If, in my old age, I ever find it difficult to maintain a suitably comfortable life-style, I believe I could guarantee one by writing a memoir of Cassandra's parties. Through them, I was present at some of the key moments of the history that none of our children will ever be taught. Not that I ever had children, but short of being accosted by a woman desperate to carry a baby for an old queen like me, that was always somewhat unlikely.
Ah, yes; the stories. Stories of Cassandra the broker of hidden deals, Cassandra the arch-courtesan of the post-monarchistic world, Cassandra the secret hand in British politics, Cassandra the eternal hostess. She was a legend to those who knew of her private world. To the uninitiated she was just a wealthy and somewhat eccentric woman with a love of entertaining powerful guests. And now that she's dead it should be safe to tell all. Rather, it would be, if she were actually dead.
I was there that night Cassandra spiked the drinks of delegates from the Scottish and English negotiating teams with a powerful aphrodisiac. The sexual bond that developed between them following that one drunken tryst did more to guarantee the comparative peace that has followed in the British Isles than the years of fruitless talks that had preceded. The later marriage of the negotiators also made history as the first homosexual union to be recognised officially by the Anglican church. I suspect Cassandra had a hand there too, as the Archishop of Canterbury was an occasional guest of hers.
Then there was the occasion that, against the wishes of her regular guests, she invited the increasingly powerful chairman of the Popular English Front, the most charming and media friendly British fascist since Oswald Mosley. He was doing his best to woo the gathered crowd with his trustworthiness and interest in their futures. Considering the ethnic and sexual diversity present, he was pursuing a minority. All was going to his satisfaction until Cassandra asked if he was comfortable at the party without his partner. After savouring his surprise, Cassandra brought out his catamite from one of the side rooms. The young lad announced to all there that he wanted to go home as it was past his bedtime. That small, but pivotal moment did much to define the next few years of English politics.
It was stories like these which made Cassandra a legend. It was always easiest to see her as a force of nature, or an enigmatic manipulator of the lives of the rich and powerful. She had a thousand acquaintances and no friends. Nobody gave a thought to Cassandra the person, the woman who existed in private, as well as public. Well, almost no one.
I think I was the closest thing Cassandra had to a real friend. I attended my first of her parties over twenty years ago, when I was just coming up to forty. I was dragged along by my lover of the time, Michael Cage, the editor of a small but influential literary journal.
Michael and I had met at the launch party for an anthology of verse to which I was a contributor. I had been ill at ease that night, as usual, and had drunk far too much. Michael had drunk even more and was in a disgraceful state. He spent most of the evening carrying out ad hoc character assassinations on anyone who stood near him for too long. He had tried this out on me, but I declined to fight back. After around five minutes of subtle and clever abuse his tone suddenly changed and he became quite charming. Without really knowing why, I left with him that night, and so started our brief and miserable affair. The sex was pretty good, but even in the early days this was hardly enough. If I were to be honest with myself I was so lonely that even a vaguely abusive relationship felt better than none at all.
Michael was one of Cassandra's irregular invitees, but never missed one of her parties when the call came. I have never been the gregarious type, and the thought of attending another do packed with strangers and, I imagined, society types, filled me with gloom and unease. Actually this is an understatement. I had spent most of my life until that time in the grip of a crippling shyness. Maybe this is why I became a writer - it's easier for me to communicate with others when separated by time and distance, letting my static words do the talking for me.
It would make a better story if I said that I walked through the door of Cassandra's Knightsbridge flat and was enchanted, all my reservations and shyness falling away. Sadly, this was not the case. I looked around at the mass of smartly dressed and generally beautiful people and I panicked. As I ran off to the bathroom to vomit I could imagine Michael rolling his eyes in that theatrical manner of his. After my stomach had ejected its small payload I did my best to freshen my breath and regain my composure. I fear I was still white and shaking as I made my way through the crowd. The worst part was that everyone else looked so at ease. It was as if I had wandered into a large gathering of friends and was the sole stranger. I have felt like this often, ever since childhood, but never so acutely. I was on the verge of turning and leaving when I felt a hand on my shoulder.
"Ah, there you are, Rupert," Michael boomed. "I was just saying to Cassandra that you must have called it a night already." He gave one of the short snorting laughs that signalled he was demeaning me; it was one of the many reasons I left him not long after. I was just about to attempt some suitably witty and cutting retort when I noticed the woman with him.
Now, I've known and understood my sexuality for as long as I've been conscious of it. I have never met a woman I found sexually attractive, but for a split second, when I saw Cassandra, I had a brief flash in which I could understand what straight men might see in women. I don't think anyone would have called her beautiful - she looked too much like a real person to fit any modern ideal - but she was the kind of woman who became the immediate focus of any gathering. She wore her hair short and dark then, as was the fashion, and it accentuated her thin face and its sharp cheekbones. She was tall and elegant and moved with an unstudied grace. Her eyes and nose seemed a bit too large for the rest of her face, but the whole effect was one of a woman one could trust.
"You must be Rupert Cullen," she said. "I'm an admirer. I thought _Eulogy for Angels_ was one of the most moving collections I've read."
I must have reddened. I could feel it in my cheeks. I certainly stammered. "But, I mean, how could you. There were only three hundred copies printed. It was a disaster."
