This is a story about control.
It's part one of a two-part series, my most substantial story to date in several ways. No yiff in this one, but there will be in the next one. Hope you like it.
Some people are born to make things happen. It doesn't matter if they're brought up as a pampered noble or have to drag themselves from the gutter, they will find a way to rise above their peers, to change their future; to take control. Whether this is a blessing or a curse, however, is a matter of debate. Perhaps it is luckier to be one of those without control, who are carried to and fro on life's currents, powerless to change or even to know their own path. Not all of these people would agree. Many of them rage and struggle against the tide, battering themselves to death on an unyielding force. Do they overcome it?
Until recently, if you had asked a certain Sebastien Lake (known to his friends as Bastien) that question, he would proudly have said yes. He wasn't at the top of the ladder by any means, but he'd fought tooth and nail with everything he had to make a good life for himself, and had been rewarded with a steady position in the town newspaper. Keeping himself trim and making sure his elegant red-setter fur stayed lustrous and well-groomed, as well as maintaining a relatively spacious apartment in a not-too-downmarket area of town left him feeling that, all in all, he had things under control.
It still left certain things beyond his control, however; when the local newspaper was bought out by a larger, regional company, Bastien was powerless to stop it. A small slump in the economy and a dash of corporate downsizing and suddenly he found himself in his manager's office, the word 'redundancy' writ large in the conversation in bold, red letters. Neither of them wanted it, but what could they do? It was out of their control.
The aging beagle with whom Bastien had worked for four years was sorry to see him go, of course. He and the other unlucky few to be sent on their way were given a half-hearted leaving party in the office, but then it was over. Bastien was left with a redundancy package as small as the company thought it could get away with, a sense of loss and a lot more spare time. Well...he hadn't got this far by rolling over and letting life have its way with him. He still had his youth - a good deal of it, at least - a few contacts and, between his severance pay and what little he'd been able to save, enough money to maintain his lifestyle for at least a month or two. Maybe more, if he was thrifty.
That should have left him plenty of time to find other work. With his skill, reputation and references, he expected some new local work to crop up within a week or two. A week or two that soon passed with no sign of an opening. Alright, so he might have to look further afield for a job. He was quite attached to his apartment, but if he had to pull up his roots, so be it. His search continued, and time and money trickled slowly away. Bastien broadened his horizons, lowered his standards and raised his blood pressure, but there was nothing.
As a way of killing time and de-stressing, Bastien took to hanging out in his local library in the afternoon. It looked like the library had fallen on hard times as well, and was trying desperately to supplement its income by selling off its older volumes and opening a plywood-and-sawdust coffee bar near the entrance. The sad attempts to be ultramodern (the electric aquarium, imitation-chrome handrails where no handrails were required, neon-green plastic houseplants) clashed horribly with the aging paper and faded hardbacks, but the place had good light, Bastien found the quiet atmosphere relaxing, and the books helped to take his mind off things.
He found it surprisingly easy, in his quiet corner, to forget the world for an hour or two, allowing the other readers to flow around him and pass almost unnoticed. Usually. But usually, he had his little corner desk to himself. On this particular day, shortly after he arrived, someone slid softly into the seat opposite. It wasn't the first time this had happened; on a crowded day Bastien would often find himself accompanied by another quiet reader. He simply got on with his own reading and they went away once they had finished whatever they were doing. This one, though...this one was a little different.
For a start, it wasn't a crowded day. Bastien checked out of the corner of his eye and, to his irritation, found that there were plenty of vacant tables. On top of this, the stranger's presence was harder to ignore than most. He was wearing some kind of cologne...it wasn't an unpleasant smell, but it crept into Bastien's nostrils and lingered there, distracting him. The unusual mustard-coloured jacket kept catching his eye. More than this...Bastien couldn't shake the feeling that the strange fur was staring at him.
Bastien tried to ignore the stranger and had a fifth try at reading the sentence to the end.
"Leopold shouted his anguish to the night, daring any listener to..."
Why? Why sit here when there plenty of totally unoccupied tables all around the library? Well...maybe he'd taken a book and this was just the nearest place to sit.
