Sold

by Sam Leo


Naomi Chandler wasn't really surprised when it happened. In many ways, she'd been expecting it.

It came on a Tuesday morning. A live-at-home student at a local community college, she'd spent a normal day at school Monday; she was expecting to take a test that Tuesday, and she'd spent much of Monday night studying for it, paying little attention to the deep discussion her parents were engaged in. A well-disciplined freshman, eighteen-year old Naomi rose when her alarm clock went off Tuesday, showered, dressed, and came downstairs well in time for breakfast.

The breakfast, bacon and eggs, was on the table. That her mother wasn't sitting at the table and did not acknowledge her presence told her immediately that something was wrong. That her father sat down across from her and stared into his coffee cup for a long time without speaking confirmed it.

"Naomi, you aren't going to school today," he said after a while. "You and I need to go downtown."

She sat staring at him for a moment, her large brown eyes wide. No, she told herself. He doesn't mean it. It's been talked about before, it hasn't happened before. It won't happen now. Please don't let it happen now...

"Why, Dad?" she asked. She couldn't keep a slight quaver out of her voice. "Where are we going?"

He hesitated for a long moment, and her hopes that she was wrong began to fade rapidly. "To the Clerk of Court," he answered finally. "And then to a slave dealer named Mike."

The words felt like hammer blows. Her eyes became wet. "You're going to sell me?"

"Sweetie, we have to. The car broke down yesterday, and we can't pay all the bills anyway. It's come down to the point where we just don't have any choice."

"I could move out... support myself... I could..."

"You won't have a car. I just told you ours broke down, we'll need the one we gave you to use. And, as I just said, we can't pay the bills. Do you understand?"

She understood very clearly. A welter of conflicting emotions and ideas arose as Naomi tried to digest this. Being sold to a slave dealer meant that, almost certainly, one way or another, she'd be killed within a few days, possibly within hours. In no way, in no sense, did she want to die; she had a good life and she enjoyed it fully. More, she'd seen some of the live TV shows where they showed the deaths of slaves, and she was well aware that slaves were often killed in much more painful fashion that those women who were executed by the state.

On the other hand, it had been drilled into her from the moment of her first awareness that this sort of thing could happen to her. More, it had been presented as axiomatic that if it did, then it was her duty to accept her fate and, if necessary, die proudly--knowing that by doing so she was aiding society by helping to reduce the excess female population. Still, part of her wanted to scream, cry, beg, throw herself on the floor, do anything to get her parents to change their decision.

But in the end, duty won out. "I understand, Dad," she said in a tiny voice. "If that's what you have to do." She crammed down the blind terror she was already feeling. She wanted her father to be proud of her, and he seemed very pleased with her response.

"Okay," he said with utterly false joviality. "Finish your breakfast, then, and we'll--"

"Let's just go, Dad," she interrupted. "I'm not really very hungry now..."

"Um. Yes, well, certainly. Okay." He gulped some of his coffee, then rose; Naomi followed suit. Her mother, teary-eyed and red-faced, hardly said a word, she just hugged the girl long and tight before she left. She and her father went outside, got into what used to be her car, and drove off, leaving her mother leaning against the doorframe staring after them.

The Clerk's office at the courthouse wasn't at all crowded. They walked right in, and the older woman at the desk glanced up at them. There was a young couple sitting in front of her desk; Naomi and her father waited while the young man filled out an application authorizing the sale of the pretty young woman sitting next to him. Once that was done the woman signed away her rights, the man was given his certificate, and they left. Naomi and her father sat down in the chairs they'd vacated.

"I want to sell my daughter," Chandler said, gesturing toward Naomi.

"Of course," the woman responded with a smile. "Fill this out, please." She handed him a paper with only a few blanks. He filled it out and gave it back to her, and she then turned her attention to Naomi. "Now, you should sign this, honey," she said, pushing the paper toward the girl. "Sign away your right to appeal. You do have that right, but it's best if you sign. If you do, your father can sell you right away."

"Yes, ma'am," Naomi answered softly. She picked up the pen the woman was offering and then froze for a moment. She'd learned about this in school; once she signed it was all over, she was no longer free, she was a slave and no longer had any say over what happened to her.

"The lady is right, honey," Chandler encouraged. "It's better if you sign."

She glanced at him. "Yes, Dad." Hesitating no more, she signed the paper in a neat clean script. The clerk, still smiling, took the paper, notarized it, then filled out the certificate.

"I hope you get a good price for her," the woman said as she handed the paper to Chandler. "She's young enough she might go for veal, and she'd make good leather, too. Don't take less than fifteen dollars a pound for her. Do you have a dealer in mind?"

"Yes," Chandler answered. "Mike Leestrom's."

The Clerk nodded. "Mike's a good dealer, he'll give you a fair price." She glanced at Naomi. "You've done the right thing, honey," she said. "You should be proud of yourself."

"Yes, ma'am. Thank you."

"Let's go, Naomi," Chandler said, rising. She followed him, and soon enough they were in the car again, on their way to the slave dealership.

Mike Leestrom's slave dealership was located in a converted warehouse in a somewhat rundown part of town. After turning into the drive, Naomi's father parked the car next to a loading dock. They both got out and walked up the stairs toward the sign that said "office." Naomi's knees felt watery, but she made it up the stairs.

"Good morning, sir," a young man with straw-blond hair said as they came in. ""I'm Jim Thorne. May I help you?"

"Yes," Chandler said. "I'm here to sell my daughter." Again he gestured toward Naomi, who stood beside him with an expressionless face.

Thorne looked Naomi over with a professional eye. "Very good, sir. You have your certification?"

"Yes." Chandler handed the man the paper.

Thorne looked it over, nodded, and handed it back. "Very good," he said. "We have one small formality we need to take care of first." He picked up a little leatherette case from his desk, opened it, and pulled out a device that looked like a small cell phone. "Give me your hand, honey," he said to Naomi. She complied without complaint; he extended her index finger, held the device close to her fingertip, and pressed a button. There was the momentary bright red flash of a laser beam, and then a large bead of blood welled up on her finger. Naomi just started at it; there had been no pain at all, but she could not help thinking that she might well be seeing more of her blood very soon, and it might not be at all painless.

Thorne, meanwhile, had taken a thin glass capillary tube from a pocket on the side of the device and was touching the tip of it to the bead of blood, which was quickly drawn up into it. Once it was full he slipped it into a different pocket on the little machine, then filled another. Once he had three of them filled he released Naomi's hand and handed her a tissue.

"What's that?" she heard her father ask as she wiped the remaining blood away from her fingertip.

"Pregnancy test," Thorne said, studying the display on the device. "Law says we have to do one. And this little beauty tests for a variety of diseases, as well. She can't be sold for meat if she's diseased, FDA rules."

"What if she is pregnant?"

"Then we have to test for gender, and this test isn't gender-specific. You need a urine test for that. Obviously, if she's carrying a boy, I can't sell her and neither can you." Still looking at the display, he then nodded. "But. Not to worry, she is not pregnant and she does not have any disease that would disqualify her for a meat sale." He looked up at Naomi and laid the device aside. "So, let's proceed, let's see what we have here Get undressed for me, honey. Everything." He pointed to a hook on the wall. "You can hang it all there."

"Yes, sir," Naomi said in a tiny voice. She took off the skirt and blouse she'd dressed in for school, then her shoes and socks. Her panties and her bra followed. Naked, she stood before Thorne while he inspected her. She kept her chin up and her arms down, trying to be casual. She did feel her body looked at least acceptable--if not much more than that. Her stomach was very flat, and she had kept her groin clean-shaven, but she lacked pronounced hips. Her breasts were decidedly on the small side, but the few men she'd been intimate with had always said they were pretty. Her long legs were, she felt, her best feature.

Her face was the problem. She did not consider herself ugly, and she had never been able to define what exactly was wrong with any of her facial features, they simply did not add up, it seemed to her, to "attractive." "Plain" was always the way she'd thought of herself. Plain brown eyes, an ordinary nose, average lips. Plain brown hair even if it was thick and shiny. Feeling it unruly, she kept it cut short, with bangs falling over her forehead.

Naomi's confidence in her appearance might have been somewhat higher, however, if she had not grown up living next door to, and being best friends with, Michelle Hempstead.

Michelle was a year older than Naomi, and the girls had known each other since they were six and seven respectively. From that time onwards, Naomi constantly heard about what a pretty girl blond and blue-eyed Michelle was, and all she ever heard about herself was "kinda cute." She did not disagree, Michelle was a beauty and as she got older she just got better. Michelle became sexually active when she was twelve; Naomi did not have her first sexual experience until she was fifteen, when one of her fathers' business associates came to the house on a Saturday when her parents were not at home, decided to wait for them, and asked her to give him a blowjob while he waited. Living in a world where any sort of male attention was highly desirable, Naomi had not even considered refusing, and had done her best to please the man. She was slightly--and irrationally--embarrassed when the man told her father about it when her parents came home, more so because the man described her technique as merely "acceptable."

As they grew up, Naomi and Michelle heard all the admonitions about the numbers of women that had to die to make society work; like all girls they played structured "execution" games at school, like all girls they watched films of girls quietly--or, at times, enthusiastically--accepting their deaths. Both, however, had the hubris to plan for futures. Given her looks and her popularity, Michelle was sure she could find a husband and dreamed of giving birth to boys. Naomi, having no such hopes, planned to have a career in business administration and perhaps use that as a springboard to politics.

It did not work out that way for either one of them. During Naomi's junior year in high school, a representative from a Hollywood film company came to their school scouting for actresses. School administrators chose the girls who were invited to the tryouts; Naomi was not chosen, but Michelle, of course, was. The next day, Michelle excitedly told her friend that she had been selected to be offered a Hollywood contract, that she was going to be in the movies. Naomi, though she could not help being a little jealous--everything, it seemed, was so easy for Michelle--was appropriately excited at her friend's success. An agent for the studio came to Michelle's home the next day, Naomi saw the big black car roll up and three expensively-dressed women get out. After they'd left, Naomi, of course, went to see Michelle.

And was surprised when Michelle seemed wooden and stunned. "They offered $100,000 for the role," she told Naomi. "$100,000, can you imagine? My folks were so excited."

"Michelle, what's the matter?" Naomi asked at the time. "You seem so--"

"It's a one-shot role," Michelle told her. "Do you know what that means?"

"No."

Michelle stared at the ground. "It means I go to Hollywood, I have a script, I learn the part. The agent said it was a good role, a speaking part. Then, after all the rehearsals, when they actually shoot the film--I get killed. No special effects, for real." Her eyes were wet. "Naomi, I've been sold to Fox Studios. Unlimited contract."

Naomi could only stare for a moment. "You signed?" she finally sputtered.

"What could I do? What choice did I have? $100,000? What would everyone think of me if I'd refused?" Her lips quivered for a moment, and then she broke into tears.

The two girls embraced, and they spent practically all of that evening together. Naomi had cried, probably more than Michelle did, in part because of the jealousy she'd felt when Michelle had been chosen for the tryout and she had not. The next morning Michelle, composed and smiling by then, left for the West Coast, and Naomi never saw her again.

She did go to see the film, however, when it was released months later. It was a Western, and Michelle played the role of an army officer's daughter who was captured by the Cheyennes. As had been promised it was a speaking role, a good role--until the capture. The Indians then staked her out on the prairie naked and repeatedly--and graphically--raped her. The army, led by the actor who'd played her father, arrived, but too late. When the Indians realized that the army was approaching, they plunged a lance into Michelle's belly, driving it all the way through her and into the ground, and left her to die slowly while they fought a pitched--but in the end indecisive--battle with the army. The camera kept returning to Michelle while the soldiers and Indians fought. She lived a long time, still tied spread-eagled on the ground, bleeding profusely, her face a study in agony. Repeatedly an Indian came back to try to scalp her, and each time Naomi jumped, wondering if her friend had been asked to endure that as well--but each time, the Indian was either "killed" or driven away by the soldiers. Naomi left the theater feeling badly for her friend, but impressed by her discipline--especially the way Michelle had tearfully begged the Indians not to kill her when she knew the script called for them to do just that.

"Your jewelry too, honey," Thorne was saying, bringing Naomi back to the present.

"Oh. Yes, of course." She removed her rings and earrings, her watch, and a bracelet and laid them in a pile on a nearby table.

"Very nice," Thorne said, his manner professional. "Might get an entertainment sale, but she's not Hollywood quality." While Naomi flinched at the insult--even though that would have been her own assessment, as well--Thorne looked at the papers. "Hm. Eighteen, maybe young enough to pass for veal." He looked back up at her. "Come over here, honey. Stand on the scale, let's get a weight." Naomi obeyed. "Hm. 94 pounds." He squeezed her thigh. "First quality meat, though. And good skin, no blemishes anywhere, she'd make good leather. I can give you top price for her, sir--29 dollars a pound. Comes to... $2,726."

"That sounds fine," Chandler said. "Deal."

"Fine." He peered at Chandler for a moment. "You want to authorize extended for her? I'll double the price if you do. Quad price if you want to go for unlimited..."

Chandler shook his head. "No. Standard. I won't ask her to go through torture."

"As you wish." Thorne went behind the counter, pulled out a checkbook, and wrote out a check. He then filled out a standard purchase form. Naomi watched her father take them, sign the form, and hand it back, and she knew it was done: she'd been sold, she belonged to the slave dealer now.

After putting the check in his wallet, Chandler came to his daughter and hugged her. "You be good now," he told her. "Do what they tell you, and be brave, and remember, they can't torture you. Keep reminding yourself that this is the right thing, there are way too many women in the world."

Naomi choked back a sob. "Yes, Dad," she answered. "I'll do my best."

"Good girl." He kissed her forehead, picked up her watch--which he'd given her as a Christmas present two years before--and the jewelry, and, without saying anything else, he left.

Thorne took her by her wrist. "Come on, honey," he said. "Let's go now."

"Can I have my clothes?" she asked.

"No. More than likely, you'll never wear clothes again. Come on."

"Yes, sir," she answered obediently. She let him lead her though a door behind the counter; it opened into a corridor. A short distance down was a door marked "studio." Thorne opened it and Naomi followed him inside. It was a simple setup, a curtain against one wall, a camera on a tripod pointed at it. Thorne told Naomi to stand in front of the curtain. She did, and he took first a couple of facial close-ups, then instructed her in how to pose for a full-body shot.

"What are the pictures for?" she asked as he snapped a few more.

He laughed and corrected her pose. "Guess you never shopped for human meat, huh?"

She shook her head. "No. My family couldn't afford that."

"Well," he said, "A couple of things. To begin with, these will immediately go out on the Internet so potential buyers can see what you look like. I'm listing you as a Class B. Since you're under a standard contract, you'll most likely be sold to one of the slaughterhouses and be slaughtered as meat; that's what happens with 90% of all girls sold standard. In the case of Class A and Class B girls, the packers like to put pictures of the girls on the packages containing the steaks and roasts and so on. It helps sell them. As you know, they are expensive." He moved back to the door. "Come along now, we're finished here."

"Yes, sir." Completely docile, she followed him out the door, down to the end of the corridor, and out onto the warehouse floor, where there was a line of what could only be called cages, each outfitted with couches and chairs, each with an attached bathroom, and each holding a number of naked girls or women. He looked over the units for a moment, then led her to one with a label marked "A-/B." He opened the door and she walked in, joining ten other girls approximately her own age. The door closed, Thorne disappeared, and the girls started introducing themselves, a flurry of names--first names only, as if they no longer had last names. Jenny, Lillian, Marcie, Mina, Deedee, Suni, Sandra, Lynn, Joan, and Becky. All of them, Naomi noticed, were at least relatively pretty girls. All were slender, and most of them, Naomi included, had a generally athletic look--which made sense, given the "A-/B" logo on their cage and Thorne's comment that he was listing her as a Class B. All, Naomi learned quickly, had been sold, either by their parents or by their boyfriends--and each had signed away her right to appeal the sale.

"Strange, isn't it?" Lillian noted. Lillian was very slender and petite, a bright blond with pale blue eyes and very white skin. "That not one of us chose to appeal. We're adults, legally; why should we just accept it if our parents decide to sell us into slavery, knowing full well that it's a death sentence?" She shook her head. "And yet, that's just what I did. My mom said they needed money, and I just said, okay, I'll sign." She looked into the distance. "I think she wants a new car."

"Does anyone have any idea what they have planned for us?" Mina, a delicate-looking and quite pretty Japanese-American girl, asked, addressing no one in particular.

"Just that we're going to be killed," Becky noted, "one way or another." Becky was, Naomi thought, perhaps the most attractive girl there. Her hair was dark, long, thick, and she had startlingly bright blue eyes. She was tall, her legs were very long, her breasts moderate in sized but perfectly shaped, her abdomen quite flat. She had, she'd said, been sold by her boyfriend, causing Naomi to wonder what was wrong with the man. "Mike Leestrom is just a slave dealer, he'll sell us to whoever pays the price and what happens to us is up to the buyer. We could be sold for meat or for leather, or--"

"Or to the movies," Marcie, a tall girl with reddish hair, added. "I'd think I'd like that. Maybe a battlefield scene... I wonder how much it hurts to get run through with a sword, or shot..."

"I just hope they don't hurt us a lot when we're slaughtered," brown-haired Deedee said. Although by no means fat, Deedee was a little more heavily-built that the rest of the girls, her body looked very soft. She also seemed more anxious than most of them. "I'm really afraid of the pain..."

"We all are," auburn-haired, hazel-eyed, Lynn said. "That's only natural. But we have to be brave. It's right for us to be killed, and the customer who buys us has to be satisfied 'cause he'll have paid a lot of money for us."

"That's right," said Joan. Black-haired and dark-skinned with very intense dark eyes, Joan was, Naomi thought, Becky's major competition for the most attractive among them. She was petite, with magnificent legs and truly beautiful breasts. "We're not important now, except as meat or skin." She grinned. "Or as entertainment, maybe." She shrugged. "Anyway, it doesn't matter what happens to us. Like Lynn says, we have to accept it. Whatever we're asked to do, we should just smile and do it, whether we get sold as steaks or as party girls."

Naomi watched her eyes as she spoke. Good words, she thought. She was well aware that the law limited how much pain they had to endure, but she wasn't so naive as to assume that being slaughtered was going to be painless.

Changing the subject, the girls began discussing how long they'd be here at the dealer's. None, Naomi learned, had been there more than about four hours; a representative from one of the packing houses had emptied their cage just as Becky, the first of them to arrive, was being brought to it.

Even as they were discussing it, a man in a suit with a name-tag that said "Earl's Specialties" came walking up to their cage along with another man. He stood for a moment looking them over. He said nothing and neither did they.

"These look good," he said. "I'll give you $33 a pound for the lot of them."

"$38," the other man countered.

"$35."

Quickly, the men settled on a price of $36 per pound, and, just like that, the eleven girls had been sold again. The seller opened the cage and the girls walked out, dutifully going where they were directed to go. Within just a few minutes they had been loaded into a truck and were on their way; none of them, of course, had any idea where they were going. Naomi could not help but notice that the back of the truck, which was fitted with benches for them to sit on, was not locked, no precautions were being taken against one or more of them leaving the truck at a stoplight. Apparently it was not thought necessary--and none of them, in fact, seemed to even consider doing such a thing. As they rode along, Naomi found herself wondering if the door of the cage they had been held in at Mike Leestrom's had even been locked. She didn't know; none of them had ever tried to open it.

Shortly, the truck stopped. The doors opened and they came out onto a loading dock; they only got a glimpse of their surroundings, but that was enough to tell them they were in a fairly upscale area downtown. Inside, they were given necklaces with numbered pendants on them--Naomi was number 23--and then taken to their temporary quarters, which were much more comfortable than the cage they'd been held in at the dealer's. Here they had a bathroom with a shower, bunk beds, couches, chairs, a TV set, snack and drink machines which required no money, and a table with several games of various sorts. None of them failed to notice, though, that the wall of their new quarters opposite the loading bay door was a single huge sheet of glass flanked by a glass door.

The area beyond the glass looked more than ominous. The floor was tiled and there were drains at intervals across it. There was a shiny steel table with deep slots around the edges and drains. There were racks fitted with manacles; from hooks on the walls hung a variety of knives and cleavers. Other hooks hung from chains, suspended from the ceiling.

Once in the room, they all stood staring into the other room for a while. "It's a killing room," Mina breathed. "Most of us will be slaughtered in there, I think. Maybe all of us."

"While the rest of us," Naomi added in a cynical tone, "get the privilege of watching."

"I won't watch!" Jenny, a petite brunette who both looked and acted younger than her nineteen years, cried. "I won't, I don't want to!"

"Me neither," Deedee agreed.

"No," Mina argued. "We should watch. We're all slaves now, we'll all be slaughtered one way or the other, we all know that. All we can do now is do what we're supposed to do, cooperate with the men when they come to slaughter us. All of us have seen girls and women get killed before, on TV and all at least. We need to be brave and polite and set a good example. They tape a lot of these, you know, and they show them to girls in school, you all know that, you've all seen them. What's right for us is to show that it isn't so bad, so's other girls won't fight being sold."

"You're right," Becky agreed. "We should all make it a point to act as if we don't mind being killed at all, and we should all take whatever pain we feel without complaining. Without showing it, if we can."

"Yes," Lynn chimed in, and petite red-haired Sandra nodded her assent as well. "All we have now is our honor. We need to die well, proudly and bravely." For the most part, the other girls agreed with Mina's assessment. Deedee and Jenny seemed to be having more problems with it than the others, and several of them, including Naomi, kept pushing the "party line," reminding them of the imbalance in society and the duty they had to do their part in correcting it.

But, before they'd gotten very far, a tall dark-haired man wearing an apron came into the outer room. He was wearing a name tag that identified him as Douglas Mason, master butcher. He looked to be in perhaps in his mid to late thirties. Under any other circumstances, Naomi thought, she would have judged him attractive--but she already understood that he might well be the man who was going to kill her, and it was all she could do not to shrink away from him. He walked to the glass door, opened it, and came inside.

"Hello, girls," he said. "We're not very formal around here, so you can feel free to call me Doug if you wish." He patted the name tag, then walked across the room and sat down at the table. "Let me explain," he began, his hands folded in front of him, "how things are around here. Earl's is a meat-packing house, but that's not all we do. We also provide girls and women to filmmakers and those putting on shows, and, in general, to anyone who wishes to purchase a slave. We do a very good business here, a high-volume business, so most of you won't be here very long--if things are normal most of you will be slaughtered or sold today or tomorrow." He nodded toward the outer chamber. "That is the killing room, as you have probably already realized, where we process girls selected for meat or leather. Down the hall are several rooms used as generic movie sets. That allows filmmakers to shoot many kinds of scenes right here on the premises, which means that I, as a certified executioner, can oversee their operation and, besides that, they do not have to clean up afterwards. There are observation areas in those rooms, and when a girl has been bought for a scene, the rest of you are welcome to come along and observe if you wish. You are not required to, though, you can remain here if you prefer." He glanced at his watch. "Meals are at eight-thirty, noon, and six." He gestured toward the machines against the back wall. "Snacks, coffee, and soft drinks are available to you anytime, please help yourself. As I said, most of you will not be here long, so just try to relax and take it easy." He looked them over with a professional eye. "Now: we have a general order for steaks and chops right now, so I will need one of you right away. Number 21, you'll do. Come with me, please."

The girls, as one, looked down at the necklaces. Quickly, Sandra looked up; she was wearing number 21. "Me?" she said in a weak voice.

"Yes, you. Come on, sweetie."

The little redhead hesitated for a moment. But then, her gait wobbly and her knees looking as if they might give way any minute, Sandra walked through the door. Mason closed it, then turned to Sandra. "Up on the table, sweetie," he said. "On your stomach, okay? Arms at your sides."

"O--okay..." she murmured. He guided her to the stool; she climbed onto it, then up on the table on her hands and knees. Following his instructions, she laid down on her stomach. Mason stood at her right, next to her shoulder. Once she was in position, he seized her hair with his left hand and pulled her head far back. With his right hand he pulled a foot-long serrated knife from his belt, and, without further preamble, he slit her throat. His manner was businesslike, efficient; he laid the edge of the blade against her throat and drew it across firmly but not too quickly, cutting more than two inches deep. The girls watching--and they were all watching, in spite of what Jenny and Deedee had said--gave voice to a variety of cries. Sandra's body bounced violently on the table, her legs kicking, as blood squirted out of her throat. Mason drew the knife through the slit again, cutting even deeper. He kept pulling her head back and her throat stood open, blood gushing out, running into the channels and gurgling down the drain. Her mouth was wide open; she grabbed at his arm futilely with her left hand while her right flopped around aimlessly.

It didn't last long, though. After just a few minutes her body lay limp in Mason's grip, and the flow of blood was slowing.

