Monday, 07 August 2023 19:00

The Countess of Corsica

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The Countess of Corsica

By E. E. Nalley


Who do I want to be tonight?

One of the great joys of being a Full Upload to the NetVerse is the complete body freedom in my avatar. Oh, sure, anybody using a full sense headset got close to feeling everything I could, but when you still have a meat body and you don't actually have the bits you're getting input for, it creates a kind of disassociation feed back. It's not actually pain, but it's not pleasant either.

Not a problem for me, I haven't had a meat body for a while.

Sure, the philosophically minded argue back and forth about whether or not I actually am the 'me' I remember from my meat days, or if I'm just a set of algorithms with a delusion and someone else's memories. Maybe I had 'died' when they uploaded me, but it didn't really matter to me. I had my memories, I was still thinking, still aware and now I didn't have the feeling of something in my guts eating me alive from the cancer.

For about a month I'd been on a testosterone binge; six four, hung like a horse and able to bench press a Volkswagen. Of course that raises the interesting question of can a digital body experience testosterone? Close enough for government work, I suppose. Did you know, when nobody actually dies, war is pretty fun? I'd done the circuit of the various war worlds; Operation Overlord, The 'Nam, GWOT. Each had their own charm, I suppose and there is just something about machine guns that will put a grin on your face. Don't take my word for it, go rent one and if you're not giggling like a school girl after that first time, come say you told me so.

But, the blood and guts does get a bit old after a while. There's not much pathos to it if you know your buddy will just respawn in a bit to get back into the thick of it.

Now, I felt like being a bit more social on the old Social Media. I lumbered into the Appearance Server, paid the fee for a full body remake and stepped through the portal into what appeared to be a very ordinary shower stall. The hot water felt amazing and I just kept moving so it hit me from all sides and the body I'd worn for a month was slowly washed off of me.

Oh, don't get me wrong, I could still feel. I could touch and see and feel and smell, there just wasn't anything but the shower to see. I could feel a body I couldn't actually see, if that makes sense. I was just potential, as they say, nothing on the cusp of being something, or some one. If you ask me, the NetVerse is the single greatest accomplishment of mankind because it gives us all true equality. You can literally be anything, anyone you want. It's a paradise to the actor inside me being able to trade all these roles and truly walk miles in other people's shoes.

From the shower, the server became a bit more esoteric, not showing me a room, but it was rather like being in the center of a tornado of thought. Perhaps this dizzying cavalcade of images and memories was the true, digital me, honestly I don't know. As I turned this mind's eye of the storm inwards I began to fantasize slowly imagining who I wanted to be. I'd had enough of manhood for a bit as I felt my perception of the world shift to the distaff. I thought about blonde bombshells and flame haired fire brands, but my desire for change took me down a different road and this pillar of self was wrapped in olive skin as I began to imagine being a femme fatale. In response to the olive skin, hair as black as a raven's wing flowed from my scalp to fall around my shoulders like the curtain of night. Amber eyes rose like the moon over a perfectly straight Roman nose crowning full lips on a face that was the human melting pot of southern Europe. Italian? Spanish?

Corsica I thought to myself, smiling at the dash of mystery. The dusky skin shaped a long, leonine body with enough bust and caboose to give curves to a slinky silk dress and legs that would make a sculptor weep. Suddenly the tornado passed and this new me was stepping, nude into the Changing Room. I looked my new face in the eye by way of a three paneled mirror and was very pleased indeed. The woman in the mirror pulled her face into a pleased, toying expression of an experienced bad girl, about to wreak an epic night on the town.

“Perfect,” I declared, immediately loving the dulcet soprano with just a hint of an unplaceable European accent. I arched an eyebrow which gave the dark thatch below my naval a neat, tidy trim then it was time to dress this masterpiece. From a vanity drawer I selected a pair of black silk stockings and pulled them on, careful to keep the seams straight.

Even for a bad girl, it was important to be a lady.

I decided to be old school and chose to hold the stockings with a pair of thigh garters, each with a discreetly holstered little nickle plated pistol just in case the wrong type of bad boy needed some encouragement to move along. A glance into the vanity gave my lips a coat of intense red lipstick and just enough around the eyes that my eyes could be intense or wicked however I liked and that brought a smile to my face. I stepped into a pair of mirror shined ankle strapped heels and then into a black silk strapless dress with a slit up to my left hip and drawn into a bow on the right so the silk perfectly clung to my skin. Matching Opera gloves over my elbows completed the look and a white mink stole gave the perfect contrast as well as the ability to be as modest or shameless as I liked.

“Let's go play,” I told my reflection and strolled out of the Changing Room, ready for culture, intrigue and sophistication. I wouldn't get much culture or sophistication, and much more intrigue than I bargained for, but I'm getting ahead of myself. From the Changing Room, I exited to one of my favorite Lairs. This one was on the virtual cliffs of Monte Carlo overlooking the Ligurian Sea as the Sun was beginning to set beyond the Pillars of Hercules.

For reasons I couldn't tell you, I tended to reserve this Lair for my adventures in feminism as there was something about it that spoke to my female side. It was a classic sixties Mod Jet Set Swingers Pad, sweeping dramatic white curved architecture completely at odds with the cliff side it was perched on and yet also exactly a part of it. It was balconies and floor to ceiling windows where you went to the casinos to play Baccarat and be hit on by British spies who introduce themselves last name first.

I strolled out onto the balcony to smell the sea in the air and marveled again at how real something like this was. There were larks giving their last songs of the day before the nightingales came out to serenade the stars. You actually can smell the sea on the air and feel the cool of the breeze off it, even the feeling of my nipples stiffening under the silk.

This was a new form for me, so I pressed the button to call the Lair's Seneschal as I debated with myself whether I would affect a cigarette holder, or not. I decided I'd rather not deal with the smell as a willowy, dour faced balding man came out onto the balcony.

He was balding, with a ring of oiled black hair that was trimmed short, though he sported a pencil thin mustache which I thought quite jocular for him. “Yes, madam?” he drawled in a perfect Received Pronunciation accent. He was carrying a tray with a champagne flute that was sparkling nicely.

I smiled at him as I took the flute. “It's good to see you again, Thaddeus.” He gave a shallow bow.

“It's always a pleasure to have you back with us, madam. How may I be of service?”

“I'll be going out for the evening,” I told him. “I'll need my clutch and the appropriate documents.”

“Certainly,” the Bot replied. “Who are we this evening, madam?”

I thought for a long moment, looking out at the sea. “Marion,” I decided. “Marion St. Clair du Bois.” My head of household bowed again.

“Shall I warm up the Jaguar?”

“What would I do without you, Thaddeus?”

“I'm certain I don't know, madam.” I smiled at his retreating back and indulged in a sip of Brother Pérignon's finest. There is something about Monte Carlo that demands champagne. There are plenty of servers through out the NetVerse where it's all glitz and neon, but I have to tip the hat I wasn't wearing to the EU and their excessive rule making about the representation of any real place in Europe being completely faithful to it's so called real world appearance.

The sparkling wine flowed over my tongue and yet again I let nights like this trick me into believing I was 'alive'. I closed my eyes and breathed in the sea air and committed myself to being who I appeared to be, a young, obviously rich, possibly noble woman who could afford this Lair in a perfect Monte Carlo. I finished my champagne and left the flute on the balcony table, then let my hips remember how a woman in heels walks easing into a gait that set my rear to swaying as I strode through the house to the garage.

There I found my Bot waiting with a clutch purse of black leather, the door rolled up to the night and an absolutely perfect 1965 Jaguar XKE coupe idling in a rich, British Racing Green. “Shall I hold dinner, madam?” he asked as he handed me the purse that doubtlessly now had a drivers license, passport and rainbow of credit cards in it, all made out Marion St Clair du Bois.

“No, don't bother, Thaddeus,” I told him. “I'll probably get a bite at the casino. Don't wait up.”

“I'll be here if I'm needed, madam.” He arched an eyebrow at me as if he knew exactly what kinds of adventures a Jet Set Bad Girl got into. “Shall I anticipate a guest for breakfast?”

I grinned at him. “Who knows?” I replied as I relished the feeling of silk sliding over English leather as I got into the Jag. “The night is young.”

He smirked, then his face was carefully neutral again. “Safe travels, madam.”

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Have you ever driven a real drivers car through the Monaco hills in the south of France? No? Well, technically, neither have I. Still, heels and gloves or not, the so called 'real' thing couldn't be better than this drive. The growl of a temperamental four point two liter straight six, an almost delicate hand polished wood steering wheel and a dash board that looked like the instrument cluster of an air plane. I was grinning as that beautiful, bulbous work of art with nary a straight line on it, slung itself into the first mountain curve as if it's wheels were attached to the asphalt.

Religious, I'd call it.

Well, either way I highly recommend it. After an exhilarating tour through the hills of Monaco, I turned the nose of my Jag towards the gambling destination of this tiny little nation; Le Casino Monte Carlo. Despite the old world architecture, Le Casino had leaned hard into their association with a certain British Espionage agent. There was a very post modern glass and steel hotel attached to the Belle Époque historic building, though, fortunately the casino's dress code was vigorously enforced which kept things far more upscale than anything on the strip in Las Vegas. Tuxedos were the order of the evening for the gentlemen and the entire rainbow of evening and cocktail attire for the ladies.

As the Jag came to a stop at the main entrance, the door was opened for me by the valet and even a hand presented to assist my graceful exit and cement the fantastic of the evening. I tucked my claim into the clutch and strolled up a magnificent red carpet onto a gaming floor littered with classic card and dice games, with the vulgarity and noise of the slot machines for the hoi polloi kept in a separate room, far from this area so as to not ruin the fantasy.

I strolled over to the cashier cages, while being undressed with the eyes of the young man behind it. I took out a card along with my passport and slid them through the opening in the fine brass work cage. I suppose it give an exotic location even a bit more of the fantastic that a pass port was required for entry to the gaming floor while games were in play. “Ten thousand,” I told him and took the time to take in the tables and settle on a poker table I would start the evening with. I collected up my passport, card and chips and strolled into the floor.

It was time to earn my keep.

Oh, you thought all this digital luxury was free? That's sweet. No, even in digital paradise, the lights have to be kept on. Or, in my case, the server and my maintenance fees. Damn entropy. So when my life insurance started getting low, I realized that, no matter what I might remember being, a big part of what I was now was a computer. Counting is what computers do best and counting cards is the way to win at gambling.

Now, such a thing is a non-starter in Vegas, because the House is a de facto player and Banker in the games they run. That's why the House always wins; it's not a game, it's a prettied up scam. European gambling, however, the House is a facilitator and guarantor. They hold the real cash, run the games and what they are selling is ambiance and the bar and food concession. You don't take the House, the House isn't playing; all the money being won or lost belonged to you and your fellow players. Monte Carlo could care less about card counters, it's not their problem.

The table I'd picked had three players who were using neural electrodes to experience the NetVerse. They were always easy to spot, just the unreal way they carried themselves, the slight delay in their movements and, the easiest tell tale, they stood at the table, instead of sitting down.

The Banker was in the process of finishing the shuffle of his deck to start a fresh hand as I slid into the seat at the table, at the end near the three meat players. They all immediately turned to me, or, rather the decolletage I put on display as I let the stole settle around my elbows and made a point of staring each of them in the face. “Not to worry boys,” I told them with a feral smile. “I don't bite.”

Two stiffened immediately, obviously embarrassed and turned back to the table, but the third, across the table from me actually smiled. Excellent, he had a more advanced neural connection helmet and likely didn't realize his tells would be broadcast. “Quelles sont les limites des tables?” I asked the dealer.

Cent ante et limite de deux mille, Mademoiselle.

I placed two one thousand chips on the table. “Changement, s'il te plait.” The chips were quickly converted and I made a neat little pile in front of me, leaving a single hundred on the betting line. “Merci.

The Banker placed the dealer token before my chosen mark and held the deck in his hand. “Placez vos paris.”

I watched him as the Banker dealt, to observe what tells I could. The two other digital players took their cards and looked like robots; obviously they'd biased their avatars to be expressionless. Doubtlessly for what they were doing now. A quick look sent both of their cards back to the Banker without ante. Now it was my turn and I received a nine from the Dealer with the Ace of hearts. A difficult hand, but with two players out already, it seemed I might make something of my mixed luck. “Paris,” I informed the banker, laying a hundred chip into the pot. The one next to me was reckless type, who made the silly kind of mistakes that are the ear marks of a trust fund brat gambling Mommy and Daddy's wealth. He laid the ante before looking at his cards.

The middle of the two was conservative, possibly another card counter, resulting in a careful glance at his cards before he tapped to remain in. My victim let a smile spread across the kind of rock jawed face men tend to associate with sophisticated ladies men, and his eyebrows ascended his forehead. “Raise,” he declared confidently. “Three hundred.”

Appel,” I informed the banker, adding my three hundred chips.

“A bold move,” my mark declared. “I admire your courage, Miss...?”

“Marion St Clair du Bois,” I told him with my own smile, rolling a chip back and forth between my finger and thumb at heart level. “I admire your attempt to stall for tells disguised as a compliment, Mr...?”

The smile deepened a bit. “Nathan Marks, at your service,” he declared with a little bow. Even the reckless player declined to continue as he and the other counter returned their cards to the Banker. He drew out three cards and flipped them over.

As de pique, as de carreau et neuf de pique,” the Banker announced, turning my dog hand into a full house. I took up a thousand chip and placed it deliberately into the pot. His eyebrows rose as I continued to smile at him.

“Well, Mister Marks, are you going to see my raise? Or, am I too bold for you?”

He took a thousand chip from his pile and placed on the table. “With such a reward, how could I refuse such a challenge?” The Banker dealt the eight of clubs on the turn.

Huit de club,” he declared, but I kept my eyes on Nathan.

I took another thousand chip and added it to the pile. “How indeed?” I asked.

His grin didn't waiver. “Still, a wise man considers a challenge carefully,” he said, handing his cards to the Banker. “You seem to be out to get me, Miss du Bois.” I did the same and the chips were pushed my way. The night was off to a fine start.

“The night is young,” I told him. “For now, let us play cards. Oui?

Très bien.”

I arched my own eyebrow. “Tu parles français?

Un peu,” he replied ambiguously. Yes, the night was definitely looking up.

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Over the course of the next three hours, I managed to turn my initial stake of ten thousand into a bit shy of a hundred thousand through judicious play, though my intention of fleecing Mr Nathan Marks was largely frustrated. Whatever his other faults, he was a skilled poker player. While there were several dozen players that came and went that contributed to my continued digital existence, my pile falling short of a hundred thousand was due to my mark turning the tables on me.

Still, one of the tenants of a professional is recognizing when they are distracted and cutting losses early. It seemed Mister Marks had gotten more into my mind than I had into his. It was time for a break. I summoned one of the liveried Hosts over with a tray to collect up my chips. “Encaissement, s'il vous plaît,” I told him and at once he produced a chip tray and began to load my winnings as I stood and got my stole comfortable across my shoulders.

Oui, Mademoiselle.

Nathan was obvious in his distress, one of his few tells I'd manged to discover. “You're not leaving us, are you?”

I refused to have my cage rattled, so I smiled at him. “I'm afraid you'll have to pluck these birds without me as your good luck charm, Mister Marks.”

He stood and gave a gesture at his chips that brought over another host. “Oh, now I am embarrassed for taking advantage of a beautiful lady. Allow me to offer some amends, Miss du Bois. Won't you join me for dinner?”

“And how would that be accomplished?” I asked him. “While this is my reality, you are only a guest and there are many pleasures of it your status will not allow you to take part in.”

His host handed the tray to mine who stacked them and followed us as he deftly took my elbow and began to walk towards the cages. “You make a tempting offer,” he told me. “I shouldn't be surprised you can tell the difference, but I must admit you impress me. Still, I can at least enjoy your company while you enjoy some of the hotels fine dining, can I not?”

“You make a tempting offer yourself,” I complimented him. I turned to the cashier and presented my card and passport taking a hundred chip from the tray for the Host. “Dépôt sur le compte Crédit Suisse, s'il vous plaît.

Oui, Mademoiselle.

He leaned against the counter in a very suave manner that suggested perhaps he was becoming accustomed to the interface and was quickly learning how to be subtle with it. “Is that a yes?” he asked.

“And what would that accomplish, Mister Marks?” I asked him as I gave the chip to the Host who grinned and bowed. “Other than give me a reputation as a tease?”

Voici votre carte, Mademoiselle,” the cashier interrupted, offering me my card, passport and its receipt. I gave it a quick glance to be sure of it, then returned them to my clutch.

“Your reputation is safe with me,” he assured me. “Besides, I have a proposal I'm sure you'll want to hear.”

“I barely know you, Mister Marks,” I protested. “It's far too early for proposals.”

“Now you are teasing me,” he laughed and offered his elbow. “Hear me out, I'm sure you'll be interested.”

“I cannot promise interest,” I told him, making a decision and taking his elbow. “But I will admit to being intrigued.”

“That will do,” he acquiesced and led the way through the hotel toward what many consider the hotel's finest restaurant, Le Train Bleu.

The restaurant takes it's name from the famous express train that for the better part of a century ran between Calais and Nice. Before the advent of the air plane those of status, who would be referred to now as 'Jet Set', did their travel by train, and when they were returning to the continent from whatever travel abroad and were going to the French Riviera, the luxurious Blue Train was what they rode. For context, at least one of the dining establishments on the Titanic was styled from this train.

It was the height of luxury and first class accommodation in it's day and this restaurant took it's cues in all the best ways from that train. The tables were intimate, tucked into little nooks and alcoves so that everything seemed private and exclusive, as though only you, your table mates and the waiter taking care of you were in the restaurant.

We were seated by a Maitre 'd in a cut away coat who then personally introduced our waiter, Jacques, and the restaurants' sommelier, Claude, who started us with a flute of Dom Pérignon, then waited patiently for me to order so he could offer an appropriate selection.

Now, I suppose I should spend a moment on eating and the NetVerse. Did I have to eat? No. But there are many things that are hard wired into the human consciousnesses. Eating, like sleeping, was one of them. So, I didn't need to eat, but after a prolonged period of not eating, I do get the sensation of being hungry, and it was a very enjoyable pass time. Taste, I found, was the sense that the programmers somehow got the most right

Jacques' description of Chef Rubbini's Zucchini Risotto with grated bottarga sounded lovely, certainly a colossal step up from the combat rations I'd been eating for the last month. Claude's pairing of a bottle of rose Laurent Perrier seemed appropriate as well so I took a sip of my champagne after both men left to take in my table mate. He took a sip himself and shook his head. “Clearly something is lost in translation,” he lamented. “There's a sensation of taste and cold, but it's like...tasting a smell, to me.”

“Aptly put,” I complimented him as I let the bubbles dance on my virtual tongue.

He put the flute down and leaned forward. “I hope your experience lives up to the sales brochures.”

“Compared to my previous situation?” I asked, arching an eyebrow. “Paradise, Mister Marks. Are you considering Upload?”

“Me? No,” he replied quickly. “I'm not convinced that going to sleep here in the real world guarantees waking up in yours.”

“Such esoteric debates I find are best left to the professionals,” I scolded him. “Whether I actually am who I remember being or not is of little consequence to me.” A soft pop of a wine bottle being opened announced the return of Claude with my bottle of Laurent Perrier. He expertly poured a glass, settled the bottle into an ice bucket and withdrew. “What you find a convincing illusion is my reality. Whatever the metaphysical truth of my being.”

He looked at me sidelong. “And yet you still eat...?”

“You'll find there are a great many pleasant pass times in the NetVerse, Mister Marks,” I told him with a smirk. “My experience of the meal I'm about to enjoy will not be abrogated by someone being careless with the salt, the bad day of the Chef, thoughtless married couples who bring infants to inappropriate venues or any other pitfall of the so-called 'real world'. It will be worth every Euro you are going to be charged for it. It will taste, smell and even chew in a manner that is completely in line with my memories and expectations. Except I won't suffer indigestion, or worry for what a little indulgence will do to my figure or my arteries.”

“You would make an exemplary sales woman for the NetVerse,” he chided me.

“Nonsense,” I shot back. “Merely a satisfied customer. But I'm certain you didn't come here for my opinion on my situation. You must know a great deal about me to so expertly insert yourself into the table I chose, you've tailored your avatar to how I prefer my men, so I can only conclude you've been monitoring me for some time.”

He chuckled and the avatar even blushed so I was certain his helmet interface was the best money could buy. “I must say, this is quite a change from your previous month's activities. If I had not had this evening to interact with you, I would never have believed the hardened warrior I watched for a month would ever feel at ease like...well, you.” he admitted with a vague gesture at me.

I took a sip of Claude's suggestion and I had to give him credit, he knew his vintage. “The joys of bisexuality,” I told him, refusing to be intimidating that he knew about my enjoyment of walking down both sides of the gender street.

“I also am aware that gambling is not a hobby for you,” he continued in a manner I could only describe as cagey.

“Everyone has bills to pay, Mister Marks,” I assured him as I sat back in the chair to allow Jacques to place my Risotto before me. “If I have a gift at cards, well, I can't think of a nicer working environment than Le Casino Monte Carlo, can you?”

“Nicer?” He shook his head. “Certainly not, nor can my offer top any of this decor, but it does have meaning, which this pleasant permanent vacation you're on might lack.”

My eyes narrowed. “Now you're beginning to sound like a recruiter, Mister Marks. That's a bill of goods I was sold before, you'll find I'm both older and wiser now.”

He actually took another sip of the champagne and his face pantomimed as if he was trying to savor the vintage in every part of his mouth. He sighed and shook his head. “Oh, I'm not peddling patriotism, have no fear. Merely the chance for you to defend your situation.”

“From what?”

“People who, well, let's say that they don't have your best interests at heart.”

I set my fork back on my plate so as not to ruin my meal. “And you do?”

He shrugged expressively. “Our interests intersect so in helping you, I'm helping myself.” I took a bite of the Risotto and chewed thoughtfully as I enjoyed the explosion of flavor in my mouth.

Finally, I swallowed and decided it was perhaps time to be direct with Mister Nathan Marks, if that was his name any more than Marion St. Clair du Bois was mine. “You'll have to forgive me, I begin to find this circular conversation tiresome. If you have something to propose to me, speak plainly Mister Marks.”

His eyes locked with mine and suddenly I saw it. I'm not sure how I missed it before, perhaps I had dismissively judged him as just another mark in 'trodes. But you never forget the way a killers eyes look when you've seen it. There's something about the directness, the unblinking, piercing nature of it. Whoever he was really, Nathan Marks was a killer, the dangerous kind who did it not from patriotism or duty, but because he enjoyed it. “Yes, perhaps it is time to be frank,” he agreed and even though his tone of voice was the same, I felt the change the conversation had undergone. “I...represent... an organization of forward thinking people. People who understand the world is larger than nations and governments.”

“What would such people want with me?”

“You represent a rare talent, Miss du Bois. It's easy to train a killer. The methods are well documented, proven over the press of years with traditions that are tried and true. But soldiers are blunt instruments. They have their uses, but subtly is not a tool in their tool box. I've watched you over the previous month. You have the requisite skills, yet you are just as comfortable in this realm,” he declared, giving a gesture to take in the entire Le Casino Monte Carlo.

“Casinos?” I drawled, inexplicably giving in to a desire to see if I could pierce his calm.

His smile was cold. “I have dozens of killers at my beck and call, Miss du Bois. Not one of them, even the females, could don your current attire, or finesse a hundred thousand Euros out of the fourth tier nobility and first generation wealthy in this EuroDisney approximation of old world sophistication and do it all while fitting in perfectly among them.”

“I wouldn't want to disappoint my mother by forgetting my manners.”

“Your manners are what I'm counting on,” he replied. “Someone very important to my organization has been kidnapped.”

“I fail to see how such a thing is my concern.”

He held up a finger. “Allow me a moment to explain. This person was kidnapped, and Uploaded. Somewhere in this electronic other world he is being kept by...well, what they call themselves isn't important. I'm certain you already consider me something of a Black Guard. These people make me look like a saint in comparison. And their plan is to cause massive death, world wide.” He let a dramatic pause fall. “Death on an industrial scale.

“I'm afraid Death has already tapped me on the shoulder.”

He actually chuckled as he shook his head. “Oh their lives won't end. They intend to use this event to scare people, perhaps as much as half of the Earth's population, here. In the NetVerse. All the benefits of Wage Slaves laboring virtually, making them even more disgustingly rich than they already are. But without them having to actually deal with them. Imagine the load that will put on these servers. Imagine your reality flooded with five or six billion people.” He took a final sip of his champagne and gestured out into the restaurant. “I imagine you may not find venues like this quite so exclusive.”

“What are you offering instead?” I asked, already frantically trying to figure a way out of the trap I was beginning to feel closing around me.

“I will provide you with a team who will assist you, both here, and in the Real World. You will locate and extract my missing person and, when their digital avatar is safe, my organization will expose this threat, saving your reality and mine. And, in consideration of your services, we will purchase the Nobility Tier for your account. Your gambling can be a hobby, safe in the knowledge your account is perpetual and Paid In Full.” He stood, placing a thousand Euro chip on the table. “I don't expect your answer tonight.”

From a breast pocket he produced a business card. “Call me when you decide, Countess.” He smirked as I looked up at him, then bowed and withdrew, striding towards the exit.

Jacques hovered by the wall, a concerned look on his face. “Tout va bien, mademoiselle?

Oui,” I replied, and even I knew I was lying. “Vérifiez, s'il vous plaît.”

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The ride home in the XKE wasn't nearly as enjoyable as the ride to the Casino earlier had been. The car and the road hadn't changed, but my mood certainly had. This was nothing like the evening I'd intended; a few hours work at the gaming tables to cement my existence for the remainder of the year, seduction of some tuxedo clad stud to end the evening with some enthusiastic horizontal dancing.

I'd been fucked, all right, but nothing like the way I'd wanted.

My thoughts were almost as twisting as the road I drove back to my Lair. Who was this Nathan Marks? What was this shadowy organization he was a part of? And how the hell did he find out so much about me? More importantly, how was I going to get out from under his thumb? The more I thought about my problems, the more circular my thinking got.

The asphalt changed to the laid bricks of the driveway of my lair, giving me a change in vibration to end my mental gymnastics. I wasn't going to accomplish anything in a panic. This called for a clear head. I turned the Jag nose out, then backed it into the garage, only to find Thaddeus waiting for me. Always a perfect gentleman's gentleman, he gave me a hand out of the somewhat low slung Jaguar. “Welcome home, madam. You have a gentleman caller awaiting you in the Main Room.”

I frowned. “I'm not expecting anyone, Thaddeus.”

“That was my understanding as well, madam. Though, perhaps you may want to entertain this particular guest.”

My gloved hand fell to the slit of the dress on my thigh to the garter and its pistol. “Thaddeus?”

The Seneschal was, as always, unflappable. “Not quite so directly, madam. I believe you'll find his explanation of use in your present predicament.” I frowned at him, but never the less, let him take my stole and walked through the Lair to its main room. As I swept into it, a lanky youth, probably not much older than twenty stood from the sofa and it's view of the balcony.

He was of African descent, with a long, narrow face dominated by a fleshy nose and big, surprisingly honest eyes. He obviously wasn't finished growing, but the promise of the man he would become was already apparent. He was wearing jeans, a T shirt and sneakers he doubtlessly paid too much money for. When he saw me, his eyes widened and he kind of jerked as if he wasn't sure if he should bow or offer to shake hands. “”

From behind me, Thaddeus dryly stated, “May I introduce Master Kenneth Gorton?”

His eyes snapped to my Senechal, obviously upset. “KennyG!” he snapped. “I told you, KennyG!”

Thaddeus rolled his eyes. “I beg your pardon. Master 'KennyG'” he continued, his dissapproval palpable, “I have the honor to introduce Madam Marion St. Clair du Bois, your hostess.” I presented my gloved hand, which he tried to shake for a split second, then decided to try and be suave and kissed it instead.

“Honored. I'm really honored, Miss St Clair du Bois.”

Despite myself and my situation, I smiled at him, genuinely charmed by his unease. “Are you always so articulate, Master G?”

