Matthew Graybosch
a cynical idealist, sf author, and full-stack developer

Devil in a Black Dress, Part 1

The following is an excerpt from my 2013 novel, Without Bloodshed.

I must admit that I got the chapter title from an old rock song called “Devil with a Blue Dress On” by Shorty Long and William “Mickey” Stevenson, though Andrew Eldritch of The Sisters of Mercy changed the color when he referenced the song in “Temple of Love”.

Readers who already have copies might notice that I’ve made a couple of improvements over the 2013 text.

Content Warning

The following is a work of fiction. Any similarity with real events or individuals is purely coincidental. It contains material that may not be appropriate for all readers. The reader is assumed to be responsible for any allegory or applicability they find within, and for understanding the difference between depiction and advocacy.

Devil in a Black Dress, Part 1

Ashtoreth shivered with delight as an unseen hand pushed her hair aside. She tilted her head toward the window as her occult visitor’s lips brushed her throat. Despite her familiarity with the man kissing her, the game remained fresh; she loved him best when he came concealed from sight, leaving her unable to control him. “Sathariel, you are wicked to tempt me so.”

“Who tempts whom?” Sathariel remained hidden, his fingertips walking up her stockinged shin from her ankle. “You dress like this, reading Baudelaire, and are shocked by my ardor?”

Ashtoreth considered her copy of the French poet’s Les Fleurs du Mal, and allowed a small smile to curve her lips. “If I intended to rouse your ardor, I’d pick up a copy of Delta of Venus, instead of The Flowers of Evil.”

Regardless of the title, she considered her little books essential tools of seduction. Small enough to fit inside a purse, she used them to intrigue others by obscuring her face. They made perfect accessories when paired with her favorite dress, seamed stockings, and leather ankle boots. She owned several dresses in the same style: sleeveless numbers with a draped back and a square neckline, tailored to flatter her figure, all in black.

“I remain entranced by the sight of you reading. The book itself is irrelevant.”

“Be patient, and I’ll reward your devotion. Can you linger a while? I need to test Stormrider without him realizing a flowseeker manipulates his emotions.”

“You think he might realize you’re working a pattern?”

“He might, and react as he would to a more conventional threat.” She suspected Sathariel understood the implication: they might face an enraged asura emulator armed with human weapons. Since Naomi seemed unlikely to let Morgan fight alone, they might find themselves fighting a deva as well. Imaginos had taken a false identity to train Naomi personally, but how much did he teach her? Did she also learn of her true nature, and become a flowseeker? I can’t afford to goad either of them into violence; they might learn too much from fighting me.

“How will you test Stormrider?”

“By teasing him as I tease you. Try not to get jealous.” She sought a flow state as the door to the compartment opened to reveal Morgan and Naomi waiting outside. Ashtoreth detected electrical power gathering within the fabric of their armored coats. I approached Nakajima Chihiro about developing a mass-production process for the anti-ensof rifles with which Imaginos hoped to arm people against Sabaoth. Clever of her to use the designs to develop countermeasures.

The Adversaries scanned the compartment before glancing at one another. A second later, Ashtoreth flushed a little as Morgan’s predatory eyes lit upon her. “Are you Elisabeth Bàthory, of the Phoenix Society’s Executive Council?”

She offered an insouciant smile as Sathariel’s cloak dropped around her and allowed her to use her own patterns without fear of detection. She began by scanning the weak electromagnetic signals generated by the electrochemical activity in Morgan and Naomi’s brains. Using a technique similar to what some hackers called Van Eck phreaking, she reproduced in her own consciousness gestalts of the current states of their minds. Time and experience gave her the ability to interpret these visualizations and attain a sense of what was foremost on another person’s mind. Restrained hostility from both? Do they know what I did with Edmund Cohen?

She stood, and offered her hand. “Good morning, Adversaries. I am indeed Elisabeth Bàthory.”