"Leopold shouted his anguish..."
Come to that, did the stranger have a book at all? Bastien didn't want to risk a conversation, so he avoided looking directly at the other fur, but...it didn't look like he was holding anything. There was no sound of pages turning...
Alright, this was no good. Bastien just had to look, partly to check on whether the stranger actually was staring at him and partly just to vent a little of his irritation with a good, fierce glare. He raised his eyes and glowered over the top of Slipstream of Desire. He saw the strange fur - a badger, as it turned out - quietly reading some book about car maintenance. The cover was almost the same colour as the yellow jacket the badger wore...which really did look awful on him.
It took a moment for Bastien to realize that it was now him that was staring. A moment too long. The badger glanced up, met Bastien's eye for the briefest moment and looked away again with a fleeting smile. Something about that smile set Bastien's teeth to grinding. It passed too quickly to be sure, but it had a quality of...mockery? Smugmess? Whatever it was, it only made Bastien's feelings of irritation intensify. Maybe it was irrational, but he did not like this badger one bit. He made up his mind to move to a different table, and was just lifting himself from his seat when, without looking up, the badger spoke.
"Not so easy to find work these days, is it"?
Huh? Bastien wasn't sure if the stranger was talking to him or just thinking out loud. He glanced at the badger again, but he was still reading his book. On closer inspection, Bastien saw that the badger had gelled down a lot of his fur, giving him a sleek, shiny, slightly unnatural look. The extremely neat black and white fur, chilling grey eyes and scruffy, tasteless yellow jacket combined to create something that was extremely unpleasant to look at, but somehow impossible to ignore. Bastien found that, at some point, he had sat back down. Before he could make to leave again, the badger lifted his eyes to meet Bastien's and continued to speak.
"3:00 in the afternoon on a Tuesday, a trashy novel in a trashy library...yes, friend, you're a man down on his luck".
Perhaps Bastien was just looking for excuses to hate the stranger at this point, but the directness of the remark and being called 'friend' like that did nothing to reduce his hostility.
"Oh?" he replied, stiffly. "You can't be much better off, then".
With another of those hated smiles, the badger replied: "On the contrary, I'm better off than most. My work comes to me, you see. Wherever I am".
Bastien didn't have time to play cryptic word-games with unpleasant strangers. Definitely not.
"Oh yeah? What's your job"? Now why did he ask that? He really didn't care what the badger's job was.
"You could call me a salesman," said the badger, and grinned. Not a smile this time, but a grin. It looked to Bastien as if the stranger thought he'd somehow scored a victory. Over what? Over Bastien? Well, Bastien wasn't having that, he'd just get up and leave and...
"What do you sell"?
"I sell things that people want to people who want them," continued the badger. "Or perhaps...things that people need to people who need them".
Bastien knew it was coming this time. He knew he'd ask what things the badger was talking about, even though he didn't want to know, didn't want to ask, didn't want to share another word with this disturbing individual. He could feel the words start to gather in his throat, almost against his will.
His cell phone jangled loudly from his pocket. A passing library clerk glared at him. Whatever magical, manipulative or psychological hold the badger had over Bastien was broken.
"I have to go," said Bastien. The phone didn't really provide an excuse as it was only a text, but that didn't matter. It gave him a way out, to get away from the strange creature that at once enthralled and repulsed him.
"Of course," said the badger. If he was at all disappointed or annoyed to lose his advantage, he didn't show it. "What's your name, friend"?
As if Bastien would be stupid enough to tell him.
"It's Bastien," he said, and hurried away, silently cursing himself.
Outside the library, Bastien felt his head clear. The scents of the wooden shelves and musty paper must have got to him...for some reason. A light breeze caught his red fur, and he felt more calm, collected and in control. Checking his phone, he found the text had come from Matthias, probably his closest friend from his old job. They'd both been 'released' from work at the same time, and their social lives rarely included anyone else. The text was short, and a little mysterious. It read:
"Night out tonight. Important. No excuses. Come".