He rubbed his palms on his jeans. “I don't meet royalty every day,” he told me earnestly. “Uh, I'm sorry, Countess, is that 'your highness'?”

I raised an eyebrow that he happened to use the same rank Mister Marks had promised. “My lady,” I informed him. “Do I take it you are in the service of Mister Marks?”

“If by that you mean, he's got my back to a wall, yes, ma'am.” My eyes went to Thaddeus' and I nodded my concession of his point.

“Let me trouble you for coffee, Thaddeus,” I ordered and gestured for the youth to sit on the couch while I settled into the chair next to it.

“Certainly, madam,” Thaddeus replied on his exit, doubtlessly by way of my wardrobe to put away my stole. I crossed my legs, careful not to allow the dress to shock the boy with too much leg to his view.

“So, Master G, perhaps you could kindly explain your association with Mister Nathan Marks?”

He looked around uneasily and rubbed his head, seemingly being careful of something I couldn't see. “Sorry, I've never actually come into the NetVerse before, this is incredible.”

Based on where he was touching himself, I guessed what he was fiddling with. “You have a direct neural connection, Master G?”

“Yeah, uh, yes. Yes, ma'am. My lady.” I chuckled and shook my head.

“No need to stand on formality, Master G. Miss du Bois is sufficient.”

“Oh, just call me Kenny,” he blurted out. “Look, ma'am, uh, my lady, I'm just a computer tech, I don't mean to get involved with you or your organization or whatever...”

I held up a gloved finger. “Just a moment. Do you work for Mister Marks?” He shook his head, then stopped himself, shrugged and waved his hand in fifty-fifty gesture. “Ah, you're as much a victim in this as I am. Please, young man, explain to me your involvement in this business.”

Thaddeus rolled in a cart with a coffee service on it and began to pour cups. He handed me mine and I didn't have to taste it to know he had it exactly correct. Kenneth accepted his cup and was so out of sorts over his situation that his cup rattled slightly. “Um, about six hours ago. These guys, real Men In Black types, you know? They show up at my crib and jack me up against the wall, like, what's up?”

I arched an eyebrow. “These men picked you at random, Kenneth?”

He reflexively became sheepish. “Oh, well, it was probably due to me having a little look around their network, totally by accident, you understand!”

“You accidentally hacked their network?” I drawled around a sip of Thaddeus' excellent coffee. Without thinking, he took a sip as well and started in surprise.

“I can taste that!” he exclaimed. “It's even hot!”

“Welcome to the NetVerse.”

He held the cup up to Thaddeus in salute. “My man, this is's great. Really good.” He took another sip to silence himself then sighed. Looking back at me, he became more serious. “Yeah, on hind sight, probably not the best place to be curious, but...” he shrugged expressively. “They must have some real talent to back track me that fast. Anyway, these guys got hands on me, and this stone cold, guy comes in. Tells me I work for him now and unless I give him 110% my momma's not even gonna get to bury me. So, naturally, I'm like, yo, I'm down dog, you don't gotta come so hard, and he tells me I answer to the Countess, I presume that's you, and he'll be in touch.”

“I see. And how did you find me?”

“He dropped this folder on you when he left. Said I'd be able to find you, so, here I am.”

I appraised him over my coffee cup as I took another sip. “I should very much like to see this folder,” I told him. He nodded, setting his cup down on the coffee table, then reached over to a duffel bag on the couch beside him. Thaddeus stiffened for a moment, but when a plain manila folder came out of the duffel, his hand left the inside of his cut away coat with only me the wiser.

“I thought you would, so I scanned everything.”

“Clever boy,” I complimented as I put my own cup down and accepted the file. On top was the notation of the Virtual property from Zillow. Interestingly, it seemed my Lair's value was substantially up from when I'd purchased it. Some good news with all the bad. There were also photographs of my Lair taken from a drone, but no pictures of me, which was reassuring. More to the point, nothing of who I had been or been doing the previous month. I closed the folder and handed it Thaddeus. “Tell me, Kenneth, what do you know about Mister Marks and his organization?”

He shrugged again and made a self conscious dismissive gesture. “I was researching Secret Societies for a report for my psychology class. You know, how people want to believe there's always a bad guy behind everything, right?”

“You're in college?”

“Reedley College, in the Valley,” he admitted. “Required course. I went digging and most of it seems to be just junk; the same he said she said they said without anybody stepping up and saying I was a member or anything. I mean, who can really take seriously this group of old guys who wear stupid hats and ride go carts in parades really rule the world?” He sighed and suppressed a shudder. “That's not these guys, my lady. They call themselves the Society of the Elect. Evidently, they grew out of this other group, the Round Table. Kind of a bring back the British Empire kind of thing from the twentieth century. Evidently these guys, the Society, they aren't satisfied with just the British Empire. They want to create an Empire of every English speaking people in the world.”

Mon Dieu,” I whispered.

“Sorry?” he asked. I gave him a reassuring smile.

“Oh, it's nothing, forgive my interruption. Please, continue.”

He nodded and licked his lips. “So, anyway, in researching them, I started snooping, just seeing what I could find and I found this under network if you will, that seemed to ping every time I started searching. Like it was watching me. So I traced it back to this sever in Belize. There was a lot of traffic from it here to NetVerse. I wasn't in long before the Men In Black showed up.”

“How many people are a part of this Society of the Elect?”

He shrugged in defeat. “I'm not sure. I wasn't in that long.” I cupped my chin in thought, one ear listening to the Nightingales out on the balcony. “Wow, is this really what Monaco looks like?” he asked.

“It is,” I assured him. “The European Union rules on 'real places' is quite strict. In fact, to buy this Lair, I had to buy the side of the hill in the Real World where it sits for an exemption.” I stood and walked out to the balcony, gesturing for him to follow me.

“It's beautiful,” he whispered, taking in the bay below us and the lights of Monte Carlo dancing with the reflection of the moon in the waves of the bay. “You can even smell the sea.”

“Kenneth,” I declared, drawing his eyes. “Correct me if I'm wrong, but even though your body is in California, if I provide you the correct equipment representation here in my Lair, if you use it here that will mask where you actually are, yes?”

He nodded. “That's right, the inquiries would all originate from the NetVerse servers. But, that would get you in trouble, wouldn't it, Countess?”

“You let me worry about me,” I soothed him. “I want you to make a list of what you need. You can set a Spawn Point at my front door. I'll have Thaddeus set you a room to work in. From now on, you work for me.” He grinned and bowed, a swift, clumsy thing, but his heart was in it.

“Yes, my lady!”

I smiled and patted him on the cheek. “Good boy. Now, make sure you give Thaddeus your contact information and what you need. And see that he has your Student ID number at Reedley.”


“You don't think I expect you to work for free, do you?” I asked him. His grin lit up the night to rival the Moon.

“I'm ya boy, Countess!”

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As was usually the case, I find that a good nights sleep sets things into a more manageable order. I have the unfortunate combination of being a night owl and an early riser. I hadn't been up as late as I would have liked, nor been doing what I would have preferred, so when I retired just before midnight, I was up again at five thirty. I rose and pulled on a one piece bathing suit for my morning swim. Because of the foot print of the land I'd purchased here in the south of France, my Lair was actually built vertically, with a pool on it's roof, so as to maximize the use of the footprint.

I'm not sure modern manufacturing is quite up to building my Lair in the real world, it was perched quite precariously on a hill side that was quite steep, but that made acquiring the land when I did some years ago a less expensive acquisition as it was otherwise unusable. Which was another conceit of mine, as the hill was technically in France, not Monaco, though I consoled myself, should it ever slid off the hill, it would be in Monaco.

The morning air was quite cool, but the water of the pool was still warm, having been warmed all day yesterday by the French Riviera sunshine. Or, at least the digital equivalent of it. Feeling the need to exercise is another habit of mine, so I worked on my stroke for my thirty laps and, when finished I was feeling just as exhilarated as if I had a meat body and swum thirty laps. At least, I was sure it would feel like it, some things in this new reality you must take on faith. But, exercise done, I rolled onto my back and floated, watching the sky brighten with the coming sun.

The sunrises in the South of France are exceptional, and the developers obviously put a great deal of effort into matching the spectacular displays of mother nature. As I was floating and enjoying the sunrise, Thaddeus was coming up the steps to the sun deck, carrying a tray of my breakfast. Thaddeus is what NetVerse calls an NPC, or Non-Player Character. He was a pure program, written to be the perfect Butler, I had paid extra for his personality and central processing to be actual machine learning AI rated. I couldn't know if he was truly AI or not, but his constant loyalty and ability to anticipate me made him worth every nickle.

Of course, he hadn't had to change from his previous tuxedo, come to think of it, I wasn't sure he could. It was something to look into, but suffice to say he hadn't slept, he didn't need to. “Breakfast is served, Madam,” he announced as he arrived at the poolside table and began to lay out the trays contents. Done with that, he stood up and took in the view of the bay. “It appears we shall enjoy an exceptional day on the Riveria.”

I swam over to the shallow end, where he greeted me with my robe and held it open for me. “I wonder if we'll be able to enjoy it,” I replied darkly as I got the wonderfully soft terrycloth robe closed and followed him to the table, idly drying my hair with the robe's hood. There, he'd laid out half a grapefruit, coffee and a cinnamon raisin bagel that he knew were a weakness of mine.

“I think the day will be what we make of it, my lady,” he replied, pouring me a cup of coffee and adding cream and sugar as he did so. I spooned out a section of fruit and enjoyed the tart juice as he sat the cup down within reach. “I have taken the liberty of acquiring the items young Master G requested. We shall be receiving them later this morning. An eclectic collection, I must say, and not without effect to the house hold's finances.”

“I deposited ninety-eight thousand to the Credit Suisse account last night,” I told him as I spread the butter on the bagel and tore off a small bite to enjoy. He paused for a moment, as various algorithms between the NetVerse and Credit Suisse Group AG communicated through the program that was my butler.

“Helpful, madam, but still of some concern,” he warned me, beginning to move again.

“I have the terrible feeling we are going to hemorrhage funds until this matter with the Society of the Elect is finished.” He nodded sagely, then cocked an ear to hear something I couldn't.

“Excuse me, Master G is arriving. Shall I have him wait...?”

I shook my head. “No, bring him here. Best to get an early start.”

“Early for us, my lady. It is nine in the evening yesterday, for Master G,” he reminded me and walked off towards the stair.

I sat back in my chair and looked out at the sea towards the island I was supposedly from beyond the horizon. Having to deal with time zone issues would not help matters. To have everyone in the same hemisphere would be required, there was nothing else for it. Hemorrhage cash indeed! Mister Marks was racking up quite the bill and my mind was already turning on ways I would be certain it was paid to the penny.

So I chewed thoughtfully on bagel and savored my rooftop vista until Thaddeus returned with Master G in tow. He stumbled a bit at the sight of the pool at the top of the stairs, then quickly caught up with Thaddeus. “Master Kenneth, Madam.”

“A'ight, Alfred, I see we gonna have to have a talk about this name thing,” he muttered, only making my butler's eyes roll again.

“That will be something to anticipate,” he replied drolly.

“Won't you join me,” I interjected in hopes of cooling tensions with my retainers. Strife at home was the last thing this difficulty needed. Kenneth sank into the chair, while Thaddeus poured him a cup of coffee. “Good morning,” I greeted, now that things were a bit smoother. He yawned and hastily covered it.

“Good night for me,” he managed. “Wow, it's Wednesday here, right? I'm still on Tuesday night!” He finally was able to look me in the face and started. “Your hair is wet.”

“Swimming does that,” I assured him as I smiled at his youth. “As to the days, the joys of time zones. Speaking of, would I be correct in assuming you do not possess a pass port?”

“What would my black ass need a passport for?”

I nodded and, with a gesture, caused an interface to appear before me. “Look at me and smile,” I commanded. His face was a picture of confusion, but he managed an acceptable photograph. “Excellent, where were you born?”

He shrugged. “LA, what...?”

“Am I doing?” I asked, interrupting him. His eyes flicked over to Thaddeus, then back to me. “I am expediting bureaucracy. Which can be done if you know the cracks in the system.” I detached a piece of the interface and with a motion like dealing a card, sent it over to him. “As you can see from the header, this is to the Department of State of the United States. Type in your Social Security Number there, please.” He did so, and after a moment, a dossier appeared. “Kenneth Wayne Gorton III?”

He shrugged again. “Yeah, my dad was like, hey, wait, how...?”

I arched an eyebrow at him. “I accidentally understand how your State Department works,” I told him. With that, I was able to flip over to the Sky Team website. The interface vanished and an AI dressed in a Ticket Agent guise appeared by the table and presented me with a boarding Pass.

Merci d'avoir choisi Air France pour vos besoins de voyage,” the Bot told me.

Merci,” I replied, taking the pass and sliding it across the table to a somewhat astonished Kenneth as the Bot disappeared. “So, Master Kenneth. Tomorrow, your tomorrow, at three twenty in the afternoon, you'll be departing Los Angles International Airport. I recommend you be at the airport by noon.”

“Where am I going?” he asked in a small, shocked voice.

“Here,” I told him. “Well, specifically over there,” I said pointing down the coast, causing him to reflexively turn in his chair to see. “Nice Côte d'Azur Airport. It's the closest international air port. You'll pick up the pass port I just ordered for you at the check in counter for Air France.” He picked up the representation of the boarding pass and it attached itself to his bio-metrics via his NetVerse account and emailed a copy to whatever address he had registered with.

He blinked in shock and held up his hands. “Wait, wait, I...I just can't fly to France! I...”

“It's arranged,” I soothed him. “I have paid for the air fare and your passport. Pack whatever you weapons,” I stressed. “I'll have someone meet you.”

Immediately, he perked up. “I'm going to meet you in person?” I smiled at him.

“This is as 'personal' as I get, Master Kenneth. I am an Upload. I don't have a physical body.” He wore his disappointment on his sleeve, which I found sweet.

“Well, where will I stay?” I pointed over my shoulder at one of the quaint little townhouses that dotted the hill side that, here was my gate house, but in his world was the actual house for the property. “I own that townhouse, it's the anchor to this property, though, of course, my Lair isn't in your world.”

“What will I tell my parents?”

I took a sip of coffee and sat back. “The truth. You've won a scholarship from a European noblewoman who is giving you the opportunity to study abroad. If they ask, tell them the...” I paused for a moment and looked out over the Ligurian Sea. “The Countess of Corsica is your patron. Thaddeus will make you aware of the websites, histories and other bona fides if they require them.”

My butler nodded sagely, as, I'm sure a website was in the process of being created, detailing history of Corsica, it's sudden rule as a county, the St Clair du Bois family and what not out of whole clothe. Despite the rumors, it actually is possible to get good help these days. Not inexpensively, mind you, but possible. He looked back and forth at Thaddeus and myself. “This...this is really happening?” he asked. “I mean, I thought the NetVerse was a game. You're telling me you just bought me a real air line ticket and a real pass port and in...fifteen hours I'm really going to fly to France?”

“Take a book,” I encouraged him. “It's a thirteen hour and forty minute flight. There will be a layover at Charles de Gaulle in Paris. It can't be helped, fuel, I imagine. Travel in your world can be so tedious. If you must leave the plane, stay on the concourse.”

He blinked and sat, stunned. “This is really happening,” he whispered. “I thought those guys, meeting you, was some kind of dream...”

I looked at him critically. “What are you wearing?”

My tone's obvious dissatisfaction with his wardrobe immediately snapped him out of his fugue, as I'd intended. “Hey, these are real Levi's and...” I waved aside his protest tiredly.

“Thaddeus,” I declared, cutting him off. “Make an appointment with Crisoni for Master Kenneth. Two suits, a tuxedo, and some separates to make the foundation of a wardrobe. Shoes as well.” The Butler bowed.

“I'll see to it you're not embarrassed, Madam.”

“Hey, now...” Kenneth started, but Thaddeus was having none of it.

“Your employer has just commanded me to set up an appointment for you to be seen by one of the finest men's clothiers in Monaco so that your wardrobe will befit someone in the employ of the Countess of Corsica. This is not a small gift.”

Kenneth looked at him, then back at me. “I...I, thank you. Thank you very much.”

I smirked at him. “It's my pleasure. I trust once you have been educated on what men's fashion actually resembles you will pay the same attention to your avatar.”

“Yes, ma'am. My lady.”

“Excellent. For now, I believe I hear the delivery truck for your equipment. You may go and supervise it's delivery. Thaddeus will conduct you to the space he's set aside for you.” I sighed and resigned myself to unpleasant business. “Thaddeus, if I might trouble you for the telephone and my clutch. I have a call to make.”

He bowed gravely. “Certainly, madam. This way, Master Kenneth.” The two men stood and my Butler led the way back to the stairs.

“Delivery truck? In a virtual world?” I heard him ask Thaddeus.

“Regulations of the European Union,” my Seneschal replied.

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I sat for several minutes, dreading this particular call and quite piqued with myself for being maneuvered into this situation. I merely was looking to enjoy my digital afterlife not be caught up into the affairs of a world, if I ever actually had been a part of, I had long since left behind. First things, first, I arranged for a chaperon, for my new employee, to meet him at the airport, then it was not something I could put off any longer.

The line picked up on the third ring, filling my ear once more with the voice of my poker table nemesis. “You're up early, Countess.”

“As I understand it, there are fables concerning avians, insects and the virtues of early rising,” I replied coldly. His laugh surprised me, I was expecting to be scolded for my sarcasm.

“I have to compliment you, once you make a role for yourself, you play it to a T,” he laughed. “Even I'm convinced you're the black sheep of a Noble house, doing her best to one up the Hilton girl.”

“Hotel heiresses aside, your imposition on my good will, however well pleaded to be in my interest is having severe consequence to my household,” I told him with a frown, but that didn't bother him either.

“Nice to hear Kenny found you, good. Bright kid, all told, he should be quite an asset for you. As for my imposition on your bottom line, my apologies. I'll have my associate come by this afternoon with a peace offering, and the information you'll need so you won't waste time having Kenny hack our networks again.”

I narrowed my eyes. “I would rather not entertain anyone from your organization in my home.”

He laughed again and there was something about him that was really starting to get under my skin. “You know, Countess, we needn't be adversaries. This little miss-adventure has certainly sold me on the virtues of having assets in the Digital Realm.”

“Not being a native English speaker would seem to put me at odds with your social circle.”

“You certainly could have fooled me,” he protested.

Vive à la France,” I growled back, but that just got him laughing again.

“Alright, I have no qualms against a neutral location. I have a one PM Tee time at the Monte-Carlo Golf Club, do you play?”

“I'll get my clubs,” I promised him.

Even his voice was oily. “I can't wait. Ciao.” Well, now all I had to do was find out if Thaddeus could caddie for me in addition to his other talents.

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The little corner of the Mediterranean Sea know as the French Riviera sat where France and Italy met, a breathtaking corner of Mother Earth known as the Franco-Italian Alps. This majestic mountain range being caused by the African continent in the process of pressing into the European. Thus this range jutted almost straight up from the sea and began to climb into the sky. The Monte-Carlo Golf Club was perched, nine hundred feet above sea level, but only a mile from the ocean on an alpine meadow that gave the course spectacular views of the sea in one direction and the snow capped peaks of the Alps in another.

The views, however, came at the price of twisting roads that had been the death of American film star and Princess of Monaco, Grace Kelly.

The club itself was considered 'new' for this area, being made in the Real World in 1935. It was considered a short, but technically difficult course due to it's compressed nature of being squeezed onto a mountain meadow, with several Out Of Play areas being particularly challenging due to being directly behind a green on Holes four, ten and eighteen or just along the especially narrow fairway of Hole Eleven. Naturally, due to the terrain some Holes were sharply up hill and others down, thus balls could roll a fairly long way. This also made the course physically challenging as the course was intended to be walked.

I discovered Thaddeus could change his clothes when he swapped out his tuxedo for a brown tweed suit and matching driver cap perfect for his upcoming Caddie duties. He drove me in my De La Chapelle Atalante to the course, it's retro nineteen thirties styling let it turn heads and was as enjoyable a car to simply ride in as drive.

For myself, I'd settled on a V-Necked sleeveless golf shirt and mini skorts, both in navy blue with white piping and a white visor. Given the compressed nature of the course, I'd settled on Callaway Chrome Soft balls in red and white 'Tru-Vis' to play. Once Thaddeus had my clubs comfortable on his shoulder, we headed off to the club house and our frenemy play date.

Mister Marks had settled on 'Preppie' as a golfing style in a salmon polo shirt and white linen khaki shorts. He was talking to someone on a cell phone that he quickly let go when he caught sight of me and actually smiled as I approached. “Countess, aren't you lovely?” he declared by way of greeting.

I was in the process of pulling on my gloves, and so kept my hands from his. “What a silver tongue you have, Mister Marks. People will think you're a shameless flatterer if you're not careful.”

He smiled and bowed from the neck. “In my position, Countess, I have the luxury of being able to disregard the opinions of the common masses.”

As though it had a life of it's own, I felt my eyebrow arch. “Do you describe me with that sobriquet, Mister Marks?”

His face adopted a sinister expression, half way between lust and humor. “My dear Countess you are many things, but never common.” He gestured over one of the club's Caddies and handed him his bag while slipping him a folded bill. “My associate will join us after the game with my peace offering. In the meantime, I note you have no handicap on file. What shall I spot you?”

I allowed myself a cruel smile. “Oh, the women's Tee will be sufficient, thank you Mister Marks. Are you a great fan of Golf?”

“I enjoy a stroll through the links when I can,” replied with a glint in his eye. “Golf is, in many ways the perfect sport, the game you play against yourself. Do you mark yourself strictly and live by the rules? Or do you give in to your baser impulses and grant yourself gaps in your ethics?”

I took a fresh look at him to try and determine how a man bent on English Language Nationalism could discuss ethics and self restraint with a straight face. “If you allow yourself gaps in your ethics, you learn only that you cannot live up to the standard you are testing yourself against.”

He grinned another of his shark grins. “Strict rules of play, then?”

“Are there others?” I asked him archly. “Shall we make the game interesting?”

“What could be more interesting than an afternoon spent with a beautiful lady?”

“Depends on whom you ask,” I replied. “I do like to have stakes in a game. Shall we say, a thousand Euros a hole?” His smile widened in a way I decidedly didn't like.

“I'll guarantee the eighteen thousand now if you best me, but I'm not interested in your money.”

“What, then, would you have me offer instead?”

“Tomorrow,” he replied, accepting his driver from his Caddie and looking down the shaft. “For twenty four hours, you to be my guest and companion. I'll be having some other guests and I'll need a true star to hang on my arm. Brunch, yachting, a qualifying event for the Jumping International de Monte-Carlo, Dinner, dancing... Who knows, we may even play some cards.”

I extended my hand. “Done.”

He shook my gloved hand with that damned smirk. “Done. Well, let's play.”

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As I mentioned, the Monte-Carlo Golf Club is a particularly technical course, offering challenges that can frequently trap the unwary. That, however was a bonus for me, not a feature, as I tend to favor this location when I indulge my distaff interests, and I am, in fact, a member of this Club. This was not my first afternoon on these links.

At the turn of the ninth hole, I was shooting a thirty three, on my way to an Eagle for the course. If my opponent was concerned, he didn't show it. Thus far into the match he was at a double bogey, not that the specter of losing in any way dampened his mood. He was still shamelessly flirting despite my lead over him. It was almost as if he didn't care if he won or not.

Which made things worse was I had to admit I was becoming bothered by him. He'd gone out of his way to tailor his avatar to exactly how I preferred my men; head and shoulders taller than me, reddish brown hair and hazel eyes with a jaw that could cut paper and shoulders like an ox. There was no hiding the bulge in his slacks either. It had been a fairly dry spell for me and having this pargon dangled in front of me must be what it felt like to be a fish, eyeing an anglers baited hook.

You know it's going to hurt, but that worm just looks so juicy.

Not being a programmer myself, I couldn't tell you much about the Physics Engine at work in the NetVerse; other than it seemed to work exactly like the dimly remembered physics of real life. I felt the air on my skin, and it in turn moved on my ball in flight. If I didn't pay attention to my swing and grip, I paid the price for it by where the ball landed down the fairway.

I watched my latest shot land right at the edge of the fairway, where I knew there was a flat spot where a patch of rough cut off the fairway from the green. “Nice shot,” Marks complimented me as I walked back to give my club to Thaddeus.

“Perhaps, if you paid more attention to your swing, and less on le balancement de mon cul, I might be in danger of spending the day with you tomorrow.” He bent over to place his ball on the Tee, then grinned at me.

“It is a very distracting rhythm, Countess,” he declared with a wink. “But, let's be honest, you'll be on my arm tomorrow whether you best me in golf or not.”

“Whatever gave you that idea, Mister Marks?”

His club cut through the air and smacked the ball with a sharp tink and it sailed into the air. I lost it against the ocean for a moment, then caught it just as it fell on the green and rolled to a stop perhaps six feet from the pin. He looked at me and winked. “Because it infuriates you that I've gotten you into this situation,” he declared jocularly. “Because by being on my arm you'll be able to find out all kinds of secrets I might be hiding and that will get you one step closer to turning the tables on me.”

We started walking down the fairway as I asked him, “Tell me, how do you manage to stay upright under the weight of that ego?”

“The world may never know,” he shot back with a jaunty step. I fell back a bit myself to walk with Thaddeus.

Once I was a discreet distance where our conversation wouldn't travel, I asked him, “Is there a law against being that sure of yourself?”

“Doubtless were there it would be frequently broken, madam,” he replied evenly. “Though, if you permit me an observation, madam, I believe your visceral reaction to Mister Marks may in fact stem from the close similarities you both share.” He looked at me sidelong. “Not to mention my speculation that were you not at odds with Mister Marks, he likely would have been your guest at breakfast this morning.”

“Jealous, Thaddeus?”

I looked at his face, but his gaze was fixed on our adversary down the fairway. “Not at all, madam. While my nature let's me give the appropriate responses to fulfill my purpose, human sexuality is a closed book to me. I take pleasure in knowing that you are satisfied, but, beyond that the mechanics of it do not interest me. I have no aspirations of my own on your virtue, merely that you are happy with those who do.” I reached out and touched his arm, which brought his gaze back to me.

“I am grateful for your loyalty, Thaddeus, your service is deeply appreciated.”

He actually smiled at that and tipped his cap. “Forgive me for being bold, madam, but if I might suggest a course of action, perhaps, if you conquered Mister Marks, that might make dealing with him afterwards easier. And as it has been some time since you were with us, I imagine that might do you a world of good as well.”

I arched an eyebrow at my butler come caddie. “Sleep with him to get it out of my system?”

“Merely an observation, madam.”

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Mister Marks' Eagle for the tenth hole brought him back to Par and it was apparent he was the type of player who valued the end game over the early lead. I was still two strokes ahead of him for the match but there was still everything to play for from his perspective. Two strokes wasn't that much of a lead and anything could happen over nine holes.

As it was, the magnificent beauty of the course was a poor panacea for my stress. While eighteen thousand euros would greatly offset the cash I'd been spending like water to turn an identity that I'd intended to be a Playgirl on permanent vacation into what amounted to an International Woman of Espionage, the urge to best this smiling devil and be up on him was an itch I couldn't scratch at the back of my mind. It took all of my discipline and willpower to maintain the lead I'd started, even if I couldn't expand on it. So he got to enjoy the back nine while I had to remain angry to keep myself focused and concentrate on my game.

Finally, we found ourselves on the eighteenth hole's green where I was facing a twenty foot putt to make par, while he was only about five from the pin which if he sinked it would put him par for the course. “Shall I mark it?” he asked me with a wink, but I gave him a 'you first' gesture.

“Play, by all means,” I told him as I squatted to get a better lay of the green for my own putt. He walked up and gave it a casual tap without really squaring to the ball and it rolled just to a stop on the lip of the cup. “Bad luck,” I purred as he grinned at me and kicked it in with his foot.

“I don't know, a bogey on a course this challenging is something to be proud of,” he told with a wink. “If I am to be licked at this, I can't think of anyone I'd rather it be than you.”

“Mister Marks,” I scolded him, “you'll make your caddie blush.”