"She's dead," Lynn said softly. "That was quick. It wasn't that bad. It wasn't..."

"It was horrible," Naomi murmured. "Horrible..."

"We have to be killed," Becky pointed out. "It only took her a few seconds to die. It wasn't horrible, Naomi."

Naomi bit her lip. Becky was, she knew, right. She nodded and continued to watch. In the other room, the butcher picked up Sandra's limp body. He carried her to one of the dangling hooks, then rammed the steel hook into the base of her skull. Leaving her hanging free, he retrieved a device rather like a small chainsaw from the wall; starting it up, he proceeded to slice off her hands and feet, then her lower arms and lower legs, and finally her upper arms and thighs. The girls stared as he used a knife to slice open her belly, as he ripped out her entrails. He then skinned her torso and the pieces of her arms and legs, and finally, using the chainsaw, split the torso into four parts, leaving the top two hanging from her neck. Cutting through her neck, he took down the last two pieces; only her head remained on the hook. Piling the skinned pieces on a cart, he then hosed down the whole area, cleaning up all the blood and gore. He then used an electric clipper to shear the hair from her head, after which it was casually tossed into a waste bin. When he finally rolled the cart out of the room, it was as clean as ever.

"So that's what it means to be slaughtered," Mina breathed. "I've seen it on TV, sure, but seeing it up close--somebody you sorta know..."

"It was quick," Lynn insisted. "It was quick, she didn't suffer. If they slaughter us all that way it won't be that bad."

"It doesn't matter," Mina said. "Whatever they want to do with us, we should accept it." Some of the girls argued, and the discussion was still in progress when Mason came back. He had with him a man dressed in a suit, who looked over the girls in the waiting room. The man pointed, they talked; finally Mason came to the glass door, and the girls knew another of their number was about to experience her last minutes of life.

"Number 16," Mason called. He opened the door. "Come out here, please. We have a special request for you."

The girls looked down at their necklaces. Bright blond Lillian was the one wearing number 16. She looked stunned, dazed; after getting a quick hug from Becky, she walked toward the door and out into the outer room.

"Come on, sweetheart," Mason said. "Up on the table now."

"Just tell me," she whispered, "what I was sold for..."

"Mr. Adele here," the butcher answered, "represents a company that manufactures specialty leather items. You've been sold for your pelt."

"My pelt..."

"Yes," Adele responded with a smile. "You have lovely white skin, my dear. It'll be used to make some very nice leather items."

"Leather items..."

"Up on the table, now," Mason insisted, although his tone was not harsh. "We don't have all day." The girl, obedient, stepped up on the little stool beside the white table, then climbed up on top of it. He told her to lie down on her side; she did. He then stood behind her and laid his hand on her head. He looked back at the other man. "You aren't concerned about her head or hair, are you?" he asked.

"No," Adele answered. "All I'm interested in is the body pelt. But I don't want it stained, okay?"

"Okay." He turned back to Lillian. She was staring through the glass at the other girls, her lips tight, her body was trembling like a leaf in a high wind. The other girls all watched fixedly, unable to tear their eyes away. They all saw, though Lillian did not, Mason take an icepick-like instrument from the toolbelt at his waist. Without any preamble, he pressed her head down on the table hard and drove the icepick in at the base of her skull, into her brain.

Her eyes closed tightly, her mouth drew in in a grimace; her body arched forward, her legs and arms absolutely tight and quivering violently. Mason drew the icepick partly out and drove it in again, at a different angle. Lillian's body stopped moving abruptly.

"Is she dead?" the customer asked.

Mason withdrew the tool. "No," he answered. "She's still with us."

"Isn't that a violation?"

"No. All the law says is we have to pierce her brain. I've done that. Anyway, for a good pelt we want her heart still beating, so we can get all the blood out of her. She won't be able to move while we're draining her, though."

"She's conscious?"

"I dunno. Probably. It doesn't matter, she won't be conscious or alive much longer." He flipped Lillian over onto her back. Her eyes were wide open and moving around rapidly, and she was still breathing. Leaving her lying on the table, the butcher pulled up a machine that looked like a large vacuum cleaner. It had a large clear-plastic hose attached to it, at the end of which was a piece of pipe, an inch in diameter and three feet long, cut diagonally at the end so that it looked like a giant hypodermic needle. He spread Lillian's legs far apart, then eased the point of the pipe into her anus. Once the opening was inside her, he rammed it roughly on in, six inches deep, then flipped on the machine. Instantly the clear plastic tube turned bright red. Pieces of the girl's insides appeared in the stream of blood and fluids. Lillian's eyes darted around more than ever and her lips moved a little as well. Picking up her legs by her feet, Mason held them in the air for a moment, then laid them back down. With the machine still running, he rammed the pipe on in, now eighteen inches deep. Her abdomen began to collapse as the soft materials inside were sucked out. Her lips turned blue, her eyes stopped moving and stared fixedly. Mason let the pump run for a few minutes more, then rammed the pipe on in deeper yet, and lifted her arms to let the blood drain out of them. Finally, he threw a switch on the console and the machine stopped. He pulled the pipe out, being careful not to get any blood on her thighs.

Turning away for a moment, he picked up a cleaver and a hose. Turning the hose on, he trained it on her neck, then chopped off her head with a single stroke. Her hands and feet followed quickly, and he pushed all of them into a pile. He then slit her body open from the top of her neck to her groin, being careful not to open her sunken abdomen, and began pulling the skin away from the muscle beneath. Once he'd loosened the skin from her torso, he washed it out with hot water, then pulled her arms and legs out of their skin, turning it inside-out in the process. Finally, after washing the pelt once more with steaming hot water, he bagged it and gave it to the client, who left looking pleased. Mason turned back to the skinned corpse lying on the table and, quickly and expertly, gutted it and converted what remained into cuts of meat. After he finished cleaning up the room, Mason then left.

"That was really horrible," Naomi observed, still staring at the table where Lillian had been killed. "Horrible." She looked around at Becky, who said nothing.

"I thought they weren't supposed to hurt us. I thought we were supposed to be killed quickly and painlessly," Lynn said with a quaver in her voice.

"You heard him," Mina said carelessly. "He was following the letter of the law. He pierced her brain, that's all he had to do."

"But she was still alive!" Lynn protested. "For a long time, didn't you see her eyes moving? She didn't die until he used that machine to suck out her insides!"

"It doesn't matter," Mina said doggedly. "We have to die. The customer was interested in her skin, and all Mason did was make sure it wasn't wasted. Lillian didn't suffer very long."

"Long enough!" Naomi cried. "I can't imagine what that must have felt like, having that big needle shoved up your ass and your insides sucked out!"

"Oh god, I hope they don't do that to me!" Deedee exclaimed, wringing her hands. She closed her eyes tight. "I hope I hope..."

"You never know," Joan said. "That they've found ways around the rules doesn't surprise me any. People always do when money's involved."

Naomi looked at Joan curiously. "You don't seem too upset by all this," she observed. "Not like the rest of us, anyway."

Joan shook her head. "I'm not," she declared. "I asked my parents to sell me."

Naomi stared. She knew, of course, about girls asking to be sold and volunteering themselves for execution--some of her schoolmates had done so--but she'd never talked to anyone after they'd made such a decision. "You did?"

"Yes." She glanced around at the others. "It's funny, I know a lot of you probably didn't want to be sold. My parents, on the other hand, didn't want to sell me. They only did it after I told them that if they didn't I was going to volunteer for public execution."

"Why would you do that?" Naomi asked.

Joan shook her head again, more vigorously this time. "It's the right thing to do," she said. "I have to do my part... there are so many girls, so few boys... I've been thinking about it for a long time, several years now. I keep watching the TV shows, the executions... the girls who volunteer are so brave... I wanted to be like that, I wanted to be one of them."

"So why didn't you volunteer?" Naomi persisted. "If you had, you would have been able to choose the way you were killed yourself."

"But my parents wouldn't get the money," she countered. She smiled slyly, as if at some private joke. "They got a lot of money for me..." The other girls tried to question her about this, but she would tell them only that "they'd find out, sooner or later."

I wasn't long before Mason returned, alone. Opening the glass door, he leaned in. "Got another meat order," he called. "Any one of you'll do; anybody want to volunteer?" The girls stared for a moment, not really expecting this.

But then Deedee stepped forward. "I'll volunteer," she said in a soft shy voice. Naomi looked at her with surprise; at the beginning, Deedee had been one of the ones who'd been most afraid to die.

"Good girl. Come on out here." Quickly, she stepped through the doorway; Mason closed the door, then took Deedee by the shoulder and guided her toward the table.

"Are you going to cut my throat like you cut Sandra's throat?" she asked in a tiny voice.

"Well, that's standard procedure, yes."

"Good. I want my throat cut." She put her hands on the table. "You want me up here?"

"Yes, please."

She climbed onto the table, then faced him on her hands and knees. "Do you mind," she asked, "if I stay up like this? For as long as I can, I mean?"

"Nope. Not a problem." He put his foot on a treadle, and the table dropped down smoothly. Standing beside her, Mason wound her hair into his hand, pulled her head far back, and laid the knife's edge on her throat. "Ready?" he asked her.

"Yes. Please hurry. I want this to be over."

"Good girl." He drew the blade across, pressing hard, and it sank in quickly and easily. Deedee actually smiled as her throat opened and her blood started spraying out. Mason kept pulling her head back and cut her again, deeper yet. Her knees bounced on the table and her fingers clawed at it, but the odd smile never left her face. In just seconds, she began sagging; it wasn't much longer before she was limp on the table, her head still up only because Mason was holding her hair, her eyes staring and glazing as she relaxed into death. Working efficiently, he skinned her out and divided the meat into sections, as always. Again, when the room was clean, he left.

Less than an hour had passed--during which the remaining girls had had a lively discussion about Deedee's obvious desire to get things over with quickly, and whether it was better to do that, to try if possible to delay things, or simply take them as they came--when Mason returned, this time with three college students.

"Just relax, girls," Mason told them as several of them started to rise from their chairs. "These gentlemen want to look you over." As the men pointed and talked, he walked into the holding room and closed the door behind himself. "They've got an exhibition license," Mason explained, "and they've already contracted a private licensed executioner. They want to buy a girl they can dispatch at a frat party." He looked around at the girls' faces. "Now, if their party is like any other party like this I've ever heard of, they're gonna want a girl that'll be available to them sexually before they kill her. We want that to be good for them, we want that girl to be as enthusiastic about this as possible, so--which of you are comfortable with that? Let me see a show of hands." All of the women except Jenny raised their hands. Naomi was a little hesitant about the idea of being a sex toy for a bunch of college students, but when she saw Becky and Mina raise their hands immediately, she allowed the peer pressure to affect her. "Good," Mason said, nodding. "That's the spirit." He went back out and talked to the men for a quite a while. Naomi thought he saw the boys point to Becky and to Joan, but when they did, Mason shook his head. Once, her heart seemed to jump into her throat when she thought they were pointing to her, but again, Mason shook his head.

Finally an agreement was reached and the door opened again. "Number seventeen," Mason said. "Come on out, you've been sold."

As before, the girls looked down at their necklaces. "Me," Mina said with a sigh. "Could be worse, I suppose." She and Becky spontaneously hugged each other, and then she walked out to the killing room. There was a brief discussion between her and the men, and then they all left together, leaving Mason alone. He sat down at a desk in one corner of the room and began filling out some papers.

"I don't know which is worse," Becky said as she sank back down into a chair. She looked tired. "Watching somebody you've come to like and respect being slaughtered right in front of you, or watching her walk away like that--knowing that she's going to be killed, but knowing at the same time that you'll never know exactly what happened to her."

"I know," Naomi agreed. She chewed on a knuckle. "It's awful to say, but I'm glad they didn't choose me. Not because of the killing or the sex--although I haven't had a lot of experience with sex--but because it works the other way around, too. I'd never know what happened to all the rest of you, and that would bother me." The conversation then turned to the girls' sexual experiences, and Naomi began to get the idea she was probably the least experienced girl there, even including the immature-looking Jenny.

"You know," she told the others, "it isn't as if I never had an inkling my parents might sell me, I know they discussed it a few times before they actually did it. I just never really expected it to happen to me." She smiled and shook her head. "And so, I was preparing for a future, for a job, studying hard. There are so many girls, you have to throw yourself at boys to get them to pay any attention to you at all. I just didn't do it. I didn't lose my virginity until I was sixteen, and that was at a party, a one-night stand. Since then I've only fucked one guy one time--another party. A few times boys I've known--classmates, neighbors--have asked me for relief and I've not turned them down, of course, I sucked their cocks. But I've never had a boyfriend."

"Not all it's cracked up to be," Becky said. "I had a boyfriend for more than five years. I've had a lot of sexual experience and that's good, but here I am, same as you."

Naomi gazed at the older girl for a moment. "I can't understand," she said at last, "why your boyfriend sold you. You're so pretty..."

Becky smiled. "Thank you. Chuck, my boyfriend, used to say that a lot." She shrugged. "But having a boyfriend--there's a lot of pressure involved. You want to keep him, you want to keep him happy. I did that, I gave Chuck anything and everything he wanted. I used to set up dates for him to have sex with other girls. He'd bring friends over and I'd suck them or fuck them while he watched, he used to like doing that. Then one night..."

"What?" Naomi asked, intrigued.

Becky shrugged again. "One night I said the wrong thing. We'd just made love and I was feeling all romantic and affectionate and I started going on and on about how I'd do absolutely anything he wanted me to do. He asked me if I'd agree to allow him to sell me into slavery." She made a helpless gesture. "What could I say? He could do it without my permission anyway. And of course I could appeal, but I'm not sure what grounds I could use to turn it over." She sighed. "So I didn't even try. I said, yes, of course. Then I started going on about how I'd tied him down for five years and how he really should do that--you know, you've heard that before. It was done, if he'd tried to change his mind I would have insisted on going through with it. We went down the next day and signed the papers, and then we went to Northside Slave Exchange. He sold me, and the agent told Chuck he'd double my price if I went for extended, and double it again if I went unlimited." Naomi nodded knowingly, having heard the same offer herself. "I guess," Becky went on, "I have to be a little grateful to him. I was still feeling all loving and self-sacrificing and I urged him to go for unlimited, I said I'd sign. He didn't, but he did go for extended."

"Do you regret it now?" Jenny asked.

Becky smiled. "I do regret," she said, "having said foolish things that got Chuck and I started talking about this in the first place. But on the other hand, I imagine he would have sold me, or just requested my execution, sooner or later anyhow, even if we'd gotten married--unless a girl gets pregnant and has boys, that always seems to happen. In a way I wish he'd sold me unlimited, he'd have a lot more money. I am glad, though, that I can't be burnt to death or cooked alive, that kind of thing. But whoever buys me in the end sure can hurt me a lot before he kills me." She crossed her legs and held on to one knee. "I'm trying," she continued, "to think of that as exciting..."

"What's approved under your contact?" Naomi asked.

Becky shifted in her chair. "We went over the list together. I agreed to allow all forms of hanging and strangulation, and anything they want to do to me with a blade or bullet--multiple stabbings, slow insertion, small-blade, death by exsanguination. I accepted impalement and live disembowel. No poisons, no corrosives, no fire."

Naomi considered this. "I might have accepted the same thing," she mused, "if my Dad had asked me to. He didn't."

"I've heard," Marcie put in, "that a lot of girls end up accepting extended or unlimited contracts even though they were sold as standard."

"I've heard about that too," Lynn added. "On the news. People filing lawsuits because they sold somebody as standard and the girl signed an unlimited contract after the sale. People are losing those lawsuits, I heard."

"Yes, they are," Suni, a Korean girl with the build of a gymnast, commented. "Judges seem to think that if the girl doesn't insist on her sellers getting more money when she signs, then the sellers aren't entitled to it." She flashed a smile. "I'm not sure I'd agree. I was studying law when my family had some problems and had to sell me."

The discussions continued for a while--until the phone rang on Mason's desk. As he picked it up, Naomi had the distinct impression that the phone call meant the end for another of their number.

She was not wrong. As soon as he hung up the phone, Mason came to the door and came inside. "We have a special," he told them. "Movie scene, it's going to be shot in our Studio B, just down the hall." He looked them over. "Which one of you is Joan?"

The dark girl raised her hand and stepped forward. "That's me," she said. She smiled. "They said they'd find me."

"Well, that wasn't hard since we reported to the studio that you were here," Mason said with a smile. "They put a retainer on you while you were still in the truck coming over here. If they hadn't, the frat boys would have taken you." He gestured toward the door. "Ready to go be a movie star?" he asked.

"Yes, I am." She glanced back at the others "I'd like it," she said, "if you came and watched this..."

"Any of you who want to come," Mason reminded them, "are welcome to do so." All of them agreed to go except for Jenny, who looked rather forlorn in the holding room as the rest of them walked down the hall to Studio B.

Studio B, as it turned out, had been set up to resemble a medieval dungeon. The walls and floor looked like stone, there were manacles hanging from them, braziers, a rack, and an odd apparatus that looked rather like a small guillotine with no blade. Several large cameras on tripods stood about here and there. There were floodlights, but there were also torches on the walls, casting flickering red light. One wall was backed by a blue screen, and there was what looked like a makeup area and dressing tables beyond that. Adjacent to it were a few rows of theater-type seats, separated from the main area by a floor-to-ceiling pane of thick glass.

"Soundproof area," Mason told them. "When they're ready to shoot, we'll go in there. We'll be able to hear them, they can't hear us."

Two men, one wearing a suit and tie and carrying a clipboard and another who was wearing a Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses, approached them as they came in.

"You are Joan Marie Pennington?" the man with the clipboard asked. The man with the camera was already filming.

"Yes," she answered.

"According to our records, you signed an unlimited contract, and your beneficiaries were duly paid for that contract. Is that so, Ms. Pennington?"

The girls gasped in near-unison, but Joan merely nodded calmly. "Yes," she answered. "It is. I did sign an unlimited contract, of my own free will."

The man made a notation on the clipboard. "All signed and sealed," he said. "Carry on, gentlemen." He then walked past them and left the room.

"Hi, baby," the man in the Hawaiian shirt said. "I'm Hal Phillips, I'm an assistant director for Paragon Films. What we're doing here is going to be a scene in a movie called 'Crimson Dawn.' It's a period piece, knights and swords and jousting and all that. You're playing the role of one of the queen's handmaidens. The bad guys capture you and try to get you to agree to let them in to the castle at night. You refuse, so they rape you, torture you, and kill you. Got it?"

Joan nodded. "Yes, sir."

"Great. Okay, first order of business, you go over there, to costume and makeup. We're going to get a few shots of you against the bluescreen, we'll cut them in to scenes in castle in edit. We'll give you a script to study while you're in makeup, you don't have much to learn. " Soon enough, Joan, in full makeup and dressed in a pale green medieval-style gown, was standing in front of the bluescreen while video cameras rolled and a still photographer snapped frames. While the photos were being taken, several men came in and went to the costume area, where they were being made up and dressed in leather costumes; Naomi assumed they were playing the roles of medieval soldiers and torturers.

Twenty minutes later Phillips judged that they had enough shots of Joan. "All right, baby," Phillips said, walking up to her and putting his hand on her shoulder. "Here's what we're gonna do now." He began explaining the scene to Joan; Naomi and the others could not hear everything that was being said, but Phillips kept gesturing toward the apparatus that Naomi thought resembled a guillotine. As he talked, Mason herded the girls into the theater area. The area had been fitted with speakers so that they could hear what was going on on the set even though the room was soundproofed.

"Okay, let's give it a shot," Phillips said as Mason closed the theater door. His voice was much more audible now. A woman in coveralls put a piece of blue tape on the floor, and Phillips explained to Joan that this was the edge of the main camera's view. Joan was positioned just behind it, along with two of the "soldiers," who held her by her upper arms. "Okay folks, picture is up!" Phillips called. "Everyone quiet!" He paused, looked around the set, then called "Roll sound!"

A couple of women, casually dressed in T-shirts and shorts and wearing headphones, worked for a moment with their sound gear. "Sound speed," one of them called after a moment."

Phillips nodded. "Roll camera!" he called. Almost immediatly a young woman stepped in front of the camera holding a clapperboard, called out "Take one," snapped it shut and scurried out of the scene.

Phillips nodded again. "Action!" he cried.

Immediately the two men holding Joan's arms began dragging her forward, and she, apparently according to Phillips' instructions, struggled with them. Nevertheless, they dragged her on into the scene, where they were met by an actor in more casual costume.

"Now who's this?" the actor asked in a deep voice.

"Her name's Elaine, my lord," one of the soldiers said. "Handmaiden to the queen. We took her by the well."

The actor tugged at a short beard. "Well, Elaine. You are probably wondering why we brought you here. We need your assistance, you see. We need someone who is inside the castle at night to open the doors for us."

Joan, apparently according to the script, glared at him. "So that you can kill or kidnap the queen? Never!" Her lines were delivered a little woodly, without much affect.

The actor laughed. "You have no choice. If you do not agree, you will die here, today, now."

Joan pulled herself up straight. "Kill me, then," she said, sounding much more convincing. "I'll never help you."

"Then you will die," the actor said calmly. He glanced over at the "torturers." "Kill her," he commanded. "But not quickly, give her a chance to change her mind. And you can take whatever liberties with her you wish." He then turned and left the set.

The soldiers began pulling at Joan's costume. She had been completely outfitted; the dress, slippers, petticoat, bra, panties, stockings. She tried to struggle but within minutes they had stripped her naked. The burly torturers then took over, dragging her to the odd wooden apparatus. It had, Naomi noticed, a cross-piece with a semicircle cut out of it, as if to hold her head. Confirming those suspicions, the torturers forced Joan to kneel down and put her neck in the cutout. They then pulled her hands up behind her back and one of them tied her wrists with a length of rough-hewn rope.

"She's perfect," one of the torturers said. "She's lined up perfectly."

"Let's do it, then," the other replied.

One of the men then came to her, carrying a steel rod with a cap on one end and a sharp point on the other. This he fitted into a hole in the upright beam of the apparatus; as he slid it through, the point came into contact with the side of Joan's left breast.

"Cut! Phillips cried, and the man pulled the rod back. He then walked over to Joan. She looked up at him, some evidence of fear in her large dark eyes. "This'll hurt, baby," he said bluntly. "It'll hurt really bad. React naturally, scream, don't hold back. Remember, you are not a volunteer, you're being tortured."

Joan nodded. "Yes, sir," she replied in a small but serious voice.

The director waved at the leather-clad men. "Let's go," he said. Floodlights, obviously already set, came on; two cameramen dollied in cameras, and a microphone dropped down in front of her. "Action!" Phillips cried. In response, one of the leather-clad men knelt in front of Joan and grabbed her breast. Another slid the rod back through the hole and again pressed the point into the side of her breast.

"Last chance," the man growled while poking her breast hard with the pike. "Will you help us?"

Joan looked back at him with calm eyes. "No. No matter what you do to me."

The man, overacting badly, grinned evilly. Everyone knew what was coming next and there were no surprises, he pushed the rod forward firmly and the point sank into Joan's breast. Pushing on, he started twisting it viciously. Blood spurted out as the sharp steel cut into her soft smooth flesh.

"Ahhh!" she screamed. "Oh, god, it hurts it hurts, oh please, no! Stop! Ahhhh!" Her eyes wide, she squirmed and fought the ropes binding her wrists, but to no avail--the spike kept moving, drilling through her breast. She started kicking, and another "torturer" came over to hold her ankles.

"About through," the man holding her breast said. He let it go, and an instant later the bloody point popped out over her sternum. Her face tear-streaked, Joan just moaned as the man pushed the rod on through.

Then the man kneeling in front of her grabbed her other breast, and the point of the rod pushed into the inner surface of it.

"Oh, god not again!" she shrieked. "No, please, nononono! Ahhh!" In spite of her cries the man drilled the spike right in, and kept going until it popped out the other side. Then two men then guided the point through a hole in the other upright, after which they capped it off by fitting a piece of metal onto the point.

The director gave a thumbs-up. Joan, moaning and sobbing, twisted in her restraints--but there was no way she could get loose short of tearing off her own breasts. The men did nothing for a while, they simply stood around idly while the cameramen filmed her kneeling in the rack, writhing and groaning, her breasts skewered and her blood dripping on the floor.

Then, after she'd calmed down a little, two of the "torturers" opened their leather pants, drew out their cocks, and approached her, stroking them to erection. Seconds later Joan had a cock rammed into her mouth while another of the men was pushing his into her vagina from behind--and not being at all gentle about it. In spite of that, and in spite of the pain of having had her breasts skewered, she cooperated with them fully, actively sucking the man who'd stuck his cock into her mouth and wriggling her hips against the other.

