ''I'm sure it violates some life directive or other, and if it doesn't, you can always make one up."
Maria laughed. "On the contrary," she said, "if you've violated any life directive, I'll have it canceled retroactively. Fred Torrez isn't going to get his greasy paws on you; I want you around for more."
"You could really do that?" Weller said, wanting to believe it but finding it a bit difficult.
Maria laughed again. "Fred takes orders only from John," she said, running a fingernail up the length of Weller's stomach. "And John takes orders only from me."
"Oh, really?" Weller said archly, sitting up against the pillows beside her. "Just like that?"
"You do ask a lot of questions, don't you? I'll bet you're not a television director at all. Let me guess ... The FBI? The Los Angeles Police? The Treasury Department?"
"I really am a director," Weller said. "Want to see my credits?"
Maria fondled his crotch. ''I've already seen your credits," she said. "But none of that precludes the possibility of your working for some agency or other, now does it?"
"Paranoia strikes deep," Weller sang. "Into your heart it will creep ..." He grinned at her. "Would you believe the KGB?" he said.
"Around here, I'd believe anything," Maria said. She put her arm around his shoulder. "Not that it would matter if you really were a spook. Believe me, no agency is going to be able to hurt Transformationalism. Certainly not with anything you can get from me."
"Hey, are you really serious?" Weller said. "Do you really think I'm working for some agency?"
"There is definitely something strange about you, Jack Weller," she said. "Or not strange enough. Remember, I've been with John since he was grinding out space opera for a penny a word. The three of us -- John, Harry, and I -- built the movement from the ground up, so I know exactly what kind of wimp gets roped in and what kind of loser ends up working for the movement for peon wages. I know it intimately, since I've balled maybe twenty or thirty of the creatures down through the years. And you are not that kind of creature. You do not talk like one. And you most certainly do not make love like one, my pretty."
'''That's the nicest thing anyone has said to me in months," Weller said sarcastically. This is a sharp lady, he thought. Maybe I should just lay my cards on the table. "I'll level with you," he said.
"Oh, will you now?" Maria said archly.
"Up to a point," Weller said. "I'll admit that I'm not a one hundred-percent-convinced Transformationalist."
"Thank God!" Maria said huskily. "What bores they are! What assholes!"
Weller looked at her somewhat incredulously.
"You're shocked?" Maria said. "My God, surely you realize that the world is divided up between the suckers and the suckees. Surely you can tell which is which without a libretto."
"It just sounds kind of strange coming from John's wife."
Maria's expression darkened. She leaned over, grabbed the tip of his cock with two fingers, and ran the little golden dagger she wore lightly across the root of it. "If you call me that again, I'll cut if off," she said. Point made, she laughed, and sat back again. "You can't imagine what a loathsome bore it is to be John's wife."
"And that's why you don't live with him?"
"John sits in the Transformational Research Institute in New York, playing wise man to all the scientists, sycophants, and flunkies he's hired," Maria said. "And it's gotten to the point where he half believes it himself. He doesn't want to leave, and I can't stand it there. It's like being sealed in a bottle with the Great I Am."
"So why don't you leave him?" Weller asked. "You probably wouldn't have any trouble getting a huge divorce settlement."
Maria patted his cheek softly. "You are young, aren't you?" she said. "John and I have been together for over twenty years. I met him when he was a lousy science-fiction writer -- and believe me, lousy was the word -- struggling to pay the rent. He didn't invent Transformationalism, he didn't even want to take it over. Harry Lazlo and I had to bludgeon him into it. Even today, John has no head for business --"
"That's exactly what Harry Lazlo said."
Maria's expression darkened. "That son of a bitch!" she said. "But the money-grubbing bastard is right. The three of us have always been a stable triangle. John wrote the book, John spins out the crazy theories and invents the product. John plays god, but Harry marketed Transformationalism, Harry built our financial empire, and only Harry knows enough to run it. In a way it's no different from the days when John was writing science fiction and Harry was peddling the crap he wrote as his agent."
"Me?" Maria shook her head ruefully. "I'm the only person in the world who really understands John, and I'm the only one who understands that puffed-up schlockmeister Harry Lazlo well enough to keep tabs on what he's doing and keep him from getting any smart ideas about taking over the movement himself. I'm the only person in the world who can ever tell John when he's being an ass and get him to listen. Without me, John would be a full-time messiah drifting further and further away from reality while Harry took over the actual power like some kind of cancer."
"So it's not really a marriage anymore, it's a business relationship?"
Maria sighed. "You really don't understand, do you?" she said much more softly. "In our crazy ways John and I really love each other. These days, we can't stand being around each other for very long, but that doesn't change what's in our hearts. None of it really makes sense if you don't know John, and the horrible thing is that now no one really knows John except me -- including John himself. You can't imagine what it's like ... "
She tilted her head back and stared at the ceiling. "I'm not sure why I'm telling you all this," she said. "Maybe I need a shrink -- and I certainly can't talk to a damn processor! But I might as well spill my guts; it may be good for what's left of my soul."