Well...it wasn't as if Bastien had anything else to do. Besides, after the encounter with the badger, he could use a stiff drink or two.
Bastien had a habit of using alcohol to deal with bad news. Perhaps Matthias had this in mind when he suggested they go to a bar serving 2-for-1 deals on vodka mixes.
"So...when are you going?" asked Bastien, for the fourth time.
"Tomorrow," answered Matthias, in his deep, smooth, infinitely patient horse's voice.
The facts were slowly beginning to penetrate through the haze of drink to Bastien's mind. Of course, these same facts were the partial cause of his drunkenness, but inebriation made them easier to handle. Bastien tried to summarize what he knew so far:
"So you...you got a job"?
"In a different city".
"Long way away".
"Starts on Monday".
"So you need to start moving out tomorrow"?
The room swam gently and other people's conversations drifted in and out of hearing as Bastien considered this. Something occured to him.
"You want some help moving your stuff"?
Matthias shook his head. "Already taken care of. You'd just get in the way," he said with a smile. "Besides, I'd rather the last we see of each other be like this. Drinking and talking and drinking some more. Just like it's always been".
"Last we see of each other.." repeated Bastien, bitterly.
"Oh, not the last time ever. Just the last time for...a while".
Bastien stared gloomily into his empty glass.
"Come on," said Matthias, "forget about that for now. If I thought you were going spend the whole night being mopey and miserable, I'd have just left without telling you". He grinned and punched Bastien on the shoulder, playfully.
"Yeah..." said Bastien, shaking off his melancholy. "C'mon! Let's tear this town up, one last time"!
Of course, it's impossible to tear a town up without getting a little torn up yourself. When Bastien and Matthias finally parted company, far later than was sensible for someone who had to start moving house the next day, it was only raw adrenaline and obstinacy still keeping Bastien standing. They said a brief, affectionate goodbye and staggered their separate ways, pretending to forget the reason for this particular outing. The future looked a little less bright, but it was easy for Bastien not to think about things, at least until he sobered up, so he focused on making his way through the now quiet, lamp-lit streets back to his apartment. He walked up to the front door of the building, a little unsteadily, and fumbled in his pockets for his access card. Just as he was stepping inside, he heard a voice from behind. A soft, grating, unpleasantly familiar voice.
"Is that Bastien"?
Bastien turned, hoping that he was wrong...he wasn't. A pair of cold eyes peered at him from the gloom. Why now? Why couldn't he just go to bed and be alone with his thoughts without this...person bothering him?
"So," said the badger, stalking up to Bastien. He was still wearing that hideous jacket. "This is where you live"?
Bastien didn't quite know what to say to that. It was a stupid question. And apart from anything else, he really didn't want the badger to know where he lived.
"No," he said, deciding to lie even though this clearly was his building. The badger took no notice.
"You seem a little unsteady, friend. Do you need some help"?
Of all the things the badger could have said, nothing would have been more irritating to Bastien. An offer of help? From him?
"No!" he snarled, and stormed inside. Being drunk, however, does not make for an impressive stride. Bastien stumbled a little as he turned, caught his sleeve on the door handle, twisted awkwardly and wound up sprawled on the ground.
In an instant, the badger was at his side, helping him up. As if the fall wasn't humiliating enough. The strange, distracting cologne invaded Bastien's sense of smell again.
"Easy, easy," said the badger, in a maddeningly comforting tone of voice. "I'll get you to the elevator".
Bastien grumbled incoherently, but the badger manipulated and guided him to the elevator, along the hall at the top and into his room.
Bastien's head cleared a little as he arrived back in his sanctuary. He turned to his uninvited guest and said, curtly:
"Alright...I'm fine now. Thanks". He hoped that the badger would simply leave, but instead Bastien was treated to another supercilious smile.
"Think nothing of it. I'm happy to help a friend..."
Suddenly, Bastien understood why he held such irrational hatred for the badger. He would never have realized it otherwise, but with them both standing here, in Bastien's home, his refuge, his safe place...he found the badger quite threatening.