"Cut!" the director yelled. The men immediately moved away, but kept stroking their penises to keep them hard. "That's not right, baby," he told Joan. "These men are raping you. You're a victim, act like one." He laughed. "Just don't bite them, okay?"

"Yes, sir," Joan answered in a tiny voice. Her face was streaked with tears, but the waterproof makeup they'd applied stayed in place. The director called for action again. This time Joan kept her hips still, and when the man tried to stick his cock back in her mouth she closed her lips tightly and turned her head away. The man turned her head back and kept pushing at her lips, and finally she allowed him to push it in. Again, Phillips gave her a thumbs-up. It was an amazing world, Naomi thought, where a woman about to be killed had to be corrected for being too cooperative.

The scene went on, the man behind Joan banging her hips hard. A few minutes later the man at her face pulled his cock out of her mouth and showered his semen over her face. Another man took his place immediately. When the man fucking her finished, another took his place, as well. Joan, being bounced around against the long skewer piercing her breasts and roughly fucked, moaned around the succession of cocks in her mouth and wept in pain. Several times they asked her if she was going to change her mind, and each time she emphatically said she would not.

Finally the director called a halt to it; the cameras stopped rolling. "Okay," he told the crew. "Time to slit her belly now."

Semen covering her face, she looked up. "Slit my belly?"

"Yeah, baby," the director said. He pointed to a wooden tub sitting on the floor nearby. "We're gonna slit open your belly and let your entrails fall into that tub."

Joan, in spite of her obvious pain from her pierced breasts, nodded agreeably. "Okay. You want me to try to take it or scream and beg?"

"Just act naturally," the director told her. "But dont' forget, this is a rape-torture-murder scene."

"I understand," she answered.

The director smiled and gestured toward the leather-clad men. "Let's do it. Cut her open. Action!"

The camera started rolling again. One of the men dragged the tub over and put it in place under her. Holding a short sharp knife, another man knelt in front of her and, after showing her a long, dark-bladed knife, reached up under her with it.

"Gonna change your mind now?" the man asked. "Last chance, Elaine."

She looked up at him. "No. Kill me, just kill me."

"As you say," the man said with a sneer. He then drove the blade firmly up into her just above her pubic bone.

Joan gave a short sharp scream, her eyes wide and her mouth open. "Oh... oh, god, oh please, oh... uhhhh...!" Ignoring her, the man pulled the knife toward himself, using short in-and-out strokes. Joan's body twitched and jerked violently as he cut her belly; she fought for breath, her mouth worked, her eyes popped open and closed repeatedly. As he went on, the other man stepped behind her, pressing himself against her rear end. Reaching around her, he grabbed the sides of her belly and pulled her open; the man kept cutting, as far as the base of her sternum, and by then her intestines, themselves cut and bleeding, were hanging out of her. As a final touch one of the men put a spring clip tipped with clawed jaws around her, hooking the jaws into the sides of her cut belly and pulling her open even more widely.

Then they paused, leaving her with her entrails half lying in the tub underneath her and her blood draining. She looked stunned, dazed; her eyes remained wide open but she made no sound other than harsh grunts and gasps. More men dressed as torturers appeared; one moved in behind her and rammed his cock into her vagina, while another stuffed his into her mouth. The man fucking her seemed to be making a special effort to bang her hips hard, and the resulting movement caused her entrails to fall out of her more and more. She was jerking and trembling, and her movements were losing coordination. At last her body was jerking and surging violently and rapidly in a way that looked wholly unnatural. Naomi found herself focusing on Joan's hands; her fingers kept extending, trembling, then clenching, almost rhythmically.

Finally, one of the leather-clad men announced that she had died. The man who was at that moment fucking her mouth asked for a knife; he was given one, and, while he moved his cock in and out of her limp mouth, he started slicing into the side of her neck, and he did not stop until he'd severed her head. The men then placed her head in a burlap bag and one of the cameras zoomed in for a close-up. The director said it was a wrap; Mason, followed by the girls, emerged from the theater. A steel cart was rolled out, Joan's headless corpse was loaded onto it, and they went back down the hall to the killing room, where the girls went back into the holding room while Mason processed what remained of Joan.

Several hours slipped by. As new meat orders came in, Lynn, Marcie, and Suni were killed, their throats slit, and their bodies efficiently processed. Naomi was beginning to wish Mason would go ahead and call out her number, but the next one he called was the most fearful of them, Jenny.

But Jenny, evidently, had been wishing for the same thing. She smiled brightly when Mason called her number, and she went to him willingly, without any hesitation whatsoever. When she got to him, she surprised him by hugging him tightly.

"Mr. Mason, can I ask you to do something special for me?" she asked.

He patted her thin back. "What's that?"

"I don't want to lay on that table while you kill me the way the other girls did," she told him. "I want to sit in your lap. I want to sit in your lap and put my arms around your neck while you do it." Her manner was very childlike; Naomi wondered if perhaps her mind had snapped. "Can I, Mr. Mason? I'll be good, I promise. You can even cut me open the way they cut Joan open and I won't wiggle around. Please?"

Mason tipped his head to the side. "Well," he said, "it's not procedure, but... sure." He drew a long broad-bladed knife from his belt and sat down in a standing chair. "Come on, honey," he said. "Sit down here and let's do it."

She sat down, put her arms around his neck, and held her face very close to his. Her legs were spread far apart. "I'm all set," she said cheerfully. "I want to die now, I want you to kill me."

Mason put his left hand on the small of her back and pressed the point of the knife against her side, between two of her ribs. True to her word, she didn't move. He punched an inch of the blade in and her blood started to flow; she went rigid but still didn't move.

"Good girl," Mason said. He shoved in another inch of the knife's blade. Jenny trembled and began to cry, sobs wracking her small body. Mason stroked her hair gently and continued to slip the blade slowly on into her chest. He glanced up at Naomi and Becky, saw them watching, and sped up the insertion of the blade considerably, driving the point on into Jenny's heart. Blood spurted out. The small girl spasmed, her eyes staring, her mouth open soundlessly; then she went limp. Efficiently, Mason then hung her body on a hook and converted what had been a pretty young girl into slices of meat.

"That was nice of him," Becky, who was now the only girl besides Naomi herself remaining, commented.

Naomi had begun to view things in a different light than she had when she first arrived. "Yes, it's hard to imagine how it could have been easier for her." The two girls looked at each other, then spontaneously hugged. "I hate to say it," Naomi went on, "but I hope you're the last one left. I don't want to be here alone."

"Me neither," Becky agreed, giving her a tight squeeze.

But, less than an hour later, it was Becky who got the summons from the butcher. When he called her, she looked at Naomi and smiled. "Sorry," she said. Naomi just shrugged; the girls embraced for a last time, then Becky, her head high, her back straight and her steps firm, walked out to meet her death.

She smiled at Mason. "You want me up on the table?" she asked.

"No." He gestured toward the chair in front of his desk. "Have a seat, please. We need to talk for a moment." As Becky seated herself, he walked around and sat down as well. "You might not be aware," he opened, "that we do internet sales?"

Becky nodded and crossed her legs. "Yes, sir, I did know that, sort of. The man who took pictures of me at Mike Leestrom's told me they'd go out on the internet. I thought he meant directly from there."

"From there or from here." He spread his fingers on his desktop. "Anyway. An internet buyer put a hold on you while you were en route from Leestrom's, and he's now bought you. That's why I couldn't sell you to the college boys, who wanted you."

"I see." She frowned, uncrossed her legs, then crossed them the other way. "Does this mean I'm going to be--shipped out of here, I guess--alive?"

Mason shook his head. "No. You will be shipped out, but not alive. You'll be shipped out to your buyer as a whole roaster. Your body will be gutted, your head removed, and--"

"And spitted?" Becky asked.

Mason nodded then. "And spitted."

"Okay," Becky said agreeably. "Are you going to spit me alive, or behead me first?"

"Your buyer," he explained, "is paying extra to have a film of you being spitted alive. But--"

"That's fine," Becky said quietly.

Mason looked a little surprised. "That's fine?"

"Yes, sir. That's fine. I was sold as extended. I specifically agreed to impalement." She smiled. "Where are we going to do this? Here, on the table?"

"Here, but not on the table." He touched a button on his desk. Unseen machinery whirred, and a slender steel shaft, pointed, rose from the floor in one corner of the room. When about three feet of it was exposed, he touched the button again and stopped it.

Becky turned to look at it. "Oh," she said calmly. "I see. A standing impalement, I've seen those on TV."

"I'm going to give you a few choices," Mason went on.

She turned back to him. "Choices?"

"Yes. Let me be blunt. We have not specified a price for the film, only a price for your body, ready for roasting. We will price the film according to its quality. If you feel you could--"

"Mr. Mason, whatever choices you're about to offer don't matter much to me," she said, cutting him off. "Whatever you want me do, whatever would give the film a higher price, I'll be glad to do. I signed the extended contract of my own free will, and I'll honor it, I'll cooperate any way I can." She smiled and crinkled her nose. "Just tell me what to do."

Mason was silent for a moment. "We'll get the best price," he explained, "if it appears you're accepting the impalement voluntarily. If your hands are free and you hold an overhead bar as the spit is going in."

"I'm pretty sure I can do that."

"Also, if you're still alive as you're being gutted and finally beheaded, it would increase the value of the film even more."

"I can't control that. You can, I imagine. Just do it, Mr. Mason. I haven't been expecting to be killed painlessly."

Mason closed his eyes for a moment. Naomi wasn't sure Becky noticed--she was looking back at the impaling spit--but Naomi did. "Very well," he said. He picked up his phone, dialed a two-digit number. A few silent minutes passed, and then two more men entered the room, one of them carrying camera gear, which he immediately began setting up.

"This is Jerry Franklin," Mason said, indicated the other man, who was dressed in blue jeans and a plain white T-shirt. "He's our resident impaling expert."

"Good to meet you, Mr. Franklin," Becky said.

"Jerry, please," he answered. He was young, muscular, and quite attractive, Naomi noticed. "We're about to be very intimate--" He looked down at a card he was holding. "Becky."

She smiled brightly. "Just tell me what to do," she repeated.

He smiled too. "Okay. Come over here, stand over the spit." Mason pressed the button again, dropping it down a foot. Without even a slight hesitation, Becky rose from her chair, walked to the spit, and stood over it, her legs spread. "Half speed," Franklin said. Mason worked controls on his desk and the pike rose, moving very close to her groin. A moment later, a horizontal bar dropped from the ceiling toward her head. Franklin smeared oil on the pointed tip of the impaling spike, which did not appear to be overly sharp.

"Freehand?" Franklin asked as Becky, understanding without being told, reached up to hold the bar with both hands.

"Yes," Mason told him. "All the way, full treatment."

"Wow," Franklin said. He looked at Becky. "You got kahonies, honey." As she smiled, he adjusted the position of her hips with his hands. "Up quarter speed, four inches," he said, inspecting her groin closely. The spit rose again, the point slipping between her vaginal lips. "Quarter speed, three inches,' Franklin ordered, and the spit slid up inside her. Becky sighed and closed her eyes; obviously, this part was not at all painful for her. "Quarter speed, two inches," Franklin said, and the spit rose again. Becky adjusted herself on it a little, but still did not appear to to be in pain.

Franklin laid his hand on her lower belly for a moment, then moved it away. "Okay, honey," he said. "Here it comes."

"I'm ready," she replied. She seemed completely calm.

"Up half speed and continue," he said. The pike moved upward, and a moment later Becky's body stiffened. She threw her head back and came up on the balls of her feet, all the muscles in her legs tight. Her hands clenched the overhead bar desperately. A trickle of blood ran down the spike, then another and another.

"Aaaaah!" she cried. "Oh, oh, mmm...!"

Franklin moved close again and again touched her abdomen. "This'll be the worst of it, honey," he told her.

She raised her head again and looked at him. Her face tight, she looked utterly pathetic and even prettier than before. "It's okay, doesn't matter," she choked out. "Just... do it... right." The blood flow down the shaft increased again.

"If she's to survive the impaling," Franklin said, apparently to the camera, "the point must pass into the stomach and then through the esophageal hiatus." He adjusted her body again as the pike kept rising. Her body spasmed sharply, her head pushed forward, her eyes wide. "Success," Franklin said softly. "Continue."

The pike kept rising. Becky kept making small sounds, her mouth opening and closing repeatedly, her eyes wide and staring. A few seconds later, the pike could be seen passing up through her throat. Franklin pushed her head back and a moment later a couple of inches of it emerged, bloody, from her mouth. Blood streamed down both her cheeks and flowed steadily from her vagina. Her body continued to jerk, though, and she continued to hold on to the overhead bar.

"You took it well, honey," Franklin told her, stroking her body tenderly. "Very well. It won't be long now." He then drew a hooked knife from his belt and swiftly split her abdomen open, from the base of her sternum to her pubes. The incision spread open and her entrails spilled out. Working quickly, Franklin cut them loose and separated them into two groups, dumping the intestines and stomach into a tub Mason placed nearby while putting the liver, spleen, ovaries, and other edible organs into a plastic bag. Becky's body was just quivering by then, and her hands had dropped from the overhead bar, her arms hanging limply at her sides. Naomi could not see her face as her head was pushed far back by the impaling spike, but she was sure she had to be dead by then.

"Abdomen's clean," Franklin said crisply. "Let's take her down." Mason pushed more buttons on his desk and the spit began to tip over forward. As it came, Naomi could see her face again. Her eyes, brilliant blue, were still open and moving around. Incredibly, she was not dead yet.

As Franklin caught the top end of the spit, Mason came around and, after kicking a release that allowed the pike to come free from its mount, picked up the bottom. Blood drained steadily from her open abdomen and ran from her mouth as they placed the spit on a pair of hangers extending from the wall. Her arms and legs hung limply, her feet dragging on the bloody floor.

Franklin began tying her feet to the pole and binding her hands behind her back. Mason moved around to her head and looked at her face. "All over," he said, running his hand through her hair gently as he drew a long knife from his belt. "Couldn't have been better." She looked up at him. He then held her hair up out of the way and made three quick deep cuts with the knife, one angling up each side of her neck and one across the back. Blood shot out. Her eyes popped open even wider and stayed that way as he pulled her head forward and off the spit. The expression on her face suggested surprise or amazement, not pain or fear.

Mason placed her head on the table as her body continued to drain. Then, working under the body, he removed her heart and lungs; the lungs went into the waste tub, the heart into the bag with the liver and so on. Franklin stepped back into the hallway, then rolled in a specially-constructed refrigerated shipping crate. Together, they lifted Becky's gutted corpse and put it in the crate, spit and all. Her head was placed in a compartment at one side, the bag containing the organs in one on the other side, the crate was closed, and Mason put a label on it. Assisted by the cameraman, Franklin rolled the crate out and soon both where gone. Mason looked around the room, then took a new spit from a tall cabinet and placed it in the holder in the floor. With the touch of a switch it sank down out of sight, ready to be used again.

Before beginning to clean up, he came over and opened the holding room door again. "You can come out if you want to," he told Naomi. He then turned away.

She came out, tentatively. "Is it my time now?" she asked.

He shook his head. "No. I have no orders to fill right now. But you're the only one left, and I figured you might rather be out here than in there all alone."

She smiled. "Yes, I would," she admitted. She sat down in one of the chairs and crossed her bare legs. "Mr. Mason, do you think you'll get an order for me today?"

He glanced at his watch. "It's four-thirty," he noted. "We close at five. It isn't likely. Any special reason for asking? Just to find out if you're going to live a few more hours?"

She pursed her lips. "No," she said, "In a way I kind of hope you do get an order for me today." Her tone was matter-of-fact. "I know you're going to kill me pretty soon anyway, and I think I'd rather be killed today than spend the night here alone."

"Ah, I see." He looked around at her. "You're not afraid of being killed?"

She shook her head. "No, sir. I was when I first came here, but not anymore."

"Hm. What's your name? I'm sorry, I just don't pay attention to them..."

"Naomi. Naomi Chandler."

"Well, Naomi Chandler. You don't hate me for killing your friends?"

"Oh, no. You're just doing your job, I know that, and it's a job that has to be done. I'm not afraid of you, either. I know you're going to kill me, but it's okay. Just like Becky, I'll cooperate as much as I can when the time comes."

He turned fully to face her. "That's a good attitude," he said somewhat gruffly. "Okay, Naomi. I'll give you three choices, you can take your pick. You can spend the night in the holding room alone, that's choice one. You'll only be alone one night anyhow, we'll get a new shipment in tomorrow morning. Choice two, I can kill you right now, and I'll do it any way you want it done. Choice three, you can come home with me for the night."

As he was speaking, Naomi considered the idea that he might want to have sex with her if she spent the night with him. Still, she answered immediately. "I'd like to go home with you," she told him. She then smiled. "And," she added bluntly, "if you want to have sex with me, that's okay too. I don't have very much experience but I'll do the best I can."

Mason gave her a quick brief grin. "You do have a good attitude," he commented. "Okay. Here." He tossed her a sponge. "Clean up that table. As soon as we get things cleaned in here, we'll go."

A half an hour later, Naomi, still completely naked, walked with Mason to his car in the parking deck, drawing a few curious glances from passers-by. She had become accustomed to being nude by then and wasn't embarrassed; the only thing that really bothered her was that the roughness of the concrete hurt her feet.

"Can I ask you a question?" she asked him as he pulled the car out into the roadway.

"Sure," he answered. "Shoot."

"Do you enjoy killing girls, or is just a job for you? I mean, I know it's your job and you seem to be very good at it, but..."

He glanced at her. "Well," he said, "I'll answer that, because I don't get a chance to talk about it very often, with anyone. The direct answer is, it is my job and I am in fact very good at it, I have a reputation for being one of the best. But yes, I do enjoy doing it, I enjoy it very much." He stared out the windshield fixedly. "You can now hate me if you wish. But don't get me wrong, I don't like doing it because I'm a misogynist--someone who hates women. I actually like women. But I do get an erotic thrill out of killing them. I didn't choose that, it's just the way I am."

Naomi gave him a wide-eyed, innocent look. "I don't hate you," she told him. "Why should I? Someone has to slaughter young girls, if you didn't do it it would be someone else, and it might be someone who enjoys being really cruel to them." She paused and shook her head. "That's not what I mean, exactly. You were really cruel to Lillian, but--"

"Lillian was the one with the white skin and light blond hair, right? The one sold for her pelt?"

"Yes."

"That was--"

"No, wait, let me finish. I don't mean cruel in causing them pain. You don't disrespect the girls. Yes, you kill them, and yes, you hurt them when necessary. But I've watched you kill a bunch of girls now. You treat them like people before they're dead. That's why Deedee volunteered, I think."

He looked around at her, a softer expression on his face that she'd seen so far. "I do try to do that," he agreed. "I'm glad to hear someone else can see it." He looked back at the road. "I want to explain about pelt girls," he told her.

"You don't have to, you--"

"I said I want to." Naomi fell silent. "What was done to--Lillian, was it?--was standard procedure for a pelt girl. You pierce the base of the brain, it paralyzes them completely, and you can then extract the insides without staining the pelt. We also know it means they don't feel any pain at all. But they are still alive and still conscious, they know what's happening to them. Personally I think it's too cruel. A pelt can be bleached if it's bloodstained. But there I don't have a choice, it's procedure."

"Doing that doesn't give you the--uh, erotic thrill?"

"No. When I do those I'm just trying to work as quickly as possible, get it over with for the girl."

Naomi pursed her lips again and watched his face as he drove on home. Far from hating this man, she was actually beginning to like him.

Mason's house was, by the standards Naomi was used to, a mansion. It was not empty; a very pretty girl dressed as a maid greeted him as he came in, and over the course of the next few hours Naomi met several of his servants, all young women and all quite attractive. All of them seemed surprised to see her; later the maid, Helen, told her that although quite a few butchers brought unused girls home with them, Mason virtually never did.

Mason, leaving Naomi in Helen's care, went off to take a shower and Naomi didn't see him again until dinnertime. By that time, Helen had located a blue dress and some slippers for her to wear, so she was again dressed when they sat down to eat.

"Can I ask you another question, Mr. Mason?" Naomi asked as she nibbled at a delicious braised shank.

"If you want to know what that meat is, it's--"

"I don't care what it is. I think I know anyway. That doesn't matter to me."

"Then ask away."

She cocked her head. "Why'd you bring me home, Mr. Mason? It was nice of you and all that, but... I thought maybe you wanted to have sex with me. But you have all these other girls here, nice-looking girls who surely would have sex with you if you asked."

He nodded. "You're right. They would and they do. In fact, they'll do more than that if I ask them to. Helen's predecessor was a Brazilian girl named Beatriz. Very beautiful. About three months ago I asked her if she'd let me kill her. I told her I'd send her father and her fiancÚ five thousand dollars each if she signed the papers. She agreed, she signed, and I sent the money."

Naomi, fascinated, watched his eyes. "And then you killed her?"

He nodded. "Yes." He gazed off into the distance. "She was such a fine girl, Naomi. After she signed the papers, she wrote a very sweet letter to her father and her fiancÚ saying good-bye, and telling them not to cry for her, that she was doing what was right."

"Did you kill her right away?"

He nodded. "That same night." He looked up at her curiously. "Do you want to hear how it was done?"

"Yes, please."

"Very well. After she signed the papers and the money--along with her letter--had been sent, I told her to continue her duties as usual until eleven o'clock that evening. At eleven, I said, I would be in my bedroom. I told her to go either to the kitchen or to my study and select a knife for me to kill her with; her choice, completely. She was then to come to my bedroom naked."

"And she did."

"Yes. Understand, Naomi, she had signed the papers but I had not yet filed them, and she knew this. She was still a free woman. She could have left the house, she could have booked a flight back to Brazil, and no one would have stopped her or even questioned her. But, just after eleven she came to my room, completely naked, carrying an eight-inch kitchen knife with a serrated edge. She was smiling as she came in--her smile seemed very genuine--and she handed me the knife. She told me she was ready to die. She asked me to do it in whatever way would please me most, she said she was ready to accept anything."

Naomi, visualizing the scene, licked her lips. "Wow..."

Mason grinned. "Yeah, wow. That's what I thought, too." He shrugged. "I kill girls every day. But they have no real choice in the matter. Beatriz could have simply said no in the first place, or she could have left. She didn't do either."

"So what did you do?"

"We had sex. Very quiet, peaceful, affectionate sex, but I did not finish. I asked her to kneel on my bed, spread her legs, and put her arms on her head. She asked if she could put her arms on my shoulders instead, and I told her that was fine." His smile had faded, he looked very distant. "I felt I loved her then. I touched her breasts and her thighs lightly, for a long time, she had remarkably lovely breasts and legs. She smiled at me and she kept smiling when I started to work the knife into her belly below her navel. I wasn't pushing it in--when you do that it goes deep as soon as the skin is breached, and you can't stop it before it gets well in there--I was rocking it, letting the point cut, making sure it went in gradually. Very painful for her, but very erotic for me--in part exactly because I knew that it was very painful for her. I felt her clasping her hands together hard, behind my head. Her body was trembling and she made a little 'O' shape with her mouth, but otherwise she hardly showed a trace of pain in her face. I watched her face and she watched mine and I continued to work the knife on into her until the entire blade was inside her."

"Did she die then?"

"No. Beatriz was still very much alive and hadn't even lost much of her strength at that point." He looked down at the table and his voice became wistful. "Once the knife was buried in her," he went on, "I told her I was going to take it out, and after I did I wanted to have sex with her again. She urged me to leave it where it was, and to just keep my hand on it, she said it seemed to her that I liked feeling her tremble through the knife. That was true, I did, and I left it as she suggested. She then turned her body around--it must have caused her tremendous pain but she still wasn't showing it much--bent over, and took my cock back in her mouth. It was wonderful, having her suck me while I held the knife that was standing in her. I could feel her heart beating through the handle." He shrugged. "That was nothing new to me, you can often feel a girl's heartbeat through a knife piercing her. But with her--well, sucking my cock was turning her on, I could feel it in her heartbeat, in the way it was speeding up." Naomi, her eyes very bright, leaned forward a little and listened intently. "After that she came around on top of me, straddling me. She still had the knife sticking in her belly, but she had this nice, soft, sexy smile on her face as she moved on me, as if it wasn't hurting her at all--and it was, I knew that. I pushed the knife hard against her several times, cutting her inside, and all she did was sigh and tell me that she loved the way I was killing her, and she only wished her fiancÚ was there to watch--she said he had always liked watching her fuck other men, and she was sure he would have loved to watch her being killed. I told her a vid was automatically being made of us, and she smiled really brightly and asked if I would send copies to her fiancÚ and to her father."

"And did you?"

"Yes. And they thanked me profusely, for the movies and for giving Beatriz an honorable and exciting death."