She smiled softly at Weller. "Understand that John is a tremendous man -- full of life, full of ideas, spinning off sparks like a pinwheel. But he's also always been totally unfocused, and as full of bullshit as it's possible to be. As a science-fiction writer he was full of ideas that he was never able to take seriously, and he never gave enough of a damn about writing to do anything really good. What he loved was being an author. Going to every loathsome science fiction convention there was and blathering for days on end in a drunken stupor, absolutely mesmerizing people. What he was a genius at was bullshitting, which never really paid the rent."
She laughed sardonically. "When he discovered Benson Allen's little fan club, he had been in a total writer's block for a year and we were stone broke. Harry, who had been collecting ten percent of nothing for a year, smelled money, and so did I, but not John. To him the whole thing was a joke. 'I'm living out one of my dumb novels,' he used to say."
Her voice grew harder, more distant, almost wistful in a strangely bitter way. "But as the years passed and the money came pouring in, as hundreds of thousands of people began looking at John as the god of their personal worlds, as he came more and more to live in a closed universe where everyone he came in contact with agreed with his own half serious image of himself as the Great I Am, John started to half believe it himself. Who wouldn't, love? 'Maybe I really know what I'm talking about,' he started to say. 'Maybe I'm transforming myself into the man of destiny.'"
She shrugged. "After all, he was now living in the fantasy situation he wanted for himself when he was an unsuccessful science-fiction writer. He was famous without having to write -- John always loathed actual work -- he could be a fulltime bullshit artist, and he was a messiah, just like the heroes of all his crummy science-fiction novels."
She looked into Weller's eyes and grinned faintly. "Wouldn't you, Jack Weller?" she said. "If people made you rich and powerful and treated you like a god, wouldn't you start believing it yourself, even if you knew it was your own con that got you there?"
"'I've never thought about it ...," Weller muttered inanely.
"Well, think about one more thing," Maria said. "Think about how lonely it would be. Think about getting nothing back from anyone around you but reflections of your own bullshit. Think about living out your life inside a house of magnifying mirrors. That's where John would be without me. Think about loving a man like that, think about not being able to help loving him and not really wanting to."
She leaned her bead up against Weller's shoulder. "So we have our little arrangements," she said. "John lives out his fantasy without my confronting him with reality except when he wants me to, or when I think he needs it. And I have my Jack Wellers, my parties, my role as grand dame of Transformationalism when I need it. But strange to say, my sweet, our marriage is as solid as a rock, and it's for keeps."
She sat up again and regarded Weller narrowly. "Now that I've told you the story of my life," she said, "I bloody well expect to hear some truth from you in return. What are you doing here, Jack Weller?"
Weller had been listening passively, soaking it all up like a sponge, knowing that this moment was coming; fearing it on one level, but anticipating it with hope on another. This moment, after all, was what he was here for. And there really wasn't anything he had to tell her that wasn't in his Monitor dossier anyway.
"To make a long story short, my wife became one of the suckers, as you call them" he said. "Me, I wasn't buying, and she finally got a life directive to leave me. Now she's disappeared into the bowels of the movement, and I'm trying to find her. That's my ulterior motive, it's as simple as that. I'm not with any agency, I'm on my own." He shuddered. "Boy, am I on my own!"
"So you sold your nubile young body to this old lady to try and find your wife?" Maria said, shaking her bead.
Weller remained silent, realizing that he had put himself in her bands and insulted her in the bargain.
Maria laughed. She placed her band on the inside of his thigh. "You think I'm insulted, is that it?" she said. "Quite the contrary. I find it rather charming. You're taking a big risk with me, and you know it. It's all rather romantic, really, isn't it? I have a thing for younger men, and I've dragooned a lot of them into my bed, but seldom have they been motivated by anything as chivalrous as all that."
"For what it's worth," Weller said quietly, "you did really turn me on. I mean it wasn't exactly a chore ... "
Maria kissed him gently on the lips. "You think I couldn't tell that, poor baby? Look, let's be honest with each other. You love your wife. I love my husband. I don't want a real relationship with you, and you don't want a real relationship with me. What I want from you is sex, and I'm more than satisfied that you can please me. Can we make a deal?"
"Can you locate my wife Annie for me?" Weller asked.
"With ease," Maria said.
"Will you do it?"
Maria moved her hand into his crotch, teasing his flesh. "That depends," she said. "Are you willing to be my sex slave? At least part of the time?"
"Are you serious?"
"Indeed I am, love. I enjoyed the way you used me, but a poor old lady has to feel she's on top sometimes too."
"If you'll find Annie for me, I'm yours to command," Weller said. Within reason, he thought.
"We have a deal, my pet," Maria said. She kissed him again, this time long and deep, twining the fingers of both her hands in the hair above his ears. Still clutching him by the hair, she rolled over onto her back, leaned up against the pillows, and pulled his face to her breasts. "Now you will do my bidding, my sweet," she said, half laughing.
And she dragged his head slowly down the length of her body and into the soft lowlands of her inner thighs, while Weller, at first reluctantly, but then with a growing passion, licked, kissed, and nibbled at her skin.
When she clamped her legs tightly around his head and began rolling the hardness of her pelvis against the softness of his mouth, Weller found himself inflamed by the very abnegation of his position, perhaps even overcome by a certain affection for this strange and powerful woman, and her sighs and groans of pleasure were not entirely unpleasant music to his ears.