He offered no apology as I settled into my stance. It was a long putt, but I had a bit of a buffer being three strokes up. Effectively, I had four tries to get the ball into the hole, but I didn't want to use any by this one. I wanted to beat him and rub his face in it. Still, being excited about getting my way would not help me win this match, so I sighed and cleared my mind. With great care I eased my putter back, and then swung as smoothly as I could with plenty of follow through. My Callaway rolled over the carpet like grass, kissed the edge of the cup, looped around it and after what seemed forever, dropped into it.

I gave my putter a toss in triumph and snatched it out of the air in my exuberance. “Eagle!” I announced, very pleased with myself. “That's the match, Mister Marks.”

“Half a moment,” he purred reaching into his back pocket and producing a bill fold. “We are playing Strict Rules after all.” He pulled his membership card free and handed it to me. “My handicap is three. That means we've tied, my dear Countess.” I looked at the card and, sure enough, his club ranked handicap was three.

I was extremely tempted to take my putter and wipe that grin from his mouth with it, but that would likely damage the ball face and it was a very expensive putter. Instead, with great dignity I offered my hand to return his card. “Well played, Mister Marks. My thanks for an enjoyable afternoon.”

He took the card from my hand and used that grip to bring my hand up to his lips. “The pleasure was mine, Countess, though I can't help but think as a tie we really should both win.” I felt his lips through the leather of my gloves and a thrill ran down my arm.

“Whatever did you have in mind?”

He stood up, still holding my hand and rubbing the back of it with his thumb. “I'll write you a check for our agreed stake, and you be my guest tomorrow. I promise you a day you'll never forget.”

I smirked at him. “Of that, I'm sure,” I acquiesced. “Very well, you may pick me up at ten.”

“I'll be counting the minutes,” he assured me. He gave a gesture at a dour suited man standing by the tables of the Nineteenth Hole of the clubhouse with a briefcase in his hands. “Come, won't you join me for a drink? I see my associate is here with my peace offering as well.” I followed him over, handing off the putter to Thaddeus for him to return to the bag which he then took to the car.

Mister Marks' associate was either a Bot, or a particularly unimaginative sort as his avatar was as close to the defaults as could be. I allowed my frenemy to hold my chair to be seated, then he sat, producing a checkbook and writing out my winnings. I gave the document a glance and smiled before putting it away. He ordered a beer from the waiter, mostly for appearances I would think, but I demurred. “Not thirsty?” he asked, obviously disappointed.

“I will have to get to the bank to deposit this,” I told him with considerable false sweetness.

“Of course,” he allowed and gave a gesture to his henchman. The man came over and placed the case on the table, then stepped back. Nathan opened the case where I couldn't see it and removed an ornate looking document with a wax seal hanging off. “First, as promised.” He laid the paper on the table and slid it over to me.

It was a Patents of Nobility declaring Marion St. Clair du Bios the Countess of Corsica and my account status promoted to permanent nobility tier. I picked up the document and allowed it to attach to me, taking effect and a great weight came off my shoulders. It vanished to my safe in the Lair should I need it again. “Next,” he declared, removing a manila folder and put it in my reach. “As promised, all the information you'll need to get young Kenneth working in the right directions. And, since you're going to the bank anyway, my peace offering.” He then took out four ten thousand dollar straps of one hundred dollar United States Bills.

“Generous,” I allowed, with an incline of my head. Thaddeus, having returned, picked up the straps and made them scarce in his jacket, then picked up the folder. “I'll look forward to seeing you tomorrow, Mister Marks.”

“Nathan,” he corrected. “Ten Am, I'll be there.”

“Nathan,” I replied, then stood. “Good day,” I bid him and swept out and back to my Atalante. Thaddeus held the door open for me and I slid into the passenger's seat.

Thaddeus came around the car and into the driver's place. “Home, madam?”

“No,” I drawled, my hand on the folder in my lap. “First, let's see about getting these funds into the bank and then, some lunch, I think. Join me for lunch, Thaddeus?”

His eyebrow arched at me. “I'm at your service, madam.”

I smiled at him. “Drive on.”

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The bank had no issue with depositing dollars instead of Euros, though the amount required an affidavit for tax purposes. An issue neatly avoided with my deposits from the Casino, but you take the good with the bad. That accomplished, I chose to leave the car in the bank's parking lot to stroll next door to a little outdoor cafe whose Socca is particularly excellent that I ordered with a glass of white wine. Though he joined me at the table, Thaddeus declined to order.

Handing the menu back to the young man who took our order and was trying desperately to not look like he was looking down my shirt, I sat back and asked Thaddeus, “Any news of young Kenneth?”

My Seneschal consulted a watch he didn't actually need to wear or look at. “As it is six in the ante meridian in Los Angeles, Madam, if he is prudent, he should be rising and making ready for his flight, but no word to answer your question.”

I laid the folder within his reach on the table. “And what is your opinion on this?”

He touched it, being digital himself that was all that was required for him to review the contents of the folder and steepled his fingers after doing so. “Fascinating,” he professed in a quiet voice. “I'm ill equipped to comment on morality, madam, but I don't think I've ever seen a more textbook definition of evil.”

My eyebrows, both of them this time, ascended my forehead. “More so than our Mister Marks and his call of 'English speakers of the world, unite'?”

Thaddeus was nonplussed. “Even a shallow appreciation of human history shows it ripe with conflict amongst your biological fellows for the most trivial of reasons or differences,” he replied casually as I squeezed some lemons into my water and took a sip. “I note that the genetics your avatar affects and the stated reason for them due to the island of your birth make you a living representation of better than a thousand years of conquest, reconquest, Holy Crusade, Jihad and simple generic butchery.”

“A very poetic build up,” I complimented him. “I didn't realize sophistry was one of your talents.”

He sighed, and not truly needing to breathe, I took it as a deliberate expression of his mood. “I could only wish my summation in error, madam. It would appear that Mister Marks has come into conflict with very powerful men who are also quite wealthy and used to getting their own way. Nor are they shy about the use of Armies to ensure they do get their own way.”

“And what do these would be Alexanders call themselves?” I asked him.

“They have no shortage of names,” Thaddeus assured me. “They've taken a layered approach to their conspiracy with 'councils' stacked on top of Non Governmental Organizations to Societies, Fellowships and the laughably phrased 'Think Tank.' This list is a fever dream of every Conspiracy Aficionado all tumbled into a blender and mixed thoroughly. The man at the top is a Jürgen Ammenn, billionaire, industrialist, and the founder of the European Relations Council.”

I raised a hand as I returned my water goblet to the table. “Him, I've heard of. Weren't there rumblings about some connection to the NAZIs?”

“His grandfather immigrated from Switzerland to Germany to run a factory for Rheinmetall,” Thaddeus told me. “He escaped the ire of the Nurenburg Tribunal by giving up a fair amount of information, and the hiding places of former friends, to the investigators. He seems to be the source of the family fortune.”

I picked up the folder and flipped through it. “That seems to be a fairly large step from NAZI factory director to billionaire.”

“The Ammenns are noted for their uncanny business acumen,” he continued. “Though they didn't branch out into quasi-governmental puppeteering until Jürgen and his ERC. In point of fact, Jürgen's idea papers on people other than him and his hand-picked selection of peers have been a stable of the conspiracy prone for decades. His paper that world wide meat farming should be replaced with insects has considerable traction.”

“Ah, yes,” I muttered, “live in the pods and eat the bugs. Charming fellow, whom, I assume would still be enjoying a lavish home and steak for dinner?” Thaddeus chose not to dignify my flippant retort with an answer. The waiter returned with my Socca and laid it before me, necessitating I close the folder and give lunch my full attention.

Socca is a wonderful dish common to the area all along the Ligurian Sea coast. It is a crepe made with chickpea flour, olive oil and whatever herbs and succulents that happen to be in arms reach of the chef. Here it was served in fours with a decanter of oil, similarly infused with herbs to be dipped in. It has a complex subtle flavor as the various ingredients fight with each other for their moment of limelight on the tongue. A culinary experience to be sure. “So,” I asked Thaddeus when I could do so with a politely empty mouth. “What is the gist of Mister Ammenns dastardly scheme?”

“The various sub organizations hold considerable media sway and deference,” Thaddeus informed me. “Likely how he intends to spread the terror of whatever instigating incident occurs to panic people to Upload themselves, but the dossier lacks any sort of concrete evidence of how that is planned to be accomplished.”

I frowned as I chewed, enjoying the flavor as I pondered if my definition of 'all the information I'll need' and Nathans were at odds. “What an interesting omission,” I remarked as I took a sip of wine to clear my palette. “What about this fellow our mutual friend says was taken and Uploaded?”

Thaddeus nodded sagely. “Cary Griffiths, evidently a senior comptroller within Mister Marks organization. Likely aware of most, if not all of the Societies cash sources and depositories.”

“A likely high value target,” I agreed. “But why would Ammenn risk his long range plans kidnapping a money man of a Society so beneath his notice?”

“I suppose we should consider the possiblity that Mister Ammenn's involvement may exist only in the mind of Mister Marks,” my butler warned me. “There are many factors here that are not becoming clear with information, but only more muddled.”

I broke off a piece of the baguette slice that had been served with the Socca. “That, I hope to have more insight on after my day tomorrow.” I chewed the bread as Thaddeus became concerned.

“You intend to follow through with that, madam?”

The wine cleared the bread as I looked at him sidelong. “Do you have a better way to get information on our dear Mister Marks?”

“Alas, no,” he admitted.

“Well, then, a day at Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous it is.”

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As I rode back to my Lair with Thaddeus, I felt something gnawing at the back of my mind, like I was over looking something important.  Usually watching the beauty of the South of France go by and letting my mind wander would let me get in touch with whatever my subconsciousness was trying to tell me.  For whatever reason, I was just getting the alarm, but not the subject and it was quite frustrating.

Arriving back at the Lair, I saw the clubs put away, then I considered my wardrobe for the evening as Thaddeus drew a bath for me.  The finances had received a wonderful shot in the arm, but that wasn't an excuse to slack off now.  Even if my future was now guaranteed, it's manner was still very much up to me.  I settled on an asymmetrical dress in black silk whose neck and shoulder lines were given a ruffled, flower like detail that would fall exactly to my knee with a mid thigh slit on the left.  It was from a smaller designer, but I loved it's classic lines.  Gloves, stockings and pumps would finish the outfit and be perfectly comfortable for a few hours at the tables.

That laid out, and the bath drawn, I shed my golf attire, and settled into one the Lair's most beloved indulgences.  In my bath, the center piece was a massive, antique claw foot reclining tub.  It was quite deep, allowing the water to come up nearly to my collerbones, with a cushioned support for my neck and head.  There was just something about laying under steaming hot water, perfectly cradled where I could lay back and let all the stress be leached out of me.

It was one of the reasons I worked as hard as I had to accumulate the money for this lifestyle.

One lifetime slaving away for some faceless corporate master, dreaming of a retirement I'd never live to see, or be too sick to enjoy.  Then, in the depths of the cancer and the bitter depression, a ray of hope, the NetVerse and being Uploaded.  No more cancer, I could be whoever I wanted, live however I wanted and amuse myself to my hearts content.  It was as close to paradise as I was likely to see, not only in this lifestyle, but to be young, healthy and exactly who I wanted to be to enjoy it.  You can imagine why I was as angry as I was to have this threatened.

The water was just at the point of being too hot as I stepped into the tub, smiling at the steam curling up from it.  I could feel the oil Thaddeus had added for my skin and a delightful layer of suds crowned the water.  Already the mirrors in the room were fogging over.  Perfect.  I lay back on the tub, closed my eyes and let the heat everywhere but my neck and head relax my muscles; or at least, whatever algorithms let me feel like I had muscles.

I cannot say by what magic this other world is made.  It was not perfect, if you looked for the cracks, you'd find them.  Mister Mark's blank faced associate, the sudden appearance of the Bot to deliver young Kenneth's boarding pass, and the ability to call up an interface to do things like, taking his picture for the pass port, all things that would be 'impossible' but here were completely reasonable.  There were plenty of fantasy and fastastic worlds out there, as my previous month had shown, but in many ways they were just the distraction.  I felt most alive here, in the Second World as some had taken to calling it, with mostly real places and things and only little exceptions.

I let my arms under the warm water and could feel everything I expected, the resistance of the water, it's warmth, even the slick feel of the baby oil suspended within it.  As they settled against my sides I could feel skin against skin and it was marvelously real enough to make me feel as amazed as my initial moments in this computer generated realm.

For a moment, I wondered about my body, wondering if whatever conscience or 'soul' I had had been transferred here, or if the 'real' me was actually dead and I was only a deluded program.  What was the real difference between me and Thaddeus?  If nothing else, I told myself, this.  I let my hand slide down my side beneath the water.  I felt the little tatch of hair under the pad of my finger, then, gently curved in.

The intense pleasure always made me gasp the first time.  Oh, dear Tiresias, how wonderfully right you were!  I let my finger roam, lay in the hot water and in the darkness of my closed eyes reveled in the live wire between my pelvis and my brain.  Thaddeus was right, it had been a long spell and in what felt like no time at all I was panting, my toes hanging off the cliff, when my mind betrayed me and as clear as day my mind's eye was looking into his smirking face as he kissed my hand and rubbed my fingers through my gloves with his thumb.

The orgasm clinched me like a fist and I was at once revolted by having a stray thought of that connard, be the tipping point that blossomed in me one of the best orgasms in some time, and yet excited by it as well.  It was done, of course, there was nothing to do but ride out the sensation and try to salvage some of the release.  I tried to take back my fantasy, imagined being astride him and slapping him across the face in payment for this orgasm, but he only lurched up, pinned me to the bed and took me.

I felt my nethers squeeze in sympathetic desire for being filled, and damnedly, the fantasy turned the pleasure of my finger up a notch as my nipples stood erect in the water and I gasped after my breath.  I withdrew my hand, a little stab of shame giving texture to the post orgasmic bliss at where my thoughts had gone.

Perhaps Thaddeus was right after all.  Maybe I did just need to claim him and get over it.

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“Welcome back, Mademoiselle,” the Valet greeted me as he offered me a hand out of the Jag.  The way his eyes roamed over me as I stalked out of the car like its namesake had me thinking he was some flavor of Human, either an Upload or someone on an interface.  He was handsome and since I was stalking, for a moment I appraised him, but just as instantly disreguarded him.  It was no fault of his, this was just something I'd discovered as I spent time on the distaff side of reality.  Of course I was speaking in generalities, and the plural of anecdote  is not data, but this is what I had discovered.

Men will date beneath them, women will not.

There were plenty of stories about rich, successful men, from billionaires to rock stars who would happily partner with a barista, maid or ticket girl.  Here in Monaco a Prince had married a movie star and made a Princess of her, which reinforced my point well.  Women always stalk men higher than themselves, higher status, higher bank balance, higher fame.  Even a movie star had wanted a Prince.  The Valet was handsome, and he might even have been a complete stallion in bed, but I am a Countess.  I was here to bag bigger game.

I took my claim for the Jag and slinked into the Casino on the hunt.

I slid my card and passport under the cashier's cage as my eyes swept the gaming floor, looking for a table to my liking.  “Dix mille, s'il vous plaît,” I told him idly as I looked about the gaming floor.  The pickings looked pretty poor, all told.  Still, it was a Wednesday after all.  At this point, my heart was not really in gambling, but rather to find someone to end my dry patch under my own terms.

I settled at a table full of 'trode heads and VR helmet users, their blank faces the petulant protest to the casino's dress policy that forbid hats and sunglasses indoors.  It never ceased to amaze me how much someone will tell you about themselves while actively trying to be secretive.  The men all had the generic tuxedo skin on, which told me they were cheap with no sense of style or getting into the fantasy of gambling at a Monte-Carlo Casino.  Fidgets and involentary movements would be their tells.  The two other women at the table were both custom avatars, but their dress and make up would be more at home on a porn star than a sophisticate woman in a European Casino.  They'd gone the other way with automated animations to make the characters more lifelike, probably catfishing to confuse the male players and distract them. 

Sadly for them, the automated animations played off biometric cues like heartbeat.

I'd know when they were bluffing or thought they had a hand to beat me.  I settled into the chair of the empty place at the table, nodding to the dealer.  One of the great bits about the Monte-Carlo was they used live dealers on interface helmets.  They could have used bots or other computer generated automations, but this way upheld the Casino's strict neutrality in the game.  It was just another reason I favored this Lair and it's environs.  “Bonsoir mademoiselle,” he greeted as I set my chips before me.  The Dealer button the game required was two seats to my left so I would have some hands before I had to worry about the blind betting. 

Prêt à jouer,” he announced and began to deal.  I recieved the eight and nine of hearts for the pocket.

Quel est le pari?” I asked the Banker.

Cinquante,” he replied.

Appel,” I stated, placing the chip on the table, then in my left ear came the last voice I wanted to hear.

“Good evening, Countess, fancy meeting you here.”

I sighed.  “Are you stalking me, Mister Marks?” I asked as I watched the bet travel around the table.  No one raised so the Banker laid out the Flop and turned them over.  The eight, six and three of spades.

“Stalking?” he asked innocently.  “There is a certain element of hunting to that I might admit to.”

I arched an eyebrow at him while I weighed my odds.  I had a pair, and a possible straight, but there was also a possible flush on the board.  “Do you consider me a trophy, Mister Marks?” I murmured as I noted the twitch of the male across the table and his immediate raise of a hundred.  Likely he had the flush, and so I returned my cards to the dealer.

Free for the round, I looked up at him and found him smiling down at me.  “There isn't a man in this room who wouldn't, Countess,” he assured me.  He certainly looked the part in an elegant white tuxedo jacket with a red tie and matching cummerbund that were subtly tailored to his muscular form.  “And, as I said earlier in the day, it's Nathan.”

No one took the eager raisers bait and the pool was pushed to him.  The dealer button moved and a new pair of cards came my way.  This time, the King and Four of hearts.  “Appel,” I declared on my turn and placed my chip.  “Are you not playing this evening, Nathan?” I asked him as again the table was only called and the Flop uncovered.  The Two of Spades and the Jack and Four of Clubs.  Again I had a low pair with an off suite flush possible.

His hand cupped my bare shoulder as he leaned down to whisper in my left ear.  “I'm constantly playing for you, Countess.”  This time the blank faced boys tapped, not willing to raise the stakes.  On my turn, I tapped as well to see if my hand would improve.  The Five of Diamonds Turned leaving me to consider, both my frenemy's comment and the table.

“Nathan, you press the polite edge of bold,” I told him as I took up a fifty chip and put it into play.  The prositutes both instantly folded, but the boys seemed to want to make a game of it and all called. 

“Dangerous game requires bold hunting,” he replied as the Banker revealed the River card; the Seven of Diamonds, crushing all the flush hopes on the table.  A straight was possible, and my low pair seemed particularly weak.  When the player opposite me raised a hundred again, I took discretion and folded myself.  “Am I distracting you?” he asked, and his hand began to gently squeeze my shoulder in a massage like manner.

“On the contrary,” I said as yet again he took the pot and a new hand was dealt.  “I find your determination charming, rather like a puppy.”  I found myself in possession of the Queen and Ace of Spades and picked up a hundred chip.  “Élever, cent,” I declared to the table. 

“A puppy?” he asked.  “I'm doing well if I rate something that cute!”  That drew a smile from me that I wondered if the table would consider a tell.  My raise was called and the Banker revealed the Flop.   The Nine of Spades helped my flush, but the Seven and Five of Hearts did not.  Again the oppenents tapped.

“I don't know about cute,” I replied blithely as I rolled a hundred chip beneath my fingers, then decided to tap.  “Trainable was my meaning, with the correct level of firmness of course.”

The girls folded, again leaving me alone with the blank fanced males.  The Turn revealed the Two of Diamonds, crushing my hopes for a flush.  Again my aggressive opposite raised a hundred and I returned my cards.  “Firmness?” mulled Marks as if rolling the word around his mouth to fully sample its flavor.  “That does sound interesting.”  The Dealer button came to me along with a new pair of cards; this time the Nine and Ten of Clubs.

I arched an eyebrow up at him.  “Tell me, Nathan, how long have you been a masochist?”  I picked up a chip and gave it to the Banker.  “Appel,” I declared.  Aggressive, the Big Blind this hand raised, doubling the stakes.  I took up a chip and added it.  “Appel,” I repeated.  This chant came around the table and the Banker gave us the Flop.

On the table, the Jack and Nine of Hearts gave me a pair and a straight draw which the Seven of Spades assisted.  Nathan only chuckled and continued to knead my shoulders, and I had to give him credit, he is quite good at it.  “Every Straight man is,” he answered my question.  “So, since birth.”

I picked up a hundred chip and added it to the pile.  “You consider the company of women painful?”

“The best kind,” he assured me.  This time, both of the females met my raise while the boys bowed out.  Once the Banker had the chips to his liking, he revealed the Turn which was the Queen of Hearts.  A flush was now possible, in addition to my straight.  I picked up a pair of hundred chips and placed them in reach of the Banker. 

Augmenter, deux cents,” I declared.  The female close to me held her breath and checked her hole cards.

Appel,” she finally decided, releasing the chips to the Banker.  Her tablemate down the way was faster.

Moi aussi,” she declared, looking at me, but she blinked three times as she said it, the automation picking up what her face was actually doing.  Bluff, I decided.  The River card flowed onto the table; the Seven of Clubs. 

Augmenter, cinq cents,” I informed the Banker confidently, laying the chips down.  The closest girl looked at the table and me in turns several times.  Like a book, I read her; she had the flush, and she was wondering if I did too, and if my top card would beat hers.  She bit her lip as her hand hovered over her chips. 

This is why I play against living humans in the Real World, because I can deliberately miss tell.  As her hand got closer to her chips, I let myself smile as if she was doing exactly what I wanted.  As if they'd burned her, she pulled her hand back and gave the Banker her cards.  The other girl wore a little smile herself, as if she had noted what I'd done for what it really was.  Her hand picked up a chip and deliberately placed it on the field.  “Lever, mille,” she declared with a grin as if she had me.

I smiled back at her and noted her breath miss a beat.  “Quelle est la limite de tableau?” I asked blithely.

The Banker's look told me he had dealt enough to know I was closing a trap.  “Deux mille, mademoiselle.

My gloved hand picked up the chips and pushed them onto the table.  “Lever deux mille.

She blinked three times again, looked at her stack, then back at the table.  She was caught, as I'd bet the table limit, she couldn't raise and try to buy her way out of her bluff.  And if she called, I was certain her flush was a bluff and my two pair would stand.  The moments drug out which lead me to blithely ask, “Temps, monsieur le banquier?

He nodded,  “Oui, Mademoiselle,” and turned to my oppenent.  “Mademoiselle, vous devez suivre ou vous coucher.

Her overly made face contorted into a fury for just a moment, then went back to a vacant, 'bimbo' expression.  “Pli,” she declared, throwing her cards at the Banker. 

“Well played,” Nathan whispered in my ear as the Banker pushed a satisfyingly large stack of chips back to me.  “Any chance I can pry you away from your seal clubbing for a drink?”

I leaned back into the chair to look up at him.  “I am a bit thirsty,” I admitted.  I took a fifty chip from the stack and presented it to the Banker.

Merci, mademoiselle.”

“Avec plaisir,” I told him as I called over one of the hosts with a tray.  As he gathered up my profits, I gave my attention back to the object of my somewhat confused ire.  “Was there something specific you had in mind, Nathan?”

A grin spread across his face.  “You're obviously the regular here, so I put myself in your hands.”

I chuckled.  “That does sound like a pleasant proposition for you, doesn't it?”  The Host almost laughed at my double entredre, but mastered himself with expert professionalism.  I took the tray he gave me, then slipped him a fifty chip as well.  I led the way over to the cage to give the cashier my card, passport and chips.  “Dépôt sur le compte Crédit Suisse, s'il vous plaît.

Oui, Mademoiselle.

While I awaited my receipt, I turned back to Nathan and appraised him up and down.  Damn him, he did cut a dashing figure in that Tuxedo.  I considered my Seneschal's advice again, and asked, “Well, as you're to be my guest, let me show you something few get to see.”

“Be still my beating heart!”

I collected up my passport, card and receipt from the cashier, then allowed myself a smirk.  “You should be so lucky,” I teased, and then led the way, through the Casino to its most exclusive room, Le Bar Salle Blanche.  The doors were shut, with a pair of very large men in the Casino's livery standing guard.  From my clutch, I produced my Privé card and presented it to the one next to the scanner.  “Le monsieur est mon invité,” I informed the guard.

He put the card into the reader, then nodded as he returned it to me.  “Certes, mademoiselle,” he murmured as his fellow opened the door for us into a gilt and baroque masterpiece.  This was the hotels most exclusive venue a salon that opened on balconies overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.  There were gaming tables here, but there were no tourists, or even casual visitors to the Casino or it's common members.   Le Bar Salle Blanche was open only to the Gold, Platinium and my level of membership to the Casino, Privé, the games here were high stakes, and the place to settle ego battles about who was better than whom at what game, running through it, was a massive stone bar covered in a hand made mosaic tile like something from an Ancient Roman bath.

There was soft jazz playing, though no one was dancing.  Except for Nathan, all the men seemed over forty and all the women under twenty five.  “Well, this is something to see,” he admitted into my ear as we reached the bar.  To the bar tender he ordered, “Glenlivet, two fingers, neat.  Countess?  What can I get you?”

“Champagne,” I ordered, raising an eyebrow at his choice.  “Are you getting into the spirit of the Second World, Nathan?”

“I am intrigued that my beer at the Country Club actually had something of an effect on me,” he admitted.  “I wanted to see if this digital playground of yours could do justice to Scotch.”

I accepted the flute from the bar tender and touched it to his glass tumbler.  “I think you'll find Justice to have been served,” I told him as I led the way out onto the balcony.  The air was cool off the sea and my nipples imprinted through the silk of the dress.  Below us, we had a fine view of Port Hercule and Yacht Club de Monaco with some of the larger yachts vying for space out in the anchorage of the bay.

He took notice of the condition of my breasts, and surprising me, he instinctively took off his Tuxedo jacket and laid it over my shoulders.  “Why Nathan,” I exclaimed.  “People will think you're a gentleman!”  Still, satin lining of the jacket was welcome on my skin and the warmth was very pleasant.

He merely grinned as his physique was clearly visible under his shirt.  “Only until I open my mouth,” he assured me.  He took a sip of his Scotch and savored it, nodding his head slowly.  “As good as your word, Countess,” he finally declared.  “That is amazing.”

“Everything your brain experiences is due to chemicals in the blood or electrical impulses,” I told him.  “The helmet you're wearing sends those impulses or others that actually have your body make the chemicals, if possible.  So yes, if you overindulge, you will get drunk.”

He laughed and shook his head, astounded.  “Unbelievable.  And you?  You don't have a body at all, and yet...?”

“It's actually easier for me,” I corrected him.  “I'm directly connected to this, there's no trickery or metal to meat interface.  This is my reality, and it is to me as real as yours that I remember.”  He turned back to the bay and I followed his gaze to the Yacht Club.  “Which is yours?” I asked him. 

He pointed out at the end of the quay.  “You see the wooden two master?  That's mine.”

My eyes followed his point to a boat that was half modern and half age of sail.  She looked to be about twenty-five or thirty meters long with a pair of masts that included rope ladder rigging as though it was intended for people to actually go up and manually work the sails.  I arched an eyebrow at him.  “I hope your guests are a crew, that's not a boat for a pair of couples.”

“She has a crew,” he assured me. “As you'll see tomorrow.”

“Umm,” I allowed as I took another sip of my champagne. “So, who is this, how did you put it?” His grin didn't falter.

“I didn't,” he told me confidently. “I said, 'other guests'. And that I needed a True Star on my arm, and that's the truth. I can't think of a better description of you, Countess. But, to as

suage your curiosity, I'll be entertaining Aayansh Khatri and his current infatuation Isla.”

“The British Super Model?” I asked. “That Playgirl is reduced to seeing only one man?”

“Billionaires do command a certain level of exclusivity,” Marks commented dryly.

“I can't say as I've heard of Mister Khatri.”