"Anything but," she said. Her eyes narrowed conspiratorially, balanced by a faintly mocking smile. "For a start it means that you have at least another two hundred and ninety nine fans out there." She took me by the hand and led me away from Michael, dodging through the crowd with skill. A number of people smiled and waved, trying to start conversations, but for those few moments I was her sole focus of attention. "Let me introduce you to one of the thousands to come." We stopped before a loud and drunken group of men, all in formal evening dress. "Anthony!" One of the men turned and looked over at us. Well, at Cassandra, to tell the truth. He was several years older than me, but handsome in that way that wealthy middle-aged men who know how to look after themselves can be: distinguished, weathered and terribly sexy. "Anthony, I have someone you simply have to meet. This is Rupert Cullen. I'm sure I must have mentioned him. He's one of the most astonishingly original poets of our age. Tragically, he seems to be without a publisher at the moment."
Cassandra turned and kissed me on the cheek. "I'll leave you two to chat. I'm sure you'll find lots to talk about. I must go and mingle, I'm afraid, but if I don't see you before you go tonight I'd love to have you back again." With that she was off, back into the crowd, like a shark cutting through a school of tuna.
I turned back to my new acquaintance. He smiled warmly; it was a lovely smile. "So," he said, "You're one of Cassandra's favourite poets, then?"
"I wouldn't go that far, but she did say some pretty nice things." I grabbed a drink off a passing tray and swallowed it all in one go, without knowing what it was. I was still shaking. "Sorry," I said after a brief but awkward silence, "I didn't really catch your name."
He stuck out a hand and we shook. "Anthony Justice," he said.
I blinked for a few moments. "Erm, as in Anthony Justice Publishing?"
Obviously amused by the petrified look on my face he laughed and put an arm around my shoulder. "Yes," he said, "That Anthony Justice."
It was less than two months later that I left Michael and moved in with Anthony. I usually attended Cassandra's parties in Anthony's company, but it became clear in time that I was the guest, with Anthony as my partner. I'm not sure if this bruised his ego, but it never seemed to hurt our relationship.
Within a year, Anthony Justice Publishing had reissued my volume of verse, which sold respectably for poetry, which is to say hardly at all. They also published my first novel, _Running South_, which did somewhat better, and started me off one a moderately successful career as a novelist. I accused Anthony of publishing me only because of our relationship, but he told me that in his eyes I was a promising writer first and a great lay second. The first time he said this I hit him with a pillow and we both laughed until we cried.
Even now, as I enter my sixties, I'm not sure that I've ever really been in love. It's funny, that for a poet and novelist who has written about love in so many of its forms, for such a ridiculous number of years, that I still can't define it to my own satisfaction. I think, though, that if I ever loved anyone, it was Anthony. He wasn't the most affectionate man I've known, and God knows he wasn't perfect, but I felt a kind of peace in our years together that has been absent throughout the rest of my life. There was simply a rightness between us that never needed to be stated. Maybe this is the best definition of love I can manage.
If I ever owed a debt to Cassandra, this was it. For all the excitement and richness she and her parties brought to my life, Anthony was her greatest gift to me. She would never need to do anything else to earn my trust and loyalty.
Despite the fact that we only ever met at her parties, and never really talked in depth, my friendship with Cassandra grew quietly over the next ten years. Without ever telling me anything, she managed to make me feel like a co-conspirator, like we were naughty children who shared a secret no one else knew. Maybe this is how she made everyone feel. It would explain a lot about her success. Certainly it made me feel closer to her than I did to people I actually knew in depth.
She always took time out at her parties to find a quiet spot and chat with me for a while, usually about harmless gossip or recent books that had impressed her. I didn't understand why, at first. Here she was, surrounded by the most fascinating people in England, and she kept coming back to me. I knew it wasn't because she was attracted to me, as it was her who had introduced me to Anthony. It was almost a year before I realised that it was because, for all her popularity, she had no real friends. Obviously some kind of spark had passed between us when we met, but I was too dull to notice it. I was glad of her friendship, odd as it was, as it blossomed over the years. It went beyond the shallow thrill of being Cassandra's closest friend and became something genuinely rewarding, if frustratingly elusive.
So it might have stayed, until her death, if Anthony hadn't died first. It doesn't seem right his death can be described in so few words. He deserves better. One of these days, I've promised, I will give him the words he deserves, but not here; this is Cassandra's story.
It was liver cancer, quick and merciless. By the time Anthony and I knew anything was seriously wrong we had so little time to say our goodbyes. That almost hurt more than his death itself.
It wasn't until after I had put Anthony in the ground that I realised how many of our friends were really his friends. Oh, of course they were all very kind in the time surrounding the funeral, and I had as much sympathy and condolence as one man can tolerate, but after the initial period of mourning all our friends drifted away. Maybe I'm not being fair: it's possible they really had been friends, but no longer knew how to deal with me in my new role of widower. Whatever it was, life became very empty and lonely.
One day, not long after the funeral, Cassandra came to visit me at the flat. Put like that it hardly sounds like a monumental event, but it was if you know anything about Cassandra. To my knowledge, no one had ever seen her outside of one of her parties. I had felt vaguely hurt when she did not turn up at Anthony's funeral, despite knowing her reputation for privacy. When I answered the door, and saw her standing there, dressed in jeans and a plain cotton sweatshirt, I was as flustered as I had been the night we met.