"Wow. Again."

"Indeed."

"Tell me the rest of it..."

He shrugged. "We went on for maybe half an hour, maybe more. When I told her I was ready to put the knife back in her, she pulled it out herself--and she pulled it against the edge so it would cut her open a little. I ran the knife in through her side, under her ribs, and through her breast, and every time I ran it in slowly. She smiled and controlled herself throughout. At the end, I had her sitting on my lap, with my cock inside her. I told her I was going to kill her then, and she answered that she was ready to die. I kissed her and ran the blade in through her solar plexus and up into her heart. She was in her death throes while I was coming. It was really beautiful." He gave Naomi an odd look. "What do you think?"

"What I think," she said, "is that I wish I was a little more experienced. Because if I have to die I think I'd like to be killed that way myself."

He gazed at her steadily for several seconds. "What if I decided," he said in a low voice, "to kill you slowly and painfully, like that, while one of my girls here was sucking my cock?"

Naomi decided to throw all cautions to the wind. "I would say," she answered, "that you can kill me any way you choose and I'll do my best to accept it as well as Becky and Beatriz did. I wasn't sold under an unlimited contract, but I'll sign one for you if you want me to."

He looked surprised. "You will?"

"Yes."

"Why?"

"Because," she replied, "you're an honorable man. I can see that. Killing young girls excites you, and you do it all day every day and you never take advantage of them." She shrugged. "You could have had sex with any of the girls you killed today. All of us watching, we'd all be dead soon, we couldn't tell. But you follow the laws. It seems to me you deserve a girl that you can do whatever you want to with. I don't mind being that girl."

"Even if that meant you died in terrible agony."

"Even then. I don't expect to be killed painlessly anyhow. I'd like to give you pleasure with my death, like Beatriz did."

"You don't just have a good attitude," Mason commented with a smile, "your attitude is exceptional." He shook his head. "Very well. Nothing is going to happen to you tonight, Naomi. Relax, watch TV, Helen will show you to a bedroom. Tomorrow you'll go back in with me." He smiled at her. "But you won't be chosen tomorrow, either. You'll be acting as my assistant. Unless you tell me you'd rather not do that, in which case I'll put you back in the pool and let whatever happens happen."

Naomi told him she'd be happy to act as his assistant, and, as he had said, the remainder of her evening was peaceful, pleasant, and completely uneventful. The next morning she had breakfast with Mason, and they returned together to his workplace--Naomi was again naked, he'd asked her to leave the dress at his house, and she hadn't argued. By ten, the holding room had again filled up, nine new condemned girls. As had been the case the previous day--when Naomi had been one of them--all but one or two of them looked, if not terrified, at least anxious. Without Mason asking, she went into the holding room and started talking to them, trying to help them accept their fate.

Of course, the first thing the new girls wanted to know was why she was getting special treatment, why she was not simply one of them.

"I am one of you," Naomi told them. "I'm a slave, signed and sealed. Yesterday I was in here, but I wasn't chosen for anything by closing time, so Mr. Mason asked me to help him out cleaning up and so on. I did that." She shrugged. "And now I'm back, and I'm sort of his assistant for at least today. He said I wouldn't be chosen today, and you can trust what he says."

"You stayed here alone last night?" one of the girls, a green-eyed beauty with auburn hair, extremely long legs, and strikingly pouty lips named Susannah, asked.

"No, Mr. Mason took me home. I slept at his house."

Susannah laughed harshly. "I see. You must give damn good head, Naomi!" Her manner was challenging, almost hostile.

Naomi shook her head. "No. I didn't have any sort of sex with him. That was his choice. I would have done whatever he asked of me, and I told him so."

"Except let him slit your pretty little throat."

"As a matter of fact," Naomi answered coolly, "I told him he could do that, too, if he wanted. I told him he could do whatever he wished with me. I was sold under a standard contract, but I told him I'd sign an unlimited for him if he wanted."

Susannah frowned. "You did? Why?"

She glanced at Mason, who was seated at his desk, apparently going over the day's roster. "Because," she said, turning back to the other girls, "I like him. He kills girls like us for a living, yes, but someone has to, right? He's an honorable man, he isn't unnecessarily cruel, he doesn't take advantage, and he treats the girls with respect while they're still alive. He--" She stopped speaking. Out in the killing room, the phone was ringing, and Naomi knew what that meant. She sighed. "You'll see, in just a moment. And within a few minutes there'll be one less of us."

"The phone call?" Susannah asked.

"Yes," Naomi answered. "Probably a general order for meat." She looked around at the girls. "You should volunteer, if he gives you the chance. It really isn't bad."

"How would you know that?" Susannah demanded with a slight sneer. "You're still alive."

"I've watched a number of girls die close up now. It's as close as I can come and still tell you about it. Volunteer, get it over with. Waiting is hard."

As she was speaking, Mason opened the door and, as expected, announced that he had a call for meat and began looking them over. Three of them took Naomi's advice and volunteered. Mason, looking a little surprised, chose one of them, a pretty dark-haired teenager named Andrea. Naomi took her hand, led her out, and helped her up on the table, where she remained on her knees and elbows. Naomi stood in front of her, holding both of her hands.

"What's he going to do?" Andrea asked, her voice only slightly tremulous.

"He's going to cut your throat," Naomi answered. "Don't be afraid, it won't be bad."

Andrea nodded as Mason wound up a handful of her hair and started pulling her head back. "Don't let go of my hands."

Naomi nodded in turn as Mason slipped the long blade under Andrea's chin. She frowned--just slightly--as he pulled it across, slicing deep into the smooth flesh of her neck. She clutched at Naomi's hands as blood sprayed onto the table, flecking Naomi's face and chest with spatters. Mason held her head back, keeping her throat open. She died quietly, her eyes locked to Naomi's, who was sure she could see the moment when the young girl's life departed. After she was dead, Mason picked up the body under the arms and started toward one of the dangling hooks. Without being asked, Naomi picked up Andrea's feet, helping him. She shuddered at the sound of steel crunching through bone when Mason hung her on a hook, then stepped away and watched while he butchered the body. Naomi helped him clean up afterwards, and then she went back into the holding room to talk with the other girls until the next one was chosen.

Susannah was waiting for her. "Well," she observed, "I have to say, you weren't wrong, the way he did Andrea, it wasn't all that bad. But you were telling us about why you offered to sign an unlimited contract for him."

Naomi shrugged. "Killing girls turns him on," she answered. "He told me that. But he doesn't take advantage. I was sold as standard, he has to kill me pretty quickly. That's not what he likes, he likes having a girl accept a slow painful death for him. He told me a story about a girl he hired to die for him while they were having sex, and I thought it was pretty, you know, sort of romantic... exciting..." She shook her head. "I don't know what he'll do with me exactly, he hasn't said. Tomorrow I may be on that table getting my throat cut. That's okay, if that's what he wants for me. But if he wants to kill me slowly while he's having sex with me, or maybe kill me while he's having sex with another girl, well, that's all right with me too."

Susannah gazed at the butcher for a moment. "But you say you haven't had sex with him yet?"

"No, I haven't. But that's his choice, not mine, I told him I do anything he asked of me in that way."

"Hm. Well, knowing that, it really doesn't help us much."

"I don't agree," Naomi said. "We have all been sold into slavery, we are all going to be killed, one way or another, nothing is going to change that. Mr. Mason, he likes girls. He said so and I believe him. He might get excited by killing us, but he respects us and he isn't unnecessarily cruel to us. In his position he could be. I'm sure some butchers are."

"Yeah, probably." Susannah suddenly grinned brightly. "Okay. Let's test him. Let's just see." The girls gathered around, and Susannah explained what she had in mind. She asked Naomi a number of questions, which Naomi answered as best she could. Several of the girls agreed to her plan, saying that they had nothing better to do.

It wasn't long before another call came in, and, again, Mason came in, said there was another general meat order, and asked if there were any volunteers. This time he got five--including Susannah--and he selected one of them, a full-figured blond named Marianne. Accompanied by Naomi, she followed him out to the killing room.

"Okay," Mason said as he selected a knife, "up on the table, please."

Marianne shuffled her feet and stood with her hands clasped behind her back. "I'd rather not," she said in a soft voice.

He turned to look at her. "Excuse me?"

"I don't want to die on that cold hard table," she said, looking down at the floor. "If I'm going to be slaughtered for meat, it doesn't matter too much how you kill me, does it?" She slid her left foot back and forth and glanced up at him without raising her head. Her manner was distinctly seductive.

Mason frowned. "No, it doesn't. Other than that I need you to bleed out." He gazed at her for a moment. "You want to be done some special way?"

She nodded. "I want to be standing up," she told him. "And I want you to kill me by sticking your knife in my back. In my heart. You can do that, can't you?"

His frown deepened. "Yes," he answered. "But that's not ideal, if I pierce your heart you won't really bleed enough to--"

She gave him a pitiful look. "Please?"

Mason sighed. "Okay. Okay, okay. Turn around and put your hands on the table."

She walked toward him. "No," she said. She threw her arms around him and pressed her naked body against his. "Like this. Do it, please?" She put her head on his shoulder.

He looked amazed. But he said nothing, he just ran his left hand up her back, counting ribs, and finally located the point of the knife between two of them, a little to the left of her spine.

Marianne squirmed against him, pressing her thighs hard against his. Over his shoulder, she winked at Naomi. Mason paused for just a moment, the knife pressing hard into her back.

"Yes," Marianne murmured into his shoulder. "Kill me now..."

Mason's arm flexed and the sharp blade sank deep into Marianne's back. She spasmed violently against him, her eyes and mouth flying wide open. She clutched at him with her hands, her legs stiffened, and her body quivered for a moment. Then, without ever having made a sound, she went completely limp, collapsing into his arms. He pulled the knife out, carried the body to one of the hooks, and, after driving it into the base of her skull, connected a pump to drain out more of her blood. There was a noticeable bulge in the front of his pants, and Naomi smiled secretly.

Once the body had been butchered and the area cleaned up, Naomi went back into the holding room. "I would say," Susannah noted as she came in, "that you were right. Killing Marianne certainly turned him on, that was obvious. But he did it her way. Even though doing it that way meant he had to do more work to clear the blood out. If we have to be killed that's the sort of man we want doing it."

"So are you going to do it again?" an elfin dark-haired girl named Bridget asked. Her dark eyes sparkled.

"Doing things the way Marianne did," Naomi pointed out, "amounts to teasing him. He won't take advantage. Do you think he deserves that?"

"No," Susannah answered. "But do we deserve to be here, to be killed like cattle? No, we're not in any way responsible for the gender-balance problems. But we have to die to make things work, so we can't complain. Right?" She smiled. "So we walk in there when we're called and we let him kill us. But that doesn't mean we can't make the best of it, doesn't mean we can't have as much fun as possible in the process. Teasing men is fun. I say we go for it."

"I definitely agree," Bridget said. She then paused and sighed. "But I won't get a chance to. I was sold under an unlimited contract." She shook her head. "Don't ask me why I signed it, I couldn't tell you. My parents are just assholes, they were just interested in the money. But I let them talk me into going along with it. Just a little girl who doesn't want to disappoint Daddy even if she's grown-up and Daddy is a bastard, I suppose. But that means I probably don't have much say-so about the way I go down."

Remembering the way Joan had died, Naomi sighed too. "All you can do is take it as best you can," she offered. She told them about Becky, about the way she'd died. "She was amazing," she told them. "Amazing. Her buyer wanted a film of her being impaled, and she cooperated fully, all the way. She was impaled, gutted alive, and then beheaded, and she cooperated with all of it."

"I was sold under extended too," Allison, a pretty but fragile-looking girl with short brown hair and a very soft and delicate-looking body, said. "That could happen to me as well. I don't know if I could take it as well as your friend did."

"Could happen to me, too," Bridget noted, her shoulders slightly slumped. "Camera and all. I've already been told there'll be some filmmakers coming for me." Her face twisted. "I'm going to be a movie star."

Visualizing Joan's fate and remembering what had happened to Michelle, Naomi stared at her. "Do you know what they're going to do?"

Bridget shook her head. "All I can do is hope they find a good way to kill me."

"I don't think there's any good way to be killed!" one of them, a strawberry blond named Linda, blurted. "All I want is for it to be quick. I don't want him to hurt me."

"Then ask that of him," Susannah advised. "If he's the kind of man Naomi thinks he is, he'll find a way to do that."

As it happened, Mason opened the door about that time, told them he had an order for "extra-tender" and, after looking them over, called Linda's number. The girl began to tremble; Naomi took her hand and led her out. She did not resist, although it was obvious she was so scared she could hardly walk.

Immediately she started talking to Mason. "Please, please, don't cut my throat. I know you have to kill me but please please don't hurt me, please."

Mason gazed at her for a moment, then glanced at Naomi. "All right," he said finally. "I won't cut your throat, at least not while you're aware of it. But you have to get up on the table for me. On your hands and knees, please."

Naomi helped her mount the table, then stood in front of her, holding her hands. Mason stood beside her, stared at her for a moment, then turned away. When he turned back he was holding a heavy wooden mallet. Suddenly, unexpectedly, he smashed it into the back of Linda's head, so hard her face slammed into the steel table with a loud bang. She collapsed instantly, her limbs in a sprawl. While Naomi stared at him in shock, he grabbed the girl's hair, lifted her limp head, and, with three quick strokes of his knife, decapitated her. Naomi was left holding her twitching hands and being sprayed with blood from her open neck.

"She wanted no pain," Mason reminded her. "She didn't experience any."

"I understand," Naomi said, her voice a little shaky. "It just surprised me, that's all."

"Her too," he said, rolling the body over and expertly slicing open Linda's belly without cutting into her entrails. "It was supposed to." He glanced up at Naomi. "We'll have to do her on the table. Can't hang a girl up by her head after you've cut it off."

Naomi was much more involved in this butchering than she had been in the previous one. Mason kept handing her pieces of Linda's body, internal organs and slices of meat, as he removed them. She took them dutifully, without complaining and without flinching, and placed them where he told her to put them.

"Shower's over in the corner," he said when they had finished the butchering and the cleanup. "You're a mess."

"I do like him," Susannah said when Naomi, having showered, returned to the holding room. "You were right about him, Naomi." Her manner was much more friendly now.

Eventually, the conversation turned to the circumstances under which they'd been enslaved. Like Becky, and in spite of her almost spectacular good looks, Susannah had been sold by her boyfriend. "It always ends up like that, doesn't it?" she said, a sour look on her face. "It's funny. I'll admit, I'm just a little bitter about being here. Like a lot of girls, I never expected it to happen to me. But really, it's my own damn fault."

"What happened?" one of the other girls, a petite Mexican girl named Lucia, asked.

"My boyfriend Stan and I, we used to go to the public executions a lot. His idea, he liked them, they turned him on, and we'd screw like rabbits afterwards. He'd always bring binoculars so he could have a really good view. A lot of times, when we were having sex, he'd run a fantasy about me being executed. Always the same way. He'd play with my belly a lot, when I was sucking him off especially, and talk about what a thrill it would be for him to see a knife go into me right here." She touched a spot a little above and a little to the left of her clean-shaven groin. "Now, I'm not such a damn fool, or so crazy in love, that I was going to say, 'oh yes Stan, love of my life, we have to make some arrangements for you to get your chance to see that.' I know that happens to a lot of girls with boyfriends or husbands, I wasn't going to have it happen to me. As a matter of fact, I had already decided that if he ever did try to sell me, or request my execution, I'd appeal it. I had grounds, I wasn't living with him, I had other lovers and so did he. I felt pretty damn sure I could convince a judge I wasn't really his girlfriend, just a casual fuck-buddy."

"I never knew anyone who appealed," Allison said. "You lost it?"

Susannah shook her head vigorously. "No. I said it was my own damn fault, remember? No, I made the mistake of saying that to Stan. We'd just come from watching the public executions and he was talking about how this one particular killing turned him on--it was a live disembowel--and he spun a little fantasy about requesting my execution and requesting that for me. Well, the girl who'd been disemboweled had lasted a damn long time after they cut her open, obviously in a lot of pain, and I just wasn't interested in that, and I said so. Stan looked surprised and asked me what I would do about it, and I said, 'appeal.'" She sighed. "And nothing happened. He said nothing. But starting the next day, the whole damn world caved in on me."

"How so?" Naomi asked.

"Stan told everybody--I do mean every-fucking-body--about what I'd said. I had a good job at a magazine. My boss found out about it. Stan told my parents about it, he told my girlfriends. And I just started getting bombarded." She rolled her eyes. "Just one damn word, and all the wheels came off my whole life. My boss called me in and I got fired, she said she didn't want somebody socially irresponsible working for her. My father called me--he'd requested execution for my mother years ago, I watched her get beheaded--and asked me who the hell I thought I was. My friends either didn't want to believe it or acted like they were mad at me; one of them just lit into me, calling me a selfish bitch, trying to keep all the men to myself. 'Who did I think I was,' lord god I heard that over and over from a dozen different people. A social worker came around to see me, and again, she wanted to know why I thought of myself as special."

"And finally..." Naomi said softly.

Susannah nodded. "Finally. I can be a tough cookie, I guess, but I have my limits. I went to see Stan--he'd broken up with me by then, but regardless--and I asked him not to request my execution. He just laughed, but before he could say anything else I told him he could sell me and keep the money, I said I'd sign if he kept it standard." She shrugged. "So he sold me and here I am, waiting to go out there and get my throat slit." She pursed her lips. "Not as tough as I thought I was."

"But you do understand," Bridget said, "why everyone was like that. If we start thinking of ourselves as special, that we should as individuals be spared, the whole thing starts to break down."

Susannah nodded. "I do know that. Got reminded of it a pretty hard way recently." She shook her head. "For me, that's not the point. I wasn't in love with Stan; I really didn't like him all that much and he was a lousy lay. I didn't want to die because of his fantasy. But he was a boyfriend, and they don't grow on trees, so I stayed with him."

"You were lucky," Lucia said, "to have had a boyfriend at all. I've had several lovers but never a boyfriend."

"Your parents sold you?" Susannah asked her.

She nodded. "Yes." She pulled her shoulders up straight. "I asked them to. I volunteered."

"Why?" Susannah asked. "And please, don't tell me, because it's the right thing to do."

Lucia laughed. "No, not so much. Because I could see my father was struggling. He does not make so very much money. He tries, but--" She made a helpless gesture. "Five years ago," she went on, "he sold my mother. For a while things are good. But then, his business, he has problems, he needs money, and he has a new wife and they are trying to have boys... but it has not happened and he is thinking about selling her, I can see it in his eyes when he looks at her." She gave an exaggerated shrug. "I said, no, sell me, I am no better than my mother. I said I would sign an extended contract. He did, I did, and here I am."

"Noble," Susannah said. She did not appear to be sarcastic.

"I do not mind being killed," Lucia said. "I am sure there will be some pain but death will soon relieve me."

Lucia was not with them very much longer; a short while later, a couple representing a local museum came in. They bought Lucia for a demonstration of Aztec culture they were putting on, and she was to play the role of the sacrifice. Playing the role of the salesman--which did not seem to suit him--Mason tried to talk them into buying just the "kill rights" to Lucia, meaning that Earl's retained possession of the body, but they did not seem interested in that, even when he offered them a discount. This Naomi did not understand, and she made a mental note to ask Mason about it later.

That day was busier than the previous one, the orders kept flowing in. Before two more hours had passed two more girls had been slaughtered for meat. As per the discussions in the holding room, both more or less teased Mason, although much less enthusiastically than Marianne. Neither requested a special means of death, and each had her throat cut on the table in standard fashion, Naomi holding their hands while they died. Finally, only Allison, Bridget, and Susannah remained.

After answering a phone call, Mason came in to the holding room. "Okay," he said, pointing to Bridget, "you and I, we have to go on a short road trip. The rest of you can come along or stay, as you wish."

"I won't be coming back, will I?" Bridget asked.

"No, honey," Mason told her. "You won't. Not alive, at least. We're going to a movie studio, you'll be killed there." Bridget merely nodded.

"Can I ask a question?" Susannah said.

Mason glanced at her. "Sure."

"If she isn't coming back, why are we going? Why don't they just pick her up?"

"We're bringing the body back," he explained. "Why they don't want to use the studios we have here, on-premises, I don't know, but they don't, they want to shoot it at their own studio. As to why we deliver, well, that means we get the body back. They don't have to dispose of it and we're able to butcher it and resell it." He shrugged. "This girl was sold under an unlimited contract, meaning her buyer can do anything he wants to her--or with her. Earl, my boss, buys a lot of unlimiteds. What he does then is, he resells the kill rights to someone--in this case, some filmmakers. But we retain the meat rights. So, after the girl is killed, I butcher them and the meat is sold. Double profits for Earl's Specialties. You see? Just good business."

Susannah frowned deeply and put her hands on her hips. "That seems..."

"Underhanded?" Mason interrupted. "Why? A slave dealer pays up to quad rate for unlimited, the beneficiaries get paid. Earl's has to pay the dealer that rate plus his profit percentage. If we didn't do things like this, there'd be no reason for Earl's to ever pay for an unlimited. Extendeds are all we ever need."

"As far as I'm concerned," Naomi said, "I'd like the idea of my body being used for something good--food--if I were killed for some other reason. I wouldn't like to think it would just be thrown away."

"Actually," Bridget said, "I agree completely."

Susannah pursed her lips, but then nodded and smiled. "I guess I do too, now that I think about it."

"Good," Mason said. He gestured toward Bridget. "We need to go."

"We'll all go," Susannah said.

Mason nodded. "Let's do it, then."

Moments later the girls were in the back of the company truck; Mason did not bother to lock the doors. About twenty minutes later he pulled up in front of a building with a logo identifying it as "School Service Productions." He got out, opened the rear doors, and while the four naked women were getting out, he opened the door of a side-bay in the vehicle and took out a large steel canister on wheels.

"That's to carry my body out after they kill me, isn't it?" Bridget asked.

Mason nodded. "That's what it's for." Pushing it in front of him, he went up the walk, and the girls, in single file, followed him inside. A tall thin man he called "Art" greeted them.

"We only bought one, Doug," Art said, looking over the girls. "Why'd you bring four?"

"The others are just along for the ride," Mason told him.

"Ah. Okay. Which one is ours?"

"I am," Bridget said, taking a step forward.

"Good enough. You look really good, hon. Come into my office, I want to talk to you for a few minutes before we go down to the sound stage." She followed him in and the other trooped behind, taking seats along the wall while Bridget sat down in a chair in front of Art's desk. "Here at SSP," he began, "we make educational films for the school systems. You might have seen some of them when you were in school?"

Bridget crossed her legs and leaned forward. "If you mean the educational films where girls are killed, well, yes, of course I have. Everyone has. All girls, anyway."

"I do mean those, yes."

"Am I going to be in one of those?"

"Yes, you are. But yours is going to be special."

"How?"

"We bought the kill rights to you," Art went on, "because you're very pretty, and because our scout said you had a good speaking voice." He paused and gazed at her steadily. "You'll be killed with a knife," he told her, "and you'll be stabbed many times before you die. I won't soft-pedal it, you're in for a rough time. What we would like you to do is speak to the camera as you're being killed, we want you to say it isn't really that bad, that you don't mind the pain and you don't mind dying. You'll be given some painkillers to help you control yourself. You'll have to ad-lib your lines a little, but mostly you'll just be answering questions we'll be asking you. You think you can do that?"

"Yes, sir," Bridget answered promptly. "I've seen several films like that, I think I know what you want"

"Good." He started a speech, which promised to be long, about the necessity of culling women from the population and how films like the one Bridget was about to make helped other girls accept things.

"Sir?" Bridget interrupted after a moment. "You don't have to convince me, I understand perfectly. I'm pleased, actually, that my death will serve a good purpose. I'll do the very best for you I possibly can."

"Good." Art rose from his chair. "Let's get the formalities over with and do this, the film crew is waiting." Followed by Bridget, he left the office, with the others following. They stopped by another office, where an official asked Bridget to confirm who she was and that she had indeed signed an unlimited contract, and then another stop by a small office where a woman in a white coat gave Bridget three injections, told her she was about to do something good, and sent her on her way. At the entrance to the sound stage, Art asked Mason and the girls if they wanted to wait outside. Taking the lead, Susannah said they'd come to watch and to give Bridget moral support. After admonishing them to keep quiet--there was no soundproof viewing area here--they were allowed in. The sound stage was rather small, and nothing had been set up except for a plain standing chair in front of the cameras.

A man dressed in a suit approached Bridget. "Hello, honey," he said, his manner very friendly. "Bridget, isn't it?" She nodded. "My name is Fred Patterson, and I'm going to be emceeing this." He gestured, and another man approached them, this one much younger, very athletic-looking, and dressed in a white T-shirt and bluejeans. "This is Jerome Raynor," Patterson said. "He'll be the executioner."