He nodded. “Again, that's in keeping with the Billionaire theme, they do tend to be a bit reclusive. The Khatri family immigrated to the UK under King Edward during the British Raj of India. They made their fortune in textiles and did very well under the British. They were one of the few wealthy families from India who didn't try to buy some favor by quietly backing Ghandi and the Independents.”

“If they're so fond of the British, I can see why your organization would be interested in recruiting them,” I observed. “Some Ethnic diversity might help you escape the cries of White Supremecy.”

“Language is what's important to us, Countess, not skin color.”

“How benevolent of you,” I declared through clinched teeth. “And to think, I was in danger of beginning to like you, Mister Marks, I do appreciate your timely reminders of your true face.”

That actually made him laugh. “Countess, you wound me!” he managed. “I protest my innocence of racism and you would think I'd just told the vilest piece of racial humor.” My eyes narrowed.

“Didn't you?” I demanded icily. “Unless it's slipping your mind, I remind you I...”

“You're French,” he interrupted smoothly. “Not for a moment, and despite historic animosity of our peoples, Countess, you'll find my fight isn't with you, or France.” He looked me in the face and leaned in to whisper, “In point of fact, my associates and your government share considerable mutual interest. I regret the manner of our meeting, but I truly believe you'll find it's for the best. With you on our side, we...”

“You'll find I have very little tolerance for secret societies, revolutionaries, mercenaries or anyone else with a 'cause' they send others to die for while they stay safe 'for the good of the movement' naturally.” I snatched his jacket off my shoulders and presented it back to him. “I warned you I've been sold this bill of goods before! Go die on your own hill! Good evening, Mister Marks!” When he made no move to take the jacket, I flung it over the nearest empty table and stalked off, ignoring his calls after me.

This might have led to some inappropriate conversations back in the casino itself, but the Monte-Carlo takes a dim view of men being less than gentlemen in their establishment. I heard the two guards for Le Bar Salle Blanche lay hands on him, halting his pursuit of me. I took back my Jaguar from the valet before he could extract himself from their lecture on manners and sped off into the night.

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Yet again I found myself waking alone in my own bed and that was not how I had intended to spend my night. A look at the clock on the table told me it was six thirty, so there was little point in trying to sleep more. I sat up in the bed and ran my hands through my hair trying to figure out exactly what Nathan Marks game really was. Well, with any luck, I'd have answers to that later today once young Master Kenneth arrived.

I sighed and got out of bed, pulling on my swim suit and heading for the roof for my morning swim. This morning was gray, with clouds completely overcast such that the dawn was late and the bay was still lit by it's lights. I laid my towel and robe over the chair and watched the ship lights in the harbor move for a moment, such that I could see the sea was up. Likely today would be an 'indoor' kind of day. Yes, we have them, it makes the setting more real and the perfect days more perfect and more enjoyable to have bad days to compare them to.

I wondered for a moment how the weather might spoil Mister Marks' day, then frowned at myself for where my mind had gone. To punish myself a bit, I dove into the deep end of the pool, letting its cool water be something of a shock to my system. I broke the surface and treaded water for a bit, then got serious about my exercise and started my laps.

By the half way point of my laps, the first peal of thunder rolled off the sea. It would seem that Master Kenneth's flight would have an interesting landing. With five laps to go, the thunder was becoming regular and the rain was beginning to fall. As I finished that lap, I found Thaddeus standing by the steps, holding my robe. “Breakfast would seem to be an indoor affair this morning, madam,” he greeted.

I stood in the shallows and accepted the towel to give my hair a rough dry in the pool, as it began to rain. “When is Kenneth due?” I asked my Seneschal.

“Early afternoon, Madam,” he assured me. “Air France shows the flight left Charles de Gaulle on time and is actually ahead of schedule.”

“Good,” I growled as I came up the steps and allowed him to clothe me in the robe. “I'm tired of being two steps behind Marks.” Something in my tone gave him a bit of pause as he followed me towards the stairs down into the house.

“What did you have in mind, Madam?”

I smirked at his hesitation as I continued to dry my hair. “Why Thaddeus, am I making you neverous? Have you forgotten the first rule of conspiracy?”

“There are competing lists, Madam,” he informed me. “Which do you refer to?”

A gesture brought up an image of the check Mister Marks had so graciously written out for me, high lighting his account and the routing numbers for this bank. “Follow the money,” I told my cautious Seneschal. “As soon as Kenneth gets here I want him deep into Mister Marks financials. I want to know how much he spends on toothpaste.”

Thaddeus cleared his throat as if to state his opinion on that course of action without actually saying so. “As you wish, Madam. After breakfast, what shall I lay out for Mister Marks?”

I sat at the little table on the balcony over looking Monaco that was outdoors, yet protected from the coming storm. I took a sip of my coffee as I sat back in the chair and contemplated the view. “You think he'll actually show up?” I asked him. “After last night?”

He opened the chafing dish that was keeping my breakfast warm and went about preparing me a plate. “While my understanding of human attraction is rudimentary at best, Madam, Mister Marks does not strike me as a man easily put off the pursuit.”

A pair of eggs, perfectly sunny side up, bacon and toast was placed before me as he turned over the water goblet and filled it with blood red Orange Juice. “You...understand far more than you let on, Thaddeus,” I told him and he arched an eyebrow at me.

“It's kind of you to notice, Madam,” he declared with considerable weight. “Perhaps the white sun dress, a bathing suit and suitible dinner attire?”

“I trust your taste,” I told him. “So I place my day in your capable hands.”

He smiled at that and gracefully swept a perfect bow. “Your humble servant, Madam.”

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I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised when, at the stroke of ten a silver on gray Maybach S680 sedan oozed onto my brick paved round about. Maybach had been acquired by Mercedes in the fall out of World War Two using them sporatically as a badge for limited edition, high end luxury cars marketed primarily at people who would ordinarily buy a Rolls Royce, but then have to buy a second, performance car as they occasionally liked to drive.

Mercedes decided to go after this niche market of a niche market by producing an extremely high preformance car that also had the luxury of a Rolls Royce for when the owner couldn't be bothered to drive. It had a classic salon style that would only turn the heads of people who knew they were looking at a car that retailed for more than most upper middle-class houses. I noted his arrival by an alert from the house sentry as I sat at the same table I'd taken my breakfast at and was watching the storm over the bay.

Feeling perverse, I stayed on the balcony, thus making him get out of the car and come to the front door. It was only an extra minute or so, but one of the great truths of humanity is a beautiful woman is worth the wait and I was intent on making Nathan Marks wait. “Madam, Mister Nathan Marks to see you,” Thaddeus announced from behind me.

I gave a leisurely gesture at the open seat next to me. “Won't you join me, Mister Marks?” I drawled, purposefully ignoring him. Thaddeus had an excellent eye, the eggshell white cotton was as soft as heather against my skin, darkening my tone slightly due to the contrast and even seated, it's scalloped neckline insured a dramatic entrance. Out the corner of my eye, I saw him look at me, I noted the expression on his face show the dress had the intended response as he pulled out the chair and sank into it. The suit he was wearing was sufficent for the car he'd been driving and obviously either cut to his measure, or expertly tailored.

From behind his back, he produced a dozen white roses and laid them on the table before me, showing either he, or someone in his employ actually spoke the language of flowers. “First, Countess, I'd like to tender my most humble and abject apology for yesterday evening. Witty repartee has never been my strong suite, so I'd ask for your grace to cover over my faux pas.

I arched an eyebrow at him as I finally turned to face him, picking up the bouquet and inhaling the delicate fragrance from the roses. “You are a terrible liar, Mister Marks,” I drawled. “Repartee is, in fact, one of your chief talents, but as you have the courage to admit to a misstep it does bear consideration.” I pressed the call button and it proved that Thaddeus hadn't gone far. “Put these in water please, Thaddeus.”

“Certainly, madam.”

“Coffee?” I asked Marks and his contrite expression got a whisper of a smile.


Thunder pealed over the bay in a long, low rumble. “I presume we will not be yachting today?” I asked him.

“No, sadly, and the race has been canceled as well,” he declared. “Who would have thought inclimate weather would have an effect on a computer simulation?”

“The developers tell us it makes the world both more immersive and gives a sweeter note to the perfect days to contrast them with this,” I replied, still mostly ignoring him. A silence fell, as if he was expecting something more from me, then began to fidget when it was not forth coming.

“You have a lovely home,” he complimented, obviously grasping at something to say. “Somehow, exactly what I would have expected.”

“Oh?” I drawled, finally deigning to look him in the face. “Do you imply that I am somehow predictiable, Mister Marks?”

He turned to face me, and for a split second I could see I'd finally gotten under his skin, but then that confident smile was back. “Not in the least, Countess, merely that your home lived up to the expectation someone of your quality demands.” He chuckled a bit, then added, “However I am coming to expect the sharpness of your tongue in our verbal duels.”

“If you had experience with my tongue you'd never describe it that way,” I shot back and he actually blushed. Fortunately, Thaddeus had returned with the coffee service, saving our conversation from further innuendo. I took my cup and an appreciative sip as I looked out again over the bay. “So, how did you decide to entertain your Billionaire pigeon?”

“We've rescheduled to tomorrow,” he told me, “where I hope, we will enjoy fair skies and the fairest jewel for my elbow.” He took a sip, and only started at the excellence of Thaddeus' coffee having gotten somewhat used to the NetVerse. “So, how shall we entertain ourselves today?” he asked.

I turned back to him and gave him the full force of my glare. “Sir, you have one day of mine, not two. If you wish to use it now, that's your affair. Despite the artificial means of my world, I do in fact have a life in it and it does not revolve around you.”

“Hogwash,” he laughed, idly stirring his coffee and looking at me sidelong. “Admit it, Countess Marion St. Clair du Bois, you are as fascinated with me as I am of you. If you need me to say I regret maneuvering you into helping me, I will. I regret it only in that it is such a poor excuse for me to spend time in your environs.”

I took another sip of Thaddeus' coffee as I glared at him. Then, for some reason, I felt like being truthful. “Yes, damn you, I admit it; I am fascinated with you, in a way I have not been with a man in a time longer than I care to say. Were you just another card shark, I suppose I could at least afford you the respect of a fellow traveller, earning a living off the gullible and foolish in a Monte-Carlo Casino, but you're not just a card shark, are you Mister Marks? You're a terrorist and I have nothing but contempt for someone whose argument is so morally bankrupt they resort to violence.”

He actually arched an eyebrow at me. “A terrorist? Me?” He broke out into a full laugh while shaking his head. “My dear Countess, if that is the source of your ire with me, please, allow me to set the record straight! I am a humble civil servant! That's what I was trying to tell you last night!” He made a gesture and under his hand the glowing, trusted authentication ID of the server identified him as a member of the United Kingdom Foreign Service. “I am with British Intelligence.”

I reached out and copied the ID from his hand so I could examine it closer. “Special Intelligence Service?” I demanded. “You would have me believe you are a member of MI6? Next you'll tell me you have a 'Double Oh' number and a license to kill!”

He winked at me. “I can neither confirm, nor deny the imagination of Ian Fleming.”

My temper flared and I shot to my feet, much to his surprise. “This is the final insult, Nathan Marks!” I declared in a voice to rival the thunder off the bay. “That you have the audacity to think I can be so easily fooled by a threadbare innuendo and a bit coding prostitution to fake up a trusted ID is more insulting than the piss poor attempt of it!”

“It's the truth!” he protested, and at last I could see I'd shaken that damned calm of his to the point that it looked like he was genuinely concerned I was about to banish him from my presence. “If you'll give me a just a moment to explain, Countess...”

“Choose your next words with extreme caution!”

“First, please, check the ID,” he asked. “The security about them is there for a reason, there isn't a fake that will stand up to it.” My free hand dipped under my skirt and came out with the nickle finished pistol and he started in surprise. “PPK? Classic choice.”

“Move,” I warned him, “and you'll discover just how unpleasant being virtually shot can be.”

“Don't I have to opt in for that kind of danger?” he asked doubtlessly thinking he would try to rules lawyer his way through things.

“This is a Second World server,” I informed him. “Part of the EULA is the acceptance of so-called 'Real World' physics. Everything here works like it's counter part. Including getting to experience what a nine millimeter Browning slamming into your avatar feels like from a distance of less than two meters. You'll live through it, I can't touch your meat body, but I can make you wish you were dead.”

“I could take off this helmet...” he started.

“You could,” I admitted. “But then I can ban you from my domicile and effectively lock you out of Second World because you have to start where you left.”

“Surely the referees...?”

“In a month or so? Surely,” I replied with a smile. “And what will that do to your little operation, Mister Marks? Is it completely unaffected by the passage of time? Will whatever con you're playing last without you?”

A smile spread on his face that didn't reach his eyes. “The morality of your argument is threatening bankruptcy, Countess...” he drawled.

My thumb ratcheted the hammer back on the pistol. “Please, give me an excuse,” I taunted him. “Now, if you are who you say you are, we'll have time for me to tender an appropriate apology. If not...I recommend very strongly you come clean now, Mister Marks.”

“Please, check the credential,” he shot back, leaking back in the chair and crossing his legs as he took another sip of Thaddeus' coffee. He was affecting more calm than he actually was, I'd rattled his cage, but I have to give him credit, it was a good act. “I'll just be here thinking of ways you can apologize.”

I smiled at him without any humor as I pressed the call button. My seneschal arrived, calm as ever. “Yes, Madam?”

“Thaddeus, if Mister Marks moves from his chair, shoot him.”

He reached under his jacket and produced a pistol he held in a relaxed grip, but ready to use in a moment. “Certainly, Madam. Kindly remain seated, sir.”

“Don't mind me,” Marks replied with a chuckle. “I'm just enjoying the coffee.” I sat back down, activating the safety and returning the PPK to the holster on the garter it rode in on my thigh and called up my command interface. As it floated holographically before me, I picked up the secure ID from where it was hovering over the coffee table and pressed the bright red SECURITY button. The interface immediately called up a picture of his avatar, then interestingly, next to it was a photograph of the 'Real' Nathan Marks. He was somewhere in his late thirties or early forties, nowhere near so broad shouldered, nor a jaw so sharply defined, and more than a little pudgy, but it was obvious the avatar was him. Idealized, certainly, but him, and who was I to question that?

It was a legitimate ID, it was issued by the UK Foreign Service, though, obviously, it wouldn't actually come out and say he was a spy. That was the kind of thing that got spies killed. “This lists you as a technical attaché to the British Mission to France and specifically does not grant diplomatic immunity,” I growled. “You're not a spy! If you were, it would say something like 'Cultural Attaché' and would extend you Diplomatic Immunity. What are you trying to push on me, Marks?”

He raised his hands and I could see he was sweating, the mask was off now and I was finally meeting the 'real' Nathan Marks. “I'm not a spy,” he chose to start with. “And I never said I was, I'm a Civil Servant...”

Merde,” I whispered. Dismissing the interface, I looked back up at him, looking at me from across the table. “What, exactly, is it you want from me?” I demanded. “And be warned mon ami, I have an astonishingly low tolerance for bull shit right now.”

“For the most part, I have been honest with you,” he told me, completely unfazed that my butler was pointing a gun at him. “A member of my organization was kidnapped and uploaded and is being held against his will.”

“And British Intelligence sent the Cable Guy to rescue him?” I demanded. He winced and shook his head.

“No, alright, I...” he sighed and looked at his reflection in the coffee. “I've always wanted to get into Field Work. But I've been laughed off the qualification every time I tried. When Cary went missing, I was who discovered he'd been uploaded. I convinced my Manager at the Embassy that I was better qualified to go after him than any of the field agents. I was a techie, my playground kind of thing. This is my chance.”

“And this nonsense about English speakers of the world unite?” I demanded. “Where does that come into this?” He chuckled and shook his head.

“Ah, the Society of the Elect,” he mused. “A bit of very colorful fiction the Quartermaster group put together for me to get close to Aayansh Khatri.”

“I'm afraid I don't follow,” I told him and he nodded.

“Mister Khatri is mixed up in some very...unsavory...associations,” he declared carefully. “The kinds of associations that people with too much time on their hands speculate and...conspire...about. Some of these groups are legitimate, some...less so. He is, also, a British National. His Majesty's Government does police our own; even naughty Billionaires.”

I mulled this for a moment, then asked, “You suspect he might be some kind of...what? Super villain in the making? So you invent a conspiracy society for him to recruit?”

He smirked at me. “Our recruitment department is slacking off if someone of your potential wasn't recruited,” he replied.

“I imagine being neither British, nor tolerant of such shenanigans had something to do with it,” I informed him, archly. I sighed and shook my head. “For the love of God, why have you involved me in your 007 fantasy, Marks?”

“You...” he swallowed. “You are the kind of person MI6 recruits as a field agent. I may understand the technology of this place, but you have the social skills to fit in, and the combat skills to get out when things go south. I started running into road blocks immediately, but you? I know you can find Cary once I get you close enough to Khatri. That's why I came here. To recruit you.”

“Of all the things to come crashing into my vacation!” I growled with some vehemence. I looked over at my butler, still covering my wayward guest. “Thank you, Thaddeus, that will be all.” The pistol disappeared under his jacket once more.

“I'll be close to hand if required, madam,” he promised, then withdrew. Nathan watched the program retreat, then some of his cocksure swagger returned and he sat back to smirk at me.

“You have a talent for hiring the best,” he complimented me.

I arched an eyebrow. “Don't think for a moment Thaddeus would hesitate to undo you,” I warned him. “And be careful before you get too cocky, I haven't agreed to anything with you.”

“I still have my day.”

“And you're burning daylight,” I reminded him.

His smile was more himself. “If I'm not free to leave, I hardly think it fair to hold that against me.”

I stood and walked to the edge of the balcony and watched the storm over the bay for a moment. There was a very large part of me that wanted to send the little weasel packing with his hat in his hand, the only problem was this conundrum was interesting, damn it! I'd been playing for years since my upload, but this! This was real in a way my life hadn't been for a long time; real stakes, real people, real danger and even if the 'real' Nathan Marks was a fat little government cog I wouldn't give a second glance to, that wasn't what was before me. Before me was his better self here and it pressed all of my buttons. I hadn't wanted a man this badly in...well, even I wasn't sure!

“I'm not interested in what you consider fair,” I told him over my shoulder. “If you want my help, Double Zero, things will be done to my liking. You can either agree,” and I raised my hand towards the house as I turned to face him. “Or you may show yourself out.”

He stood and walked over to me, but was careful not to step into my personal space. “I came here to offer apology,” he told me earnestly. He was back on his feet mentally as well and what I took to be his version of 'cocksure spy' was tugging at my psyche again. This, however, was different; it would be difficult to imagine Commander Bond being this sincere. “I took this route because I knew you'd never believe me if I'd laid everything out at dinner that night. That doesn't excuse my actions, but I say it only so you may understand me.”

I craned my neck at him and pointed a finger on his chest. “I understand you very well, Nathan Marks. Now, make your choice.”

He reached up and took my hand and brought it up to his lips. Until now I'd never felt his skin on mine and it was electric as he pressed his lips against the back of my hand. “My lady, you have always been my choice. I'm all in, and my cards are on the table. I'll, of course, be the liaison between our little group and MI6, but doing things your way is the least of what I can do to make amends.”

I smirked as I reached up to cup his chin. “Oh, you'll do much more than that,” I told him. “First, however, where are you wearing that helmet in the real world?”

He blinked in confusion. “Why do you want to know?”

I narrowed my eyes and favored him with a salacious expression. “Because, Mister Marks, I intend pour nous à Niquer,” I told him as I squeezed his chin. “And I don't wish any...embarrassing...elements to spoil your time afterwards.” His eyes darted as he took a moment to translate my somewhat vulgar French into English, then his eyes went wide and his face blushed scarlet.

“ you'll give me just a moment...?” I straightened his tie and stepped back then he reached up and pantomimed removing something from his head, then he burst into a cloud of pixels and faded away. I smirked to myself as I casually called up the interface and granted him permission to spawn where he'd logged out, then leaned back against the balcony and listened to the storm. While he was gone, Thaddeus stepped out onto the balcony and bowed.

“I'll see you're not disturbed, madam. Any instructions for the afternoon?”

“Yes,” I drawled at my butler. “The moment Kenneth gets here, put him to work finding out every little detail about Nathan Marks.”

“I'll see to it,” he assured me and withdrew. Nathan's cloud reappeared faster than I'd expected, and the look on his face was priceless.

Yes, it is quite fun being a cock tease.

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So, let's dispense with the Sixième giggling.

Can you have sex in the NetVerse? Short answer, yes. Long answer, it's the Internet and humans are involved, someone was going to figure out a way to be naughty. There were entire servers dedicated to every perversion and pleasure known to man, and catering to this most basic of vices was their entire raison d'etre. Here in the Second World, everything a human could do had been replicated, the question being one's level of participation.

Of course, as an Upload, this was my reality. Every touch, flavor and sensation was reproduced with remarkable fidelity. Though, not having lived a flesh and blood life as a woman, I couldn't say with certainty how faithful what I was about to experience was; only that I found it intense, exquisite and everything I'd read about the Female Experience pale and poorly worded. This was the highest level, the next down was the Direct Neural Interface, a popular option with the para and quadriplegic. A moderately expensive surgery installed a machine neural link that allowed for a simple jack to be plugged in, located behind the right ear.

There were certain early adopters and technophiles that also opted for the DNI, usually for work for ultra secure coding and development environment, secure server farm monitoring and some sensitive occupations like Air Traffic Control. Though, some got them purely for the recreational opportunities it offered here in NetVerse. It was as close to being an Upload as the living could experience.

Next was the Neural Interface Helmet, which was a relatively new invention. It was as it's name implied, a helmet that covered the user's entire head. Lining the inside of the helmet were tens of thousands of small, spike like dermal neural diodes. It felt rather like putting on a hat made of nails, all pointing at the wearers scalp, but when active, they overrode the wear's sensation of their own body, replacing it with what the avatar felt and moved.

I'm told the sensations are not quite as intense as the DNI, or as quite real time, suffering a bit of lag from the more narrow bandwidth of transmission. But, if you were a male and experienced an orgasm in the NetVerse, if you hadn't made allowance for it, you'd need to change your pants.

At the bottom of the barrel was the classic Virtual Reality head set, giving stereoscopic vision and hand held controls this led to the avatar being more like a puppet, than a true other worldly experience. And without feed back, sex with this option was basically just a mundane porn viewing.

Of course, when someone can be anything, everything goes as the saying went. There weren't really ugly people on a Second World server unless someone was making a point, or being hyper faithful to their appearance in the real world. And, as you could tailor your avatar, female disappointment at a lover's endowment was a thing of the past. While you could tell the juvenile by downright comical penis dimensions, the 'average' male in Second World was a thick, heavy twenty six centimeters.

What can I say? If you're building a perfect world, why wouldn't you make everything perfect?

Speaking of perfect, Nathan got back up on his mental feet on the hallway to my bedroom. I'd been leading him by the hand when he spun me about, picked me up to be eye to eye with him and pinned me against the wall by his mouth. They say a woman can tell how well a lover is by their kiss. Nathan Marks' kiss, for a nerdy little wannabe spy would have made James Bond himself a bit jealous. It was a searing kind of kiss that let you know why fire and burning metaphors are used when describing really great sex.

I grabbed the sides of his head with both hands as our tongues snaked against each other as my heart thundered in my chest and my nethers became soaking and began to run down my inner thighs. One of his beefy hands pawed at my breast, but even with need like this, he managed to be gentle. My nipples went erect against this stimulation and the feeling of his hand and the fabric gliding over them was electric.

Between the seal of our mouths I panted after breath I didn't truly need from force of habit and rode the Tsunami that is female sexual arousal. With my free hand, I grabbed his tie and, using it like a leash, pulled him in the direction of my bedroom. He lurched to obey my command, holding me now without the wall's aide down the last few meters to my bedroom.

Once inside, he kicked the door shut and staggered towards the bed. “” I moaned into his mouth and finally he set me down as if I was as delicate as a Daum crystal. I looked up at him, with my lip shade smeared over his face, his hair wild from my hands and the most genuine smile I'd ever seen on his face. For once, I returned his grin as I planted both hands on his chest and pushed him at my bed. He half sat, half fell onto the bed, staring at me as I put my foot up on my night stand, revealing the tops of my stockings and the PPK in it's holster. I took it out of it's holster as I gave him a smoldering look. “You'll be a good boy, won't you?”

“The very best, my lady,” he swore. My thumb opened the safe in the wall, where I dropped it inside to lock it away. I didn't need a gun to control him any more. Then I reached down and pulled the sun dress over my head. He'd been loosening his tie but now that I was wearing only stockings and my shoes, he froze, a look of absolute lust on his face. I smiled and stepped one foot onto my bed, next to him. I took a hold of his jacket at the shoulder for a hand hold.

“Now, Mister Marks,” I declared as I stood up on the mattress, towering over him. “Let's see what you're capable of for King and Country!” My free hand collected a handful of his hair as I thrust my hips forward. His face pressed into my groin, his mouth opened as his hands grabbed my ass. His tongue snaked through my folds and found my center effortlessly. He mashed it flat against me, wiping it back and forth as I closed my eyes and let my head hang back as I rode his tongue in absolute ecstasy.

He lapped at me as though his very life depended on it, sending wave after wave up my spinal cord until my legs began to tremble and shake. The orgasm claimed me suddenly, robbing me of balance, but his hands on my buttocks turned an awkward fall into an orgasmic float of being let down onto my bed even as his tongue ravished me. My muscles began to convulse, jerking and clinching as half of me tried to get my over stimulated clitoris away from his tongue while my hands desperately tried to hold him against it.

My back arched, desperate to stop the lightning running up and down my spine, but he had control of my hips and held me fast. My voice was a ragged cry of feral passion which I'm unsure was meant for him to stop or a desperate command to continue. It was impossible to breathe, twisted up on my shoulders, my breasts swaying with the contractions as I became aware my feet were beating his back and my hands mindlessly flaying through the air, trying to find something of him to grab.

Finally, finally his tongue's frantic assault slowed, the licks became gentle as I was lowered onto my bed. The convulsions eased and a slow, final drag of his tongue gave me a soft climax that let the tense muscles relax and let me pant after my breath as every nerve in my body tingled. Above me, his face coated in my secretions, the magnificent bastard grinned at me. I watched him peel out of his suit as I caught my breath and finally grinned back at him.

This was going to be a wonderful day in.

His member sprang free of his trousers, tall, thick and proud as I sat up on the bed while he kicked out of his Scarosso leather shoes. I reached out, took hold of him, then leaning forward I drug my tongue up the full length of him and a full body shudder shook him. As he looked at me, something occurred to him and he whispered, “You're absolutely right, my lady, I'll never describe your tongue as sharp again.”

I chuckled darkly as I fondled him. “I have not yet begun to show you what my tongue is capable of, Mister Marks.” Then I leaned forward and showed him. As I ministered to him, I saw his toes clinch and a glance up showed him staring at me, mouth agape. The look on his face flowed between showing me the effect I was having on him and an expression of disbelief this was actually happening to him. He was nicely hung, at that sweet spot where making love to him would make me wonderfully full of him, but he wasn't cartoonishly large, or too big for me to see to him as I was.

As might be evident, I must admit to being something of a domme; I enjoyed the power of being a woman and having control of a man this way. And he was completely in my control as I could see by the look on his face. He'd do anything to earn this gift I was giving him. But, this was not just a power trip. As I expected, I'd barely started sucking at him when his body started going tense and his breath began to gasp. Having seen his 'real' picture, I had an inkling his dry spell was likely much longer than mine and his first time would be quick. I took a hold of his balls and slipped two fingers behind them and pressed in and up firmly as my tongue assaulted the sensitive tip of him in mouth. His entire body went stiff and I swear he got five centimeters bigger in my mouth. He gave a wonderfully primal cry, drawing my eyes up and into his as his belly spasmed and he came in my mouth. The salty, potent flavor was slightly sweet, showing he had a love of pineapple, as his semen flooded over my tongue. I looked him dead in the eyes and I worked every drop out of him, swallowing, letting him fill my mouth again, only to swallow again.

