The multistory atrium of the Grand Sterling Hotel was buzzing with arrivals lining up at the registration desks and at the purple and black draped tables still being set up before the main elevator banks. Five people wearing black T-shirts emblazoned with VOLUNTEER were frantically stuffing stacks of postcards, bookmarks, safe sex kits packaged in little matchbook-like folders and samples of flavored body oils into plastic bags while others were struggling to make label printers and laptops share outlets and table space. Above them, suspended on wires, was a large flag with alternating black and blue stripes and one white one in the middle; in the upper left-hand corner was a bright red heart.

It clashed slightly with the purple draping on the tables.

“I registered online under the name Glasser, but I want Lady Stringent on my badge.”

“Did you get my email about needing adjoining rooms? I need it for my Daddy’s two slaves, they’re arriving tomorrow and they might bring a service dog.”

“Where do instructors register?”

“Your website never worked for me, can I still get the early bird discount?”

“When are the NA meetings?”
“Where are the quiet rooms?”
“Where are the dungeons?”
“Is the sit-down dinner formal leather, or can you wear casual clothes?”

A frighteningly large woman rose up from where she’d been unpacking a box of lanyards and shouted over the din. Her high, quarterdeck voice easily overwhelmed the crowd of questioners, and her sheer bulk intimidated most of them as well. Maureen Olmstead was a hell of a lot of woman—almost five foot ten and easily two hundred and seventy pounds, much of it molded into a plus-size corset that hefted her generous, pale breasts into a stunning display of cleavage. A net of colorful beaded wire was draped over her long auburn hair; her dark brown eyes narrowed as she took control of the situation.

“Registration will begin in ten minutes! A through M over there, N through Z over there! Instructors, judges, contestants, press and guests, in the office behind me! Printed schedules are late; either check the master schedule on the website or keep your panties on until we get them here! Street legal clothing everywhere but the dungeons and no discounts, we are sold out!”

For a moment, the small crowd just stared at her, perhaps buffeted by the sheer force of her personality. Then, meekly, most of them sorted themselves out into appropriate lines, checked their smart phones and tablets or wandered off.

Maureen adjusted her designer gold-framed glasses and handed the box of lanyards to one of her volunteer force.

“I don’t know what we’d do without you, Bitsy,” said a harried looking man behind her.

“That’s Slave Bitsy,” she corrected. “And don’t you forget it.”  At thirty-nine years, Ms. Maureen “Bitsy” Olmstead was getting sick and tired of looking for the right partner, and she wanted to make sure everyone knew she was a slave, just in case Master Wonderful showed up. She plumped up her ample breasts, fluffed out her hair a little under the beads and checked her nails. Impeccable. “Hey!” she cried, pointing. “Don’t touch the bags! You’ll get one when you register!”

The man in leather pants, shirt, tie and cap drew his hand back quickly and muttered, “Sorry.” He obediently shrank back into the line, a bundle of keys jangling on his left hip, and Bitsy turned her attention to her staff. It takes a real slave to run things, she thought for the tenth time that day.

In the conference room behind Bitsy and her army of volunteers, Earl Stemple, producer of the Mr. and Ms. Global Leather (and Bootblack) Contest, stared at the logistics board and checked off boxes as voices reported to him over the headset he wore crookedly. A Bluetooth earpiece was stuck over his left ear; the radio headset was adjusted so one earpiece was on his right. His tight blue Levi’s were marked with different colored inks, as he would absently wipe the markers across his waist or thighs as he toggled the talk button for the headset or searched for his holstered cell phone. A stocky yet surprisingly agile man, he went back and forth from charts to laptop and conversation to commands, his thick fingers twirling the dry erase markers or stabbing at keyboards as necessary. Twelve half-drunk cups of coffee were scattered over the large conference table, all of them his.