Cassandra walked in without being ushered and hugged me. She smelled of soap and fresh laundry. "I'm sorry Rupert," she said into my shoulder, "I should have been there."
We disentangled and I looked at her again. Without her makeup or one of her famous gowns she looked like an ordinary young woman. In fact, fresh faced as she was, she looked much too young to be the woman I had known for ten years. I dismissed this as the time as a consequence of daylight and her lack of makeup.
"Sit down, please. Let me get us some tea." I cleared a stack of papers off the settee to make enough space for her. Since Anthony's death there had seemed little point in doing housework. I was also padding out my meagre income by doing reviews of poetry and novels for several journals, and as a result the flat was awash with manuscripts and books. Cassandra sat in the middle of this paper chaos and smiled.
I moved to the kitchen in something between a walk and a run, dodging piles of paper and magazines. After putting the kettle on I looked around and realised that all the good teacups either had mould growing in them or were heavily discoloured from having tea or coffee left in them for disgusting lengths of time. I tried to give a couple of them a quick scrub, but it made little difference. I almost laughed at the irony of not being able to offer the most famous hostess of our age even a simple cup of tea.
In the back of one of the cupboards I found a couple of old mugs, decorated with pictures of characters from a children's show of my youth. I had picked them up at a jumble sale, amused by the feelings of nostalgia simple tat could generate. I rinsed them out and served the tea in them.
I passed Cassandra her cup. She held it up to the light and laughed musically. "The Banana Splits. I haven't thought about them for years. Thank you. That's cheered me up."
Sipping my tea, I thought for a moment. "That was years before your time."
Cassandra shrugged. "I must have caught repeats on satellite."
We both fell silent, but there was no awkwardness in it. Just two old friends, sharing some tea.
"I should have been by earlier. It was unforgivable."
"Not at all. I know you're busy. It must take superhuman effort to do all you do."
She shrugged again. "Someone has to. It's a calling."
I looked into my tea, as if seeking a meaning to her visit. Despite the inanity of the talk it all felt important somehow, but I couldn't understand how.
"Anthony's death came as a real shock to me," she said. "I know we all have to die sometime, but I'd known him for so long that he just seemed like a natural part of my life. The suddenness of it was chilling - a reminder of how any of us can have the rug pulled out from under us without any warning."
"Well, you shouldn't be worrying about it too much at your age. With your youth and vitality you'll outlive us all."
Cassandra shook her head and smiled sadly. "Nothing is ever as it seems. I may not have as many years left as you think. I have a suspicion that you'll be the one to outlive me."
I felt like this was my cue to say something, but couldn't for the life of me think what it was. I just nodded dumbly.
"Anyway," she continued, "That's what brought me here. I know it's selfish, with this really being your time of need, and with me not having visited before it must be presumptuous, but..."
I may be the only person alive to have ever seen Cassandra at a loss for words. "Yes? It's all right, whatever it is."
"Thanks." She reached into her handbag and pulled out a small brown envelope. "This contains the keycards to get into my flat and my private rooms. I've taken the liberty of making you the executor of my will. If anything should happen to me, you can use these to find out everything you need to do. You'll see what I mean when the time comes. I know I'm making the right decision and I hope you'll agree."
"Erm, yes, of course." I tried not to let the absurdity of the situation take me away from its seriousness. Here was this fit young woman asking a late middle-aged man like me to sort out her affairs after her death. It made no sense to me at the time.
"Thank you," she said. "I can't tell you how much this means to me."
"It's quite all right. Really."
She relaxed visibly and sat back in her seat. "So," she said, "Tell me all about Anthony. Make me feel like I knew him as you did."
Over the course of the next few parties I attended I saw a marked change in Cassandra. She seemed to become more preoccupied and self-absorbed. I don't think, in her role as hostess, I had ever seen her frown; now she seemed to do nothing but. Then, one day, she became her old positive, gregarious self again. I thought to ask her what had been going on, but never quite got around to it. I felt that if she wanted to tell me, she would. It was her business.
My role in the parties grew. I never noticed the change in myself as it was happening. I knew I had become less shy, but now people actually seemed to be seeking out my company and I was enjoying it. I went from someone who dreaded the company of others to one who felt less and less comfortable on his own. After the healthy advance I got for _The Choirmaster's Dream_ I bought a larger flat and tried hosting a few parties of my own. They seemed to be a mild success, but they never felt quite real enough. Cassandra's place was where it all happened for me.
Cassandra even started delegating some of her work to me. In most cases I was left to make those introductions that Cassandra thought would be advantageous to all. Sometimes the work was a bit more demanding. When Professor Thomas of Cambridge announced to the press that he was one step away from developing a prototype time machine, I was charged with making sure he accepted his invitation and, once he was there, convincing him about the potential damage such an invention could wreak. In many ways he was not a naive man, but he had an enormous blind spot when it came to his work. I did my preparation for the party by reading as many science fiction stories about time travel as possible, in order to present a variety of potential nightmares, ranging from lethal paradoxes to the destruction of civil liberties. It was one of the most challenging and stimulating evenings of my life. I doubt I gave any arguments that the good professor had not heard before, but the mild hallucinogen that had been slipped into his fruit juice may have made him more open to other possibilities. He showed no sign of a conversion by the end of the evening, but a few weeks later he announced that there had been an error in his calculations and he was the possessor of a large and very expensive pile of electronic junk. Maybe this was the truth and I made no difference. I don't suppose I'll ever know, but as I get older it helps me to think I did something.