Not threatening in a physical way. Bastien could feel threatened if there was a burly bear advancing on him, shouting and swearing and clearly spoiling for a fight. But the badger threatened something else, something which was much more frightening than physical harm. Ever since the yellow-jacketed, hair-gelled creature had sat next to Bastien in the library, he had been working his way into Bastien's awareness, life...and now, into his home. Bastien had resisted every step of the way, but to no avail. He had tried to ignore the badger, but the badger had caught his attention anyway. Bastien tried not to talk to him, but he had been drawn into a conversation. He even knew Bastien's name. Well...that, at least, should be easy to equalize.
"So what's your name"?
"Hmm?" the badger was looking around the apartment and appeared not to have heard him.
"I said, what's..."
"You like to be in control, don't you, Bastien"?
"You've kept this apartment very well...for an unemployed man, you look immaculate. Yes, you're keeping control of what you can, even after fate snatched life's reins from your hand..."
Alcohol and tiredness were mounting a slow but determined assault on Bastien's mind. He took a few seconds to respond.
"Alright...so what? What's it to you"?
The badger reached into the recesses of his jacket and pulled out what looked like a ring-binder.
"What if," he said, pale eyes gleaming, "I could give you all the control you wanted"?
Needless to say, Bastien couldn't make sense of that.
"Huh?" he grunted.
"Like I said," breathed the badger, a trace of excitement creeping into his voice for the first time. "I sell things that people want to people who want them". He opened the binder, staring straight into Bastien's eyes all the while. "Come, friend! Come and look".
The badger's sudden animation threw Bastien a little. had his 'friend' been acting as he usually did, Bastien would simply have refused, but he found himself padding over to see what the badger wanted to show him.
"What is it...?" he asked, hesitantly, hatred momentarily forgotten.
"Your heart's desire..."
"My heart's...what the?" as the badger flicked through a few pages of his book, Bastien saw pictures of furs...male furs, female furs, all dressed in slightly revealing clothes. The pages moved too fast for him to see, but they were pictured alongside some kind of...statistics, like a spec sheet for a computer or car. "What's this got to do with me?" Bastien asked, quite shocked.
"Control, my dear friend. For someone who loves control, what can be more satisfying than control over..."
"You're a pimp!" yelled Bastien, suddenly. The badger shot him a chiding look.
"Not at all, how could you think that? I do not deal in prostitutes, Sebastien..."
"Yes you are, you're a..." Bastien couldn't quite believe it. He knew something was wrong about the badger, but he hadn't expected this. "You sell people for sex"!
The badger gave a disturbing little chuckle. "Sex," he said, calmly, "is the absolute least of what I can offer you. No, our...'arrangements' are a lot more ambitious than that. Come, come, don't shy away. Everything you've ever wanted is in these pages..."
"Look, I don't want any prostitutes...just...go away".
"I told you," the badger's voice was even, but with the faintest suggestion of irritation. "I am not involved with prostitutes".
"What?" Bastien knew that trying to reason with this fur was a stupid idea, but he was too tired to smash him over the head with a chair. "You want people to pay you money to have sex with the people in your book. That makes you a pimp, that makes them whores".
The badger clicked his tongue. "It's true that some people have sex in mind when they make a deal with me," he said. "But a great many of my clients go through the entire duration of the contract with no sexual interaction at all. Even faithful couples use our services".
"What are you talking about? Couples, contract, what..."?
"Oh, this is no simple one-night arrangement," said the badger, grinning to show a row of perfect, white teeth. "Allow me to explain".
"Angel in the garden, chef in the kitchen, maid in the living room, whore in the bedroom. You've heard this expression, yes? What I can offer is you is all of these things and more. Or, if you desire, none of these things and less. Our people will follow your every instruction with absolute obedience, will always be there when you need another fur to talk to, will always put your needs before their own. They can be a truer friend to you than anyone else, if you wish to let them. They can be a more efficient, effective servant than any mere butler. They can be a more passionate, tender lover than any street whore. And yet, they will not be any of these things unless that is what is demanded of them".
Realization dawned on Bastien.