“Tell the dungeon crew we need a spanking bench in the Seneca Room by ten A.M. tomorrow. They can have it back later.” Click. “Where’s our shuttle from the airport? Have him call in please.” Click. “What do you mean, there’s no hospitality suite? It’s room 2001! Call Roger at the front desk; they should be setting up coffee service in there now.” Click. “Send all contestants to the Oneida Room; tell them to see Boy Jack. No, the other Boy Jack. Send any judges to me in the main office. Where is the other Boy Jack, anyway? I got arrivals stacking up!”

Earl sighed and shook his head, circling a few names on his board. As usual, important people were missing. That was the problem with any event managed by a volunteer staff; people giving their time mostly felt it was theirs to take back as well. Not that he was a volunteer; he had the honor and curse of being the sole paid staff member of the Global Leather empire, consisting of the contest(s) and fetish ball, the souvenir sales, and the Global Leather Foundation, which gave modest amounts of money to several well-chosen modest charities. Estimates of how much he made were often wildly off base, as his regular hate mail would attest. Just this morning, he’d gotten a message on KinkyNet, the largest pansexual online space for the BDSM crowd. It read, in typical online style, “u suk! Bloodsucker making millions off the community, u shuld give tkts to people who cant afford them not everyone is rich like u. titles r shit.”

Yeah. Titles are shit, but you want a free ticket, you ass. Millions! Wouldn’t that be nice? They complained at the registertion and contest fees and the prices of the T-shirts, but they never wondered how much money it cost to get a hotel in midtown Manhattan, purchase event insurance, cater dinners, rent stage and dungeon equipment, fly in dozens of famous names, and feed hungry judges and contestants. Plus, he had to staff and supply the hospitality room full of free snacks and drinks for volunteers, instructors, entertainers, and print thousands of flyers and brochures and schedules…speaking of which…

“Bitsy, did the schedules come in yet?” Click.
“Yeah, we just got ‘em now!”
Last minute changes, of course, due to the flakiness of some of the instructors. Earl scratched his scalp under thinning sandy hair. It was probably best that the person originally scheduled to teach “Dark Fantasy Role-playing” decided to stay home because he was having a panic attack. Earl made a note to take that name off the potential invite list.

“Earl! We got a problem,” crackled a voice over the radio headset. “Dr. Westfield never made his flight.”

The keynote speaker? “Repeat that?”

“I just heard from Greg in the van. He’s at the airport. Westfield was not on the flight we booked for him! What should he do now?”

“Tell Greg to continue the pickups.” Earl clicked a few times and called his judge and special guest wrangler, Boi Jack. “Jack! Where are you?” He muttered more curses and called Bitsy again. “Bitsy, I can’t find Boi Jack. The other one! Would you call Westfield and find out where he is, he missed his damn flight. If he needs help rebooking, can you handle that?”

“Sure, Earl, in my spare freaking time!”
“Well, can you at least send someone to find her?”
“Hey, you! One badge per person—no, your damn service dog doesn’t need one! What part of person didn’t you understand? And I need a runner to find Jack!” She abruptly clicked off, which was fine, since it gave his ear a rest. But he needed Boi Jack. Because any minute now, assuming the previous airport run to JFK was on time and the volunteer tasked to drive out to Newark was also on time, his biggest headache was about to walk in the door. He stared at the furious red arrows added to his master chart and wondered how on earth no one noticed that Ravenfyre and Steel would be arriving at the same time.

“Lick it. Kiss it.” The words came in whispered breaths and the smell of anise and leather and, sadly, the strange, medicinal scent of industrial cleaners. But Boi Jack never minded the intrusion; the leather was the thing, and the leather was molded around two strong legs and an inviting bulge between them, and a belt wrapped around her wrists, and the slick, soft texture against her lips and tongue as she worked her way from calf to knee and then to thigh.

The exploration had started with the traditional boot kiss, but Boi Jack was never one to leave a kiss by itself, and privacy was going to be at a premium soon, so why not go for it? When sexy Skylar gave her the cruise of death, why not take advantage of a master key that could unlock the classrooms? They could hear the thuds and bangs and shouts of the vendors loading in, but behind this one door, they were alone for as long as they could manage it.

“Yeah, you want it, you bad boy. You hungry, naughty boy. Come on up nice and slow and see what I got for that sweet mouth.”