His member jerked around my mouth and hands as his head lolled back and his hands clinched into fists. I imagine to him it felt like I was drawing out his soul, which was exactly what I wanted him to feel as he had reduced me to a quivering mess I meant to consume him. He made a few more inarticulate cries and a weak little pulse would wash the flavor of him over my tongue again. I continued to press against his prostate and even though his manhood pulsed in my mouth, he was empty and and I'd taken him across the threshold where now he would be desperate to climax again.

With a final, purposefully sharp suckle at his cock, I lay back on the bed, his manhood in a grip of iron I guided towards my needy center. “Baise-moi espèce de bâtard Anglais!” I snarled at him and he needed no further encouragement in any language. His arms under my knees, he picked me up and half threw me further into the bed to make room for him as he scrambled on top of me.

His hands had my wrists and pinned me to the bed and that magnificent penis found my opening and slid into me in a single, endless thrust until the balls I'd just drained nestled against my buttocks. We were nose to nose and I could smell myself on his face and he doubtlessly could smell his seed on my breath, his eyes were wild and I knew there was no stopping this fury I'd whipped him into. No screaming of 'no' in any language would deny him the release he now had to take from me. “Vive La France,” he grunted, fully seated in me.

“God save the King,” I replied and it was if he was a stallion I'd put spurs to. He withdrew half way only to push back needily, forcing my abdomen to make room for him. Twice more he repeated this, a little faster each time as my body relaxed so he had room and he quickly build up to a frantic rhythm, desperate for the release I'd denied him. Our lips and tongues met as he took me with all his might.

A small eternity passed of being full of him, then empty and then full again. The expression on his face was frantic, desperate; doubtlessly because his loins were on fire. I smiled as I realized he was mine. I'd put him in this state, and he couldn't leave it without my say so. I lifted my legs around his waist and locked my heels, letting him feel the silk against his skin as he had his way with me. I got my hands free and reached up to him, caressing his face, soothing him. “Give it to me,” I whispered, my hands running through his hair. “Inside me, now, it's mine, I want it. Give it to me.” I gathered up a handful of hair and my voice became a bark of command. “Give it to me.

He reared back and forced himself balls deep into me and I felt the warmth of his release splash against my G-Spot and my own orgasm squeezed him as it washed through me. “Yes, that's it!” I encouraged him. “Tout ça, mon ami!” I purposefully flexed my Kegels which gripped him, making him jerk and cry out.

He filled me again, then his muscles gave out and he half fell, half flopped down on me, heavy, sweaty and wonderfully potent smelling. I took his head and laid it on my breast as I locked my heels behind his back again. “Sleep,” I whispered to him. “Rest, mon ami, you've earned it.” His eyes rolled up in his head and in seconds he was snoring softly. I ran my hands through his hair and smiled as I closed my eyes and relaxed myself. In my minds eye, I saw him lying naked on a computer couch, the helmet on his head and two orgasms worth of his sperm splattered all over him.

I smiled as I listened to him breathe as I pictured what I'd done to him. “My bitch,” I whispered, basking in the power that allowed me to reduce him to this. As I slipped into slumber myself, a final thought flashed through my mind.

Thaddeus was right, claiming him was exactly the right thing to do.

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I awoke to find my head on my hands and instead of the bed, a two and some odd meter studly nerd was beneath me. I raised my head a bit and as my awareness expanded, I discovered my 'bed' was also still quite inside me as well. My loins had a pleasant ache from use; his member, even soft was quite thick and long, which lead to a very pleasant feeling of being completely full. I stretched my neck until it popped and looked about to find my balcony door off the bedroom was open, letting in a delightful breeze and the sound of the sea, though the blinds were pulled.

A hanger stand was discreetly holding Nathan's suit, in a dry cleaning bag and all neatly collected. Even the shine on his Scarosso leather shoes was renewed, which brought a smile to my face. It wasn't the first time Thaddeus had taken care of a 'guest' of mine, nor likely seen me asleep, naked and in flagrante delicto, nor would it be the last, but I made a mental note to find some way of showing my appreciation for my head of house.

I turned to the face of the man I had seduced to find his clear blue eyes open and looking at me, the ghost of a smile tugging at his lips. “Bonjour,” he told me with a smile.

Bon après-midi,” I corrected him with a wink. “Now, aren't you glad you saw things my way?”

“Madam, your obedient servant,” he replied with a grin. I sat up and stretched, doubtlessly putting on quite a lewd show for him.

“We seem to have joined England and France,” I told him with a wink. His hands came up my thighs to gently caress my hips.

“I don't think I'll ever view the Chunnel the same way again,” he quipped.

I grinned at him and reached out my index finger to gently touch the tip of his nose. “Don't pout, William the Conqueror was the best thing to happen to England!” He sat up, his hands sliding behind my back to hold me against him eye to eye.

“This is a Battle I'll gladly fight again,” he told me as I hung my arms over his shoulders and leaned in to give him a kiss. He tasted and smelled of sex and having twenty plus centimeters of manhood deeply embedded in me, I realized it wouldn't take much to restart my libido.

I reached up and mussed the complete mess I'd made of his hair. “Mmmm,” I murmured. “That's a challenge I'll definitely take you up on,” I promised him. “In the meantime, we should probably make ourselves presentable.”

His hands slid down my back to cup my buttocks before he stood, effortlessly supporting me. “Where is your bath?” I pointed and he walked over as if he moonlighted as a porn star and did this kind of thing regularly. I kicked my shoes off and got my stockings off my legs as he took us into the bath. He held me one handed as he reached into my shower, got the water to a temperature, then carried me into it with him. There was a ledge that circled three quarters of the shower that he put my ass on, then rested his hands on either side of my hips.

I could feel him getting hard and looked him in the eye. “Water is not a lubricant,” I warned him.

He withdrew a bit, then rocked his hips forward. The crown of his stiffening manhood crowded up against my G Spot and sent a shock through me. “As wet as you are, do you think it will matter?” he breathed into my ear from where he was licking and nuzzling my neck.

“You think you can waltz into my shower and invade me like this?” I demanded and his hips began to develop a rhythm. He wasn't getting hard anymore.

“I'm English,” he whispered in my ear. “I can't help invading France.”

I answered him with a shower of obscenities in my native tongue even as my hand found the diverter in the wall and slapped it activating three other shower heads, one on each wall, even over the door of the glass wall so that hot water was cascading over us from every angle. Finally, the stream of obscenity turned into obscene urging of him. My back was pressed against the warm tile, my legs splayed wide while we kissed and urgently worked to add to the flood of his semen I was already full with. I rested my arms over his shoulders so I could caress his head as he plowed me.

The soreness in my loins turned to ache, but damn him I needed him to have me just as badly as he needed to take me. I wrapped my legs around him and guided his mouth to mine. My nervous system couldn't take the assault of his crown against my G Spot and I was undone. The climax made my canal clinch down hard on the invader that was stretching it to its limits. He grunted into my mouth as we kissed and I felt a new warmth flood into me. He jerked twice more, then stood still as we finished our kiss and broke apart. I was staring into his blue eyes, his hair plastered to his scalp, panting, my heart thundering in my chest even as my birth canal began to complain about how much it was being put to use all of a sudden.

He reached up and gently took my breast in his hand, rubbing his palm over my nipple in slow, lazy circles. “Where,” I panted softly, “where did you learn to fuck like this?”

His smile was almost boyish as he fondled my tit while his cock was buried inside me. “I might be very well read, but madam, you are the ultimate muse. You drew this from me. I was inspired.”

I laughed and shook my head. “Maestro, I can only hope to inspire further performances to match these.”

“Doubtless,” he assured me. I locked my heels in the small of his back and wiped at the water on my face.

“Tell me you haven't lied to me, Nathan,” I whispered. “Tell me if you have, come clean now and put it right or God as my witness you will know why Shakespeare said hell hath no fury like a woman!” His eyes looked into mine and took his hand off my breast to raise it as if giving an oath.

“I am not a terrorist, nor a member of some would be terror group. I am a computer security specialist for British Intelligence, attached to the Mission for the South of France.” I sighed, raised a hand and put it over his lips.

“Then I will help you,” I promised him. “Don't betray me, Englishman. I'm French and female and that's already two steps to being a complete hellion. Don't give me cause to take the third step.” He nodded with enough sincerity that I felt my warning was taken to heart. He stepped back and his phallus snaked out of me, leaving my canal with a soft pop which led to a small flood of his semen and my secretions. He helped me off the ledge as I watched our fluids combine and disappear down the drain.

Some part of me wondered if there was some strange symbolism my brain was pinging on.

We had almost innocent fun bathing each other from there, and when we were both clean, I turned the shower off and my towels got us dry. Back in the bedroom, I pulled the Sundress back on and turned to face him as he got his suit mostly back on, his shirt open and tie hanging like a scholars ribbon over his shoulders. “You should see to yourself in the real world,” I told him. “I imagine you'll want a shower.”

“I...I'll have difficulty thinking of that place as real,” he told me softly. “After this.”

I smirked at him. “Tell me if you feel the same way after your shower.”

He laughed and rubbed his head. “I...Will you be up later?”

“I imagine after that nap, I'll be up,” I told him. “I don't think I'll go out, and you're welcome to come by later.” His relief was a palpable thing.

“Thank you. I will.”

I smiled at him with my stomach in odd knots. “I'll look forward to it.” He called up the note program and quickly sketched out his phone number on it. He offered it and I took it, instantly adding it to my contacts list.

“That's my cell,” he told me. “My...out” I nodded my understanding.

“The server can cross talk to it.” I pantomimed a card trick slight of hand and card appeared between my fingers. “This is my card. I don't give this lightly.”

He smiled as he reached out and took it, stepping into my personal space. “I'll be back soon.” I nodded, then he leaned down and we shared a kiss that was almost chaste in it's tenderness, then he stood up, took the helmet off and vanished in a cloud of pixels. I reached up and touched my lips for a moment, remembering his lips against them, then sighed and shook my head at my own silliness while I called up the interface and granted him a permanent spawn point at my front door.

That taken care of, I got a fresh pair of stockings and after a moment of thought, a pair of panties and a garter belt that would blend into the sun dress. The bodice of the dress had a bra built into it, then my pumps back on my feet, I looked at the clock. It was nearly five so young master Kenneth should have arrived. From the safe I took the PPK and looked at the light reflect in the nickel of the slide. I hadn't planned for this diversion into international espionage, but a silly grin spread on my reflection in the gun. This is fun! I admitted to myself, better than anything I had planned.

I tucked the pistol back into its holster on my thigh.

If someone in a Neural Helmet wouldn't enjoy being shot, I as an Upload would have a much worse time. Spies played for keeps and I would need the pistol. I made a mental note to check the repercussions of being shot in Second Life and was ready to go be a femme fatale.

I opened my bedroom door and took a moment to stand up straight in the heels and became The Countess again. Then, head high, I strode down stairs. As I turned to descend the last course, I saw Thaddeus talking with a hologram next to the grand piano. VR headsets were not the only way to communicate with people in the NetVerse. All that was really needed was a screen, a camera and microphone.

In the real world, they saw a view of what their eyes would see on the screen. A controller would let them move about in the three dimensional space, if I allowed it in my Lair. Here, I saw a somewhat flat hologram of the person calling me. Standing next to my butler was a tall man, over twenty-five and under thirty five. His chestnut hair was pulled back in a short pony tail that had a few loose strands that gave his face character. He was clean shaven except for a Soul Patch and wore a dark suit with a black bolo tie and a silver slide that was oval in shape. His hands were clasped before him and he had rings on two fingers of each hand.

Thaddeus turned to me and bowed. “Madam, may I present Mr Blanc? Monsieur Blanc, I have the honor to introduce your hostess, the Countess Marion St. Clair du Bois.”

The stranger bowed and touched his forehead to give it flourish. “Charmed, my lady.”

“The pleasure is mine, Monsieur Blanc,” I replied. “I take it you are the representative of Professionnels de la Garde?

“At your service, my lady,” he declared in his gravelly voice. “Your principal is with me in the apartment outside your estate.”

“Any issues, Monsieur Blanc?”

He frowned for a moment and finally made a so-so gesture. “I believe, but cannot give hard evidence, my lady, that individuals attempted to follow us from the airport. I made sure to lose them before we came here, but it could be nothing but coincidence.”

“I appreciate your abundance of caution,” I complimented him. “I should like to engage your services for a bit longer, if you're amenable?” He bowed his head in acquiescence. “Outstanding, I'd like you remain my guest with my principal over the weekend. Just in case.”

“Did you wish to extend the contract with PG, my lady?”

I gave him a smirk as I followed his meaning. “If you're free for the weekend, Monsieur Blanc, I see no reason why we cannot contract privately for your spare time.”

He grinned and bowed again. “My lady is very generous. I'm happy to make myself available.”

“Excellent. If you need anything, you may contact Thaddeus. He can reach me if needed.” The hologram bowed and vanished as the call completed.

“Will Mister Marks be joining us for dinner, madam?” Thaddeus asked me.

“I believe so, Thaddeus. And I want to show my appreciation for your sterling service.” He gave me a curious look so I elaborated, “Isn't there something you'd like? Or a bonus perhaps?”

His classic features pulled into a smile. “Service, is its own reward, madam.”

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The French Rivera is known for it's sunny, perfect climate, but at this time of the year, with the changing of the seasons, there can be exceptional storms. They're rare, but when they roll in they can be all day affairs. This was such a storm we were 'enjoying' today. There was a gloom of early night as I sat on my covered balcony, taking in the sea air and the storm, watching lightening flash into the Mediterranean. Thaddeus' coffee was keeping me warm as I watched the storm and thought.

My research on the Second World was troubling to say the least.

Were I to 'die' I would not be able to continue to use this avatar. An avatar that every second I wore it felt strangely more and more like the me I should have been. I'd been many people in my time here in the NetVerse; soldiers, cyborgs, adventurers, 'party' girls and, with the polite cover removed, more than once I'd been a full fledged whore. Being bisexual, I'd been given license and ability to explore the most basic of human interaction and I'd gone exploring with a vengeance.

Despite all the human 'interaction' I'd enjoyed, all the bodies I'd worn and fetishes I'd sampled, none of them had been as real to me as who I had been in the real world. They were just roles I'd played sticking my thumb in the eye of the Universe that a drudge and wage slave had managed to claw their way into the Big House on the Plantation. I'd kicked in the locked door of the Great Party of Life and I was making up for lost time.

But this...this was different.

I'd owned this Lair for some time. I'd worn the bodies of six different women in my time here. I'd had trysts, boy toys, girl toys and in all this time, this had merely been a place to indulge in some of my baser instincts while 'working' to provide for my adventures in fantasy. The problem was, the longer I wore her skin, the less Marion St. Clair du Bois, Countess of Corsica felt like a role. This wasn't a character in a game I was playing, this...she...was, in a very real sense, becoming me.

The me some part of me had always wanted to be, but, beyond the fantasy of being nobility or rich or even just young and beautiful, each time I looked in the mirror, each time I saw her oval face and olive skin, the more I felt like Marion was a person, with a past, family, duties, obligations, schooling... Lightning flashed close in the bay, rapidly followed by a violent clap of thunder.

The face of Nathan Marks flashed in my mind and I realized what I was dealing with. My minds eye recalled me staring at the drain in the shower and remembered the mixture of his semen and my arousal fluid was ever so slightly pink. For all the sex I'd had as bevy of different women, none of them had a hymen before. I'd intended to use them as whores, I'd worn them like a whore and behaved that way. Marion was different, from creation, from how I'd imagined her to how I'd formed her.

Like the thunder out over the sea, I realized Marion St. Clair du Bois had just lost her virginity.

My eyes fell on the tablet with the EULA I'd just read and shuddered. The EU was strict in Second Life, if I 'died' I could never be Marion St. Clair du Bois again on this server. I wouldn't lose my house, that was tied to my account, nor would I lose the status Nathan and MI6 had provided that account. This body that I wore that I was so comfortable in I could take to hundreds of other servers and locations, from the far future to the distant past through history and imagination.

But never again in Monaco, in the House some part of me began to realize I'd bought, designed and built with her in mind. Never again the Countess of Corsica. Suddenly, my skin was not so virtual and it very much was in the Game.

The warmth of Thaddeus' coffee rolled over my tongue and down my throat. It was like a hug from the inside of my body, soothing my worry as if a loving father was assuring me everything would be alright in the end. “Countess?” The voice of Kenneth Gorton drew me back from these black thoughts and the maelstrom outside my home.

I turned and managed a smile as I beckoned to the young man to come out on the balcony. “Kenneth, welcome. Come, sit. How was your flight?”

The young man was wearing slacks and a polo shirt, though having not yet attended his wardrobe appointment, they likely came from a more pedestrian retail source in the United States. But I did appreciate that he was purposefully making changes to better himself. He came out to the table and pulled out a chair to sit next to me. “Bumpy,” he admitted as he sat down. “The storm here is just as bad as out in the Real World.”

“Don't worry, I've had all the utilities in your apartment hardened so you needn't worry about power or connection loss. I trust you and Monsieur Blanc are getting along well?”

His expression became very serious. “Man, that dude is scary!” he told me intimately. “Where did you find a pro hit man?”

I smiled at his youthful naiveté. “Not to worry, Professionnels de la Garde is an old company, very respectable with an impeccable reputation. Your safety is assured. Now, what have you brought me?” He opened the folder he had in his hand and started taking out photographs and laying them on the table in front of me.

“So, this is the real Nathan Marks,” he told me as I looked over a collection of Official Photographs, likely from government websites, as well as security feeds and Ring cameras the legality of my employee's access of I declined to bring up. Nevertheless those images perfectly meshed with the image I'd seen in his electronic ID. There was nothing different in them; a short, pudgy, man who was balding early and had very classic English features. While he would never be as tall as his avatar, if he began to haunt a gym in the real world and invested in a good toupe, the height difference between the real and the Idealized Nathan Marks would be their only difference. “Get this, he's...”

“A computer security attache for MI6 at their South of France Mission?” I asked him with an arched eyebrow. He blinked in astonishment and shook his head.

“How do you know that?” he demanded.

I smirked at his crestfallen look that I'd stolen his thunder. “He told me so,” I admitted. “ from the horses' mouth so to speak.”

He shrugged as though conceeding the point and laid out a different photograph. “Well, he wasn't the guy who showed up at my house. That's this fool, Carl Bellingham he doesn't appear to have a job, but there's a bunch of connections between him and Marks and MI6. What I want to know is what is a Britt Spy doing in LA?”

“I imagine he works at the British Consulate on Century Park avenue,” I told him before I took a sip of my coffee. “Probably keeping an eye on the British Nationals in Hollywood. Kenneth, you're going to find pretty names like Consulate and Mission cover up a lot of very ugly business. Even between allies as close as the United States and the United Kingdom.”

“Well, that equipment you sprung for let me dig pretty deep into a lot of cover stories. And while there are rumors of The Roundtable and The Society of the Elect that go back to before World War One, most of the stuff I found before are pretty recent; mostly in the last couple of months.”

I nodded as I looked over Mister Bellingham's photograph and picked up on several things I'd noted on Nathan's avatar. “Mister Marks would have me believe the entire operation is a sting affecting a British Billionaire.” Kenneth was already reaching into his folder. Out came a pair of photographs, one an athletic looking, dark skinned man in his mid thirties who was obviously of South Asian heritage. He was wearing tennis whites which darkened his tone, and was holding a racket. The second picutre was the same man, but only just recognizible.

He was laying in a hospital bed and based on the bandgages, diagnostic equipment and what not, what ever had happened to him he'd only just lived through. Indeed, the photo was a part a news article that had a bit of the headline stating, '...Lucky to Live Through Horrific Wreck...' “This is Aayansh Khatri,” Kenneth declared. “Textile and Clothing billionaire. He likes to keep a low profile, but I was able to find there's a lot of suspicious links between him and bunch of groups the Tin Foil Hat crowd are always talking about. A year ago he wrapped his Mclaren around a power pole at something close to a hundred and fifty miles an hour, almost killed him and this model he was with...”

“Isla,” I interrupted him.

“Yeah, that's her,” he agreed. “They're still together, believe or not, though she didn't fare any better in the crash than he did. They're both paralyzed from the neck down, but he paid for both of them to get DNI jacks, they've been living full time here in Second Life ever since.”

“Which neatly explains why Marks is trying to get close to him here, rather than the real world,” I mused. Kenneth leaned back and grinned at me.

“I also found out there's no such person as the Countess of Corsica.”

I arched an eyebrow at him. “Did you?” A gesture summoned my Patents of Nobility from the safe and I laid it on the table before him. “Are you sure?”

The self satisfied grin faded from his face as he read it, then looked up at me. “But, I mean, Wikipedia said...”

Now both of my eyebrows had ascended my forehead. “Wikipedia?” I demanded. “Master Kenneth, surely the computer expert I hired, at considerable expense, has more expertise than the shouting match and organized riot that is Wikipedia!”

He swallowed and gathered up the photographs. “Sorry, my lady, I...I thought...” I patted his hand when it was near enough.

“You've done well, Kenneth,” I assured him. “You've given me some important assurity.” He smiled as I reached over and touched the Patents to return it to safe keeping. “Now, I need you find out everything you can about Mister Khatri and what he's involved in. With a special interest in anything that would raise the eyebrows of your metallic chapeau friends.”

“I'll get right on it, my lady.”

He stood, but stopped when I raised a hand. “And Kenneth, I note your effort. You look quite dashing, it's a much welcomed improvement.”

“Thanks,” he grinned. “Uh, it's nice of you to notice.”

“Off you go,” I told him with a wink and when I was alone once more I sighed as I looked over the troubled sea and wondered what Mister Khatri might be into and how violent was he prepared to be to defend it. Along with what I should wear for dinner and the hoped for return of Mister Marks.

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By six that evening, full night had fallen because of the storm. The lights of Monaco were lit, but in the rain there wasn't much cheery about them. I couldn't be bothered to change from the sun dress, despite the hour. There was something in me that didn't feel like celebrating. The chill of the air, however, encouraged me to spend the rest of my evening indoors so I sat at the piano and let my psyche express itself and fingers began to tickle Chopin from the instrument.

Music had been a solace to me alive in the dreary days of work, sleep, work. Here, it was a way to give release to my inner soul and come to grips with myself, so Nocturne drifted from the piano. I heard the front door chime as my fingers danced, then Thaddeus answer it. My ears followed their footsteps through the halls, then stop, just before this great room at my back.

Neither spoke or even breathed as I played, lost in myself as my fingers found the keys from memory, until the final note hung in the air for a moment of resonance with the air itself and faded away to Thaddeus softly clearing his throat. “Mister Nathan Marks to see you, Madam.”

I sighed as I sat up straight and spun around on the piano's stool to face them. “Won't you come in, Nathan? Would you care for an aperitif?”

“I don't mind if I do,” he told me with a grin. “Uh...sherry, if that's convenient?” I nodded at Thaddeus who gave a half bow and strode across the room to the bar and began to rummage.

“Will you join us for dinner?” I asked him. He was actually wearing a pair of Chinos and a crisply pressed linen shirt that set his physique off nicely, which made me a little happy I still wore the sun dress.

“I'd be honored,” he assured me. He accepted the glass from Thaddeus and used it to indicate the piano I sat at. “I didn't know you played.”

“It's an amusing hobby,” I replied as I took my glass and inhaled the aroma of the alcohol. “Still, it would seem my parents money wasn't entirely squandered in the lessons.”

He walked over so I had to crane my neck to look up at him. “Now you're selling yourself short,” he protested. “I heard real talent, and I think even Chopin would agree with me.”

I smirked at him. “No need to flatter, Mister Marks.”

“Nathan,” he corrected softly. After an awkward moment of silence, he decided to switch topics. “Did Kenneth get here alright? I had some agents at the airport to escort him, but, well...” I smiled to myself and made a note to sweeten the offer to Monsieur Blanc, both for his vigilance and his skill.

“I had a driver meet him,” I replied with a smile. “Though I thank you for your concern. Any word from Mister Khatri about tomorrow?”

“His people tell me he's looking forward to the day,” he declared

“Mmmm,” I murmured around my sip. Once my palate was clear, I continued, “Tell me, Nathan, what makes you so certain Khatri has kidnapped your man...what was his name?”

“Cary Griffiths,” he told through his smile. “And I don't think Aayansh kidnapped him. But Aayansh is wrapped in tight with the people who did. Unfortunately, the data security of these people is beyond state of the art. They're all disgustingly wealthy, they can afford it.”

“Assuming they don't simply own the companies your government buys from,” I mused mostly to myself. “They'll get the best toys first and can pick and choose what they sell to the governments for outrageously inflated prices. Alright, so what is your plan?”

“I thought a two pronged attack,” he told me earnestly. “I'll continue to portray the Black Guard looking to get my own conspiracy co-opted into the ultimate levels, while you see if you can cultivate some kind of friendship with Isla. Our goal should be an invite to his private island over in the Greek Archipelago. There must be some kind of secure communications lines from the Second Life servers out to the real world.” He reached into his pocket and produced a little bit of plastic and wires with a jack on one end.

I reached out and picked it up off his palm. “What's this?”

“A virtual representation of a telecom trace,” he declared. “It will give us access to the groups private network. That will let my section of MI6 have a better understanding of this little billionaire club and, I hope, the location of Cary. Once we have that, SAS goes in and rescues him.” He waved at the little bit of technology. “That one is for you. Carry it with you if we get the invite and then just plug it into any of his phones or computer networks.”

I looked at him and arched an eyebrow. “That seems very seat of the pants, Nathan.”

He grimaced and nodded. “It is, but, until we can get a look into their network, we're all just guessing.”

“Alright,” I acquiesced. “So, where are you in the real world?”

“Home,” he told me. “I've also eaten so my body is taken care of.”

I arched an eyebrow at him. “And how was your shower?” His face went red from embarrassment and he managed a nod.

“Needed,” he admitted. “Desperately.”

“I'm pleased to have made a lasting impression,” I told him with a smirk. “Why don't you be my guest this evening and we can depart together tomorrow?

“I'd love to!” he declared eagerly. I leaned back on the piano and finished my sherry.

“I hoped you would,” I purred.

“Dinner is served,” Thaddeus declared from the doorway into the dining room.

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The sun was just a hint on the horizon when I woke. Nathan's arm was around my shoulders and he was breathing softly above me. For a moment I just laid in bed, enjoying the simple pleasures of being a woman. I considered seducing him, but it was obvious to me the three preformances I'd drawn from him yesterday had taken their toll. I'd playfully teased him last night and the pained look on his face, that stoic acceptance of preparing to do something that would hurt, was actually sweet. In the end, I'd just curled up beside him and pretended to be asleep and not hear the sigh of relief I wasn't about to demand a fourth curtain call from him.

Still, he was a prime specimen the way he'd sculpted this avatar, I couldn't help but admire his handiwork. If a few salacious thoughts tiptoed through my imaginiation, well, there was a fine line between being a cocktease and being cruel. My own loins were still a touch sore from 'entertaining' him so it wasn't as if I might have some discomfort to pay for as well. Best to be considerate.

I stealthily snaked out of his arm and sat up in the bed to stretch. The carpet made sure my footfalls were silent as I crossed my bedroom and took a clean bathing suit from the drawer. Then it was a simple matter to creep out of the room and up the stairs to the roof.

Dawn was a golden line out to sea in the direction of the Apennine Peninsula, as I walked from the steps around the pool to the deep end and my table and chairs that overlooked the bay. I draped my towel over the back of the chair as I stretched, smiling as the stars of a completely clear sky twinkled overhead.

It would be a beautiful day in paradise. Time to get to work.

I dove into the pool, whose temperature had suffered from the all day rain and was actually cold. I broke the surface again to catch my breath as my nipples stiffened against the swimsuit. I slicked my hair back from my eyes and started my laps, concentrating on my form and rhythm as I swam. Gasp for air, sharp blade of the hand to pierce the water, face submerged, pull and kick and repeat. Touch the edge of the pool, fold in half under water and push for the far side.

My body at work, my mind began to consider the possibilities.

