El France preferred to be addressed as Master, but Maestro was alright too. Born with the name Ellison Smith and seemingly predestined for a future at his father's law firm, he had run away from home at the age of fourteen when his mother caught him prancing around in front of the mirror in women's clothes. Weekly visits at a Jungian therapist's office had convinced him that transvestism was best conducted behind locked doors, and in the company of a woman who could explain what it all meant. So he seduced his therapist with some marvellous dresses, bedded her and left her. It took three years, but it was well worth the wait. Especially leaving her.
El France hated women. He loved to design clothes for them. When he became a rising star in fashion design and, later, haute couture, he had slept with as many women as was necessary. He prided himself with never having gone to bed with a woman who hadn't assisted his career in any way.
Fortunately women liked El France. He was very clean, smartly dressed and had a limited supply of understanding and gentle phrases. He was nice to children and animals. This was genuine, since he did like them. He bore resemblance to a cat, himself, choosing his own company. And the company felt chosen and special until the cat went away. He was the first and greatest love of many women.
His catwalks were special. He took pride in degrading his models. The catwalk wobbled uncertainly, the heels were extremely high and thin. A spotlight shone them mercilessly in the eyes. He invented the bruised look, the bleeding look, the abused look. The models limped, crouched and flinched in fear. The hairs were either elaborate bird nests or hanging dreadlocks. The dresses were ingeniously, beautifully cut. El France was the most popular designer in Paris. No wonder. People liked to see the most beautiful specimens of the human race turned into the ugliest. Knowing that the scarecrow on the catwalk was the proud owner of several millions and perfect skin made the performance perversly exciting. Seeing super-models crawling, beaten and grimacing was a kick. El France thought so, and as so many warped and abnormal individuals he knew the human soul.
And now the newest recruit, the stylish English model was standing in front of him, in the middle of the runway, and giving him hell. Betsy Braddock looked like Jane Seymour, walked with easy grace, had the best legs he had ever seen and had seemed harmless enough over the phone.
"You want me to crawl around on all fours and meow?" she asked incredulously.
"Do what I say, love", El France walked up to her, still smiling.
He grabbed her by the collar that was oh-so-perfect for gripping with one hand while the other hand did something even worse. He had tailored it that way.
"Or I'll get nasty with you and you won't like that".
He flicked his wrist, expecting her to tumble to the floor in helpless rage and maybe tears, like they all did. Instead her hand shot out and he caught a glimpse of a very weird smile before his head met the concrete floor.
He jumped up, too enraged to feel any pain, and tried to fling himself at her throat, only somehow she avoided him in one fluid motion.
"Don't even think about it", she said now, all amusement gone from her stern face. "I worked with STRIKE. They taught us seven ways to kill with a mewspaper and I invented an eighth. What a pathetic creature you are, Ellison Smith".
"The contract is off", he yelled at her. "You'll never work again!"
"Oh, mr. Smith", she said, brushing some imaginary lint from her sleeve, "you break my heart, I'm sure".
The amethyst eyes were hard and cold. Something seemed to hover above her head and El France heard several sharp intakes of breath from the surrounding people. A primal fear struck him, yes, the sophisticated El France, capable of yawning at any depravations and excesses. He could not move a muscle.
"Is anything amiss, Betsy?"
A blonde hunk stood by the door, plucking uncomfortably at his tie.
"Not that I'm aware of, Brian", the woman said. "Ellison Smith seems to have wet his pants, though".
And El France, ridiculed and shamed in front of his whole team, realised that her words were true.==
"I want her dead", El France said loudly.
He had dressed for the evening in a magenta satin gown, which set off his pale skin marvellously. His companion, a young artist dressed on green velvet decorated with sparkling rhine-stones, clutched his arm tighter. Another night at the clubs at Place Pigalle. El France liked the atmosphere, the smoke in the air and the sensual music, but he found the fake sadism at the gay clubs exasperating. He wanted real screams, real blood.
"What a dreadful thing to say! And so very much in character for you!" the artist said, then laughed shrilly and too loud.
El France didn't bother to pretend laughter. He tried to express sexual ambiguity by sleeping with a few men, but the experience did not satisfy him and frankly, he was bored by parties and bored by his companion. He had made preparations for the night, though. After firing Betsy Braddock, he had ordered one of the seamstresses to stay at the atelier and alter the dresses to fit another model. The seamstress was small, mouse-like and definitively not model stock, but that was what he needed tonight; the asserting of power, the brittleness of innocence breaking. He was fairly certain that the seamstress was a virgin. Well, only for another hour. Do what I say, love.
"I must leave", he said harshly, tearing his arm out of the grip. "I have a show to attend to".