It was this and other evenings like it that made me feel like I had a purpose. My writing career was progressing adequately, but without making too much of a dent in the best-seller lists. I wasn't too worried about this. I told others it was because I wasn't really the kind of writer who would ever be popular, but mostly it was because my focus lay elsewhere.
In all this time I saw many people come and go at the parties. Some guests would be regulars for a period of up to a few years, and then their flow of invitations would dry up. Others would be there for special purposes, or to be introduced to exactly the right person at the right time. This led me to notice two things. Firstly, at any given stage, I was the only person who had been attending for more than five or six years. Secondly, Cassandra never changed. When I say she didn't change, I'm ignoring the fact that she was always on the leading edge of fashion. Her hair, makeup and clothes were always perfectly synchronised with the emerging trends, sometimes even setting them. Over a period of a few years a stranger who had met her once may not even recognise her as the same woman. The problem was that she didn't age. After just over twenty years since I had first met her, she still looked like she was a little over thirty. No one else seemed to realise there was anything unusual, maybe because they were all kept at a safe distance. But it grew to bother me more and more. Still, I believed one day Cassandra would tell me what her secret was. It would have been impolite to press.
And so it progressed for the ten years after Anthony's death. Then I received the telephone call.
It was about one in the morning and it took me almost thirty seconds to work out what the noise was that had woken me up. Few enough people want to call me in general that I tend to be untroubled by the telephone, even during daylight hours. I could not remember the last time someone had rung me in the middle of the night.
"Hello?" There was a long silence. "Hello?"
"Rupert. Come over to Cassandra's place." The voice belonged to an unfamiliar man, and from the sounds of things he was in great pain. Every word was choked with effort.
"Who is this?"
"Just come over. It's important."
After hanging up the telephone, I sat on the edge of the bed. It seemed like an unlikely prank, and Cassandra had showed little inclination for frivolous jokes in the past. I had no idea who the man was, but it sounded genuine somehow. Worried that now may be the time, I picked up the envelope Cassandra had given me all those years ago.
I dressed hurriedly and caught a taxi to Knightsbridge.
With moonlight streaming through the windows, with no one else around, Cassandra's flat looked somehow less real. It was still as grand and elegant as ever, but to see the reception hall, with its tasteful, minimalist furnishings and painstakingly selected artworks without the company of others seemed almost indecent. I felt like an intruder again, twenty years after I had first shaken that feeling off.
There was a sliver of light coming down the corridor that led to Cassandra's private rooms. Hesitantly I started walking towards it.
"Cassandra? It's Rupert. Is everything all right?" There was no answer. I knocked on the partly open door that was the source of the light. "Cassandra?"
I eased the door open and looked around. In contrast to the beauty of the rest of the apartments, the bedroom that lay beyond the door was plain to the extent of being out of place. It contained a single bed, a bedside table and wooden dressing table, covered with cosmetics, but no other furniture to speak of. The closest thing to a decoration was a full-length mirror on one of the walls. One set of doors apparently led to a walk-in closet and another single door had what looked like a security mechanism beside it. There was a telephone on the bedside table, on the far side of the bed, with its receiver hanging off. I walked around to investigate and saw a bare foot sticking past the end of the bed. I ran the few feet to the other side of the bed and stopped. There was a man lying still on the ground. He looked to be in his late sixties or early seventies, dressed in a silk dressing gown, and he appeared to be dead. I had never seen him before.
Carefully, I knelt down beside him and tried to remember how to take a pulse. I felt for the artery in his throat. His skin was still warm, but I could find no sign of a heartbeat. I looked over at the telephone and thought about calling for an ambulance. Was that what one did when one found a body? If he had wanted an ambulance, he could have called one. He chose to call me instead. Why? Who was he?
I stood up again and looked around the room, hoping to find some clue. In the walk-in closet there was a dazzling array of women's clothes, including many of the dresses I had seen Cassandra wear. There were also a few sets of male clothing, all casual wear. Did the dead man live here, with Cassandra? Why had I never met him before?
Looking around again, I saw the locked door. I remembered the envelope in my pocket and took it out. There was the card I had used to get into the flat in the first place, and then another. I tried it in the swipe unit and a light went from red to amber. I pushed the door, but nothing happened. Looking in the envelope again I found a slip of paper with a number on it. I punched it in and the light went green and there was the sound of a lock clicking.
I don't think I've ever felt the sense of shock that walking into that room gave me. It was sleek, white and antiseptic. Air conditioning filled the room with a low hum and made the air dry and sterile. A bank of monitors displayed the images from hidden cameras throughout the house. Another bank of electronics held a couple of computer terminals and a lot of equipment I just simply couldn't recognise. In the middle of the room was a pair of white leather seats, almost like dentist's chairs. In one of them, stark naked, sat Cassandra, eyes wide and staring.