Nathan's fishing expedition was the wishful plan of an amateur. IF this, then perhaps that would if all went well allow for the other. He was a lovable type, but I understood why he'd been laughed off all the trials for becoming a field agent. Everything he'd learned about field craft had been taught by Sean Connery or Pierce Brosnan. I had no doubt of his sincerity, but his plan would likely get us killed. If you hadn't lost your temper at Le Bar Salle Blanche you would have had all day yesterday to plan, I scolded myself. Well, not all day...

I encountered the edge of the pool when I didin't expect it and it spoiled my transition. I shook my head for losing my concentration and fell back into the rhythm. It didn't do any good to roll in recriminations now; now was the time to figure out how to turn things to our advantage. As far as today went, sailing on that beast of a boat and a horse race should be safe enough. Where things got hairy would be if Nathan's plan actually succeeded and we were invited to Greece. There, things would be out of our control and dangerous.

Most likely this would just be a day out and nothing would come of it. That, ironically, was the safest outcome. Nathan tries to charm his way into an invite, fails and we regroup back here. Then what? I realized it would be important that I had a plan before Nathan tried something even more hare brained. But what?

I came to the edge of the pool again, but instead of immediately launching myself to the far side, I treaded water for a bit and thought. With a flick of my shoulders, I rolled onto my back and floated, watching the dawn slowly chase the stars away as my mind turned on ways to accomplish what my goals were. Goal One: MI6 had suspicions about Aayansh Khatri and needed to confirm if there was a pending threat to encourage mass migration into the NetVerse. Goal Two: Agent Cary Griffiths needed to be located and rescued. Goal Three: If the conspiracy Khatri is suspected of being a part of was, in fact, true, it needed to be disrupted so that the greatest amount of human murder since Mao's Great Leap Forward is prevented.

The sky brightened until only Ursa Major, could be picked out over head.

I floated, contemplating the great She Bear of Heaven and thought. Problem: How to access the secure networks of a multi-national conspiracy? Nathan's plan was to get close to a quadriplegic Billionaire, sweet talk our way onto his private island Lair... The star Muscida, the head of the She Bear faded from the sky that was rapidly becoming blue. My legs and torso sank back into the water and treaded it as it as I followed this new inspiration of thought. Greece was a member of the European Union. For Khatri to own an entire island in the Grecian Archapelgo here in Second Life, he had to own the real island as well. “Thaddeus!” I called out and within moments, I heard his footsteps on the steps up from the house.

“You called, madam?” he greeted, a silver tray in hand with a coffee service and other items I couldn't see.

“I did,” I affirmed, as I swam over to the table. The ladder allowed me out of the pool and my good right hand was already holding my robe for me to slip into. “Would you be so good as to step up to the GateHouse? I'd like to speak with Master Kenneth and Monsieur Blanc.”

“Certainly, Madam,” he replied from pouring my first cup. “In the meantime, I thought you might want a little something light to tide you over until your Brunch with Mister Marks.”

I caught his shoulder, leaned in and kissed him on the cheek. “I don't know what I would do without you, Thaddeus.” My butler actually blushed in the ruddy morning light and smiled at me.

“It is my deepest pleasure, my lady.”

“I will find something for you, Thaddeus,” I warned him. “Some gift for all you've done.”

He bowed from the neck. “My dear young lady, you have already given me that gift.” My questioning look caused him to continue. “When you returned to us, I steadied myself for another of your adventurous outings. But, no sooner had I laid eyes on you, something told me the proverbial winds had shifted. That my lady has been studiously acting like a lady, would be gift enough. Though we note how you immediately sought to protect young Master Gorton and took him under your wing. Even turning a onetime enemy into a loyal retainer, well, words fail, madam.”

“Nathan?” I asked, startled. “I was just following your advice.”

He smiled at me again. “Far better than I tendered it,” he assured me. “I meant only to wash an infatuation from your mind, but you've done far more than that. My lady may not see it, but a servant recognizes another servant. The only time we will see the back of Mister Marks is at your dismissal.”

I smiled at him. “You're wonderfully bold this morning, Thaddeus. Keep calling me on my bullshit, I'm liking it.”

“As you wish. Now, if my lady will excuse me, I shall fetch Master Gorton and Monsieur Blanc.

I smiled as I watched him go, then sat down to a tray of fresh fruit and a cinnamon raisin bagel. Between delicious bites, I summoned a tablet and began to quickly write out instructions. I was just finishing as Thaddeus returned, trailing behind him was a yawning Kenneth and, wonder of wonders, Monsieur Blanc in his black suit. He bowed first, Kenneth quickly following suit. “Gentlemen, good morning,” I greeted and gestured at the coffee service. “Coffee?”

“Yes, please,” mumbled Kenneth, but Blanc only arched an eyebrow.

“Does that work?” he asked.

“Depends on how you're interfaced,” I replied, but before he could look more confused, Kenneth turned from mixing his coffee to me.

“My mom packed my 'trodes even though I don't need them anymore, so I loaned them to Jacques.”

“Ah,” I declared as I wiped my lips. “Then, yes, Monsieur Blanc, your body will react as it would to the caffeine in coffee as though you drank it.” He nodded, obviously impressed, and began to pour himself a cup as well. “It will also taste and feel hot, so be careful,” I warned him.

“Amazing,” he muttered, pausing to sniff the aroma and nod his appreciation.

A sip of my own got my mouth clear and settled a gaze on him. “So, Monsieur Blanc, I find myself in need of a permanent man of your skills and talents amongst my retainers. That you come from Professionnels de la Garde would be sufficient recommendation, however I have independantly verified your concern of being followed yesterday and discover you broke the tail of a pair of MI6 agents. My congratulations, sir.”

“Dude,” complimented Kenneth.

For himself, Jacques Blanc only smiled a small smile and raised his cup and gratitude. “Hearing who they work for, I would have thought better of them, that someone with my skills could lose them.”

“No need for modesty, Monsieur Blanc,” I directed him. “That is skill I have use for, and I am willing to pay for it. What would you say to entering my employ on a full-time basis?”

He looked at me for a moment, then his eyes explored what he could see of my home. He mulled it over for a moment, then bowed again. “Je suis votre homme, Comtesse,” he declared.

Très bien, monsieur Blanc,” I replied with a smile, then slid the tablet across the table at them. “I expect you'll need to give a notice to Professionnels de la Garde, I'll make arrangements for that after this matter is resolved. If I must extend my services with them to cover the overlap, so be it. We can arrive at our understanding at that time.”

Comme vous le dites, comtesse,” he replied in his gravelly voice.

“Uh, my lady,” Kenneth interrupted from looking over the tablet. “I don't even know how many laws this will break...”

I smiled at him. “Not to worry, Master Kenneth, you are in the service of Marion St. Clair du Bois, Comtesse de Corse. I protect my own.”

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Le Sunrise was one of two restaurants at the Yacht Club de Monaco which existed to serve a brunch from noon to three after which, the dinner restaurant Le 1909 opened. The Club itself occupied a new building built to resemble a ship with it's teak flooring and ship railings on its numerious balconies. It sat on the pier overlooking the Marina and harbor under the shadow of the Monte-Carlo Hotel Casino. It was the very European mixture of what could be considered elite sportsmen of the competitive yachtsmen who shared the club with royalty, nobility and the extremely well off, argent neuf ou ancien. This casual combination frequently confused noneuropeans, Americans in particular, but to the sophisticate, elite was elite, whether it was in the matter of sport, blood or business.

Which brings us to the question of why do people in a virtual environment eat?

For the same reason we make love, of course; it's enjoyable. Eating is a deeply imbedded pass time in the human animal; we spend about an hour everyday eating and drinking. On average, that amounts to over twenty years in a lifetime. That's a habit that's not easily broken, even if we didn't enjoy it. Add in the social nature of eating and, well, it's inclusion to the Second Life was a must.

Nathan's Maybach oozed into the valet overhang at a fashionably late ten past the hour. I had my door opened by the valet's assistant as the valet took the keys from Nathan. I took Nathan's arm as he offered it to stride into the club. Le Sunrise was on Deck Two of the club, whose building referred to its floors as Decks to underscore the nautical theme. Speaking of nautical themes, Nathan was looking like quite the yachtsman in a white cable knit turtle neck sweater under a blue blazer and chinos. All he needed was a mariner's cap and people would start calling him 'captain.'

For myself, I'd settled on a light red maxidress that complimented my olive complexion and clung perfectly to my form to just after my hips, then relaxed in to a smooth, flowy ankle length with a just above the knee slit on both sides that gave me very easy freedom of movement. It was a spagetti strap tank up top with a generous, but not lewd amount of decolletage that I paired with scarlet stockings of a lace pattern and red, Prada pumps.

We got to Le Sunrise, quickly enough and out onto a terrace where Aayansh Khatri stood from his table and waved us over. This was the man in tennis whites that Kenneth had shown me, young, fit, and darker complected than me, but not by too much. He wore his black hair short in an executive cut with a white polo shirt under a blue blazer and white pants. At his right hand was Isla.

She didn't look thirty, which was what I vaguely remembered was her age, but then I didn't look my age either. In fact, we both looked to be about twenty four. Her midback hair was blonde and her skin was bronze either from tan or genetics I didn't know. She had intense green eyes that seemed far more intelligent than a model is given credit for. Even sitting down, you could tell she was exceptionally tall, likely taller than he was, but that wasn't uncommon for models. She was wearing a bright gold one piece swim suit as a top under an eggshell pants suit.

Nathan shook hands with Aayansh. “Good to see you again,” he declared warmly.

“We've only been waiting a moment,” Khatri replied, then his eyes came to me. “But this was certainly worth waiting for.”

Nathan chuckled as he gestured to me. “I have the honor to introduce Marion St. Clair du Bois, Countess of Corsica.” Aayansh's eyes opened wider at my title and bowed from the neck as he took my hand to kiss.

“I'm deeply honored, my lady. May I introduce my companion, Isla?” I turned to find the model staring at me with an otherwise neutral expression, but her eyes glared daggers. It was obvious that she viewed me as a threat, which suggested that her billionaire boyfriend's eyes, and perhaps other parts of him, wandered.

I smiled and nodded at her, making a point to look her directly in the eye. “Charmed,” my voice declared, while my eyes declared, you don't intimidate me. She gave a half bow from the neck and reached for her juice.

“Milady,” she drawled, her London accent unmistakable. Nathan pulled out my chair for me and I sat while turning over my water goblet for the waiter who was coming over with the juice carafe. “Aayani says we're going sailing, beautiful day for it.”

“Especially after yesterday,” I agreed with her. “The joys of Monaco, I'm afraid. We don't get many storms, but they do linger when they come.”

Khatri flashed his brilliantly white, perfect teeth. “To receive a day like this is a fair exchange. Ah, allow me, my lady,” as he produced a bottle of Dom Pérignon he mixed into my glass as the waiter poured, turning my orange juice into a Mimosa. I smiled at him as I lifted the glass once both were done and held it up in salute.

“What are we drinking to?” I asked, noting Isla roll her eyes, but Aayansh gave me his full attention.

“Rule, Britannia!” snapped Isla, who didn't bring her glass up to anyone else, but sipped whether her sentiment was accepted or not.

“I'll drink to that,” Nathan cried, and Aayansh agreed with him and the touched their glasses to mine.

“Indeed,” Khatri enthused, then turned back to me. “Tell me, my lady, do you think, with the Yellow Vests, perhaps Belle France shall join the United Kingdom by taking their leave of the so called EU?” It was interesting to compare the men at the table, the pointedly direct billionaire and my loveable would be spy with his circular approach to everything.

“Let's not spoil the day with politics,” I replied with a smile, which immediately perked up Isla for some reason. Aayansh's eyebrow acended his low forehead in surprise.

“Really?” he laughed. “I'm surprised! Nathan wants to bring politics into everything, how odd.”

“Odd?” I asked. “Hardly, Mister Khatri. There are few things as hopelessly without use as a member of the French Peerage. I may have a good name and an interesting title, but I haven't set foot on the island of my birth in years. I'm not enriched by my fief, why should I worry about being bothered with actually governing it?”

“Opposites truly attract!” Aayansh laughed as I took a sip of my somewhat strong Mimosa. “Well, I see I'll have to narrow my debates to Nathan on the virtues and failures of democracy.”

“The greatest freedom in life is being able to divorce oneself from the political tread mill to simply enjoy life,” I opined and this time Isla raised her glass at me as if she was rethinking her initial impression.

“Too right!” she announced. Further sparring was interrupted by the arrival of our waiter for our order. I decided to be simple and somewhat traditional by ordering the charcuterie with a croissant. As brunch was a simple service off a steam table buffet we were soon eating.

Conversation was somewhat stifled by this. The tension was noticeable, though not uncomfortable. We were just acquaintances sharing a meal. In fact, my first impression of this billionaire, was that he seemed far too concerned with enjoying himself to be caught up in an international conspiracy. As I was spreading the last of my farmhouse pâté a tall, dashing figure in what looked like Navy whites entered the restaurant and after a moment of looking, proceeded to come directly to our table. “Mister Marks?”

Nathan stood at the man's greeting, quickly clearing his mouth. “Ladies and gentleman, let me introduce Captain Andilet, he's the head of my crew aboard the Britannia” Captain Andilet half bowed and tipped his cap to the table, then turned back to Nathan.

“I'm afraid I have bad news, sir. The Britannia took a bit of rough go of it yesterday from the storm. She struck the dock several times, and the damage isn't slight. We took on a fair bit of water. My lads have the flooding under control, but she'll need a shipwright to oversee the repairs.”

“Oh no,” explaimed Khatri. “Well, not to worry, Nathan, my yacht was out in the anchorage and I'm told she weathered the storm fine. We can go out on mine.”

“Now I feel terrible, Aayansh, this is twice plans have changed and been my fault,” Nathan told him.

“Nonsense,” the billionaire replied dismissively. “We'll have a wonderful day out and the boat doesn't matter. Captain, would you care to join us?”

Andilet bowed again. “You're very kind sir, but I should get back and see about repairs.”

“Of course, fairer sailing.” He took out a cellphone and started dialing. “Well, let me just give my crew a call and see about a launch out to her and we'll finish up brunch and be on our way!”

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Billionaires, I discovered, do everything to excess. When we went down to the docks, waiting for us was a ten meter cabin cruiser that was a yacht in its own right, complete with galley, bedding and a full head. We were taken a board then taken out into the bay to a one hundred meter long mega yacht. On her stern was a helipad with a squat Bell 412 helicopter tied down to it. Forward was a superstructure that probably could rival a small hotel with state rooms and other amenities. Interestingly, she was flying a Union Jack, as her ensign and I could only ponder why a billionaire who could certainly afford to register his vessel in one of any number of less expensive and more permissive states chose to deal the regulatory headache that was United Kingdom registration.

It would certainly appear that a statement was being made.

Our yacht being used as a launch was actually hauled aboard with a custom davit that seemed made for it and we came aboard to a greeting of exceptionally attractive young people in nautically themed, but honestly suggestive 'uniforms' and of all things, a Boatswain's call. A pole dancer and a rugby player took the bags Nathan and I were carrying respectively to our cabins which was remarkably chaste considering the uniforms nearly rising to the level of fetish wear.

Or perhaps Mister Khatri hoped to indulge in his roaming body parts.

With great ceremony the anchor was weighed and an air horn that would have made a battleship give way sounded which announced we were off. A steward came by with champagne and Aayansh was all smiles. “A toast!” he proclaimed. “To new friends!”

I raised my flute, noting from where we were standing on the flying bridge, perhaps ten full stories from the sea that down below us was what looked like a full-sized pool and hot tub on the main deck. He noted my gaze and followed it. “Would you care for a dip, Countess?”

I smiled. “I am something of an avid swimmer.”

“Of course!” he exclaimed with another flash of perfect teeth. He turned to the bridge crew and mock saluted the man with the most braids, beside ourselves, the oldest looking person I’d seen thus far. “Captain, the bridge is yours. Come, my friends, a pool party it is!”

“Captain has the con,” one of the young men off to the side announced.

“Isla, my darling, would you show the Countess to her cabin? This way, Nathan.”

The supermodel came to me, such that I had to crane my neck up at her. In her heels she was probably Nathan’s two meters at least. “Right this way, milady,” she declared in a decidedly more friendly tone than she’d used so far. We decended two flights of stairs into a hallway that would have been at home on a four-star cruise ship. We arrived at a door marked Four that she opened. “Here we are,” she said, leading the way inside. There I found a spacious accommodation with a queen-sized bed, a sitting area with comfortable looking chairs, a seatee, even a table and chairs. On the aft bulkhead was a head with a shower and there was even a door leading out to a balcony.

“My word, this is very generous,” I declared, turning slowly to appreciate the room. By the time I had returned my attention to the exceptionally tall woman, her hands were on her hips.

“Yes, Aayani is very generous,” she told me. “And he's taken.

I smiled at her. “Not to worry, I don't poach.”

Her head turned slightly as though she were carefully considering the statement. “Well, then, word to the wise, he does,” she confided. “But don't think he wants anything from you but a notch on his bed post.”

“As I indicated, I'm not after your man,” I replied a bit more forcefully. “And if he is stepping out on you, why do you put up with it?”

She shrugged and looked away. “He's a billionaire, so he's used to getting his way. He's taken care of me since the accident, so I turn a blind eye to his slags. They don't mean anything to him.”

“Ah,” I realized. “Well, thank you for the compliment of not sorting me with that kind of company.”

“So long as we see eye to eye, it's brilliant. Just make sure he doesn't catch you alone.”

Merci pour l'avertissement,” I told her.

She nodded with significant weight. “The pool is one deck down and forward. Cheers.”

The door closed on her and I shook my head. I never cease to be amazed at the wagons some will hitch themselves to chasing, what? Security? It was what I'd fought against my whole life and this after life come to it. I would take my fate into my own hands, but some, I suppose, will always favor comfortable servitude over dangerous freedom. There are times, the cattle brand themselves.

I opened the door out onto the balcony letting the salty air of the Mediterranean Sea into the room. I looked about to be sure no one paying attention to me either electronically or by the old Mark I Rev 1 eyeball. Satisfied I was alone, I touched my ear so that the interface wasn't activated and whispered, “Kenneth Gorton.”

On the third ring, the line was picked up. “Hello?”

“Talk to me Kenneth.”

“The Britannia hasn't left the dock, but I see Khatri's Viceroy is putting out to sea...”

I rolled my eyes. “I'm aware, as I am on it. Britannia was damaged in the storm so Nathan and I are both here.”

“What does that do to the plan?”

I looked back into the cabin to be sure I was still alone. “Nothing. Situations change, that's the nature of warfare. What were you able to discover?” I heard the tapping of a keyboard over the line.

“You were right, Khatri does own that island here and really. He had the beginnings of a home on it, but construction stopped when he wrecked his Mclaren.”

I nodded, impatient and worried I'd be overheard. “Good work. Now, expand your search to any property he might own here in Monaco and the south of France. Businesses, residences, anything.”

“Will do, boss. Are you and Mister Marks going to be ok?”

“Don't worry about us,” I ordered him. “Listen to Monsieur Blanc and the two of you stay alert. I'll contact you again when I can.” I took my hand off my ear and the line dropped. That done, I went back into my cabin and opened the little day trip bag I'd brought. Inside, I removed my favorite bikini which was in a tropical floral print of mostly reds and greens with a matching sarong of the same print and laid it out on the bed while I took off the Maxidress which I hung on a hanger in the cabin's hanging locker. The pistol and it's garter holster I took off my hose and tucked it between the mattress and the head board, under the pillow. Most searches would lift the mattress by the foot or mid point to look for hidden things, and pick up the pillows. It was the best hiding place the cabin offered.

That done, I stripped off the stockings and my Prada's to swap out the bikini. Once I had the sarong the way I wanted it around my hips, I took a pair of swiming shoes from the bag and put them on, then went looking for the pool.

A deck down from our cabins was a central corridor that ran fore and aft that was closer to the technical areas of the ship. Interestingly, I passed a doorway labeled Radio Shack which I filed away as interesting as I went forward. I passed a few of the crew as these were evidently the deck of their quarters as well, and they uniformly stepped out of my way as I did so.

Finally, I came to a hatch that opened onto the deck at the bow of the ship. Down a short course of steps was a wide space for entertaining, passing a fully tricked out DJ booth, a tiki bar, a hot tub that would have been at home in a mega fitness center and finally an olympic sized pool with plenty of deck and deck chairs around it to take in the sun.

Aayansh and Nathan were in the shallow end of the pool, Nathan in a pair of trunks that were tight like a faux wet suit that made his bulge quite prominent but just stepped aside of being leud. Khatri, on the other hand, wore baggy swimsuit trunks that went to his knees sporting an extremely loud and colorful geometric pattern. Isla came out the hatch behind me, having shed the pants suit and her one piece for a bikini bottom and electing to go topless. She noted I was wearing both pieces of my bikini, smirked as if satisifed she was one up, and continued to the pool.

To say her fashion choice made a splash would be a bit of an understatement.

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It was a very pleasant day to be at sea. The skies were clear, the Mediterranean unusally calm and of course the accommodations were first rate. Truth be told, the Viceroy was really more of a medium ferry than a private yacht. The opulence was on display, but it's excess couldn't really hide the fact that a fair amount of compensation for something was going on.

After our impromptu pool party, where Isla's toplessness seemed to have its desired effect on having her lover's eyes back on her, Aayansh insisted on us staying for dinner and we could cruise under the star light back to Monaco. I retired to my cabin, made sure my PPK was still in its hiding place, which it was, and began to lay out my evening attire. A knock interrupted that and, remembering Isla's warning, I didn't immediately open the door. “Who is it?”


I opened the door to find him back in his slacks and sweater and invited him in with a gesture. “What's wrong?” I asked as he entered and shut the door. He held a finger up to his lips and fished a little gismo out of his pocket.

“Is there something wrong with wanting to spend time with a beautiful woman?” he announced, for the benefit of whoever he thought was listening.

I decided to humor him and ask, “Do we have time for this before dinner?”

“We can be fashionably late,” he replied as he worked the little gismo and finally sighed. “All clear. I'm surprised there isn't eavesdropping equipment in these cabins.”

“He probably doesn't feel the need,” I replied as I reached up and undid the knot holding my top on as I walked towards my bath to hang it. He noted my toplessness, but said nothing. He came to the door of the bath that I hadn't closed as I did the same to the sarong and the bikini bottom. He shifted his weight and noted the perdiciment I'd given him and gave him a sly smile.

He licked his lips and finally got his mouth to ask, “Wh...why do you say that?”

I smiled as I walked over to him, nude to rub a finger under his jaw. “Because if you weren't so busy staring at me, you would notice the sun through the door to my balcony.” With noticible effort, he turned to look and then back to me. “The sun is out my balcony,” I elaborated for him. “This cabin is on the starboard side of the ship, so we're now sailing east, not north. For all the time we spent in the pool, we're probably far enough south to be around the boot of Italy. We're being kidnapped.”

“This is good,” he decided after a moment of thought. “We want on his island...”

“No, Nathan,” I corrected him. “If he's taking us somewhere, he must have satisfied whatever suspicion he had about you. I imagine very shortly, our status will change from honored guests to prisoners.” He made a calming gesture.

“Not necessarily,” he declared after a moment of thought. “It could be he's finally decided to include the Society of the Elect into the conspiracy. We should play this cool, see where he wants to go with it.”

“There's something else to consider,” I told him as I got by him and padded over to the bed and my bag. “While we have 'guest' status, we may want to make our play. The Radio Shack is below my cabin. I can probably get in from my balcony and plant your trace.”

“If you're caught, that would give us away,” he replied.

“We may not have another opportunity,” I shot back. He thought for a moment, then looked me in the eye.

“He's got to feel like he's in charge,” he reasoned. “You noticed we aren't going the right way, so he's not worried about us being found out. We can learn a lot from this. Do you trust me?” I frowned at him, and walked back from the bed.

“I wouldn't allow myself to be in this situation if I didn't,” I told him. “But consider this, if we are killed, I can't use this avatar here again.”

He blinked in shock. “You have lots of avatars...” he started but, I cut him off with a sharp gesture.

“Nathan, this is who I want to be. This body, this life, Monaco has always been my retreat, my safe space. I trust you enough to risk this, just know how important this is to me.” He took me into his arms and kissed my forehead. It honestly felt nice and safe and I actually felt comforted which drew a sigh from me.

“I won't let him hurt you,” he promised. “My gut tells me this is an opportunity. But, it won't hurt to have a back-up plan.”

I sighed and stepped back, confident even in my nudity. “Depending on the state he keeps that Bell 412 in, I can have it airborne in three to five minutes.”

“You can fly...? Of course you can,” he replied. “That's a lot of wiggle room if we're running for our lives.”

I shrugged. “I can't account for how he keeps it. Cold and dark? Five minutes, at least. Something close to stand by? Three or so. I can't be more exact until I'm sitting at the controls.” I cupped my chin for a moment. “It might be faster to clamor on board that ten meter cruiser he's using for a dingy, drop it loose and get away on it.”

“Fall backs of fall backs are good,” he agreed, then made a vague gesture at my state. “You, uh, you should probably get dressed.”

I arched an eyebrow at him. “Tired of me au natural already?”

His grin was salacious. “I don't have time to show my appreciation just now.”

“I'll hold you to that.”

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For dinner, Thaddeus had packed my black asymmetric dress with it's ruffled, flower like detail on the neck and shoulder strap. The slits would give me ample freedom of movement, and ready access to my faithful little PPK. I tucked it into it's garter holster and they in turn held up some simple back seam stockings and a pair of Valentino Garavani ankle strap pumps with brass accents. I may not understand the Italian fascination with pointed toed shoes, but I have to admit they make a damn sexy shoe. My black opera gloves completed the outfit.

Fortunately, virtual pools do not require virtual chlorine so my hair dried back in it's normal easy about my shoulders look. I find that combination of being dressed to the nines but having loose hair led to electric response in the males of the species far more than more complicated up dos. I think it had some hint of loose hair might equal loose woman inspired more hope than might be warranted by some, but at least I knew I would look like a stack of money in any denomination or nation of origin.

My evening look accompanied by just the right amount of slightly dramatic lip and eye shades, I took Nathan's arm and we were led to the Grand Salon where evidently Mister Khatri took his meals and entertained his guests. Nathan had quickly swapped out his 'at sea' look for his tuxedo so we were something of a matched pair.

Isla had decided on the red version of the little black dress which looked to have been painted on by a Dutch Master rather than tailored. Aayansh, on the other hand, was channeling his inner Indiana Jones with a white dinner jacket with red tie and cummerbund. He was grinning, arms spread as he came from the table to seat us, making a point to kiss my hand again. “Welcome, welcome! Countess, you look positively ravishing.”

I looked at him askance and decided to be coy. “Oh, I hope not,” I purred. “That could be extremely awkward considering present company.”

“Your talent for double entendre is magnificent, Countess,” he countered, undeterred. “Come, sit with us and let us share a meal.” Nathan seated me, before settling next to me and the stewards went about filling glasses with a sparkling white wine that wasn't champagne. Aayansh raised his glass, once we were all served. “With apologies, to our guest from Belle France, Lady, sir, I give you Charles, third of the name, by the grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of His other Realms and Territories King, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, and Sovereign of the Most Noble Order of the Garter. Long may he reign!”

“God save the King,” Nathan replied as he raised his glass. For myself, I am not so French that I could not be polite and so raised my glass in salute and tasted a very sweet wine that without carbonation would be more suited to the dessert course.

I caught the look Isla gave me, as if a touch confused a French woman could tolerate talk of the British Monarchy. I just gave her a smile and took another sip of the wine. Aayansh returned his glass to the table, still all smiles as his crew opened the meal with a Consomme of Beef that was a touch salty to my palate. After a tasting of the soup, I decided to comment, “Sadly gentlemen, at Charles' age, I doubt you will get your wish of a long reign.”

Aayansh's mouth happened to be full, and I was surprised that Isla chose to answer. “Likely right,” her London accent a touch stronger as her surprising patriotism came to the surface. “Still, the Line is in good hands. Looks to me like William and Kate might be a new Golden Age for the Empire.”