Bridget smiled warmly and extended her hand. "So," she said, "you're the man who's going to kill me?" She glanced at his waist, where a scabbard hung.

"That's right, sweetheart," he answered, smiling back. His manner was as friendly as Patterson's. He looked her up and down. "This'll be a good film, I think. You're really cute and sexy, you look like a little elf. And your attitude seems good too, if you're scared you aren't showing it."

Bridget's smile broadened. "Thank you," she murmured. "And, just between us, I am scared. But I think I'm more scared of messing it all up than I am of being killed."

"I think," Raynor said, "you'll do just fine."

"Okay," Patterson said, "Let's get going. First, we want to get you dressed and made up. You'll strip down again on-camera." He directed her to an area where clothing hung on a rack. Soon after, Bridget was dressed in a short black dress and high-heels; she then sat in a chair while a make-up girl brushed out her hair and applied makeup to her face. At the end, Patterson nodded in approval. "Excellent," he said. "Come up here, Bridget, and stand by the chair." She obeyed, Patterson stood next to her, and the director called for the cameras to start.

"This," Patterson said, facing the camera, "is Bridget." He waved his hand toward her. Bridget consciously posed, cocking one leg prettily and smiling brightly at the camera. "When she was sold, Bridget signed an unlimited contract, allowing herself to be killed in any way her owner chooses. We have purchased her, and we are going to kill her today. Tell us, Bridget, how do you feel about that right now?"

"I feel," Bridget said, her voice firm and her expression appropriately serious, "that what I've done is right. I don't really want to die, but that doesn't matter. Thousands of women and girls have to die; there's no reason I shouldn't be one of them."

"Very good, Bridget," Patterson said. "But let me ask you, why an unlimited contract? Surely you understood, as you were signing, that doing so would allow your future owner to kill you much more slowly and painfully than if you had signed only a standard contract."

"Yes," she answered promptly, "I did know that. For one thing, simple economics. My... uh... beneficiaries were paid much more for me because I signed unlimited. I would have gone for less than $3000 if I had just signed standard. As it is, they got more than $10,000 for me. That's enough for me to accept a slower and more painful death; after all, the end is the same, regardless." She looked at the camera. "But that's not the only reason."

"No?"

She turned back to face Patterson and smiled. "No. I look at it this way: as I said, thousands of women and girls have to die, every day. But killing them costs money. Every time a girl dies, someone has paid for it, in some way. By allowing my owner to kill me any way he chooses, I can be sure he'll get his money's worth, and that helps the system work. I think all girls should sign unlimited. Once we're sold, it doesn't matter at all what happens to us. Sure, if you sign unlimited you're saying your owner can use you sexually, kill you slowly and painfully, do whatever he wants to you or with you--but so what? At the end you're going to be dead, regardless. And besides--"

"There's more?"

She giggled. "Yes, well... if I had signed standard I probably would have been taken for meat and meat only. I'd have my throat slit, probably, and I'd die quickly and that would be that. But not knowing exactly how I'll be killed--that's exciting." She looked back at the camera again. "Being taken somewhere, not knowing what's going to happen to you, knowing you're going to be killed but not knowing how... that's exciting. All I was hoping to do was avoid the worst ways, but even if I don't, it would be okay, I would do my best to accept it."

"Not the way she was talking about it back in the holding room, is it?" Susannah whispered.

"No," Naomi answered. "It isn't. But she is doing a wonderful job. She almost makes me wish I'd insisted on an unlimited."

"You did tell me," Susannah reminded her, "that you've offered to sign one."

Naomi nodded. "I have and I will, if Mr. Mason asks me to. But my parents won't get anything out of it. I would have gone for over $10,000 myself if I'd agreed to unlimited."

"You refused?"

"No. My Dad didn't ask me to, he said he wouldn't ask me to go through torture."

"Ah."

"And before you ask," Naomi went on, "I don't know what I would've done if he had asked. I was feeling so scared then, so hopeless. I was stunned, I couldn't believe what was happening to me." She gazed off into the distance for an instant. "When he left," she went on, "my Dad took my watch and my jewelry with him, I guess so he could sell them at the pawn shop. At that moment I hated him. I don't anymore. That was just yesterday but it seems like the distant past to me now."

On the stage, Patterson was still interviewing Bridget. "As far as you're concerned," he was asking, "what are those 'worst ways' to die?"

She counted on her fingers. "Being burnt alive, being cooked alive, being torn apart by dogs or whatever."

"Well, you won't be subjected to any of those, Bridget."

"That's good." She turned to Patterson again. "Have you decided," she asked, "how I am going to be killed?" She asked the question very innocently, and Naomi smiled, knowing that Bridget could not have forgotten that Art had already told her she'd be killed with knives.

"Yes, we have," Patterson told her. "We've decided that you'll be knifed to death. Multiple stab wounds, death by blood loss."

Bridget smiled brightly. "That," she declared, "sounds really good to me. If I were allowed to choose it myself, that's what I would choose." She licked her lips. "I understand," she went on, "that being stabbed can be very erotic..."

Patterson laughed. "Well, we will find out, won't we?" He looked at the camera. "And now, let's meet Jerome Raynor. He's a certified executioner with four years experience, and he'll be the one to put Bridget to death. While we watch."

From the left side of the stage, Raynor walked into the camera's view. "Hello, Bridget," he said. "Good to meet you."

"You too, Mr. Raynor," she replied, breaking into a warm smile and extending her hand. He took it momentarily. She glanced, almost furtively, at the bright blue-handled knife at his waist, its blade concealed by a leather scabbard.

"Jerry, please," he corrected. Wasting no time, he drew the knife out. It was double-edged and very slender, almost a stiletto. "We should," he said, holding it point-up, "get started..."

She stepped toward him and touched the blade lightly with her fingertips. "Very sharp," she observed. She moved a little closer yet and gazed up at his face. Her expression suggested eagerness. "I'm ready, any time."

"Damn, she is really, seriously, good," Susannah whispered.

"She is," Mason agreed.

"Would you get undressed for me?" Raynor asked. "I'd like you to be naked when I kill you."

"Oh, certainly!" She flashed a charming smile. "I definitely should be, as you say, naked when I'm being killed." She turned her back to him. "Unzip me, please?"

Raynor put the knife back in the scabbard and, taking his time about it, pulled the zipper down, allowing the cloth to part and exposing her slender bare back. She took the dress off very slowly, making a strip tease of it. She was not wearing underwear. Nude again except for the high heel shoes, which she left on, she turned once slowly for the camera.

"What would you like me to do now?" she asked.

"Sit down," he said, indicating the chair. "And put your hands behind your head." He drew the knife again.

Bridget obeyed, sitting with her legs slightly spread, exposing her hairless and very smooth genital cleft. "What are you going to do to me?" she asked, smiling up at him. She looked completely relaxed.

"Well, to start, I thought I'd put the knife in your belly. If that's okay with you?"

"Yes, that would be fine," she answered. She then laughed briefly. "But then, whatever you choose to do would be fine." He smiled and brought the knife down, pressing the point hard against her abdomen, a little to the left of her navel. He then paused; she looked down at it, her expression now serious. After a moment she raised her head. "Well?" Her smile came back, but did not look quite so genuine now. "I'm ready whenever you are," she went on, her voice catching slightly as she pronounced the word "ready."

He smiled back at her. Then, with a smooth and apparently effortless motion, he drove in half the blade's length. Bridget's eyes flew wide open and she jumped visibly.

Her hands came off the back of her head as if she was going to grab for it. "Oh," she said, her voice ragged. "Oh, oh, I..." Her hands frozen in mid-air, she stopped speaking, swallowed hard, and took in a deep breath. "Okay," she muttered, her fingertips fluttering. "Okay." Her eyes squeezed closed for a moment, then opened again. Putting her hands behind her head again, she caught her lower lip with her teeth and looked down at the knife. There was no bleeding at all, the knife's blade had pierced her very cleanly.

"It isn't in all the way," Raynor commented.

"I can see that," she answered, glancing up at him.

"I'm going to push it on, as deep as possible."

Holding her lip tightly with her teeth, she kept staring at the knife. "Okay... I'm ready..."

"You want me to do it slow or fast?" he asked her.

She looked up at him, an expression of mild confusion on her face. "What's the difference?"

"Slow is much mure sensual. Much more exciting for me, and for our viewers, as well. It is, however, much more painful for you."

She nodded. "I see." She chewed her lip again. "Do it slowly, then."

Raynor grinned broadly and started slipping the blade on in. Bridget trembled, she turned her head to the side, her lips were tight. One at a time, her legs stretched out and drew back. But she made no sound and did not move her hands while he slowly buried the blade. Once it was fully in he let go of it. There was still no visible bleeding.

Patterson stepped back into the scene. "Tell us how you feel, Bridget," he said.

Bridget brought her hands down slowly and laid them on her abdomen on either side of the buried knife. "It's... strange. When he first put it in there was something like, I don't know, shock maybe? It didn't really hurt. Then, when he pushed it on deep, it did hurt, a lot, but not anything you couldn't stand, you know?" She pressed her fingers down. "I'm cramping some now, but it isn't too bad... and I feel... all tingly or something." She touched the handle of the knife lightly. "The tingly feeling... it's... kind of interesting... it feels sorta... nice..."

"I think," Raynor suggested, "that I should pull it out and put it back in somewhere else. Let you bleed out some."

Bridget, her face a study in innocence, looked up at him. "Whatever you say," she replied. Completely cooperative, she put her hands back on her head.

Raynor wrapped his hand around the knife's hilt. He laid his left hand on her cheek. "This,." he warned her, "will hurt."

She lowered one hand, laid it over his, and pressed his palm harder against her face. "It's exciting for you," she said, "to hurt me. Isn't it?"

He nodded. "Very much so." He let go of the knife and stroked her hair. "You look very lovely, and very sexy, when you're in pain."

Her eyes were huge. "Then go ahead and hurt me. It's okay."

He smiled, held the knife again, and moved it a little inside her. Her body stiffened as a stream of blood suddenly made an appearance. Her face tight, she laid her other hand on his shoulder and trembled as he slowly drew the knife back and out.

She looked down at the wound. "Oooh, I'm really bleeding a lot..." she murmured. "It feels... strange. I think I like it." She touched the blood with her fingertip, then tasted it. "Salty," she said. She crinkled her nose. "Like a man's come."

"It's amazing how well she's taking this," Naomi whispered to Mason.

"No more than your friend Becky," the butcher answered. "And she's had the drugs, she isn't feeling anywhere near as much pain as Becky did at the beginning. But you should know, Naomi, you yourself volunteered to sign an unlimited without reward, just because you thought it was a good thing to do. As I see it, young girls have an easier time of it than older women, they have no trouble accepting pain and death for something they believe in. In my career I've killed women and girls of all ages from about six up to fifty. You'd think the older ones could accept it, but they can't--they have the worst problems with the fear, with the pain, and so on." He shrugged. "It's just the way things are."

"I guess we're lucky," Susannah put in, "that we're being killed while we're young."

Meanwhile, on the stage, Raynor was preparing to pierce Bridget again with the knife. Again telling her it would look sexy, he asked her for her permission to do a slow insertion. She agreed readily, and he pushed the point of the knife firmly against her belly on the other side.

"Put your hands on either side of the blade," he instructed, "press down and pull the skin away from the knife."

She obeyed, stretching the skin of her abdomen. "Like this?" she asked, looking up at him.

"Pull harder." She did that too. "Good. Now keep pulling, keep it really tight. Ready?"

She nodded. "Yes, sir."

He grinned. "Ready?"

She bit her lip. "Yes, sir."

"Good girl." He pushed down firmly and the point breached her skin, sinking in a half-inch or so. "Yes," Raynor murmured. He looked at the camera. "It truly feels wonderful to slide a knife into a soft young body like this, especially when the girl takes it willingly."

"You'll never find," Bridget said, both her voice and her face strained, "a girl more willing than I am." Raynor smiled, shook his head, and slid another inch or so of the blade in. Bridget continued to stretch her skin so that there was very little indenting around the blade, it could clearly be seen passing into her. Again, there was no bleeding at all. "Exciting," she murmured. "Turning me on..."

"Damn!" Mason muttered as he watched.

"This film's gonna turn a lot of schoolgirls into volunteers," Susannah observed.

"She really looks like she's enjoying it," Allison commented. "Is she just acting, or--?"

"I dunno," Susannah answered, "but damned if she isn't making me want to find out!"

Meanwhile, Raynor had buried the knife completely in Bridget's abdomen. He pressed it hard against her a few times, driving the point just a little deeper, then let go of it, leaving it standing rigidly in her belly. A little blood trickled out from around it. He touched her face gently and looked into her eyes. "How's the pain?" he asked her. He really seemed concerned.

"It does hurt," she told him. "At times it hurts bad... but it's a good exciting kind of pain..." She gazed at him fixedly, her eyes soulful. "You're a man, you wouldn't understand. It's like the pain you feel when you're getting fucked by a man with a really big cock..."

"Oh, shit," Susannah muttered.

Almost surreptitiously, Raynor glanced up at the director, who in response raised his arms and crossed them in an "X" shape. Turning back to Bridget, Raynor ran has hands down across the side of her neck and down her chest until he was teasing her nipples. She groaned and arched in the chair as her nipples came to full erection instantly.

"Oh god yes," she murmured. Raynor moved one hand to her thigh and from there to her groin. He slipped a finger up inside her and it came out dripping wet. Bridget writhed against it in spite of the knife still standing in her body.

"Not all acting," Allison commented.

"Hell, I'm wet too!" Susannah exclaimed. Naomi discovered that she was wet as well. She glanced at Mason, saw that his pants were tented up, and smiled.

Keeping one hand on her groin, Raynor grabbed the knife with the other and snatched it out of her. She gave a short sharp cry as fresh blood erupted, streaming down her belly. Raynor gave her little chance to recover, he pulled her up to her feet. She was up to it, though, immediately pressing her body against his, smearing blood on his pants. She clutched at him; he held the knife with one hand and began teasing her clitoris with the other, and she moaned loudly again. He kissed her and she returned it with seemingly intense passion.

But, just a moment later, she was the one who broke it. "Do it again," she asked, her face so close to his their noses were almost touching. "Stab me, put your knife in me, hurt me, let me turn you on with my pain, do it..." He smiled and pressed the knife against her side under her ribs, deeply indenting her skin. "Yes, do it," she sighed, not moving at all. "Give it to me."

He pressed harder and the blade slid into her side. She gasped and threw her head back, but after just an instant she brought it back down and stared at his eyes. "Deeper, I want all of it," she told him. He pushed on. "Ahhh, yes, oh god, yes, yes, twist it inside me, don't hold anything back, give me all of it..."

He slid the knife on in, and, as she asked, twisted it a little. Blood gushed out; she raised one foot, gave voice to a soft little cry, and put her head on his shoulder, her face toward the camera. Naomi could not remember ever having seen a woman who looked as if she were more caught up in passion than Bridget did at that moment. Her skin was flushed, her lips and eyelids swollen. She looked almost supernaturally beautiful.

"This'll be a classic," Naomi murmured. "They'll make a million off this one, every school in the world is going to want a copy."

"Damn well should have sold her for a hell of a lot more money," Mason observed. "Who could know?"

Raynor pulled the knife back out of her, letting even more of her blood come flowing out. As soon as it was free, Bridget slid down his body, ending in a crouch, her knees far apart. As blood dripped steadily from between her legs, she fumbled with his pants, got them open, and drew out a moderately-sized but already very erect cock. She cradled it in her hands for a moment, licked it, then took it into her mouth and started sucking it. Raynor, holding the knife up and allowing a few drops of blood to fall from it, smiled down at her, and she in turn looked up at him.

After sucking him for a few minutes she abruptly stood up. Pressing herself against him again, she again gazed straight into his eyes. "Do it again," she said. She seemed to be deliberately saying things loudly that she might have, under different circumstances, whispered. "Put your knife in me again." She took his hand and lifted it, guiding it so that the point of the knife was resting just under her left breast. "Go in slow, I want to feel it going in..."

"That," Raynor told her, "would be my pleasure." He pressed in firmly with the knife, and she again laid her head on his shoulder, again facing the camera. The point pierced her skin and the blade started disappearing into her. She flinched and frowned, but then just held onto him tightly as he gradually buried the blade in her chest. Once it was in deep he worked it from side to side, causing her to gasp repeatedly and releasing another freely flowing stream of blood.

After pulling the knife out of her, Raynor pulled her down to the floor. He stretched out on his back, his cock standing straight up, and Bridget immediately straddled him and sank down on him, taking it fully inside herself. Holding his face with her hands, she squirmed, moaned, and continued to beg for the knife. Raynor obliged her, stabbing her in her belly, her sides, her left breast, and between her ribs on her left side. He pulled her down to himself and stabbed her twice in her back--again on the left side. None of these went very deep. Several times Bridget cried out "I'm coming!" as he was stabbing her and quivered in apparent orgasm. When she pulled herself back up--she finally seemed to be losing some of her strength--he pressed the point into her left nipple and began grinding the blade in, twisting it as it went, going in very slowly. As it cut into her breast, she broke into a relaxed smile.

"There's no pain anymore," she said, a look of wonder in her eyes. "Just the feel of the blade going in... oh, it's so sensual, oh god..." She wound her hands in her hair and pushed her chest into the knife. "I'm coming... coming..."

Raynor allowed her to finish, then pulled the blade out again. He sat up and hugged her. "I'm close," he told her. "Close. I want you to die as I come."

She touched his face tenderly. "Then kill me. Ah, this has been wonderful... kill me, I'm so ready to die, kill me..." Blood drained from her mouth.

He brought the knife around behind her. "I'm going to stab you in your back again," he told her. "In the right side this time. You've already lost the use of your left lung, when I do this you'll drown in your own blood."

"No, no," Mason muttered. "That's too hard to time, go for the heart, or cut her legs, or slit her throat..."

But on stage, Bridget had already told Raynor to go ahead. She held his face, watching his eyes, waiting to die. Moving his hips more rapidly, he plunged the blade into her back, just inside her shoulder blade. She pressed herself harder against him, smiled again, but otherwise did not react. He drew the knife out and drove it back in again, a little lower. She choked and a gout of blood erupted from her mouth. Raynor pushed her body harder against his with the knife, twisted it a little, then yanked it out.

Then he suddenly pushed her up and off his cock. She looked startled; too badly injured now to stand, she fell back onto the floor on her back. Raynor scrambled around and pushed his throbbing cock toward her face. She understood and opened her mouth widely, and just a second later he started shooting semen into it. As he had his orgasm he stabbed the knife violently into her right breast, burying the blade completely.

Moments later, Mason's doubts about Raynor's technique were confirmed. The young man had finished his climax, and Bridget had even manage to swallow a lot of his come, but she was not dead. The knife still standing in her breast, she laid on the floor, her arms and legs moving weakly. She was obviously fighting to breath. Blood spouted up out of her mouth repeatedly, and harsh gurgling sounds could be heard whenever she tried to draw air in. Her expression was very different now. She was frowning and looked like she was close to panic. Raynor lifted her head and cradled it. She looked up at him, but her previous attitude of acceptance was gone.

"God damn, finish her off," Mason mumbled. "She deserves better than this..."

But Raynor did nothing other than to hold her head and watch her face. A moment later Bridget's legs stretched out hard, relaxed, then stretched again. Her chest rose sharply, then fell gradually, She reached up as if to try to grab his shirt but now lacked coordination. Her body began to bounce; harsh loud gurgles defined her attempts to breathe. She closed her eyes, an expression of pain and terror obvious on her face.

Then abruptly, she went limp. Raynor felt for a pulse, then announced that she was dead. Rather casually, he pulled his knife back out of her breast. Patterson re-entered the scene and made some closing remarks, and then the cameras and the floodlights were shut down. Mason, looking tired, rose and rolled the canister down to the stage. Naomi followed him, and together they loaded what remained of Bridget into the container.

"She was a damn good one," Art was saying as they worked. '"Best one we've had in a long time. Maybe ever."

"Sure as hell was," Raynor agreed as he wiped blood from his knife and watched them loading the corpse.

Mason looked up at him. Then, without any warning at all, he punched Raynor squarely in the face. The younger man reeled back, his own blood flowing from his nostrils, and crashed to the floor. He looked totally stunned.

"Doug, what the hell!?" Art cried, grabbing for Mason.

Mason shook his hand off. "This girl," he said, "didn't deserve an end like that," he growled. "She took everything you asked her to take and acted like she loved it. At the end, this incompetent asshole didn't finish her off clean and he didn't let her bleed down and go out quietly. He let her drown in blood, fighting to breathe, her lungs on fire." He jabbed a finger at Art. "You're gonna find out that that's gonna hurt your flick. Your editors will tell you. Everything up to that point was first-class, award-winning stuff, but it was mostly thanks to Bridget. Letting her drown in blood and letting the viewer see that undoes a hell of a lot of what the film means to do." He looked at Raynor, who was still sitting on the floor looking dazed, blood smeared across his face. "You either need to get him some lessons," Mason went on, "or find yourself a new executioner." He turned and started pushing the canister off the stage.

"Hm, you might be right," Art said, looking at Raynor. Mason didn't respond, he just rolled the canister on out, followed by the three girls. The ride back to Earl's was made in silence; it was obvious Mason's mood was not good. Once they arrived, Susannah and Allison went back to the holding room on their own, but Mason did not bother to close the door. Helped by Naomi, Mason hung Bridget's body on a hook and quickly processed it into meat.

After Mason and Naomi had cleaned the room, Susannah and Allison came back out. "Mr. Mason?" Susannah said. "Can we talk to you for a few minutes?"

He looked around at her and frowned slightly. "I guess. What's up?"

"Allison and I have been talking," she said, "since we came back from the studio." She paused and took a deep breath. "And we both agree, we'd like to sign unlimited contracts."

Mason's frown deepened. "Why?" he demanded gruffly.

Susannah moved close to him. "And," she said, "we have both decided that we'd really like to have sex with you, either before you kill us or while you're killing us." She laid her hands on his chest lightly. "Whatever you'd like to do to us, or with us," she continued, "we'd like for you to do. We'd prefer you didn't sell us to a studio or to party guys or whatever, but if you want to, you can. But we'd like it if you killed us yourself."

Mason's frown disappeared. He looked, Naomi thought, more confused than anything else. Again, she smiled secretly.

But Mason wasn't stupid. He turned to her. "You told them," he said, "quite a bit about me. Didn't you?"

Her smile became open. "Yes. It doesn't matter, does it? They're going to be dead soon, one way or another."

"We don't want you to misunderstand, Mr. Mason," Susannah said, pressing herself even closer to him. "We're not just saying it's okay if you have sex with us. We want this." She touched his cheek. "If you want to kill me the way Bridget was killed," she went on, "and do the ending right, well, I'd like that. I'd like that a lot."

His eyes softened. "You would not," he told her, "have the drugs Bridget had. I don't have them and don't have the license for them. You'd suffer a hell of a lot more pain than she did."

Her gaze was steady. "I don't care. Mr. Mason, I didn't want to be sold and I don't want to die, I'd much rather live. But there's no choice about that, I have been sold, I did sign away my right to appeal, and I am going to be killed. If it has to happen, I want a man like you doing it--and I want to give you something, whatever I can give you, in the process. I'm not being entirely unselfish about this either, feeling I'm giving you something you deserve to have will help me accept it. Naomi told us you were a good man and she is not wrong."

He touched her hair, lightly, gently. "Don't get me wrong, uh--I'm sorry, what is your name?"

"Susannah," she answered with a smile.

"Susannah. It's not that I don't appreciate your offer, but I can't take you up on it."

"Why not?"

Looking distracted, he ran his hand through his hair. "It's just--it's the way things are. Look, let me explain: the girls you saw me kill today by slitting their throats, the one whose heart I pierced, and the one I hit with the mallet--all the meat I took from those bodies, it's all grade-A. Bridget's meat--I mean, we can sell it, yes, but it's contaminated, heavily contaminated. Her gut was compromised, her lungs were compromised, and she died while being sexually stimulated. Some of that does affect the flavor, some really doesn't, but the graders think it does--specifically, they feel that sex hormones in the meat degrades it seriously. If Bridget hadn't had sex, we'd class her as 'spiced meat' and sell her as grade-S, which goes for a little more than grade-A, but she did and that makes her grade-D." He gazed at her for a moment, then at Allison. "Now, let's say, for the sake of argument, you two weigh a hundred pounds each. As grade-A, we'd get about sixty dollars a pound for you--$6000 total. Assuming Bridget to be a hundred pounds whole weight also, we'll only get about fifteen dollars a pound for her. But since we sold the kill rights to her for $20,000, we'll come out more than all right on that one." He shook his head. "In your case, my doing a sexual kill of you means Earl's will make only about $1500 off you, and our buyer may have paid as much as $3000 for you--well, you can see that this means that Earl's loses $1500. I can't do that, it wouldn't be fair to the company." He looked at Allison. "In your case it's even worse, since you were sold as extended, Earl's paid somewhere between five and six for you."