Shaking, I walked over to the seats. "Cassandra?" She showed no sign of response. Hesitantly, I touched her shoulder. She was cool to the touch. I shook her gently. "Cassandra?" Her head lolled from side to side. There were things coming out of her head. I still don't know how to describe them. They weren't exactly wires, as they appeared to be organic, but wires is the closest word I can find. They connected her to the seat.
Nothing made sense to me. Was she dead? She looked more like she was in a coma, but if so, what was she doing here? I started to feel sick and dizzy. The sterile, dry air in the room was doing little to help. I half staggered around to the other seat and sat down in it slowly. I leaned back, waiting for the nausea to pass.
Something started moving under my hands and I sat up with a start. There were pads of the same material that made up the wire at the end of the arms of the chair. The pads seemed to be sprouting animated strands. I felt something tickle my ear and jumped out of the chair. The headrest was also made of the material and it too was pushing out tendrils. I backed away in terror until I hit the wall. As I watched, the tendrils poked around for a bit and then were sucked slowly back into the chair.
I don't know how long I stood there, staring at that chair. Slowly my mind started to give control back to rational thought. The chair, Cassandra's body, the man in the next room. In a flash it all started to make sense to me, but it seemed lunatic. Of course she had never aged. She was never a real person. I think I started to laugh at the absurdity of it all.
There was only one way to tell if I was delusional, or if the real world was as unreal as it now appeared to be. I took off all my clothes, trying to ignore the chill of the air conditioning. I didn't know if I had to be naked, if it would even work at all, but it seemed like a good bet. Once undressed I sat down in the seat.
It took all my will to sit still while the tendrils probed me. They wrapped around my hands first, and then my face, discovering orifices. I could feel them beginning to crawl all over my body like dry worms. They found their way into my ears and up my nose. I almost gagged as one pushed down my throat. As they worked their way around me I felt myself beginning to lose consciousness, despite my building panic. I remember hoping that I hadn't made a miscalculation and that this wasn't the last thing I would ever feel.
Then, suddenly, I was awake and untangled from the wires. Looking around, I saw the other side of the room. I looked down and saw breasts, and laughed. I had been right after all. I eased myself out of the chair and walked through to the bedroom, marvelling at the subtle differences in sensation. My balance felt different as I walked, rocked side to side by the sway of feminine hips. I also felt a sense of well-being that I had forgotten as I had aged, the vigour of youth. I looked at myself in the mirror and saw Cassandra, naked, but elegant as ever. I tried on one of her faintly ironic smiles and broke into a real one to see it reflected back at me. This was incredible - to walk around in someone else's skin. Before I could lose myself in the novelty of it all, I was dragged back down to earth as I saw the dead man's feet reflected in the mirror.
I walked over to him and knelt again. He felt so light in my arms, as if his escaping life had left nothing more than a hollow shell behind. I cradled his head and brought it up to look at me. His eyes were still open and obscenely vacant. The sudden reality of the loss of a friend I had never really known filled my eyes with caustic tears. "Goodbye, Cassandra," I said and kissed him on the lips.
I pulled a pair of jeans and a cotton top out of Cassandra's cupboard and dressed. I was thankful that Cassandra had been designed with small breasts. I didn't know if I could work out how to put on a bra. In my youth some of my friends were heavilly into the drag scene and would have killed for some of Cassandra's frocks, but I was always the more reserved type. Jeans and a t-shirt would definitely do. Anyway, there was a lot to be done.
Some of the pieces had obviously fallen into place, but some were also missing. Back in the white room I sat down in front of one of the computer terminals. Despite some little experience with using computers for writing, my expertise was decidedly limited. Surely there would be some kind of password in use. How would I work it out? To the side of the screen was a little round bit of glass that looked like a peephole. I looked in it and heard a beep. Looking back at the screen I saw the message "Retinal scan accepted." I smiled to myself. "Cassandra, you thought of everything."
I must have sat up for most of the night. It turned out Cassandra's body didn't get tired easily. I hoped my own was getting some rest wrapped in its white cocoon.
It took me a while to understand how to access the files on the system, but once I had I discovered it would take me weeks even to scan them all. There was a daily diary, complete with descriptions of all the events at her parties Cassandra had witnessed and reconstructions of others from the details gathered by her security system. There were staggeringly detailed files on all of the attendees, complete with details I'm sure would have shamed the intelligence services. Of course the first file I read was my own. Who wouldn't?
More began to make sense as I read. Apparently I had reminded Cassandra of herself - sorry, himself - when he was a bit younger. He took a liking to me, and despite my shyness thought I had some kind of potential. And he hadn't been lying about being a fan of my poetry, although it turns out he was disappointed with my prose. I was only slightly surprised when I read that in the years our friendship was developing, he was actually grooming me to become his successor as Cassandra. That time Cassandra had visited, after Anthony's death, was when he had discovered that he had angina. He was worried that he might not live too much longer and wanted me to be in a position to take over almost immediately should he die or become incapacitated. Shortly afterwards he found that the drugs he was taking to control his condition worked well, and the pressure was off. Still, I was there if things got bad. And now they had.