He left the babbling voices behind as he stomped down the stair, out in the dim lamplights, where he soon was engulfed by darkness.==
Almost invisible among the racks in the atelier, El France touched the fabrics of the dresses. He inhaled the scents of wool and silk. Some of the dresses had been obscured by the model's perfumes or body odours, others smelled of dust and artifical cobweb. So. The bitch had scared him. So what? The dress she had worn was matte black as ebony, as a gun. It was made of partly silk, partly leather. Her scent lingered there, a fresh flowery scent. Not Chanel. Lavender and roses. He saw, as from a great distance, how his hands grabbed the dress and ripped the silk apart, the thin threads bursting under his hands with barely a sound. Such a fine fabric. Its fragility almost brought tears to his eyes. To think he had wasted it on the bitch. He was wiping his eyes when a light was switched on in the hall outside the room.
"Hello? Hello? Is anyone there?"
The seamstress' voice was squeaky and weak. It was a voice which wouldn't carry very far. El France prided himself on his selection skills and rightly so.
"Yes, it is me".
He moved aside the racks and made his way over to her. Brown hair in a bun. Glasses, bad skin. His blood sang in his veins. The prey had come to the hunter.
"I don't know if I have thanked you enough for these last-minute alterations. I really appreciate it", he said.
Good start. A professional compliment. He saw her relax visibly. He sat down on a table, motioned to a chair beside it and the mouse-woman scurried over to sit there, eager to please.
"Thank you", she squeaked. El France drew out his sketch-pad.
"Sit still", he told her gruffly, then began to draw.
He had practiced this particular drawing all afternoon, so in only a few strokes he had completed it. The mouse-woman tried to hide her excitement.
"Do you want to see it?" he asked.
"Oh, please, do let me see it!" she answered.
He held out the sketch, then drew it away when she was about to take it. She reached for it again, he changed hands. Her cheeks were reddening with exertion and expectation. At last he let her reach over his body to get it and while she leaned over his thighs, he took a firm hold of her neck and brought his mouth to hers. She jerked back. El France had to hide his smile.
"You see", he said gently, before she could regain her composure, "I've thought about you, when you walk around in the atelier. You seem so shy and with-drawn, but I have a feeling there's another woman inside".
He could almost picture what she was thinking now; a model career of her own. Beautiful clothes. Getting back at the senior seamstresses. She would be the new star.
"You light my day", he murmured. "I can't stop thinking about you. It might be wrong, I don't know, but it feels so right. I've never felt this way before".
His lips sought hers again. He was running out of convenient phrases.
"So right", he repeated.
Her stiffness eased off, her resistance grew weaker. He could feel that she believed him. She had never heard him talk so openly, so tenderly before. All she had heard was the commands and the tantrums. This was a new man. A man, who cared. A light pressure was all it took to get her down on the table with him on top. He unbuttoned her blouse, careful not to tear any buttons. A nice blouse of some quality, but her underwear was cheap. His hands found the clasp of her bra. It was broken, the bra held together with a safety pin. She pushed at him weakly, but it was all too little and too late. She had led him on and she would pay.
He drove the pin deep into her back. Her eyes widened and she yelped, as shock and realisation hit. It was such a small sound, such a defeated little whimper that he had to laugh and with the laugh came the words in an obscene stream. He called her every vile name he could think of while his hands alternately kneaded and bruised her flesh. She would suffer for all the bitches in the world. For all the beautiful, intimidating bitches that condemned him for being what he was and yes, most of all for Betsy Braddock, whose scent he could still feel. And when he pushed his way into the little seamstress he was taking his revenge on Betsy Braddock, it was her resistance he broke down, her body that shivered under him and finally submitted to his violence.==
El France did not hear the door open, nor the steps approaching. He was climaxing, having taken all he wanted from her and then some. The mouse was reduced to a puddle, not even crying, just shivering spasmodically now and then. Blood stained the carpet. He had done some unforgettable embroidery, with the finest of silk threads, the brightest of colours, and didn't she look lovely in it? Just like a tattoo, only more interesting. He must tell her to be grateful. He had made her so pretty. Certainly both men and women would want to touch her in that very special place. What a glorious moment. He could not be expected to pay attention to the strange voice in such a moment. He did, however, feel the kick in his crotch that lifted him neatly off the little woman's body, the blow received in mid-air that blasted him across the room and the foot brought down on his fingers as he fumbled for the scissors, anything.
Betsy Braddock stood over him and again he was rendered motionless. Her head was surrounded by pink light, like a halo. El France did not believe in saints, not being a Catholic. He did not believe in any God but himself either, but after one glance at her face he knew exactly what Hell must be like. Before he could think another thought everything exploded into purple and then faded to black.==
El France woke up in semi-darkness. He was in his office. His arms were tied behind a chair and his feet were also bound together. He couldn't move. Betsy Braddock was sitting at his desk. Her feet were on his mahogany desk, his lovely desk and she was smoking a cigarette. He could see the glow of the tip and he heard the hiss when hot ash dropped on the polished surface. As far as he was concerned now, her continued existence was a crime and the punishment would be excruciatingly painful. As soon as he could deliver it, of course.