“Is Britain still an Empire?” I asked in what I hoped was an innocent tone. “Didn't even Charles decline to use the title?”

“Is a burned down house still a house?” Aayansh asked philosophically. “If the debris is cleared away and a new house constructed on the foundation of the old is it, in fact, new?”

“Theseus' paradox?” I replied. “An interesting observation, Mister Khatri. Do you think the British Empire should go colonizing again?”

His dark features became serious. “What was so wrong with colonization?” he countered. “Now people shriek about the evils of the Colonial Powers, yet will not consider the good that was done. The civilization the British Empire brought.”

I smiled at him. “I'm French, and Corsican, I have no place to speak on such things.”

Au contraire,” he protested. “The French Empire did as much good and the British. And Corsica has been conquered and reconquered so many times it is nearly the melting pot the Americans boast of being. Greek, Italian, Roman, French, Norse, Crusader, Moor, who has not invaded Corsica?”

“I imagine such events were hardly celebratory for the Corsicans at the time.”

That struck him as funny. “Indeed! But, now, here we can spread a new empire and no one has to suffer. In the Digital Realm there is no want, no hunger, no disease, the Garden of Eden man has sought to return to since the expulsion.”

The empty bowls of soup were removed for a delicate little morsal of salmon that was almost more of a work of art than a plate of food with seasoning, garnish and just enough heat to sear the meat without drying it out. “My compliments to your chef,” Nathan declared after his first bite. “This is amazing.”

“And it proves my point,” Aayansh boasted with a grin. “While toil in the so called 'real world' when here everyone can enjoy the life until now only a few could.”

“Everyone wants to go to Disneyland,” I drawled. “But everyone complains about the crowds.”

“Yet the technology of the NetVerse allows for so many places, so many instances of the same reality, crowds become a thing of the past,” he declared with enthusism.

I sat my fork down and touched my napkin to my lips. “If you are so sold on the NetVerse, Mister Khatri, why am I the only Upload at the table?”

He smiled again, as he reached out to take Isla's hand. “There is one thing this paradise does not offer; children! While Isla and I are still anchored by our broken bodies, we are both young and hope to have a family. I have the money to have that taken care of and we are in the process of working out ways to raise our children without depriving them their physical development. But, at some point, we'll be Uploads as well.” He sighed and became grave. “Which is why I have you as our guests. In hopes of persuading you not to interfer with the paradise I'm in the process of creating.”

“I was wondering why your captain was so leisurely in his maneuvers,” I said softly. “So, we are not going to Monaco, where are we going?”

He sighed again. “Until I am more certain of your allegiance, Countess, I prefer to remain coy on that account. You and Mister Marks will be returning to Monaco once our evening concludes. Safely, of that you have my word, but I can't risk what I've started on being wrong about you two.”

“What is it you think we are?” Nathan asked. “Perhaps we can settle this now...”

“Oh, I know who you are, Nathan,” Khatri replied. “My organization keeps tabs on everyone in MI6. I was surprised to find they sent a computer security specialist to try and get close to me. No slight, sir, for someone who isn't a field agent you carried yourself well, you nearly had me fooled. No, where I'm curious is you, Countess. Why are you a part of this?”

“A part of what, exactly?” I asked, trying to deflect, but his face became stoney and remarkably firm.

“Don't insult my intelligence,” he declared flatly, but there was plenty of threat in the tone. “No answer? Well, fair enough, I keep my own secrets so I cannot be upset that you do. Pity.” He pressed a button on the side of the table I hadn't noticed until now and two beefier members of his crew appeared. Their uniforms were very practical and not in the least fetish wear. He stood, wiping his mouth as he did so. “You'll have to forgive me for interrupting dinner. I hope I can make it up to you at some point.” He raised his gaze to the hench men. “Conduct Mister Marks and My Lady Countess du Bois to the helicopter and return them to Monaco. Good evening, Countess, Nathan. I hope we meet again under better circumstances.”

For a moment, I considered drawing my pistol, but a soft gesture from Nathan convinced me to continue to play things soft. I stood, daubing my lips with the napkin before laying it beside my plate. “Dinner, what there was of it, was lovely,” I complimented.

He nodded his head. “I look forward to a happier, conciliatory meal in the future.” With that he and Isla left, and we were left with the goons. To be fair to our host we were escorted, not marched aft to the Helipad. There, a pair of the fetish crew had our day bags which they presented to us, then we were put into the 412. No one pointed a gun at us, but there was a subtle undertone of command that if polite failed, compel was next.

As I sat in the leather seat of the push cabin of the 412, I amused myself by opening my bag and checking its contents. I found my red maxidress, it's hose and shoes, my bikini and sarong in clear plastic bag to keep the damp items from the maxi dress. Satisfied, I put it beside the chair. We had the passenger compartment to ourselves as the engine revved above us and below, Viceroy fell away until only her lights were visible on the wine dark Mediterranean.

I mentally marked the time and kept my gaze out. We got up to a cruising height that let me see the dark mountains of the boot of Italy and the lights of a town that looked like might be the destination of the Viceroy. Then, there was nothing to do but enjoy the ride.

It was a little less than three hours later when the helicopter was alighting on the helipad at the Casino De Monte-Carlo. I have to admit to being a little surprised we hadn't had to have a shoot out to keep from being thrown overboard. Indeed, the pilot hadn't said so much as a word to us as he flew. The ground crew at the Monte-Carlo were professionals, helping me out of the bird and down off the pad.

“Well, that was a bust,” Nathan groused. “Three months of preparations, up the spout.”

I arched an eyebrow at him as we walked down into the casino. “Ready to quit already?” I chided him. “You're not taking what we've learned into account.”

“We know he's up to something, but we suspected that already.”

I rolled my eyes and kept my head high as we got to the valet stand. I put my hand out and he gave me the receipt from the yacht club. “Captain, could I impose on one of your lads to retrieve my gentleman's Maybach from the Yacht club? I know it's a run, but I'll...”

He smiled and raised a hand for the ticket. “Certainement, mademoiselle,” he assured me. A sharp whistle brought one of his Valets, who departed at a trot toward the Yacht Club.

“Do you have your passport?” I asked, turning back to Nathan.

“Of course, but, where are we going?”

“Naples,” I replied. “And before you ask how I know that, the cruising speed of a Bell 412 is one hundred and twenty knots. We were in the air for not quite three hours and I saw the lights of a city on the Italian coast when we took off and the Viceroy sailing towards it. One hundred and twenty knots at  three hours is six hundred kilometers, thus, Naples.”

He grinned at me. “I love you.”

I patted his cheek. “I know.”

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We took Nathan's Maybach back to my Lair, after a generous tip to the valet for his run. On the way, I took off my gloves and placed them on the console. He was just turning onto Boulevard de la Princesse Charolette when I pointed at a parking space in front of Hôtel Novotel de Monte Carlo. “Pull in there,” I commanded as I got the day bags from the back seat.

“Why?” he asked, confusion on his face. I winked at him as I opened my bag, removed all the items and put them into the back seat, then opened his and did the same. He watched me with a confused expression on his face as I opened the door and got out, the bags in hand. I spied a couple of scruffy looking teenagers with backpacks on, likely on their Grand Tour. What was once a mainstay of the European well born to have an adventure before settling down by embarking on an extensive tour of Europe had become an excuse for college students to hobo around European cities in back packs. There was an entire class of accommodation, the Youth Hostel that had sprung up to take advantage of these vagabonds, but there were always some who eschewed such luxuries as indoor plumbing to find moral superiority in 'roughing it.' “Excusez-moi,” I greeted the girl with a smile. “J'ai pensé que vous pourriez les aimer.

Her eyes went wide when she saw the makers marks on the bags and took them in amazement. “Merci!” she exclaimed. “Merci beaucoup!

I smiled at her and her confused boyfriend. “Vous êtes les bienvenus,” I assured them as I turned back to Nathan and his Maybach as I couldn't help but overhear the girl excitedly tell her beau what the gifts I'd given them were worth. I slid into the leather seat and pulled the door shut. “Alright, drive on.”

“What...?” he started, but I arched an eyebrow at him. “Bugs and trackers,” he finally declared.

“Now we're learning,” I purred at him. “First rule of field work, my lover, trust no one. And if something of yours has been out of your sight where someone could have fiddled with it, assume they did.”

He arched an eyebrow at me. “You told me you trusted me,” he countered.

“I do trust you,” I assured him, leaving the contradiction hanging.

“Is rule number two never tell the truth?” he asked sardonically.

I frowned as I folded my gloves. “Not at all,” I declared. “If you can tell the truth, do so. It's easier to keep straight. If you have to lie, tell something as close to the truth but not for the same reason. It will help you keep your story straight.” He decided not to press his luck and the conversation lapsed into silence.

The Maybach turned up into the hills towards my Lair. There was no check point or boarder crossing to worry about, Monaco had long had agreements with France for such things. Passports became an issue only for a handful of people who arrived by sea, but even they would get their documents stamped for both countries as France actually handles immigration and customs matters for the Principality.

The lights of the house were still on when we arrived, which was not unexpected, as it was still early in the evening. I led the way into the foyer and after securing the front door, back along the service areas of the Lair towards the kitchens, garage and the work room Thaddeus had given over to Kenneth. The door was open when we arrived and I looked in.

Whatever this equipment actually looked like in the real world, here, it looked like the fever dream of a Hollywood prop maker tasked with designing something only described as a 'Super Computer'. There were racks of cables, blinking lights, massive monitors on armatures displaying God only knew what, keyboard, buttons and bits and bobs I had no name for. In the center of this Giger inspired masterpiece was Kenneth, his head intent on the largest of the displays. “Kenneth?” I called from the door, causing him to start and turn to face me.

“Oh, my lady, you're back!” He rubbed his hands on his thighs nervously. “We were worried.”

Behind me, Nathan crossed his arms and leaned against the door frame. “Either Khatri doesn't consider us a threat, or he's determined to play the Gentleman Bandit with emphasis on the 'Gentleman'.

The younger man grinned and took off the earphone headset he was wearing. “Well, small mercies, right?”

Oui,” I agreed with him. “When did you eat last?”

“Uh, um, I think...”

I raised my hands to cut him off. “Alright, first I want you to log out and eat. Take an hour or so and then I'll take your report on what you've found so far.” He yawned, showing he likely hadn't moved much all day.

“Yes, my lady. Do you want Mister White to come with me when I'm back?”

I considered for a moment. “If he thinks the situation warranted and secure, then yes. We'll need to reconsider our attack.”

He reached up behind his ear to grasp a cable he didn't have plugged into him in my reality. “You got it, boss.” His hand moved as if unplugging something, then he vanished in a cloud of dissipating pixels. Nathan grunted to himself.

“So, how do we fill 'an hour or so'?” he asked.

I arched an eyebrow at him. “We? I am the only Upload here, Mister Marks,” I reminded him. “You need to see to your body as well.”

He stood up off the frame, an odd look on his face. “ make this Upload thing actually appealing,” he declared and I smiled at him and patted his cheek.

“Aayansh over plays his hand describing this place, but I'm having the time of my second life.”

“I'll be back as soon as I can,” he told me, reaching up to his head, he removed his own helmet and vanished. I sighed, then turned and headed back towards 'my' side of the Lair. Upstairs, I put my clothes and pistol away. That taken care of, I dressed in a robe, and descended to the private balcony, and it's hot tub. Call me a hedonist, but having to live years without the luxury of a tub and being forced to rely on the proverbial five minute shower, I was something of a water baby now. Extravagant, perhaps, but now that my life was my own, even if I wasn't alive in the strictest of senses, I made time to bathe now.

This particular balcony had lovely view of Monaco and no avenue for a Peeking Tom without binoculars. Really, really big binoculars. I shed the robe, uncaring if I had an audience or not and, nude, eased into the steaming water. I triggered the spa of the tub as I settled and the formerly calm water became a gurgling torrent of air injected water. I lay down on the couch built into the unit that formed to me perfectly and my head was supported in it's cradle. The stars were twinkling out over the bay, as the view, water, heat and agitation eased the stress from what I perceived as my body. As I relaxed, I considered the day and what I'd learned.

There really was no escaping the fact that much of what Khatri said made sense.

Second World was a kind of paradise. I ate because I enjoyed it and I got a vague kind of feeling I 'should' be eating that was mental, not physical. But you could engineer this place to be a Post Scarcity paradise. Food didn't have to be grown, it could be created whole clothe virtually out of a box. Let them eat steak, was something that could be accomplished here.

Someone had to be out in the 'real world' building servers and spare parts, generating electricity and what not, but the amount of human suffering that could be alleviated here was staggering. Which lead to a very uncomfortable question that was gnawing at the back of my mind.

Was I on the wrong side?

I had worked to be and stay here, but, did that give me some kind authority to judge who could or couldn't be here? I frowned as the water eased my muscles, very much unhappy with where my thoughts were going this evening. I wasn't in charge of NetVerse's public relations team, any more than Aayansh Khatri was. They went out of their way to sing their own praises. And I have faced the thought that by Uploading to escape my cancer, I may have just committed a complicated form of suicide years ago and what I thought of as myself was just a computer program with a copy of a dead man's memories and a delusion of self.

A shudder went down the spine I didn't actually have.

I remembered watching them put the helmet on me, the assurance I'd 'go to sleep' and then wake up in the server. But what if I wasn't that person? What if he went to sleep and that was the end of him? I had no way of knowing and even if NetVista knew, they're never going to let that tidbit go public. I took a deep sigh and shook my head.

Normally I only had to deal with these thoughts when I was changing avatars, and then I'd bury these thoughts by going and doing something particularly physical; fight, fuck or something to let me feel this body and reassure my Id that I thought, therefore I was, to paraphrase Descartes. But, perversely, the person I wanted to do something physical with was out in the real world in his real body eating real food.

And even if I still had my old body, I don't think he'd be as open to the idea as I was.

Baise-moi,” I whispered to myself as I shook my head. I had no idea why Nathan Marks, who seemed to know who I had been was able to put it out of his mind and lose himself in who we were here rather than who I had been. Under the water, I laid my hand on my stomach as a Billionaire's voice whispered in my mind. There is one thing this paradise does not offer; children! I hadn't had kids, it was one of my life's chief regrets. But, also why I felt no remorse by liquidating everything I'd owned so I could get this new lease on life so to speak.

I sighed and looked up at the overhang over the tub. “You can carry on like a whore, but you'll never be a mother,” I whispered softly, scolding myself. Ironically, it was when I went down the distaff side of the street was when this empty womb grief struck me. If I had a real body, I might blame it on hormonal changes, but I didn't. Perhaps this avatar came with some kind of electronic estrogen that was having this effect on my psyche. The irony of all of this was normally I'd be proud of myself. I'd so deeply allowed myself to become a woman that someone as mentally male, based on his avatar as Nathan Marks, who knew the truth of my history, had laid with me last night. And now, I was lamenting over my lack of children.

C'est le destin de l'humanité de toujours désirer ce qu'elle ne peut pas avoir,” I whispered to myself. “C'est la vie.

I reached over and pressed a button on the top of the tiles of the tub. After a long moment, I heard the door open and footsteps come over to the tub. “You called, Madam?” Thaddeus inquired.

“Yes, Thaddeus, I'm feeling particularly morbid. Would you be so kind as to bring me something suitible to drink? Say, falling down drunk level?”

He sniffed disdainfully. “Let me see what I can acquire, Madam. One moment.” He withdrew for a moment, then returned with a glass on a tray. The beverage was predominately yellow, with a tinner, less opaque red top with a lime wheel over the lip. Picking it up from the tray I found it cold and the beverage a slurry of crushed ice. My pallate was assulted with rum, then various fruit flavors came out from under it.

“Mai Tai?” I asked him, for some reason careful to keep my breasts under the foaming water.

“It seemed to suit the water theme,” he rejoined. “As well as being an excellent rebuttal.”

I paused from my second sip to frown at him. “Rebuttal to what?”

“Your mood,” he replied slyly. “You don't often fall into this particular melancholy, but when you do, I find it best to remind you of the goodness in your life here. How 'Very Fine', to quote the beverages' sobriquet, you have it.” I felt a smile pluck at the corners of my lips and raised the glass in salute to him.

“Very fine, indeed,” I agreed, taking another sip and exaulting in feeling the warmth of the rum flow down my throat. “Do you ever wonder about choices you don't make, Thaddeus?”

“I have noted that it is a favorite pastime of humanity, madam.”

I gently rubbed the roof of my mouth with my tongue, tasting the leftovers of the beverage. “You never wondered or wished to be somewhere else? Someone else?”

He walked forward, reaching out to take one of the chairs from the table and bring it over to the tub and sank into it. I'd never seen this behavior from him and I smiled to show I wanted to encourage it. “I must admit the concept is a bit foreign to me, madam. Being your servant is such a deep part of my programming that it is an essential part of who and what I am. I know that I am most happy when you are, and though rare, I do not enjoy these doldrums you sometimes suffer from. It would be my choice to see you not have to go through them.”

“You're a gentleman and a scholar,” I praised him as I took another sip of my Tiki libation.

I sighed and turned my head in the cradle to look at his long face. “There are many times, my friend, when we discover our happiness is dependent on others. There is truth to Donne's thought, 'No man is an island'.”

He looked at me askance and asked, “And is your happiness currently dependant on Mister Marks?”

Comme tu moi connais bien.” I replied softly.

He smiled at me and his dark eyes twinkled. “C'est ma vie.

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Nathan was, ironically, the first to return from this round of body maintenance break. I'd finished my little soak of funk, dried off and changed into a comfortable lounging outfit of black silk that vaguely resembled a martial arts Gi. I'd been amusing myself by playing the piano when he arrived I was coaxing Debussy's Clair de Lune from it. He came to stand by it as I played, a soft smile on his face as he enjoyed the music. He'd also decided to be more casual wearing a dark navy T shirt with an interesting vertical texture to it over blue jeans and a navy sport jacket.

“Did you ever try to make a go of a music career?” he asked me when I'd finished and was reaching for the sweet white wine I was drinking after Thaddeus' Mai Tai. I laughed and shook my head.

“I am far too much of a realist for that,” I told him. “Being able to pay my bills was impressed on me from a young age. My sense of responsibility would never have allowed that level of wishful thinking.”

“It's a shame, you have the talent.”

I gave him a dismissive gesture after I'd put my wine glass down then ran my hands down the board in a dramatic descending scale. “What, fill my hair full of grease?” I asked him and began to pluck at the keys drawing Boogie Woogie from it. “Launch myself as a Rock and Roll want to be?” I had an amusing thought as my fingers danced and exclaimed, “Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome the Keyboard Countess!”

That done I drug my thumb up the keys to finish with an ascending flourish. Nathan accepted the tumbler of Scotch from Thaddeus and raised it in a toast. “What could have been,” he declared.

“My fantasies are far more Earthy and attainable,” I shot back. My fingers fell back to the keys and my mood returned to Chopin so they began to tap Funeral March. “Nathan, have you given thought to the question, 'Are we on the right side?'”

“You had a choice on whether or not to come here, didn't you?”

I shrugged as I played. “I suppose I could have accepted death by Stomach Cancer gracefully, but that's not really a choice, and you know it. However, I will concede your point.”

“Falsely terrifying millions or billions of people into a procedure that will result in the death of their body and might be their death, we can't be sure is evil of the first order,” he declared firmly. “I understand why you made the choice you did. And I certainly support anyone else having the right to choose it. But manipulation and fraud is beyond the pale.” He shook his head sadly. “For all his lofty declarations of paradise, he's still engineering a genocide. He's every bit the monster Stalin or Mao was, and we have to stop him.”

The front door bell cut off further discussion of a philosophical bent. After a moment, Thaddeus arrived with Kenneth and Jacques. I took the moment to have another sip of wine as I spun on the stool and waved them into the Great Room proper. Once Thaddeus had seen to their refreshments I crossed my legs on the stool and gave everyone a full look to bring the meeting to order. “Gentlemen, so today has been a day of discovery, let's compare our notes and proceed. Nathan and I have confirmed our suspicions concerning Mister Khatri. He is planning some kind of mass migration into the NetVerse which he views as returning Man to the Garden of Eden. That makes him a fanatic and the worst kind of danger. Nathan, do you have anything to add?”

“Yes,” he said gravely. “Before you and Isla joined us at the pool, he made references to an organization of 'like minded' individuals of exceptional note. It was a soft sales pitch that he might not be in this alone.”

“But, he revealed at dinner he knew who you were,” I replied. “That might be a false rabbit hole for us to chase.”

He gestured his acquiescence and I turned my attention to Kenneth. “Well, I had a number of searches run as you requested, then Mr. White and I had my appointment at Crisoni.”

“And?” I asked, noting his avatar was now dressed in what appeared to be tailored slacks, a subdued short cable sweater with a matching sport coat for the slacks. He gave a broad gesture to indicate himself and I raised my wine glass. “Much, much better,” I complimented.

He grinned and shook his head. “The real items will be ready Tuesday, and I can't thank you enough, my lady. This experience.

“I'm pleased you enjoyed yourself,” I told him. “Now, back to business, what do you have for me?”

He produced a tablet and called up a spread sheet that the house took and projected holographically before us. “This guy is connected,” Kenneth replied with a gesture at the hologram. “Without that rig you supplied, my lady, it would have taken me weeks to sort out this mess. Mister Khatri owns controlling interest in these three corporations, all privately held and this is where his empire starts. From here, the web gets spun into shell companies, Law Firms, holding trusts, I'll be honest, I don't understand half of it, but he's into everything. Grocery stores, farm supply companies, trucking and shipping companies, dairy bottlers and refineries, not to mention this massive block of textile concerns. Even Crisoni gets his material from a mill owned by this mess. I'm going to be wearing silk and cotton this guy grew and spun. Well, his employees.”

“Well done, Kenneth,” I said as I took in and tried to understand the diagram of the interdependencies. “This looks like he controls something like a third of Europe's food production and shipping concerns.”

“Closer to half in Africa and Asia,” he replied.

“What about media interests?” Nathan asked.

Kenneth shook his head. “Nothing that I found. If he's going to start a whisper campaign, I don't know how.”

“We are friends,” Jacques observed quietly. “Is it so outlandish to think he has friends too?”

Nathan rubbed his chin. “Perhaps his 'like minded' individuals of exceptional note wasn't a wild goose to chase after all?”

“Perhaps,” I allowed. I took Kenneth's tablet and tapped some items into it. “Tomorrow, I want you and Monsieur Blanc to go and procure these items,” I told him as I handed him back the tablet as a thought transferred money from one account to another to give them a way to cover expenses. “Now, tell me about residential properties. Does Aayansh own anything near by?”

He looked at the list of items and frowned. “What do you want this for?”

“That will become clear tomorrow,” I assured him. “Now, homes?”

He nodded and tapped at the tablet. The hologram changed and showed a lovely estate that the built in map showed was actually in France not terribly far from the Golf Club. “He owns this 'cottage' as he calls it. Though I don't think he uses it. His and Isla's bodies are in a private clinic in London.”

“Excellent work, gentlemen,” I complimented them. “Once tomorrow's events are concluded, Nathan and I will be heading to Naples to continue our shadow of Aayansh. I don't think I'll need for you to follow us in the Real World, but pack a bag, just in case.”

“Naples?” asked Kenneth.

“It's in Italy,” Jacques told him. “South of Rome.”

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While a rapacious, passionate fucking has a certain charm and satisfaction associated with it, especially with a partner who particularly tickles one's fancy and actually knows what they are doing in bed. I am adult enough to admit there are times that call for the primal, animalistic kinds of coupling, but I am also adult enough to admit that those times aren't my favorite. Being rode hard and put away wet makes you feel alive in a way that is difficult to describe, but if pressed, I must admit that I prefer slow, gentle love making for the most part. To lie in a comfortable bed, face to face with your lover, feeling them work in you slowly as if a sommelier savoring a favorite vintage, to lose yourself in their eyes, gasping, sharing the air between you. It''s...c'est magnifique!

Moments like this are the reason French is called the language of love.

It's easy to become lost in the feeling of body parts mashing together. There is no titillation in saying I lay on my side, staring into his eyes as he moved in me. There was no pain, only a wonderful sense of fullness, as if my body was welcoming an old friend, I held his face and laid my leg over his hip so he had full access to me. I felt his buttocks clinch and the hollow felling was replaced with him and his lips trembled and his eyes went wide under my hands.

But as his abdomen kissed mine as he claimed the depths of my soul a part of me I had no name for wished fervently he was going to make a mother of me. I closed my eyes and leaned forward to kiss him and accepted that was what I was feeling. I wanted him to be the one to have me, to plant himself inside me in the most permanent way a man can claim a woman, to sire a life on her; to forever link the two of them, history, biology, genetics all of it.

I kissed him and tried to keep the hurt from spoiling what I was experiencing.

It didn't matter how many times I gave myself to Nathan Marks, a new life would never be the result of it. No matter how much I wanted it, or dreamed he secretly lusted after running his hands over my swollen belly to feel the fruit of his seed moving under my skin. Poor consolation, but the orgasm was

a wonderful wave to ride, and when it was over, I lay with my face on his shoulder and the scent of him in my nose was how I drifted off to sleep.

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I awoke alone in the bed, hollow with only the memory of him against my skin. This was the downside of the bad girl lifestyle, this loneliness. At some point in the night he must have either rolled out of the helmet or simply had to answer the call of Nature and removed it on his own. There was no knowing why he'd chosen not to return to the Second World, and it didn't truly matter.

Being alone was in many ways the price of this faux Garden of Eden.

I rose, saw to my morning ablutions, then dressed myself in my swimsuit and padded up to the pool for my morning work out. My towel across the back of the chair of the patio set, I dove into the deep end of the pool. The water was warm again against my skin, almost to the temperature of a tepid bath and absolutely clear. A thought turned off the lamps in the water leaving only the stars over head and the faintest of hints of the coming day on the horizon.

I did a lazy lap to warm up, merely swimming to swim without thought of form or stroke. This was just celebrating the lithe, supple form I was wearing and rejoicing in my own dexterity. The feeling of being fit and young never got old; which brought an odd curiosity and made me bring up the interface and made visible a display I'd hidden long ago, my play clock. It was my sixty fifth birthday when I'd been told I was going to die. An indifferent chienne of a doctor half my age telling me my constant indigestion was in fact the Grim Reaper working his scythe into me.

The irony that it came on what was to be the first day of my retirement was particularly bitter.

I rolled on my back and looked at the sky and it's stars and relived the cold, numb terror that had flooded my entire being while she droned on about stages and chemo and wouldn't I really rather spare the State the expense and put myself out of my own misery? I heard the muffled rumble of a dark chuckle in the muted way through my body as my ears were under the water. That conversation had been five years, three months and twelve days ago.

For five years, I had been a digital person, beyond the grasp of the Grim Reaper or Chronos come to it. The reflection in my mirror didn't show a seventy year old spinster, but a woman in the full flower of her youth and beauty sculpted to my exact taste and specification. A woman who would remain exactly so until I chose to change her.


J'ai trouvé votre fontaine, monsieur Ponce de León,” I whispered to the sky. “Bien que vous la trouviez amère.”


I rolled off my back to tread water and find Thaddeus standing with a silver tray in his hands. “Thaddeus?” I exclaimed, somewhat surprised. I hid the clock again and closed the interface before swimming over to him in a lazy breast stroke. “Did I summon you? I didn't mean to...”

He smiled and shook his head. “No, madam, though I fancy you might welcome a bit of company and breakfast was ready.”

I smirked at him. “Was I thinking loudly?”

“Not to anyone who doesn't know you,” he replied as he walked over to the table to put the tray down and take up my towel and robe. He returned with them to the steps of the shallow end. I came out of the water and let him slip the robe over my shoulders then took the towel to begin to dry my hair.

Back at the table, he lifted the dome from a poached egg with artfully drizzled hollandaise sauce, a croissant and coffee he was pouring into my cup and saucer along with what looked like pineapple juice by it's color. Suddenly curious, I took a sip of the juice and confirmed it's tropical origin and asked, “Thaddeus, what do you see when you look at me?”

He arched an eyebrow at me as he stirred my coffee to dissolve the sugar cube he'd added. “I beg your pardon, madam?”