I had to get up and walk around the room to clear my head. Would I be able to take over as Cassandra? More importantly, did I want to? Not only would it involve the sacrifice of what little personal life I had, but it would also rely on me living a lie. I didn't know if I could do that. And the whole idea of spending large chunks of my life as a woman didn't appeal very much either. Cassandra's body certainly felt fitter and healthier than my own ageing one, but it wasn't me. I was sixty now, and the idea of embarking on a whole new life seemed like an impossibility.
There had to be other possibilities. I sat back down and carried on looking through the files as I thought. As I was browsing I came across Cassandra's own file. There was surprisingly little in it. One of the most fascinating individuals of our age and he found himself to be less important than me. He was born in the mid nineteen-fifties, a little over ten years before me. He had come from a wealthy background and had developed both middle-class guilt and a strong sense of ambition. The two had fused together into a master plan that developed into becoming a Machiavellian socialite, to use subtle influence to put right what he saw as the ills of our society. The problem was that he wasn't very good at it. In a brutally honest section he put it down to his general lack of personality and poor looks. He built upon this plan, however, and bought the technology and services he needed to make it work. He mentions that his money managed to bring about some outstanding advances in biotechnology, almost none of which he really understood. The scientists and technicians contracted in were sworn to secrecy, but some of the details of the work had found their way into the mainstream, mostly in the development of a new generation of medical prosthetics.
Cassandra was born around twenty five years ago. His explanation as to why Cassandra was a woman was vague. He mentions that he believed women were more natural socialites than men, and that people would open themselves up to a woman that bit more. Certainly it made it easier for him to manipulate men, who even in out new age of enlightenment, hold much of the power. I think in the end there must have been a deep personal reason, one that led to a combination of utility and pleasure. Some men are just born to be women.
As his/her work progressed he realised that he really could make a difference and what had been an experiment turned into a life's vocation. The details were sketchy, and I felt like I still knew nothing of him. I wished he had had more of an ego; I would have liked to have known him better as a person.
Once I had read all this, I felt more strongly than ever that it was important that Cassandra continue. I may not have shared all the same drives as Cassandra, but I was not without a conscience. I had seen too much good come from her work to let her die. If she would not live through me, however, she would have to live through someone else. Who, though? I went back to the files.
After many hours of reading through the dossiers on recent guests I had narrowed it down to three candidates, but one in particular stood out. It would have been ideal to find a woman, but none on file seemed to have all the qualities I associated with Cassandra. The man I had chosen was David Hewlett, a young lawyer who was beginning to make a name for himself. We had only met properly once, but he had made something of an impression on me. I remembered that he had one of the quickest minds I had encountered, with a very dry sense of humour. He was also painfully handsome. I had spent a considerable portion of the evening flirting with him gently. I knew he was straight, but sometimes that just makes it more fun. It can be a refreshing change of pace to play sexual games without any risk of success, just purely for the sake of entertainment. To David's credit he showed no offense, and even humoured me more than I had any right to expect.
I wondered whether my fond memories of David were prejudicing my judgement. As I read on, though, he did seem to be perfect in so many areas. He was still in his early thirties and had no family. He was ambitious, as shown by his growing reputation as a fearsome barrister with an expanding practice. Despite this, the majority of the work he did was pro bono, indicating a sense of idealism. Added to this was evidence of a strong manipulative streak, which was probably a prerequisite for a successful lawyer. Cassandra had had a very high opinion of him and thought that he would be most useful in the future.
The question still remained of how to convince him. I doubted that I could just call him up and ask him. He would probably think I was mad, and if I then presented him with evidence in the form of Cassandra it would confuse and terrify him. Something more subtle and devious was required, something that would combine function and plain fun. What better way to serve Cassandra's memory?
Before anything else could be done I had a body to get rid of. I couldn't really report it to the authorities in case all the details of Cassandra and her secret came out. I had no idea of how one disposed of a body. I entertained some thoughts of using the building's furnace, if it had one, but I didn't know where to look. I couldn't face dismembering him, and it seemed dishonourable to his memory, anyway. Maybe if I could find a building site there might be some wet concrete, but this seemed like a good way of getting caught.
A workable idea occurred to me. Nobody had seen this man for years. In practice it was as if he no longer existed. This made things somewhat easier.
It was still dark outside, but it wouldn't be for long. I found the oldest and tattiest looking male clothes I could and took them outside. There was a small patch of parkland a few streets away. I rubbed the clothes in a patch of dirt and snagged them on a chainlink fence before taking them back. I then dressed the now cooling body in the dirty clothes. I wondered if I would have to go back to my own body for the next stage, but Cassandra was a lot stronger than she looked. I carried the body down to my car and drove over to the South Bank with him lying across the back seats. Could I ever explain this to the police if I were stopped. Once at the South Bank I found a deserted stretch under a railway bridge and deposited the body, wrapping him in an old blanket and some cardboard I found in the area. With any luck the police would never think he was anything other than a vagrant who died after a night out in the elements. The temperature was certainly below freezing.
I still feel bad about leaving him to an anonymous death like that, but I'm sure it's what he would have wanted. Cassandra's life was more important to him than his own death.
"David? It's Cassandra." I hoped that despite the difference in controller, Cassandra's voice sounded the same. The telephone would probably help.