Susannah caught her lip with her teeth. "I see," she said. She and Allison both looked disappointed. "Maybe you're a little too honest, Mr. Mason." Allison chimed in her agreement, but Mason seemed immoveable.

Naomi felt like she couldn't stand it. "Find a way," she urged Mason. She gestured toward Susannah. "Look at her, she's gorgeous--they both are! She wants a sexy death, it would be such a waste to just put her on the table and slit her throat. You have to find a way!"

Mason glanced at her. "Things have gotten strange," he said, "with you around." He turned back to Susannah. "All right," he said, putting one arm around her and the other around Allison. "Let me think about all this, overnight. It's after four, I'm not required to fill any more orders today and you aren't eligible right now for an out-the-door sale. We'll talk about all this again in the morning."

Susannah smiled warmly. "Thank you, Mr. Mason," she said. She kissed his cheek.

"Don't you have more girls coming in tomorrow?" Naomi asked.

"No," he told her. "I don't get more until I place an order for more. I haven't placed one yet."

"Ah."

He glanced at his watch. "I think," he said, "we can knock off a little early today. We'll see you girls in the morning. Come on, Naomi. Let's go home." Naomi exchanged glances with Susannah and Allison, made an "I-don't-know" gesture, then followed him out.

On the way back to his house, Mason complimented Naomi on the work she'd done that day, and his impression that she'd helped calm some of the more fearful girls. "You haven't seen," he told her, "a screamer yet. You'd think, with all the training and all that, that that would be a thing of the past. Believe me, it isn't, we get them periodically. Girls who just can't accept that they have to be killed, who shriek and cry and sometimes try to fight or run. I have a taser I can use on them, but I hate doing that." He glanced at her. "Maybe when we do get one in, you can try your hand at calming her down, getting her to accept things the way they have to be."

Which means, Naomi said to herself, that I'm not going back in the pool tomorrow--since he didn't place an order. One more unexpected day of life. "Can we talk," she said, "about Susannah and Allison? I mean--"

He glanced at her again. "No," he said firmly. "I said we'd talk about that more tomorrow. That's when we'll talk about it."

Naomi did not mention it again that evening, which was much like the previous one. The clothes Helen had given her were waiting for her, she got dressed, she had dinner with Mason. Afterwards, they watched a movie on TV. Their conversation, both during the meal and after, was light; he asked Naomi about her life before her sale, and about what she'd planned to do if she had not been sold, and she found that she spent a lot of the evening talking about herself. Now, knowing him even better than before, she discovered that she was actively interested in having a sexual encounter with him, but he never initiated anything and eventually she went to bed alone.

After breakfast the next morning, Naomi, naked again, went back in with Mason. In the hallway on the way to his office, they ran into a woman Naomi recognized as the older lady who brought the girls in the holding room breakfast and lunch and picked up the dishes and leftovers afterwards.

"I think," she said to Mason, "you mighta accidentally left a door unlocked up there."

"Wasn't accidental," Mason said crisply. The woman looked at Naomi curiously but said nothing.

When they entered the killing room, they found Susannah and Allison there, rather than in the holding room. Susannah was stretched out on the couch and Allison sat at Mason's desk; both were reading books they'd taken from his shelf.

"I had no idea," Susannah said with a smile as they came in, "that there were so many different ways of killing young girls. It's fascinating."

"Sorry we went through a lot of your stuff," Allison said. She held up two pieces of paper. "We did find a folder with blank contracts in it. We both filled out and signed unlimiteds. You can do anything you want with us."

Mason grinned. "Maybe I should sell you both as sushi girls."

"You could," Susannah said, apparently unfazed at the idea of being sold to a restaurant overseas where she'd be taken apart piece by piece and kept alive as long as possible. "Sushi girls go for a lot of money. But that would be Earl's money, not yours. We want to do something special for you, we don't give a fuck about Earl's."

"Maybe I like sushi."

Susannah sat up on the couch and stretched herself prettily. "Then eat me," she said. "I read about this, last night. Cut into my side and cut off pieces of my liver, that's supposed to be a delicacy. Or skin out one of my legs and shave off slices of the thigh muscle." She looked up at Mason, her eyes intense. "I am serious. Whatever you want."

"Sushi girls get their legs skinned while they're still alive?" Naomi asked.

"Yes they do," Mason answered. "And their arms, and their bellies, and their backs and asses. Sometimes their eyes are scooped out with spoons. Lips, nipples, clitoris get snipped off. Going for sushi would be a seriously painful way to die if they didn't drug the hell out of sushi girls so they don't thrash around and scream the place down. Those things are just jokes, the girls drugged to zombi level and the diners getting drunk on the drugs as they eat." He gazed at Susannah for a moment. "And I actually don't like sushi at all."

"Actually that's good to hear," Susannah said with a smile. "Having my leg skinned does not sound pleasant." She stood up. "So what do you like to do to a girl, Mr. Mason? I'd guess knives are involved. You were as excited as we were watching Bridget, even if it did end badly."

"I told you yesterday--"

"I have a suggestion," Naomi put in.

They both turned to her. "What?" Mason asked.

She shrugged. "It's very simple. Kill her the way you killed Beatriz. Then sell the body as spiced meat. No one will know except the four of us here."

"You mean lie," Mason said slowly.

"Yes. Lie. Look, you said some of the--definitions?--don't really matter. I'd guess sex hormones are one of those. Correct me if I'm wrong."

"No," Mason answered. "You are not wrong. But that would be--dishonest."

Naomi had to restrain a laugh. In ways, he literally was a boy scout, in spite of what he did for a living. "Yes. But who gets hurt? Not Earl's, they get their money. Not the buyer, they won't know the difference. You have a good time, Susannah and Allison get the kind of deaths they want. Everyone wins."

Mason allowed himself a smile. "And you, Naomi? What do you get out of it?"

She grinned back at him. "I get to watch," she told him.

"I don't recall saying that--" He stopped in mid-sentence, interrupted by the phone. He answered it, argued briefly with whoever was on the other end, but ended with slumped shoulders, saying, "I'll be right there." Hanging up, he turned to the girls. "There's a problem," he said. "We've got a group of about sixty Class C's and D's to process in the main killing room, and two of the guys are out. I have to go fill in. Naomi, you come with me. You two wait here, we'll be back." With Naomi trailing along behind him, he went out into the hallway.

The main killing room, it turned out, wasn't terribly far from his office. They entered on an upper level, and as they came in, Mason pointed out an observation room. "You go in there," he instructed, "and just watch. These are C's and D's, I don't think we'll have any other observers. I'll be down on the floor, I'll come back for you when I'm done." She nodded and he left, taking the stairs down.

Following his instructions, Naomi went into the observation gallery, which had a number of seats and a large slanted window. As he'd said, no one else was there. She sat down in front of the window and looked down at the killing floor, which was in ways similar to, if much larger than, the one in Mason's office. There were lines of tables at which men stood waiting. Overhead was a track in the form of a broad oval with a number of carriers riding on it, and from each of these dangled a chain. At her right was a corridor defined by a half-height wall, where several men in aprons flanked a long line of women and girls who appeared to range in age from their mid teens to their early forties. Compared to those she'd shared the holding room with, none of them were particularly attractive. Some were overweight, some flat-chested, some too thin, some had bad skin or oversized noses. Some of them were crying, many looked terrified, a few appeared angry, but the majority just looked resigned. The men kept them moving in single-file toward the killing floor.

Naomi focused on the first one, a plain-looking girl in her mid-twenties who looked like she was about to faint from fear. As she reached the floor, she was asked to mount a platform about three feet high. Once she was atop it, the men told her to sit. Although she was trembling violently she obeyed, and, while one of the men pulled her arms down behind her and fastened her wrists together with a tie-wrap, another snapped a pair of heavy cuffs connected by a chain to her ankles. The man behind her pulled her head backwards, pushing her down so she was lying on her back atop the platform, and the one at her feet pulled one of the chains hooked to the carriers down and hooked it to the chain connecting her ankle cuffs. A motor whirred and she was pulled up into the air, hanging upside-down. Once she was up, the overhead carrier moved her on, and the men urged the next girl to mount the platform. As she did, the first girl was moved just a few feet down the line before the carrier stopped again. A man who was waiting there pushed her quivering chin down hard, stretching her body, and unceremoniously cut her throat. She let out a scream that ended in a gurgle. Blood spurted out as she bounced and squirmed in her restraints, but the track was already moving again. She wasn't even close to dead when she was stopped in front of another man, who used a hooked knife to slit her abdomen open from her groin to her breastbone. She was quite clearly still alive, her chest heaving and her body jerking, as he began disemboweling her. As her entrails tumbled into a tub, the second girl in the line had been hoisted and was having her throat cut. Blood was spraying everywhere.

The carrier moved on, and the men began disassembling the first girl, although even then it looked as if she was still alive. At the next station her arms were severed, at the one after that her head was taken off, and at the third one her torso was cut loose from her legs, which were then taken down from the carrier. Mason, Naomi noticed, was evidently in charge of dealing with the legs, which he first skinned and then rapidly and efficiently sliced into steaks, which another worker carried away. The assembly line plowed on mercilessly, a girl being hoisted while her predecessor was having her throat slit and while her predecessor in turn was being disemboweled. The whole procedure was very mechanical, very impersonal, and to Naomi, horrifying in a way that none of Mason's kills could equal. She felt relieved that Mason wasn't one of the ones actually doing the killings, although she told herself that he might well have played that role on other occasions. She was still thinking about that when the door to the observation room opened. A man and two women, both fully dressed, walked in.

The man put his hands on his hips and stared at her. "What the hell are you doing in here?" he demanded.

"I was just--"

"Shut up. You get back down there and get back in line! Right now!"

Naomi, suddenly fearful, raised her hands. "No, no, I--"

"What did you say to me?" He jerked a taser out of his belt. "I said now!" He didn't use the taser, he just grabbed her arm and pulled her toward the door.

Her mind spinning, she allowed herself to be shoved out of the observation room, down the stairs, and moments later found herself at the end of the killing line. She tried to explain her circumstances to the nearest man, but he too told her to shut up and keep walking, and he too threatened her with a taser. Close to panic, knowing what awaited her, she looked behind herself and wondered what chance she might have if she made a break for it--but the man guarding the back of the line seemed to be able to read her mind and moved in position a little behind her.

"No, please, this is a mistake," she whispered to him.

"Heard that before. Keep quiet and keep moving."

She blinked back tears. Far too late, she understood the message that her nudity gave these men. "No," she begged, "look at me, this is a C/D slaughter, do I look like a C/D to you?"

"Makes no difference," the man told her with a shrug. "Mistakes get made. AAs who won't sign anything more than standard often end up as hamburger. Now I told you: keep quiet and keep moving."

Time kept slipping by and Naomi kept moving with the line--because there really wasn't anything else she could do. "Look," she told the guard after a period of silence, "do you know Doug Mason?"

The man laughed. "The master butcher? Sure, everybody does."

"Would you check with him before I end up with my throat slit? He'll explain--"

"Look, just because you knew him before you were sold, that means nothing. Keep moving."

"But--"

"No exceptions. Keep quiet and keep moving."

Half an hour passed. Several times Naomi tried some variant of her previous pleas, but the man was totally immovable. She was living day-to-day, expecting that at some point Mason would tire of whatever game he was playing with her and would put her to death in some way. But she now had a very strong preference that he kill her himself, however he chose to do it. As she waited in the line, she tried to tell herself it didn't really matter all that much, that dead was dead, after all. But being killed on this cold and impersonal assembly line seemed to her a worst-case scenario, worse than anything Mason might subject her to.

Finally, after probably an hour but what seemed like a much shorter time to Naomi, the girl in front of her was walking to the platform, lying down, having her ankles shackled, being pulled up into the air--and, just seconds later, a sharp blade was slicing through her throat. The man who'd been guarding her was then pushing her forward, pushing her down, putting the tie-wrap on her wrists.

"Mason!" she screamed suddenly. Her voice was ragged, shrill, and piercing. "Mason, help me, help me!"

The man putting the shackles on her ankles just laughed at this outburst. But he stopped laughing when a bellowing voice answered. "All stop!" she heard Mason shout. "Stop the line!" Then, an instant later, he was there, by her side. "This one's not part of this run," he told the other men. "This one's assigned to me. Cut her loose."

"She's ready to be hauled up, Doug," one of the men said. "Five seconds, it's over for her. Slice her throat yourself if you wish, you--"

"I said cut her loose, god damn it!"

The man looked startled. "Geez," he complained. "All right, all right." He undid the shackles, someone clipped the tie-wrap, and Naomi, weeping freely, ran to Mason and hugged him. He put an arm around her.

"Didn't you tell them you weren't part of this batch?" he asked her.

"Yes," she sniffled. "Over and over. They wouldn't believe me."

"What's all this, Doug?" one of the men said, looking at Naomi curiously.

"My business," he snapped. "This one's from one of my groups. I brought her here to observe, not to be slaughtered."

The man continued to stare. "Judas goat?" he asked.

"Like I said, my business, not yours."

"Well, whatever. Can we get the line moving again?" The man gestured toward the girl who'd gone before Naomi, who had by then expired from her slit throat.

"Oh, yeah, sure." Telling Naomi he still had more meat to process, he took her back with him, and she stood idly by until he was finished. They finally left the killing floor and started making their way back to Mason's office. He was covered with blood and gore and he looked exhausted.

"What's a Judas goat?" she asked him as they walked along.

"In regular animal slaughterhouses, a Judas goat is a trained animal that leads the others through the slaughtering line. It isn't killed, of course. Keeps the others calm and orderly."

"Ah. In a way I have been acting as one of those, huh?"

"I suppose. You've been helping to calm girls who know full well what's about to happen to them. The farm animals following a Judas goat don't know that. As far as I'm concerned it's a big difference."

"Mr. Mason," Naomi mused, "why did you want me to see the slaughter line?"

He looked at her for a moment. "Because I wanted you to know," he answered, "what I do, what I have to do sometimes, in my job. I know very well how mechanical, how impersonal, that is. Tell me, Naomi: were you relieved I wasn't the man slitting their throats? Or the man cutting open their bellies?"

Naomi pursed her lips. No reason, she told herself, not to be honest. "I have to admit I was," she told him.

"But I have stood in both those positions in the past." He clasped his hands behind his back. "I remember one girl, very clearly. This was about a year ago, maybe a little more. I was at station two, cutting open bellies, pulling out guts. She was carried over in front of me; her throat was slit but the station one man hadn't done it very well, her carotids hadn't been opened. I never will understand what sort of blind idiot had classified her as C or D. She had very small breasts and boyish legs, but she also had one of the cutest faces you can imagine, huge dark brown eyes... She was bleeding from the cut across her neck, but she might have lived for quite a while. I hesitated. I admit it. I did not want to cut her open and disembowel her while she was that conscious and aware. She recognized it, somehow. She actually smiled at me and--her trachea was cut, she could not speak--she mouthed 'go ahead, do it.' She was not the first in line, she knew exactly what she was saying."

"And you did."

"Yes, I did. I laid my hand on her and then I used that hooked knife to cut her belly wide open. All she did was sigh and close her eyes. I pulled out her entrails quickly, deliberately cutting the blood vessels so she'd go down quicker. I think that--"

"Mr. Mason," Naomi said quietly, laying a hand on his arm. "I need to explain something to you."

He looked a bit surprised. "What's that?"

"I was glad you weren't at, what did you call them, station one or two, not just because you weren't the one actually killing the girls. You kill girls every day, I've watched you kill quite a few." She hesitated, wondering if what she was about to say was a wise thing to say to him. "But I was glad you weren't doing the killing in there because--because I knew it would bother you to do it that way. So cold, so impersonal. You are not cold, you are not impersonal. Even those girls you kill quickly, on the table--they have your full attention while you're doing it. You're careful, you do it absolutely right, they're gone almost before they know what's happened to them."

He stopped walking and stared at her for a long moment. "Well," he said finally, "you're right."

Susannah and Allison were, of course, waiting for them when they reached Mason's office again. "Oh, you look like you've been through hell!" Susannah exclaimed as they walked in. She looked Mason up and down.

"You have blood all over you," Allison observed. "Even in your hair."

"I think," Susannah said, grinning impishly, "that he needs a shower." She grabbed his hand and started tugging him toward the open-stall shower in the corner. "You do have other clothes here, don't you?"

"You know he does," Allison said. "You went through his locker last night."

"Is there anything you two didn't look through last night?" Mason asked.

"No," Susannah answered. She pulled Mason toward the shower; Allison grabbed his other hand and started pulling too. He made only a token resistance. "Let's get him undressed," Susannah said as they drew close. Grinning widely and occasionally giggling, she pulled off his apron and started unbuttoning his shirt.

Naomi wasn't sure exactly what she should do. She stood close by as Susannah and Allison pulled off his shirt. Once it was off, Susannah handed it and the apron to her as if she were a servant girl; she accepted the role and carried the shirt to the laundry bin, then came back. By then, the two girls had his shoes and socks off and were undoing his pants. Once they were off, Naomi dutifully took the pants and socks to the laundry bin, and took the initiative of emptying his pants pocket before tossing the heavily bloodsoaked pants in. When she got back, Mason was as naked as the two girls and Allison had turned on the water. Naomi stared at him; it was the first time she'd seen his body. He was very hairy and very muscular. His cock, then just beginning to rise, was only a little larger than what Naomi assumed was average. That surprised her, she had always believed, for whatever reason, that executioners and butchers would have enormous cocks.

The two girls pulled him into the shower and got in with him, Allison asking if the water was too cold or too hot. Laughing and giggling, they used their hands to wash off the majority of the blood, then started soaping him up. At least twice Naomi started to step in with them, but was not sure that was what she should do--and in the end she remained outside, just watching. It wasn't long before he was completely clean and thoroughly rinsed--and Susannah was apparently focused on making sure their wasn't the slightest residue of soap left on his cock, which now stood rigidly at attention.

Then--to Naomi it seemed like suddenly--Susannah dropped into a crouch in front of him and took his cock into her mouth. She gazed up at him while she sucked him. Allison, meanwhile, squirmed up against him, pressing her breasts against his body, running her fingers through his hair. After several minutes they switched positions, Allison sucking his cock while Susannah pressed against him, encouraged him to play with her breasts, and started kissing him. After several more minutes, Susannah stepped back, cocked her body forward, and lifted one leg. Understanding, Allison let his cock slip out of her mouth and she guided it to Susannah's obviously very wet vagina. He slipped into her easily, and she moaned in obvious passion as he fucked her. All the while the shower kept running, keeping them all soaking wet.

"Naomi," Susannah said after a short while, "please, get him a knife. A small one, a slender one." She looked, of anything, even more excited than Bridget had. Naomi nodded, went to the rack on the wall, and selected a thin-bladed knife with a five-inch blade. Reaching into the shower, she offered it to Mason. He hesitated for a moment, but then took it.

To Naomi, it seemed that Susannah's intense excitement was overwhelming any fear she might have been feeling. She pushed herself toward him so his cock was deep inside her, then grabbed his hand and pressed the point of the knife into her side under her ribs. "Please, please, do it now, I want it this way, please..." Mason kissed her--and slid the knife in, burying the blade in one smooth motion.

"Ah, god, yes!" Susannah cried, even though her face showed the pain she was feeling. "Oh, yes, my god yes, oh, god, ohgodohgod..." She twisted her own body against it and blood erupted, although most of it was quickly washed away by the shower. She grabbed Mason's head. "Do it, hurt me, kill me, do whatever you want to me, anything, this is the way I want it, oh god..." She stared at his eyes. "I want to shower you with my blood, I want you to make me scream in agony..."

He pulled the knife out of her. "I don't want you screaming in agony," he told her, his voice soft. "I want you moaning in passion. If you scream I want you screaming because you're coming. No other reason."

"It isn't," she told him, "going to take much." He smiled and pushed the knife against her belly above her navel. She looked down, pushed back, and again he slipped it smoothly and evenly in. Grinding his cock hard into her, he pressed the knife hard into her several times, rhythmically. In the middle of this Susannah stiffened, arched, and cried out softly, her body quivering in the grip of a shattering orgasm. As she came he pressed the knife hard into her.

As soon as she finished, he pulled his cock and the knife out of her at the same time, pulled her up straight and held her close. Immediately Allison took his cock back into her mouth. "I'm going to kill you," he told Susannah, "as I'm coming in her mouth."

Susannah ran her fingers across his ear. "Yes, do that," she told him. She put her hands on his shoulders. "Give me more," she told him, lowering her head and looking up at him. "I can take more, I can take a lot more."

"I know you can, honey. You can probably take more than I can." He smiled at her, his expression soft, and ran the knife in between two of her ribs, low on her left side. She came up on her toes, her long legs rigid and trembling. He pulled it out and it was followed by a strong spurt of blood. She relaxed a little, but almost immediately he was pressing the point into her breast just below the tip of her stiffly-erect nipple.

Looking down at it, she put her hand on her breast, her fingers around the blade. "Go in slow there," she asked him. "Real slow." He nodded and started rocking the knife back and forth, working it into her breast slowly. Her head arched back, she pressed her nipple down against the blade, letting the steel caress it as it slipped into her. Her leg jerked repeatedly, and twice she banged her head hard against the shower wall, but she kept rubbing her nipple against the blade as it gradually sank into her soft breast. Mason reached down and started teasing her clitoris with his free hand; she gasped and pushed her hips toward him.

When the blade was all the way in, she brought her head down and gazed at his eyes. Blood flecked her pouty mouth. "I'm going to come again," she murmured, squeezing her nipple down hard against the knife. "I'm going to... to... ahhh..."

"So am I, Susannah," he told her after she'd finished. He caressed her face.

"Kill me, then," she said, her voice thick. "I'm ready to die, I want to be killed, I want you to kill me, you, only you..."

He drew the knife out of her breast and pressed the point up under her breastbone, the blade angled sharply upwards. She laid her hand on his and again their gazes locked. His legs stiffened then, and Allison stopped moving her head. A second later he ran the knife into Susannah's body, going up under her sternum and into her heart. Dark blood erupted around it, an amazing amount of it.

She looked more startled than anything else. Her mouth and eyes wide open, she stared at him--and then she started to fade, sinking down slowly. Allison released his cock, a little semen trailing from the corner of her mouth. Mason picked up Susannah's limp body by holding it under her shoulder and knees, held it under the shower for a moment, then walked over to the table and laid it down gently. The knife remained, standing rigidly in her body. She was not breathing and there was little bleeding. Susannah was quite thoroughly dead.

Allison rinsed herself off a final time, turned off the water, and came out of the shower. Mason dried himself off, then went to his locker, got out fresh clothes, and quickly dressed. He seemed to be avoiding looking at Naomi, who stood still alongside the shower stall, looking a little forlorn. In silence, Mason went to his desk, collected his keys and wallet and so on that Naomi had placed there. Then he returned to the table and stared down at Susannah's corpse for a moment.

"We have to butcher her now," he said, glancing almost furtively at Naomi. "Give me a hand here." He drew the knife out of her body and laid it on the table. Allison picked it up and used a paper towel to wipe the blood off--apparently, Naomi thought, falling into the role as helper as well.

"Aren't you going to put her on a hook?" Naomi asked, standing beside the table.

"She became a lover," he said shortly. "I don't hang lovers' bodies on hooks." Expertly, he slit her belly open and started gutting her.

"That was perfect," Naomi ventured. "Just what she wanted."

He didn't respond, he just continued to work on Susannah's body, methodically taking it apart. He handed various pieces to Naomi, who by now knew what to do with them. As she handled them, she realized that she had felt a distinct pang of jealousy watching Susannah and Allison have sex with Mason. She chided herself for this; women were not supposed to feel jealous, they had been taught this since pre-school, there were just too few men, they had to share. She pushed the thoughts away, justifying it to herself by telling herself that she would not have had those feelings if Mason had behaved in any way as if he were sexually attracted to her, which he had not--in spite of her overt invitations. On the other hand, she could not deny a certain territorial instinct concerning him, as if he somehow belonged more to her than to the other girls, like Susannah, who passed through the slaughterhouse. Contradicting this, she also understood quite clearly that she was not Mason's girlfriend and not a hired employee at Earl's. She was still a slave, Earl's still owned her, and Mason could decree an end to her days at any moment.