"You're talking about slavery..." he said, horrified.
"That word has many negative connotations...but, essentially, yes. Oh, don't worry!" he said, catching sight of Bastien's expression. "None of these people have been forced into this. It's simply a career choice. Many people find a normal life...difficult. In my organization, they find their natural role. They are far happier than they could ever have been otherwise".
"You're crazy..." muttered Bastien. "How the hell can you justify..." he stopped. Then, suddenly, he laughed. "Ha! Oh, I get it. I see. How could I be so stupid? This is a con. You're making this all up".
"My friend, this is more real than anything you've ever experienced," said the badger, unshaken by Bastien's disbelief.
Bastien should have just kicked him out there and then. The badger was clearly either a liar and a thief or completely evil. But...a tiny little knot of intrigue tugged at Bastien, and he didn't tell the badger to leave. Scam or not, he wanted to dig a little deeper. Just out of curiosity.
"Alright," he said, still telling himself he didn't believe a word of it. "Show me these 'slaves' again".
Smiling, the badger opened the book once more, allowing Bastien to look through. Each slave was named, with a short biography and their various skills around the house - including, Bastien noted, their abilities in bed - were rated.
"This one is Floricia," said the badger, indicating a busty, pouting cheetah. "Very experienced, popular with..."
"Yeah, whatever..." said Bastien. He looked through a few more, but they all seemed the same...painted, false, uninteresting. They didn't look like real women at all, just childish fantasies.
Noting Bastien's disinterest, the Badger asked:
"Perhaps one of the males would be more suitable?" and turned to the back pages.
"Hey, whoa, I'm not gay, alright"?
The badger lifted an eyebrow. "Oh...? I was under the impression that you weren't interested in the sexual side of this arrangement".
Well...true. And what did it matter, anyway? None of this was real. The male slaves all had the same problem as the females, though...exceptionally toned bodies in vaguely suggestive poses on porn-magazine backgrounds, nothing that connected with real life in any way...
But one fur seemed a little out-of-place. While his, er...co-workers all looked impossibly buff and sure of themselves, this one was skinny and had a slightly nervous expression. A dusty-tan coloured crossbreed; cat-fox or cat-wolf, by the look of him. Unlike the other pictures, the background to this one was simple and bare, as if there hadn't been time to set up a more elaborate backdrop.
"Ah, interesting choice," said the badger, noticing Bastien's hesitation.
"Hey, I haven't chosen anything, okay"?
"This is Aindrea, our newest worker. Not much experience yet, but a bargain price. A good choice if money's tight, and I can personally vouch for his potential". The badger shot Bastien an appraising look. "Yes, I think he might suit you well..."
Sleep was just beginning to get the better of Bastien, and he found his interest in the badger's peculiar scam waning.
"Look, this is all very cute," he said. "You've obviously put a lot of effort into this set-up, but...I'm not fooled. You can go".
The badger sighed. "Such a shame. I think Aindrea would have suited you, and our terms are very flexible..."
"Right, yeah. And you want me to tell you how many of my bank details..."?
"None, my dear Bastien! We have too much respect for our clients. We collect payment only after the full contract is fulfilled".
"So...I don't give you any money or any way to take my money"?
Okay...if the badger was a con-man, he was an incompetent one. Maybe he was just a lunatic. Bastien found that he longer cared.
"Fine," he said with a sigh, "If I say I'll take this André..."
"Whatever...will you go"?
The badger smiled. "Certainly. I can see you're tired, so I won't even make you sign anything. Expect the details shortly. Goodnight, friend".
He left, and Bastien relaxed a little now that the badger's scent and lurid clothes were out of the room. Hopefully out of his life, too. He locked and bolted the door, just in case, before sinking onto his bed, allowing the much-longed for sleep to finally take him.