Instead of taking her hand, Morgan saluted. Because Adversaries ultimately answered to the Executive Council, Morgan was correct to salute her as if she was a superior officer. By following suit, Naomi indicated her intention to act as an Adversary, instead of a civilian. Ashtoreth indicated the seats across from hers before lowering her hand. They might be angry with me, but they control their emotions instead of being controlled. Excellent. “Please, sit down and be at ease. Have you had breakfast? Should I order coffee, or tea?”

“We’re fine. Thank you.” Naomi answered. For all their icy professionalism, raw sensuality radiated from them. She suspected both, if freed of their inhibitions, would be fierce in their passions, willing to devour and be devoured in turn. Sathariel’s lips brushed her ear as he whispered, “You can’t seduce either of them. The connection is obvious whenever their eyes meet.”

I’d enjoy the attempt anyway. I might end up with both of them making me the center of attention. You always fail to resist such displays. She dared not say as much to Sathariel, lest she give away his presence and ruin the illusion Morgan and Naomi were alone with her. Ashtoreth crossed her legs, giving the Adversaries the silhouette of her thigh beneath her skirt as she leaned back in her seat and let her hands rest upon the armrests. Her pose displayed her form to best advantage; her extrasensory perception of Morgan’s mental state made his involuntary attraction clear. She offered him a little smile, and was rewarded with a slight flush. Naomi, however, simply studied her while sitting with her side-sword leaning against a thigh, its ornate hilt within easy reach; maglev seats were not made to accommodate swords worn on the hip.

The maglev lurched beneath her as the engine began to pull it from the station. Acceleration folded a gentle embrace, holding her in the seat, as she reached into the handbag sitting on the floor beside her. She let her tablet rest in her lap while waiting for the train’s AI to announce they were free to use their devices or the maglev’s computing services. “We have some time, Adversaries, so I hope you’ll indulge me as I explain the situation in Boston in full detail.”

The announcement came before Ashtoreth could continue. “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Tradewinds morning express from London to New York. After its stop at Grand Central Terminal, this maglev will continue northward to Boston, Montreal, Toronto, and Reykjavik before returning to London. You may now use personal electronics or access on-board computing services, the dining car is open if you wish to order breakfast, and I will remind you to reset any external timepieces you may be carrying to display local time once we arrive at our destinations. Travel time to New York will be approximately six hours. Please relax, use our amenities, and savor your journey with Tradewinds.”

She took advantage of the distraction by tweaking her pattern to blunt the Adversaries’ hostility. They retrieved their handhelds before Ashtoreth could begin her briefing and use it to keep them distracted while further altering their brains’ neurotransmitter and hormonal balances. She checked her visualizations again as Morgan spoke. Instead of blunting his hostility, Morgan’s has sharpened, and strains at the leash. What a delightful challenge!

“Ms. Bathory, I can’t speak for Adversary Bradleigh, but I would appreciate an explanation for your presence here. We can access the facts of the case on our own, and get our orders from Malkuth if getting them from our respective Directors proves inconvenient. Why is a member of the Executive Council doing work normally delegated down the chain of command?”

“Chain of command be damned.” Naomi rose and loomed over Ashtoreth, left hand grasping her sword’s sheath at an angle suggesting she intended to draw. “Why don’t you tell us, Elisabeth, why you seduced Edmund Cohen and used him to access protected data?”

Ashtoreth rose from her own seat as Naomi’s right hand crept towards the hilt of her sword. “Adversary Stormrider, would you be so kind as to restrain your girlfriend?” She coupled the request with a straightforward attempt at wrenching his mind into a state in which he cared enough for her to stand as guardian. Morgan’s gestalt-image shifted for a moment, before shifting back. He resisted! Is this just ego strength, or something else?

If you enjoyed this excerpt from Without Bloodshed, please buy a copy. Thanks!

Thanks for reading. If you have any questions or constructive comments, please email me. I may reply directly to you, or if I think your message might be of interest to other readers I will answer with a new blog post.