While she wrestled with conflicting emotions, Mason finished up, cleaned the table, washed his hands. He then sat down at his desk and took out his checkbook. Naomi could not help but notice that the multi-thousand dollar check he was writing was to Earl's.

He looked up and saw her watching. "That meat," he told her, "is grade D. I owe Earl's the difference."

"But--you agreed, no one would know--"

"I know." He signed the check and tore it out of the book. Looking at it, he sighed. "I'm sure I'll hear about this one," he said. "But what the hell, huh?"

"What about me?" Allison asked in a small voice.

"You," he answered, turning his head toward her, "are going to be--" He stopped. "What the hell?" he cried, springing up from his desk.

Naomi turned and looked, and her eyes widened. Allison was reclining on the couch, one foot propped up, an odd smile on her face. The knife Mason had used to kill Susannah was fully buried in her lower abdomen, just above her pubic bone.

With Naomi close behind, Mason rushed to her. "What have you done?" he demanded, although what she had done was obvious enough. "Why?"

"The best end for me," she said, looking up at him, "would have been if you had picked me up and slit my throat while I had your come in my mouth." Her face was streaked with tears. "This is as close as I can come."

Mason dropped to one knee beside her. "You did this in complete silence," he said. "I can't believe that."

She smiled and blinked away tears. "If I'd made any noise you would've stopped me." She looked down at the knife. "It went in really easily once I got it started." She raised her head again as Naomi sat down on the couch beside her. Reaching out, Allison took her hand and squeezed her fingers. "I do not know," she went on, "why I'm feeling sorry for myself. I knew full well as soon as I signed the original contract that my life was over. And I've had a good time here, an exciting time. That it ended perfectly for Susannah and just okay for me, well, I have no right to complain, do I?" She looked over at Mason. "I suppose you'd better finish me off," she said. "Unless you just want to wait, I think I'm bleeding to death as it is."

Mason stroked her face softly. "No," he said, "you probably aren't. Even if you were, it would take hours. I should, as you say, finish it. If you have any preferences at all, let me know what they are."

She smiled again. "My preference is whatever you'd like to do to me."

Mason smiled as well. "In that case," he said, "I'm going to cut your throat." He drew a long slim knife from his belt and showed it to her. In response, she threw her head back, exposing her neck.

But he put his left hand behind her head and pulled it back down. He then tucked the blade up under her chin and kissed her. Holding Naomi's hand tightly, she threw her other arm around him and kissed him back, passionately.

Then while they were still kissing, he drew the blade across, cutting in deeply. Allison's legs pushed out hard and she crushed Naomi's hand with hers, but if anything she kissed him harder. Blood spurted out, spraying the couch and Naomi's chest. Mason completed his cut and laid the knife aside. When he finally broke the kiss, Allison was already dead.

"Let's get her on the table," Mason said.

Naomi nodded, picked up Allison's feet and said nothing until Allison's corpse was on the table. "Does this mean you owe Earl's more money?" she asked as he drew the knife out of her abdomen.

He shook his head. "No. She'll go as S, spiced."

Naomi watched him curiously. "But she had sex with you--"

"She went down on me. Maybe she was sexually stimulated, maybe not. I can't say, so I don't have to say. She did not, as far as I know, have an orgasm."

Naomi smiled and nodded. "Not as far as I know, either," she agreed. Mason fell silent as they processed Allison's body, cleaned the room, and left. Afterwards, in the car, Mason's silence continued, and it was Naomi who finally broke it. "You're feeling badly about what you did today, aren't you?" she asked.

He didn't answer for a few seconds. "Yes, I am," he said finally. "If I wanted to use Allison and Susannah sexually, I should have just bought them from Earl's. What I did just wasn't professional." He stared fixedly at the road ahead. "There could be some trouble over Susannah, as well. She did sign an unlimited contract, yes, but it didn't get notarized, didn't get reviewed by a USDA or BP agent, and she was originally here under standard. The way she went down wasn't standard."

Naomi looked over at him. "And how is anyone going to know that? Susannah and Allison are both just a pile of cuts of meat now, they aren't going to be talking. I certainly don't plan to report you--even if I had an opportunity to do that--and if you're afraid I will you can put me down first thing tomorrow morning, it's completely legal for you to slit my throat any time you feel like it. And as far as the sex goes that was absolutely consensual, you can't have any doubt about that."

"They'll know when I put it in the report."

She stared wide-eyed. "Are you out of your mind? Why would you do that? If I understand everything correctly, just the fact that you were having sex with Susannah just before she died makes her meat D, right? You killed her by stabbing her in the heart, right? That's standard, right? If that's all you'd done she'd still be D, right?"

"Well, yes, but--"

"But nothing! Don't put anything else in your report, that would be just--just--silly!"

He glanced over at her. "I'm silly now?"

She folded her arms across her chest. "You are too damn honest for your own good," she said firmly.

He looked back at the road. "Maybe. It's what I believe in."

"And that's good. But in this case there is no purpose to be served. You gave Susannah what she wanted, nothing more and nothing less. You wrote a check to Earl's so they don't lose any money. That should be the end of it."

"I'll think about it."

Naomi didn't see much of Mason until dinnertime that evening, when she was already dressed in a pretty pale green outfit Helen had provided her. "I've decided," he said after they started eating, "that you're right, this is a time to leave well enough alone. I'm not going to mention anything about the way Susannah died in my report other than that I did have consensual sex with her within an hour of her death. That alone classifies her as grade D, and I'm paying the difference, so, as you say, there is no harm."

"Throwing away your money," Naomi opined as she bit into a piece of her steak. "You yourself said the sex hormones don't affect the flavor, that that's all just a myth."

"It's industry-standard. I don't want to sell someone an inferior product under false pretenses. The fact that the buyer wouldn't be able to tell it's inferior has nothing to do with it."

Naomi swallowed the bite of food, took a sip of wine, and gazed at him for s few seconds. "You," she said, articulating what she'd been thinking earlier,. "are such a boy scout. How in the world did you get into a business like this? I mean, okay, you get an erotic thrill out of killing young girls. The people who go watch girls get killed in the public executions, the audiences for the TV shows where they kill women, they get an erotic kick out of it too, but most of them don't make it their life's work. Why did you?"

"Why does anybody?" he asked in return.

She watched him eat for a moment. "You know, you are the only executioner--or butcher--I've ever known personally, so I probably shouldn't say much about them as a group. But, like everyone else, I've seen a lot of executions. In school, live, and on TV. It always seemed to me that the executioners were cold and impersonal--either that or they took pleasure in inflicting pain, but as if they were inflicting pain on a mindless piece of meat. When I first saw you execute a girl, I thought you were cold and impersonal too. I've learned that you're not. Are all executioners like you?"

He shook his head. "No. For most of them, I'd say, it's just a job. They picked it because it paid well and there's prestige attached to it." He grinned. "And you do get to fuck a lot of girls, if you play your cards right."

She nodded. "I can see that. What about the cruel ones? The ones you see on TV sometimes, that laugh about the girl's pain?"

He shrugged. "There have always been misogynists and there always will be. Naturally, this is a profession that attracts them. They don't usually go far, though, because they have a hard time sticking to the rules." He looked away. "There was one working at Earl's a while back, his name was Ralph. He'd take a standard-contract girl and take a good five minutes cutting her throat. If she struggled too much he'd beat her, hard enough to break ribs sometimes. He'd cut a little, then stop and ask her how that felt, then cut a little more. I saw him do it. So did others. He got reported and eventually he got demoted."

"Demoted? Why not fired?"

He grinned at her. "Because, Naomi, Earl Higgins--the man who owns Earl's--has a social conscience. If he fired Ralph he'd just go get a job at another packing house and do the same thing again--he'd been fired from his last job for violations of the law, failure to make quick kills. Earl made him a cutter, he only works with dead bodies. And if he quits--Earl's has evidence on film showing him committing felonies."

"Ah. Good for Earl."

"He's a good man. Good man to work for."

"Sounds like it." She rested her chin on her hands. "But you haven't told me why you became an executioner."

He continued eating in silence for a moment or two. "You really want to hear this?" he asked after a while.

"Yes, I do."

He again paused for a long moment. "Well, my interest began early--as early as you can get. From the very first time I can ever remember having a sexual thought, knives, and driving them into women's bodies, were involved. It's always been with me."

"I've heard that sort of thing before."

"Yes, it seems to happen." He laid his hands flat on the table. "Considering that, I suppose, becoming an executioner was, for me, just logical. But it wasn't what I planned to do."

"It wasn't?"

"No. I planned to--and I was on a career track to--become a doctor. In college I majored in Pre-Med, and after that I entered Duke Medical School."

"But something happened."

He nodded. "Yes, something did. That something was named Rachel Silverman."

"A girlfriend? Or--"

"A girlfriend, yes." He stared at the table. "We met as freshmen in Med School. We clicked and we became very close very quickly. We shared all our hopes, dreams, fantasies--almost all. I was the way I was, and what that meant was that my plans to be a doctor hadn't ended the erotic appeal of dying women. From high school onwards I bought DVDs and magazines and such, I had quite a collection."

"Which Rachel knew nothing about."

"Right. Not for more than a year, close to a year and a half. Then, in our second year in Med school, there was a Christmas party, and we both got really, seriously, drunk. We went to her place--we still weren't living together--and we made clumsy drunken love and afterwards we started talking, and I started confessing. I told her all about what an erotic thrill I got out of watching attractive women get killed."

"She took it badly?"

Mason grunted. "Hardly! She made a confession of her own. She told me that before she'd met me, before entering Med School, she'd been considering trying to push her parents into selling her, or volunteering for public execution, or even hiring a private executioner."

"A lot of young girls think like that. We're trained to, more or less." Naomi looked at him curiously. "And obviously, again like a lot of young girls, she didn't go through with it."

"No. But she wasn't finished with her confession."

"No?"

"Not even close. She told me that she had decided that it wouldn't do for her to be sold into slavery, and public execution was out. During her senior year in high school, she'd talked to six private executioners who had reputations for being competent but wasn't satisfied with any of them--in part because none of them were interested in, or felt themselves able to, do things her way. So she put that idea aside and entered Med School--but originally, she said, she had an ulterior motive. Then she met me and we hit it off and she got serious about actually graduating."

Naomi frowned. "I don't know what to ask first. Her ulterior motive, or the reason she could not come to an understanding with these private executioners."

"The two are related. She had her own fantasies, Naomi. Her fantasy was to experience what she referred to as a 'medical death.' Everyone else calls it a vivisection."

Naomi was wide-eyed. "Why in the world," she asked, "would she want that?"

Mason shrugged. "Who knows? She didn't know herself. It was just something she thought about, something she became fixated upon. And she thought--"

"I get it," Naomi interrupted. "She thought maybe in Med School she could find a doctor who could and would vivisect her."

"Exactly. But instead, she got involved with me, and she gave up the idea of having herself killed, she was by then assuming she'd just stay with me until I got tired of her and either sold her or requested her execution, and when that happened she'd just take whatever came with good graces."

"But by then--"

"She knew about my predilections, yes. She called it fate, called it cosmic. We had to do it, she said, it was our destiny. We never saw each other without her talking about it. She deliberately tempted me in the bedroom with it, asking me to imagine how it would feel to run a blade into her body. I both wanted to kill her and I didn't, I didn't want to be without her. I resisted, I refused. She kept at it. I managed to hold out for about three months. She wanted to sign herself over to me as a slave immediately. I tried to stall but she wasn't having any part of it. So, on a nice springtime day, we went down to the courthouse and she signed her freedom away, she became the property of a buddy of mine and he sold her back to me for a dollar, and so-all nice and legal--she became my personal slave."

"And you killed her."

"Not right away, no. I still fought it. But she insisted we set a date and we did, August 23. Over the next few months I just kept her, we had a lot of sex and we did a lot of talking about exactly what I would be doing to her when the time came. I warned her that what she had in mind was going to be horribly painful for her, but she said she didn't care. She said she felt that was the way it should be for her."

Naomi leaned forward. "That," she said, "I don't understand. I can understand easily the idea of accepting pain for a reason--Becky, Bridget, Susannah, and Allison, they all did that. I can't see why anyone would actively seek it out, though."

Mason sighed. "Rachel always said she didn't know, she just felt it should be that way. I have my own theories, though."

"Which are?"

"Well, I've read some psychological studies that say that some women volunteer for unlimited contracts and even seek out torturous deaths because they feel an irrational guilt about being female. Rachel was beautiful and bright, and she came from a very affluent family, she had had an easy childhood. She had an older sister, she was just one sister short of being in the lottery, and that older sister had volunteered herself for public execution and was dead. She had mentioned her idea of trying to push her parents into selling her, but I talked to her father a number of times and he never would have done that, not one of his precious little girls. It had broken his heart when Rachel's sister volunteered, and doubly so when he found out what Rachel had done. He was very civilized about things, Rachel told him it was something she'd insisted on and he didn't hold me responsible. He did talk to me at great length about it, asking me to be sure she got a quick merciful death. We never did tell him what was planned, and he does not know even now what actually happened. He assumed I'd hire a private executioner and we did not disillusion him."

Naomi found that she had considerable sympathy for Rachel's father. "But you didn't, you gave Rachel what she wanted."

He nodded. "We arranged for the use of one of the surgeries at the school. Just the two of us there, I was not certified then and I could only execute her legally if it was done in private. We went in in the afternoon; she was very eager. Once we'd locked the door she stripped naked and I put on surgical scrubs, that too was something she wanted, but I wasn't wearing anything underneath them. She got up on the operating table; she had begged me to leave her unbound, she said she was sure she could control herself, but here I insisted, I didn't want her losing control at the wrong moment. I put leather restraints on her wrists and ankles so that her arms were up and her legs spread. I put a pillow under her head so she could see what was being done to her, she had an overhead mirror but she wanted both views. Then I got out a tray full of surgical tools--scalpels, retractors, clamps, and so on. We were all ready. I spent quite a while just stroking her body, kissing her, sucking her nipples, going down on her. I got up on the table and pulled up my surgical gown up and my pants down and she sucked my cock for a little while."

"This," Naomi said with a smile, "really doesn't sound bad."

"It wasn't. But it didn't last long, because Rachel wanted to get started. I got out a #3 handle and a #11 blade--a #11 is a little triangular blade--and a few #18 needles four inches long. She was breathing really hard and she looked both terrified and eager at the same time, just an absolutely perfect combination of expressions. I was so excited about the idea of actually doing what I had fantasized about for so long I felt like I was about to pass out."

"But you didn't."

"No. The first thing I did--I didn't know it at the time, but it's a direct violation of execution procedures, the rule is that every wound inflicted on a subject should serve to bring them closer to death, at least--but it was something we'd talked about, something she specifically wanted me to do at the beginning. I stroked her breast and sucked one of her nipples until it was really erect, and then I set the point of one of those needles in the exact center of it. I looked at her face and she nodded, and I ran that needle right in, down through her breast, past her ribs, into her lung. Her body tensed up as it was going in, I could not believe how beautiful she looked, strapped to the table naked, completely helpless, a needle being run down through her nipple. Her legs especially, all the muscles tight as she pulled against the straps."

Naomi resisted the temptation to touch her own breasts. "You've seen that tensing a lot since then, I'll bet."

"Yes, I have. But that was the first time, the first time I ever did anything like that to any girl. I went on, I pierced her other nipple in the same way and ran a needle down into her navel, going into her intestines. I put another one in at the upper edge of her genitals, deliberately missing her clitoris but going up into her abdomen as far as the needle would go. Then I picked up the scalpel."

"She had suggested all this herself?"

"No, we had discussed it a lot. The needles were her idea. What happened next was mine, but she had embraced it eagerly when I suggested it."

"What was it?"

"I started in the center of her chest," Mason explained, "and I pushed the scalpel blade into her breast sideways, going in just where the breast itself meets the chest wall, and going in as deep as I could." He paused, a faraway look in his eyes. "It's as clear as if it were happening right now. I can see her eyes widen, I can hear her gasp as the blade went in. I started pulling the blade down, cutting into her breast. She gasped again and flexed on the table. I asked her if she was doing okay, and she said she was, she told the pain wasn't all that bad and that I should go ahead and cut her. I did, and she started to bleed then, she was bleeding a lot. I cut down the inside edge of her breast and then across under it, cutting deep, as if I was going to cut it off her body. I didn't do that, though, I stopped after I'd gone about halfway around it. She looked down at and said it looked perfect. Then she looked up at me and told me to go ahead, told me to cut her other breast and to cut deeper if I could."

"And you did, of course."

"Oh, yes. I did. I was getting such an erotic charge out of it, I can't express it in words. But crossing it was the knowledge that I was there to kill her, that when I finished she'd be gone, that I'd never be with her again. But that didn't mean I didn't get a lot out of pushing that scalpel into her breast or out of cutting her, feeling her skin yield before the scalpel's edge, watching the blade part her smooth perfect skin and watching her blood flow out. The best of it was that she was taking it voluntarily, she wanted me to cut her. Finally, when I'd cut a deep semicircle around the inside and underside of her other breast, I stopped again. She looked so beautiful then, both her breasts cut, blood running off both her sides and pooled in the center of her chest."

Naomi could hardly resist touching her own breasts, wondering how it would feel to have them cut like that. She would never seek it, as Rachel had, but she decided she could take it. "It sounds like," she ventured, "you enjoyed cutting her breasts a lot."

"No question about that."

"Have you ever cut another girl like that, since then?"

"No."

She watched his eyes for a moment. "Whenever you do decide to kill me," she said finally, "if you wanted to cut my breasts like that--it would be okay." She rushed on, heedless of what her words might cost her later, and now she was unable to resist touching her breasts. "If you wanted to recreate that scene completely, use the needles and all, you should do that."

He smiled, just slightly. "I appreciate that, Naomi. I might take you up on that offer."

Irrationally, she felt a little embarrassed. "So what did you do next?" she asked.

"Next," he answered, "I put the scalpel's edge down between her collar bones. She stared at me and she whispered, 'do it, do it.' I did, I started cutting her, in a straight line, right down the center of her chest. I went in deep enough that the scalpel was grazing her sternum, and I forced myself to move it slowly, methodically. As I passed her sternum I hesitated, but she urged me on again, and I went on, cutting her abdomen. I went in deep enough to cut through the skin and muscle, but not deep enough to cut her internal organs. Her body felt so soft, the feeling of cutting into her belly like that was so intensely sensual. Her arms and legs tightened up, relaxed, tightened again, over and over. She would turn her head from side to side, her eyes closed, then suddenly stop for a moment and watch me cutting her, wide-eyed. I went on. When I got to her navel I stopped and pulled the needle out of it, then cut right down through the center of it. I went on until the scalpel blade hit her pubic bone. I had cut her open all the way down, we both could see her internal organs through the slit down the center of her body, which had opened up some by then.."

"Which was what she had wanted."

"Yes. But understand, at this point I had not killed her. Not even close, she was very much alive and as strong as ever. I could have stitched her up and in a few months she would have been like new. I leaned over and I kissed her, I stroked her breasts, her belly on both sides of the slit, and her thighs. She started getting excited, so I slipped my fingers inside her vagina and I teased her clit until she came. I started talking to her then, urging her to let me stitch her up, telling her than in six months we could so it all over again. I more than enjoyed piercing her and cutting her and I told her so, but I didn't want her to die, I didn't want to lose her. The whole idea of letting her heal up, cutting her again, then doing it yet again, sounded very appealing to me."

"But she didn't want that."

Mason shook his head. "No. She said she wanted me to go ahead, as we had planned it. She said she wanted to see her death reflected in my eyes." He sighed. "So, I did go on. I pulled the sides of her body open--she cried out when I did that, that was the first time she'd screamed in pain--and I started pulling her intestines out of her. I clamped off the top of the small intestine and I cut through it, did the same with the bottom of the large intestine, and I clamped the major blood vessels before I cut them so she wouldn't just bleed out right away. I did the same with her stomach, her bladder, her liver, her spleen, her pancreas. She trembled a lot and cried out occasionally as I eviscerated her, but any time I stopped she urged me to go on. Finally her whole abdomen was completely empty except for her kidneys--we'd agreed that I would leave them because we knew it would be excruciatingly painful for her if I cut them loose--and her sex organs."

"But she was still alive and conscious."

"Oh, yes. For the short term, actually, the most serious thing that had happened to her at that point was the blood loss. With proper care to prevent infection and gangrene she could have lived like that for weeks--months or even years if she was fed intravenously. No, she was quite alive and still talking to me. I could see her diaphragm moving as she breathed and spoke, I could see her aorta pulsing with her heartbeat."

"Wow."

"Yeah, wow. There I was, a young guy with no experience in these things, and this beautiful woman, this woman I loved, was lying on the table in front of me, her abdomen split wide open and her entrails piled in a tub on the floor. She was urging me to go on immediately but I stalled a little, I wanted to touch her, kiss her, cradle her head, tell her how I felt about her. Finally, though, I moved in between her legs, kissed her thighs and her groin, and I carefully cut through the bottom of her uterus, used the scalpel to tease it and her ovaries free, and removed them. She asked to see them, up close, so I held them close to her face and then I laid them across her throat. After that, I pulled the needle out of her groin, climbed up on the table, pushed my surgical pants down, and slid my cock inside her. She asked me to grind down on the needles sticking in her nipples while I was fucking her; I did that, I moved them around inside her breasts, I twisted them, I pulled them partially out and drove them in deep again several times, hurting her with them as much as I could. She came, explosively, her whole body incredibly rigid under me. I couldn't last long, and I lifted myself up when I was about to come so she could see. She did see, we both saw, my come shoot out through the end of her vaginal barrel and land high up in her abdomen."

"Amazing," Naomi murmured.

"And then it was over, all that remained was for her to die, for me to kill her. I put the edge of my scalpel on her aorta, down low. I came back up and I kissed her, and while we gazed into each others' eyes I cut the artery. She smiled, thanked me for giving her the kind of death she wanted, told me she loved me. I held her head, I kissed her over and over, and I watched her turn pale as she bled to death. She kept her eyes wide open, watching mine, the whole time. Just a few minutes later her eyes stopped moving, her pupils started to expand, and she stopped breathing."

Regardless of the pain Rachel might have felt, it seemed to Naomi hers had been a truly wonderful death, one she would accept for herself readily if Mason chose it for her. "How did you feel afterwards?" she asked.

"Lost," he answered. "Empty. But I also had my life's work laid out for me, I had done my work too well and I had enjoyed it much too much. I left med school and entered training to be an executioner. I turned out to have what the instructors called an aptitude for it, I graduated with honors, I was hired by Earl's immediately and within a year I had seniority." He looked at her again. "And now, effectively, you know the story of my life."

She felt like cuddling against him, but did not. "I want to thank you," she said, "for sharing that with me." She could not resist touching his hand. He glanced at it and she withdrew.

"It's good to talk about it sometimes," he said noncommittally.

That evening went the same as the previous two, and as before she went in with him the next morning. The shipment of new girls arrived about ten. Seeing the holding room empty when they arrived at nine seemed odd to Naomi, she half expected Susannah and Allison to somehow be there when she and Mason arrived. She was waiting, and watching, when the rear loading-dock door opened. Nine fresh girls walked in quietly, as her group had walked in, as the group Susannah and Allison had been part of had walked in.

But the door that led out to the receiving area and the loading docks did not close. There was some noise outside, and then two men appeared in the doorway holding a wildly struggling young woman by her arms. They shoved her inside and let her go; she spun around and shrieked something unintelligible at them. Ripping her numbered pendant off, she threw it across the room. The loading dock door banged closed and immediately the girl attacked it, kicking it, pounding on it with her fists, demanding to be let out. The other nine girls huddled in a far corner, watching her.

"I do believe," Mason observed, "that we have a screamer in this batch."

"I've never even heard of such a thing," Naomi said. "Everybody you talk to, everyone female, is ready to accept it if they get sold or whatever. They might not like it, but this..."

"The necessity of killing women," Mason commented, "didn't make anyone's survival instinct go away. This happens more often than you might think."

"I guess." She frowned. "Why would your buyer take a girl like this?"

"The dealers keep screamers sedated. When she was picked she was probably half-conscious. But the sedative has to be USDA approved, and they only approve short-acting drugs that clear out of the system quickly. So they come out of it in the truck coming over here."

"I see." She looked up at Mason. "How do you usually handle these?"

Mason shrugged. "Sometimes there's no easy way. We don't try to hold screamers, we just take them out, pack the cuts in the freezer. But if she doesn't calm down, or if she creates too much of a problem for the other girls in holding, I'll have to go in and take her down with a taser."

"You want me to go in and try to calm her down?"

"Risky," he said. "She might attack you."

"I'll take a chance. Can we find out what her name is?"

"Sure, let me look at the pickup log." He went to his computer. "Jeannie," he said after a moment. "Jeannie Thompson. Twenty-three, sold by her parents. Standard contract. She did not sign off on it, but she did let the appeal period expire."