"Ordinarily I don't smoke", she said, tapping some more ash onto the rug. "But then most things are out of the ordinary tonight, wouldn't you agree, Ellison?"
She spoke dreamily in a husky voice, a voice whose low tones sent cold shivers down El France's back. If rattlesnakes had voices to sweet-talk the birds into sticking around, that was how it would have sounded.
"Ordinarily, you see", she said, "Brian would be here and the two of us would play good cop-bad cop with you. He brought his girlfriend, on this trip, though, and she's an innocent type. Neither he nor I want her exposed to your little sordidness. I guess you're lucky in a way. Brian's really particular about women. But since that's the way it is, I don't see much point in playing cop at all".
She took a long drag at the cigarette and blew a smoke ring, twirled it around her index finger for a moment and then watched it dissolve. El France got a bad taste in his mouth, a hint from his stomach that things weren't going according to plan.
"Look, bitch", he said a little shrilly,"that little tart only got what she asked for. A nice bit of male flesh. You can't blame me for anything. She's just a lying whore".
"Bitch. Whore. Tart". Betsy Braddock said slowly. She put out her cigarette on the desk and lit up a new one. She had a cheap, plastic lighter. El France drew some comfort from that, but not enough to compensate for the smell of burnt wood. What a vandal she was. What a barbarian.
"Your vocabulary disappoints me. Didn't your mother tell you what a disgrace..oh, never mind. I guess she found a way to let you know".
"Ordinarily", she said, returning to her former line of thought," you would now be singing at the police station and telling the Detective in charge how you raped a certain young woman. Oh, by the way, she's going to make it. But you're not really interested in her well-being, are you?"
El France felt his voice slip another notch into shrill and frightened.
"I didn't do anything to her! That lying scum, that filthy prostitute..."
He kicked out with his feet in helpless rage. The chair rolled over and left him face down on the floor with a piece of the antique Persian rug in his mouth, which effectively muted him. Betsy Braddock simply watched.
"The Vikings", she said," used to torture their enemies in a very special fashion. They cut the ribcage open and pulled the lungs out onto the back. The victim died of pain before the heart and lungs gave out. They called it a blood eagle".
El France opened his mouth to vilify her, but no words came out. That was new.
"If you had killed her, we wouldn't sit here and chat. No, you would be on the desk and I would be trying to recall exact how this blood eagle was supposed to be done. You and a written confession of rape and murder would be found here in the morning. But you didn't kill her, for which you should be grateful. So what am I going to do with you now, Ellison? I thought of giving you a taste of what rape is like. That's the problem with you, isn't it, that you can dish it out but you can't take it? I changed my mind, though. I don't like getting my hands or anything else that's mine, dirtied. Then I thought I'd kill you and get it over with, but Brian almost hit the roof, when I suggested it. He's so tenderhearted you'd never believe it. Well, what would you consider an appropriate punishment, Ellison? Lord knows that I don't mind a little game of S&M myself".
She laughed softly, as if dwelling fondly on a memory and in spite of his fear and his utter helplessness, El France felt excited. If she would only cut him loose he'd make this a night worth to remember. He'd bend her, he'd break her, he'd take her for all that she was. All the beauty she possessed would be defiled and degraded. Her cream-coloured skin would be mottled and adorned with bruises, the terrifying eyes swollen shut and when she lay there, surrendering at last, he'd scissor her open and hear the seductive voice screaming out of control.
And later he'd make her a bridal gown, the most beautiful dress the world had ever seen. He'd use black silk and thin crimson velvet and he'd put thorns and roses in her hair. The skirt would be full, floor-length, but the upper part would cling to her waist as snugly as a devoted lover. He'd have to stitch it onto her, fasten it at her shoulders, and when he had, he'd hang her and the dress in the rack together. And wouldn't she be just what he needed for a show-stopper?
He felt her hands on his shoulders. She lifted him from the floor. The sinewy strength in her arms was remarkable, for a woman. She knew exactly how to throw the weight.
"Don't be afraid", she said.
Her hands freed him gently from the bonds.
"Maybe you can't help it", she went on. "Maybe it was the way your genes got scrambled, or it was whatever your mother did to you when you were just a kid, but it has to stop right now. I know you're much too rich and much too clever to ever stay in jail and when you got out you'd go on destroying innocent lives. And you would create the most fabulous fashion when you had blood and pain to fuel your genius. I appreciate your clothes. They are more than just clothes, they are art. But you, in yourself, are a monster".