"Cassandra! How delightful. To what do I owe this pleasure?"
"I know it's short notice, but I was hoping we could have dinner together tonight."
"Really?" He sounded unsure. "I haven't had an invitation."
"Oh, don't be silly." I tried to reproduce that laugh of Cassandra's that had always melted my heart. "It's just an intimate little dinner for the two of us. I'd be delighted if you said yes."
"How can I refuse, then? What time shall I be there?"
"Eight. Eight will be perfect, darling."
I had most of the day to prepare. From having helped organise some parties before I knew the number for Cassandra's usual caterers. They were more than pleased to arrange an intimate little dinner for two at such short notice. I imagine Cassandra almost single-handedly kept them in business.
In the file on Cassandra it had said that while she was capable of eating and drinking she never actually absorbed or digested anything. After a set length of time it would just pass through her. This meant she was immune to alcohol, which explained why I had never seen her in anything other than full control, even when a party went on until the early hours of the morning. I made sure there were a couple of bottles of Chateau Margeaux and some fine brandy on hand.
It took me almost over an hour to search through Cassandra's wardrobe for a suitable dress. The choice was staggering, and I had to play with combinations a bit. It was a lot more fun that I had expected. I can't say it gave me much of a thrill, but I was reduced to helpless giggling a number of times as I got caught up in straps and zips. In the end, I picked something black and sleek, with a split skirt and plunging neckline. It took me several hours to get the makeup right, never having experimented with it before, and the hair took almost as long. The end result was worth it. When I looked in the full-length mirror I was pleased with and surprised by the effect. Cassandra had always been the very definition of an elegant hostess, but I had never really considered her ability as a seductress.
By the time eight o'clock rolled around everything was ready.
"Cassandra, my dear. Delightful to see you." David kissed me on the cheek and walked in. "This place looks a lot larger when it's empty."
I smiled at him. "I know what you mean. Drink?"
If I hadn't read David's file I probably wouldn't have remembered too much about him. As it was I was able to ask him enough questions about his law practice and the cases he was working on to kickstart the evening.
In my heels I was about two inches taller than him. I hoped this wouldn't bruise his ego too much. He was even better looking than I remembered, with the kind of dark looks that hinted at an Italian or Spaniard in his parentage. The evening would be a genuine pleasure.
The caterers did their job beautifully. The food was excellent and rather salty. I made sure that David was given regular refills of wine over dinner. I had been concerned that I wouldn't find enough smalltalk to keep things going, but it turned out David had a low tolerance to alcohol. He became loquacious early on, opening up about his need to make a difference in his work. I thought he was just making conversation at first and then it hit me that he was trying to impress me. By the time we came to have brandy by the fire he was positively flirtatious.
"Sorry," he said, placing a hand on my knee, "I've talked about myself all evening. It must have been a bore." His words were slightly slurred and his face was flushed. Everything was going according to plan.
"Not at all." The feeling of his hand, tempered by the silk stockings I was wearing, gave me an unexpected thrill. The evening was getting even better.
"I've just realised that I know almost nothing about you. Please, tell me something. Is there a man in your life?"
I almost burst out laughing, but how would I explain that? A man in my life? Not in the way you think. "Not at the moment." I put my hand on top of his. "Why do you ask?"
He looked into the fire. The way the glow picked up the highlights of his face made me want to kiss him there and then. "Oh, you know."
"No, not really." I leaned over and pulled him around to face me. "Why don't you tell me?" Our eyes met and I could see a deep longing in them. I felt a momentary pang of guilt as I thought about the deception and where it was all leading. Then I put it aside. For the next few hours I would be Cassandra, letting Rupert sleep in the chair in the white room.
He looked at me like a lost child. He's intimidated, I realised. He's heard the stories about Cassandra and can't believe a woman like her would be interested in him. Holding him by the shoulder I leaned back and stretched out on the hearth rug, pulling him over me. He paused and then kissed me gently. "You can do better than that," I said, with only a hint of mockery. Our lips locked again, passionately.
One thing women's clothes have going for them is how much easier they are to take off in the throes of passion. I helped David as he fumbled with his shirt and trousers, but it still took forever. I hoped the frustration wouldn't kill his passion. My dress came off easily. I had decided against a bra and David paused in the last stages of taking his shirt off to stare at my, well, at Cassandra's breasts. "My God," he said, "You're beautiful."
"Have you any idea how much more romantic that would be if you were making eye contact instead?" David looked up guiltily. "Joke," I said. "It's OK. Stare all you want."
He bent over me and took a nipple in his mouth. It felt sensitive and wonderful as his tongue played over it. For the first time I thought I might miss having breasts when this was over.
With a free hand I started trying to ease his underpants down. He looked up at me. "Isn't this all going a bit too fast for you?"
"Don't worry," I said, "This is how I like it." This must be heaven for him, I thought, a woman who doesn't want much foreplay.
He pulled his underpants down quickly. His erection was firm, if somewhat small. Still, it looked like it would do the job. I thought about sucking him first, but decided he was probably so excited he would just shoot off in my mouth. If this was going to be my only sex as a woman I wanted to know what it felt like. God knows I've given enough blowjobs in my life.