Jack eagerly zoomed in to the package pressing against the button fly of the soft leather jeans and tongued against the waiting treasure, forgetting the bondage on her wrists as she tried to hug one leg, tried to work her own legs around a calf, rub herself so nicely against Skylar while Skylar whipped that tasty bit of…

“Hey, Jack? Jack? I think your phone is ringing. And your radio has been blinking for a while. Do you need to check that?” Dammit, dammit, dammit! Jack sighed, shook the belt off her wrists and looked at the time. Then, she paled and almost fell forward into Skylar’s legs. “Oh Em Gee! I am so late! I am so dead! They’re gonna kill each other! Oh Em Gee!”

Nancy Nichols wanted to be somewhere else. A crane collapse maybe, or a nice, juicy story-of-the-moment that would guarantee a front page burst, a page-three story and a nice pick-up by AP. Maybe this hotel has bedbugs, she mused hopefully, peering up through the layers of suspended light fixtures in the atrium. For some reason, readers were just fascinated by bedbug infestations. That would be a funny headline: Bedbugs Frighten the Freaks!

A…person…walked past her dressed in a fox costume. Head-to-foot, big bushy tail, velvety paws on their hands, pointy nose and ears. What on earth did that have to do with leather? Or the big girl behind the desk in her enormous corset and medieval headwear—Victoria’s Secret was safe from her. Where did one find lingerie in huge sizes? Almost everyone else seemed dressed in fairly standard street clothes, many of them dragging fairly standard cheap luggage as they waited patiently in lines. Not exactly the corner of Sodom Street and Gomorrah Avenue.

Not that she expected it to be. “For crying out loud, Vic, this is so tired! No one cares about a bunch of freaky people getting dressed up and playing spanking games anymore. Don’t you watch TV? There had to be ten CSI episodes alone about how normal these people are! All in prime time!”

Vic, her editor, boss and nemesis, didn’t even argue. “Then do a story about how normal it all is. The fashion show is Friday, and there’s a fetish ball, whatever that is, on Saturday; you’ll get Donny for two hours. Get some nice PG-13 pictures for a slide show.”

The New York Record loved slide shows and videos on their website. Every story seemed to need one, especially if it involved celebrities, fashion, cooking, accidental nudity or gory tragedies. Stories in the physical paper even had little code boxes people could scan to take their mobile devices right to the in-depth online version. So far, tracking showed that most readers would stay for up to fifteen seconds of advertisements to see ten pictures of, oh, a crane collapse or the latest antics of a celebrity chef having a kitchen accident. Longer, one assumed, if it involved their fashionable clothing being set on fire and falling off.

I shouldn’t have come today, she thought. Tomorrow is when the actual event starts. She had thought to get some behind-the- scenes color, but so far there were few opportunities to talk to anyone connected to the event. Miss Massive seemed to be running the show at registration, and all she’d managed to snarl out was that press passes would be available shortly. Nancy had pulled some names off the website for the contest, amused by some of the noms de kinky—she couldn’t wait to meet Lord Laertes or Chava Negilla.

“Excuse me, but I think we are colleagues,” said a thin, reedy voice from next to her. She turned, hoping it wasn’t someone from the News or Post; this might be a stupid story, but it would be hers, dammit. She immediately knew she was safe. The man standing next to her was dressed in badly fitted black leather pants, cinched around his tiny waist and adding to the wrinkles on his black cotton uniform shirt, which was buttoned all the way up to his scrawny neck. A black leather vest was layered on top of the shirt, covered with small cloisonné pins, like the ones you picked up at Disney. These seemed to lack cartoon characters.

Intense dark eyes circled by deep shadows gazed at her with a fascination she read as a kind of hunger. Oily black hair was plastered on his skull; if he’d owned the slightest bit of menace at all, he might have carried off a role as a sinister Nazi interrogator. Instead, he gave off waves of neediness. He was extending something to her; she took a business card and glanced at it.