She was still close to him. Her breath smelled of smoke and whiskey. He had never been so aroused by a woman in his entire life. He pictured the delicate nape of her neck, the sleekness of her legs, the blueish vein that throbbed at her temple.
"I'm sorry", she went on. "I want you to know that I'm truly sorry. Everyone knows that I have a lot of sympathy for the dysfunctional people in the world. You just went too far".
She paused, drew out another cigarette out of the package, then changed her mind and offered it to El France. He shook his head and wondered why he allowed her to stand behind him without striking her. The gentle act terrified him more than her threats.
"I wish there was another way ", she said. "If I only could isolate the sadistic parts of your mind from the artistic, it would be a clean elimination of your sadism and your hate. You would still be able to create your art and maybe you'd learn to feel something for a woman someday. But your mind is so complex; everything ties in to something else and your logic is completely foreign. I want to be sure that all that involves violence is erased, so I'll have to do a wipe job. I'm not sure which parts of you will remain".
"You probably wonder what's going to happen in the morning. I'll tell you: you're going to jail for a long time and you're going to pay your seamstress a lot of money. Poetic justice may be served tonight, but there's the justice of the real world too. And...you won't remember me or the conversation we've had. Goodbye, Ellison".
He was slowly lowered into a well of darkness. There was no pain, no purple lightning. Feelings of anger and hate sparked inside him, then dissolved and were absorbed by the velvety dark. Velvet, as the dress he had intended to make her. The memory of the dress slipped away from him. He held on to the thought of her name; "Betsy Braddock" for just a second more, then he forgot it too.==
It was a chilly evening in April. Paris was crowded with lovers, young and old, who believed in romance in the spring. Among the most conspicious were a blonde man and a purple-haired woman, who sat together on the stairs outside Sacre-Coeur and watched the sun set. They were both exceptionally beautiful, with classic features, but there was also a hint of barely restrained violence about them. Other couples looked at them once, then averted their eyes quickly. Betsy Braddock and Warren Worthington III were used to that kind of reaction, though, and neither of them cared.
"Let's go down", Warren said. "You must be tired".
If he was searching for any sign of weakness or humanity in Betsy, she disappointed him.
"I'm not", she answered dully, never taking her eyes from the view.
Physically, she had recovered significantly since the day when Sabretooth had wounded her, but her emotional state had not improved. She was so withdrawn and emotionless that Warren sometimes feared for her sanity. He had hoped that a weekend in Europe would do her good but, so far, she showed no sign of returning to the woman she had been. He rose, offered her his hand. She pretended not to notice and got to her feet without any help.
They walked down to Montmartre in silence. Warren tried to make some sense out of the metro map and suggested that the shortest route back to their hotel would be to take the RER from Place Pigalle.
Betsy's interest was momentarily piqued. Warren decided that it was a good omen, they would go that way, but when he got into the area he began to doubt his decision. There were cross-dressers and male prostitutes all over the place. Junkies. Most of the clubs seemed to be borderline legal. He stopped to put his camera into his bag, where it would attract less attention, and when he looked up again, Betsy was gone.
He found her a block later speaking to one of the male prostitutes. The man was heavily made up, but no make-up could hide that he was dying. His skin was tautly stretched over the skull. Innumerable liver spots and an ugly rash was clearly visible under the crudely applied foundation. He couldn't have weighed more than 70 pounds. Betsy had opened her purse, opened her wallet and was emptying it into his hands.
"Whaddya want? C'n do anyt'ing ?"
the man slurred, too drunk or drugged to understand what she was doing His red-rimmed, feverish eyes took in Warren and he made a half-hearted wave at him.
"Wan' me to do him? Wan' to watch? Wan' a t'reesome, lady?"
Warren took a hesitant step forward. What was going on? Was this a robbery? Then he heard Betsy's voice, low and urgent:
"Ellison, I'm sorry. I had no idea. God, I'm sorry". She turned to Warren, her eyes dark and bright with tears. "Give me your wallet, Warren, please".
He handed it to her, dumbfounded. There was obviously more going on here than he could understand, but this was the first glimpse of the old Betsy he had seen in a long time. She put the wad of bills into the man's hand and closed his fingers around it.
The man stared at the money, then at her.
"Why're you crying?" he asked curiously.
"You don't remember", she answered softly. "I made you what you are".
The man laughed harshly, hawked and spat at his feet.
"Yeah, right, lady and thanks a lot!"
He gave them both the finger, then stumbled away, muttering obscenities, before he finally disappeared around a corner. Warren watched Betsy anxiously.
"What was that all about?" he asked, taking her arm.
She looked up at him sadly.
"Many years ago, when I worked as a model in Paris, there was a brilliant designer called El France...", she began.
Her voice trembled a little, but she was all there, she was back from wherever she had been.