When he awoke, nearly all memory of the night before had deserted him. He went to make himself some breakfast, but a quick look at the clock told him he should be making lunch. Memories of the first encounter with the badger in the library trickled into his mind. Was there a faint, lingering scent in his apartment...? Hey, hadn't he got a text from...oh, fuck, that's right...Matthias was gone. Life was gonna get a lot more boring from here on. There was no-one else, really, that he liked to socialize with, but he tried not to think about that. At least they'd had one more good night out; the pain in his head and the shadows under his eyes could attest to that. And then...oh, shit, that badger came back, didn't he? And he'd been all crazy and there was something...he'd tried to sell Bastien some drugs or something? No, wait...
A little pang of horror shivered down Bastien's back as his memory cleared. Selling slaves...or renting them out, or pretending to, whatever he was doing. Kind of a sick idea. And he'd...oh, no, Bastien had agreed to it, hadn't he? He rushed to the phone, half-made sandwich temporarily forgotten, and dialed his bank. After eventually navigating the automated menu system, reciting his security code, date of birth, mother's first dog's name, blood type and account number, he got through to an assistant.
"H-hi..." he said, trying to keep calm. "Have there been any transactions from my account in the last few hours? Oh...good. Well, can you put a stop on any large withdrawals over the next couple of weeks? Well...can you at least call me if any...why not? What? No, I don't want...I don't...I...listen, I don't want your premium protection platinum plan, alright? No. No. I know, but I can't afford to - hello? Hello..."?
At 'can't afford', the phone clicked and went to the dial tone. Well, it didn't look like Bastien had left himself vulnerable to identity theft...but then what was the point of making up such a bizarre lie? It couldn't possibly be true, who on earth would volunteer for something like that? It didn't quite add up...the badger's motivations, like so much about him, remained an enigma. Still, Bastien hoped that he'd seen the last of that psychotic shyster. He decided to stay clear of the library, just for now. Better think of something else to do with his afternoons.
But things didn't quite go according to plan. Bastien's job-search remained as unsuccessful as ever, but he no longer had Matthias or the library to take his mind off things. The days blended together into a pale haze, and life swam out of focus. Losing the will to get up in the mornings, he gradually rose later and later. He had to admit it...he'd finally lost his grip on life.
Bastien didn't even know how long it was since the badger had visited his apartment when there came a rapping at his apartment door. It took a few minutes to break through his despondent stupor, but once he realized what was happening, he leapt to the door. Oh...still in his pajamas...well, too late to worry about that now.
Waiting in the corridor was a disgruntled-looking bulldog in a courier's outfit, standing next to a large, heavy-looking package. He looked the half-dressed Bastien up and down, not pleased to be greeted thus.
"Lake?" he asked, curtly.
"Uh, yes...?" answered Bastien.
"Sign this," snapped the deliveryman, thrusting a clipboard at Bastien and tapping impatiently at the signature box.
Bastien signed, and the clipboard was snatched away again.
"Um..." he began, but the bulldog interrupted him.
"Thank you have a nice day," he shot the words out as if he wanted to get them over with as quickly as possible, then stormed away, down the stairs. The elevator must have been broken again...
Bastien looked at the package the deliveryman had left. It looked heavy. He hadn't ordered anything, what was going on? Wait...airholes? What on earth could need...no. No, it couldn't be...but the box was certainly big enough to hold a fur. Bastien looked around the corridor, nervously, but it was deserted. He dragged the box inside - it was as heavy as it looked - and shut the door.
He didn't open it right away. He was grappling with the idea of what it might contain. Could it be that the badger was telling the truth...? No, of course it couldn't. No-one would...it was just absurd. So what was in there? He could have easily answered all his questions just by opening the package up, but for long moments Bastien simply stood, heart beating gently in the silence.
Eventually, very slowly, Bastien peeled away the tape holding the box closed. It did not open at the top, but one of the long side-panels swung down with a little cascade of foam chips. A nervous face looked up, squinting in the late-morning light. Perky, sharp ears twitched. Squatting inside the box, with barely a scrap of fabric to preserve his decency, was a slender, tan-coloured fur. Stiffly, uncertainly, he stood, light playing on his exposed hips and shoulders, a delicate hand half-shielding his eyes from the unaccustomed glare. Bastien gawped. Aindrea had arrived.