“I’m Cary Gordon, Leather Today. The official newspaper of the leather/BDSM community.”

Oy, Nancy thought. Took Journalism 101 in college twenty years ago, did you? But she plastered her reporter smile on. “Nichols, New York Record. Good to meet ya, Cary. Since you’re in the know, maybe you can introduce me around.” Because masochism doesn’t just belong to you whips and chains people, she added silently. And sometimes, a local guide would manage to cut down the legwork real fast. Find two, three colorful people who look good in their sexy clothing, get a few quotes, and knock this puppy off before dinner.

“I’d be delighted!” he gushed. “It’s so rare to see mainstream press attending our little affairs. I hope you aren’t here for some sensational look-at-the-freaks story?”

You and me both, brother. “Nah, I think we’re beyond that these days, don’t you? At least in New York. I’m more into human interest—who are the people who go to these things, what do Mr. and Ms. Global Leather actually do the rest of the year? That sort of thing.”

“Well, you’re in luck! I know everyone!”

Nancy caught movement out of the corner of her eye and pointed. “How about them?”

It looked like a meeting of the Jets and Sharks. On one side, two men; on the other side, two women and a man. It was instantly clear who the gang leaders were.

“Those are last year’s winners!” Cary supplied earnestly, taking pictures with his cell phone. “That’s Mack Steel, with the sash on, and the woman with the red hair is Mistress Ravenfyre. They’re judges for this year’s contest, you know, the old winners are always judges for the next year.”

Nancy watched the man in the black leather, silver studded sash and the woman in the very tight emerald green sundress and strappy sandals and knew something else about these two.

“They hate each other,” she said, with some measure of delight.

Cary sighed with a hangdog nod. “I’m afraid they do,” he said. Nancy chuckled and snapped a few photos herself.

“Nice dress, Wendi. Buy it new?” Cormac “Mack” Steel asked with a smirk. Behind him, his loyal boy smirked exactly the same way, balancing two shoulder bags and dragging a large rolling suitcase.

“How original. Did you look that one up on the Internet first? Oh, wait; you’d have to be literate to do that.” She eyed his ensemble of leather jeans, bar T-shirt and title sash and raised an elegant russet shaded eyebrow. “Did you impress all your little fans at McDonald’s when you went in for your McMuffin this morning? Some of it is still on your…studs.” She turned away as Mack glanced down, and her entourage of two laughed as they followed her.

“Mistress Ravenfyre!” called out a short, androgynous figure in jeans, chaps, a leather shirt and ubiquitous vest covered with pins. A leather baseball cap was emblazoned with the stitched word “Boi.”

“Ah, Jacques,” Ravenfyre said, extending a hand. Boi Jack pounded to a stop and made an awkward bow over that hand and kissed it.

“How good to see you,” Boi Jack gasped, out of breath. “Both of you! What a surprise to see you, um, together!”

“You mean what a surprise to see him on time and sober.”

Mack finished wiping the crumbs from his sash and snarled, “What a surprise she isn’t trolling for hourly clients over in Penn Station.”

“Wow, it’s such an honor to have you here,” Jack said more firmly. “Wouldn’t it be great to get you all registered?”

“And apart,” muttered Ravenfyre.

“You mean medicated,” said Mack. “Got a good supply of Mistress’s Little Helper?”

“Let’s get you all out of the lobby,” suggested Boi Jack, gesturing in desperation at Ravenfyre’s attendants. They got the hint and started moving five pieces of matching lavender luggage toward the hotel’s front desk. Mack and his boy started to follow, but by then, Earl Stemple had reached them, and he inserted himself neatly in front of them.

“Mack! Paul! How good to see you!” He gave Boi Jack a chance to hurry the Ravenfyre crew away and shifted Mack toward the conference registration area.

“You should have taken her sash away five minutes after the judges accidentally gave it to her,” Mack said. “And sent those judges to a psychiatrist!”

The same judges picked you, thought Earl, as he made a noncommittal sound. “Is it too much to ask for some civility for one last weekend, Mack? As a personal favor?”