With a look of intense concentration he pulled my panties down. I was glad I had the foresight to put them on over my stockings. I had come to like the sensation of them and wanted to feel the friction of David between my legs through them. I spread myself open and pulled David down on top of me.
I've never been much of a fan of being penetrated. In my sexual relationships I've tended to be the dominant partner. I do believe that it is better to give than to receive. This time it was a bit different. The normal discomfort wasn't as bad, and as David pushed himself into me I was able to look into his eyes. I think I gasped. I certainly bit his shoulder.
It was all over much too quickly, but while it lasted it was wonderful. Maybe there would have been more practical or foolproof ways of accomplishing my goal, but I doubt I would have enjoyed any of them quite as much. I could almost ignore the fact that I was in a woman's body, despite the different sensations, and concentrate on the fact that I was making love to a very handsome man. He closed his eyes for much of it, but I watched him screwing me, picked out in the flickering firelight. I doubt I will ever have such good sex again. All of a sudden he started shuddering and breathing quickly. I felt a spurt of warm liquid enter me and he slumped over me. He kissed me hard. "That was terrific," he said, just before he rolled off me and fell asleep.
I lay in the warmth of the fire for a few minutes, enjoying the post coital glow. I hadn't come, but that didn't seem too important. I played with the sparse hair on David's chest and watched him sleep. Luckily he started to snore, which reminded me we weren't just there for my pleasure. I nudged him a couple of times to make sure he was sound asleep. Once I was satisfied he was I stood up and lifted David to his feet. The orgasm and the alcohol made him drowsy and pliable. "Don't worry," I said, "We'll get you to bed."
As I walked him down the corridor I felt the semen trickling out of my vagina and down my leg, into the silk stockings. Never mind, I thought, Cassandra's budget can stand another pair. I laid David down softly on the bed in Cassandra's room and then went through to the white room.
The harsh light of the room snapped me out of any romantic thoughts I might have had left. I was there to do a job. I took a last look at my body from the outside. It looked so old and frail, wrapped in its white strands. I wondered briefly if I was doing the right thing, but it was too late, really.
I sat down in Cassandra's side of the seat and waited for the white strands.
The rest of the plan was simple and business like. First, I gathered up David's clothes and every other piece of male clothing in the house and put them in a refuse sack and dropped it by the front door, ready to take with me when I left. It wouldn't do for David to have an easy out once he woke up. I wanted to encourage him to at least explore his new identity. As an afterthought I rescued his wallet and keys and put them on the bedside table.
Then, once everything else was ready, I eased David on to the seat in the white room. I wasn't sure if the transfer would wake him up and wanted to be able to make a speedy exit if it did. The procedure looked even more bizarre watched from the outside. The tendrils crept all over him, like anemic snakes, finding all his entry points. It gave me shivers of disgust.
Luckily Cassandra showed no sign of stirring once it was done. Maybe even she needed to sleep sometimes, or the procedure took longer with an unconscious mind. Whatever it was, I wasn't going to wait around to find out.
I believed that David was an inquisitive man. Once he had got over the initial shock he would want to work out what was really going on. I put a note on the computer console saying "retinal scanner", just in case he wasn't as lucky as me.
Maybe it would all work out. It was a gamble. It was possible his masculine ego wouldn't be able to cope with the idea of being a woman. Maybe, like me, he would just simply decide this wasn't the life for him. From the few things I knew about David, however, it seemed like there was a chance. The hardest part would be keeping out of the way and letting him work things out for himself.
A few agonising months later I received an invitation to a party at Cassandra's place. I had almost given up hope.
I arrived late. I was unsure of how I would be received and wanted the camouflage of the crowd in case things went badly. There were a lot of familiar faces there and many new ones. I felt uncomfortable again and wished I could feel otherwise. I greeted a few old friends and discussed trivialities. After about half an hour the moment I had been dreading and desperate for arrived and Cassandra walked up to me. She looked as radiant as ever, but there was a slightly different cast to her eyes. I thought at first it was hostility, but then realised I had never seen her wearing one of David's expressions.
"Rupert," she said, "I'm so glad you could make it." No hint of irony, but maybe it was just a lie. She took me by the arm and led me through the crowd. "I believe we have things to discuss. Do you agree?" I swallowed and nodded. He'd worked out who the interim Cassandra had been. There hadn't been too many possible suspects and he was, after all, a very clever man.
"Maybe this isn't the time and place," she continued. "Anyway, there's work to be done." She touched a portly, grey haired gentleman on the shoulder. "Chief Inspector Anderton, there's someone I'd like you to meet."
The man turned around, beaming at Cassandra. "Of course, my dear." He looked at me with a polite interest.
"This is my dear friend Rupert Cullen. I think it's fair to say that it's only thanks to his dedication that any of us are here tonight." She turned and pecked me on the cheek. "Keep in touch," she said. Our next meeting would certainly be interesting.
I looked back at my new acquaintance. "Anderton? That's a familiar name. Are you by any chance the Chief Inspector Anderton who made it Met police policy to close down gay S & M clubs?" A warm, familiar feeling filled me, like I was coming home after a long journey.
"One and the same, dear boy."
"Oh good," I said. "I think we have a lot to discuss."
(c) 1998 XoYo
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