I took the cup and saucer from him and gave a broad gesture out, toward the ocean. “What do you perceive? I look out and I see the French Rivera, Monaco, the South of France and the Mediterranean Sea. But, that's not what you see, is it?”

“No,” he corrected softly. “I also see the world you remember. It is how I can interact with it, and you in familiar ways. I shan't bore you with the strings of ones and zeros, nor the almost grammar of C++.” His gaze became somewhat piercing. “What is troubling you, Madam?”

“What do you see, when you look at me, Thaddeus?”

“Madam?” he demanded again.

“Am I like you?” I whispered. “Am I just a program that thinks it's a person?”

He sighed and looked out at the ocean for a moment. “I'm not sure I can give you an answer you'll believe,” he admitted finally. “That said, I give you my word, for what it's worth, that what I am about to say is the truth.” He turned back and his eyes were sad. “When I look at you, madam, I see the same...light...that I see in any other human that visits us here. I can perceive the code shell around you and I can see the lines that lead back to where ever the human is, and at the end of them, I see a brightness, a light, I can't describe it.” He shook his head. “Yours is inside your code shell, but it is just as bright as young Master Kenneth or your Mister Marks. It is how I recognized you even when you had not settled on a name for this new appearance at the time. I hope that helps you.”

I sat and pondered if a program could perceive a soul for a moment, then looked at him. “There's no way for me to know if you're telling the truth, or something you're programmed to say, is there?”

He considered for a long moment, then gave the slightest of shrugs. “Truth be told, madam, there is no way I can know that. Let alone divulge some secret of our shared universe. I can only report what I believe to be true.”

I took a sip of the coffee and smiled at him. “I would trust your word over anyone else's 'truth', Thaddeus. Any day.”

He bowed from the waist and smiled at me. “To be in your service is a privilege, my lady.” He cocked his head over his shoulder for a moment, listening. “Pardon me, madam, it would appear the rest of the House is stirring.”

“Bring them here,” I told him as I took up the croissant and pulled off a bite to pop into my mouth. He nodded and withdrew while I called up a window did some shopping. A bot appeared to deliver my items as Thaddeus returned with Kenneth and Jacques. “Good morning, gentlemen,” I greeted when they reached a conversational distance. “Any trouble locating the items?”

Kenneth shook his head. “No, ma'am, we've got them, but I can't for the life of me figure out why.”

I smiled at him. “That, Master Kenneth shall become clear presently. So! Today will be the first of our battles on two fronts. You and Jacques shall journey to the 'Cottage' you discovered yesterday in the real world while I do as well here. It's a calculated risk, but as Mister Khatri spends so much time here in the Principality, it's likely he entertains guests from his 'group of like minded individuals.' Such men will likely desire secure communications. As it happens, the items I've tasked you to acquire are close enough to resemble the uniform of the Société Anonyme Monégasque, Monaco Telecom that your presence should go unnoticed.”

Jacques smiled a grim kind of smile. “Old fashioned skulduggery, I'm beginning to like working for you, Countess.”

“I trust you know your way around a telecom box to implant a little bug?” I asked Kenneth, and he grinned and nodded.

“Excellent, I'm sure Nathan will be able to get something useful to you.” I paused and brought up the interface, my fingers tapping through the menus until I reached the communications tab. “In fact...” A bot appeared with an old fashioned Royal Victoria telephone on a tray. It was an ornate, heavy piece of art made of brass, ivory and imperialism. I picked up the handset and held it to my ear. “Good morning, lover,” I greeted with a smile when I heard Nathan's voice in my ear.

Jacques pointedly turned his back, then nudged Kenneth to emulate him as they admired the coming dawn over Monaco. It was a touching display, but I had to focus. “No, I'm not angry,” I assured him. “It's in fact fortuitous you are out and about in the real world. Speaking of, where are you, exactly?”

“I'm almost to the British Consulate on Eleventh Avenue. I'll be online as quickly as a I can.”

“No,” I corrected him. “I need you draw some equipment from your Quartermaster.”

There was a pause. “What makes you think...?”

“Darling,” I scolded him. “We don't have time for you to play coy. See your Q and get whatever he has that can cross connect with a Second World Twenty One Bee cybernetic tracking program. Once you have it, bring it to Kenneth and Jacques at my gate house. They'll fill you in on your part from there.” I smiled at his stammering attempts to salve his machismo and made a kissing noise into the phone. “You wanted to get into field work,” I reminded him. “This is your opportunity. They'll be waiting. Ciao.”

I hung the receiver up so it and the bot that held it could vanish and then cleared my throat. Once my two employees were focused on me again, I made a point to nod at Jacques so he knew that I saw and recognized his gallantry. “Now, boys, this is what we're going to do...”

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It never ceases to amaze me how people think that espionage and clandestine activities require skulking about in black cat suits, utility belts full of all manner of improbable gadgets and the silent dispatch of armies of guards all conveniently looking the other way. First, killing someone silently is not as easy as the motion picture industry would have you believe. Funny thing, people want to actually stay alive and they'll kick up all manner of fuss to stay that way. Even if you do manage a perfectly silent kill, now you have ninety kilos of body that may or may not be leaking all manner of suspicious fluids. You also have to those pesky sergeants of the guard who have been tasked with making sure their sentries don't mysteriously disappear to deal with as well.

Not to mention, as the police are fond of saying, you may outrun the cruiser, but you can't outrun the twelve volt radio.

No, most of the skulduggery that put a smile on Jacques face involves blue collar cosplay and acting like you belong. In point of fact, my current 'secret outfit' included a High Visibility vest, and while I did have a utility belt, it was full of electrical and telecommunications tools that any repairman would have access to. So, a hard hat that was doing a wonderful job of obscuring my features, thanks to the EU Health and Safety regulations, I let myself onto the property, and made my way over to the telecommunications node on the side of the building. The house itself was a lovely little chateau in the French Provincial style, made of local stone with plenty of windows and a lovely Mansard roof.

I opened the node thanks to the remarkably cheap padlock that was used that wasn't up to keeping out a draft, exposing a neatly coiled set of wires and the smart node itself. “Honey, I'm home,” I muttered into the headset I was wearing under the hard hat and began to touch a probe to the wires, looking for the pair I wanted.

“Right on time,” Nathan's voice whispered in my ear. “Ken and Jacques have theirs open too. Stand

by.” Nathan's Q had come through in fine fashion with a wonderful little gizmo that would let us listen in to calls, back trace the numbers dialed, even act as a gateway into any network the house connected to. The sniffer I was probing wires with began to beep. I nosed to the correct pair, then clicked it off and stowed it on the belt. From a pocket, I pulled out the Twenty One Bee and snapped it over the wires, then tucked it back behind the bundle where it would escape casual notice.

I closed the cover and relocked it before turning to almost walk into a mountain of a man just coming around the corner of the house. “Who are you?” he demanded.

Moi?” I asked him. “Société Anonyme Monégasque, Monaco Telecom.”

“What?” he demanded again. I pointed back at the box.

Je relève le compteur de votre boîte.” He became cross.

“In English!” he demanded.

I shook my head and smiled at him. “Je suis désolé, je ne parle pas Anglais.” I took the clipboard from under my armpit and a pen from my pocket and held them up. On the clipboard was a wonderfully official looking form, all in French. “Signez ici s'il vous plait.” Seeing him stare at me, I pushed the pen into his hand and tapped a blank on the form. “Votre nom,” I declared slowly, as if to a child. “Ici.”

He humped, took the pen and scratched his name in the blank. “Merci beaucoup.” I told him sweetly, took back my pen and clip board and walked past him towards the gate. I kept my pace measured, and fought down my want to run. I belong, I told myself as I walked. I'm just a lineman doing a job. Nothing to see...”

A wolf whistle echoed off the wall of the compound, but I just held up a single finger as I got through the gate, and I heard him laugh. I'll be laughing last, asshole, I told myself, then walked to the next house on this side of the street and let myself into the garden. Once I was sure I was out of sight, I turned the vest inside out and crept through the back garden, keeping out of sight of both houses. Pausing for just a moment to be sure I wasn't seen, I scrambled over the wall to where the van I'd rented was parked. The vest and hard hat put away, I drove down out of the hills towards Monaco. “Can I breathe again?” Nathan whispered in my ear.

I chuckled. “Every plan has a bump,” I reassured him. “I'm going to return this and then head back to my Lair.”

“See you there.”

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By dinner time we had a mountain of data scrolling in from our little bug planting. Nathan's co-workers in MI6 had gotten deeply into the network that was running through the box and into the house. Its security protocols were top drawer, but MI6 had the backing of the seventeenth economy in Europe behind it and very, very patient men to do their digging. There was over an hour of recorded phone calls and a staggering amount of data traffic going to and fro.

Nathan had brought over Chinese for Kenneth and Jacques while I visited the lads by way of a holographic projector in the apartment itself to ease conversations with any real world guests I might have over. I was sitting on the stairs going up a spiral of the tower shaped building to the second floor while Kenneth and Jacques sat on the floor of the main room letting Nathan sit at the little desk over by the one window as he was listening to some of the audio.

It was interesting seeing the 'real' Nathan for the first time.

He was and wasn't the man I'd been sleeping with over the past few days. He was tall, but not two meters. His hair was the same color, but there was considerably less of it and a pot belly was spoiling the look of his suit, which were not of the same make and material I'd been used to. And yet, there was something charming about him; the same face, but not as chiseled, the same eyes and voice. He looked like the computer specialist he was, but then I certainly didn't look like who I'd been.

I told myself it was his mind that attracted me and left it at that.

I used my chop sticks to select a piece of sweet and sour chicken I'd had Thaddeus whip up for me in solidarity and turned my eyes back to the printouts I was looking over and chewed thoughtfully. It didn't make for great, dramatic film making, but these kinds of nights, eating greasy take out and spending hours pouring over transcripts of banal, endless nothing was the reality of spy craft. Looking for the pattern in the signal noise, the sparkle of gold dust in a pan of mud.

Turning the page, fighting to keep my mind sharp, I read as I wished I could share Thaddeus' excellent virtual cooking to the boys as it was doubtlessly superior to whatever Nathan had brought. It took me a moment to process what I'd read and had to read it again in surprise.

Call 15 (Spoofed Number, ID Suppressed)

Origin: Campania, Italy 15:22GMT

Male Voice: Hello?

Female Voice: I need to talk to him.

Male Voice: This isn't protocol.

Female Voice: We don't have time for protocol. Get him on the line.

Male Voice: Wait.

(two minutes ten seconds of silence)

New Male Voice: (Heavy Germanic Accent)I hope what ever you have to say is worth the risks you are taking.

Female Voice: I think we've been compromised.

Germanic Male: No operation goes perfectly. Why are you bothering me?

Female Voice: It's about the woman who was with the British Agent.

Germanic Male: Stop. Not on this line. Use the protocol.

(Line disconnected)

It took two readings for me to realize I was likely the subject of this conversation. “Nathan?” I called. “Do you have the audio of a call at fifteen twenty two?” He checked his notes and then I heard the conversation I just read. “That's Isla,” I declared.

He backed the recording up and listened again. “Yes, it is,” he agreed with me. “But who is the second man?”

“Kenneth, see if you can't preform some computer legerdemain and give us some clue as to who that voice is?”

“You got it, my lady,” he replied, tapping at his key board.

“The question is,” I started, but Kenneth whistled in surprise at what he was seeing. “Master Kenneth?” I asked with a smile.

“Yeah, this didn't take long. Best match is ninety eight percent likely to be Jürgen Ammann,” he declared.

“The Billionaire?” asked Jacques.

“The same,” Ken affirmed. “Also the head of the European Relations Council.”

“That cements that there is some kind of conspiracy between Khatri and Ammann...” Nathan started. I snorted in disdain.

“To us, perhaps, but nothing that would withstand evidentiary discovery by a merely competent lawyer,” I retorted. “I've evidently gotten into her head, which makes me wonder what she is afraid of us doing?”

Zut alors!” exclaimed Jacques from his page. “Monsieur, Look!” He declared holding up the page to Nathan.

“What is it?” I asked, perking up from the chicken as Nathan took the page and became excited.

“Bloody hell!” he shouted, grinning from ear to ear. “This is it! It's an email from Khatri ordering 'move Griffiths to Mont Blanc and await further instructions.”

“Mont Blanc,” Kenneth asked, scratching his chin. “That's White Mountain, right?” He started tapping quickly at the keys on his laptop. “Khatri owns a distribution warehouse there. Yeah, here it is, Mont Blanc Provisions. It's in Chamonix, a...oh wow, a commune? I didn't know France had hippies.”

A chuckle I couldn't keep in lightened the mood in the room. “En France, a commune means a small township,” I informed him. “Not a communist farm. Chamonix was the site of the first Winter Olympics in 1924, and is one of the greatest skiing and winter sports resorts in France. Perhaps even the world.” I stood and picked up my little cardboard box of chicken. “Nathan, you have your helmet with you?”

He grinned at me. “It's in my car.”

“I pay for a fiber channel here, so there should be plenty of bandwidth for all of you,” I told them. “I'll meet you all in the great room as soon as you can and then, my lads, we're going to the Olympics.”

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What people think of as the James Bond Theme is actually named the Theme from Dr No, composed by the late Monte Norman, a classic sixties Jazz band ensemble that perfectly mixed swing, free love and the eponymous license to kill. I'd be lying if I didn't admit to having that guitar riff strumming in the back of my mind. Chamonix was about two hundred and fifty kilometers from Monaco, give or take and high up in the Alps in the shadow of Monte Blanc right next to the little triangle where the borders of France, Italy and the Swiss Confederation met. Monte Blanc itself got it's name from it's perpetually snow covered summit and even in the doldrums of summer it was wise to have a jacket with you.

It was a charming little hamlet whose identity was completely centered around winter sports and the novel mixture of Franco-Italian and Swiss cultures that are collectively referred to as 'Alpine.' Yes, as much as I decried the use of black earlier in this narrative, there is a time and a place for it. For us, that time was now. Each of us were in a set of black cover alls except for Jacques who, as our driver, was dressed in regular civilian clothing. A Transit van had gotten us up into the Alps and parked half a block from the warehouse of Monte Blanc Provisions, where we could observe the goings on from stealth.

We hoped.

The warehouse itself took up most of the block and we'd arrived in time to see the evening shift departing. It appeared they didn't run an overnight shift, except for a handful of people who arrived, likely maintenance and custodial workers to service the warehouse over night. I was sitting in the back of the van, near the little make shift workstation we'd set up for Kenneth while Nathan was out, getting him a connection to the warehouse's network and, we again hoped, their security system.

The computer beeped and he sat up straighter, typing furiously for a moment. “I'm in,” he whispered he worked. “I'm recording video for looping.”

I leaned forward to look over his shoulder. “See if you can find Griffiths.”

“On it,” he replied, never taking his eyes off the screen. The front door opened and Nathan scrambled inside and closed it.

“You up?” he asked and I flashed him a 'thumb's up' so Kenneth could concentrate. Soon the screen was segmented into a dozen other screens as we tapped into the feed of the security cameras.

“Shouldn't be too hard to find him,” Kenneth muttered as he worked. “The place is practically deserted.”

From the front seat, Jacques chuckled from the front seat where he'd been looking over Kenneth's other shoulder. “Perhaps the shift ended early,” he laughed. The professional body guard has always been a man of few words in my experience and that brought my attention to him.

“How do you mean, Monsieur Blanc?” I asked, genuinely curious.

He made a dismissive gesture. “How diligent can they be about anything?” he replied with a point at Kenneth's screen. “Every camera's time stamp is wrong. People who ignore the small things often ignore the large.”

My eyes shot to Kenneth's screen and I realized every camera was almost an hour behind the correct time and a chill ran down my back. “Nathan, you have the binoculars?” I asked and he held them up. To Kenneth, I ordered, “Keep doing what you're doing. Nathan, with me.” I opened the back of the van and slipped out as Nathan joined me behind the van as I scanned around.

Chamonix, like most Alpine hamlets are not especially burgeoning with tall buildings. The valley the town occupied was quite narrow with the Arve River running through the center of town and the Alps on either side. Most of the buildings were a single or two stories with a number of hotels to cater to the Ski trade rising to four or five.

I unzipped my coverall and pulled it off, revealing my red maxi dress beneath it and quickly swapped out the flats from the coveralls to their matching heels. Nathan quickly followed my lead and showed himself to be a Sean Connery fan with a white dinner jacket tuxedo under his. I dropped the binoculars into my purse and pointed at the closest of the hotels. “There,” I whispered, then planted a smile on my face, took his arm and started walking.

“What's going on?” he asked around his own smile.

“Look like you belong,” I whispered back and purposefully kept my back to the warehouse. He took the hint and we walked into the lobby of my chosen hostel. Within five minutes we were on our way up to the 'Royal Suite' and in the privacy of the elevator, allowed myself to be serious. “If I'm right, we've walked into a trap. For now, you're a playboy about to have the sex of your life. Act like it.”

The elevator opened as a grin spread on his face and we walked down the hallway. I got the door open, then made a point to turn on the lights before I took a hold of his lapels and guided him to sit with his back to the windows and their open curtain. I held his head and laid a searing kiss on him, then sank slowly down to my knees by the bed, out of sight. “Lean back on your arms,” I whispered as I made a show of opening his pants, then sank again.

His head lolled back with an expression of pure bliss I knew well. “Don't over do it,” I whispered as I carefully crawled on the floor to the window, taking care to stay below it. Once I was there, I turned over my shoulder. “Turn out the lights.” He reached over and we were in darkness. “Don't move,” I warned him as I eased up into the corner of the window, I opened where no one was looking just high enough to peer through the binoculars. The hotel was a single floor higher than the warehouse and now I could see the roof. For a long moment, nothing seemed out of place, then I just caught sight of a man wedged between the stairway hut into the building and the side of the roof. His gaze went from our window and back to the van.

Merde,” I hissed to myself. “The van is being watched.” I touched the little radio in my ear that Nathan's Q had thoughtfully provided us. “Jacques, there's a watcher on the roof.”

“Is he armed?” the body guard asked.

“I can't tell,” I told him. “I think the video feed Kenneth has is a loop. Have him try to get around it.”

“Shouldn't we withdraw?” Jacques whispered. “If this is a trap...?”

“Griffiths might actually be in there,” I replied. “If we leave too soon, they'll know we're onto them.”

“I'm working on it,” Ken muttered across the radio. There were several tense moments of waiting, and then a soft exclamation of worry. “I have eyes on him,” he declared softly, but there was no triumph in his voice. “There are...twenty? At least twenty men, all armed with what look like machine guns.”

“MP5,” Jacques added softly.

“He's in a room on the back corner of the warehouse, furthest from us,” Kenneth added. “There's two men in the room with him.”

I heard Jacques mutter curses under his breath. “My lady, we cannot go against such odds...”

“Oh, I have no intention of it,” I assured him as dug my cell phone from my purse. “This, my lads, is the trump card of spy craft.” I dialed and paused until the line clicked in my ear. “Gendarmerie? Je veux signaler un homme retenu contre son gré sous la menace d'une arme...

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For my readers who had the misfortune not to be born in France, a note of clarification. Police forces in Europe do not play with petty politics, have very little patience with offenders of any stripe and in the case of the Gendarmerie, are actually a branch of the French Army.

So they don't carry just pistols. They carry pistols and machine guns.

What's more, civil ownership of firearms requires a great deal of paperwork and the misuse of them are answered harshly with great swiftness. Within five minutes of my initial phone call, two vans, five SUVs and a cruiser marked Superviseur rolled up disgorging a small army of policemen who kicked in whatever door they were near. There were two little flashes of muzzle blast and then a defeaning roar of automatic fire in response. Then, even across the street we could hear Isla's henchmen screaming at the top of their lungs, “Nous nous rendons!”

In the interest of full disclosure, I should note the regional command headquarters for the Gendarmerie Nationale were just a few blocks away on Rue la Mollard.

I felt a bit of a smile as the fruits of my labor were marched out in handcuffs and leg irons. The ones still alive, that is. Nathan, once his pants were put back to rights, went out, credentials in hand to intercept his friend while I waited by the van. “Not exactly how Bond would have done it,” Kenneth remarked. “But, I have to admit it worked.

“If it's stupid and it works, it wasn't stupid,” I retorted. “Alright my lads, that's all the excitement for the evening I believe.” I handed them both a set of keys. “I've arranged rooms for you both, we'll pass the rest of the night here and return tomorrow.

“I can see working for you won't be dull,” Jacques told me with a smile.

“Never,” I assured him. “Be a dear and tell Nathan I'm waiting upstairs? Merci.

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Alas, were this the movies I'd have a lovely and intense bit of victory sex just before the credits rolled, but even in the Second World, such wonderful edits are merely wishful thinking. The Gendarmeries were not happy that a member of MI6 was doing business in France. Let alone two of them. It was several hours before Nathan's boss could convince his opposite number in the DGSE or Direction générale de la Sécurité extérieure in the language of love the his wayward agents were somewhat victims in all of this and in fact working for the best interests of France. It was extremely late when I was awoken by the sound of a key in the door of my hotel room. I was sleeping on my side and one hand slipped under my pillow for the comforting grip of L'objet d'art de Monsieur Walther.

Qui est là?” I demanded.

C'est moi," Nathan's voice assured me. I sat up in the bed to see his shadowy form in the little hall between me, the bathroom, and the door. He was just standing there which worried me until I realized there was enough moonlight coming in the open window that he could probably see me. That was confirmed when he whispered, “You're naked.”

I smiled at him as I crossed my legs and propped my chin in my hand. “I sleep in the nude,” I informed him. “I see the Gendarmere is as through as ever.”

He dropped the key on the little dresser next to him and pulled off his jacket as he walked over to me. “Stuffed shirts, the lot of them,” he complained, his normal Received Pronunciation dipping a bit lower class for a moment. “Sadists who delight in the tittle of every 'I' and the jot of every 'P' and 'Q',” he snarled.

“Poor boy,” I murmured. “Is your friend alright?”

He sighed heavily as he draped his jacket over the chair next to the bed. “Still in shock, I think. He's, well, his body is dead from the upload process. I have him a room here, and I'll take him to the embassy in the morning when we're back in Monte-Carlo.”

I reached out and began to help him out of the rest of his tuxedo. “You've done all you can for him tonight,” I soothed him. “The digital realm has it's advantages, I'm sure he'll warm up to them.”

His slacks puddled at his feet, leaving his boxers with his pride and joy playing peek a boo with me from the bottom of his left leg. “Are you seducing me?” he whispered as I reached up and pulled his boxers down to join his slacks, freeing his manhood to sway in front of me.

“Whatever gave you that idea?” I asked him as I reached out and took him in hand. “I trust your higher ups are pleased with your little outing?” He got his shirt and undershirt off to stand before me, as magnificently au naturel with his phallus pulsing gently in my palm to the rhythm of his heart beat.


“Why Nathan, am I distracting you?”

His face became stony and his voice angry as he demanded, “God damn you, Marion, must you be such a malicious little cock tease?”

I smiled at him in the darkness as I reached up with my other hand and took hold of his balls. “Darling,” I scolded him. “I'm never little about anything, so hope you never draw my malicious streak in vengeance or you'll find out just how creative I can be. As to cock teasery?” I leaned forward and planted a soft kiss on the very tip of his manhood. Then I let my hands gently move over his skin, making him shiver, as I whispered, “Je ne peux pas m'en empêcher, c'est amusant.” Then I opened my mouth and welcomed him slowly inside.

Above me, his moan of appreciation of my welcome had me smiling to myself. As the taste of male filled my senses, I closed my eyes to focus on those senses. Wonderful fun, I admitted to myself as I bathed him with my tongue.

I didn't know if 'real' Nathan was as well hung as his avatar, nor did I really care, come to it. I would never have any interaction with the man who was sitting on a chair in my gatehouse, wearing a ridiculous looking helmet that let him feel the mouth, lips and tongue currently diligently coaxing his seed from the balls I was massaging. Which reminded me he was in that room with two other men and whatever magic I worked on him here, would have repercussions to his clothes there. Regretfully, I gently drug my tongue over his urethra until his penis was alone with the air sending shivers over his wet skin. He actually whimpered which I feel just a bit guilty for enjoying as much as I did.

But, only a bit.

Looking up at him looking down at me, transfixed, slack jawed and so desperately needy had me feeling wonderful by itself. “Lover,” I whispered, “If I finish, you will not have a pleasant experience when you wake tomorrow.”

He gasped and licked his lips, “Why not?” he managed, his thinking obviously focused on a single thing.

“Because whatever I swallow here will be in your pants, there. Do you want to wake up to that?”

“I...I...” He looked about, trying to find some method in a virtual motel room to have his cake and eat it too. “!” he muttered. I stood, pressing my body against his, trapping his penis between us as I laid a finger over his lips.

“Stop, there's no use pouting.”


I frowned at him and pressed just a bit firmer on his lips. “I said stop,” I commanded. “Do you think I am happy with this? Or that I have no desire to finish? If I whispered half of what I have in mind for you...well, we're stopping so you don't have an accident, aren't we?”

His face flushed and he took me by the shoulders. “Ask me if I think a little morning's discomfort isn't worth being with the woman of my dreams tonight?!” I brought my abdomen away from his which allowed me to seize his phallus tightly, my thumb over his urethra so I would not set him off by accident.

“Unhand me!” I thundered, squeezing with all my strength. He grunted and his hands flexed on my shoulders, but like a proper English Gentleman, prohibitions against violence towards a female was hammered deeply into his psyche. His hands dropped to his sides as I used his manhood as a handle to push him back against the wall. “If you were alone in that room I would mount you like a horse and ride you until you could not walk in either world and your clothes be damned. But you are not in that room alone and I think more of my retainers, and my lover,” I soothed him. “To be a poor hostess or so cavalier with my lover's reputation and comfort. You suffer for my amusement only!”

“Yes...yes, my lady,” he managed, his eyes down cast.

I slowly released him to be sure he had mastery of himself, which he did; though his manhood strained at me, seeking my warmth and wetness. I gently laid my hand along his cheek. “The feel of my body will be sweeter for this denial and you know it, don't you?”

His manhood twitched and he bit his lip. “Yes, my lady.”

I smiled at him and gently patted his cheek. “Good. For now, go to sleep. And I forbid you from touching yourself in the other world. Do you understand?” His face blushed, and just for a moment a little light of outrage lit in his eye, so I let myself be stern. “My body or your hand, which is it?”

“I...I, now look here, Marion...”

“You will address me as 'my lady' or 'Countess',” I ordered him. “Is that clear?”

“I'm not a masochist,” he started, so I reached down and grabbed his balls. Not so tightly as to hurt him, but tight enough that he knew I could.

“But you will submit to me,” I replied. “Or, you can make love to your hand. You wanted me, Nathan, you wanted between my legs, and that has a price.” I squeezed just a bit and he whimpered again. “Don't be proud,” I cooed. “You know I'm worth it, and now you know I won't embarrass you in public. I'll be yours out there; haughty, sophisticated, but properly demure and unabashedly yours. But in here, in my bed, you are mine. You will submit to your Countess, and you will obey, and you will know love as you have not the courage to imagine it. Say it.

“I am yours, Countess,” he whispered as if the words would scald him.

“Go to sleep, and you will not touch yourself.”

His lips trembled and his eyes looked into mine. “May I hold you to sleep, my lady?”

“Will you disgrace yourself?”

He squared his shoulders and stood tall as though I didn't have his balls in my hands. “Never without your say so, Countess.”

I gently drummed my fingers over him, then gently released him. “You may hold me.” Immediately, he reached down and picked me up and we shared a kiss that was both burning with passion, and yet wonderfully chaste at the same time.

“I love you, Marion St. Clair du Bois, Comtesse de Corse.

He laid me down into the bed as though I was glass, then gathered me into his arms and laid a leg possessively over mine. I laid my ear into the hollow between his arm and chest and listened to his heart beat. As I drifted off to sleep, in the same scalding whisper I murmured, “I love you, Nathan Marks.”

To hell with Bond.

Read 5845 times Last modified on Saturday, 11 November 2023 08:47


E. E. Nalley
E. E. Nalley
11 months ago
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