“I don’t owe you anything,” snapped the titleholder, adjusting his sash. “I gave you guys good value this year and you know it. If anything, you owe me, big time, for all the hours I wasted with that harpy in high heels.”

Earl handled the paperwork for Mack personally, since Boi Jack was taking care of Ravenfyre. He pulled out two envelopes containing badges, meal, shuttle and drink tickets, and the three-page, small-print waiver stating that the person attending understood they were at an adult convention for kinky people. He handed the envelopes to Paul, Mack’s loyally submissive boyfriend, and handed the shiny black and purple gift bag to Mack, hoping presents would distract him. As expected, they did.

Mack Steel was easily distracted with shiny things.

He was right about one thing—he’d given the Global Leather empire a pretty good year from a financial point of view. The calendar and video shoots had sold very nicely, along with signed copies for higher prices. His personal run pin, a stylized truck grill with his nickname stamped over it and a gold ring with the contest title circling it, sold rather nicely for five bucks. Made in China for about sixty-five cents each, they went through buckets of them at some events.

But what he cost the event in goodwill was…incalculable. A string of insulted bar owners, underpaid bootblacks, event producers stuck with five-hundred dollar hotel room service bills and a whole tribe of disappointed, annoyed, disoriented and snarky sash-lovers who found out their idol was somewhat less princely than his fashion shoots suggested.

Because Mack Steel certainly looked the part of a studly leatherman, people mistook the image for substance. A little over six feet tall, with broad shoulders and a firm chest and stomach, he made chaps and a vest look sharp. His wavy black hair was kept just long enough to show it was wavy, and he maintained a retro mustache that was making other men start to grow theirs as well. In one of his best calendar shots, he was in a leather jock-strap, a motorcycle jacket thrown over one shoulder, a cap pushed back on his head. He had one hip up against a beautiful loaned Harley. It was called his Brando shot, and he must have signed and sold a thousand of them, easily.

Although Brando rode a Triumph in that movie, Earl thought. Not that Mack would know that. Or care. Mr. Global Leather was rooting through his gift bag, shoving aside the T-shirt, engraved pewter mug and baseball cap. He pulled out a hand-cut leather belt with his title stamped on it, unfurled it, grunted, and shoved it back into the bag.

“That’s handmade, from Medusa Leathers,” Earl said. “They’re vending here. It would be nice if you stopped by the booth.”

“Last year’s winners got jackets,” Mack said. “God, I have so much crap. I throw out tons of this garbage. They should thank me for letting you list it in the program as a freaking prize. It probably doesn’t even fit.” He shoved the bag at Paul, who took it and put it with their other luggage while he slid papers over for Mack to sign.

Earl didn’t know how Mack could get from point A to B without his boy Paul. Paul was like a lot of nominally submissive partners out there—kind of quiet and shy in appearance, but as organized and regimented as an English nanny. He spent as much time in the gym as Mack did, but he had a slender swimmer’s build and a classic blond/blue midwestern coloring. He wasn’t in the calendar, of course, not being part of the contest, but he had been photographed with Mack for many websites and a few magazines, mostly on his knees beside his master/lover/daddy/whatever they were. Earl never asked for particulars. He was just grateful Mack had someone to make sure he turned up on time.

And relatively sober. He hoped whoever stuffed the envelopes remembered to shortchange Mack’s drink tickets. With a smile, he assured his troublesome titleholder of a fabulous dinner that evening, exciting meetings with fresh new contestants, a good night’s sleep and lots of adulation to come. He would get Mack off to the front desk as Boi Jack brought Ravenfyre and her family back here and hopefully, they wouldn’t see each other again until the meet and greet later in the evening. They were even on different floors. On different sides of the hotel.

His messages were lining up on the computer screen; there were at least six waiting on the phone, and his muted headset was blinking madly. But he smiled.

Earl Stemple was a professional. And on Sunday night, Mack Steel would be nothing but a memory and he’d have a new and hopefully much nicer Mr. Global Leather to promote and sell for a year.

It beat selling vacuum cleaners. By a very slender margin.

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