"Okay," Naomi said. "Here I go." Taking a deep breath, she opened the door and walked into the holding room.

Jeannie apparently heard the door open and close, she stopped pounding on the loading door and turned. "I want out," she said in a low, menacing voice. "Nobody is going to kill me!" She was, Naomi thought, normally a pretty girl. But at the moment her eyes were red and swollen and her skin was flushed. She was petite, smaller than Naomi by several inches.

"I can't let you out," Naomi said quietly. She gestured toward her own naked body. "I'm a slave just like you are, Earl's owns me just like they own you. I have no keys, I can't open any doors. Let's talk for a few minutes."

"I'm not going to let anyone kill me. My parents had no right to sell me, no right! I want out!"

"Jeannie, come and sit down at the table with me. Let's talk."

Jeannie looked around the room, pausing to glare at the other nine girls. "Fucking sheep," she snarled. "I want out of here. How can I get out of here?" She walked rapidly past Naomi and started jerking at the handle of the door leading out to Mason's killing room. Naturally, it had automatically locked itself from the outside when Naomi closed it. For a moment Jeannie and Mason stood staring at each other through the glass. Naomi could see the tension in his body as he stood with his arms folded and his face expressionless, obviously ready to intervene if something went wrong.

"Jeannie, you can't get out," Naomi told her. "You've been sold, your appeal period has expired."

"I'm not going to let them kill me!" she shrieked. She moved toward Naomi, her hands folded into fists.

Naomi forced herself not to react. "Think about it for a moment. If the door was opened and you could go, where would you go? Where could you go? You'd be a fugitive, the police would be after you. I've been told they are not nice to runaway slaves, I--"

"I am not anybody's fucking slave!"

"How can you say that? You were sold, weren't you? What happened to you, Jeannie?"

Abruptly, the girl's whole demeanor changed. She started to cry, huge sobs wracking her body. "This isn't happening, this can't be happening," she wept.

Tentatively, Naomi approached her. She just kept crying, and finally Naomi took her in her arms. Jeannie did not resist this, and she allowed Naomi to guide her to one of the chairs standing around the table and sit her down.

"I begged them not to sell me," she wailed. "They had no right! I had moved out, I was living my own life--and suddenly they decide to sell me?"

"Why didn't you appeal?"

"Appeal? Shit! I just... I didn't..." she stopped talking and looked around the room fearfully. "I have to get out of here, I have to, I have to..."

"Jeannie, you can't get out."

"Well, what do you expect me to do?" she screamed suddenly, coming half to her feet.

Naomi, staying calm, just shrugged. "The best thing to do is just get it over with. Mr. Mason is very good, you won't suffer. And you at least won't be feeling the fear and anger any more."

Jeannie stared at her for a moment, then turned and looked at Mason. "So I should just go out there and let him kill me?" she asked in a calmer voice.

"That's what I'd do."

"So why haven't you?" Jeannie snarled without turning around.

"I've told Mr. Mason he can kill me any time he wants, any way he wants. I'm sure he will, soon. Right now I'm just helping him clean up and all."

"So, you say, I should just get up and walk to the door and say, okay, I'm ready, go ahead and kill me, right now."

"Yes."

"And he will."

"Yes."

Jeannie turned back around. "Okay," she said. She got up and started walking toward the door. Naomi, frowning, followed her. This had been, she told herself, almost too easy.

Seeing her coming and having heard the conversation, Mason opened the door. He too, Naomi noticed, seemed concerned and on alert, as if this turn of events had surprised him too. Jeannie, however, calmly walked through the door, Naomi right behind her.

Once Jeannie was a foot or two past Mason, Naomi's fears--and Mason's concerns--were proven justified. She sprinted to the far side of the room, evading Mason's hand, and snatched a large and heavy carving knife off the rack there. Whirling around, she came at Mason with the knife uplifted, screaming like a maniac. At the same time, the other girls in the holding room began yelling.

Naomi didn't even think about it. Screaming "No!" she lunged through the door and threw herself in front of Mason. Jeannie, looking completely crazed, showed no signs of stopping. Naomi didn't move, she just steeled herself to receive the knife.

But a thin rod shot out alongside her, and there was a small blue spark when it touched Jeannie's body. She stopped, her body shaking violently, but even then did not drop the knife. Mason pushed past Naomi, and she saw the extension rod retract into the taser in his hand. He grabbed Jeannie by the shoulder, tore the knife from her still-jerking hand, and in one smooth motion drove it into her, squarely between her breasts, hard enough to drive it right through her sternum. Blood spouted from her mouth but she did not even appear to be aware of what had happened to her. Her eyes rolled back in her head and she crumpled to the floor, already dead. Calmly, Mason picked up the body, laid it on the table, and started working the deeply-imbedded knife out of her chest.

"That," he told Naomi, "was above and beyond the call. Way above. Thank you."

"In the end," Naomi said, still shaking, "you saved my life again. Twice now. Weird, huh?"

He grinned. "Very." He jerked a thumb at the holding room. "Those girls are all upset. Go see if you can calm them down, would you? I'll take care of our screamer."

It didn't take Naomi very long to get the other girls calmed down again. As she had done with the previous group, she spent much of the day with them, talking to them about their feelings, answering their questions, and advising them where she could. Once calm, none of these were terribly upset by their fate, all seemed rather resigned. No films were planned, and by then end of the day, Mason had slaughtered and processed seven of the nine. Two, both under extended contracts, had been sold to outside buyers. Again, Naomi went home with Mason; and this time she allowed herself to believe that she had at least two more days of life remaining to her, since it was Friday and Mason had already made it clear he wasn't expected back in until Monday morning.

"It's not easy," Naomi mused as Mason drove home, "getting to know them at least a little and then watching them die. It's not that I don't understand the necessity, I do. But they are all individuals, all different."

"Yes, they are," Mason agreed. "This one is fond of ham sandwiches, that one loves to walk in the woods, another has a passion for Mozart. I do my work and none of it matters, they're all the same." He glanced at her. "Just in this week I've gotten acquainted with more of them than I have in probably the past year. Not like I knew Rachel, not like I knew Beatriz, but even so..." He paused for a moment. "But enough. What about you, Naomi? You like ham sandwiches, walking in the woods? You have a passion for Mozart?"

She smiled. "I do like ham, I love the woods. I'll admit, I like rock 'n roll better than Mozart, though." She gazed out her window for a moment, watching the city go by. "But if you're asking me about the things I really love--I love the water. A swimming pool, a lake, the beach and the ocean especially. Growing up, I'd go swimming any time I got a chance to. I love the feeling of being in the water, the feel of the breezes and the sun shining on me when I'm wet."

"You do know," he said, "that I have a pool behind my house."

She gave him a mock glare. "I have not been outside your house, so how could I know that?"

"Good point. There is one, anyway, and you are welcome to use it this weekend, as much as you want."

"That," she said, "I will take you up on. Thanks." She paused and frowned. "What about a swimsuit?"

"Helen can give you one."

"Do I need one?"

He glanced at her again. "Not if you don't want it. You are perfectly welcome to swim in the nude."

"Good." She ran her hands down over her bare thighs. "I've been naked most of the time since I was sold, and I've gotten used to it. Now, a swimsuit just seems unnecessary to me." She frowned again. "It might be imprudent of me to bring this up," she went on, "but--mentioning having been sold reminded me--but you were so intent on the idea of Earl's not losing any money on Susannah. They bought me, aren't they losing money on me?"

He looked mildly embarrassed. "Uh... no, they aren't."

"Why not? I'm still being held."

He sighed deeply. "I wasn't going to mention this..."

"Mention what?"

"...because I wasn't sure how you'd feel about it..."

She cocked her head. "What are you talking about?"

"Well... you remember that first night you stayed with me? When you offered to sign an unlimited contract?"

"Yes, of course. I meant it, I'm still willing to, any time."

"Well, ah, the next morning, I... uh... bought you."

"What?"

"I bought you from Earl's. You don't belong to Earl's anymore. I own you."

"Oh." She hesitated. "Okay, uhm, yes. I see." She fell silent and slouched back in her seat. At that moment she wasn't at all sure how she did feel about it. It made sense, she told herself, if he was planning to kill her the way he'd killed Beatriz, or Rachel, or even Susannah. Not that this made much sense to her either, since he had, so far, shown absolutely no sexual interest in her at all--which did not surprise her, since she did not feel she compared at all favorably to a Becky, a Susannah, or a Bridget--or even to Helen and the other women working in his home.

On the other hand, it meant that she was entirely, in every way, at his disposal. He did not need her signature on an unlimited contract; as long as he killed her privately he could do whatever he wished to her. It made her offer to sign a meaningless gesture. But, she reminded herself, she could still accept whatever he had planned for her with good grace. It did cast doubt on her expectation of living until at least Monday, since he had a perfect right to kill her at his house if he wanted.

"Well?" he prompted.

"Well what?"

"Well, how do you feel about that?"

"To be honest, I don't know. It does feel different but I can't explain why or how. I'll have to think about it and let you know."

"That's fine."

Friday evening was unremarkable, little different from the other evenings Naomi had spent at Mason's home. When she got up the next morning, Helen told her Mason had gone on some sort of personal errand. After breakfast she asked Helen to show her to the pool, and she spent almost the entire morning swimming and lying in the sun, thoroughly enjoying the feeling of being in the cool water naked. When she finally went back in, around noon, she was telling herself that even if Mason were to kill her that afternoon she'd had some very good extra days of life, days she had not in any way expected to be granted.

Mason had returned and was waiting for her when she came in. "Enjoy the pool?" he asked.

"Very much," she told him, rubbing her hair with a large fluffy towel and trying not to drip any water on his carpet. "It's a nice pool, and it was a lovely morning."

"I'm glad you did." He gestured toward a table. "I have some papers there I need you to read and then sign," he told her.

Her heart sank. The unlimited contract. Why now? she wondered. He didn't need it unless he plan to use her in a show. Maybe, she thought, he was planning a party and she was to be the entertainment.

Still, she had no intention of going back on her offer. Her head high, she walked to the table, glanced at the papers only enough to see where her signature was required, picked up the pen, and signed it.

Mason frowned. "You didn't read them."

She shrugged. "I don't need to. I know what an unlimited contract says."

"Naomi," Mason said firmly, "read the papers."

She shrugged, but she obeyed. Almost immediately, she started frowning. The words blurred, ran together. "Clerk of Court;" "All fees paid," "Naomi Eileen Chandler;" "Douglas James Mason;" "Conversion from slave status to free status certified."

She looked up at him. For several long seconds she could not speak. "You... bought my freedom?" she managed to ask at last, her voice choked.

He nodded. "Yes. This morning. As of the moment you signed that, you became a free woman again, a full citizen. You can walk out of here, go anywhere, do anything you want." He smiled. "At the moment, a free woman in a unique situation. No one can sell you. No one can request your execution. As long as you don't commit a crime, you are completely exempt from the culling."

Again, she couldn't speak--and her eyes had filled up with water, she couldn't see well either. "This was expensive," she mumbled inanely after a moment.

Mason laughed. "Very. Doesn't matter. I have plenty of money."

She blinked her eyes. Tears ran down her cheeks; the towel had fallen to the floor, forgotten. "Why?" she whispered.

"Because," he answered, still smiling, "I wanted you to have real, legitimate, choices. You haven't had those for the past few days."

"Choices about what?" She choked back a sob. "Mr. Mason, I don't understand!"

He wagged a finger at her. "I really do think," he said, "that it's much more appropriate for you to call me 'Doug' now. Or Douglas, as you wish. We are equals now, free citizens."

"Yes." She managed a strangled laugh. "Doug." Her eyes were enormous. "But I still don't understand! What choices are you talking about?"

He started to pace. "I suppose I should explain. Let me begin by saying I've never done anything like this before. Never even considered it."

"Freeing a slave, you mean?"

"This whole thing." He stopped and gazed at her. "I noticed you," he went on, "when you first came in. You were scared--naturally--and a little horrified when you saw your first slaughter. But you got over that very quickly. There was a--I guess you'd say a dignity--about you that I couldn't miss. As that first day went on, you began to show an acceptance, not a resignation. You had Becky to help you, and you two fed off each other, and I believe it helped her immensely at the end. I couldn't bring myself to take you. You were under a standard contract and I just could not make myself put you on the table and slit your throat, it seemed to be such a waste. Oh, yes, at the end of that first day, if you had told me you'd prefer slaughter to coming home with me, I would have done it and that would have been the end of it."

"I have to admit, I still don't understand."

He turned away from her, but kept speaking. "Everyone thinks," he continued, "that all butchers and executioners are hard, cold, unfeeling. You remember, we talked about this. Some of us are. Not all of us. And sometimes it happens that you look into the holding room and you see someone in there that just--gets to you. A perfect body, graceful movements, a preciously cute face, intense eyes--and as I said, a certain innate dignity." He put his hands on a chair and looked up, his back still to her. "You think, you say to yourself, I should take this one and cut her throat right now, just do it, get it over with. But sometimes you just can't make yourself do that."

Naomi stared at his back. Who on earth, she asked herself, could he possibly be talking about? Not her, certainly. "Preciously cute, a perfect body?" That, she told herself, was far from a description of her, and she decided he must be talking about Becky, who has far as Naomi was concerned did fit that description.

But Becky was dead, and had been shipped out as a whole roaster.

Mason turned back around. "So I decided to keep you at least overnight. No crime there. I brought you here and I talked to you, and you proved to be perceptive, courageous, understanding, and giving beyond anything I could have imagined. I made up a story and told it to you, and--"

"Wait. What? You made up a story? What story?"

He grinned almost sheepishly. "There was no Beatriz. That was a fiction. I've never killed any of my household help."

"What? Yes there was! I talked to Helen about her, she said--"

"Helen said what I asked her to say. Told you she knew nothing about what had happened to Beatriz, that she was here one day and gone the next. Right?"

Naomi stared at him. "You set that up? But--why?"

"Just to see how you'd react. If you'd be shocked and repulsed. You weren't. Remember what you said?"

She did remember. "But--why? I still don't understand why!"

He looked down at the floor. "I think a lot of you, Naomi. I wanted you to see all the worst of me, me and what I do. You have, and still I hear you calling me a 'good man' when you're talking to the girls in the holding room. I had to show you who and what I was, warts and all, and see if you could accept it. It was important to me." He looked up. "Because I'm so very intensely attracted to you."

She looked blank. "Me?" she kept saying to herself, over and over. Besides that, it did not make sense. She'd offered herself to him sexually that first day he'd brought her home, and she reminded him of that.

"Oh, I know, I remember. Sure. I'm the man who holds your life in his hand, I can kill you on a whim and you know it, you're going to say to me, 'no, Mr. Mason, I'd rather not.' I don't think so. You had no choices." He paused. "Now you do. All of them. You can do absolutely anything you wish."

Naomi suddenly became acutely aware of how she looked at that moment. Naked, still damp from the pool, no makeup, her hair matted wetly atop her head. But at the same time she realized that other than the hair, she hadn't looked that different at any time since she'd first met Douglas Mason. "How," she whispered, "can you be attracted to me? I'm not pretty. Becky was, Susannah was, Allison, Bridget, Joan. I've never been a pretty girl, boys have never approached me..."

"A slave dealer, an objective and skilled observer with no reason at all to fake anything, classed you alongside Becky, Susannah, Bridget, and the rest. As for the boys not approaching you--did you ever take time to look at that?"

"I don't know what you mean..."

"These days," he told her, "guys have lots of choices. Women throw themselves at men. You don't. Never have, have you?"

"Well... no... but..."

"You're not easy. Most men are lazy, you require effort. Since they don't have to, most men won't put out the effort. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I am not most men. Things worth having are worth working for."

She laughed ruefully. "I've been easy enough at some parties."

"Sure, a quick one-night stand. You ever follow one up? I doubt it."

"Well, no, I always thought..."

"You see?" He moved closer to her. "You are a gem, Naomi. A diamond in the rough. Frankly, I think you're worth every penny I've paid for you even if you choose to tell me to go to hell and walk out that door tonight. The world deserves to have you living in it."

She started to cry, silently, tears rolling down her cheeks freely. Her chest felt tight, as if she couldn't breathe. "No one," she whispered, "has ever said anything like that to me before, not ever. No one has ever treated me like this before. As a woman I am not supposed to feel special. You make me feel special."

"I think you are special."

"I think you are crazy. But I do admit, I like your craziness!" She gazed at him for several seconds. "Actually I like pretty much everything about you..."

He smiled. "Now that you do have a real choice about it--do you think you might be interested in joining me in my bedroom after dinner tonight?"

She gave him a sideways look. "No," she said firmly.

He looked surprised. "No?"

"No. I need a little time. Give me a chance to fix my hair, give me a chance to make myself presentable, I look like a half-drowned rat right now." She started to walk toward him but it ended up a run. "Give me a chance," she went on, putting her hands on his shoulders, "to throw myself at a man for the first time in my life." She touched his face. "If you give me that chance," she almost sobbed, "I'll give you everything I have to give you. Not tonight, not after dinner, right now. And after dinner you can have it all again."

Naomi and Mason spent much of the remainder of the weekend in his bedroom, to her immense satisfaction and, apparently, to his. He was extremely gentle with her, never hurting her in any way and never suggesting that he might want to. Monday morning, having gotten used to the routine of the past week, she came down to breakfast in the nude, ready to go to work with him.

"You can't go in now," he told her firmly. "That's all changed, it isn't appropriate anymore. You are not owned by me, by Earl's, or by anyone else, you're free. And you are not an employee of Earl's."

"I'm volunteering," she offered. "I have been able to help you with the girls, haven't I?"

"Yes, you have. But unless Earl's decides to hire you--and you decide to sign a contract--you can't do that anymore. Think about it, Naomi. Last week, the very first thing you told those girls was that you were a slave just as they were. Now, that would be a lie--and it breaks your connection with them. It won't be the same." He dug in his pocket and gave her a credit card and some keys. "There's a BMW convertible in the garage," he told her. "That'll be your car, unless you want something different. Take the card, go shopping. Buy your own clothes, your own toiletries and so on, whatever you need. There's no justification in your using spare stuff anymore."

"This is some kind of a dream," Naomi said, looking at the card and the keys. "It can't be real, it can't be happening."

"Well, it is," Mason said. He got up, kissed her goodbye, and started to leave for work. "Oh," he said, snapping his fingers and turning back. "There's a card with the papers declaring you free. Take it with you, keep it with you at all times. Snafus concerning the status of freed slaves aren't unheard of, and tragedies have been the result." He then left.

"Well," Helen said as she came in to clean the table and found Naomi sitting, still naked, staring at the keys and the card. "I take it the weekend went well."

"Very well," Naomi answered. She looked up. "The man you work for," she said, "is a lunatic. He thinks I'm cute, he thinks I have a perfect body."

Helen looked her up and down. "Pretty much," she agreed with a smile.

"You're as crazy as he is. You yourself are at least six times as attractive as I am."

"I am not," Helen said with a laugh, "going to cast aspersions on my own looks, I'm okay with them. However, Naomi, you need to listen to me. The lunatic here is you. You cannot see yourself objectively. I've known women like you before. Sometime, at some point, someone told you you were hopeless and you've just fallen into that role. Probably early in your childhood."

Naomi nodded. "When I was six or seven," she said, "I was very skinny, almost bony. My Dad had a number of talks with me back then. He warned me about all the competition out there, and that was no lie. But he also told me over and over I couldn't compete, and I should forget about ever having a boyfriend or husband. I suppose I did take that to heart. I also had this friend, Michelle--she's dead now--that I grew up with. Very popular, I was always in her shadow."

"You should consider," Helen said, "the very real possibility that you put yourself in her shadow." Helen started stacking dishes. "Think about it, Naomi. Try looking at yourself in a mirror as if you were a stranger. You might be surprised."

"Thanks," Naomi said. She picked up the credit card again. "I have no idea what to do with this," she mused. "How much to charge on it, anything."

Helen laughed again. "Naomi, Mason is filthy rich. He makes a boatload of money and he spends very little of it. Buy anything you want, I assure you it'll be okay. Have your hair done, get a manicure and a pedicure. Spoil yourself. Start thinking of yourself as a beautiful woman who deserves some pampering."

"That," Naomi said ruefully, "will take a while. If ever." She picked up the keys again. "Oh, yes, Helen, before you go, could I ask you--Beatriz?"

"Uhm, little white lie there," Helen answered with a giggle. "Actually, there never was a Beatriz working here. Mason likes to tell tall tales sometimes. He's been known to ask us to confirm them in general terms."

"He says he's never killed any of the household help. True?"

"True as far as I know. True since I've been here. He sleeps with some of them sometimes--me included. He never forces us and never hurts any of us."

"Ever hear of an old girlfriend of his named Rachel? A vivisection?"

Helen nodded. "May be true, may not be. I have no idea."

"Hm," Naomi mused. "So Doug can be a liar, you never can tell if what he's telling you is true or not. Not the greatest character trait in the world, but you can't have everything. Good to know, anyway."

"For what it's worth," Helen noted, "he does 'fess up to most of his lies sooner or later, even if he doesn't have to."

"Good to know that, too," Naomi said as Helen picked up the dishes and left the room. Naomi got up, got dressed, and went out on a shopping spree. A few hours later, the back of the BMW full of new clothes, her hair newly and professionally done, she decided on a whim to stop by and see her parents.

And soon regretted it. Naturally, they were more than shocked to see her alive, and speechless at the fact that she appeared to have a new, and very rich, boyfriend. Her father demanded to see the card certifying her status as free, and after that both her parents just acted embarrassed. Naomi, feeling as if she hardly knew them anymore, left soon after--and made no plans to try to visit them again anytime soon.

Days passed, another weekend came and went, and Naomi spent her days at leisure and her nights with Mason. She realized she was no longer in a "unique situation," as he'd put it; any court would judge her to be his girlfriend, and, since she was living with him, his wife as far as legal matters were concerned. Still, for him to sell her--anytime soon at least--made no sense, given that he could not possibly recoup the considerable money he's invested in first buying her and then freeing her. She did feel she had to make some plans; she knew quite well that the days of leisure would wear thin. Going back to school, finishing her degree, was a possibility. This she had discussed with Mason, and he had no objections--he did not, in fact, object to anything she wanted to do other than coming back to the slaughterhouse with him.

But then, about three weeks after Mason had freed her, a morning came when she woke up feeling violently ill. Mason, concerned, asked Helen to tend her while he went to work. But the illness cleared up fairly soon; by mid-afternoon she was feeling fine.

As they sat in the kitchen, Helen gazed at Naomi with narrowed eyes. "Naomi," she asked, "have you been using any sort of birth control?"

Naomi just stared back at her. "Damn," she whispered. "Damn, damn, damn. I had a period just before I was sold. I didn't expect to be alive more than a day or two more. I just forgot all about it. How could I have been so stupid?"

"Your situation," Helen said with a grin, "hasn't been exactly normal. Look: you just take it easy here for a while. I'll run down and get some test kits, okay? We'll find out if that's what it is." Naomi agreed to this gratefully, and Helen left. She did not get back until just before Mason arrived home from work, and the two of them were checking the results as he came in the door--and just at that moment, Helen let out an ear-shattering shriek.

Mason came rushing in. "What's wrong?" he demanded. "What's going on?" He looked at Helen, who was running around the room acting like she had completely lost her mind. Naomi, completely calm, was just sitting in a chair with an enigmatic smile on her face.

"What the hell?" Mason demanded.

"Oh, I gotta go tell Lucy," Helen almost gibbered. She ran to Mason, hugged him, and headed for the door. "Naomi can tell you, mister!"

Looking bewildered now, he watched her go. "I have never seen her act like that," he noted. "What the hell's going on?"

"I got up sick this morning, remember?" Naomi said.

"Yes?"

"And, well, to cut to the chase immediately, Helen got some test kits. I'm pregnant."

"Pregnant? Oh, damn, I'm sorry, I never even thought about that. You'll have to get an abortion, Naomi."

"Can't."

"No, you don't understand. In a way I wouldn't mind, but men in my profession can't raise daughters. 'Yes, dear, your father is at work today killing girls just like you.' It doesn't work well."

Naomi just kept smiling. "I can't get an abortion. We did all the tests. I'm carrying twins."

"Twins?"

"Yes."

"Naomi, you still have to get an abortion, I--"

"I can't."

"What, you have religious objections? Naomi, I've told you--"

She got up, came to him, and put her hands on his shoulders. Her eyes were very bright. "Doug," she said. "I can't get an abortion. I can't, because--"

"But--"

She broke into an almost impossibly wide grin. "--because I'm carrying boys, Doug. Twin boys. You're going to be the father of two sons."

......